Excerpted from Bonnie Nadzam’s new novel Lions available now from Grove Atlantic.
Today, where the old highway connects with the frontage road that takes you to the new highway, there’s a one-room schoolhouse that appears and disappears in the huge weeds—the giant papery green docks and goosefoot-shaped leaves of lambsquarter. When it’s lit up, you can see the old brass bell tolling, though it makes no sound. When Leigh was a girl, she begged May to tell and retell the tale.
A woman from out east who had once been the school- teacher, a twenty-six-year-old Honora Strong, betrothed to her second cousin, a wheat farmer, was held responsible for the death of every single one of her nineteen young students, aged four to fifteen, frozen to death in a sudden, late-spring blizzard. Though she herself didn’t survive to be hanged or cast out for it, she was caught forever on the highway looking for them. Sometimes in a high wind, you can hear them crying, and her calling them by name.
She lived in a room adjacent to the schoolhouse, with a bedstead and a stove, and had sent her students home, hoping they’d be ahead of the storm, because she was expecting a lover. He went by Miller—David Wayne Miller—and he had been seeing her off and on for two years as he traversed the countryside, east to west and north to south. He was from Utah, though his family were Germans and Swedes out of South Dakota. He had small eyes the color of stone, dark hair raked with silver, and a barrel-shaped torso. Though he wasn’t a tall man, he called himself a big guy, which was accurate in the sense that he took up all the space in a room, left none for anyone else to talk, nor air for them to breathe. He had, somewhere, a wife and two children—and had, somewhere else, another wife, and another child. To all of his women he made promises he couldn’t keep, and left each one of them trapped in her hometown, waiting for him to make good on all his words.
Like so many of the westerners who broke the land and occupied positions of influence, May told Leigh—the sheets and yellow wool blanket pulled up to her chin, her small white fingers curled around the satin binding—David Wayne Miller was a sunny liar, a good storyteller, a hard worker and an expert, cold-hearted son of a bitch. He came out of every shoot-out, every rotten horse trade, and every madam’s house smelling like a rose. For every crime he committed, for every life he ruined, there was a fabulous story to stand in for the truth.
“And you know what?” May asked her daughter. “People loved the stories. They wanted them. People say they want the truth but they don’t. They want a story.”
“I want a story.”
“I know you do.”
According to the historical record, David Wayne Miller was seen some five or six years after the death of Honora Strong and her students, in Deadwood, in a gunfight with a man who was no better than he was and who thus recognized a sick and horrible man when he saw one. Miller survived the fight, and, it is said, took up a stethoscope and paraded around the West as a traveling surgeon praised for his healing arts, and died rich, fat, and happy at an old age on a ranch in southeast Wyoming, surrounded by admirers.
“Green River?” Leigh asked her mother from her narrow bed.
“But he’s dead? For sure?”
“There is no man more dead than this man.”
Nobody could guess where the schoolteacher had met him. Once Honora could see Miller wasn’t coming that frigid spring day, and the windows were half blocked with blue snow, then within an hour completely blocked and blackened, and there was no more wood in the box to burn, and it was hours before dawn, she confessed the entire matter in writing. In the days after, children were exhumed out of their empire of snow, their pointed faces blue, their eyelashes frosted with ice. The schoolteacher was likewise discovered, the confession stuffed in her frozen bosom.
A world of hurt. That, May Ransom told her daughter, is what comes of choosing the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then waiting for him, waiting for him. There are good and decent men in this world, she told her daughter, and there are men like he was: touched by darkness, and eventually, overcome by it.
When the old schoolhouse materializes out of nothing on the side of the road, it’s as clean and white as the day it was built, the bright bell shining in its square-shaped wooden tower, and passersby from behind the windshields of their Pontiacs and Hondas, driving from Chicago to LA or Omaha to Reno, have seen the poor woman right beside it in a long brown- and rose- colored dress, her thick, curling red hair blowing as if she, alone, were on fire in the midst of a terrible storm.
Such tales of children and their schoolteachers or bus drivers caught in sudden snowstorms on the plain are all too com- mon; some still say that David Wayne Miller is behind the death of every one of them.
“Because every wrong man,” May told Leigh every time, while the girl watched the shadows of the cottonwood bend and lengthen on the wall behind her mother’s head, “is the same wrong man.”
