Author’s note: I was honored to contribute a story to this anthology, and Johnny Ban of The Big Drop series seemed the perfect protagonist for it.
God of Pestilence
by Ryan Gattis
One bullet had made two holes in the kid’s head.
Nobody was arguing that.
Each opening was visible in the eight-by-ten autopsy photo that First Sergeant Johnny Ban of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces held in his tingling left hand. The entry wound looked like a black beetle on the right eyebrow, and the exit had turned the neck’s left side into a kind of question mark, open beneath the ear where it met the base of the skull. It was a straight-on photographic headshot, and its contents kicked Johnny’s stomach for one reason: he knew this kid.
Granted, twenty was too old to be called a kid in just about anything but boxing, but Johnny Ban couldn’t think of him any other way, and now his first official mission briefing in Iraq had turned into a lesson.
“This is what snipers do,” Major Ross paused so Johnny could translate it into Japanese for his superior officer, Lieutenant Takanori, who was seated immediately to Johnny’s left at the only table in a canvas tent. Takanori took the photo before letting out a long breath. He recognized the kid too.
Outside, an engine turned over and tires churned sand before catching and driving off. Johnny had imagined the Japanese military’s role in Advise and Assist—the transition from combat force to community and security builder—would be greeted with better facilities. But as he shaded his face from a shaft of Iraqi sunlight that had been creeping through the tent flap for twenty minutes, over the sand-beaten floor, up table legs and into both his and Takanori’s eyes, he realized he’d been naïve. Much of this job would be no better than camping with heavy weaponry.
This, of course, had its downside.
“Insurgents,” Major Ross let the word hang before continuing, “are smarter than you think. This casualty came from a trap set at two different points in a village outside Halabja, where unexploded ordinance was purposely placed inside the community’s lone aqueduct. What our removal teams didn’t know is that one of these sites contained real landmines, while the other contained non-functional canisters packed with scrap. Snipers took up positions of intent not far from where the decoys were buried, and when our specialist here set to work—well, you see the effects.”
After translating this, Johnny made certain to add that he didn’t know why the kid was so far north after being at the Contingency Operating Base only two days previous. It didn’t matter, really. Orders were orders. Still, Johnny felt responsible.
“If you will forgive me for speculating as well as speaking freely, Lieutenant,” Johnny added in Japanese, “are you about to tell me that this is not my fault?”
The Lieutenant furrowed his brow.
“No punch of yours put a bullet in him, First Sergeant.” Years of smoking had worn Takanori’s voice raw. He sounded like a samurai movie hero filtered through a carburetor. “So, shall we let him finish, Ban no Yoshio?”
Ban no Yoshio. That was the name of a Japanese god of pestilence. Takanori had teased him with that wordplay on his last name before Johnny had fought the kid. His lieutenant hadn’t known then how uneasy it made him.
It took effort for Johnny to bow and turn his attention back to Major Ross. This briefing was the first since their observation detail. The U.S. Armed Forces deemed it imperative that its allies knew the risks of engineering work before shipping them out to fix grids and water systems destroyed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Japanese contribution to the Coalition of the Willing was this: they cleaned up, and when they were done doing that, they fixed what needed fixing. In a post-9/11 world, Johnny and his countrymen were nothing more than highly skilled handymen, plain and simple.
Except the world wasn’t plain, and it wasn’t simple. Not when a twenty-year-old specialist Johnny had beaten to a pulp two days ago caught a bullet with his face while trying to save a whole village from losing its water supply.
“That is what terror means.” Ross angled his chin at the picture. “Remember it. When you’re posted in Samawah, you cannot let the area’s comparative safety make you complacent. You must proceed as if each situation has been engineered with a specific purpose in mind, that being loss of human life on our side.”
Takanori swiped his fingers over the kid’s picture.
“You cannot be responsible for everything,” he whispered.
It was supposed to make Johnny feel better. It didn’t. All Johnny could think about was the half-healed cut over the kid’s right eye, the one he put there with a series of brutal left hooks. He thought of how he’d done it on purpose, again and again, and he thought of something else too: how it’d never heal now. Not ever.
On Fight Night in Iraq, guitar rock rippled the ceiling of the C.O.B.’s massive congregation tent, amping up an already overloaded crowd of a thousand soldiers who swigged, toasted, or held their non-alcoholic beer aloft to salute an emcee doing his best Michael Buffer impression in a boxing ring at the center of the maelstrom. Drumbeats thudded in Johnny’s chest as he moved down a central aisle to the red-white-and-blue-roped ring lit by floodlights. The closer he got to the canvas, the more Johnny was certain that fighting was a bad idea. He’d had no training time, no preparation. Of course, it didn’t help that he was just following orders.
