Voltairine de Cleyre, “A Rocket of Iron” (1902)

It was one of those misty October nightfalls of the north, when the white fog creeps up from the river, and winds itself like a corpse-sheet around the black, ant-like mass of human insignificance, a cold menace from Nature to Man, till the foreboding of that irresistible fatality which will one day lay us all beneath the ice-death sits upon your breast, and stifles you, till you start up desperately crying, “Let me out, let me out!”

For an hour I had been staring through the window at that chill steam, thickening and blurring out the lines that zig-zagged through it indefinitely, pale drunken images of facts, staggering against the invulnerable vapor that walled me in—a sublimated grave marble. Were they all ghosts, those figures wandering across the white night, hardly distinguishable from the posts and pickets that wove in and out, like half-dismembered bodies writhing in pain? My own fingers were curiously numb and inert; had I, too, become a shadow?

It grew unbearable at last, the pressure of the foreboding at my heart, the sense of that on-creeping of Universal Death. I ran out of doors, impelled by the vague impulse to assert my own being, to seek relief in struggle, even though foredoomed futile—to seek warmth, fellowship, somewhere, though but with those ineffective pallors in the mist, that dissolved even while I looked at them. Once in the street, I ran on indifferently, glad to be jostled, glad of the snarling of dogs and the curses of laborers calling to one another. The penumbra of the mist, that menacing dim foreshadow, had not chilled these, then! On, on, through the alleys where human flesh was close, and when one listened one could hear breathings and many feet, drifting at last into the current that swept through the main channel of the city, and presently, whirled round in an eddy, I found myself staring through the open door of the great Iron Works. Perhaps it was the sensation of warmth that held me there first, some feeling of exhilaration and wakening defiance in the flash and swirl of the yellow flames—this, mixed with an indistinct desire to clutch at something, anything, that seemed stationary in the midst of all this that slipped and wavered and fell away . . . No, I remember now: there was something before that; there was a sound—a sound that had stopped my feet in their going, and smote me with a long shudder—a sound of hammers, beating, beating, beating a terrific hail, momentarily faster and louder, and in between a panting as of some great monster catching breath beneath the driving of that iron rain. Faster, faster—clang! A long reverberant shriek! The giant had rolled and shivered in his pain. Involuntarily I was drawn down into the Valley of the Sound, words muttering themselves through my lips as I passed: “Forging, forging—what are they forging there? Frankenstein makes his Monster. How the iron screams!” But I heard it no more now; I only saw!—saw the curling yellow flames, and the red, red iron that panted, and the Masters of the Hammers. How they moved there, like demons in the abyss, their bodies swinging, their eyes tense and a-glitter, their faces covered with the gloom of the torture-chamber!

Only one face I saw, young and fair—young and very fair—whereon the gloom seemed not to settle. The skin of it was white and shining there in the midst of that black haze; over the wide forehead fell tumbling waves of thick brown hair, and two great dark eyes looked steadily into the red iron, as if they saw therein something I did not see; only now and then they were lifted, and looked away upward, as if beyond the smoke-pall they beheld a vision. Once he turned so that the rose-light cast forth his profile as a silhouette; and I shivered, it was so fine and hard! Hard with the hardness of beaten iron, and fine with the fineness of a keen chisel. Had the hammers been beating on that fair young face?

A comrade called, a sudden terrified cry. There was a wild rush, a mad stampede of feet, a horrible screech of hissing metal, and a rocket of iron shot upward toward the black roof, bursting and falling in a burning shower. Three figures lay writhing along the floor, among the leaping, demoniac sparks.

The first to lift them was the Man with the white face. He had stood still in the storm, and ran forward when the others shrank back. Now he passed by me, bearing his dying burden, and I saw no quiver upon brow or chin; only, when he laid it in the ambulance, I fancied I saw upon the delicate curved lips a line of purpose deepen, and the reflection of the iron-fire glow in the strange eyes, as if for an instant the door of a hidden furnace had been opened and smouldering coals had breathed the air. And even then he looked up!

It was all over in half an hour. There would be weeping in three little homes; and one was dead, and one would die, and one would crawl, a seared human stump, to the end of his weary days. The crowd that had gathered was gone; they would not know the Stump when it begged from them with its maimed hands, six months after, on some street corner. “Fakir” they would say, and laugh. There would be an entry on the company’s books, and a brief line in the newspapers next day. But the welding of the iron would go on, and the man who gave his easy money for it would fancy he had paid for it, not seeing the stiff figures in their graves, nor the crippled beggar, nor the broken homes.

The rocket of iron is already cold; dull, inert, fire- less, the black fragments lie upon the floor whereon they lately rained their red revenge. Do with them what you will, you cannot undo their work. The men are clearing way. Only he with the white face does not go back to his place. Still set and silent he takes his coat, “presses his soft hat down upon his thick, damp locks,” and goes out into the fog and night. So close he passed me, I might have touched him; but he never saw me. Perhaps he was still carrying the burden of the dying man upon his heart; perhaps some mightier burden. For one instant the shapely, boyish figure was in full light, then it vanished away in the engulfing mist—the mist which the vision of him had made me forget. For I knew I had seen a Man of Iron, into whose soul the iron had driven, whose nerves were tempered as cold steel, but behind whose still, impassive features slumbered a white-hot heart. And others should see a rocket and a ruin, and feel the Vengeance of Beaten Iron, before the mist comes and swallows all.

* * *

I had forgotten! Upon that face, that young, fair face, so smooth and fine that even the black smoke would not rest upon it, there bloomed the roses of Early Death. Hot-house flowers!

Voltairine de Cleyre, “A Rocket of Iron,” Free Society (January 5, 1902).

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.