To get inside the factory they went not over the razor wire, but beneath a curled lip of chain-link that as children they’d disguised by tacking back down with a railroad spike in a hole that took all day to pick out, the pale dirt so hard and dry it was no more fertile than moon rock. They say in its first years of being tilled there were nearly a hundred kinds of wheat growing in the county, and fifty kinds of oats, and flowering fields of green and white alfalfa of such prodigious harvests that at the World’s Fair that year, grand prizes for both comb and strained alfalfa honey went to Lions. They say the nights were uniformly cool and the days were full of sunshine, that there was no such thing as mud or dust, only loamy black soil the consistency of dense chocolate cake, and root vegetables as big as your head. Some of the old-timers, however, might snort and tell you such stories don’t amount to much more than how a sense of loss can lead a person to imagine an overabundant past. If for a short time the story people told themselves about the place involved bushels of grain, melons big as wagon wheels, and ten pound sugar beets, so much the worse for the ground that yielded them. Where once there had been wild onions and yams, buffalo, antelope, bears, and streams of fish, Lions’ earliest residents envisioned cattle, wheat, hog feed, expansive homes. When the former were decimated, the place became inhospitable, the sun hostile, the dirt shallow and as fine and dry as chaff. Their mistake was not in failing to see how difficult it would be to turn this place into a garden, but in failing to see that it had already been one when they arrived.
Sometimes when Leigh stepped inside the dim and rosy light of the empty factory, she felt something touch the back of her shoulder as if to warn her away. She was conscious of whispers and shadows moving across the wall, pricked by a nagging feeling not so much of alarm, or of fear, but of naked longing. The kind of feeling you get when you see the taillights of a single car disappearing over the curved ridge of earth in the last light of day. Wasn’t it pulling something of yourself along with it? There was a powerful spirit in the factory, she tried to tell Gordon. Something unsettled, a darkness that felt alive despite its stillness. He asked her to point to it. She slapped at him.
What had been the second story floor had begun to buckle and crack, so that sun and moonlight splintered at odd angles in strange, bright patterns overhead. It was old flatiron construction, with massive beams of riveted steel. Broken slatted boards were nailed and rotting over long, narrow arched windows. On more than one occasion the feeling the place gave Leigh raised the hair on her forearms and scared her outside. Once Gordon not only laughed at her, he planted his feet, threw his head back, and asked whatever was there if it wouldn’t show its face. Come out of hiding.
“It will kill you,” she whispered from the doorway.
“If it’s so important,” he said, “ignoring it will kill you.”
Only one man’s story from the factory survived from the days before it finally shut down, if you could trust Marybeth Sharpe, now ninety-three years old and still living above her junk shop next to the bar. The man was from Rushville, Nebraska, or maybe it was Valentine or Alliance, Marybeth couldn’t quite recall, but some small town up there where she had cousins on her father’s side. The factory and fields employed scores of men and women to crawl on hands and knees from April to November thinning and blocking the rows to make space for big beets, to maximize teaspoons of sugar per vegetable—it was crippling work—but the Rushville man was lucky. He was neither a Spanish-speaking migrant nor an immigrant, so his job was inside.
The factory was the same maze of pipes, diffusion cells, flumes, and tanks you’d find in there today, but all the steel now rust-bitten and corroded was at that time a bright blue metal. Rushville’s job was on the first floor of the north side, where great agitators blended sugar beet juice with lime. He was to produce the lime rock in a massive coke oven. Around him in stacks of red brick and twists of metal were narrow metal staircases and fires, hot water, towers of steam. The decaying beet mash in the plumbing stank like hellrot, and where it was outside of the plumbing, it slicked every walking surface with slime. On a day when the graining screens malfunctioned, which was common enough, Rushville was on shift. He shut off the steam and began disassembling the heating drum, but when he unfastened the bolts, gallons of scalding water poured out over him from above. You can imagine the screams of steam, the screams from the man, the terror in the hearts of his fellow workers, who would have been torn between helping and shielding themselves. Outside in the fields, the men and women stopped crawling over the bony soil and listened. The sun roared down on them. In most versions of the story, Rushville did not die. Years after the accident, after he had healed from the immediate burns and skin grew over him in a sheen of pink plasticky flesh, his face unrecognizable, his hands missing most of their fingers, his wife birthed a baby girl.
It was the bundle of these last few details that haunted Gordon and Leigh, the white ovals of their faces uplifted in the dusty junkshop as Marybeth described the strange little family and the long, low, dilapidated potato barn they inhabited. Thinking of the transformation of that man, of all the mornings he woke without a face anyone would recognize as human, missing pieces of his hands, his arms immobilized by hardening scar tissue. Imagine him, this man, making love to his wife. What mettle or faith must have been required of her to withstand, then overcome such difficulty? And not just required of her, but of him, and of their daughter, too, who never left them, and, it was said, was buried beside them back home in Nebraska.