“Do not, under any circumstances”—Takanori was behind him, shouting into Johnny’s ear— “tell them you used to fight professionally.”
Johnny shook it off. He had to tell them. It’d be criminal to go into that ring without letting his opponent know. Still, it was strange. Johnny ‘Be Good’ Ban had joined the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces as a translator to get away from a life in the ring, so it was safe to say the last thing he expected when setting boots in Iraq was to put the gloves back on. It’d been four years and twelve days since the last time he’d punched anybody for profit. That much time off wasn’t rust, it was ruination.
Be Good’s Won-Loss record as a prizefighter was a glittering 1-1-0 with one technical knockout and one almost-knockout in which his bloodied opponent had to be propped up by his cornerman to earn a tainted win. After that, Johnny couldn’t get a fight. The long of it was that Johnny Ban refused to be managed by anyone other than a retired U.S. Navy ex-pat living in Osaka unlicensed by the Japanese Boxing Association, but the truth was a darker thing: since Johnny Ban was hafu—born of a Japanese mother and a white American father—no trainer would put a 100% Japanese boy in the ring with him and risk losing a career, not after what he did to the first two comers, and this was how Johnny learned the deepest secret of prizefighting: it wasn’t so much a sport as a platform for tribalism. Nationalism too, for that matter.
Partway to the ring’s glowing square, Johnny felt sweat drip down his spine. His hands had been wrapped and taped by a blonde medic with her hair pulled back in a bun, he’d put on borrowed black gloves in his size and borrowed blue shorts and a robe still wet from its last user, he’d gotten a new mouthguard and he’d worked himself warm in a storage closet doubling as a locker-room, but what greeted him on his ring-walk was another level of heat, as if someone had installed a sauna under his soles. Leave it to Johnny to still have his old boxing shoes, the lone personal items he’d allowed himself in his operational packing. Lucky him.
Pats on the back came from everywhere, and for each one Johnny got, two shouts of disappointment rang out. Apparently, the crowd had been promised Mixed Martial Arts for their Friday night fights, and here came Johnny, ruining the fun.
Negotiations had been fast. The Japanese contingent was invited to put a fighter forward, in the spirit of goodwill and community. Invited was a funny way of putting it. The tone made it obvious that to refuse was cowardice. Without even asking if he could, Takanori nominated Johnny on one condition: the fight had to be a boxing match. When the organizers agreed, they made it clear that weight class was out the window.
At ringside were three squads of Johnny’s comrades, fresh off the plane from Japan. They were all clapping, sure, and they were screaming ganbatte as loudly as they could, but Johnny saw their excitement hid boatloads of nerves. He didn’t blame them. Collectively, they were the first Japanese soldiers to set foot on foreign soil since World War II. The very first. This was a yoke they wore daily. In fact, they’d only been in-country thirty hours and everywhere they went they got asked about Nagasaki or Hiroshima, Manchuria or Burma. It turned out military people the world over had long memories and they knew war. These questions weren’t calculated to hurt, but each one was a needle in their collective skin.
Takanori’s gleeful shout broke through to Johnny: “Win this for the honor of the Japanese people!”
Johnny stopped at the apron. He couldn’t let it pass. “Did I ever tell you why I quit boxing, sir?”
“Your trainer died.”
“That was part of it. The other part was matching a full Japanese boxer against a hafu was bad business.” Johnny’s words hit Takanori and drove the man’s eyebrows up. “So being here, a fighter who was never Japanese enough, actually fighting for the pride of Japan and its armed forces? You will have to forgive me, sir, if I find it complicated.”
Takanori nodded under the heat of the ringside floodlights. Behind him, the crowd told Johnny to get the hell into the ring and fight.
“Just like Ban no Yoshio,” his lieutenant said, “he owed his country for favoring him while he was in its service, and when he became a god of pestilence after his death, he always petitioned the older gods to reduce the severity of earthly epidemics.”
Johnny smirked. Even in its folktales, Japan was hierarchical and bureaucratic. He was nothing like Ban no Yoshio, the former major counselor who turned arsonist and died in exile, only to show up as a minor god years later in Edo, appearing to a lowly cook and proclaiming he had persuaded the gods to spare the city.
“Like it or not, First Sergeant,” Takanori said as he drew close, “you owe your country everything. Japan shaped you into who you are. So I suggest you go out there and petition the other gods with your fists, because if you lose tonight, we all do.”
Johnny didn’t need to scan the ringside faces full of equal parts hope and dread to know Takanori was right, but he did it anyway.
