SKYWARD STEPS • by Zary Fekete

I’ve just awakened, but I already feel tired. It’s probably the jet lag, but that’s not all it is. I feel wrung out from these past few weeks. This is the third international trip I’ve taken in the past few months and the wear and tear is beginning to affect me. I wake up in a new hotel every few days. The man who looks back at me from the bathroom mirror seems more and more grey.

What’s more, who am I fooling? She has every right to use those words: neglect, absent, distant, selfish. Usually I just brush them away, but last night they pestered me in the darkness.

I sit up in my bed and stretch to look at the clock on the bedside table. It’s 5:15 AM. My first meeting isn’t until 10. Maybe I’ll go for a jog. I remember reading somewhere, probably in some flight magazine, that jogging, or at least some kind of exercise, helps jetlag. It is supposed to awaken the body’s natural defenses. I could use that.

I pull on my shoes and a sweatshirt and take the elevator to the lobby. The only person on duty is the same man who checked me in last night when my taxi arrived at the hotel from the airport at 2AM. The man nods at me and says something gentle in Japanese. I nod back and then I’m outside on the sidewalk, trying to decide which way to go.

I take a few turns through the small side streets of the district, marveling at the wide variety of buildings I pass. My hotel is a medium-sized building by Tokyo standards, only 14 stories high. The buildings I’m passing now are massive by comparison. In between the skyscrapers I occasionally pass tiny houses, nestled between the towers of glass.

I’m just about to turn back to the hotel when I see the stairs. I almost missed them. They are hidden by a couple of plastic orange and white safety fences guarding the sidewalk from construction materials next to the sidewalk. I glance back and forth. There’s no one else here. I feel like I shouldn’t, but then, without allowing myself to think about it too long, I quickly step in between the two pieces of plastic fencing and then I’m standing in front of the steps.

The steps are very large. Each one looks cut from stone. They look old, like they are part of another world, an ancient one. The height of each step is taller than its width, and the effect of this is that the staircase seems to move very rapidly up into the air above me, like it’s a ladder rather than a staircase. There is a small plaque off to the side of the steps with Japanese and English writing.

It says, “During the Edo period a man succeeded in going up these steps while riding a horse. The 3rd Shogun of Tokugawa admired his achievement and advanced this man in the world. Perhaps you will find similar success.”

I picture the man. I imagine him pushing back his hair from his eyes, casting his vision upward. Without giving myself a reason to back out, I begin to climb.

As I climb I feel like I’m leaving the city and entering another place. My legs begin to enjoy the effort. The air in my lungs falls into an easy rhythm. Halfway up I am drawing deeper breaths. Suddenly I am standing at the top and I’m panting for air. There is a small pagoda in front of me. A Japanese man wearing a business suit is standing in front of a shrine, surrounded on both sides by ropes with hundreds of pieces of paper attached. The papers are filled with Kanji characters. I realize they must be prayers.

The man claps his hands twice and bows. I hesitate, not wanting to disturb him. After a moment he straightens and turns. He sees me, smiles, and beckons me forward. Nervously I step towards him. He gestures toward the shrine. I stand next to him, uncertain of what I should do. He points to another plaque next to the shrine.

It says,

Wash your hands and mouth.
Pray in front of the shrine.
Bow twice.
Softly clap your hands twice.
Life contains joy.

After reading through the instructions I look up, but the man is gone. I read the instructions again. There is a quiet fountain off to the side of the shrine with a wooden ladle. I dip a bit of water and pour it onto my hands. It is very cold. I rub my hands, and my skin feels like it’s coming alive. I stand in front of the shrine and bow. As I do, I feel the weight of my head, gently pulling my body toward the earth for a moment. I straighten and, after glancing around me, I softly clap my hands. The sound of my clap seems to brighten the air around me. The trees and vegetation around me absorb the sound and suddenly I’m aware of the twitters of birds high up in the trees. I hear a bee buzzing in the flowers next to the shrine. A few strands of sunlight part their way through the upper branches and lightly draw yellow slants on the stones beneath me.

I don’t know how long I stand there. When I turn I see the steps, disappearing below me down toward the street. I begin my descent, back toward the city. Stepping downward feels pleasant and something about the air around seems warmer.

I reach the bottom of the stairs and slowly jog back to the hotel. When I reach my hotel room I open my computer. Some new words have occurred to me this morning: regret, remorse… but also longing and hope. I have an email to write. Maybe it’s not too late.

Zary Fekete …grew up in Hungary …has a novelette (In the Beginning) out from ELJ Publications and a debut novella coming out in early 2024 with DarkWinter Lit Press in addition to two short story collections later in 2024 …enjoys books, podcasts, and many many many films. Twitter and Instagram: @ZaryFekete

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