“Staying power,” Marybeth Sharpe said, her twisted-up hair already white as bone. “This was a good man,” she said. “You understand? And a very good woman.” She pointed her eyes and nose at each of them, one after another. “Ok. Get out. That’s all you need to know.”
Sometimes in the factory with nothing better to do, as tonight, Leigh remembered Rushville in a ceremony of her own design, in order to ward off such unexpected tragedy. It was not so much an act of faith as part of a bargain: in exchange for the time the ceremony took from her life was a promise that things would go well for her, that all the rumors of abundance and health and wealth and progress would be bestowed upon her, and she would avert disaster. All of this good fortune would come to her precisely because she had taken the time to perform this liturgy, one that would keep her safe and happy because she’d written it that way.
In the factory, she kept blindfolds. A fistful of bruised weeds—thistle and toadflax and knapweed—for fragrance. Tonight, the light was changing outside the window from blue to black. A nightjar purred in the dead box elder tree, clenched like a bony hand against the evening sky. All these things had their place.
Leigh and Gordon sat crosslegged on the concrete in the dust, knee to knee to knee to knee, and tied torn scraps of threadbare pillowcases around their eyes, knotting them at the backs of their heads. Gordon reached up first, and touched Leigh’s cheekbone. She returned a touch in the same place on his own face: right cheekbone. Their hands floated in the darkening room from one body part to another. A single white-throated swift darted above them and swooped out into the blue square of light. She touched his chin. He touched her chin, then opened his hand on the crown of her head. Crown of his head. Bottom of her feet, left then right, until they touched each other everywhere Marybeth had told them the man had been burned. They touched each other purposefully and lightly, with a brush of fingers as soft as fescue when you’re stretched out in the summer grass, and the day is as long as a season, the season as long as a year.
When they finished and removed their blindfolds, her eyes were filled with tears. Gordon laughed at her.
“You get so into it.”
She ran her sleeve beneath her nose. “Well, it matters,” she said.
“I just like to touch that place on your throat.” He stood and pulled her up.
“You have to put your heart into it, Gordon. Or something bad could happen to you.”
Gordon knocked on her head. She snatched his fist and bit his knuckles.
“So superstitious,” he said.
“You really want to risk being wrong?”
“You’re getting religious on me.”
“I am not.”
Of all its haunts, one of the scariest places in Lions was Echo Station, named after a children’s game featuring an abandoned gas station on the far west end of town where giant weeds had cracked up the concrete and spread the broken pieces apart like a clay dish shattered against the hard ground.
It hadn’t been a large gas station, just a single bay wide enough to pull in and lift a single car, and a small, glass-cased room with a register and cooler, and a toilet behind a small door. The glass had long since been broken, and there’d been nothing in the place in recent days but a single piece of bent rebar pointing like a bony finger right at the doorway, where you’d stand looking in. The gas station had been built on the same site as an old sod stagecoach station of a hundred years before, which had later been chosen as the spot for Lions’ railroad station. There’d been tremendous hope that the railroad would be directed through Lions. It would have enlivened the town and brought all kinds of people and quality products and services everyone missed from back east. Burnsville, however, was chosen instead. So even when the gas station was new, it was felt sharply as a place of disappointment. Add to this that the gas station didn’t last a single year—a town the size of Lions didn’t need two, and the Gas & Grocer had bread and canned food and fresh milk. Given the chance, the people of Lions might have excised it from their maps of town. It was a symbol of regret, of bad decisions, of misplaced hope.
After its owners left for Denver, the station was looted and for years stood empty and open to the elements. It ate all the sleet and rain and sun and wind, and seemed when you passed by to want to suck you in, as well. First, children in the backseats of their parents’ cars took to holding their breath when they passed it. Then they began visiting the place on foot, in twos and threes, the way people in a larger city might go to have their palms read, or fortunes told.
You were supposed to stand before the empty gas station alone—your friends had to wait a good hundred meters off— then close your eyes, make three counter-clockwise circles, count backward from twelve, and open your eyes. Immediately in the space before you, the dust and light would take the form of either a past or future self who had some kind of directive. This could be a single word, an image, a feeling, or the name of a distant city. It might be the shape of something, like a key or an apple or a door that you would have to look for in your life as a sign by which to get your bearings. But as you stood there before the whirling dust at Echo Station, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were being guided by a self who was young and full of wishes, or old and full of wisdom—so the sign could either lead you to a life of peace and abundance or of poverty and bitter sorrow. Once you put your faith in Echo Station, however, and closed your eyes and turned the three circles, it was too late. Your fate was sealed, your direction chosen.
