Winner of the 2021 Breakwater Fiction Contest
I was haunted by "Dog Bait" for weeks after I first read it. This story operates so well on so many levels—it tells a tale that is sadly all too ignored and erased in American history: the mistreatment of Japanese Americans on all tiers of society. Here we get a haunting glimpse at the stakes in the military. But the sociopolitical is not the only level at which this story excels: it is simply stunningly written. It does not shy away from the grotesque, the unspeakably dark and inhumane. I don't think I will ever think of a dog bark the same—it's as if the echoes in this story have bled into my real life. It's rare to find a story after which you are never the same, but "Dog Bait" does this with its combination of brutal honesty, profound heart and soul, and mesmerizing skill. There is a universal pain at the core of this that I have rarely ever seen articulated with such power.
He wondered if the dogs could really smell the Jap in him. At least that’s what the Army had said. That’s why he was here, hanging from a tree, on a forgotten island off the Mississippi coast. “Top secret,” his commanding officer had told him, “don’t bother writing letters, don’t bother saying goodbye, don’t say nothin’ to nobody.”
The young private hoped the dog would find him soon. Winedark blotches soaked the dangling shreds of his canvas trousers, and below the smooth loop of his calf, nylon sutures stretched holes into his skin. The wound, now purple and puffed, was notched day before last by a Doberman with cold obsidian eyes. At the sound of a whistle, the private had clumsily scrambled through brakes of low brush and swamp oak, a squall of frenzied growls rolling through the trees without warning or form. Out of the humid gloom, the Doberman had rushed and bowled the private’s ankles, dragging him by the leg into the warm shallows of a salt marsh.
In-between frantic commands from a faraway trainer, the dog had pulled him deeper into the bog, its knobby hocks churning the brack into a fine silken spume. As the dog jerked and strained, its eyelids retracted into the recesses of its boxy skull, exposing, for a moment, a strange and unnatural fire burning bright beneath the glassy black. A psychopathy, warped and flickering. A rage. Something blind and hateful of all that was alive, wrathful against all that was living.
As the young private readjusted his hold on the branch, a slender silhouette parted a balding thicket of sweetspire. The private braced himself for the familiar agony along his thigh and shin, but oddly, felt no pain.
There was no barking. No snarls. He loosened his hold around the branch and searched the feathered swatches of seaoat. A German Shepard sat patiently among the tree’s tangled roots, her brass nametag stealing crumbs of fire from a low delta sun.
“You gonna just sit there?” asked the private.
The dog pulled the corners of her mouth into a funny smile and cheerfully panted her flamingo-pink tongue.
The private fumbled for the pistol he had been given before the hunt and shot up into the dusky canopy. The dog, startled, peaked her ears and darted back into the undergrowth.
“Sorry,” said the private, soft and slow, “I’m supposed to signal when you find me.”
After the bullet’s report died amid the rattle of leaves, the dog returned from under a fallen bough of slashpine and languidly reclined in the length of his shadow.
“You over here Nobu?” A broad-shouldered sergeant trudged through the brush with a leash in hand.
“Here,” said the private.
“Socks found you?”
“She didn’t attack?”
“No sir. Just been sitting there.”
“Shit.” The sergeant shook his head and spit a jet of brown tobacco juice into the duff.
“Alright, come on down here and let’s see if she goes.” He stooped and curled his thick fingers around the dog’s collar.
Private Nobu unhooked his feet and swung down onto the sandy bank. A breeze off the gulf roused the stink of sulfur, and everywhere sandfleas hovered in a loose black mist.
“You blood up?”
“Do it again.” The sergeant reached into a sagging cargo pocket and furnished a rag soaked in horse blood. He tossed it to the private. “Wash up proper now, behind the ears and neck like.”
Private Nobu rubbed the rag across his throat and along his nape. He pitched the cloth back to the sergeant and plucked away the gummy strands of sinew from under his chin.
“Okay, steady up. And gimme that gun so you don’t shoot your dumb dick off.” Nobu handed over the weapon.
The sergeant relaxed his grip and yelled, “Attack!”
Socks remained seated, her tail mussing the fallen leaves into equal piles. Her bright eyes followed the arcs of a nuthatch bounding from sprig to branch.
“Attack goddamnyou!” the sergeant yelled again, leveling a hairy finger in Nobu’s direction, “Get him! Attack! Kill!”
The dog lazily stretched her long neck and yawned.
The sergeant stood and stared at the dog. He discharged another brown stream in Socks’ direction. “Say something in Japanese, Private.”
“I don’t speak Japanese, sir.”
“Just yell something at her. You gotta know some words.” The sergeant kept his eyes on the dog and hurriedly snapped his fingers. “Give me a word private.” “Sir, I—”
“Say something Japanese goddamnit!”
“B-b-b-b-enjo!” Nobu yelled, “Benjo!”
“Say it mean!”
Nobu stood on his tiptoes and wrenched his blistered hands into claws.
“Benjo! Benjo! Benjo!”
“Move more. Jump or something.”
