Old Man of the Mountain

This is one of my favorite stories theVet likes to tell — I don’t believe there’s a direct Western equivalent, maybe Hansel and Gretel with its theme of abandonment. I’m not sure, J-, if while you spent that year in Korea you heard the tale either, so I wanted to share.

* * * * *

One day the patriarch of the family returned from hunting. The cruel winter had driven all the game into hiding and worse, left his father with a nagging cough that no amount of boiled cabbage could put right. Snow fell as the days marched to a peak, where even the turnips carefully stashed away became rooty and inedible, yet not quite so desperate as to make the animals come out again in their search.

“Wife,” he declares, “wife, it’s come to this choice. We have four mouths to feed — us, our son, and my father. My father, he’s had a good life, but I don’t think he’ll see the flowers bloom this year. I’m sure he wouldn’t want to take the food out of his grandson’s mouth. It’s time for the mountain.”

She acquiesces; the world spins relentlessly on its axle, and that’s just life. Her father went to the mountain and his father too before him. And her father’s father’s father too, stretching on beyond counting, the mountain has seen them all and eaten the end of their days without hesitation.

The next morning, he sets to work, gathering the materials he needs to make a sling and snowshoes; the old man is never going to make it up the mountain alone, and he’ll have to haul him up this time. He’s cutting strips from the old deer blanket to weave into something supple and strong, supportive and restrictive. It’s a long journey up the mountain, and in the midst of this industry, his son, far removed from diapers and milk but still amidst kites and hoops, comes questioning up.

“Daddy, daddy, whatchoo doin’?”

“I’m making a basket.”

“What’sa basket for?”

“I’m going on a trip tomorrow.”

“How come you’re makin’ it now, can I help?”

“No, you’re too young, and I need to use my strength to make this one extra-strong and sturdy.”

“Okay,” the son says quite seriously. “Okay, okay. I get it. I unnerstan’ now.” He runs off; besides the ache in his stomach there’s duties to be discharged to his friends, snow forts to build, puddle-ice to be broken, and that mystery to unravel, of how the running stream never froze in this winter’s landscape. It’s a busy day for his dad, now finishing the basket and moving on to the snowshoes that night.

Later then; early dawn. The family arises; the grandfather, having seen the sling-pack take shape all day yesterday knows his fate, choosing instead to savor a last morning’s warmth under the covers; the father, knowing the route handed down father-to-son, rouses his sleepy boy and presents him with a cunningly small pair of snowshoes.

“Whuzza, daddy, I get new snowshoes today?”

“That’s right, you’re going with me on the trip.”

“Oh, and mommy too?”

“No, she’s got to stay here, we’ll be back tonight. I’m just going to get grampa and we’ll leave soon. Do you need me to show you how to put the snowshoes on?”

“They’re just like my old ones, right?”

“Yes,” he says, pride swelling to see his lessons remain taught. “Yes, my clever boy, yes.”

They’re all bundled up, the old man, precariously light and secured on the dad’s back making for an odd, lumpy sight greeting the boy as he walks outside into the first wind of the day. He frowns, thinking.

“Daddy, isn’t grampa sick?”

“Yes, we’re taking him up the mountain.”

“But …” pausing, pondering, “but, if the mountain is cold, an’ grampa is sick, he’s not gonna get better. You always tell me to stay near the fire when I cough like grampa does now.”

“My son, you’re old enough to know. This world is not fair, this world is hard and this world demands we have to cut our hearts once in a while.” These words, rehearsed last night and the old man hears his echo ring true. “Grampa … grampa isn’t going to live with us after today, he’s going to live on the mountain.”

“So we can go visit him?”

“No, he’s not going to want us to visit.”

“Oh, so he’s coming back down to see us?”

“No, not that either.”

He frowns again; you can just make out the furrow that’ll grow into a I’m-thinking line ten years from now. And the storm breaks as his brow relaxes. “Oh, grampa is old!”


“And he’s sick!”

“Yes, I think you know it now.”

The son turns and tugs at the straps, nodding approvingly. “Yes. It’s good. Yes, good. Good good good.”

And now it’s the father’s turn to perplexedly ask, “Good? Is what?”

“Oh, daddy, you did a good job with this pack. It’ll last and last and that way I won’t havta make one when you’re old and sick.”

They burned it that night, three generations watching the flames leap higher into the sky, all-consuming silence swallowing talk of the mountain.


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