This story was written by Hannah Skye Irvine from Chinese International School.
Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2019 Summer Short Story Competition. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, which each finalist will receive a copy of. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 31.
The temple sat peacefully atop the tree-cloaked hills, blissfully unaware of the climb one must make to reach it. From the foot of the hills, all that could be seen of it was a dark silhouette, a shadowy prospect too high to reach. The girl looked up with reluctance and dismay at the winding dirt path snaking up the mountain. Then she breathed a deep sigh, hoisted her backpack into a more comfortable position, and began the long walk to the top.
The path was fairly even at first, winding between trees on which the stale leaves of late autumn or the bare branches of early winter hung, for it was the time of year when the Earth was busy changing its colours. As she walked, the dirt path became increasingly rocky, riddled with encroaching tree roots that lay tangled in the earth. At first, she paid little attention to her surroundings, too caught up in her thoughts to be concerned about the beauty of the trees or the wonderful crispness of the air.
Her old life had been swept away by the autumn winds, and was now dancing on a breeze with dead leaves of fading red and gold. All that had once been safe and familiar to her was cruel and unforgiving; the image of a warm, sunlit meadow in the summer turning to bareness and shadows on snow – snow so white that the eyes of onlookers would ache with its cold brilliance.
Deep in thought, she took no notice of the rhythmic placement of her feet, one in front of the other, slowly taking her up the hill. The cause for her pondering was not that she found the change in her life strange; rather, it was that she did not find it strange enough. The looming weight of the recent happenings seemed to hang just above her head, so that none of her realisations or emotions could really affect her – there were simply too many of them, all wrestling with each other to reach her first. In this way, they hindered one another and remained caught in a tangled ball; yet she knew that sooner or later it would all break upon her with the weight of a thousand stones.
Suddenly she stopped. Without realising it, she had already climbed a fair way, and had reached a section of the path where the trees thinned on either side. The path now hugged the hills, so that on one side the rising hill was a sloping wall; but on the other side the ground fell away in a sweeping view of the sea, where islands lay like stepping stones for giants. She breathed in wonder as swallows swept past on graceful wings, brushing the sky with their feathery tips. They came to land on the hills across from where the girl stood, and they settled on the purple leaves, so that it seemed as though they were wreathed in flames.
The sight from that opening in the wall of trees was enough to lift the girl’s spirits slightly; she felt lighter, and the ball above her head was a little less tangled. Gazing up at the temple high above, now a little nearer than it had been before, she knew that she would reach it, no matter the weight she carried in her heart and above her head. With new-found determination, she set off once more, thinking nothing could stop her from reaching her destination.
It wasn’t long before, from a distant clearing hidden around the bend, she heard the sound of hearty singing. It was not particularly beautiful or elegant singing; in fact it was not really very good at all, but it was warm and merry and full of comfort. The low tones of an old man belting out a well-known folk song reached her ears, wafting towards her like the smell of honey and oat biscuits baking over a hot fire. The joyous melody of a woman’s clear, ringing voice brought a fleeting image of firelit faces, and with it the warm feeling of huddling together under a thick woollen blanket.
The tantalising idea of comfort and warmth was what drew her to the clearing, her feet forging their own path through dead leaves and broken rock to the source of the joyful singing. All thoughts of reaching the temple at the top of the hill vanished, drained by an overpowering longing for companionship and a wistful hope for love. A tear rolled down her cheek as she walked around the bend, entranced by the music.
In the clearing, through the wilted branches of the maidenhair trees, she saw two old men and three old women. They were sitting together on broken tree stumps, singing their hearts out in a symphony of life and love. To the onlooking girl, the sound seemed like the very embodiment of all that is good in this wonderful world; all that she held dear, and all that she now missed; for it was all that she no longer had.
She stepped into the clearing, and their singing softened. She observed their faces, wizened as though centuries had come and gone and left them in grey age. But they shone. The centuries had given them age, yes, but they had also given them understanding. It should not be called wisdom or knowledge, for that implies using one’s mind in the active search for truth or comprehension. The true understanding of life, the one that time had imparted on these old folk, was the understanding that one need not understand everything, or anything; all that humans were put on this good Earth to do was to live well before death, and that means revelling in the joys of life, but also appreciating the tragedies and injustices – for they are what gives happiness meaning.
“Do not be afraid of your sadness, my dear,” said one of the old women. “It is what has brought you here, is it not?”
“Accept your emotions,” said another – the one with the voice of a warm woollen blanket. “Let them wash over you; do not fear them, for they are the greatest gift that life has to offer to us. Soak in each feeling, know it well. Then you will have made good use of your time on Earth.”
“Do not let others tell you that feeling melancholy is a waste of time,” said one of the old men – the one with the honey-oat voice. “It is, in fact, a very good use of your time. Melancholy – it is a form of light in dark, dark in light. Forgive me if I do not try to describe it, for some things are too beautiful and pure to put into words.”
“Come now, sing with us,” said the last old man.
“We find it a very good way to spend our time,” put in the third woman. “You may discover much that you think you need to know.”
What was it that she needed to know? What had she come here searching for? What was it, truly, that she missed, that had caused her all the grief and tangled emotions?
But she already knew. The tangled ball of emotion that hung above her head suddenly unravelled in perfect understanding and it all crashed down on her. Memories swam in her mind, making her laugh, making her smile, but mostly making her cry.
And then she sang, and the most haunting tune of grief and joy ever to be sung was heard by five old men and women, and will never be heard again.
Decades later, a man hikes in Sai Kung, trying to reach a temple at the top of the sweeping hills. He grew up in Hong Kong, but he is a traveller. He is young, in his 20s, and wants to “see the world”. He wants to get away from it all, wants to expand his horizons. So he flies all around the world, working odd jobs so that he can pay his expenses. He visits all the classic tourist spots – there isn’t a tourist trap he hasn’t been caught in. He is caught in a frenzied lifestyle of airports and train stations, bus stops and ferry piers. He is always going somewhere. He’s been on this journey too long now. All he can do is keep on chasing those airlines, taking those flights, searching for those monuments, those broken, unseeing sights.
Someone told him he did not know his own city. He is a stranger who spent too long in other countries, one who has never even hiked his own city’s mountains, seen his own city’s light show. And so while he pretended to brush off the comment like it was nothing, he was upset. Within three hours he was at the airport once more, ready to board a flight from London to Hong Kong.
And here he is now, staring up at the fifth temple he’s visited in the space of three days. He does not know; he does not know that this endless flying and searching and seeking is really only his romanticised version of running. Even in his own city, he cannot realise this. He’s been here three days, and he hasn’t visited his family. He never even told them he was coming. He doesn’t know, as he begins his climb upwards. The temple isn’t as beautiful as the path he takes now – the path he is too preoccupied to observe. It is not what he seeks to discover at the top that will change him, but rather what he will discover along the way.
The leaves are dry and cracked, and they flutter to the ground every now and then with the mournful grace of a dying butterfly. The trees open up to a view of the grey pollution of the city, and a little further up, the path bends around the hill. Here he stops. Something pulls him away off the path. As if some other force were directing his feet off the path, he stumbles through dead leaves, twisted branches and clusters of rock before coming to the edge of a clearing.
In the clearing stood six trees in a ring, all standing proud, bare branches sprawling; five of them were old, gnarled and twisted in the beautiful knot of life and death, and they shone – they shone with the sunlit warmth of summer, though it was a cold, grey day.
The sixth was small, thin, more fragile, less worn, more upright, less knotted – but just as tangled with understanding. And she shimmered with the light of spring, summer, autumn and winter, for she had found what she had not known that she sought.
I never found out what it was.