Socks cocked her head and looked curiously at the young soldier as he awkwardly hopped from one foot to another.
The sergeant spit again, letting the raveled nest of tobacco fall from his lips to the sandy ground. “Shit. This dog isn’t ready yet.”
The sergeant twisted the leash between clenched fists. “Let’s walk her in and re-train.”
At the small bivouac along the shoreline, a few bandaged Nisei soldiers lounged on benches next to a makeshift floating-dock. Some of the dogs were being led back, single file, into the concrete maze of their musty kennels.
Private Nobu staggered over to an empty bench and peeled the catcher’s pads from his chest. A medic with red hair and freckles shuffled over with a small tin box. He propped the private’s leg atop his knee and rolled back the tattered pantleg. He clicked his tongue and prodded the gash with chilly fingers, gently tracing its edges. “Ripped ‘em right through,” the medic remarked without emotion, “clean through.” He offered Nobu a damp cigarette from a crumbled pack in his shirt pocket.
Nobu accepted the cigarette and borrowed the flame from the medic’s lighter. He took a small drag and let the rest of the tobacco burn down between his fingers. The cigarette tasted like the man’s sweat.
“It’s infected.” The medic searched through his kit. “It’s infected bad. You could be in some real trouble here.” Out of a loose pile of gauze and surgical needles, the medic produced a small silver tube. He squeezed a clear solution on the wound and gingerly painted it across the flaps of skin with the end of his pinky.
The medic set to wrapping the leg in clean bandages. “It find you?” he asked.
A pimpled Nisei with a thin boyish mustache tumbled out of the surrounding trees holding a bloodied arm. He called for the medic. A chubby sergeant smoking a cigar followed behind, methodically stomping his boots through the ribs of a felled yaupon. Behind the pair, a sleek gray Pitbull was being tugged along by a muzzle leash. “I’m going to leave you the tube,” said the medic. He stood and tidied the items in his kit. “Three times a day. Directly on the wound.” He pointed to the swaddled limb. “Three times a day or risk losing the leg.”
Nobu nodded and flicked the nub of crumbling ash towards the water. Under long slashes of puckered cirrus, the bay was gold and still. A selvage of cordgrass along the shoreline cast lonesome shadows over the lapping wash, each stretching like broken fingers towards the darkening east.
His mother had had a dog back in Hawaii. A shaggy auburn mutt with mangled ears that had followed her home from the market one rainy evening. She never gave it a name, but cared for the mongrel, always leaving a scrap plate on the porch for it after breakfast and dinner. She built it a house in the yard out of driftwood and chicken wire. She sang Japanese folk songs in peasant slang while it loyally followed her around the laundry line. In the last letter from his sister before they were interned, Billy learned his mother had tried to give the dog away. She had bathed it, clipped its nails, brushed its hair. She had snipped the stray translucent whiskers from under its muzzle and flew. She had tied her best red satin bow around its neck and went from door to door, begging the neighbors for its care, but was refused by all. Before the family was shipped to Honouliuli, his sister wrote, their mother returned the nameless dog to the garbage cans outside the market with a gunny sack full of soup bones and quality bologna.
“Boat is going back to barracks in fifteen minutes! Fifteen!” called an officer. Private Nobu stiffly shuffled on his bandaged leg over to the dock where the rest of the Nisei were sitting around in yellowed tank-tops smoking cigarettes.
“Hold on private.” A heavy hand jostled Nobu’s shoulder and pulled him about-face. “You gotta re-train that dog before you leave.” The sergeant shoved a braided whip into Nobu’s hand and jutted his chin to where Socks was chained to a rusted stob in the fenceline.
Nobu took the whip and limped over to where Socks was dosing in the shade of a nearby palm. As he approached, the dog idly sniffed the air and opened her tawny eyes, leisurely stretching and shivering before sitting straight-backed and at attention.
Nobu tightened his grip around the woven leather handle and slowly raised the whip aloft.
Socks ran her tongue across her glistening charcoal nose before withdrawing it back into a panting, careless, smile.
“Nobu,” the sergeant commanded, “hit the bitch.”
The private started to lower the whip, his arm empty and lifeless.
“Hit that fucking dog, Nobu!”
Private Nobu closed his eyes and brought the whip down hard on the dog’s back. Socks whelped, first in pain, and again in confusion. She tried to run, but the leash yanked her back, jerking her off her feet.
“Again!” roared the sergeant.
The private raised his hand and lashed the dog across the face. A small trickle of blood ran from the blaze down the side of her snout, each delicate drop stiffening into grainy cakes across the sand. Socks pushed-in hard against the fence, her brownblack pelage shuddering between the quilted chainlink squares.
“Go on. Another.”
Eyes shut, Nobu flicked his wrist again, and again, and again, letting the leather whistle through the air before it crashed with a muted, fleshy thud. Socks began to bleed worse from the slash, barking and howling between each strike. She desperately wagged her head from side to side, pleading for help from onlookers with retched squeals. The other Nisei sitting at the table looked on, benumbed and weary, quietly playing a card or striking a match.
