Daily Archives: 16 October 2004

Take Anything But My Ox!

NEAR SUNDOWN, interpreter Nakahashi was wandering around a village looking for a horse some artillerymen had asked him to requisition. There were no more than five or six hundred houses in the village and, it became clear after twenty minutes of walking, not a single horse. The horse that had been pulling the cannon had fallen into a creek and broken its leg, creating a difficulty for tomorrow’s advance. The artillerymen gave up on finding a horse and instead suggested getting an ox.

“If it’s an ox you want, I see no problem. A water buffalo! You don’t mind, do you? Off the horse and onto the buffalo!” said Nakahashi, laughing. Still only nineteen, he had volunteered to be an interpreter as soon as the war had started but was rejected as too young. He quickly filed a petition and was allowed to accompany the army. Although high-spirited, he did not yet seem physically strong.

A water buffalo stood tethered in a shed by a farmhouse at the edge of the village. Deciding to take it and go, the interpreter looked in at the rear of the house. A wrinkled old woman was silently bending in front of the oven, kindling the fire.

“Hello, granny,” called Nakahashi from the doorway. “We’re Japanese soldiers and we need your ox. Terribly sorry, but we’ll just take it and go.”

The old woman shrieked in violent opposition. “Don’t talk rubbish!” she screamed. “We finally bought that ox just last month, and how are we to farm without it?!” Furiously waving her arms, she rushed out of the earth-floored house only to see that three soldiers had already pulled the ox out of the stable and were discussing its uncertain merits, concluding it might be of use. In a breathtaking display of hysterical rage, the crone shoved the man holding the rein and sent him staggering, then planted herself in front of the ox and screeched at the top of her voice.

Hesitant to intervene, the soldiers looked on with wry smiles at the vehement exchange between Nakahashi and the old woman.

Suddenly interpreter Nakahashi erupted with peals of laughter.

“This granny is outrageous! The ox is out of the question, she says. She’s got two sons and she doesn’t mind if we take them and put them to work, but not the ox!”

Standing around the placid water buffalo and the woman, whose temples throbbed with indignation, the soldiers burst into loud laughter.

“Maybe we should get her sons to crawl on all fours and haul the cannon!”

But by now the sun had begun to set. The area was still dangerous after dark. The men resolved to take the animal.

“Move!” A soldier thrust the old woman aside and took hold of the rein. “Keep still or you’re dead!”

Wailing and screaming, spittle flying, the woman resisted all the more tenaciously. “The bitch!” Clicking his tongue, the interpreter grabbed her from behind by the nape and knocked her down with all his might. The woman tumbled backward and collapsed into a rice field by the side of the road. A shower of mud washed over the soldiers.

Nakahashi laughed and started to walk off. “You may keep your life but not the ox. We’ll send him back to you when the war is over.”

The ox began to plod along the crumbling, dusty road. The soldiers felt elated. This continent teemed with boundless riches; one merely had to take them. A vista was opening up before them in which the inhabitants’ rights of ownership and private property were like wild fruits for the soldiers to pick as they chose.

The water buffalo exacted its revenge, however. At departure time the next morning when all preparations had been completed and the order to start was being awaited, the ox lumbered off straight into a rice paddy, dragging the gun carriage with it. Forced to heave the cannon out by themselves, the soldiers became coated with muck from head to foot.

SOURCE: Soldiers Alive [Ikite iru heitai, 1938], by Ishikawa Tatsuzo, translated by Zeljko Cipris (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2003), pp. 78-80

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