“I’m going to be the best!” Solar yells from his open window, causing a bird to fly out of a tree in his backyard. “They won’t know what’s coming for them!”
“You won’t know what’s coming for you if you don’t come down for breakfast!” Solar’s mom yells up the stairs to his room.
It’s his big day. He’s been training for this for as long as he could remember. His great, great, great grandpa on his mom’s side was the last person to make it to the top of the mountain. If you made it you became the greatest and that’s what he was going to do too.
Even his own father couldn’t do it. When Solar’s mom was pregnant with him, her side of the family told Solar’s dad that they would not accept his bloodline if he couldn’t make it to the top of the mountain. He tried his best, but never returned. Solar was born knowing this is what he must do to fulfill his dream of being number one.
Once he is dressed in his tan wraparound jacket and indigo hakama trousers (a common outfit for those who practice Aikido), he comes down the stairs so fast he almost hits the opposite wall. Repairs to the wall show it wouldn’t be the first time he ran into it if he did. He rushes through breakfast – much to his mom’s displeasure. She wasn’t ready to see him off. That mountain meant alot to her. It established her family in the valley, but it also took away the love of her life. She didn’t want to never see her son again because he means the most to her in this entire world. It’s hard for her to understand his need to go up that mountain, but, much like his father, she can’t stop him when he’s determined.
Solar is now ready to leave. He waits by the front door for his mom, his backpack full of all the things he’s been preparing for the last few weeks since the weather started to clear up.
“Hurry, mom! Hurry!” He keeps shifting his weight from one foot to the other as if he’s running in place without lifting his feet.
Solar has always been high energy. When he was little, he was an uncontrollable tornado, but his mom taught him the martial art, Aikido, in order to channel his energy somewhere productive. The most important part of this fighting style was being parallel to life and the world around you rather than destroying it. He grew a great understanding about the world around him, but his mom could only teach him so much.
She’s finally ready for him to leave and they go over a list of things in his bag before he’s sent out the door with a kiss to the top of his head and an “I love you so much”.
“Wait!” His mom chases after him out the door. “One last thing.” She hugs him, not wanting to let go until finally deciding she really can’t stop him.
Solar sprints by the houses in his neighborhood, through the small town they live in, and finally makes it to the shrine at the bottom of the mountain. It’s an ancient building with basically no purpose, but a frail old man with a giant hump on his back named Nokono always seems to be shuffling around the place and tidying it up. Kids in the neighborhood joke that he was there when it was built hundreds of years ago and that’s why he cares to take care of it. Solar’s mom even says the old man was old when she was a kid.
“Good mor-!” Solar yells as he sprints by but is immediately cut off by Nokono’s scratchy voice.
“Boy. I need your help, if you’re not in too big of a rush.” But Nokono doesn’t let Solar say whether or not he’s busy despite it being one of the most important days of his life. “The weather this past cold season wasn’t kind to the roof of the shrine and I’m getting too old to take care of the place properly. If you could just -“
“Leave it to me, old man!” Solar takes the tools and gets to work to the best of his abilities, though he’s not much of a handyman. The faster he helps, the faster he can get back to his task.
Nokono’s voice can be heard giving vague instruction every now and then, but once Solar finds a pattern to his work, he gets through it in a couple of hours. Solar wipes the sweat from his brow and climbs back down the ladder, returning his tools and heading back on his way. In thanks, Nokono gave a box lunch and Solar decides he will eat it from the road.
The only direction is up from here. Solar knows the way. As a younger kid, he would sometimes go up the mountain a short ways before getting spooked and coming back down. Now, nothing could defeat him and he wasn’t scared. He’s trained for a long time and feels determination to fulfill his legacy is enough.
Solar has been hiking up a steep incline for few hours and he’s not even close to a quarter up the mountain. The weather is already changing as if only miles away it isn’t sunny and warm. He decides to find a place to settle down for the evening. Legend says the trip up the mountain may take days – even weeks. The window for decent weather up here is very small and it’s important he keeps going for as long as he can, but also be reasonably smart about it.
He’s going to need to adjust to the cold weather and decides against starting a fire. The sleeping bag on his back will have to be enough for now until it really gets cold. His whole life he’s been preparing by sleeping under the stars and hiking and learning about nature, but this feels different.
After he eats the food the old man gave him, he shuts his eyes and cuddles up in the sleeping bag so he can maybe get a few hours of sleep before pressing on.
It’s the first light of day when he suddenly hears a scratching noise against some rocks nearby. He knew there were animals up here, but it made him spring out of bed in case it’s something dangerous. He searches for the noise in dim light.
A turtle? It’s walking directionless and keeps running into the same rock over and over. Solar has seen these types of turtles in the valley below, but they’re extremely rare and regarded as sacred through legends he’s heard his whole life.
Solar loves animals and decides to pick up the turtle and send it in the correct direction.
“Go down there, little guy. You won’t last very long in the cold up here.”
However, the turtle slowly returns to the same rock and starts running into it. Solar can tell the turtle is moving even slower than normal due to the cold and he feels a deep pain for the animal. Animals have always spoke to him so deeply. He’s always learned to try and protect them. He feels like he has to do something.
Quickly, he packs up his small camp, holding the turtle close to him while doing so.
“It’s only a few hours to get back down there. AND it’s early!” Solar justifies to himself. He knows he needs to go to the top, but he can’t leave a frail, helpless animal out here alone.
The journey down is much faster than the journey up. When back in warmer weather, Solar puts the turtle next to a pond where he’s seen some others a while back. The difference between the temperature in the valley and the temperature on the mountain blows him away. He swears the turtle smiles at him when he waves goodbye and sprints back to where he was before.
