Tag Archives: Old Iron

What you didn’t know was weird about Old Iron

There’s a wrought iron balcony outside the apartment I rent in Shantytown. It took me two weeks to grasp the fact that the iron was moving. When I finally noticed it I thought I was drunk.

I assume Nagspeake is not the only place in the world where iron flows. I learned as a child about the liquid-like nature of glass and how really old panes of glass are thicker at the bottom because the glass is flowing, obeying gravity in its slow, viscid way. I thought that was mind-bendingly weird at the time, so I’m trying to keep an open mind about the unique properties of iron in Nagspeake.

It’s very difficult for me.


Nagspeakers have grown up with their balletic, hive-brained iron “animalcules,” so I wonder if my readers can imagine what it’s like to be an out-of-towner discovering the motive capability of Nagspeake iron for the first time.  I know, I know, I’m not the first person to freak out and have to have things explained in a series of small, simple words delivered in a comforting tone accompanied by either a stiff drink or a cup of tea. However, I might be the only one with a website, so I’d like to take you through the series of encounters that have made up my tenuous understanding of what Nagspeakers call “Old Iron.”

Encounter #1:
My solicitous landlord warns me as he hands me the keys for the apartment I’ve just rented not to fall asleep on the balcony. I ask why (forgetting entirely for the moment that I don’t make it a habit to sleep on balconies) and he says, “Because it’s old iron, honey.” I assume he means it’s rusting and unstable or something. It doesn’t quite explain his precise exhortation per se, but I preferred it at the time to my first interpretation of his caveat, which was more along the lines of “There are bad people in the world, missy, and did you happen to notice you rented a flat in Shantytown, for Christ’s sake?”  Old iron I could handle.

Encounter #2:
Drunk on some kind of intoxicating tea ordered from one of the endless mail order catalogues that have begun showing up at my door, I stare for hours at a flourish at one corner of the balcony and watch it bloom, curlicues and whorls moving like fast-growing ivy as they take possession of a railing…then the phone rings.  I look at my watch, having expected a phone call from a particular friend what seems like hours ago, and discover only five minutes have elapsed since I drank the tea. Out on the balcony the flourish is still twisting slowly. I watch it, convinced the tea is behind this prank. The iron reconfigures itself, but it’s as if it’s obeying a fractal pattern or some kind of weird choreography. It never fully takes another shape; it stays confined to roughly the same 9″x12″ space and it moves only slightly faster than a plant does when its leaves turn on their stems to lean into the light. Fast enough to be seen, slowly enough to go unremarked just as easily.

I record observations throughout what I don’t yet know to call “the grey hours,” and yet the whole time I’m still convinced I’m drunk and hallucinating and recording the effects of the tea. In retrospect I could’ve saved myself the cost of the herbs and just watched the balcony in the first place.

Encounter #3:
I’m invited to a party in the Printer’s Quarter and sometime in the night overhear someone lamenting the total lack of effect she experienced from an herbal tea that was supposed to have intoxicating properties.  Recognizing this as my perfect entree to the conversation, I jump in and comment that she must’ve gotten the dosage wrong because I’d spent a good three hours watching iron move on my balcony after a cup of the same stuff. I assume the resultant laughter is because I’ve just admitted to being a total junkie and slink away to stuff my face with canape-size crab cakes.

It took some work, but I eventually figured things out and then went in search of a physicist willing to sit down over a string of beers and explain the dynamics of Old Iron and its constituent animalcules in terms I could understand. Sort of. To me, to someone for whom iron had always been inert, Nagspeake iron still seems something like a cross between a clockwork interpretation of a plant responding to light and a sentient, serpentine kind of hive. An elemental Borg.
Maybe he didn’t get it as clear in my head as I thought.
That was Encounter #4.

