Brendon pushed himself forward and sideways as he trudged ever onwards. He felt the wind flattening the right side of his face as his hair fluttered out to the left. Digging his walking stick in ahead of him, he pulled himself to and then past it. Step, after step, after step.
Looking up from the road in front of his feet, he saw the tree permanently bent and twisted enough that he knew this gale must be a constant in these parts. At least he was closer than the last time he’d looked up.
He wondered if this difficult terrain were the right or the wrong sort of place for a shrine. Pilgrimages were supposed to be hard so, in that way, it was right. On the other hand, it took your mind off of the penance you were meant to be thinking about. So, maybe not. Stiffening his body and mind, Brendon did his best to combine the two things in his forward movement.
The penance, the penance, the penance! In his mind Brendon could taste again the tang of alcohol in his mouth. It slid down his throat, hit his stomach and spread throughout his body with warmth and comfort and reassurance. So good! So, more and more!
He had made it home and must have passed out by the front door. The smell of smoke had tickled his nose and finally set off the warning in his brain. He must get out; he must get his wife and children out. As his neighbors pulled him away, his hands snatched at the hot, ash-filled air but all was lost. His family died with their screams for help piercing his ears and rattling around in his skull. All due to the fire he had caused in his wine-sodden stupor.
Brendon gasped to a stop and shook his head to clear it. Panting, he slowly realised that he had come up to the tree. It loomed over him. Suddenly the wind stopped but the tree stayed as it had been. “My life is like that tree now,” he thought. “No pilgrimage or penance is going to change it back to what it was or atone for what I’ve done.”
He pulled off his backpack and dug out the alcohol he’d planned to set himself alight with at the shrine. He poured it out beneath the tree and watched it soak into the dusty ground. “If you can live like this, then so can I.”
The wind picked up again as Brendon turned around. He still would need to lean against the wind, but now his steps felt somehow lighter than before.