The Open Freight Car
When I leaned against the outer railing of the train car and held completely still, loneliness pushed up against me, then engulfed me like a huge, dark ocean wave. I had just lost that one person I could lean on, my husband. Now how was I going to survive? As I thought about this, I couldn’t stay still any longer. I looked around me.
Dancho Tono waited to see if his wife would make it in time. He stood up and looked anxiously into the frightened crowd on the train platform. She was nowhere to be seen. At ten, the train started moving. I was relieved. At least, something was happening. I thought, “That’s good, the train will keep moving, keep going all the way to my homeland, Japan…” Japan? How silly I was! How childish. As the train started moving everyone turned back toward the station and started waving their hands. I knew that my husband was gone. He wouldn’t be standing on the platform anymore. But along with everyone else, I started waving a handkerchief at the crowd remaining on the platform. A throng of faces—all turned toward us but not a single familiar person—no friends or anyone I recognized.
Somebody cried out, “Shinkyo sayonara, Good-bye, Shinkyo!” I wondered what the person who shouted that was feeling. I felt empty, devoid of emotions.
My children. As the train moved forward I thought, how can I keep the smoke, the flying soot and cinders from smothering them? Both of the boys, Masahiro and Masahiko, were exhausted. Unlike their usual selves, the two boys just sat there silently, in a daze. Baby Sakiko slept, her tiny face nestled in the sling against my body. How could I protect her against the coal dust? I tried to take Masahiko’s hand towel to cover her face. He suddenly broke out of his trance and pulled back with unexpected strength on the towel. He cried, “No, don’t!” He cried out so piteously that I let the towel go. Masahiko blinked his round eyes, fighting back his tears, and held on tight to the towel that his father had draped around his head.
“Poor child. Let him hold onto that small token of his father’s love a little longer,” I thought. So I opened the rucksack and found a dry cotton diaper that I pulled out and placed over the baby’s face. Without warning, my tears came. I turned my face toward the wooden wall of the train to hide. I cried and cried. I was not alone in my grief. A number of the wives wailed and joined me in sorrowful chorus.
I closed my eyes. In my mind, I took myself back to the life we had before last night. Our cozy brick house—the home we enjoyed until only yesterday. From the second floor I looked out to the yard where I had planted vegetables; the sight calmed and soothed me. The rocking and swaying of the train receded into a faint backdrop. This train was just a dream. I wanted to wake up from this nightmare. Oh, don’t forget! There was a little red kimono I made for Sakiko up on the top shelf of the closet. I wanted to try it on Sakiko once. My precious baby daughter was sleeping peacefully under the south window. How strong was that sensation that Sakiko was still sleeping upstairs…
Suddenly I was jolted out of my vision. Sakiko hadn’t been fed since yesterday. My breast milk had stopped since last night, since the nightmare began. “My baby will surely die,” I thought, “if I can’t feed her.” My tears started again.
Dancho Tono stood up and announced, “Attention, everyone, please.” His voice pierced my aching head. He spoke formally and introduced himself as dancho—our formal group leader, “Let’s call our group the Meteorological Station dan. As your dancho, I will be honored to accompany you all.” He bowed formally to us.
The wind chopped up Dancho Tono’s voice. I strained to hear his words “…rules for our group…must stay together…take care of those with many children…do not not wander off on your own, check with me before leaving the group…” Dancho Tono’s thick eyebrows twitched with concentration as he gave his directives.
As the morning turned into midday, August reared its ugly head. Beneath the burning hot sun, people began to dry up and— just like vegetables, they sought shade and water.
The children began to incessantly demand water from me. From time to time the train stopped at a small station and, with Sakiko in my sling and a canteen in my hand, I got off the train to try to get water, but always, strong men and women pushed in front of me.
Miserably, I returned to the train empty-handed. But even more troubling was washing the baby’s soiled diapers. If it looked like the train would stop for a while, I tried to rinse out the diapers at the station’s water pump. But as I stood in line, with my baby and the diapers, men shouted at me, “Don’t do anything dirty near the pump!” as they carried buckets of water back to the train. Finally I found a small fetid, foul-smelling pool near the station and hurriedly tried to clean the diapers in the blue-black muddy water.
When I got back to the train, my two thirsty boys cried, “Mommy, did you get water?” I didn’t know what to say to them.
“I’m so sorry. I couldn’t get any.” Saying this, I sat back in my seat, and looked reproachfully at the hot sky with a sigh.
Suddenly, I noticed a young couple, seated a few rows in front of us. They poured water out of a full jug into a pan. The splash of water sounded heavenly. The young man grunted with effort as he lifted the heavy pan. “He’ll share that water with us,” I thought hopefully. But then he put the pan in front of a round-faced woman sitting next to them.
