Cal Thunder Hawk
The Wolf in Winter
The moon was full in the clear night sky. The bleak South Dakota prairie was covered with snow. North of the little town of Rosebud, on the Rosebud Sioux Indian reservation, where the valley of pine rises to the prairie, a solitary light glowed from the window of a small house on the ridge. In a tiny, dark room lined with walls of books on shelves, a woman with an ink pen in her right hand sat on a chair at an old, wooden desk. The orange beam of a kerosene lamp softly gleamed across the blank sheets of paper on the desk in front of her. She gazed at the moon through the window. She smiled, turned to her desk and wrote:
Dearest Ha Ly:
Beloved daughter, over these last several years since I retired from teaching English at the tribal community college, I have had much time to consider the many ways in which my life has been fulfilled. I wanted to write to you and tell you once more how much I love you. At times such as this, although I miss you very much, I have only to look at the beautiful barrette that you beaded for me when you were a young girl. I keep it here by my desk. Its beauty is consoling to me because it reminds me of you. It seems like only yesterday that you patiently strung the delicate, colored beads together with a slender needle and thread. Even as a child, purple was your favorite color and your favorite symbol was a heart. You beaded this lovely design of tiny purple hearts upon a white background onto the tanned, soft deer hide until they became this beautiful ornament for my hair. Long ago, in much the same loving way, your father strung musical notes into wonderful songs just as I now try to string these simple words together in this letter to you.
Now that you have completed your schoolwork at the university in southern California, I hope that you will soon return home to the reservation with your husband and your beautiful daughter for the Christmas and New Year holiday seasons. If you have become used to the warmth and sunshine of California, I am sure that your visit here will be an occasion that will inspire fond memories of the sunny beaches there. In fact, another winter storm here has passed.
I know that my love of winter snow storms has always amused you. After all, I grew up where we had only the monsoon. So, although my fascination with winter storms is partly because of this, winter is the fondest time of the year for me, especially here, because it reminds me so much of your father.
I just returned from a long walk through a snow storm tonight. I almost became lost and surely I would have had I not walked this trail so often over the last thirty years. But the wind and clouds have disappeared into the east. The sky has cleared and the night is still. The moon is full. The full moon here in South Dakota glows a brilliant silver blue, like the fine, sunlit sapphire crystals of the beautiful Da Lat waterfall mists against the shadows in the highlands of Viet Nam. Stunning moonlighted nights such as this, when I was a child, inspired us to sing songs of children on the moon carrying lighted lanterns to the opulent palace of the moon goddess Hang Nga.
I have often taken exhilarating long walks alone through the snow-covered prairie on clear nights like tonight. If you recall, my house sits on the northern edge of the little town of Rosebud: on the ridge where the valley rises to the sandy prairie that opens to the north -- towards the hospital and beyond. Long ago, your father and I chose this location for our home because its isolation afforded us our preference for privacy. The wonderful gifts that only this solitude has made possible have been blessings, especially on nights such as these when the dark sky is filled with brilliant stars: Starlight that travels in a soundless flight at such incredible speeds far across the cold, vast emptiness of space only to strike the bough of an evergreen pine tree here and cast but a shadow beneath it. But even the dark shadows are sprinkled with a fine pelisse of snow that glitters and sparkles with the reflected starlight while the surrounding soft snow drifts glow with a light blue tint.
On nights such as this one, I love to walk among the pine trees on the hills just behind my house and listen to the wind blow softly through the heavy boughs thick with dark jade needles. It is a beautiful sound that transcends the sense of time and space; it is a celebration of survival in the darkest nights of the harshest season; it is testament to a profound endurance that calms the powerful restlessness of the bitter wind and gives a soothing voice to its contemplations. At such times, I can understand at least some of the many reasons that the Lakhota people love winter so much that they define their years, their ages, in terms of winters.
Your people, the Lakhota, have a word, “paza.” It is a word that is associated with trees, pine trees, especially. It is a word that describes a concept about the sacred: A spiritual aspiration to be as erect and strong in deeds, words and prayer as a tree that endures the fiercest winds and yet flourishes in the harshest winters -- in much the same way that your love for me has sustained me through my difficult times. My love for you is like the soft, eternal moonlight that illuminates these paths among the pines, paths that have led me into distant, timeless realms that lie far, far beyond this beautiful terrain.
You know, I initially decided to remain here only until you were grown and on your own. But as the winters passed, and as I came to know and love the Lakhota people and their land, I knew that I could never leave the place and the people that I got to see and understand through my daughter’s heart and now through the heart of my granddaughter, too.
Long ago, when I was a young woman, your father brought me here to live and raise our family. I have told you this story many times because it was important that you should understand some things about me but I would like to tell you even more now.
Your father was a full-blood Lakhota born and reared on this reservation. He enlisted in the marines when he was only seventeen-years old and he had been ordered into military intelligence because of his fluency in languages. He had been trained to speak South Vietnamese at a military language school and he served as an interrogator-translator during the war. He found me there, in South Viet Nam, after an attack on my village one night during the harvest full moon festival.
The attack was unexpected. We suspected nothing at all. We were preparing a feast for the village. Suddenly, a horrifying salvo of artillery shells exploded and sheared off the tops of trees in the canopy far above our village and buried me underneath the fronds far below. Bright red streaks of tracer rounds from machine gun fire came at us from all directions of the jungle and the air cracked with bullets. I heard men, women and children screaming. I ran home and I found my family lying on the floor of our burning hut. They had been killed and my home destroyed. I collapsed there. Although I survived the attack, I had been severely wounded and I could no longer walk. I desperately crawled around in the rainy darkness and I tried to escape but the artillery blasts knocked me to the ground and stunned me: the burning air was blown out of my lungs and I gasped for breath as I struggled out of the paralysis of each shock, only to be thrown down again by another explosion. Shrapnel had severed a tendon into my right hand so I could use only my left hand as I frantically groped about and looked for something -- anything, really -- that I could use to kill myself. I finally spotted a hand grenade on the body of a dead American soldier and I cried out with a powerful sense of relief; for I had witnessed a horrible massacre, you see, and I suspected that I would be tortured and killed by the Americans because I alone had survived. I quickly grabbed the grenade and carefully held onto it as I looked for a place where I could safely kill myself: I was determined to die, not only as a way to escape my pain and terror but I no longer wished to live. I found an empty rice storage pit. I rolled into it and curled around the grenade. I pulled the pin with my teeth and I released the handle. I held the grenade to my heart. I laid there and I waited -- prayed -- for the grenade to explode.
I truly thought that I had died because I opened my eyes and the silhouette of a creature -- a wolf -- was above me. Against a background of flames and the smothering thick clouds of smoke, it whimpered, growled and barked as it dug towards me through the rubble. It looked like a diabolical demon from out of the hell of wars and I thought that I heard the dog speak to me in Vietnamese. It was your father’s voice. Behind the dog, he yelled commands to the dog. and speaking to me from behind his trained scout dog named “Shunka Manitu” -- it means “wolf” in Lakhota. The dog had been trained to locate mines, booby traps and humans. It had somehow detected me. Maybe it had smelled the smoke from the fuse of the grenade in my hand; for I had only fainted, you see, and the grenade had failed to explode. That was when your father found me and had me flown out to a hospital on a helicopter.
He had been ordered to interrogate me: the only survivor of that massacre. So, my rescue there and the medical attention I later received was based only on the use that I could provide to them. I became a witness and I needed to be protected and kept alive.