After that I went through several phases of realization and denial, most notably laboring for a while under the conviction that the entire city was having one over on me and then the conviction that I was mad, which precipitated a near-month of panicked fear; I knew I had gone off the deep end and that someone was eventually going to notice it and I had talked to way too many people about “the iron” already–I was seeing it move all the time now, forcing myself to stay awake through the grey hours every night (the time when the iron cools fastest, the animalcules, as I understand it, performing a quantum-level, half-organized sort of elemental yoga), lying on the balcony watching the belly-dancing flourishes, feeling the floor of the balcony itself move under my back…after a while the sensation is like floating on water in continuous but gentle motion. I wondered if I disobeyed my landlord’s injunction and fell asleep on this iron sea, would I wake up somewhere else? Would it bear me away to another place?

No, I never fell asleep out there. I did, however, stop leaving my apartment. I was so afraid someone, some well-meaning citizen, would find out about my madness and  have me committed to St. Whit’s, where I would grow old and die without ever coming out of my mania. Plus I couldn’t stand to stop watching my balcony. I went at least one two-day stretch without eating because of it, and let me tell you, I will never, never run out of Ramen noodles again. You can eat that stuff dry, straight out of the wrapper if you have to.

I got tired of being mad after a while and went back to work, but it was a distracted existence because although I had sort of decided I wasn’t crazy, I was still trying with pathological single-mindedness to figure out what was really going on. I had stumbled onto something for sure, the physicist had probably been speaking in code and now it was up to me to figure it all out.

What I learned:
I’m not crazy. The properties of Nagspeake iron have been documented by thousands of people over the years. The physics is still a little beyond my understanding, but what really interest me these days are the competing theories on the origins of the stuff: depending on which hypothesis you ascribe to, the “Old Iron” found all over the place was either brought to Nagspeake back in the days when the city sheltered pirates year-round, or pre-dates the city altogether.

Theory “A” adherents say there was a particularly devastating hurricane one year followed almost immediately by a citywide fire.  A fleet of pirate ships intent on doing a good deed for their adopted town went out and burned another city down the coast clear to the ground and salvaged the iron infrastructure, which they then brought into Nagspeake the way they always came to town: via the Quayside Harbors on the inlet side of the hill separating the Magothy frontage portion of the city from Shantytown. At the time, it took considerable work to move anything big overland from Shantytown to Nagspeake proper, so most of the iron stayed where it landed. This is why, despite the fact that most of Shantytown is the same ragtag collection of dives and flophouses and dubious warehouses that it was back in the golden age of Magothy piracy and smuggling, the largest transported structures and most beautiful ornamental iron is to be found there.  My apartment, for instance, has that balcony, which you really have to see to believe. There are doors, the great gates of the destroyed city’s cathedrals and churches, giant bells. New Orleans has NOTHING on Shantytown.

Theory “B” is weirder and cooler. It states that the iron underpinnings of the city, all the crazy structural stuff and the ornamental bits and the huge lanterns and grates and the wrought stairs and so on and so forth–all of it–was here first, a skeleton that the inhabitants of what would become Nagspeake used as a foundation. Some people have tried to link this theory with speculations about the Ferrous Sanctus Monastery on the western slopes of the hill, an institution of equally foggy origins–and why not; the monks don’t speak so its anybody’s guess. I think this theory has infinite niftiness over the other one–except in my paranoid moments when I think the iron is going to rise up and destroy the city the way it (possibly?) destroyed the last one, tearing it delicately and gracefully to pieces until only it remains, the gaunt blueprint of a city that once was, left for another people to build upon. If any remain. The monks of Ferrous Sanctus, protected by their devotions, will look down from the hill with bleak resignation, having, sadly, seen this kind of thing happen before.

I still sit up some nights, through the grey hours and into the dawn, watching the iron. More and more it symbolizes this little harbor city to me: rooted but mobile, it expands and contracts and spills over the bones of its basic shapes as it heats in the day and cools in the night.  Its inhabitants and its ships come and go, but the city remains, shifting and sighing, imitating the distortions of the shadows it casts on the ground, dancing in place. When all the people are dead and all the wood rotted away and plaster and brick eroded into the sands of another beachfront a thousand years from now, the iron will remain, older but unchanged, still waving at the sea from its place on the shore. Perhaps (I think sometimes) Nagspeake, the city, is alive in ways that other cities are not.

Or perhaps there’s a room in the asylum being made up for me this very minute.

(From 27 May, 2007)