“Absolutely, Lieutenant,” was Johnny’s only reply as he scaled the ring’s steps, ducked the rope, swiveled lightly into his corner, and sat down on a chair with its back hacked off to look like a stool.
Across the ring, his opponent angled an upward nod in his direction. The kid looked five-ten with a shaved head, tattoos from waist to wrists, and a pasted-on sneer. Skinny legs, big arms, and bigger shoulders, he was built wrong for a fighter. Still, the kid had three inches of height on him and twenty pounds. But with those proportions, it was puppy weight. The kind that could be thrown around. Though whether Johnny could throw it was another matter. He had the lungs for a fight, he knew that, but his punch muscles weren’t what they used to be. He had to be careful.
To the blonde medic smearing Vaseline over his brow, Johnny said, “You should tell him I’ve fought before.”
“Oh? This one was Golden Gloves.” She hiked a thumb behind her at the kid. “I think he’ll be just fine.”
She finished up and offered him water but he declined as the ref beckoned the fighters to the center of the ring, so Johnny went. The ref was a big man with broad shoulders and he went through the rules slow—protecting one’s self at all times, not hitting low, not hitting behind the head, and ranks being disregarded in the ring—so Johnny talked over them.
He told the kid, “I used to fight pro circuit.”
“Shit.” The kid cracked a smile that was anything but nervous. “Only reason I got dragged up here is cuz nobody else would fight you Queensberry-style.”
Up close, Johnny noted the kid carried scar tissue above his right eye from old fights. With a few punches, it might split. Johnny knew where to aim now.
The ref told them to touch up so they tapped leather, but before they broke, Johnny leaned close and said, “Where you from, soldier?”
The answer came quick as the kid pushed off. “Riverside, motherfucker.”
“California? That’s not far from where I was born,” Johnny replied.
The kid looked at him funny, like he knew he was being screwed with, but the ref shooed them back to their corners before more could be said. This was fine by Johnny. Letting the kid chew on the great mystery of an American-born Japanese in the Japanese military wasn’t a bad thing.
Johnny didn’t sit again. He hopped in place until the bell rang and he went in hunched and ready.
Years after his mother had moved them from Los Angeles, back when Osaka was as unwelcoming as any place could be, being inside the ropes was the only thing that made Johnny feel safe. The ring had rules, and rules always mattered to a child who grew up getting ambushed by bullies. Johnny smiled as he read the kid coming in fast and straight with his right hand low and his left hand coiled and cocked, protecting his chin. It was like old times.
As the kid came into range, Johnny angled out. He stepped right and beat the kid for hand-speed, and as a sloppy jab zipped by his ear, he shot a left hook at the kid’s right eye, chasing it with a straight right to the body—bang, bang—and on the other end, the kid grimaced as awareness bloomed in his eyes: Johnny had power.
This was useful for Johnny too. Knowing it banished any thought of Ban no Yoshio. What was left was muscle memory, instinct.
The kid ate two more jabs before pitching forward again and wrapping Johnny up with both arms in a clinch. He leaned everything on Johnny, but he wasn’t too heavy. Johnny was glad to know it was puppy weight after all.
When the ref stepped in to break them up, the kid whipped his head around and butted Johnny good on the crown. Maybe it was accidental. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, Johnny lost his balance for a split second before throwing a weak left jab and following it up with a clinch of his own. The crowd booed this clutching and grabbing, but Johnny didn’t care, he was too busy holding tight for five stinging seconds as his head cleared. Once it did, he knew better than to get close again.
Johnny picked his shots the rest of the round, staying back to pelt the kid with left jabs to the belly, rights to the ribs. He felt the effects of these punches all the way up his arms and into his chest. He wondered how many rounds he had left before he punched himself out. The honest answer wasn’t comforting: maybe five if he didn’t push.
Knowing how to counterpunch a man, when, and in what spot was to know his rhythms and weaknesses more intimately than even a lover might. It was a bond of fighting rarely discussed and not easily described. Most people never understood that it was all intuition until a punch landed—and landed right—and then, it was just a fact, something to be exposed.
And the fact here was the kid hated body shots. He was already fussing with his beltline, dropping his left shoulder to make sure he could cover himself, just in case.
For its part, the crowd didn’t appreciate Johnny’s tack. They wanted him to fight with his head on the kid’s shoulder, trading sloppy uppercuts in what his old trainer would’ve called a ‘phone booth special’ because both fighters would be close enough to almost fit in one together. That didn’t suit Johnny though, not with his arms getting heavier. He revised his estimate to four rounds.
