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Quiet Until the Thaw, Page 1

Alexandra Fuller


  Leaving Before the Rains Come


  Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

  The Legend of Colton H. Bryant

  Scribbling the Cat

  Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight


  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  375 Hudson Street

  New York, New York 10014

  Copyright © 2017 by Alexandra Fuller

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  “Quiet Until the Thaw” from The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians, gathered and translated by Howard A. Norman (Stonehill Publishing, 1976).

  Reprinted by permission of Howard A. Norman.


  Names: Fuller, Alexandra, 1969– author.

  Title: Quiet until the thaw : a novel / Alexandra Fuller.

  Description: New York : Penguin Press, 2017

  Identifiers: LCCN 2016056759 (print) | LCCN 2017001457 (ebook) | ISBN 9780735223349 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780735223356 (ebook) | ISBN 9780735225145 (international edition)

  Subjects: LCSH: Lakota Indians—Social life and customs—Fiction. | Indians of North America—Fiction. | Domestic fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Historical.

  Classification: LCC PS3606.U49 Q54 2017 (print) | LCC PS3606.U49 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6—dc23

  LC record available at

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.




  Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace


  Also by Alexandra Fuller

  Title Page




  Part One Quiet Until the Thaw

  The Eternal Nature of Everything, as Described by Mina Overlooking Horse

  Rick Overlooking Horse’s Tiny, Blown Mind

  Mina Overlooking Horse’s Winter Count

  You Choose Watson and the Sugar Debacle of 1962

  The Etymology of the Name “You Choose Watson”

  A Month After You Choose Watson Was Born

  All Are Related, Related to All

  The (Other) Red Scare(s)

  Meantime, Names for a Red Man, and Why He Doesn’t Care

  A Quick Note on the Word “Indian”

  Victor Charlie and the Indian

  Dog Tags Are Forever

  Unless There’s Extreme, Unforeseen Heat


  You Choose on Turtle Island

  Candlefish Forever

  Thaté: Wind


  Mni: Water

  Maka: Earth

  Phéta: Fire

  Thaté, Again

  Italians/Indians Cry Too

  Mina Overlooking Horse Drinks Coffee as a Substitute for Having a Feeling

  Thaté, Yet Again

  Mina Overlooking Horse Crosses (the Hell) Over


  The Bright, Shining Beginning of the End

  Tales of Longing, Belonging, and Camouflage Tricks That Didn’t Work

  How to Make a(n Honest) Living on the Rez

  Rick Overlooking Horse Accidentally Becomes a Medicine Man, a Chief, an Elder

  The Old Buffalo Bull, Again

  Rick Overlooking Horse and the Ugly Red Stud

  Indian War Ponies

  Pony Trading


  You Choose What Son Comes Home

  High Noon on the North American Plains, and Why It Is Better to Meet Some Other Time

  The Transmission

  The Somewhat Accidental Early Political Career of You Choose What Son

  The Campaign

  Nepotism, Just Between Friends and Family

  A Warning

  Meantime, on the Moon

  Did the White Man Take Smallpox to the Moon, and Other Good Obvious Questions

  The Second Siege of Wounded Knee

  Hé Sapa

  The Length of a Siege

  The End of the Siege

  Meantime, Mean Time

  You Choose What Son’s Fit of Rage

  You Choose What Son’s Very Vigorous Rage

  Part Two The Great Fertility Crisis of Le-a Brings Plenty

  The 1965 Chevy Impala

  One Common Myth About the Rez, Dispelled

  Le-a Brings Plenty Gets Many DWIs

  Le-a Brings Plenty’s Father Issue

  Le-a’s Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood

  You Do the Math

  A Secret Is Something You Don’t Already Know

  Le-a Does Her Time

  The Battle of the Junkyard

  The Warrior

  The Easiest Way to Find a Warrior on the Rez

  Le-a’s Other Men, and One Woman

  What Happened Next

  Mona Respects Nothing Comes to Whiteclay

  Mona Respects Nothing Delivers


  Post-Delivery DTs

  Dallas, the Soap Opera, and the Rez

  Everything Is Not Going to Be All Right

  Mona Respects Nothing at the Broken Two-Mile Marker

  The Famous Indian Rescue of Jerusalem and Daniel Respects Nothing

  Tray Tor and Squanto Are in Charge of Two Very Small Babies for Less Than Three Hours

