They gathered at the mountain’s base, seven pilgrims. All came for different reasons. A father and son, mirror images of each other. Their faces cast in the hard-set of grief. The son’s hair was frizzy and brown, the father’s thinner and greyed. Both wore the long unkempt beards of many months of travel. An elderly woman, at first glance she appeared a frail thing just clinging to life, but the others knew better. Only the strong could hope to make this journey. Only the determined ever got this far. Two children, brother and sister, checked their packs for the climb ahead. They were idiosyncrasies equal to the elderly woman, two pre-teenaged young ones, but again, the look in their eyes presaged a tale of losses that would age any soul.
The last two travelers—a young woman with high cheekbones, freckles on her sunburnt nose and hollow eyes who stared mutely into the middle distance and an infant swaddled to her chest who slumbered and gurgled and never once cried—stood apart from the others. She wore the child like a backpack, seemingly unaware that it lived. For the child’s part, he seemed to want for nothing.
They assembled at the foot of Olympus and waited for the sign their journey was to begin. Father and Son did little to hide their unease at the other’s presence.
“Are you sure you’re able to-” Son started to ask the Old Woman, but her glare stopped him dead. Her look said more clearly than words: Mind your own business, boy, as I do mine.
“Well, we all have our reasons, I suppose.” He muttered to himself, shaking his head ruefully.
Father tried to help the children tending to their rations and clothing, but Brother snapped at him, barking like a mad dog. Sister did not even raise her eyes to meet his gaze or answer his offers of aid. The middle-aged widower backed away with his hands up, showing he meant no harm. Exchanging a look with his son, a whole conversation passed between them in silence. They agreed that their fellow travelers were best left alone. This would be no picaresque tale. They would trade no stories about the losses and hardships that brought them here. Their journey would not be peppered with the episodic remembrances of fellow truth-seekers.
Yes, he imagined very well that he already knew their stories. If not the specifics, at the very least their flavor. And he knew that he would be no more inclined to share the details of his pain than they were.
Even now, years later, Father saw, clear as day, Mother’s hand squeezing his one last time and going slack. He remembered how frail she was. How she looked just as anguished in death, frozen in the last moment of pain. He remembered the hospice caregiver’s last words: “She’s with God now, son.” Small comfort. Did God love her any more than they had? He very much doubted it. He looked up to the mountain’s peak, shrouded always in clouds, and wondered if the countless others who made the legendary ascent had found their answers at journey’s end.
Either way, soon his suffering would end.
He patted Son gently on the shoulder, lead him away to erect their tent and wait for dark.
The group split into four sections, waiting in a clearing between the forest at Olympus’ base and a quiet still lake. Its waters shimmered blue and orange, reflecting the sky. Wind whispered ripples across its surface. It howled in the traveler’s ears, and each of them were reminded of a different loss. Or the same loss from different perspectives. Father and Son sat around a makeshift fire pit, heating a simple dinner of ground meal and dried salted meat. They ate and talked of simple things, of their memories, of their quest.
The Elder sat, her back against a spindly oak, working with her thin fingers at spinning something out of yarn. It was a long, multi-hued woolen beast. Once it may have been intended as a scarf, but that had been years ago. Now it was merely her finger’s obsession, something to pass the time. A project she would add to until she died.
Brother and Sister, their losses temporarily forgotten, played on the pier that cut partway into the lake. Each trying to push the other in. Laughing, they fell in together and swam beneath the clear, calm water.
Mother and Child also stood on the pier, Mother still staring blankly, child still sleeping and murmuring in its dreams. No one came near her. Somehow they sensed hers may well be the saddest story of them all. What answers did she demand from God? Why bring the child?
After a fashion, night began to fall. The sun set behind the mountain and the group was left in darkness, segmented. The Siblings scratched stick figure patterns into the dirt with rocks. Father and Son prepared to sleep, in case they were not called forth by morning. The Elder knitted still, never once stopping, as if the action itself were all she needed for sustenance. Mother and Child had not moved in hours.
From the peak of the mountain came a sound like thunder, preceded by flashes like lightning. This sound and fury fell not from the skies but the mountain itself. A giant Tesla Coil. The travelers assembled, three pairs and the Elder, eager for whatever came next. One bolt struck the ground right before them, cracking loud and smelling of burning ions. It tore the ground asunder, shrieking and groaning as the Earth trembled. They covered their eyes and shrank from the noise and brightness.
When the dust settled, and the smoke cleared, a voice greeted them.
“Seven have come. Seven seeking answers to questions beyond Man’s purview. They seek the wisdom of a God they no longer revere. Welcome to Olympus.”
A stooped man, even older than the Elder seeker, stood in the cracked Earth’s hollow. Whether he had traveled by lightning strike, or been hidden in the Earth beneath their feet they did not know. He continued.
“This is the Rubicon. Beyond this point there is no return. Only forward, only answers to questions you may end up wishing you did not know. Ignorance is… bliss, they say.”
He turned and walked through the trees towards the mountain. The old man began to ascend. Slowing when he sensed that none followed, still dazed by his entrance, still rubbing the dots from their eyes and the ringing from their ears, he called over his shoulder.
“The time to come is now. If I pass out of eyeshot, you will never see me again. You will die, lost on this mountain.”
For the first time, each pilgrim met the other’s eye. Everyone nodded their affirmation. The unspoken camaraderie… we traveled too far to turn back now.
One by one, they began to climb. Towards truth. Towards sweet death.