In today's story, Forgiveness, a young women treks up a mountain in search of mystical answers
Today's prompt was inspired by a book I was reading that talked about forgiveness. That's always been a complicated topic for me... so I turned it into a writing prompt. I'm not sure how I feel about the story that came out, but it's something to think about.
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
Freely Written merch: Bitter Lily Books Shop
Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 57 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is Forgiveness
Before we get to the story, here’s a reminder of how this podcast works: I write a bit of fiction from a simple prompt, with no planning and very little editing, and then I share that story with you.
The prompt for today came to me after reading a passage on forgiveness in a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. Forgiveness has always been a complicated subject for me. While I like a lot of the teachings by monks and scholars, I’m still working out my own feelings about what goes into a sincere apology and why it does, or doesn’t, feel right to accept an apology, depending on the situation.
Those thoughts were kicking around when I sat down to write this story:
There are 879 steps leading to the Pantheon of Truth, each carved into the mountainside at relatively even heights. Every 100 steps or so, resting ledges extend in various sizes and shapes. Some include flowering bushes and water features, while each hosts a small shrine.
Carla stopped at each shrine on her ascent to the temple, as tradition dictated. She knelt to rest, clear her mind, and prepare herself for her upcoming audience. These rests also included sips of water and a piece of fruit or bread, with the remains diligently packed away in her bag to leave no sign of her visit.
Occasionally, Carla passed other visitors. She exchanged shy nods with those making their own hopeful ascents, scarcely wondering at their reasons. Her attention was drawn more to those descending the mountain. It was a struggle to contain her curiosity as she studied their calm expressions. Were they content with their pilgrimage? Had they been satisfied or disillusioned by the answers to their questions?
She knew it would be rude to ask, so Carla merely smiled as they passed, scanning their features for any trace of joy, tranquility, disappointment, or anger. Yet, she couldn’t quite place the expressions she saw.
There was a certain energy about the people leaving the mountain. One that was distinctly different from the eager drive that propelled new arrivals up the endless stone steps. It wasn’t quite the same from one person to the next, but it had a similar quality. A sense of questions asked and answered. Though, for the life of her, Carla couldn’t say whether any of those answers had been good or bad.
By the time she reached the mountain’s last resting ledge, Carla’s legs were trembling more than her nervous stomach. Her feet and low back ached. Her skin felt tight from the sun and wind. Yet her mind was clear.
As she knelt by the final shrine, Carla closed her eyes and savored the sensation of being still. Her breath flowed in an even rhythm, and a single tendril of hair brushed the curve of her cheek. She no longer listened for approaching footsteps, as she had at each of her previous meditations. She was so near her destination; she could taste magic in the air.
Time slowed at the final shrine. It was near dusk, yet the pink and purple streaks spilling across the sky seemed to freeze the setting sun in place. Even the breeze stilled, its soft current no longer pushing Carla forward or back.
Resting in this place, a moment of doubt washed over Carla’s slim shoulders. Did she want to continue her journey? Or was the contentment she felt in this moment enough?
Remembering the energy of those descending the mountain, Carla wondered how many of them had completed the final set of stone steps. It was a thought she’d never considered before, yet it seemed entirely valid—maybe even preferable—to turn around now. Maybe those expressions she hadn’t been able to place hadn’t carried the energy of questions answered. Maybe they’d been the results of questions no longer needed.
When Carla opened her eyes, the pinks and purples of the sky had deepened into dark indigo. Stars crowded the darkening sky and a full, silver moon bathed the mountain in a cool, bluish light. Carla was not turning back.
She bowed to the shrine, took a long sip of water, and willed her legs to carry her up the final stretch of steep stone steps.
As she cleared the final step, Carla paused to take in the majestic simplicity of the Pantheon of Truth. It was just as she’d seen in paintings: a structure made of dark wood and unadorned glass. The steep pitch of the hidden roof flaring to upturned points where it overhung the modest building below.
Carla gathered her courage and approached the temple’s blue wooden door. She did not know what she would find inside. There would be attendants, she knew, and she would be offered lodgings for the night. But first, she would be directed to a square room at the heart of the temple. The place where she would meet a conduit of the gods.
