The story that follows is the first piece of fiction to appear on Nevada Narratives. It occurs to me that many of you may not know the story of Wovoka and the Ghost Dance and that references to this story may confuse you. You can find out more about Wovoka by clicking this link.
I hope you enjoy this story. Part of the story is based on an experience I had at the Overland. You can guess which parts are true and which are purely fiction. Have fun.
by Suzanne Stormon
On a clear 1889 morning in Mason Valley, Nevada, the new messiah Wovoka stood before representatives of Indian tribes from all over the country. Sitting Bull and the others listened quietly as he spoke.
“Dance and have faith my brothers. A new day is coming to us. Dance in the disappearance of the white man and his ways. Our mother earth will be swept clean. Dance often for only thus can our dead be brought back to life and our trampled earth be renewed. The dance will protect you from your enemies. Have no fear.”
When Wovoka was through speaking to them, the pilgrims returned to their people with the news. The desperate, hopeful Ghost Dance spread throughout the land.
“Hey, Calamity Jane, over here,” a customer yells at me from the 21 tables. “I want to play keno.”
Turning toward the voice, I focus my attention on the short, squatty man at the table. From his expectant expression, I can tell he wants the whole Wild-West keno-runner show.
I give him my biggest grin, slip in between the stools and get close enough so my arm rests softly against his shoulder. My holster and gun are wedged between his hip and mine.
“Where’s your ticket?” I ask.
“Show me how to play first,” the man said, looking more closely at my gun.
“That’s a toy isn’t it?”
“You’d better hope so,” I laugh.
I hand him a ticket and a crayon. “Mark eight or nine numbers and give me two bucks. If you hit ‘em all, you’ll be rich, otherwise you’ll help pay my wages.” I wink at him.
“Either way, it’s a great deal.”
Happy enough to play my little game, he marks the ticket and hands me enough money for the ticket and a big tip.
I just can’t believe how much fun Reno Rodeo Days are. We get to wear jeans and western clothes all week. The toy gun my roommate’s kid lent me looks real and it really puts me over the top.
Now, I normally don’t like guns – spent a couple of years protesting the war right before I got to Reno. But, this town makes it easy to forget who you think you are. The casino is too noisy to think and the walls are covered with paintings of gunslingers like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. There’s even a painting of Virginia City’s richest, most well-respected whore, Julia Bulette.
All I know is that tonight, wearing the gun seems like harmless fun. Everybody loves it and I’m making more money than I’ve ever made before.
By 2:00 A.M., when my shift is over, I’m so hyper there’s no way I’m going home. I meet my friends in the basement bar as usual. The last thing I want to do is just sit around and talk. I need some sort of action.
“I’m tired of this cave! Let’s go somewhere.”
“We ought to go dancing,” Danny pipes in.
I can tell he’s all wound up like me.
“Let’s go to the Mid-Bar. I hear they have a great jukebox,” he suggests.
Danny and I think it’s a great idea, but the others think we’re nuts. The Mid-Bar is the Indian bar right down the alley. The same guy who owns the Overland, where we work, owns that place too. But white people don’t go in there often. All we know about it comes from the bartender who works relief shift over there.
“You’re crazy to even think about going over to that place,” Bob says to Danny. Then he turns to me and says, “You remember what happened to that tourist who walked in there.”
“We’ll be fine,” I argue. “We know a lot of the people who go in there. They come in here too.”
Not convincing anyone, Danny and I go alone. We walk the few steps down the alley. Standing at the back door, I remember the gun and realize how ridiculous the idea really is.
“Listen Danny, maybe we shouldn’t go in there. I don’t have anywhere to hide this gun. It’s a little like Custer’s Last Stand.”
“Not you too. Doesn’t anyone know the Indian Wars are over? We won!”
I know I should leave, but I can hear the jukebox through the door. I really want to dance.
“O.K.” I say. Let’s go.”
I give him the gun. He sticks it in his jeans pocket so only the handle is showing. The holster swings from his hand.
