Girl on the Northern Range

This is an early autobiographical short story I wrote many years ago.  I’m including it here today because the radio documentary show we produced on The Iron Range of Northern Minnesota has been playing on KAXE in Grand Rapids.  I thought it would make a nice addition to the doc.

Girl On the Northern Range

In the middle of the town square sat a chunk of taconite as tall as a tree.  It stood like a forward guard before the tiny string of shops that formed the main street and the downtown of Babbitt, Minnesota.  There was a Laundromat, cafe, grocery store, drug store, and post office all in a single long building on the main street.

On warm summer evenings small bands of young people would gather to talk and lean their backs against the cool, hard surface of the monument.  In August, the Peter Mitchell Day Parade marched with pride and color past the tower of stone that  dwarfed the three pine trees planted nearby.  Years later, it would be the trees, tall and enduring, that would look down at the chip of taconite that symbolized both the birth and death of the tiny community.

The chunk of rock had stood there since the early fifties when the humble potato field was laid flat and barren by cheerful yellow bulldozers.  Contractors opened veins in the earth and dropped in sewer systems and water lines; concrete trucks with swirling bellies rumbled and growled spitting out sidewalks and driveways.  Houses sprouted rapidly in small semicircles around larger semicircles until, from the air, the humble potato field looked like the swirls of a fancy ceiling.  An elementary school was built, and then a high school.

Young couples came to inspect the empty houses that stood waiting while Realtors, working for the company, listed features and benefits.  No crime, they said.  Superior schools, they said.  Job security, a place to raise a family, a chance at a new life, they said.  Papers were signed and keys distributed.

Although not mentioned by the realtors, there were also no theaters, no bars, no shopping malls or traffic.  No tourists or travelers or strangers.  Those headed for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area never reached Babbitt but turned north two miles before on the highway to Ely.  In its raw, red-faced infancy there were no old people, no teenagers, no divorces, no rich and no poor.  And there were no Black people and no Indians.  With ancestors from Norway, Finland, and Sweden, all inhabitants were as fair-faced as the blanket of winter snow.

They came for the taconite.  Taconite.  Rough ore.  Mined for the iron.  Tons and tons of earth gouged from the gentle, aching hillsides were dumped into an ear-shattering crusher (one of the largest in the world) as the iron ore, red as blood, was extracted from the earth.  The useless tailings left behind in lifeless gray-red mounds looked like fresh graves along the northern range.

Sissy’s dad worked for the mine.  She lived in a pale green house at 48 Garden Circle.  One summer her father built a stone step with black wrought-iron railings that made their house stand apart from the others so carefully placed along the semi-circle.  Sissy was a middle child in the middle of the wilderness.  It was in this place that she first attempted to find her own outline like a single tree against the sky, but when she looked about she could not see the tree for the forest was everywhere.  A strange wonder and a bewilderment set in.

Although, at age seven or eight, there was no reason to believe herself different, still something in Sissy felt foreign and alone.  It came to her at odd moments, unexpected, like a secret, like when she would tumble onto her back in the dry, crisping grasses of autumn edging the forest, and the full wide blue of the sky would instantly steal away her age.  It spoke to her in the tongues and mantras of ancient prophets and seers.  “Look here”, it would chant, “I am your looking glass.  As big as I am…so are you.”

A holiness and a wonder would fill her tiny spirit and lift her into a blue baptism of ecstasy and sky and then, when she could stand it no longer, she would roll over onto her belly and be equally awed by the scent of the earth as it withdrew from summer.  Finally, her senses drunk and reeling with autumn gods come alive, Sissy would race down the ditch toward home, stop, and approach the house cautiously.  So carefully would she fold the blue-sky spirit, like a tablecloth and tuck it away, and only then enter the house.

The house was noisy and stale.  It smelled of furniture polish and diaper pails.  Little boys squalled need fully and older sisters whined and fussed at each other and at nothing.  The television squawked and clamored in a broken language, certainly not the language of wind in the trees and skies that speak.  She felt like autumn itself, pulling in all of its life-giving forces, tucking its roots, curling its leaves.

