The Giants of Mountain Iron by Natalie Vestin
In the beginning, there was nothing but nothing, which sat in the nothing. On one side of the nothing, there was nothing and also heat. On the other side, nothing as well and also cold. Sometimes everything relies on a meeting. When the heat and cold met in the gap between, the cold melted, and from the dripping, frosting, misting, riming air, the first giant Ymir (really the first anything) formed. Giants are older than almost everything and only slightly younger than nothing. Later, Ymir was killed and torn limb from limb to make the earth, his hair our plants, blood the oceans and seas, cranium our dome of sky.
Nothing human or at least nothing human outside himself. The world stopped dividing into such careful species, rank and realm of animal and plant matter. Interminable classifications, and why such a word as if class were something you fell into or that ran you over?
The white, interminable world: endless, fault-ridden. Broad spectrum stretched to fine magnetic threads. He calls the threads atmosphere, he senses dome of sky and finds a space in his chest—not heart, but empty space—that knows the span of the tumbled-over void. Cradle of nothing, thrum that lived before the nothing, thrum that moved over to get out of nothing’s way. If matter is endless and heaped and bartering, what is he in this white, interminable world?
The fog lifts and still nothing human in these places, in these holes and steppes and pitted, unearthed areas. He can feel his body on the earth, solid as any body, cold splitting his skin, fingers hard and waxen, his whole surface symptom of the air’s locked jaw. Void created from earth; each layer they excavate builds more space. Earth becomes hole, and no wonder the cold draws close, no wonder metal fights its space, no wonder.
Days will come when my father will think of this as another planet, a distant shore, a settlement on the moon like in the books he loved as a child about lonely settlers with vision and nothing to hold them to a beckoning planet. The leaders, the leavers. That gaze that took in and turned away, whose taking revealed nothing human.
When my father talks about working as a taconite miner in Mountain Iron, he talks about it through a machine operator with whom he worked. Cliff Wrightman was the smartest and strongest of six brothers. Cliff Wrightman weighed close to 400 pounds—neither muscle nor fat, but stone—and was missing most of his top teeth.
Driving north, the land flattens even as it grows higher in elevation. Belly of a curve, slump of glacial drift. Even the road narrows. Tempting to say it’s because no one’s on it, but the space around the road narrows too. It doesn’t exactly hold you in, but it keeps up trajectory: northward, northward. Geologic wend. Warp of air, cool air, living air.
Everything is alive. Everything is gazing and bound. The air is waiting or full of potential or choked with dread; it depends on where you stand, how you turn and watch and hold your breath.
The towns get smaller. Over 60,000 tons of mine tailings each day went into Lake Superior during the 1980s; now they’re here. They’re beautiful too, gray silk caught in heavy undulation as they’re piled. As a child, I pleaded with my father to let me play on the piles, slide down their ripples, and my father replied firmly, No.
Then the mines and their ferrous earth. You flinch like you would seeing the skin pulled back to reveal flesh: sanguine, clotted, hint of brown that means oxygen and exposure. The mine in steppes: It’s cheaper and safer than the shaft and the darkness and also more revealing. When the mists descend from nowhere, you can’t see for miles, and it’s worse down below, but there is no below. It’s all surface, below has surfaced, all brought up. Swell or ghost of swell. Mark on snow, cold earth patterned by airswell and shovel and neat steppe.
The tailings, cast away first into the great lake, then into towns where tailings basins were built, have their own effect. Primitive quartz, iron oxide, all that was stripped from taconite to call it refined. Because the earth is gray or black, and also metal, in these places, weather and temperature behave differently. Air fluxes, becomes a stone dropped into a lake. Winter is sharp, reverberating nerve lightning. Summer a dull nauseating throb, ripples encompassing.
Primitive quartz and iron oxide: remains of rock after metal is taken. The what’s left behind. White and red, lifted up. Blood of the lamb, the stiff decor of the church at Lent. Tailings in their cells are now divvied into basins. In Mountain Iron: Basin Cell One, but there are more cells in other cold outposts. Everyone needs a cell to hide what isn’t needed. Disposable, disposed. The skin on my father’s hands is dead and hard in the winter, and he slices pieces of it away with a pocketknife, same knife he uses to carve flesh off an apple and lift it to his mouth.
When Cliff stepped on a ladder, the rung snapped in half, but he wouldn’t stop, he’d keep climbing and breaking the metal steps util he couldn’t reach the next. Cliff, bending the dented or deformed solid steel bars back into shape. Cliff, standing at the edge of the mine, looking down.
Cliff and red dirt and snow. Mist that appeared and vanished when the unearthed metal created its own weather, made the men barometers who measured and watched for the mists and waited until they could see again.
