Every morning while it's still dark, I ascend the Stairway to Heaven hoping to arrive with the sun at the mountain home of the God, Tai Shan, the most powerful god in all China. Rain fell in the night so the 7,000 steps are slippery. I climb carefully, one fall on the jagged bricks could finish my ascent, leaving me bloody and broken with no human to give me aid. At this early hour vendors are still asleep, shops and temples closed. I'm a lone pilgrim. But I must somehow make the ascent once again even though my cough has gotten worse. I stop frequently to clear my lungs, the green phlegm in my chest spattering the stairway. But others have done the same. Dried blood stains the bricks black. Patterns of yesterday's mucus swirl designs in the corners of the bricks that the night rain failed to wash clean. Oh, Bixia Yuanjin, Goddess of the Dawn, I pray, heal me, protect my ascent as you have all the women who came before me, even those with bound feet, stumbling and crawling their way to the top.
But my prayers only induce more phlegm. I stop to breathe deeply, lean on my walking stick, clear my lungs and continue. Even though it's cold and I'm wrapped well in my padded jacket and thick pants, I've begun to sweat. It's not a normal perspiration, a result of being overdressed, it's a kind of clamminess that concerns me, as if some inner defect were surfacing, warning me of a trauma that could occur if I insist on this daily climb. But I must persist. It's my livelihood, for I'm the protector of the Goddess Bixia. I must sit in the Temple of the Purple Dawn as the sun rises until it sets when I descend the holy mountain and take the bus to my village. I'd like some day to ride the cable car half way, to fly through the clouds instead of plodding my way on foot. But I can't afford the ride, all my earnings must support my old husband who's too ill to work and my unmarried daughter who cares for him while I protect the Goddess.
Suddenly I hear shouts from below echoing through the mist, a girl's scream, then laughter, much laughter. I sense their approach, but the gloom is so heavy I see only their silhouettes. Melding into the darkness, I step aside for them to pass. I become part of the drizzle or simply a cypress growing along the path, my branches twisted in the wind that howls above.
They draw closer, their bodies young and vibrant as if no wind had ever touched them, or any stroke of misfortune. They leap up the steps stretching their long legs like flamingoes in the lake below. One girl is blonde as the moon, thin as a sapling. She wears jeans cut off just below her groin and a thin halter that barely conceals her nubile breasts. I must tell her there are greatcoats for sale at the summit. She might fall ill in such flimsy attire. But she seems oblivious of the chill. Her boyfriend wraps his arms about her. He's taller than she, six feet or more, a young tattooed giant with long hair, blonde as hers, only tied in a pony tail beneath his baseball cap. They stand for several minutes immersed in each other before the rest of their group arrives, smoking and shouting, sipping cans of beer, more bulge from their backpacks. Shandong University emblazons their T-shirts. I wish to silence them, send them back to their university to learn reverence for the Five Sacred Mountains, study the legends of Pang Gu, the first ruler of the universe whose head became the Eastern Mountain, his chest the Central, his left arm the Southern, his right arm the Northern and his feet the Western. Thus Mount Tai became the head of the Five Sacred Mountains. He's not to be trod lightly, climbed without awareness of his power. Who knows what ills might befall them if they ignore him.
The students disappear into the fog. Their voices recede like the wails of ghosts that are believed to inhabit the caves of this mountain, the craggy recesses where hermits abide in prayer. Some are said to be 400 years old or more, surviving on herbs that grow along these slopes, drinking from streams that rush the mountain sides.
I emerge from my hiding place. A hint of light leaks through the darkness, a shimmer of rain rustles the trees. Shivering inside my jacket, I wish myself at the top but I've hundreds of feet left to climb. A spattering of blood when I cough, its rosy hue flowers the Stairway to Heaven. I give my blood to the Sacred Mountain. There's nothing more I can give to insure long life, the 100 years promised those who climb to the top. But do I really wish my life to be much longer? It must be, I think, yes it must. What will my husband do if I'm gone or my daughter? They wait for me to return each night, my pockets crammed with the steamed bread I buy before I board the bus. My husband relishes the bread because he's lost all his teeth from the illness. The bread can be gummed to a pulp before he swallows with a cup of green tea to wash it down. His hand trembles as he traces the blue design on the cup, a wedding gift from his mother. I place my hand over his to help the cup to his lips. He's so frail, growing weaker each day. But the thought of his passing sends a cold wind through me. The warmth of my life would be gone, the fire extinguished. My daughter and I would live like robots repeating the routines of the day with no heart behind it. Yes, I must live to be 100 only if he is by my side.