Sissy did her chores without words.  She tended to little boy runny noses, socks stuffed into corners, and white metal kitchen cabinets smeared grimy with finger prints.  Every moment was a forever, a waiting she could scarcely endure.  Out of doors they played on without her, the trees and skies and songs on the wind.  It was not easy, this waiting.

There were so many things that Sissy did not understand.  She did not understand about hard wooden school desks and sitting still.  Or about gray buses that shoveled up fathers on street corners every morning and afternoon.  And she didn’t understand the women with swollen bellies wandering from one kitchen table to another in houses so all-the-same that you never need ask where’s the bathroom, or where’s the light switch?  And she really didn’t understand Sunday mornings and chapel caps and genuflecting and black robes and strange melodic masses that didn’t sound at all like the sky . . . but were called God.  It was these things she didn’t understand that made her feel alien and foreign somehow.  These things were not like the things that she did understand, the things that happened out there on the edge of the world.

She understood the woods, that if she ran a certain way through the underbrush, with a certain understanding, she could run real fast and never be switched with a branch or tumbled by a root or jutting log.  But she had to run a certain way, like all of her parts were loosely assembled and separate from one another, and yet together.  When she ran like that, she ran like a deer runs or like a wolf runs.  She also understood that she must stay in the little woods because she was little.  The big woods went on to forever once you crossed the skinny stream, skinny as an old brown pencil, connecting two muddy ponds.  The big woods were for bears and big things.  The big woods would swallow a little girl like her, and this she understood and respected.

The icy spring-fed Birch Lake in summer she understood, respected, and loved.  Those iron-rich brown waters would envelope her heated skin with a shock and a jolt like memories leaping from nowhere.  Sissy loved to swim way out and lay on her back—unresisting, sinking, until inches of water lay over her like translucent, textured glass.  In this place, with the bright skies blurred yellow and blue, and all sounds muted and drowned, then she would feel in her right place.

Always she sought a better match mate than the even rows of houses lined up like teeth on gums in obsessive half-circles.  Inside her was a great, stretching hungry mouth that wanted to bite down hard on something.  Anything.  So when her mother gathered her brood and walked down past the chunk of taconite to the town library it was like that mouth had found, at last, its desired food.  Books—forests on shelves, introductions to other places, to far-away places, and to people, like her, people not content with four walls and sameness and steady, expected trails going nowhere.  But the feast of books, rather than filling her, fed only her appetite and made the mouth inside link up to a great empty belly that was ravenous and greedy.

To satisfy the hungry thing, she went more and more often to the great stands of pine, birch, and maple to listen.  She found dry, rocky places filled with scraggly raspberry bushes and tasted the tiny red jewels or sat in the sodden lower areas and looked, eye-to-eye at blueberry bushes, their berries glowing like deep blue pearls.

She was a quiet child, well mannered, and shy, and did as she was told.  She sprinkled the laundry with a pop bottle corked by a metal cap full of tiny holes.  Carefully she sprinkled, rolling each piece and tucking it into a plastic bag with the other damp-smelling shirts and sheets and dish towels.  She did not ask why or verbalize these foreign things, these rough pine-bark, high-sky things to anyone.  She didn’t know the words to speak.  She didn’t know the words.

Then, slowly, there opened a great space between the things she understood and the things she did not understand, and she stood puzzled between a grand stand of forest and a pale green house on Garden Circle and, try as she might, Sissy could not reconcile one with the other.  Confusion descended like a veil or thin membrane that made all things difficult to see and understand.  A ragged whispering began in her head and continued from day into night and night into day and it spoke to her of the world.  She listened, a barren dry kind of listening, not understanding, or not wanting to understand.  The skies grew silent.  The trees stood tight together and seemed to exclude her.  She turned away.

The chasm widened and the spell of blue-pearl berries, big woods and tall golden grasses became like bright, wild eyes that, giving a final look, blinked heavy-lidded, closed, and drew a blanket around her youth.

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Here is a documentary about the iron range that Milt and I did:  

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