You know it's going to be a good story if it has a good opening. Well... actually, that may not always be true. Why do we say things like that? But it's true in this case. Rem Ryals' (how's that for an awesome name?) essay in The Pacific Northwest Reader is an intensely personal story with an opening that grabbed me right away. Not just because it starts with a ghost story, but because when I got to the end of that section, I knew it was pointing me in a very particular way toward the rest of the piece. Artful!
"When I was a teenager I worked at a summer camp near Leavenworth, a small mountain town near the geographical center of Washington State. There, on warm summer nights, with the sweet smell of ponderosa pines in the windy air and the distant roar of Icicle Creek in our ears, we heard the story of the Leavenworth Nurse.
"She was a nurse who worked at the hospital nearby in the 1950s. Her husband was a logger, and his arm was severed in a horrible accident at the mill. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died on the operating table. In all the confusion no one made the connection that she was on duty, and the way she found out about it was that she found his arm in the Emergency Room. Just lying there, the wedding ring still on its finger, the plaid shirt hanging off in tatters. They were newlyweds, deeply in love, and in the story, in that moment, she went completely, irrevocably insane. Her hair turned sheet white and she ran screaming out of the hospital into the nearby woods. She was never heard from again. Well, at least not by anyone except small children, young teenagers, and a variety of other people unlucky enough to encounter her in the woods, where she murdered them with an ax. Also, the arm disappeared as well, leaving behind its own victim, an orderly with vicious strangulation marks around his neck. Over the coming years these two specters terrorized the surrounding countryside, killing many, leaving mysterious remains of campfires and gutted animals. Depending on who was telling the story, the Nurse was a beautiful, silver-haired rescuer of lost children, or a screaming, ax-wielding, bloodstained vision of female revenge.
"For a long time I believed this story was true. I mean, I knew it wasn't true, but it seemed to express some essential truth about these mountains, something about beauty and danger."
Rem Ryals has worked at Village Books in Bellingham for 14 years. Born in Spokane, a graduate of Seattle University, he has also lived in Richland, Olympia, Leavenworth, Port Angeles, and Eastsound. When not escaping into the world of books, he enjoys knitting, meditation, and botany.