The Most Precious of Cargoes

Jean-Claude Grumberg | 4 mins



Once upon a time, in a great forest, there lived a poor woodcutter and the poor woodcutter’s wife.

No, no, no, fear not, this isn’t Hop o’ My Thumb. Far from it. Like you, I hate that mawkish fairy tale. Who ever heard of parents abandoning their children simply because they could no longer feed them . . .? It’s absurd.

And in this great forest there reigned a great hunger and a great cold. Especially in winter. In summer, a sweltering heat beat down on the forest and drove out the great cold. The hunger, on the other hand, was constant, especially during those days when, all around the forest, the World War raged.

Yes, yes, yes, the World War.

The poor woodcutter had been conscripted to carry out public works – to the sole benefit of the conquering army that occupied the towns, the villages, the fields and the forests – and so it was that, from sunup to sundown, the poor woodcutter’s wife trudged through the woodland in the oft-disappointed hope of providing for her humble family.

Fortunately – for it is an ill wind that blows no one any good – the poor woodcutter and his wife had no children to feed.

Every day, the woodcutter thanked heaven for this blessing. The woodcutter’s wife, for her part, lamented it in secret.

True, she had no child to feed, but nor had she a child to love.

And so she prayed to heaven, to the gods, the wind, the rain, the trees, to the sun itself when its rays pierced the dense foliage and flooded her little glade with a magical glow. She implored the powers of heaven and earth to finally grant her the blessing of a child.

Little by little, as the years passed, she realized that all the powers, of heaven, of earth and of magic, were conspiring with her husband to deny her a child.

And so, she prayed that there might at least be an end to the hunger and the cold that tormented her from sunup to sundown, by night as by day.

The poor woodcutter rose before the dawn so he could devote all his time and energy to the construction of military buildings for the public – and the private – good.

Come wind, come rain, come snow, and even in the stifling heat I mentioned earlier, the poor woodcutter’s wife roamed the forest, gathering every twig, every sliver of dead wood, stacking and hoarding it like some treasure once lost and now found again. She would also collect the few traps that her woodcutter husband set every morning on his way to work.

The poor woodcutter’s wife, as you can imagine, had little leisure time. She wandered the forest paths, hunger gnawing at her belly, her mind reeling with yearnings she could no longer find words to express. She merely beseeched heaven that, if only for a single day, she might eat her fill.

The woods, her woods, her forest, stretched into the distance, lush and leafy, as indifferent to cold as to hunger, but, at the outbreak of this World War, forced labourers with powerful machines had slashed her forest from end to end and, in the gaping wound, had laid a railway line so that now, winter and summer, a train, a single train, came and went along this single track.

The poor woodcutter’s wife liked to it watch pass, this train, her train. She watched expectantly, imagining that she too might travel, might tear herself away from this hunger, this cold, this loneliness.

Little by little, she came to organize her life, her daily routine, around the passing of this train. It was not a train of pleasing aspect. Crude timber wagons, each fitted with a single barred window. But since the poor woodcutter’s wife had never seen a train, this one suited her fine, particularly given that, in answer to her questions, her husband had scathingly dismissed it as a cargo train.

‘Cargo’ – the very word warmed the heart and sparked the imagination of the poor woodcutter’s wife.

Cargo! A cargo train . . . She pictured wagons filled with food, with clothes, with fantastical objects, she imagined wandering through the train, helping herself, sating her hunger.

Little by little, excitement gave way to hope. One day, perhaps one day, tomorrow, the day after, it hardly mattered when, the train would take pity on her in her hunger and, as it passed, bless her with some of its precious cargo.

She soon grew bolder, and would go as close to the train as she dared, calling out, flailing her arms, pleading at the top of her voice or, if she was too far away to reach it in time, she would simply wave.

From time to time, a hand would appear at one of the windows and wave back. And from time to time one of those hands would throw something to her and she would rush to pick it up, giving thanks to the train and the hand.

Most of the time, it was nothing more than a crumpled scrap of paper which she would carefully, reverently, smooth out and then fold again and place next to her heart. Was it the sign of some gift to come?

Long after the train had passed, when night was gathering, when hunger was nagging, when cold was biting harder, she would feel a pang in her heart and would once more unfold the paper and, with pious reverence, gaze upon the illegible, indecipherable markings. She did not know how to read or write in any language. Her husband, for his part, knew a little, but she did not want to share with him or with anyone what the train had entrusted to her.