Monday, June 12, 2006
Ryohei was eight years old when construction of the light railway between Odawara and Atami began. He would go to the outskirts of his village every day to watch the construction. Not that he could see much of the actual construction–just a rail truck hauling dirt–but it was interesting enough to keep him coming.
Two workmen would ride in on the truck, standing behind the pile of dirt. The truck came rolling down the mountain, so it didn’t need help to keep moving. It would come as if forced down, with the hems of the workmen’s overcoats flapping in the breeze and the narrow-gauge rails shuddering, and Ryohei would imagine that he would like to be a construction worker. At the very least, he wanted a chance to ride that truck with them. The truck would coast to a stop when it reached the level ground outside the village. As soon as it did, the workmen would leap down from the truck and immediately spread the dirt they were hauling at the end of the track. After that they would start pushing, pushing, back towards the mountain they had just come down. Seeing this, Ryohei would think that even if he couldn’t ride on the truck, he would like to at least help push it.
One evening in early February, Ryohei, his six year-old brother, and a neighbor the same age went to where the trucks were stopped outside the village. They sat there in the gloom, still coated in mud. Not only that, but the construction workers were nowhere in sight. Nervously, the three children tried pushing the cart on the end of the line. Under their combined effort, the truck’s wheels suddenly turned. The sound frightened Ryohei at first, but he was not startled when the wheels squealed a second time. The truck slowly moved along the rail with its wheels spinning out a rhythm under their combined effort.
After moving fifty feet or so the grade suddenly steepened, and the truck would move no further no matter how hard they pushed it. It almost pulled them back down with it. Ryohei decided that they were ready, and gave a signal to the other two boys: “OK! Let’s go!”
They let go of the truck simultaneously, and jumped up onto it together. The truck at once began moving along the rail, slowly at first but rapidly picking up speed as it rolled down the hill. The scenery immediately in front of them seemed to emerge and split in two to either side as they sped through it. The twilight wind on his face and the shuddering of the truck beneath his feet brought him to a kind of rapture.
But in just a couple of minutes the truck was back where it had started. “Let’s do it again!” Ryohei and the two younger boys started to push the truck again, but before they even got the wheels moving they heard someone’s footsteps behind them. As soon as they recognized the sound it became a booming voice, shouting, “Hey, you! Who said you could touch that?”
A tall construction worker stood there, wearing an old work coat bearing the company mark and a straw hat inappropriate to the season. (Ryohei and the two younger boys had already run fifty feet before they were aware of these details.) Ever since that episode, Ryohei never again thought about taking a ride on one of the trucks, even after passing by the empty construction site on his way home from some errand. Somewhere in his mind remained a vivid image of the worker standing there in the dim light, his small, yellow straw hat askew on his head. But even that memory would fade a little with each passing year.
Ten days or so later, Ryohei was again hanging out at the construction site watching the trucks arrive. In addition to the truck that hauled dirt, a truck loaded with cross ties came up the thick tracks that were to become the main line. Both of the two men pushing it were young, and from the moment he saw them Ryohei felt an approachability about them. Thinking that they were unlikely to scold him, he ran up near the truck.
“Can I help you push?”
One of the men, this one wearing a striped shirt, gave the cheerful expression that Ryohei had hoped for as he pushed the cart with his face down,
“Sure, give it a shot.”
Ryohei fell in between them, and began pushing with all his might.
“A strong one, ain’cha?” praised the other man, this one with a hand-rolled cigarette behind his ear.
Eventually the grade began to level. Ryohei was beside himself with worry that at any time the men would tell him they didn’t need him to push any more. But the two young workers leaned into their work even more than before, continuing to push the truck silently on. Finally, unable to contain himself, Ryohei fearfully asked, “Can I push as long as I like?”
“Sure you can,” the two answered in chorus. “What nice people,” Ryohei thought.
After another five or six hundred meters the line again became a steep grade. On either side was a tangerine grove filled with yellow fruit taking in the sunshine.
“I like the uphill parts, because I know that they’ll let me keep pushing,” thought Ryohei, throwing his entire weight into the effort.
Climbing up above the tangerine groves, the track took on a steep downhill turn. The man in the striped shirt called out “Jump on!” to Ryohei, who did so immediately. Just as the three climbed on, the truck began sliding down the tracks, fanning the perfume of the tangerines. The obvious thought that riding is a lot better than pushing crossed Ryohei’s mind as he filled his overcoat with the wind. “But the more I push on the way there, the more I’ll get to ride on the way back,” he corrected himself.
