Kaj Tanaka


I stayed late at the Pine Ridge dormitories again last night. I’ve been sleeping with an AmeriCorps volunteer who works there named Sonya—she is from New Hampshire, she runs some of the extra curricular programing, she has this warm voice, and she is kind. Volunteering on the Indian reservation completely overwhelms her. We ate dinner quietly in her tiny room so no one would notice I was there. We could hear the children downstairs screaming.

On my way home that night, the reservation looked like it had been set in an aquarium tank. Everything was deep blue in the night, and the lights were soft and foggy in the frost. The sickle moon hung like the sword of Damocles over my car, and I was moving at speed, and I lost all sense of time.

When I got back to my little room in the trailer where I live, I tried to read. I am reading a book by Roberto Bolaño. I keep losing track of the plot because I am unable to see past the imagery. The night is a wall, and the trees are people et cetera—there are discarded bodies of women, raped and buried in unmarked holes. I am always distracted these days. It is difficult for me to complete a thought, even.

Last night I could hear Farah, our school librarian, talking through the wall of the trailer. All of us volunteers live together, and we get to know each other that way. I could not help but listen to her last night. I think she was talking to her boyfriend back in Seattle, where she comes from. I’m ashamed to say it, but I recorded her with my laptop. I don’t know why I did it, but I have the recording saved in my iTunes. She says at one point:

“I organize books, that’s it—but they treat me like a welcome mat here. It’s just Indians, you know—it’s this whole place—nothing like El Salvador. They’re brats at this school—ha, the parents too, probably. They have iPods here—yeah exactly, you get it—yeah, but with actual roofs.”

Farah went to El Salvador on a church mission trip a few months before she came to the reservation. During our training sessions when we arrived it was all she talked about.

She went on for a long time last night about how good people have it here, and how it was better in EL Salvador because it was worse. She has this image of noble, long-suffering poor people with faces like the labels on fair trade coffee bags.

I recorded Farah for almost an hour before she hung up. After that, I lay awake in the dark listening to the wind blow through the crack beneath my window.

This morning, I found Farah in the library making a poster for her afternoon class. It was a map of El Salvador on yellow butcher paper, mounted on the strip of poster board. Above the map she pasted a panoramic printed from the internet—it was a picture of a city skyline dusted with heavy red smog and cars and ragged busses, and if you looked closely you could see the brown-skinned children squatting in gutters like dogs.


At Manderson Day School, where I am a bus driver, they burn all of their trash in an open pit. They do it behind the playground next to the field where the football team practices. It happens everywhere on the reservation in similar pits near similar playgrounds. It’s legal to burn trash here because of tribal law, so all of the nearby white counties give the Indian schools money to burn their garbage. Everyone benefits, you could say. They burn it at night now, at least in Manderson, because the parents complained about what the fumes might do to their children. In the early evenings, you can see the flames in the darkness.

Today, I found another big wasps’ nest under one of the wooden benches outside the school, and I sprayed it with the stuff they sell in cans for killing wasps. They came stumbling out of the hive, sick with the stuff, tangled up in it. I crushed each one of them under my boot so as not to prolong their agony. They say that these swarms of wasps are a plague, that they are a sign of the times. We have been killing them every day for weeks now. We have put a sizable dent in their population. The plan is that, eventually, there will be no more wasps left on the reservation.

Yesterday, while I was driving the school bus through Wounded Knee housing, some boys on horses threw rocks at us as we passed. They have done this before, but this time they broke one of the windows. The children came alive like birds. Someone was hurt—this small boy, and all of the blood—his own blood—it seemed to terrify him. Some other kids were crying too, just because they were afraid. I wasn’t sure what it meant.

I’d suspected nothing that morning—we ate breakfast pizza in the school gymnasium while someone read the morning announcements over the intercom, the sagebrush and the tall grass stood as straight and unfeeling as they ever did. The ditches on either side of the road were as pathetic and trash-covered as ever. The sky was soaring cold. Everything that day was beyond my deserving.

There was blood on the seat of the school bus and on the floor, and these boys on their horses outside, they were laughing because they didn’t realize what they had done. I radioed dispatch for help. The woman on the other end said that she was on the line with 911. They wanted some specific information about the boy, so I pushed back through the writhing mass of children to look. It was getting dark outside, and through the window, the faint moon shone over the reservation like a vagrant woman. The boy had small pieces of glass embedded in his shoulder—and in the darkness, for a moment, I thought it was a wing.



Kaj Tanaka received his MFA from the University of Arkansas. His fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, PANK and Knee Jerk. His website is Other Real People.