The Old Man in the Shrine by Brenden Sisk

Zhao hummed softly to himself as he made his way up the rocky path, leaning on his walking stick as his fine yellow and blue robes dragged across the ground with each little step. On his shoulder sat a small bird, its feathers were the soft blue of the sky, silent as it looked around. “The path has grown more difficult since we were here last time Lan, don’t you think so?” He asked the bird, who replied with a happy little chirp. “Oh maybe you’re right, maybe I am just getting old,” he said with a soft little chuckle, stroking his long, white beard. He didn’t need his little friend to tell him he was old; his body did that all on its own. Even if it didn’t, the youth of his village were always eager to remind him so.

“Seventy years, Lan, seventy years ago I first made this journey. It may have been ten years since my last visit, but my, how it’s changed,” he said as they came to a small stone bridge that carried them over the stream. Once it had been a simple wooden one, and before that there wasn’t one at all. The stream was hardly deep, and when he was younger, he could easily wade across. At the time he thought it silly that the wooden one was put up at all. Now though, his bones seemed to creek with each small step, and he found the bridge quite welcome. Once he was on the other side of the stream, the path veered gently off to the left, ending at a small wooden shrine. That hadn’t changed much with the times, but it was well cared for by the people of the village.

He steadied himself as he reached the entrance, softly running his hand over the smooth wood, feeling the dragons, lions and griffons carved upon it. They were the traditional spiritual protectors of their little village. Dragons were only found in myth these days, but his own grandfather had sworn he had seen a griffin once, and the lion barely resembled any he had ever seen. Regardless he pulled his hand from the wall and reached into his pocket, pulling out some seed for Lan, and pouring it in a corner of the building, out of the way of the shrine proper. “You stay here and stay out of trouble my little friend. I’ll grab you when I’m done,” he said with a soft smile as he walked over to a shelf, retrieving a small bronze bowl.

Stepping back outside he dipped the bowl into the stream, filling it with the cool, pure mountain water, before slowly returning to the shrine. The shrine was a simple affair, the back wooden wall of the building was filled with the names of the village’s deceased, a written record of those who had lived and loved here. Before the wall was a small stand, where items could be placed and incense burned. Zhao pulled a small match from his pocket and lit it, quietly lighting two sticks of incense. Shaking the flame out, he slowly got onto his knees before the shrine.

Taking the bowl, he began to ritually wash his hands and his face, cleaning himself up from his journey so as to be more presentable before his ancestors. Once he was finished, he set the bowl aside and began to carefully prostrate himself before the shrine, leaning forward until his head softly touched the ground and sitting back up. He repeated this three times before beginning to speak softly. “Happy birthday, Hong Cao.” He took a deep breath, steadying himself against his own emotions. “I’m… I’m sorry I haven’t been able to visit you in quite some time, my friend, but I brought you something.” He turned and shuffled through the satchel at his waist, pulling out three small red flowers and reached out to gently place them upon the altar. “I traveled far west to a continent called Arune. They’re called red… well red something. I forget exactly what.”

As he placed the flowers upon the altar his hand began to shake, and the old man openly wept. He withdrew his hand and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Fifty years, my friend, fifty years and I’m still around. Can you believe it?” he said with a sad chuckle. “But you’re not… I’ve tried to live my life for both of us, I’ve traveled the world like you always wanted to. I went west and crossed the Teal Sea with a band of merry sailors. I’ve been welcomed into homes big and small in too many nations to count. I’ve met so many lords and ladies, my friend, for some reason they believe me wise because of my old age.” He chuckled again, even as he had to wipe a tear from his eye. “I’ve seen lands covered in jungle and tundra. I even spent some time on that wide open steppe, among the people we once fought. Can you believe it?” He smiled faintly. “But… I would trade all of those days for just one more with you my friend. Were it possible for me to go back and prevent us from marching to war, I would, a thousand times over.” He prostrated himself before the shrine once again, hiding his face from Hong and all of his ancestors, no longer able to hold back the tears.

After some time, he heard Lan chirping playfully outside the shrine. “I haven’t heard him chirp like that before,” he said softly as he sat back up, looking one last time to Hong’s name on the wall, the red floors resplendent beneath it. “I will see you again, my friend, I promise—in this life or the next.” He stood up and bowed one last time before his friends and ancestors before taking a breath and stepping back outside.

He saw Lan then, still softly chirping, though now seemingly in annoyance, as he looked into the woods that surrounded the shrine. “What is wrong my little friend?” the old man asked as he bent down to return the small flightless bird to his shoulder, as he chirped somewhat indignantly into his ear. “Someone was here playing with you?” the old man asked, his face scrunched in surprise as he hadn’t heard anyone approach. Then again, his hearing wasn’t what it used to be.

Lan was quite insistent however, pointing into the woods with his beak. Following his gaze Zhao was surprised to see an old, familiar face, smiling widely and waving towards him, but with a blink it was simply replaced by a tree only slightly younger than he. “I see now little friend; you’ve met an old friend of mine is all,” he said with a soft smile as he gave the little bird a scratch under its chin. He bowed towards the tree before returning to the path down to his village, a long-forgotten and wide smile on his lips.