In the distance, a rooster crows, chickens cluck, shutters swing back on the pagodas scattered along the way. Here and there a monk emerges from the forest, begging bowl in hand. I bow my head in reverence but have nothing to give so he turns away.
I can just see the summit now, a few more steps and I'm there. A glint of sun burnishes the clouds. I must hurry or the sun will rise without me, leave Bixia unprotected, open to molesters, those who deface her temple, steal tributes left by pilgrims, chocolate pudding boxes, bottles of water, apples and oranges or scatterings of yuan in hopes Bixia will grant their prayers, their wish to conceive. Goddess of the Dawn, she attends the birth of each new day from her home high in the clouds. Goddess of Childbirth, she oversees the arrival of children, fixing their destiny and bringing good fortune. Long ago, she granted my wish to conceive, gave me a beautiful daughter for which I'm grateful. She's brought me nothing but joy, her face like the sun every morning, her voice high as a mountain flute, her step light as a fairy's.
I rush to unlock the temple, swing back the heavy door. Bixia glows in the dim light. I kowtow before her, dust the altar with the feathers of ducks, sweep the floor with my bamboo broom. And then, when all is ready, I drag my wooden box outside into the warming air and wait for the sun to rise.
Those who live in the village at the summit are already busy. The aroma of Jian Bing drifts from the food stalls. I long for some egg spread thick with soy sauce, wrapped around a fresh green onion. When the lunch hour arrives, I promise myself, I will buy one from my favorite vendor, the woman with one blind eye. Her onions are always fatter, easier to crunch between my teeth, the bite of it filling my mouth for hours, even asleep, I still taste it.
Gradually the staircase crowds with tourists. Some have taken the cable car part way, the bus before that. Others have walked, their faces grim with effort. They search for the W C. It's hidden behind some trees as if it were ashamed of the filth. It's rarely cleaned, so the air is foul. Tourists hurry from it pressing a mask to their faces. I for one prefer the bushes. At least the air is fresh there. And there is no waiting line.
Bixia glows behind me. I cherish the sweetness on her face, its benevolence. A tourist approaches, the red band of long life and prosperity wrapped around her graying head. She smiles at me. "Is it true," she whispers, "that Bixia will help me conceive?
I've been to fertility clinics at home but none has helped. Next year I'll be forty one. My time will soon be past."
She extends her hand. I warm her cold fingers. "It's true," I murmur, "Bixia has that power. You must believe in her with all your heart."
She presses some yuan into my hand before she slips inside the temple. I secrete them inside my egg pocket. I'll count them later, hoping they'll purchase enough eggs for the evening meal with my family.
Morning passes into afternoon and still the mist has not lifted. I drift into sleep on my box, not the heavy sleep of night but a twilight rest through which I can still discern the visitors to Bixia, hear their footsteps, their laughter as they notice my head nod on my chest. The climb has exhausted me. Some day, I fear I'll collapse on those steps, have to be carried down by boys young enough to be my grandchildren. They'll brush the matted hair from my face, mop the sweat from my brow. "Don't worry, Auntie," they'll say, "trust us. We've taken CPR at school. We have our certificates."
I'll close my eyes with relief and allow myself to be cared for by children, wishing those boys were my daughter's, that I would go home with them to my village. They would sing along the way as the bus rocked and rolled on the rutted road. "Grandma," they'd whisper as they snuggled next to me, "we're almost there."
When I open my eyes, the sun is setting. Reentering the temple, I make certain no joss sticks still burn. I save the yuan scattered on the altar for the monk who'll collect it tomorrow. I kowtow to Bixia before I padlock the door. Her face is radiant in the evening light as if she's conceived once again and anticipates the birth of many children.
In the distance, the shouts of students descending echo through the cypress. Stooping, I retrieve the empty beer cans they've discarded and drop them into my knapsack. I'll trade them for yuan when I reach the bottom. It will be enough to buy some steamed bread along with the eggs and maybe a fat green onion or two. We'll have Jian Bing tonight for dinner thick with soy sauce. Saliva fills my mouth. I already taste the onion. I hope it lasts the night.
Elaine Barnard's stories have won awards and been published in many literary journals such as Anak Sastra, Pearl, Writers Forum, Southword, Apple Valley Review, R.KV.R.Y, Kalliope, The Storyteller, Literary Hatchet, Litterbox, Reflections, Timbercreek Review, and others. She holds an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.