A Cluster of Cactus Wrens —

A New Short Story by Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi

A Cluster of Cactus Wrens —


According to the recorded history of retired minister and amateur meteorologist Yoshikane Araki, the hottest day inside the Gila River camp occurred in August of 1944, when an outdoor thermometer he’d constructed from wood, glass, alcohol and acetic acid hovered at 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was the same afternoon Ginger Koyamatsu, the teenage pageant winner of Gardena, California, took three steps outside her family’s barrack, heard a popping sound from above, and, as she raised a hand to gather her hair, her sleek victory rolls shot sparks and went tumbling over her shoulders in crests of red-black fire.

Kazuo Taka, Gila’s resident winemaker, whose shelves groaned beneath immense condiment vats, vats that’d been scrubbed and swaddled in aluminum in order to manage the fermentation of crushed grapes, raisins and honey water, was pressing and hanging his shirts when he caught sight of a red mist rising, and then a terrible wail as the vats gurgled and erupted, black wine spurting over him, scalding his outstretched hands and imprinting all his clothes with unfiltered grit, pulp, seed, and stem.

Yuriko Morri was delivering a loose tower of the Gila News-Courier to her neighborhood block when the top issues ignited. To save herself, she was forced to fling them into the sky. Passersby who witnessed the event swore it was not a stack of hovering newspapers at all that were burning, but a cluster of Arizona cactus wrens, whose wings looked as though they had clipped the sun, and were being incinerated in a mournful flash of eye stripes, a flurry of ashen wings.

In August of 1944, the Butte and Canal infirmaries encountered so many instances of burning hair and epidermal tissue, scorched clothing, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, unremitting sweating, fainting, and fever, that calls were placed to local laboratories and universities to inquire whether or not Arizona citizens spontaneously catching fire was a regular occurrence.

A reply to Butte infirmary’s query was printed in a late-August issue of the Courier.

Because a person of Japanese decent, or any persons resembling a person of Japanese decent, is not equipped with the complexion to contend with a sustained period of harsh desert sunlight, it is not uncommon to witness the spontaneous combustion of those persons’ skin, hair, jewelry, attire, or personal belongings. Similar cases have been documented in New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Our principal recommendation, based on observation, is for Gila River residents of Japanese decent or predilection to dig trenches beneath their raised barracks, and wait out the hottest portions of the day in the cooling shade of those trenches.

This announcement caused something of a stir, and within days, half of Butte camp, about 3,000 internees, had moved the contents of their living rooms into dusty burrows below.

In September at a Butte community gathering, Yoshikane Araki took the stage and announced he’d been gathering his own research. He proclaimed that in order to survive, residents in the hottest neighborhoods of Butte should submerge their shirts and pants in apple cider vinegar.

– And when the weather becomes more extreme, he said, you will need to fill your socks with crushed garlic and egg whites before slipping them on.

And though most of the internees at Butte considered Yoshikane Araki to be something of an elderly crackpot, his announcement caused an immediate shortage and tight rationing of chicken eggs in Gila River. In October, Tetsuo Aratani, a member of Butte’s unarmed camp police, was found tied up and unconscious at the entrance of a mess hall pantry. All of the eggs and garlic had been spirited away, and for weeks the air surrounding Butte camp stung in everyone’s noses like sulfur.

Dedicated to the writer and educator Aaron Fai.

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