Koji A. Dae
The old priest considered the cast-iron oil pot sitting in the corner of the immaculate kitchen. It was heavy, and his back hurt.
The trees growing on the canyon walls whispered to him. "Prepare the test."
Closing his eyes and concentrating, he let his heart flow on the gentle breeze until it found the group tramping through the canyon, their voices high and their footsteps heavy. He counted the footsteps. They were still a ways off, but the canyon greenery passed on the patter of thirteen—no—fourteen pilgrims. A large group, unexpected for so late in the season. It was that fourteenth set of feet—light, uneven, and a bit behind the rest—that made the flowers perk up and relay messages to the strong tree roots that then sang to him. He stooped and, groaning, lifted the pot to the stove. His breath grew shallow from the effort, but maybe he would need the oil this time.
A thin broth bubbled on the stove, but it wasn't enough for fourteen visitors. Smaller portions of the pickled ginger. More shiso from the garden. Shiitake for the main course. The pilgrims would be fed.
Slicing the ginger cramped his fingers, so he set down the heavy steel knife and massaged his gnarled hands. He was falling out of the moment more easily these days. His gentle tears of exhaustion would turn the soup bitter. But he could not rest. He put on his garden apron and left to recenter himself.
The canyon was only two fields wide. His spirit had grown to fill the space and the walls had formed to cup him tenderly as he let himself expand into their crevices. Strolling the neat rows of leafy greens with long strides, he became breath and body. His aches faded. Unimportant. Sunlight and shadow passed over him. The echoing footsteps pulsed through the plants, closer now, joining the irregular rhythm of his heart.
Only once he found his internal balance did he kneel before one of the long shiitake logs and take the mushroom knife from his apron. Unlike the rest of the garden, waving in anticipation, the mushrooms were silent. Their strength steadied him. He cleaned the mushrooms with quick brush strokes and caught their stipes with smooth slices. He laid the mushrooms in his bag and continued to the shiso. At the edge of the field he rinsed his harvest, the water carrying the sediment from the plants back to their garden beds. He carried the food inside and carefully measured it. Fourteen portions for fourteen souls.
The group arrived after the sun dipped behind the side of the deep ravine—late for lunch and too tired to appreciate the small temple. The fourteenth followed a distance behind, staring wide-eyed at the towering edges of the canyon. Their guide instructed them to take off their shoes and settle at the table while the priest served them morsels from the land they had walked through. The priest's motions were quiet and efficient as he made space for the people to exist with the food. The travelers discussed the rest of their journey and their excitement for the final temple, barely noticing the soup sliding into their mouths or the crunch of the daikon between their teeth. They certainly didn't taste the spices the mushrooms had sucked up from the log they had grown on.
Except the fourteenth. Young, vibrating with carefully contained life, he sat at the end of the table, chewing slowly.
"Thank you. It is delicious," the young man murmured to the priest.
"The canyon provides amazing nutrition." The priest's tired smile spread like lard left in the afternoon sun.
Fluttering bird wings of hope threatened to break their outgrown cage of brittle bone within the priest's chest. He studied the quiet one. The young man's eyes never settled on one place, as if he was searching for something.
The priest retreated to the kitchen where cut fruit waited in wooden bowls. He took one bowl aside and replaced it with a delicate china saucer as the oil warmed. With a set of chopsticks he picked up a deep-red maple leaf. He glazed it with a clear batter and dropped it into the boiling oil. The oil spattered against his calloused fingers, numb with age. One second, two. He lifted out the crisp leaf and plated it.
Thirteen bowls of fruit and one tempura maple leaf. There were "ohs" and "ahs" around the table and more than one grumble of jealousy, but they didn't matter. The young man lifted the leaf and nibbled a corner, locking eyes with the priest. His gaze no longer wandered.
The priest's spirit surged forward, reaching out to touch the man's young, supple body.
The guests filed out of the temple, their energy increasing with excitement for the rest of their journey. The young man was last, and he gave an unexpected bow, low and efficient.
"You may stay." The priest pointed to the next low building with steam coming out of a chimney. "There's a bath."
The large group had already disappeared through the arch, not bothering to look back. The young man turned his back on their noise.
"Where are the rest of the monks?"
"It's just me here." The priest guided the young man to the bath.
"It's a lot of work for one man. When do you find time to meditate?"
"Work becomes meditation. The sweeping. The cooking. Caring for the temple is caring for the soul."
The young man spun around slowly, considering the canyon. "It is so peaceful here. A world separate from cities."
A sigh lifted the priest's hunched shoulders and bounced as a breeze down the canyon. "Yes. I've been at peace here for nearly a hundred years."
"It must get lonely. Do the pilgrims ever stay?"
"No. They always go on to the next temple. The destination. This is just a rest stop."
In the dim bathhouse, the scent of sulphur salts wafted from the surface of a full tub. The priest took a towel from a cabinet and hung it near the door.
"Every place is a destination. Or should be," the young man said.
The priest gave a bow with his head. As his neck bent, his body relaxed. His skin sagged, his muscles loosened. The canyon's spirit left him, and his bow dipped lower.
The young man returned the deep bow, acknowledging the experience of the old priest's life of service. With gratitude, he accepted the surge of energy. The restlessness in his feet eased. His heart slowed. Peace came in like a sip of mountain water.
The priest's smile was hidden as he turned. "Stay as long as you like."
He left the young man, shutting the door behind him, and shuffled to the main porch.
The young man stripped and sat on the stool in front of the tap. He scrubbed his skin until it grew raw, splashed the soap from his body and dipped into the still depths of the tub.
He sank deeper into the water, relaxing completely. The temple was so quiet he could hear every sound in the gorge. The birds twittered; the leaves rustled as if they were speaking to him. The receding footsteps of the tour group made ripples on the surface of the water even though they were too far to be heard. He detected the breath of the old man. A slow, wispy inhale, a rattling exhale. He sat with the priest's breath until it ceased to come.
When the water cooled, the young man hoisted himself out of the tub and dried his body. Outside, the light had faded to the soft blue of twilight. On the porch of the next building, the old man slumped in a chair, finally at rest.
The young priest would stay.