by Will Bernardara Jr.
There’s a painting you’ve probably seen somewhere. Pointillist. A dirt road and a cornfield. A parked green tractor. And, the imagery discordant, a dejected ninja slouching beside the tractor, staring down at his limply held blade as though it’s the ultimate substantiation of meaninglessness.
This painting has been reproduced, parodied, enshrined, and displayed all over the globe. It’s at the Detroit Institute of Art, presently, in fact.
Equation from a crypto-meteorological textbook:
91-101 kph wind speed + oblique, angular shadow systems (precise configuration and density: UNKNOWN) + misty (optional?) rain/overcast sky + uprooted bamboo trees and/or bamboo chips/strips/material (exact amount: UNKNOWN) = ninjitstorm. Perhaps.
Crypto-Beaufort Scale entry for ninjitstorm:
Beaufort Number: 10
Name: Chimerical Gale or Conjuror Storm
Wind Speed: 58-62 mph (91-101 kph)
Description: Considerable structural damage occurs; ninja assassins manifest
The homely Nebraska town of Sumner has a general store called General Store; it’s that kind of agrestic. People and corn. And more corn. Grain sacks. A poky video store. Grousing tractors.
Of course, this uneventfulness is a late and lamented portraiture of Sumner. it’s the way it was before the squall of gleaming katana.
One advanced afternoon in the mid-1990s, it rains ninja on Sumner. Like homicidal hailstones or armed sleet, they somersault and roll and flying-kick out of tornadic funnels. It marks the first and only occurrence of this phenomenon in the U.S. It’s a huge moment in Weather History.
Day 1: Chaos and horror. Eleven townsfolk are struck down; some livestock are poisoned by blow darts tipped with something more lethal than cyanide. Others are gorily ornamented with shuriken. Green tractor paint is obscured by arterial spray. Sumner’s roads go redly moist.
Law enforcement refuses to step in. Here’s an excerpt from the press release the Batch County Sheriff’s Department issued the day of the killer atmospheric conditions:
While this department mourns the lives lost in Sumner this afternoon, the deaths, according to FEMA meteorologists, are no more ‘criminal’ than, for example, hurricane or mudslide casualties. We don’t arrest natural disasters; we don’t prosecute tsunamis. Sorry.
FEMA experts advise residents to stay indoors until a solution is reached. Crisis managers are in talks with Tokyo climatologists.
Day 2: Terrorized townies hole up inside their houses and barns. Doors are needlessly barricaded and boarded over. Needless, because the aerial ninja confine their sneaky, homicidal industry to the outside world, in compliance with some meteorological principle only the atmosphere kens.
Sumner fathers cradle shotguns, uselessly. Useless because bullets have no effect on thunderstorms, squalls, or pneumatic assassins. The town on Day 2 is ghostly and coiled, tense. Black-masked ninja zip in and across Sumner’s roads like barbs: horizontal black blurs, a deadly twinkle of metal. Then: gone. Hidden again.
“Ain’t seen one all afternoon.”
“That don’t mean they ain’t out there.”
“My nephew googled it.”
“What’d it say?”
“Not much. Lingo for ’em’s some Japanese word. In America they call ’em Dudikoffs. Sounds Russian.”
“That don’t help, Carl.”
“Ain’t never happened here in the U.S. Not ever. Last one happened in the Ukraine in ’94. Bunch in Japan in the ’80s.”
On Day 2, the only deaths are an ambling wiener dog cleanly sectioned by a sword and a few chickens, their clucking heads crunched via nunchaku, the weapon’s rawhide link sticky with fowl blood.
Days 3-5: A predawn charge overtures a full day of mass assassination almost as frenetic and ravaging as the first. This spasm of killing, however, slows over Days 4 and 5. The manifestation still beheads anyone or anything — human or stock — not under a roof, but a certain berserk spirit seems to dissipate noticeably. The slaying isn’t as enthusiastic.
Theories abound, most of them infused with a hope contoured by acute desperation. They’re near-mythic, these theories.
Research into feline predatory patterns/Marquette University/1996:
Our team stuck cats - housecats and ferals both - into cages: one cat per cage. Then we simply dumped mice into these cages with the cats. Dozens of mice. The mice, right, had nowhere to hide.
The pattern was conspicuous right away: the cat frenzies, eyes big as dinner plates, followed by a maelstrom of claw action.
Every cat, though, without variance, did this: They massacred the mice frantically, as though the mice could escape or we might take them away any second.
Then, somewhere around Mouse Victim #14 — it’s a 12-14 range, this phenomenon, though we’ve seen it go as high as 16 and never lower than 12 — the cat just mellows, stops killing. Every time.
