He usually only became aware of how long he had been running when the sun was high and the wind brisk off the water. His consciousness came into focus like a bubble popping, breath ragged between his lips. It was at those moments the runner would ask himself "How many years, Lord and Father, how many shall I carry you?"
The path led, as it seemed to always, along the edge of high cliffs. Green sod feathered itself out over hard lines of green-black basalt, the fractured planes of which slid sharp into the heaving sea. Slat spray and gulls engaged in a whirling dance of which the runner never tired. He looked forward to them when the sun would rise over the hills and plains after long nights of black and silver stars.
The cries of the gulls were as choirs to ears burned by wind and sun, years upon years of ceaseless motion with the relics upon his callused back. It had been so long since the stone cross in its thick ox-leather bag had been roped on to his back that he had no real memory of the occurence.
The sting of the whip across his calves he had never forgotten. The scars were still there, knurled ridges bulging from legs that resembled stones. The scars ached often, mostly at night when the runner entertained fantasies of walking, or heaven forbid, stopping to lay on the ground. He dreamed of it in his staggering sleep. The desire made him weep when it overtook him.
He cried less now. It attracted beasts in the night and made it difficult to breathe. Outrunning the one and overcoming the other were luxuries he could no longer afford. He grew terrified at the prospect of not making it to the mount, where he had been told he could lay down his burden forever. But the mount seemed no closer than the day his trial had begun.
He saw it now and then. Mostly in dreams. It was there shrouded in mist, far away along a curve in the coast. On this day, he saw it so clearly jutting up from a headland like a giant's fist. A fist that shook itself in his weary face.
"But why, Lord, does it grow no closer? I've run so long, endured so much, yet you offer no solace!" he yelped, wheezing. He was seized by a pang of regret soaked in fear, thinking he might be struck down for such impertinence. The cross in its leather sack hammered the knobs of his spine. He groaned and spat.
The wind continued its low moan over the grass. The sea mumbled and groaned on the rocks below. Neither offered comfort or counsel. The runner's feet continued their slow shambling run along the cliff. He did not hold his breath waiting for a sign.
The sun slid a few minutes of arc down the dome of the sky. The runner looked up as a passing shadow glissaded across his path, tracking over the shiny grime of his face. It was a gull, huge and gray, flying in a slow figure eight pattern just overhead. It seemed to be watching the runner. Its eyes luminous in the afternoon light remained fixed on him.
The runner grunted, shifted the weight of the leather bag so the straps would not dig in so deep. Off in the distance the mount was slowly fading into a mist rolling in off the ocean. The runner grunted, an idea taking shape in his head.
He watched the mist, waiting for it to swallow up the mount whole. His pace remained constant, but somehow he felt lighter on his feet. He felt the fear lifting from his belly and his heart. He raised his sunburned hands up to grasp the straps of the sack. Thumbs under the stiff rawhide, he waited still. The mount was nearly gone, only the tip showing up above the cloud bank. The runner allowed himself a faint smile.
The gull swooped lazily back and forth, eyes intent on the runner. The setting sun flashed on the tip of the mount, then it was gone, swathed in the thickening mist. The runner smiled openly. He lifted the sack off of his shoulders, veering closer to the edge of the cliff. Below he could see a cove where the water seemed deeply blue-green where it met the slick basalt knifing down in to it. Perhaps it was deeper there, he thought.
The sack slid off his back, dangling by a strap in his hand. He ran faster, feeling lighter, and began to slowly whirl the sack in a windmill arc. Faster, faster, it spun, the sweat-stained leather looking like a giant heart in the blood light of the waning sun. The runner roared, a bell toll of pent-up anguish, and flung the sack over the cliff. He stopped, suddenly, almost falling over with dizziness after years of running.
The sack pinwheeled its way down to land with a subdued splash, sucked under by a huge wave that had come crashing out of the far sea. The gull shrieked and spiraled over the head of the runner, who hunched over panting with fear and relief. His legs trembled, as did his hands, but he had never felt so free as he did then.
The gull landed on the path some yard away in the direction of the mount. The runner turned to look. He saw that the mist was approaching them even now, dimming the sun and muffling the wind and sea. The mount was invisible.
The runner straightened up. He stretched, the lack of weight on his back novel but welcome. He waved to the gull, who then launched itself into the air with a squawk. It circled twice, then headed off into the mist towards the mount.
The runner grinned. He took the gull's flight as a sign, and began walking to follow the bird. Walking, he told himself. Walking. After all these years, he would walk to his meeting with Lord, and carry upon himself no burdens cast upon him by anyone but himself.
His heart began to slow. Peace was upon him, even as the sun slid below the edge of the sea.