  Part Three The Ugly Red Stud, at Last


  Tray Tor Two Bulls Seeks Refuge

  Ready to Move

  Staying Babies

  The Moon of Fattening

  Rez-Famous Babies

  An Origin Story

  Preschool for Indian Babies

  Children’s Questions, Answered

  How Turtle Island Got Its Name

  You Choose What Son, Out of the Second Rez

  You Choose What Son’s First Days of Freedom

  You Choose What Son Buys a Way Out

  The Moons of August

  Recipe for Berry Stew

  You Choose and the Other Full Moon

  You Choose What Son’s Near-Death Experience


  You Choose What Son and the Life Sentence

  Feeling Returns


  Le-a Brings Plenty Hears the Voice of Rick Overlooking Horse

Brings Plenty Buries the Hatchet, as They Say

  You Choose Watson’s Very Born-Again Indian Conversion

  A Good Thing for an Indian to Know

  You Choose Watson, Indian Activist

  Daniel and Jerusalem (Don’t) Win a Thousand Dollars

  Wanted: A Job for Indians

  The Recruiter

  The Audition

  The Youth of Today


  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Disneyland Paris

  Jerusalem, Regained

  (There Is No Such Thing as) The End


  The End

  About the Author

  Life is a circle and we as common people are created to stand within it and not on it. I am not just of the past but I am the past. I am here. I am now and I will be for tomorrow.

  —Oglala Lakota maxim

  There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.

  —Willa Cather, O Pioneers

  Quiet Until the Thaw

  Her name tells of how

  it was with her.

  The truth is, she did not speak

  in winter.

  Everybody learned not to

  ask her questions in winter,

  once this was known about her.

  The first winter this happened

  we looked in her mouth to see

  if something was frozen. Her tongue

  maybe, or something else in there.

  But after the thaw she spoke again

  and told us it was fine for her that way.

  So each spring we

  looked forward to that.

  —Swampy Cree narrative naming poem*

  All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.

  —Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake



  Quiet Until the Thaw

  They say Rick Overlooking Horse didn’t talk much.

  Actually, it was a little more than that. From the start, even for an Indian, his silence was bordering on worrying. For example, in his fourth spring, when You Choose Watson shot him in the leg with an arrow, he didn’t go wailing to his grandmother like any normal kid. He turned his back on his Rez cousin’s mocking laughter and limped away with the arrow still in his leg, down the hill toward the third in a row of tar-paper lean-tos on what is now Second Street in Manderson village. Then he stood in the kitchen, silent as ever, staring at his Closest Immediate Relation.

  Mina Overlooking Horse, accustomed to her grandson’s silence, took a long time to look up from the backseat of the 1935 Ford coupe that had served as her sofa since it had been torn from its crumpled mother chassis in a ditch outside Chadron, Nebraska. Then she noticed the dark, viscous pool spreading on the earth floor beneath Rick Overlooking Horse’s feet, and the arrow juddering from his leg. “Ayeee! You’re making a mess of everything!” she said.

  But Rick Overlooking Horse just blinked and stared at the dirt on which he was standing. Maybe he was wondering why You Choose had just shot him in the leg with an arrow. Or maybe he was wondering how he could mess everything up any worse than it already was. But no one would ever know what he was thinking about this, or much of anything else, because the child wouldn’t talk.

  It was like that Swampy Cree Indian poem, “Quiet Until the Thaw,” as if his tongue must be frozen. Eventually, his grandmother and some of his More Concerned Immediate Relations thought to look in his mouth to make sure. But nope, everything was all defrosted and accounted for. Rick Overlooking Horse was simply a child, and then a man, of shockingly few words.

  The Eternal Nature of Everything, as Described by Mina Overlooking Horse

  By the time Rick Overlooking Horse was fixing to enter his second decade, he had uttered, all told, about enough words to fill a pamphlet from the Rezurrection Ministry outfit based out of Dallas, Texas. And those pamphlets were exceedingly short, designed as they were by little ladies with big hair for heathen Indians who had been out in the sun too long, so to speak.

  Although to be fair, the little ladies were just doing their Christian bit. And to be accurate, some of them were very far from what you might describe as little. Plus, this was back in the early 1950s, which was a confusing time for a lot of people, particularly for people who counted on time being linear, one thing following another, one foot in front of the other, one breath after the other, from cradle to grave, accounting for all the time between birth and death, but accounting for none of the time between death and birth.

  Mina made an attempt to get that confusion squared away early and often. “They say you’ve been here from the very start, and you’ll be here to the very end,” she told Rick Overlooking Horse when he was just nine years old. “Every last drop of you and everything around you. Nothing has ever been taken away. Nothing will ever be added.” Then she sighed as if the very idea exhausted and perhaps saddened her. “Ayeee, they say that’s true for you, it’s true for You Choose, and it’s true for me. Yep, it’s true for the whole steaming, rotten lot of us.” Mina let this sink in for a moment. “Like that breath you just took. In the beginning, a dinosaur breathed that breath. Then a tree. Then an ant. Then you, now me. And maybe it’ll be You Choose next. Or maybe that breath will sink to the bottom of the ocean for one of those blind, ugly fish. Or maybe it will be someone’s dying breath. You see? They say you just borrowed that breath. It wasn’t yours to begin with and it won’t be yours to end with.”