Does the cat get bored around kill #14? Is its bloodlust sated at or around that magic number? Or does it merely realize the mice are trapped and it need not rush its rampage?
Or, or, more interestingly, does kitty experience some kind of lynxian existential crisis? Does Garfield gaze dejectedly at his bloody, dripping claws as though they’re the substantiation of meaninglessness and say to itself, figuratively, “What’s the use?”
Does Toonces pause and ask itself, “What is the point of me, anyway?” Unless someone speaks cat, we’ll probably never know.
Days 6-21 play out as a more salient, more fizzly copy of Days 4 and 5.
The murders diminish in both number and frequency.
The mute ninjaforms meet an apparent corrosion of their eager bloodthirstiness. Their hearts are no longer in it, it seems.
The ninja seem bored. Or disillusioned. Sometimes a ripe townie will stroll right past a ninja, practically daring it to cut him down, practically volunteering, and the airborne assassin will merely look down at the dirt road as though ashamed.
Some pundits attribute the change to Sumner’s population’s obstinacy, its grim insistence on resuming business as usual on Day 5. That day, farmers rouse their slumbering tractors, church service is held, and a semi-normalcy pre-ninjastorm is willed into being. Granted, ninja bashed and hacked a not-insignificant number of townies during this time of unsheltering, sure, but the folks of Sumner were through hiding, come hell or ninja. Day 22: A milestone in the Sumner ninjitstorm: Day 22 marks the day of the final killing of a town resident by the manifestation. It’s an awkward kill, like the last twitch of some fading convulsion: a meaningless reflex.
Miss Maple, 83 years old, was exiting the post office. Three ninjaforms were milling around out front, by the office’s decorative trough and hitching posts. None of the ninja had attacked in days.
Miss Maple passes the trio, nodding a “How do you do?” One ninja flinches, and the flinch clumsily morphs into an instinctive strike. A jerky nunchaku stick cracks Miss Maple’s brittle skull. Red spurts out through gray scalp. Blood spatters her lavender shawl. She dies in the dirt road, her seizurely throes the only movement.
It’s pathetic, that last killing. Dishonorable. Ninja wear masks, but still it’s as though the humiliation can be read on the assassin’s face: a child caught in the act of doing something stupidly cruel for no good reason.
“Crazy to say it.”
“Well, hell. You want it to go back to the way it was last month?”
“’Course not. Hell.”
“I know what Carl’s gettin’ at though. Yessir. It’s glum. They’re like reminders of somethin’ sad.”
“Yeah, ‘gone’ is right. Gone are a bunch of decent folk gettin’ stabbed and decapitated for no goddamn reason. Are y’all forgettin’ that?”
“They are weather, Dan. We gonna hate somethin’ natural forever? It’s like stayin’ mad at the tornado that took your pickup. Like stayin’ sore at the scorpion for stingin’.”
“That weather took my wife’s eye out with a dag-gum throwin’ star, Baker.”
“Settle down y’all.”
“How much’s a bag of them Corn Nuts?”
“The picante ones? Them’re good.”
“Well, listen. Them ninja, they’re here. And, ill or good, they’re ours. That’s how this town is. They’re part of us now.”
Harmless, the ninja of Sumner slouch, their all-black suits vivid in the dayglare. They mill a lot, doing nothing, mopey shadows.
A gradual homogeny blooms: the town, its placidness, its standardized, cyclic normalcy, first tames and then assimilates the disorder of ninja, like a gobbling Norman Rockwell that quickly swallows up and absorbs any rogue or transgressive brushstrokes.
No one likes a sad ninja. Sad ninja are worse than your ordinary sad person. Sad ninja are oppressive.
The ninjaforms go from skulking assassins to lethargic killers... then to dejected, bland objects of pity: voiceless panhandlers, like stray cats or confused urchins.
Lost in despair, pouting between the town’s squat buildings or brooding in silent circles behind the video store, the ninja, finally, become the sullen pillars of the Sumner community.
The ninja are as much a part of Sumner now as the cattle. As fixed and integral as the cornstalks. Maybe more so.
Sumner’s a tourist destination now, a very disappointing one. Morose ninja contemplating the dirt get boring fast. Tourists snap a few photos of the incongruous weatherforms, grab a slab of Marge’s Diner’s “famous” banana cream pie, and drive back to Florida or California or wherever tourists come from.
There is talk of penning up the ninja and making them a petting zoo. They’re docile as sleepy goats now, after all. Sometimes tourists’ kids will run over and pet one of them or tug at one’s pant leg. It gives people ideas.
Sometimes sympathetic Sumner grandmothers, overcome by pity, will do something like pet one of the glum ninja, stroking its hooded, hung head, extending a solace that isn’t receivable.
Copyright © 2017 by Will Bernardara Jr.