The truck silently came to a halt in the middle of a bamboo thicket. The three began pushing the heavy truck as before. The thicket slowly became a forest, and in some places where the path sloped up the fallen leaves piled high enough to hide the red-rusted tracks. Coming up over the hill revealed a high cliff, giving a view of the chilly sea beyond. This caused Ryohei to suddenly realize that he had come too far.
The three of them got on the truck again. It ran under the branches of the forest with the ocean on their right. Ryohei was unable to enjoy the ride as he had before. He watched, wishing that the men would soon return home, yet of course understanding that they couldn’t until they reached their destination.
The truck next stopped in front of a teahouse backed into the rough-hewn mountainside. The two workers went inside, and drank tea while chatting with the proprietress, who had an infant strapped to her back. Ryohei was annoyed, and wandered around the truck. Splashed mud was dried on the sturdy planks that made up its chassis.
After a while the man with the cigarette behind his ear (though it was no longer there) came out, and gave some sweets wrapped in newspaper to Ryohei, who was still standing near the truck. Ryohei unfeelingly said “Thank you,” but soon regretted his callousness, thinking it rude towards the man. As if to make up for that he took one of the sweets out of the wrapping and popped it in his mouth. It smelled of petroleum from the newspaper.
The three pushed the truck up a gentle slope. Ryohei kept his hands on the truck, but his mind was elsewhere.
Climbing up and over the hill brought them to a similar teahouse. The workmen went inside, and Ryohei stayed sitting on the truck, thinking of nothing but getting back home. Sunlight from the west was fading on the blooming plum tree that stood in front of the teahouse. Realizing that the sun was about to set, Ryohei could no longer just sit idly. He tried to occupy himself by kicking the wheels of the truck and forcefully pushing it, though he knew that he couldn’t move it by himself.
When the workers came out of the teahouse, they put a hand on the load of crossties and carelessly said, “Time for you to get home, now. We’ll be lodging where we drop this off.”
“If you’re out too late, your folks’ll be worried.”
For a moment, Ryohei was stunned. All at once the realization hit him that it was about to get dark, and that the distance home was three or four times farther than when he had walked with his mother to Iwamura last year, and that he would have to walk all that way alone. Ryohei came close to tears, but knew that crying wouldn’t help him, that there was no time for it. He made a perfunctory bow to the two young men, and dashed back along the tracks.
For a time, Ryohei ran mindlessly along the tracks. Noticing that the package of candies that he had stuck in his robe was getting in the way he threw it aside, and his wooden sandals soon followed that. Doing so caused small rocks to bite at his feet through his thin tabi socks, but his feet felt much lighter. He ran up a steep hill, feeling the ocean at his left. His faced distorted as the occasional tear came to his eyes, and though he was able to hold them back his nose constantly wheezed with the effort.
When he made it as far as the vicinity of the bamboo thicket, the glow had already faded from the sunset sky above Higane Mountain. Ryohei was increasingly panicked. It made him uncomfortable that the changing direction made the scenery look different from before. His kimono was soaked through with sweat, which now bothered him, and so he threw his overcoat along the side of the road as he sprinted down it.
It was even darker by the time he made it to the tangerine field. “Please just let me live,” he thought, slipping and stumbling as he ran.
When he finally saw the construction site outside of the village it was already twilight, and Ryohei’s desire to cry grew even stronger, but though his face twisted to hold back his tears he ran on without doing so.
Entering the village, electric light spilled from the houses on either side of the road. Under those lights, he clearly saw steam from his sweat rising off of his head. The women drawing water from the well and the men returning from the fields saw him panting, and called out to ask what was wrong. He ignored them, and ran past the bright lights from the store and the barber.
Bursting through the entrance to his home, he was no longer able to hold back a wail. His howling immediately brought his parents to him, and his mother especially held him close and said something to him. Ryohei, however, writhed about, continuing to cry and snort. His voice was so loud that several of the neighborhood women collected at the dim entrance. His parents and those who came repeatedly asked him what had happened, but no matter what they said all he could do was cry on. When he looked back at that long run and the loneliness that he felt during it, he felt that even in his loudest voice he would never be able to cry enough.
When he was 26, Ryohei moved with his wife and child to Tokyo. There he now works on the second floor of a magazine publisher as an editor. Sometimes, suddenly and with no provocation whatsoever, he recalls that day. Or perhaps something does provoke it? Tired as he is with the daily chores of life, even now just as back then, a long thin path through dark thickets and over hills stretches ever outward before him.