The Black Train Never Comes Back
He stopped suddenly, lowered his head, looked down to a spot thousands of meters beneath the earth as if it were transparent and said, “I believe he won’t come anymore.” I was at a loss. I hadn’t understood. It had no relation to whatsoever we had been talking about. I had to confirm what I had heard. So I asked innocently “Who won’t come?” He raised his head, he looked into my eyes and then up to point in the horizon and said “My father…I believe he won’t be coming.”
It was the year 1915, Ottomans were fighting on many fronts; they were in need of guns, ammunitions, food, supplies, equipment of all sorts. But above them all, what they needed were soldiers to fight the war. For years in the Balkans, Tripoli, Yemen, they have lost thousands of soldiers. The army is tired, broken down, at a loss. Yet, they need soldiers to block the enemy’s cannons, cannonballs, guns and tanks. An order has been issued. In each household one of the sons will have to enlist. There is no way out. An order issued by the State must be obeyed.
The older son is unwilling; after all, he has children. The younger son Kadir—the lovely boy, his soul’s heart—he enlists, thus saving his father from a dilemma, a difficult situation he has been placed in. He enlists, entrusting his beautiful wife of a few months to her father. As he bids his goodbyes, there are few words and no tears, except for his wife Pembe. The father casts a look at his older son as if to say it was your turn, you should have been the one going. Years later, after having been caught in a web of alcohol and cards and losing all he owned, he is to say to his father: “Father dear, I know I should have been the one instead of him. Please forgive me, and love me as you love him.”
Meanwhile the war is being fought. A few months after he has joined the front, Kadir receives news that he is now a father. He answers the news with joy: “My commander has named him Kamil. I would willingly go to die if he wanted me to. My life is entrusted first to God, then to him.” The baby, who thus far had been named Mehmet, now Kamil is added to his name.
Disturbing news comes from the front daily. The enemy is advancing. Ottomans are retreating. Many lives have been lost. Many are not returning. The families are at the stations, waiting till dawn. But, the Black train they wait for only brings bad news. Every returning and wounded soldier is being interrogated by parents and family members.
Have you seen my Ahmet?
Do you know Ali, the son of Mehmet, my brave boy?
My boy, don’t just walk away! Here is water for you…Take a breath. Have you seen my sheikh Huseyin, my son at the front?
Here, please take a look at this photograph my brave son! Nizipli…Kadir [meaning Kadir of Nizip, a part of Gaziantep], son of Hasan! He is my lion! Do you know him? Have you seen him?
Do you know corporal Ökkeş, sergeant Kamil?
For the sake of God! Please tell me, isn’t there anyone who has seen or heard about my little Kamil?
Moments—when rare unions are witnessed with envy; cries and loud prayers reach the skies; tears dry up, hopes turn to pain, desperation turns into revolt! Mothers, fathers, children, sweethearts, wives: Most of all women in black, eyes weary from shedding tears. Tired and broken down, the black train takes off with a painful whistle, hope that never wavers, deadly waiting turns into wails: “The Black train is late; it may not come at all!”
Pembe is sad; Pembe is desperate. Pembe is a mother, but above all she is a woman; young, pretty, yet ill-fated, like thousands of others. Conditions are tough. There is little or no hope. They give Pembe away to a rather well-off middle-aged man. The young Kamil stays behind. This is how it has to be. He has been entrusted to their care; a consolation, the center of their souls, a yearning—scent of the ever-missing son.
The little Kamil grows up calling his grandfather “father.” The battles of Çanakkale, Arabia and the Great Offensive have been fought. The returning soldiers from the front tell the stories and the last memories of their fathers. They say, “It was a cruel war; so few of us survived. And among those who survived, so many were wounded. I was also wounded. But Kadir’s wounds were more serious. We were enslaved. As they were transporting those who could walk, I managed to escape. And I never heard from him again. Why don’t you apply to the Government? They call it blood money. Sort of compensation for the loss. I can be a witness. This poor little orphan could receive some sustenance.
The grandfather’s reply is clear and carries no shade of doubt: “My son went to war just as you did. How can I sell the blood he has shed? He trusted his son to me and I will look after him.” He goes on looking at Kamil “What’s more, how can you be sure he has fallen? Maybe, when he gets better and recovers his strength, he will show up one day!”
Days follow years; yet, on the evening of another day that his father has not yet returned, he postpones his hope to the next day. The young Kamil gets married. During WWII, he completes his military service as a sergeant in the Health Services. Yet again, those were hard days. He takes care of the wounded as if his own life was at stake. He hugs them with fatherly affection. He has also become an accomplished wrestler. No one can beat him.
Although Kamil has children, he loses the first two to epidemics. The yearning for his father ceases with the pain of losing his children. The little Kamil is now Usta Kamil, famous as a skilled craftsman. He can do all sorts of jobs. They talk about him: “If anyone can do it, Usta Kamil can.” He is practical, creative, hardworking and trustworthy. He is a man!
