Photo credit: Carlos Avila Gonzalez
Tucked into a corner of South Dakota, 60 miles east of Rapid City and just north of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, are the Badlands — over 240,000 acres of layered rock, canyons, and grasslands. It is the rock that I most remember, each one rising out of the earth like a cathedral, all towering spires and pinnacles and buttes. Eroded by wind and water, and impossibly desolate. The Lakota named it “Mako Sica,” meaning “land bad,” and yet, there I was: alone, unsure, and absolutely terrified.
No one accidentally
ends up in a cabin in the Badlands. After attempting to write yet another novel that was going nowhere, I was crestfallen. The latest attempt had sent me into a tailspin so fierce and annihilating that months went by during which, every day, I sat down at my computer in my apartment in San Francisco, stared at the blank screen for two or three hours, and then decided, “I can’t do this. I can’t write a novel. I don’t know how.”
Maybe I didn’t. But then, maybe I did. How would I ever really
Around this time, a friend told me about his mom’s cabin in South Dakota. “It’s new,” he said. “No one’s ever lived there. And it’s extraordinarily isolated.”
“Isolated?” I asked. “How isolated?”
Three miles from the nearest town. Population: 47.
The first storm hit three days after I arrived. That first storm. Nothing — not in all of my life — had prepared me for that first storm.
I had arrived in the Badlands on a beautiful, gleaming July afternoon. The golden grasses waved in the wind. The distant rock formations looked benign and unassuming. The sun shone so warm and untouched and ancient that I felt like the only person to have ever walked under it. Certainly, in the middle of that open prairie, I felt like a pioneer — with a borrowed pickup instead of a wagon, and with a novel to write rather than a homestead to build. But there was no question — as I washed my dinner dishes under the stars, in a bucket of water captured from rain runoff — that I was giddy with the thought that Ma had probably washed dishes in just this way, in just such a landscape, in the Little House on the Prairie
books I’d grown up reading.
Who hasn’t read those books and wanted the adventure of the open prairie? And here I was, finally living the romance of those days: no television, no Internet, and a barely functioning transistor radio. And not a soul for miles.
The skies had opened up, and out had poured, flashed, and boomed every fear I had ever harbored.
During those first days, I was too busy unpacking, clattering dishes, and setting up my computer to notice a thing that should’ve been obvious from the start: the silence. I looked up on the second day, out the window, and realized that nothing on that prairie was moving. Not a single blade of grass, not an animal, not a bird, not even the wind, which seemed to have packed its bags in the dead of night and made a hasty departure.
I thought, silence isn’t so bad. Better to write a novel by.
The next morning, staring again at a blank screen, I saw a copse of clouds in the distance, against a corner of the vast western sky. They were lovely, floating there, sweet and scudding, like the distant strains of a favorite song. I wrote one paragraph. And then I wrote another. By early afternoon, the clouds were closer. Not much, but a little. But now, they were no longer a charming pile of fluffy clouds, but more organized, heavy. And they were stretched along the entire western horizon. A whole page, I wrote. Watching them, I wrote a whole page.
Then came the wind. I listened with relief.
The rest is a blur.
Within seconds, it seemed, the clouds grew horribly dark. As if an interior light, somewhere inside the clouds, had been switched off. And then they were overhead. And then they were on me. Unleashing a storm so powerful, so apocalyptic, that I crouched in a corner, trembling. The rain lashed the windows, screaming to be let in. The thunder was mythic, cannon fire crashing through the cabin. And the lightening: from every side. A murderous embrace of exploding electric heat, white and venomous. In my corner I stayed, convinced that the cabin would be ripped from its hinges and flung like a toy. I would die, of that too I was certain.
What is it about storms? True storms?
It passed after a few minutes. A few minutes that felt like a lifetime. The skies had opened up, and out had poured, flashed, and boomed every fear I had ever harbored. And all the loneliness and despair of all the years. All the years of writing, submitting, rejection, drowning, rising, and writing. Repeating.
The next day it was quiet. Not a cloud in the sky. Back to silence.
After that first storm, this silence felt even more profound. More disorienting. I looked out into the stillness — the awful, awful stillness — and wondered, Where does this silence end? Does it end?
Hours upon hours would go by before I heard the slightest wisp of a sound. Sometimes it was the thin drone of a car on an unseen road. Sometimes it was the lowing of a faraway cow. Once it was a bird, flying past my window. Just as it passed, the bird chirped. The gift of that one chirp was so life-giving, so pure, so like salvation that my eyes warmed with tears.
Sometimes that is all we are, all we are tasked to be: reverent.
And so the weeks passed. The pendulous weeks that swung between absolute silence and absolute storm. The romance — of the sunlit prairie, of living the pioneer life of Laura Ingalls Wilder — was obliterated. But what took its place was something harder, something closer to stone. Something very much like that rock that has stood for thousands of years. And one page led to another. And then another. As my characters traveled across continents, pursued and pinioned, I sat alone in a lone cabin, pursued and pinioned.
Three months later: a novel.
I rarely think of the world as black and white. It is almost always shades of gray. But for one summer, in the Badlands of South Dakota, the world was a binary place. There was storm. Or there was silence. Sound, I realized at the end of that summer, is a great and consoling friend. The buzz of a lawnmower. The blare of a car horn. The music from a neighboring apartment. All of these are benedictions. All of these remind us that we are not alone. But every now and again, in life, maybe the binary is also a reminder. Also a consolation. Also a clarification.
Can you withstand storm? Yes.
Can you withstand silence? Yes.
Can you write a novel? Yes.
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moved to the United States from India at the age of seven. She is the author of the short story collection An Unrestored Woman
. She is the winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, and her story "Kavitha and Mustafa" was chosen by T. C. Boyle for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2015
. She lives in San Francisco. Girls Burn Brighter
is her first novel.