November arrived, and there were nights where a cold northwest wind blew so hard it rattled the windows, and kept me half-awake until morning. Once there was enough light, we looked for branches the wind had torn off the trees—sometimes I found enough for an arm load. Later in the day, when the sun had warmed the ground, we went down in the hill to town. On the west side of the dirt road, apple stands started appearing.
These apple stands soon formed two red parallel lines all the way down to the train station entrance. From the mountains in every direction, hand-carts full of dried grass began to creep along the roads, dropping their loads into small haystacks here and there. Ox carts would then collect these haystacks into huge loads, and one by one, they lumbered between the lines of apple stands into the town center.
I guessed the dried grass was for the town’s ondoru Korean floor heaters. In the morning, smoke climbed from the many ondoru and make thin white layers in the air. Our lonely house at the top of the hill, where the men were gone, also let sad, bitter smoke out from the ondoru twice a day. Winter was coming.
Just after the middle of November, early in the morning, someone came knocking at our door. This felt ominous so early in the day. As we all got up, Dancho Narita brought in a Korean boy who was breathing hard and sweating. He had brought messages from the town of Anton, just north of us on the border with China. Mrs. Tomimoto, Mrs. Yamada, and Mrs. Sueyoshi got letters and money and they beamed with happiness as they read letters from their husbands. The messenger boy said, “Hurry. Hurry,” while the three women wrote letters for him to take back to Anton. The boy looked worried, and kept looking out the door.
As soon as the letters were done, he grabbed them, and ran down the hill as if flying on the wind. After two or three such letter exchanges with Anton, four women with their children, ten people altogether, decided to leave us and go north to Anton to join their men there. A fine powder snow fell that day, and we saw them off. We called out, “Sayonara. Take care of yourselves,” as the women and children disappeared into the snow.
Our group was now reduced to twenty-nine people. Once December came, the authorities decided that we would be rationed two Japanese go (about a cup and a half) of rice a day for each person. I was so happy at first. This rice would help us survive the winter. But then our dan decided to re-distribute this rice amongst us. For children under five, the ration was cut to half that of the others, in other words, just one go a day. The extra rice was saved to distribute to the women who worked for pay. With this new distribution system, the ones who suffered the most were the women with young children and babies: me – I lost two go, Mrs. Honda lost two go, Mrs. Sakiyama also lost two go, and Mrs. Daichi lost one go. We mothers with little children were the most desperate of the refugees. In this life, we endured and suffered the most. I wondered if this was my fate, determined from my date of birth. What is going to happen to my three, pale-faced sickly children?
Once the snow started, tiny ice crystals blew incessantly around in air. I’d seen this snow often in Manchuria where the temperature often dropped below freezing. The air was dry and the skies were clear. The snow particles stayed suspended and sparkled in the sun. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I had heard my husband describe such snow as “saihyo.” But he also used another name in English, “diamond dust.” That English name was so wonderful, I never forgot it. Diamond dust. There were times the snow really looked like that.
In my hometown Nagano, where winters were cold, there is a phrase we used—”ice drying”. This refers to when the laundry is hung out to dry in the winter. It quickly froze stiff, but before you knew it, the clothes would be dry. In order to dry Sakiko’s diapers, I hung them facing the sun. The wind pierced the red cracks in my hand like needles as I hung the wet cloths every day.
Now it was so cold the snow did not melt. When I walked on the icy road, my head would ache, throbbing with each step on the hard ground. Somehow my hunger made the frozen ground feel even harder.
Our toilet froze. The daily waste, instead of flowing down as usual into the pit, now froze in place, growing taller and taller. We shoved the waste down after we used the toilet each time, but finally, this grotesque ‘tower’ of feces and urine would not let loose, even if we hit it with all our strength. So we made a special toilet. We placed a large wooden bucket upside down and left boards on top beside the crude toilet opening to step on. That way, we could move the toilet away from the icy mountains of waste.
But every morning, we took turns cleaning this nasty, frozen mess up. It was the most unpleasant chore we all shared. And those of us with small children bore the brunt of everyone’s frustrations. Mrs. Nagasu, with her one five-year-old daughter, and enough money to pay for heating fuel, complained the most. Small children inevitably made the biggest messes so she haughtily said, “We need to have those with small children do more of the toilet clean-up.”