It was a game that had almost passed out of knowledge by the time Leigh and Gordon were kids in Lions, and it was Dock who told them about it. They were at the diner eating ice cream and pie one summer night, and Annie had just taken Emery to the bathroom. Boyd was new in town that summer and up at the counter talking to May, who kept smoothing her hair and smiling.
“We wanted a ghost story,” Gordon said when Dock told him and Leigh about the game. “That’s not a ghost.”
“I don’t know,” Dock said. “Scary enough for me. I wouldn’t play it, that’s for sure.”
“Really?” Leigh asked. She licked her spoon. “You never did?”
“Nope,” Dock said. “Never have, never will. Grownups know better than to go looking into the abyss. Besides. Don’t I already know how my life turned out?”
“Scaredy-cat,” Leigh said.
“You bet I am.”
“Let’s do it, Gordon,” Leigh said.
Gordon put his napkin on his empty plate. “No,” he said slowly. “I think I’m with Dock.”
“I don’t get it, anyway,” he said. “You won’t even know if you’ll get rich and happy or sad and poor. You’ll just know that you’ve made it stick.”
“That’s right, Gordon,” Dock said, and pointed at him. “Don’t even play that game.”
Gordon crossed his arms and smiled and repeated it to Leigh. “Don’t even play it.”
“Oh, shut up. You’re so boring.”
That night Leigh walked alone through town in her nightgown and tennis shoes, and stood among weeds almost shoulder high, and closed her eyes, and made three circles in the dark. On her way home, smiling, she stooped in the middle of the road and drew a heart in the dust with her finger.
There’s one about an old homesteader with hair the color of milk poured out around her waist and knees and rippling across the hard-packed dirt floor. It’s after this spirit that May Ransom named the diner on Jefferson Street. They say that Lucy Graves never leaves her house, its walls years ago regularly whitened with unslaked lime from the river bed, now dry and brown as stacked matches and surrounded by burnt gardens of splintered glass and broken farm machinery. The old place was north of the Gas & Grocer, back up the Monger Road and half a mile behind the coulee among the weeds.
If you’re up there and pay attention—aching blue sky overhead, mute roar of eighteen wheelers on the highway behind you, miniscule flies swinging in loose knots over the tops of Queen Anne’s Lace—continuity stops. All time reduces to one moment, this moment, all moments the same one, this one, and there she’ll be before you, plain as the hands at the ends of your arms.
All day, every day, she crochets elaborate spiderwebbed doilies of her own hair, weaving in bird feathers, seeding grasses, the shoelace tails of field mice, and tiny braids of fur from the hides of dead cattle, dead deer, and dead rats. She’ll tell you about it, what brought all the settlers out and for a time trapped them on his huge, wide-open ground: misguided longing.
You feel it too, she’ll say, waving her chalk white hands in the shadowed room. But don’t you chase it.
They told us stories, she’ll tell you. And we believed them. Don’t believe them. Use your eyes. Use the five good senses God gave you. Use the six.
She’ll tell you they were looking for paradise, for they’d been promised nothing less. It was a story they repeated to each other so often in their journey west that even as they laid eyes on the plains, they believed it, still. All around them, at last, a spacious country—newly cleared—in which to live as God intended men and women to live, to manifest the living Word with every pass of the plough, to amass a little of the abundance the good Lord had assured them, and to show the rest of the world what such blessings and prosperity looked like.
When it grew hot, however, and the rains stopped, the sun baked the ground. They scoured the greasewood plain and shallow rivers for as many creatures as they could find, kill, and eat. The men named their guns. The women who had lost their children named the birds and stones and missing trees, the folds of country rising up to the north into whipped peaks of dust and cracked rock.
All the while she speaks, this Lucy Graves still believes it’s sometime in May, 1870 and she’ll politely ask for passage back east. Going west, she’ll tell anyone who will listen, was a terrible mistake.
“I could be that woman,” May Ransom would sometimes say to the groups of college girls passing through on their way back to the Front Range when they read the Lucy Graves story on the backs of their laminated menus. But they never asked where May was from, and they didn’t need further explanation.
They could see the town they had stopped in, and they could imagine living there.