“I’ve never washed my face in a cooking pan,” the round-faced woman joked to the young man as she put both hands into the pan and began splashing water onto her face. Then without any hesitation, they threw the water off the side of the train.
When the train stopped at a larger station, a group of the Japanese Wives Association brought in dozens of onigiri (seasoned rice rolled into serving-size balls). They also gave us stewed acorn squash. The children were delighted and ate with gusto. But I was so terrified they would ask me for water afterwards that I had no appetite at all. I just thought, “Were these women feeding the refugees on each train—every train as it came through from where we came? Why don’t they save themselves while they could?” No one knew anymore what would happen to us or Japan.
As we left Hoten, the sun was in the west. And for the first time that day, I saw the shadow of our train on the side of the tracks. Then I remembered. Hoten was the train station where we first arrived here, in April of 1943. My husband was transferred here from Japan. We had come from so far away, but I remembered Hoten as a much more beautiful and quiet train station back then. At that time, Masahiro was our only child. Now I thought, “Here I am again. At this station. An exhausted mother with three children riding on a open freight car—where are we going this time?”
We were all afraid. Where are we going? Where could we escape? Rumors spread among the panicked passengers. We would go east to Tsuka—but that turned out to be untrue. Would we go straight south from Sokato, or would we double back then go south? Would we go west to Tairen or go towards Korea? The train had come to a point where someone would have to make a decision. I was too tired to care which way we went. I leaned my back against the wall and closed my eyes. Then someone said it was decided. We would go south to Anton and then on to Korea.
“Oh, what a beautiful sunset,” said a woman who was standing near me. I raised up my head. The huge sky was filled with spectacular shades of red and orange and purple. Our first night arrived. I gathered the children as close to me as I could, and tried to go to sleep. We were alone. Countless stars began to emerge in the darkening sky, and they remained fixed in their places, unlike us. How small I felt beneath that massive dome.
When I woke up, the train had stopped, and dawn was on the horizon. We were at a station called Renzankan. As far as I could see, green fields of maize lay under a thick layer of mist, flat as a blanket on top. The train started moving again as the sun rose. It would be another hot day like yesterday. But compared to the day before, I had a little more energy. If my children and I were to survive, I knew I had to change. I wasn’t afraid to be more pushy anymore. I got better at haggling and managed to get water, some melons, and tomatoes. I nursed Sakiko. At Ryukaga there was rain which drenched our clothes. I busily wrung out the sopping wet things, laid them out to dry around us, and somehow, someway the four of us got through another day. By the time the clouds clustered on the horizon and turned purple, our train neared the border.
The men gathered together in the middle of the car and began discussing something. They appeared to have made a decision. Dancho Tono turned to everyone and said, “Soon the train will pass through Hojo. We’ve thought of a way to send a message back to Shinkyo. The Hojo Meteorlogical Station is located right next to the railroad—so when our train goes by, let’s all raise our voices to let them know we’ve gotten on the train. Then they can send a telegram back to Shinkyo for us—to let them know we’ve made it this far.”
I suddenly stood up with renewed energy like a rescued woman. My husband must be still in Shinkyo, so worried about us. This was the one line of communication I had left with him. I grabbed one of the drying white diapers to wave, and stood with everyone on the side of the train car.
Soon we saw the red building of the meteorological station. The familiar weather monitoring devices on the rooftop. But our train was moving so fast. We would pass this little station too quickly. The steam from our train glittered in the setting sun and looked beautiful.
When our train was less than fifty meters from the weather station building, we all faced the building and yelled as loudly as we could. “Oooi, Kanshoo-jo, oooi, kansho-jo! Hey – Weather Station, Weather Station!” we called out to the people in the building. But no one came out of the building. We couldn’t tell if anyone was there or not. Just as we gave up, I saw the four metal cups of the Robinson anemometer gaily spin round and round, as if to mock me. I was so angry. What’s the use?
As I sat down, full of disappointment, another night arrived. We didn’t know where we were going. We were frightened people with only uncertainty ahead. Then the train started making a loud “goro-goro” sound, the sound of metal wheels going across the long steel bridge which spanned the Ooryoko River. We entered northern Korea.
The people in the train started talking excitedly, “We’ll stop soon and reach our final destination.” But there was no sign that was happening. The train kept going on and on.
Just as I had done the night before, I sat up, lost in my world without time or place, and not sure if I was asleep or awake, when the train stopped at a station, one that was larger than most. The sign said “Nanshi.” While the train stopped, the men representing every dan jumped down from each car, and joined together to talk. We were then told for the first time that the final destination would be—Sensen. We wondered, “Sensen, Sensen, what sort of a town is Sensen?” What would be waiting for us there? We started to get ready to get off the train. All I could think about was how I desperately wanted to sleep.