As we slip in the back door, a few of the people at the bar stop talking and stare at us. They’re probably trying to decide if we came in by mistake.
“What are you doing here?” the bartender asks.
“We just came in for a drink, maybe to dance a while,” Danny answers.
He orders two beers and lays the holster on the bar. The bartender asks him about it and Danny explains it’s just a toy. The bartender takes it anyway.
“You can have it back when you leave,” he says. “I don’t want any trouble.”
I’m busy looking around the room. I’ve often wondered about this place. The Overland has plush red carpet and gaudy gilt-trimmed woodwork. There’s no carpet here at all, only old brown spotted linoleum, sticky with spilled beer. Its smell fills the room with its slightly sweet, stale odor. The once white walls are stained with smoke and grime. Voices and country music coming from the jukebox echo from the walls and high ceiling the way they would in an old abandoned barn.
Tom, a spindly old man that I’ve often talked to in the casino, walks up to Danny and points toward the gun in his pocket.
“It’s only a toy,” I tell him.
“Let me see it,” he demands, but Danny refuses.
Tom just glares at Danny. His starched long-sleeved white shirt and ironed blue jeans hint of serious pride. He shakes his head slowly and half staggers away.
“What did you do that for?” I ask Danny.
Before I get an answer, a middle-aged woman in a green calico blouse comes over and asks Danny to dance. They go to the big clear area in the middle of the room that serves as a dance floor.
A tall man I’ve never seen before asks me to dance, and we shuffle around the floor. I can see Tom going from person to person, pointing at Danny
As soon as that dance ends, someone else asks me to dance. Danny is dancing with another woman. Dance after dance, we each have new partners. Our welcome seems to depend on our continued dancing. I don’t dare sit one out. I’m beginning to feel I’m being tested.
I don’t know how long I’ve been dancing. The music is fast and I’m dancing hard. The words to the song fade and my dancing changes, gets looser. It’s less like nightclub dancing, my hips stop swaying from side to side. My arms hang at my sides and my feet move up and down in a steady rhythmic motion. I’m tired and sweating, but I feel like I could dance this way forever, moving from partner to partner, dance to dance. My bones, muscles, and skin respond to the beat of the drums.
All around me I see other dancers as streaks of color. A blue streak of jeans, red and yellow streaks of shirts, my turquoise plaid shirt blending in. Brown shoes on the brown floor. As I watch my feet, it seems I could be dancing on desert sands. Maybe we are out in the open, near sacred mountains, with the Big Dipper pouring starlight over our heads. Dancing on, I feel lighter.
Nearly everyone is dancing now. Danny and a woman he was dancing with earlier are standing on the outside of the dancing circle. He is leaning most of his weight on her and she is struggling to keep standing up straight. She obviously is not enjoying his company at all.
My throat is so dry, I go for another beer. I can just overhear the conversation at the end of the bar.
“Leave him alone. If we beat him up, the police will show up for sure. I don’t want to go to jail.”
“I don’t care. You saw that gun, and look how he’s treating Marguerite. He can’t get away with that.”
“Never mind. We don’t need to beat him up,” Tom says. “The old ways still work.”
I go to warn Danny¸ but he just brushes me off. He’s too busy kissing the woman’s neck and trying to get her to dance closer to him.
What an idiot! At least they said they weren’t going to beat him up, so I head back to the bar. A young man stops me and motions me out to the dance floor. As I dance, I notice a group of older men and women gathered in the corner with Tom. They watch us dance.
A Charley Pride tune is playing on the jukebox. I love his smooth voice, but I begin to hear something else in the air too. Little whispers flutter around the room. I can’t hear the words but the rhythm of the sound is slow and steady.
The chant swirls slowly and secretly at first, then stronger and faster. I can hear a few words. Earthquake…whirlwind…purification….whirlwind…whirlwind. Very far away I can still hear Charley Pride singing. But the voices, the chanting are close. I look around the room. No mouths are moving. Everyone but Danny and the woman are dancing now. Many men and women have linked arms. I can hear whooshing noises as if a great wind is blowing through the room. The wind smells like sage to me. The sage brings a memory of children standing in a ravine, crying.