It was said the conduit appears in many forms. A different manifestation for everyone who sought an audience. Some said there were greeted by a beautiful man or woman. Others met a wise child or a magnificent animal.
Carla had imagined many fantastical creatures as she made her long trek up the mountain. Talking monkeys, unicorns, gryphons, or even a golden cricket. She was not prepared to be greeted by an old man wearing a purple tracksuit.
“What brings you here, my child?” the man asked kindly.
Carla hesitated, doubt eating away the determination she’d felt when climbing that last set of steps.
“Yes,” he went on gently, reading her mind. “I know why you are here, but it’s customary for you to tell me yourself.”
There was a twinkle in his eye with his last words, an impish light that instantly reminded Carla of the grandfather she’d been missing for many years.
Without thought, she felt to her knees and cradled her head in her hands.
“There’s something wrong with me,” she cried, feeling the tears well from her aching heart.
“There’s not,” the old man told her.
“I don’t know how to forgive!” Carla wailed, nearly choking on the words. “I know I should… I don’t mean to hold grudges… but…”
Carla stopped talking. Memories tripped through her soul. Echoes of apologies she’d tried to accept but had never truly let in. They felt like battering rams against the darkness of her closed heart.
“To err is human…” she mumbled wretchedly.
“To forgive is divine?” the old man finished the quote, turning it into a question.
Carla chanced a peek at his face and was surprised by his bemused smile.
“I never liked that one,” the old man winked.
“But forgiveness is… Well, when someone apologizes, we’re supposed to forgive.”
“Are we?” the old man questioned.
He crossed the room to sit on a long, cushioned bench and gestured for Carla to join him.
“Well, my friends say… and my mom says…” Carla stopped without sharing what her friends and mom had said. The old man knew.
“There is nothing wrong with you,” the old man declared, and his certainty chased away Carla’s tears. She joined him on the bench and thought for a moment.
“But I don’t know how to forgive,” she said, repeating the messages she’d heard her whole life.
“Perhaps,” the old man nodded thoughtfully. “Or maybe you haven’t always been given the chance.”
Carla frowned, remembering all the apologies she’d been given over the years.
“This is a magic spell,” the old man announced, waving his hand through the air with a trail of golden sparkles that coalesced into a shimmering blue flower.
Carla gasped, smiling as she accepted the magical gift.
“I’m sorry is not a magic spell,” the old man continued. “The words do not unlock forgiveness in an instant.”
Carla considered that, unconvinced.
“You have forgiven,” the old man told her patiently. “You’ve forgiven many, many times. Do you remember when Natalie spilled nail polish on your suede boots?”
In an instant, the long-forgotten memory floated through Carla’s mind. She saw Natalie’s mortified face and felt a rush of reflected regret.
“That was an accident,” Carla explained, “and she felt terrible about it.”
“And the time your brother took your car and backed into a telephone pole?”
Another forgotten memory spun to the present.
“We were just kids!” Carla protested. “He did a stupid thing to impress his friends, and he learned his lesson. He had to wait an extra year to get his license, and he used his savings to fix the dent.”
“And you forgave him,” the old man reminded.
“Well, yes…” Carla hesitated over the answer. “But why can’t I forgive when…”
She stopped, unable to finish the thought.
“Forgiveness doesn’t magically happen when someone says I’m sorry,” the old man explained carefully. “And it doesn’t happen with gifts or kinder behavior on another day.”
Carla waited, looking at the magic flower held lightly in her hands.
“Forgiveness happens when we have the empathy to understand why someone wronged us and the compassion to see that they are hurting, too. If they say I’m sorry without helping you understand their mistake or showing their regret, what is there to forgive?”
A single tear rolled down Carla’s cheek. She saw green sparkles shimmering at the center of the flower and felt a lightness in her heart.
“Stay the night as my guest,” the old man offered. “And we’ll talk more in the morning.”
“Thank you,” Carla accepted softly. There were questions still echoing at the corners of her mind, but she felt like her journey had finally begun.
Thanks for joining me today. If you liked this story, please share it with your friends. As always, you can connect with me on social media, learn about my novels on my website, SusanQuilty.com, or support my writing through Patreon.com/SusanQuilty.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]