  Rick Overlooking Horse’s Tiny, Blown Mind

  Nine-year-old Rick Overlooking Horse gave this a lot of thought, and his mind did what all minds have done since time immemorial while dealing with such a boundless, mysterious, obdurate idea. It blew up. Quite literally, it stopped working the way most people’s minds work and it started off on its own kick. And that made Rick Overlooking Horse sleepless and also exalted. It was like angels should have been hovering in the clouds above his head, singing a chorus of sweet surrender. It was like his mind should have been able to trip heavenward on shafts of sunlight. It was like that.

  Rick Overlooking Horse tried to come to some resolution about why he had chosen to be born now, at this time. He felt he needed some certainty, something that would make him feel less vulnerable, less miraculous, less unlikely. But in the end, he could not comprehensively solve a single thing about the reasons for his existence. All his answers opened trapdoors to further questions and those in turn revealed yet more trapdoors that slapped open to yet more unanswered questions.

  Rick Overlooking Horse concluded that even half believing that you might be part of an incomprehensible, infinite, celestial phenomenon does not necessarily help a person figure out what to do with the bit of more or less graspable earthly life he or she has been given. For a start, he reasoned, a lot of what you do with your life depends on the body you find yourself in. To be born at this time, in this place, a more or less whole and healthy human being, for example, surely brings with it different complications and obligations than being born a more or less whole and healthy nematode more or less any time or place, let’s just say.

  “So, here I am,” Rick Overlooking Horse thought, “and here it is: My life, as a human being. What are my choices?”

  Well, Mina would argue that just for starters, being born into this world, in this time, was one choice. “You could have chosen not to be born now.” She says this to You Choose whenever he winds himself up to whining pitch, which is often. “You could have been born when you had a chance to hunt buffalo, and live the way of All Our Ancestors. Yeah, and don’t look at me like that, little Tapeworm. You ain’t my doing. You’re your doing.”

  Although to be fair to the choosers, Rick Overlooking Horse figured, perhaps almost all choices are mostly illusion given that alm
ost all people seemed to be in a prison of their own making: Mina Overlooking Horse in a prison of resentment; You Choose Watson in a prison of need; some of the More Concerned Immediate Relations in a prison of fear, despair, and/or anger.

  And for certain almost all people are in a prison of someone else’s making. The way Rick Overlooking Horse saw it, one go-around, for example, a person might be a Oglala Lakota Oyate with the whole, high plains of buffalo to hunt. Next go-around, he’s a Red Nigger orphan stuck with cornmeal, commodity cheese and beans, and Mina Overlooking Horse for a caretaker. Was that your choice, really?

  Mina Overlooking Horse’s Winter Count

  Waníyetu. Meaning, from first snowfall to first snowfall.

  Wówapi. Meaning, flat surface.

  Waníyetu wówapi. Meaning, Winter Count.

  The year she got the boys, Mina Overlooking Horse drew two round bundles with wide-open mouths that represented the boys, and a bigger stick figure with a straight-across mouth that represented her. She wrote the number 216, and underneath it, the number 12. Then she drew a line under that, and wrote 204. Every Winter Count after that, the stick figures of the children grew taller and thinner, and the stick figure that represented her grew shorter and fatter. And every year, Mina Overlooking Horse subtracted another 12 months from her sentence as reluctant caretaker.

  192, 180, 168, 156

  Winter Count after Winter Count.

  Winter Count after Winter Countdown.

  “Oh, take them from me,” Mina Overlooking Horse had prayed the words aloud one night after both boys had eaten larkspur flowers and spent two days vomiting and sweating and twitching. And then she had slapped her hand over her mouth and held her breath because someone had once told her that in order to think, you had to get oxygen to the brain, and Mina Overlooking Horse did not want to think about what it was she had just said, or why.

  Then, in 1952, when they were eight, and Mina Overlooking Horse’s Winter Count was down by 96, the boys were shipped off to Fort Carmichael Indian Boarding School in Oklahoma, where the matron shaved their heads, threw away their beads, and burned their blankets. The following year, Mina Overlooking Horse’s stick-figure boys looked willow thin, and hollow eyed. The figure that represented her had its arms stretched out, as if reaching for someone or perhaps pushing someone away.