Which is why the end of the first couldn’t come sooner. Johnny ducked a wide, looping hook and snapped a hard combination to the kid’s body when the timekeeper banged on the canvas three times to let everybody know there were only ten seconds left. Johnny felt it in his feet and pivoted. It was a perfect time to wheel away, making like he was content to run out the rest of the round. When the kid threw his hands up to protest, the crowd booed right on cue.
That was when Johnny went back in. He covered two yards in three quick steps and dipped low, feinting the same hook to the body that had been turning the kid’s ribs to mashed potatoes all round long. It was enough.
The kid bit on the fake, dropping his elbows in anticipation for the blow-that-never-came as Johnny went upstairs to the kid’s eye and fed him a left hook that cut him before a straight right hand smashed his jaw at its socket and almost made him lose his mouthguard.
The crowd sure didn’t boo that.
When the bell dinged its ding, the fighters went back to their corners.
Takanori was the first to meet Johnny there. His eyes gleamed as he slapped Johnny’s back too hard.
“Ban no Yoshio!” Takanori’s Japanese was violent in Johnny’s ear. “Give him a disease with your fists!”
Johnny shook his head at that and the blonde medic told Takanori to get out. She didn’t say anything to Johnny about his fighting, but she sure had an impressed grin on her face. Behind her, a leggy ring girl went by with a Round 2 card held high. Johnny rolled his neck and wondered if she was a solider too.
Across the ring, the kid fronted good but he had eyes like prey. He grimaced as his cutman pressed the cold metal of the enswell to his right cheekbone, a q-tip already sunken into the cut above the eye. The kid said something, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was too busy staring at Johnny across the ring, trying to figure out how to get hurt less.
Johnny took a sip of water, swallowed half, and spit the rest into the bucket. He had a strain high up in his right shoulder but otherwise he felt okay. If he limited his rights and focused on the kid’s eye with short left hooks, he’d be done early.
The blonde worked more Vaseline over his brow and on his head where he’d been butted before straddling the ropes and ducking out as the bell went.
Johnny switched it up. He stormed across the canvas and belted the kid in the mouth with the same straight right that ended the first round, one that jarred his shoulder something serious. It was stupid of him.
When the shot landed, the crowd rocked back with a collective, “Oh!”
Johnny had done it to show the kid he could, and then, he backed off again, because he was disciplined and smart, and he wanted the kid to know that too. Once the kid understood that, he’d understand that Johnny Ban had already won, and every extra second he stayed in the ring he was just making it harder on himself. It was a message he had to send, because Johnny wasn’t sure he had three full rounds in him.
The kid didn’t understand though. He got mad instead, mad Johnny wouldn’t fight him inside, mad he kept eating jabs, mad his eye was bleeding again, and mad Johnny angled out of his flapping clinches by sidestepping.
The crowd agreed with the kid. They felt they’d been duped by Johnny’s sudden aggression only for it to be followed by tactics and yelled as much.
What the crowd didn’t understand was that the power in Johnny’s right arm was shot. Every time he threw it, it felt like getting knifed in the shoulder socket. The left would have to do. He jabbed and moved, taking it to the kid’s bleeding right eye. He kept throwing the same left jab-left hook combination and the kid couldn’t stop it. By the fifth time it landed, Johnny knew the kid couldn’t see it through the blood.
That didn’t stop him from lunging for Johnny though, and when he did, Johnny turned his ribs into a xylophone, hitting three solid notes on the left side and one on the right while gritting his teeth through the pain. The kid took a step back from the middle of the ring and dropped his hands to his belly, which leaned him forward and put his chin on a platter, so Johnny hit that too, 1-2. Left, left. Pinpoint shots. Johnny breathed hard through his mouthguard, but it felt good to be in the ring again, to be in control, not taking orders. As the kid’s hands went upstairs to cover, Johnny went downstairs. Ribs again, 1-2 with left hooks.
The crowd erupted as the kid staggered back into the ropes, arched his back against them, and shot forward into Johnny’s arms. Toe to toe, leaning his head on Johnny’s shoulder, trying to find leverage in the phone booth, the kid was heavy with sweat as he tried to wrap both arms around Johnny to make the punching stop. But Johnny was too quick. The kid never saw it coming. Neither did the crowd, despite being on their feet, jockeying for a clean view.
It was the uppercut that froze him. What the kid didn’t know, what the crowd didn’t know, what nobody in that tent knew, was that Johnny Ban wasn’t an outside fighter when he got started, he was a ‘hurter,’ as his old trainer would say, one of only a handful of non-Mexican lightweights on earth who wanted to stand on your doorstep and punch you until all your ribs broke. And maybe Takanori was right. Maybe there was some benefit to growing up hard, as an outsider in the most homogenous country on earth. After all, those experiences had turned Johnny Ban into a 24-karat finisher.
