By: Kaj Tanaka
Featured art: Heart of Darkness by Sean Scully
I. Sherman Alexie
Once again last night, a dead woman appeared to me. She spoke my name and asked me to help her back into the world of the living. She said she was so close to me; it would only take a small caress and she would be flesh and blood again. I didn’t move. Her face hung over my bed until the dream resolved itself, and I was awake again, and this morning was gray and cold just like yesterday morning and the morning before.
This morning, I heard our neighbors’ little daughter crying in the room above us amid the crashing of furniture while her parents fought. The crying and the fighting were so loud my wife wondered if we should call the police—we decided not to, and then my wife left for work, and the fighting died down. I texted my wife to let her know things were quiet again. She texted me “okay.”
Today, I read Sherman Alexie’s poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” for the first time. I have spent the last three years of my life writing a novel about the time I spent living on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, and when I read Sherman Alexie’s poem, I realized that what I had written, while true, was not useful. No one needed my novel, and I was stupid to think anyone did in the first place. I should have known a year ago when one of my Lakota friends ended our relationship because of this novel—when he heard what it was about, when I told him. We’d been drinking out in the bad- lands; the sun was coming up, and I asked for his approval—“blessing” I think I said. He threw an empty bottle at me. He told me I was selling him out just like all white people do eventually, which is pretty much what Sherman Alexie was saying also. And the next day, we were hungover, and we pretended to have blacked out the entire incident. Even so, we have not spoken since.
And today, after I finished reading Sherman Alexie’s poem, the dead woman spoke to me again. “You know all white men will betray,” she said. “Given enough time, given even their best intentions. It’s in their nature.” And I heard the dead woman’s voice, and I wanted to turn myself inside-out, and a part of me wanted to go back and live the rest of my life in the time before I read Sherman Alexie’s poem, even though, of course—of course, I don’t want that.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting vigil with a hospice patient who had started what the nurses call “actively dying.” The man had been a musician, and so I brought my guitar to play him songs while he died. It was the middle of the night and everything was silent. I played “Pancho and Lefty,” I played “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and I played a finger-style version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” because, a few weeks ago, it was Christmastime. And when I finished playing that song, one of the nurses came in to tell me I wasn’t allowed to play my guitar at night. She said I was bothering some of the other people who were also trying to die. I put my guitar away. Everything was silent. The man didn’t die that night. None of my hospice patients have died yet. All of them are on the verge of dying, but they refuse to die because everyone lives forever now.
II. No One Dies In Fiction Anymore
I used to have a drug dealer named Emily. She lived in my neighborhood with her boyfriend. Her apartment always smelled of incense and shampoo. She had a beautiful, slightly upturned nose, and she had a strange, quiet boyfriend. We would all sit in their living room, smoking joints, listening to Dead Meadow and Kyuss and Russian Circles. Emily was pretty stable for a drug dealer, but when we got high together, her boyfriend would get paranoid. He wasn’t a very stable guy—you can tell with some people just by talking to them. Emily and I would be spaced out, guitar lines drifting like sea grass around us, and Emily’s boyfriend would get up and go walking. Sometimes he would appear in front of my face, his eyes wide with anger, his body extending, reaching out toward me until we were almost touching. It happened every time he got high, and we didn’t speak of it because it was awkward.
When I stopped smoking weed, I lost touch with Emily. I replaced weed with music, and now I have replaced music with silence. Silence is the most mind-altering thing there is. You do not need to ask silence for a blessing. That’s not something it requires.
Someone told me Emily died a few years ago, which I find difficult to believe. No one dies anymore. Even in novels, no one dies. Everyone lives. If they die, it’s because they are coming back eventually. Try killing a character in a work of fiction—no one will believe you. It will seem inauthentic because everyone knows that here in reality there is no dying. There is only each gray winter morning, much like the morning that came before, only with slight variation.
III. The Gradually Increasing Darkness
I am afraid the darkness in our bedroom is increasing. My wife doesn’t notice it, but our apartment is darker than it used to be. Last night, for example, I was trying to read by the light of my reading lamp, but I could barely make out the words. And I thought I heard the sound of fighting in the apartment above ours again. Even this morning, waiting in line at the T station, I could not distinguish the crowds of people from the inbound trains.
You will see them tonight in the shadows if you are looking for them. They will come to you; they will ask for your caress. They will beg you to reach out and make them mortal again. They will try to seduce you. They will tell you what you are, and you will want to turn yourself inside out. Set them free if you have a mind. Reach out and touch their bodies; pluck them out of their world and bring them into this one.
We are entering the final days, which, though final, are also infinite. All of the dead are gradually returning for the last census, which is why our world population is so huge right now, and soon there will not be very much room for anyone. We are overrun with ghosts, just like Sherman Alexie said we would be. They are not only the ghosts of Native Americans, but of every race under the sun, and also they belong to no race at all. But then, no one seems to belong anywhere anymore. The dead are overwhelming us, and all of the hotels and apartments and Airbnbs and homeless shelters and YMCAs and youth hostels are going to be full, so learn to make yourself small, and learn to share. Sleep wherever you can and do not be afraid when they visit you in your dreams. What’s happening to you is natural. You have nothing to fear.
Kaj Tanaka‘s fiction has appeared in New South, Hobart, Joyland and Tin House. Kaj teaches creative writing classes at the Harris County Jail in Houston, TX.