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Throughout our lives, we often reflect on scenes of times past. Every time the waves of some vaguely happy or sad memories brush up against our mind, we either try to burst out in laughter or become immersed in questioning why. What we don’t know at such times, however, is that the unknown answers to these questions are always heard eventually on their own accord, within the echoes of time that flow into the present.
One of the biggest questions of my childhood regarded the reticence of my grandfather after returning from the market where he had taken one of our cows to sell. Why wasn’t he ever able to answer me . . . ? Only now, after much time has passed, am I finally able to have some idea what the answer to that question is, however vague it may be.
At that time in my youth, a cow in a mountain village household was a major possession, and represented almost all of our manpower. In those times, when we had no sort of agricultural machinery, if you didn’t have a cow, it was impossible to do any farming during a drought. A cow allowed you not only to dig furrows and rows, but helped out in numerous other non-farm related activities as well. A cow was indeed a wonderful type of a possession.
At that time, the affection we had for our cows was incredible; they received love from everybody, as if they were members of the family.
Raised on our love, the cow was equally faithful to us in return. Ah...the Korean cow, when young, they work diligently on our behalf, and when old, they’ll be sent to market to bring some aid to the family’s coffers.
We were horribly sad on that day when our cow, named Nuleongi, was leaving to be sold. On this early morning, with the darkness not yet faded, there was grandpa’s helping hand, offering the heavily steaming fodder. Grandpa stared at the cow even until the very last bite of its final meal.
Though the dawn on the day of the cow’s departure hid our sadness, daybreak nevertheless still came early. Grandpa and I headed out to market at dawn, cow in tow, on the road to its hapless fate. Every time Grandpa gave a shout of "Heya! Heya!", Nuleongi would respond with his own sad cry in kind. Hearing this, we couldn’t help but bring our own strides to a halt numerous times.
Only after winding through the mountain path and walking for some three or four hours did we finally make it to the cattle market. With all the restaurants full of people and the salesmen and their excited shouting, the scene of vigor and busyness was in sharp contrast to our sadness. Everyone seemed happy. It was only the cows whose eyes were full of sadness. All these people could so easily discard the weight of the immense labor poured out by these cows.
As the afternoon passed, our cow was eventually sold. Then grandpa bought me a pair of sneakers and we left the market. I stared at the now empty spot where our Nuleongi had been. All I could hear were the sounds of his sad cries as we had left home.
Heading home, as darkness fell on our mountain path, I asked Grandpa a question. "What’s going to happen with our cow? Huh Grandpa?"
Without a sound, Grandpa merely puffed on his cigarette and gave a long, slow exhale of smoke into the darkening sky. It wasn’t that smoke that grabbed my attention though. More than anything, I stared at Grandpa’s lips and wondered when he’d bring an end to his silence.
Only now after many years have passed have I been able to figure out why words sometimes have to end in silence, and it is only through this knowledge that I’ve come to understand my Grandfather’s silence. Those things in this world that can’t be spoken are those things that resides close to our side, going by the name of "great sadness." The names of these sadnesses aren’t things we can know simply by listing them off, like a roll call. It is only with the passage of time that they can come to be fully understood.
The reason behind my Grandpa’s silence, and for the many things in this world to which words simply can’t do justice, is revealed through the silent truth that such answers are concealed by time and they reside to this day within my heart.