Physicists know that temperature creates the world, that at absolute zero, everything moves differently. Some things are revealed and others are buried or flicker away into impossibility. With tremendous heat comes expansion and jittering electrical charge, push and contortion, drift, spin. Heat forms and penetrates what isn’t there.
After the universe, which wasn’t there, exploded unto itself, hydrogen atoms formed: one electron, (also not really there, if there is taken to mean somewhere now or now or now) thrown into a charged whirl around one proton. Hydrogen sought its heated birth and spin in newly formed giant stars, sought to be consumed, to form a new thing and burn. And when the stars tore themselves apart into vast arms of flame reaching into empty space, they squeezed their hydrogen atoms so tightly, so deeply, that metals—silver and iron—formed.
The metals journeyed, found new worlds forming, buried themselves beneath soil, far below. Moving along with glaciers, the metals took their places. In Minnesota, the Biwabik iron formation slid atop Pokegama quartzite as ice pushed north. And all the time, electrons spun round and round as the earth spun round and round, electrons reaching electromagnetic arms around the planet.
Cliff, with a 1970s fuckbook, Hey, you should hear about the organism this one’s having. My father, the physics major, never able to hear the word again without thinking of Cliff, all the cosmology and evolving and carbolic moving about to make unlikely electrical caustic life, always Cliff, removing his top denture and licking it clean, Hey you should hear about the organism this one’s having.
In the Torah and the Book of Enoch, giants, or Nephilim, are the children of angels who fell to earth, and the Book of Enoch spends time with the teachings, all forbidden, of the giants to the people. Forbidden because they required gaze and a way of seeing that looked beyond and drew connections. This sign to that future, this moment to that pivotal shift further down the road. The Nephilim didn’t teach how to change time or matter, only how to draw lines between things and times that revealed a new truth for a world that might suddenly be about to change.
They taught: enchantment, disenchantment, soothsaying, astrology, the making of weapons from metal, and meteorology, the latter forbidden because it was fortune-telling, reading the sky for signs to predict the future. Most of the Nephilim were washed away in deluge, but some were bound under the earth, where their electrons jitter away.
We’re speaking of proximity here, of closeness, yes, but also of paths alongside one another and roads that diverge, compass points you follow even as they skew and shift. Nearness to an edge in the air, an intersecting plane, cross-hatch where shadow and gaze and compress. And there is a point here, moving and disappearing to be sure, where time narrows and accumulates, then peels its splayed self outward.
Living through my father’s years but not his life, I’m conscious of roads that end and continue, but also roads made simply of time and story, stretched and permeable.
The stories aren’t good-old-days tales or myths about gods and heroes. They’re the product of a nearness to a narrowing hole in the winter void that sucks and splays. And we’re not talking about gods or giants because we’re liars or wishful, imaginative thinkers. The gods came, but what came along with the gods? What stands behind, lies under, the gods? The myths are about what came along, what’s behind and under, what you can’t see until you’re holding the shovel against all that spinning.
Giants, the damned, the bound and buried, the fought against. Always larger than human life, and older, but so similar in morphology. Which is to say, what are giants? Bigger, and dangerous, awesome. A product of the cold, from where, Norse mythology asserts, all bad things come. The unfamiliar is always there, somewhere underneath a land that’s become too familiar.
My father, giving me the Norse myths of giants and battles between heat and cold. Niflheim, the cold place, land of giants, land that formed with poured-metal Muspelheim, a universe in the void. Niflheim, land of mist, cold creating weather systems and also life, world where everything might be an illusion, a trick of light through the fog, a hand you can no longer call yours if you can’t see it in front of your eyes. My father, teaching me to cut the frostbite off my fingers with a pocketknife. Still, in the winter, my fingertips are wedges.
Land a new nation, battled, battlemented, and cold air not from above but air unearthed, locked together with soil, with vermin, with blood’s own iron. Falling like sky, like the tossed-from-heaven fears of the gods, the fear that forms the world, because you don’t toss away what gives you joy.
Iron in blood is so reactive, so violent in its wanting and reaching toward, that it must be bound during its travels from earth to steak to gut to cell. On plasma’s transferrin is a site that looks like angel wings; it corresponds to a site on the iron atom where iron is willing to be bound. The metal and the protein encounter, they bind, the wings close, and the unseeing seraphim releases the iron to the cell where each will meet as they wish.
If you’re Norse and carry the old ways in your blood, or more likely, in your sorrow and the way you miss the ones you formally call ancestors, the ones for whom your receiving of culture and myth and character and krumkake was the only gift you could give them, you know that in the beginning between Niflheim and Muspelheim was Ginnungagap, which wasn’t there, but had a name. Ginnungagap: a void, hole in nothing, yet calm, waiting like all nothings to be acted upon. This is not a story about loss.