Johnny’s left uppercut hit the kid’s chin so squarely that it wobbled his legs. The kid gave up tensing his body after that and set to flexing his legs so he wouldn’t lose his balance and fall forward. There was only one problem: Johnny was waiting for it. He stepped to his left and ripped a perfect left hook to the liver. The kid’s face contorted like he’d been electrocuted, and when he tumbled to a big wet smack on the canvas, the tent practically exploded.
Johnny went to a neutral corner and tapped his right shoulder to make sure it hadn’t fallen off yet. He put his arms up on the ropes for the count but everybody in that tent knew the kid wasn’t getting up. When the numbers finally got to ten, the bell made it official: a technical knockout at 2:08 in the second round.
When Johnny made it back to his corner, Takanori grabbed his ankle and shook with all his might. Johnny let him. The crowd threw a wave of applause his way, more in atonement for doubting than as adulation for his skill. That didn’t matter to the Japanese servicemen rushing the ring though. Johnny saw in their faces that they had won, Japan had won too, and he still didn’t know how he felt about that exactly. Exhausted mostly, and glad the kid hadn’t hung in longer.
At the center of the ring, the kid’s cutman coaxed him into a sitting position and the blonde medic busied herself with getting his gloves off.
“Good fight,” Johnny told him.
“Yeah,” the kid replied with a pained smile, “I’m gonna look real tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Johnny patted the kid’s shoulder with the cushion of his glove. “You look real right now.”
The kid chushed his lips like he was letting off steam. “Man, I better run into you again. You gotta teach me some of that stuff.”
Johnny gave the kid a look that only someone who had been taught everything he knew by someone older and better could give a younger man in need of schooling.
“Sure,” Johnny said. “Anytime.”
These weren’t idle words to Johnny Ban, he’d meant them, and in the heat of the briefing tent, with the autopsy picture staring up at the ceiling, Johnny interrupted Major Ross’s lecture about materials procurement to ask what the kid’s name was.
Major Ross’s shoulders sagged, but he spoke without hesitation. “Raul Ibanez, Lance Corporal, United States Marines.”
After that, he looked at his watch. “That’s eighteen hundred, gentlemen. We’ll reconvene tomorrow at oh-six-hundred.”
Everybody stood. Salutes were exchanged.
Major Ross paused a moment before bowing. He didn’t wait for it to be returned so Lieutenant Takanori and First Sergeant Ban bowed to his back as he whipped through the tent flaps and out into the hot blanket of sunset draping itself over the base.
Johnny finished writing the kid’s name and place in his notebook before shifting his sore right shoulder. If he ever got back to America, Riverside was the first spot he’d visit. Outside the tent, soldiers talked and laughed as they passed, whether on their way to or from the mess tent, Johnny didn’t know.
“You miss the honesty of boxing.” Takanori kept his eyes on the cigarette he was rolling. “You prefer hurt to come straight at you and look you in the eye.”
Johnny tapped the photo of Raul with his index finger. He said, “As an alternative to sniper fire, I recommend it, sir.”
It wasn’t meant to be a joke. But Takanori threw Johnny a half-smile anyway as he exited the tent.
Beyond the flap, Johnny saw the sun flash twelve different kinds of orange before it was covered again. He was glad Takanori had gone. There would’ve been no use telling the man the other version of Ban no Yoshio’s tale. In the one Johnny knew, the counselor felt he’d made a grave mistake in setting fire to a city gate and blaming a political rival for it. For this, he was truly remorseful and welcomed exile. But in order to further atone for his crime, he sacrificed himself so that he might lobby for the health of the country even in the afterlife. His wish was granted, but it came with a price: whomever he touched as a god of pestilence would die a horrible death. And this was why the cook, the one Ban no Yoshio famously told about an epidemic being reduced to nothing but coughs because of his lobbying, died in bed some days later—a victim of the plague that was spread to him only by proximity to Ban himself—and this was why the god had not shown himself since.
Takanori must not have known that one. Otherwise, he could have seen that the same thing had happened to Raul, in its way. The proof of it stared lifelessly up at Johnny, frozen, with a beetle on its brow, a question mark for a neck. It wasn’t plague that had done it this time. First it was punches, and then it was a bullet that made two holes. And maybe, Johnny allowed himself the thought in the quiet of the empty tent, he was a lot more like Ban no Yoshio than he’d care to admit.
He too was a destroyer, despite his best intentions.