The doctor told Kane Araki that it happened sometimes, in extreme circumstances of weather or diet, a Japanese man or woman might spontaneously sprout a set of wings. He had heard of three or four cases from his colleagues in Japan. A woman from west Osaka had saved her village from drought when she’d seeded the clouds, by hand, with silver iodide and pellets of dry carbon dioxide. A man from Kumamoto, that had eaten nothing but sweet potatoes for five years, awoke with wings and began supplementing his diet with tall-hanging fruit and birds’ eggs. Research was being gathered, but what with the war, frivolous projects like these were shelved for greater concerns. The doctor was unsure what could have triggered such a large, severe pair of wings amidst Arizona desert. An allergic reaction? Had Kane been eating a lot of peanuts lately? Too many uncooked radishes?
In any case the doctor told Kane not to worry. He would contact a surgeon the next day and arrange to have the wings removed sometime in the following months. It would be costly to fly an anesthesiologist to camp during wartime. But reserve funding existed precisely for these types of situations. In the meantime it was important for Kane to push hot clear fluids. To pick his plumes clean of burs and mites. And to take an aspirin at night to amend any discomfort. The doctor handed Kane a tiny glass bottle of tablets and gave his wings a little pat.
Although they were mostly an inconvenience, Kane found his new appendages did afford him a unique opportunity. Because his feathers were a raven’s black, flight after dusk was nearly undetectable. When the wind favored him he was over the fence and into the nearest Chinatown in under an hour. There he could walk freely through the streets, in restaurants, in shops. He was guarded from police that couldn’t comprehend the differences between their local foul chicken-coop Chinamen and the sinister yellow-menace Japs being battled abroad. On the one occasion he’d been stopped by a policeman for jaywalking, he eluded capture by asserting a disoriented Chinese gibberish. In Chinatown he could buy whiskey and cigarettes to share back at camp. Kane, who had never garnered much consideration, was everyday meeting new friends that stuffed bills and whiskey orders into his shirt pockets. Pretty girls that had previously ignored him showered him with pity. Some stroked his ugly wings tenderly and promised to knit them a decorative covering.
In a matter of weeks Kane was hauling fifteen or twenty liters of whiskey over the barbed wire each night. The bottles were padded by newspaper and tied into a burlap sack that he slung like an unconscious companion across his shoulders. The generous blackness of their desert nights was a blessing since he was diving in lower, wearier each trip. Parties could now resume on the inside. Actual parties with whiskey punch and couples becoming mated over dreamy, affectionate dancing. In no time Kane found himself engaged to a lovely girl called Margaret Morri, and plans were quickly drawn for acquiring her a wedding dress.
Kane was content to pay for an expensive dress. He’d come into plenty of money performing whiskey and cigarette exchanges. It now appeared his savings had found their purpose. An old Sears catalog was discovered, and Margaret devoted her afternoons to preening Kane’s wings while their eyes moved over its pages. Eventually Margaret settled on a dress that was priced at just over a hundred dollars. The snipped photograph along with her measurements were delivered to a local dressmaker who promised he could have the dress ready in ten days.
The conflict arose when a watchtower guard, a man by the name of Wilbur, paid a visit to Kane at his family’s barrack just days before he was to retrieve Margaret’s dress. The camp guards were no dummies, Wilbur told Kane. They’d known all along whiskey was finding its way into camp. A popular guy like Kaneshiro Araki — a popular guy that had found himself with a slick pair of flyers — was obviously going to head their list of suspects.
Still the guards didn’t have any desire to be hard-asses about it. No need to punish anyone retroactively. Among these circumstances who could blame them? Wilbur would’ve done the same if it’d been his own kind. But while a bottle every so often was clean, American fun — twenty or thirty liters of whiskey each night, at a profit, was called bootlegging. A report could make Wilbur and some of his fellow officers look like fools. And he wasn’t going to be made a fool before a Jap or two got his knuckles rapped upon. Wilbur said he’d cut a deal. He’d been informed Kane’s surgery was schedule for the following month. As long as he kept those wings tied up until then, he didn’t see a further need for investigations.
Kane didn’t have reason to disrespect the guard’s warning. It’d been civil for Wilbur to approach him the way he did. So he announced that the flight to retrieve Margaret’s wedding dress would be his last. He was tired anyhow of buying everyone’s liquor while taking all the risk. Relatives, friends of his parents, neighbors pressed him to reconsider. Think about your wedding, they said. Don’t you want champagne and whiskey for your wedding party? Remember all of the money you’re making. A man that is starting a family must be pretty arrogant not to have to consider it. But Kane remained unwavering in his decision.
People shook their heads as they handed him their final orders. Demands poured in. Most everyone asked for twice the usual amount. Kane figured he would have to carry everything in three, maybe four sacks. Two could be tied to his back. One cradled to his chest. And another he’d have to hold in his hands. The thought of this labor made him thankful it would be his final excursion.
There are several versions of what happened to Kane as he returned that last evening. One version says the bag holding Margaret’s dress tore from the weight of too many whiskey bottles. And when the guards caught sight of the ghostly fabric hovering over the fence they fired upon it. In another version Kane attempted to maneuver in over the fence too low. And as he did the sacks caught and split against the barbs. Their cargo rattled the metal wires and alerted the guards who fired upon him. But in the most popular version of the story, Wilbur demanded Kane’s wings be painted white. And though he’d piloted his way out from camp disguised under a black cloak, there was a divine wind that disrobed him upon his return. That was when Wilbur and the other guards saw and fired.
Kane Araki wasn’t killed that night however. He suffered wounds to his hands, shoulders, groin, knees, calves. An emergency operation was performed that resulted in the removal of his wings. He awoke nine days later to find his right arm had also been amputated. After the war Kane returned to California. It was there he heard that Margaret had become engaged to someone else. Someone called Shimmy or Jack or Lawson.
Kiik A.K. is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Santa Clara University. He earned an MA from UC Davis where his poetics thesis was titled “THE JOY OF HUMAN SACRIFICE.” He is a current graduate student of creative writing at UC San Diego. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in iO, Scythe, Washington Square, Alice Blue Review, The Brooklyner and CutBank. The story “whiskey over barbed wire” was written for the poet and novelist, Stephen-Paul Martin.