I’m aware of the difference between making myth and receiving it, between seeing a sign and interpreting it or the absence of it. I know it’s all pieces, know they’re not things to assemble. More things to toss upward and see where and how they fall, the marks they make in the snow.
What is it to bury? What is it to bring up, to unearth an un-earth where what’s older reemerges, where the giants clamber out?
My father and I are sitting on the couch, and sometimes, it’s the same story again and again, but we’ve changed, so it’s like we’re revolving around the story, and the story’s revolving too, and accreting. We’ve become our own revolution. Coffee and apple fritters, cinnamon toast in the white stapled bag from the grocery store bakery. Cliff was the smartest and strongest of six brothers. Cliff was seven feet tall and made of stone. Cliff came from a town where the water ran red and you couldn’t bury your dead until May.
These are the only parts of Cliff I have, or receive as some strange gift, some piecemeal myth, until one evening when I’m visiting my sister and my parents are over for dinner. We eat chowder; my mother drinks sweet wine, my father has coffee. My father talks about Cliff, and I think he is remembering the mine, bowl of thick soup a memory of not having enough food or warmth. And I don’t remember what he says, and it doesn’t matter really. A line back sometimes doesn’t need a narrative, or memory. A line is self-serving, self-evident. A line needs two objects, one at each end, see here and there, these are facts, linked.
And because I want to know the future from the piecemeal conjured past, I search for Cliff online. All I find is an obituary from 1997, dead in the same town he grew up in. We’re all confused about how this monument could die. Smartest and strongest, stone. I’ve frayed the line, and I can see it in my family’s shoulders. I’ve done something wrong, which is why I’m building and burying and joining up here, in conjured piecemeal. The world was different once, and continues to be different somewhere. Full of potential and signs, full of gaze and mist.
The fallen sky, echoes of light on its moorings, then flickering away. Become becoming behemoth. Only giants on the primordial metallic earth. Ice, slow and dense, dragging northward. Granite where the ice couldn’t reach. Quartzite and iron where ice left them. Molecules contorted by electricity, fed by an always dying sun, bending themselves into life. Humans an accident of repetition, a name we gave to piecemeal conjuring. Stories to make sense of how wonderful and unlikely it is that we should be here.
A plane flies over, marks where the iron lies under the surface, measures magnetic anomalies. They look like maps measuring the depths of a lake, or near Mountain Iron, rocks skipped in the shape of a scythe. The nanoteslas are highest west of Virginia and south of Eveleth; they point toward Mountain Iron as gate. Another anomaly by Hibbing: that’s the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine, highly magnetic and orange for miles, looking as if someone dropped Taos into a forest of pine and spruce.
On old maps, you can see how the strip mining has skewed the town roads. As ore was uncovered, the compass readings would shift so that north was different each time you went to mark it. The more you unearthed, the more you found yourself shifting around an axis you didn’t know you’d stuck to. Of course, polar north was always true, except when it wasn’t, when your compass was reading how you’d changed the earth, what you’d brought up, what reached arms up and around around that axis, sifting your road and your home and your gaze over, over, over.
I’m writing about receipt. I’m writing about what I haven’t seen, what I’ve taken in and turned around and around. I’m writing about a room and coffee and people who are older or more alive or more there than they were then. I’m writing about a different world or the potential for it, as if potential can work backwards and yank something out of the past, render a myth just because I want it to. Bitter cold: it makes you want to hold onto things. Makes you gregarious with an imagined past, all the pieces buried and brought up, revolving.
The Norse giant Elli, who wrestles with Thor, represents old and frail age. She’s a woman who stands for falling away. The harder Thor fights her, the stronger Elli gets and the more she’ll break him. But the myth never hints that any of this means one ought to stop fighting. So, what then, what of Elli, the giant that wrecks the gods by their choosing? The choice of wound over the choice to not fight. Dying wrecked and in the middle of throwing a punch, rather than frail and waiting to be taken. The myth is about horror, the horror of not fighting, the lie of peace and restfulness. Scourge of feeling oneself lessen through time rather than through blood.
The giant needs to be defeated. The giant needs to live and live and go on and on. These do not necessarily oppose. I move closer to another time, an older time that was never. I look to the sky, the soil, our palms and pasts, for the signs the Nephilim promised we’d be able to read. I move toward distortion and buried giants, toward magnetic north.
Natalie Vestin is a science writer from St. Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, The Iowa Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. She won Crab Orchard Review’s 2013 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize, the Prairie Schooner 2012 Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the 2012 Sonora Review Essay Prize. Her nonfiction chapbook, Shine a light, the light won’t pass, was published in 2015 by MIEL, and her fiction and photography chapbook, Gomorrah, Baby, is forthcoming from Anchor & Plume in 2016.