One Friday he is needed to repair a truck. It had broken down on the road. The job is complete. Yet, it is almost time for Friday prayer which he never misses. He must leave and come back, after prayers. The family begs, “Usta Kamil, we are in your hands…Just a few more minutes and it will be done. We have been on the road far too long. The children are tired. Please finish before you leave. Whatever the price we are ready to pay! Please don’t leave us on the road.” Of course, it isn’t the fee that matters, but those last words get to Usta Kamil. No one should be left on the road. Everyone should return home…He grabs the hammer. He hammers once, twice, and the final one…But the call to prayer mixes with the sounds of the hammer.
The hammer falls. A piece of steel like a bullet hits his head, opening a hole in his skull. Blood, bone splinters, pieces of his brain scatter. They wait hopelessly for those who have gone to Friday prayer to take him to the hospital. Although he is operated on, the doctors carry little hope. The mourning has started. Usta Kamil has been transferred to Intensive Care. They wait days for any news. As everyone mourns, only his children, who know not the gravity of his situation, open up their small hands in prayer.
Usta Kamil struggles for days. He will not give up because he must return to those who wait for him, to those who love him.
And he returns! He is going to live—only with a palm-sized dent in his head. He gains back his strength in time as well, but unfortunately, he has become rather loony!
He is back at work. Days pass by fast. Kamil gives all his energy to his work. When there’s spare time, he teaches wrestling to his sons, but he has one condition. Whichever of his sons want to get married must first beat him at wrestling. The older sons whose names are Cabbar, Kadir and Ali can only get married after having beat him at wrestling. When his youngest son reaches adulthood, Usta Kamil is already 70 years of age.
One day while working in the garden, he can’t help himself and says, “Come on, Son! Let’s wrestle.” There is no one around. The noon sun is shining bright! They undress, waist up. The wrestling soon starts. The old wrestler soon has the young boy under him. He is filled with joy! He can still beat a young boy with just a simple trick. They wrestle again. The young boy has realized his mistake. He has underestimated the old man. With a worthwhile struggle, this time he wins. The old man is infuriated. He says “Come on, once again!”
They wrestle yet again. He outmaneuvers the old wolf. They are both covered in dirt. The mixture of sweat and dirt has turned into mud. Eyes burning, chests moving up and down…There will only be one winner of this maybe last wrestle. The great wrestler is tiring; his movements have slowed; his blows getting weaker and weaker. Yet, he will not give up the fight! The young man cannot bring himself to deliver the last blow to the man who has given his all to the fight. The winner is obvious and soon the old man gives up. Out of breath, he says “Difficult ruins the game” and adds “I have tried all the tricks I have learned, yet I did not have the strength to beat you, Son!”
They wash up with the water flowing in the water bed. They rest awhile. They sit under the shadow of a fig tree to shelter themselves from the July sun. While drinking water, he holds his son’s hand, extended for a third glass of water, and he kisses it. One can see the affection and pride in his eyes as he says “you have to kiss the hand you can’t bend.”
Then he lowered his head, looked down to a spot thousands of meters beneath the earth as if it were transparent, and said: “I believe he won’t come anymore.” I was at a loss. I hadn’t understood. It had no relation to whatever we had been talking about. I had to confirm what I had heard. So I asked innocently, “Who won’t come?” He raised his head; he looked into my eyes and then pointed up to the horizon and spoke the words that still affect me still today:
“My father…” he said. “Most probably, he won’t come any more. He died. He has fallen…”
“Your father won’t come? Your father? How was he to come, I mean 70 years ago…!”
“I have waited for years that he will come one day. Call me his son, cuddle me, hug me. I said he would buy me toys, new clothes…take me on outings…How was I to know. I said maybe his wounds have healed; he has gone from one front to another, he could have been a slave…lost…it could have happened. Then, maybe he got married and had children who won’t let him leave. I said maybe he would remember one day that he had a son and that he would go and see him. Even if he is a man older and more aged than I am, he is still my father. If only I could have hugged him once.” The old man was crying with tears running down his cheeks.
“Do you know this hope, Son? It never ends; even on the darkest night, it lights you up like a candle. You never want it to end. When you feel it is all over, a voice tells you to hold on, you have to hold on! And most important of all, if the day before, you had a faint hope, why should you not have that hope today? After all, what has changed from yesterday to today? Hope never runs out; you just learn to live without it…that’s all. He won’t be coming. He is dead. He has fallen!”
From that day on, my father aged fast. Maybe he forgot his father, but dealing with that feeling was his inheritance to me.
Even while praying during his burial, under the trees he had planted, I wasn’t this filled up with feelings! It seems there is a time for everything….
At this moment I know you can hear me and wipe away my tears with your callused hands, Father. Want you to know, your youngest son Akkezen never forgot you!
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