I think I’m the only one who hears the crying. Then someone else says, “Listen, the children killed at Wounded Knee. They’re crying to come back. “
The wind pushes me to the back of the room. It’s icy cold, like the breath of men long dead. For the first time I really look at the man I’m dancing with. He’s tall and heavy-set and his long hair is pulled back into a ponytail. His skin still bears the faint marks of some old childhood pox. I can’t get any help from him in fighting the wind. His eyes are focused on something very far away.
From the corner, where the elders stand, I hear a sound like the flapping of wings. A black shadow rises to the ceiling, moves and rests above Danny and the woman.
Danny seems completely oblivious to what is happening. He’s standing behind her, whispering in her ear and rubbing his pelvis against her back.
I grab my partner’s arm.
“Keep dancing,” is all he says.
I dance. The woman with Danny is no longer bent under his weight. She is standing very straight. Her black hair is shining and her burnished gold blouse is shimmering.
There is another terrible gust, but the air seems dead around Danny. He looks smaller, confused.
The chanting is deafening now and there is the sound of drums, bells and rattles. All keeping time with the dancer’s feet.
I twirl and twirl with the music, using Danny as a focal point. On my last turn I look and, in an instant, Danny is gone-just gone. The woman is standing there alone. I feel so sick I can’t stay another minute. I run.
Outside, the sun has been up for several hours. Its glare on the white-painted building hurts my eyes. It’s cold in the car. The cold settles into my bones. By the time I get home I’m shaking uncontrollably.
I can’t wait to start a fire. In order to heat the small living room quickly, I close the drapes and the surrounding doors. I kneel in front of the woodstove and lay in crumpled paper, twigs and pine needles from the kindling box. When these start crackling, I add a cottonwood log, then another. Soon the cast iron stove is radiating the heat I need.
Still dancing to keep warm, I take off my clothes. I throw my boots into the corner. Soon my shirt and jeans are in the pile too. Finally, I stand naked next to the stove. I turn slowly to warm myself but all of a sudden I am exhausted. I sit on the rug in front of the worn salmon-colored couch. I pull my knees up to my chest and let my head rest on them. I can feel the dry heat and the sweet smell of the wood begin to sooth me.
The wind is blowing hard outside and tree branches are scratching against my window. I hear the crying again. At first I think it’s just the sound of the wind, but then it’s unmistakable. Crying-the terrible cries of children orphaned before their own deaths. The cries get louder and I cry along with them.
I’m not really afraid, but sad, and nervous, so nervous. I get up and pace, unable to settle down. I’m dripping sweat and my throat is parched and dry.
I go to the kitchen for some water, but I don’t drink it. Instead, for some reason I take it back and sprinkle it onto the stovetop where it sizzles and explodes into steam. I lean my face over and breathe it in. I close my eyes and wonder at the new peaceful presence in the room and in my body. The crying stops. All around me, nothing but silence except for the crackling of wood.
The dancing and pacing have made my legs so weak I can hardly stand. One more log and I sit. The heat has slowed down my body and, thank God, my thoughts too. I’m wet with sweat and all of a sudden I’m curious. I begin licking the sweat off my arms and shoulders. This is what a mother animal must do with her newborn. I taste salty and metallic.
I lie down on the floor and rest for a long time. I’m not sure how long I’ve been here. The only sounds I hear now are the fire and my own steady breathing.
I think of Danny. I’m going to miss him, but I guess what happened had to be.
I rouse myself and go to the shower. I turn it on full cold. I force myself to be still long enough to let the water wash away everything that had risen to the surface. Dry now, my skin feels clean, almost perfect and new.
I go to the living room and open the window. The sun hits me and the afternoon breeze blows in the scent of sage from the desert.