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from the December 2018 issue

From Rainbow Bird

Rainbow Bird tells the story of Katsuya, a young Okinawan man longing to escape his life in the criminal underworld of the island where he grew up. Set in 1995 shortly after three U.S. servicemen stationed in Okinawa kidnapped and raped a twelve-year-old girl, the story unfolds against a backdrop of protests and mass demonstrations. Katsuya’s job is to force women to prostitute themselves while he photographs the transaction, then blackmails the clients. When his newest girl, Mayu, begins viciously attacking the men she is set up with, Katsuya senses that his world is becoming unstable. Weighing sympathy for Mayu against self-preservation, he faces a choice: tell his violent boss about the attacks or cover them up. As he tries to figure out what to do, the story reaches back into his past, revealing a dark history of dangerous school gangs and desperate legends about a rainbow bird in the jungle that holds the power of life and death. This excerpt comes late in the story, as Mayu is starting to fall apart and Katsuya is having a harder and harder time dodging his boss.

Katsuya got a bottle of water from the fridge and went back to his room. He grabbed the whiskey off the shelf and pulled at it, drank some water, then more whiskey. Opened the desk drawer and took out the sheet of pills, tearing the silver foil and spilling two into his palm. He crushed them between his teeth, washed them down with a swig, then inserted the rental video into the machine. Sinking into the bed, he fast-forwarded through the previews until the film started.

It was an older movie. A meteorite crashes to the ground, deep in a forest in the Soviet hinterlands. A team is sent in to investigate. The force of impact has flattened the trees for miles around, and once the five members of the team enter the surreal landscape they are all overcome by the same hallucination.

A condensed history of all the conflict and slaughter that has unfolded since the dawn of life on earth. The members of the team join the endless battles, becoming warriors from different times and places, becoming life-forms other than human. A war fought with spears and axes hundreds of years ago, a hunt for great beasts thousands of years in the past, a million-year-old animal struggle for survival. The setting lurches from age to age and land to land, space is warped, the colors grow too vivid and shapes begin to blur, until form and color collapse and reform and the world appears as though through the eyes of some new creature.

Katsuya wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was the movie image of the investigative team’s hallucination or his own drug-induced vision. His body was heavy and slack. He might even have been dreaming.

Sound and color shudder and bleed as the vision flows onward, human against human, humans against other organisms, mammals and birds, fish and insects and plants, all killing each other, then breeding, then killing again. The great toppled trees snap back upright, the frigid climate turns tropical, and amid the strangling heat and damp of the forest, thousands of battles, millions. Reptiles and invertebrates and vegetation locked in endless cycles of combat, then the scene shifts and the struggles of ancient life-forms unfold in the sea and sky. Grotesque fish and squid and ichthyosaurs tear at each other's flesh as they swim through water black with blood, gargantuan birds swoop down from a dizzyingly multihued sky to slash with beak and talon at giant jellyfish that glow like clouds of fireflies.

In the end the hallucinating members of the investigative team kill each other, their fallen bodies left to be devoured by animals and insects and bacteria. The last surviving member takes his own life. A flock of birds peck at his corpse before winging off between the dark clouds and toppled trees. After a long while they reach the edge of the forest and a city bristling with high-rises comes into view. The birds fly away beyond the rooftops, but one little sky-blue bird breaks from the flock and flutters down between the buildings to a park, toward a stroller. It lands on the outstretched finger of a cooing baby. The camera zooms in on the bird’s head, and in the depths of its jet-black eye appears a forest. The baby is there, standing against a tree, only now it’s grown up, and naked. A hand hanging at its side, clutching a knife covered with blood.

The mother’s voice calls out and the screen fills with the baby’s innocent face. The bird hops over to the mother’s open hand, and she exclaims with delight while her baby burbles happily. The little sky-blue bird hops now to the hood of the carriage and begins to sing sweetly. Its head is cocked as it sings, then for an instant it seems to flash an insinuating smile. The mother pushes the stroller through the park under the vivid red maple leaves, headed back to her apartment, walking away from the camera as the film ends.

Even after the credits stopped rolling and the blue government warning turned into a blizzard of static, Katsuya kept staring at the screen, a vague grin on his face. His body was dead, but his eyes were alive, transmitting images to his brain. The baby from the movie is crawling across the floor toward him. He tries to escape but he can’t move, can’t even scream. Somehow he manages to shut his eyes. He feels the pressure of the baby’s hands and knees on his thighs, he does everything he can to ignore it—and then he hears the click and whirr of the videotape auto-rewinding. The weight of the baby disappears. The images flicker up from the depths of his mind but never quite take form, instead being sucked back down into the darkness as sleep spreads out from behind his eyes.

From Rainbow Bird © Shun Medoruma. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Sam Malissa. All rights reserved.

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