“Go again Nobu. She hasn’t got it.”
Private Nobu raised his hand. He knew this dog could not smell Japan in his blood— knew this suffering would be for nothing. He opened his eyes and took aim at the shivering mass through a salty tear’s prism, but let his arm fall to the side. His work was finished.
The blood in Socks’ mouth was now spun with a pallid saliva. She barked uncontrollably, savagely, dragging each angry yowl between wet amber fangs. She lunged at the private, bowing the fence as she pulled, choking herself with her collar. She coughed and snorted with each heave, her eyes familiar and aflame like wind-fed coals.
Nobu handed back the whip.
“Good,” said the sergeant, half-laughing, “she’ll be sure to get you tomorrow.”
Nobu staggered across the sand to the small ferry that would take him to his bunk. The once brilliant golds on the gulf had dulled into a sallow wash, and overhead ribbons of clouds molted orange and red against the coming night. He limped across the bobbing gang plank and collapsed onto a heap of dank rope and lifejackets, the rest of the Nisei filing aboard soon after. As the motor sputtered and the ferry pushed away from the island, Private Nobu noticed fresh spots of blood on his bandage.
They were not his own.
Stray notes from an ill-tuned ukulele rang through the dark heat of the Nisei barracks, making the crowded rows of bunks all the more lonely. Drowsy laughs crackled from a shadowed corner of the room, each spawned and snuffed by slap of playing cards.
Private Nobu lay on his belly, positioning a letter to his sister in the thin slant of moonlight that fell through the window. He was careful not to use the word “internment” or “concentration,” as she had not, and decided to just use “camp” instead. He scratched a few lines of a routine greeting, but knew he would have nothing to say. Not tonight. He tucked the pencil and paper under his mattress and searched amongst his things for a stray cigarette.
“You want one?” offered a corporal in the bunk to his left.
Nobu took the cigarette. He flicked open his zippo and sucked the smoke to life, letting the threads of vapor float and coil against the Nissen Hut’s curved skull.
“Who’s the letter for?” asked the corporal.
“Not that Haole girl from Camp McCoy?”
“She was pretty.”
“She was nice. Didn’t even care you were Japanese.”
“Didn’t seem to.”
“Why don’t you write her then?”
“Her brother what?”
“Her brother’s heading out for the Philippines with his unit.”
The corporal laughed. “Damn. Tough break.” He turned onto his back and crossed his bony heels. “He’ll be a bonafide Jap killer by the end of the month.” A spray of scabbed punctures peppered his hairless thighs and knees. He was silent for a time and leisurely finished his cigarette before lighting another. He held out the pack to Nobu.
The private took another and lit it.
Nobu ignored the corporal and pushed his head against his pillow. The poker game on the other side of the barracks erupted suddenly into claps and curses. He waited until the corporal spoke again.
“You believe in all this shit?”
“About the dogs?”
“What about them?”
“That they can smell us. Smell our being Japanese an all that. That there’s something in our sweat or skin or blood.”
Nobu let the words ripen, unanswered, and blew smoke out of his nostrils. He gave the corporal a “guess so” and watched the orange cigarette tip blush and hover above his nose like a crippled firefly.
Nobu pushed the end of the cigarette against a corner of the iron bedpost. He laid back and waited the long early hours until the poker game ended and the men had fallen asleep. Barefoot, he stood from his bunk and crept across the splintered floor. He unbolted the door and stepped out in the wide blue Mississippi night. Overhead, blinking shades of burnished copper, the stars swarming as though all of Gulfport was burning down to cinders. Through a grove of cottonwoods and scrub pine, he followed a sandy footpath to the shore, the trembling needles above cutting jagged pearls out of a waning southern moon. The gulf sparkled wildly. Nobu walked to the water’s edge and let the lambent tide swallow his feet. He walked with slow steps into the surf, each stride sinking into the warm silt cake plating the ocean’s floor. He walked and let the wash thrum against his chest and heart, let the salt bite his throbbing wound, let the pain settle heavy and electric into his tender marrow. He plodded forward against the rolling waves, until the water sloshed just beneath his nostrils. On the dim horizon, across the bay’s moon- scalloped skin, lay the outline of the island. A strong wind carried the far off sound of calamitous barking. Like some hellish refrain, the dog’s yelps and cries and howls rose and fell according to a rhythm and meter not of the sane. A tortured choir, unrestrained, wailing a melody to make all things innocent flay and flake until there is nothing, and nothing more. Private Nobu closed his eyes and listened, letting the wind blow and the current pull. He closed his eyes and listened, but was unable to pick out Socks’ bark amongst the others.
CHRISTOPHER BERARDINO is a writer of Japanese-American descent from Orange County, CA. He received an MFA in Fiction from Cornell University in 2018. His work has previously appeared in Flash Fiction, The Copperfield Review, Pilgrimage, Every Writers’ Resource, Newfound, The Pinch, and others.
Read Christopher Berardino's interview with Breakwater Review here.