The rest of the journey is a lot like that. Frail, helpless beings scattered all along Solar’s path. There’s even a robber threatening a group of kids for the money their mother gave them to buy food from the market below. Solar puts a stop to it all and helps where he can, but keeping the words “do no harm”, a belief of those who practice Aikido, in his mind throughout the whole trip.
Every time he checks his progress, it seems the mountaintop never gets any closer, but he feels like he’s managed to do so much already in the last few days going up the mountain. He’s helped people and animals, created a camp every night, and found food regardless of the challenge it brought. On top of all that, it keeps getting colder and colder. The top of the mountain is even covered in clouds and he feels a little bit of worry as to what waits for him at the top.
Today, he hasn’t been bothered much by anything on his journey up. He feels positive, but that comes to an end when he sees a frail, tattered bridge and no other way around it. Solar gets to the edge and looks down. The drop is so far that it probably goes back down to the same elevation as the valley he grew up in. For some reason, it gives him shivers, though, he’s not normally afraid of heights.
Solar takes a couple of steps backwards and notices more about the bridge. There’s evidence that someone fell through it at some point years ago. Could it be where his own father met his fate?
He takes a deep breath and shuts his eyes. If it is, in fact, his father’s accident in front of him, he’s not going to make the same mistake. He’s better than his father. He’s also younger than his father was and doing the same thing he did.
“I’m going to be the best!” His eyes snap open and he looks with new found determination and the bridge in front of him. If he can’t get around it, he’s going to figure out how to fix it. All he has with him is a knife and an ax, but it should be enough to gather trees and fibers to build off of what’s left of the bridge and make it across.
The repairs take almost a week. He’s cut himself by accident, fallen off of trees, and figured out he can’t work very late because when he stops working and gets colder the sweaty clothes start to freeze. He’s had to make a fire every night with the scrap wood from his project. One of his hands is blistered from use of the axe every day and he’s had to cut his belt from the Aikido jacket he wears and wrap it up so it doesn’t get injured further.
Of course, getting across the bridge isn’t as easy as he thought it was going to be. A gust of wind hits when he’s in the middle and damages more of the bridge. He hopes that no one else tries to cross the bridge after him or they will meet the same fate his father might have.
Solar’s nimble enough to make it across and he turns around to look at the frail bridge. He’s almost mad at himself that he couldn’t make it more safe in case someone else comes across.
Quietly he says, “On my way back down, I promise I will fix you correctly and prevent anyone else from getting hurt by you.”
Luckily and somewhat unluckily, he sees no one else on the rest of his journey. It’s too cold for anything to exist up here. Before it got this cold, he had to kill a fox for food and fur so he wouldn’t freeze to death as it got colder. That was days ago and now it’s snowing so hard he can’t see very far in front of him. Night and day are almost the same color when the moon is out.
For some reason, the path is clearing up and, though he can’t see in front of him, the walk is much easier. It’s like someone’s walkway to their house has been cleared for visitors, but he doubts anyone is visiting up here.
Solar’s face is twisted into a grimace as the snow picks up a little bit more and he can see even less. He doesn’t know how late it is and he’s wondering if he should make a camp or just keep going. He’s so incredibly exhausted, but he just wants to make it to whatever it is that will fulfill his destiny.
Suddenly, his expression softens and his mouth hangs open slightly in disbelief. Out of nowhere, a house appears and he can even see smoke coming from a chimney. Between gusts of wind, he can see the peak of the mountain slightly further ahead, but he’s as far as he can walk at this elevation. He could almost cry at the sight of it. He becomes a kid again and just wants to be comforted after being alone for so long. He wonders if there is food inside because the lack of anything to eat up here has depleted his supply of anything he got below.
After walking up the stairs to the front door, he knocks, but the door is already unlatched and slowly creaks open. The inside of the house is extremely dark. All he can see is a fireplace in the very back, but all that’s inside the house is one giant room. He squints to see more clearly when a scratchy, old voice starts to speak.
“You’re late.” A frail old man moves into view, lit up by the fire. He’s hobbling along with a wooden staff, a robe, a turtle shell on his back, and a strange hat. “I thought you would be here sooner.”
Solar looks at his feet and is immediately discouraged. He’s too late. He’s an embarrassment to his family.
“It seems I’m the one in the wrong. I underestimated you and didn’t think you would put the needs of others above your need to prove yourself and fulfill your legacy. Every obstacle I put in your path, you completed and did no harm. I’m proud of you. You made it farther than your own father.”
Soul looks up when the old man says he’s proud of him. He’s beginning to recognize who this man is. “You’re-“
“The old man Nokono, the turtle, the robber, and even the children being robbed. I’m the one your father died trying to seek at the bridge you promised to fix. I am your teacher. You passed the test this far, but now you have to train. The path up here was hard, but what I will put you through is even harder.”
The look in the frail old man’s eyes is more intense than the flame from the fire. He’s going to attack?!
The frail old man sends his wooden staff at Solar with surprising speed and accuracy. Solar tosses his backpack behind him before dodging and catching the staff, now aware of the breakable items it was headed towards next to the front door.
The old man cackles. “Oh good. Those vases would have been expensive to replace.”
Solar is not over the initial shock of being attacked so suddenly and still has his arm outstretched with the staff in it.
“Well, are you going to shut the door and give me back my staff? Dinner is almost ready. You need a good meal and good sleep for what I will put you through tomorrow.”
This is the end of Solar’s story, but just the beginning of his journey.