Before the name Electric City there were other names, and before those names there were no names at all. The river carved itself into the valley, remembering everything. Pines thickened and pushed against the sky. Autumn went dark, then ghostly, freezing into the hibernation of winter; spring resurrected the landscape and the creatures that filled it, painting the scenery back to life. Summers shimmered with wet heat until fall erupted into a riot. The story repeated and repeated, the same and yet not the same, year in and year out.
The Hudson was known as The River That Flows Both Ways, or Muhheakantuck, and sometimes simply The River, as though the only one. Tributaries were referred to by their outer banks, shadowed by the trees best suited for canoe making. There was Shenahtahde, Water Beyond the Pines, and also Andiatarocté, or Here the Lake Closes, later, much later, to be known as Lake George.
Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk people braided themselves into a confederacy with the name Haudenosaunee, building longhouses beneath the Great Evergreen Tree. Making shelter under the deep-rooted pine—with its eagle hovering above—the collective of voices agreed to put down the weapons of war and let the waters wash them away.
Even when the Longboats watched the arrival of the Van Curlers, curiosity became regret only after it was far too late. Surely there were meat and fish and grain enough to feed all of them, enough flat ground for planting on, enough wide sky to worship toward.
We know you have arrived and are not leaving.
Tribal arguments were as old as the mountains, but those wounds always healed eventually, when tended with proper care, blessed and forgiven. Now these darker-skinned and lighter-skinned alliances gave way once again to wars, followed by burying of the innocent and the guilty side by side. Uneasily borrowing each other’s language, awkward hesitations and gestures filling the spaces in between the mispronounced words, the Longboats and Van Curlers negotiated dividing, took turns being the teacher and the student. It was at first strange and then common to call places by the names of people instead of using words to describe nature belonging only to itself.
We know you have arrived and are not leaving.
The wampum belt depicted a hopeful coexistence: white-beaded rows flanking and separating the two purple-beaded rows, to show it was possible for vessels to travel freely in both directions. Shards of freshwater clamshells, purple and white, represented generations of voyagers. European ships and Iroquois canoes. Still, one truth told its story over and over: whatever the earth gave, it could also take away.
Friday in the peak of autumn, 1919. Along the cliff edge of the Mohawk River, maples, sumacs, and chestnut oaks blazed red and orange, while pitch pines stood in their greenery. Pigeons wandered and flew off and returned. Somewhere far too high to be noticed, an eagle rode a current of air. And a fox slept inside a secret.
Charles P. Steinmetz steered his cherished Baker Electric Car until the cabin he called Camp Mohawk came into view. Last night’s dramatic thunderstorm had given way to a sparkling morning, and he was eager to spend this weekend in his canoe, pine plank stretched across the gunwales to provide a space for his mathematical calculations. In that floating office, his mind felt as wide as the horizon, and his aching bones were lightened with buoyancy. Alternately paddling and gliding, he relaxed into the accommodation offered to his abbreviated frame and hunched back.
“Divine discontent,” he called his condition, alluding not only to his physical state but also to reinvent the equation of his life. A triumph of mind over matter.
Now Steinmetz clamped a fresh Blackstone panatela cigar between his teeth, shrugging off the recent headline in the Saturday Globe calling him “Wizard of Electric City.” It might have suited him, admiration offered in a play on words, but he preferred irreverence, even though anonymity had never been an option for someone shaped like him.
Approaching the turnoff to his encampment, he often considered the fateful decision Thomas Edison once made to choose this verdant valley for his new company. He had claimed it for the way the rivers meet here—the grand Hudson and its greatest tributary, the Mohawk. Like the confluence of time and space. Edison must have sensed that in a land of quartz, feldspar, and magnetite, he could make a city that would light up the world.
It took Steinmetz a few ungainly movements to clamber down from the high-seated car, and for a luxurious moment he stood to inhale the beauty of his simple refuge, this morning of birdcalls and the almost-imperceptible muttering of the river. Entering the unlocked house, he recognized the scorched smell alongside the visible residue of an uninvited guest. Cracks in the blackened doorframe, an arc of burn marks below a window that was torn from its molding. Not caused by any human vandal, as he might have guessed had he still been living in Europe, not by thugs in pursuit of valuables or in belligerent destructive pleasure.
This was Zeus’s handiwork. Lightning.
Stepping carefully around a large shattered mirror, he noted the way its rectangular oak frame still held a few shards, even as the jagged remainder lay on the dusty floorboards. What was the last image reflected here in its wholeness? A flash of someone’s distracted face, the back of his own head as he walked away, the blur of a trapped bird searching for a way out?
Foolish to have kept a mirror in a cabin, he chided himself.
Instead of stooping in agitation toward the mess, wondering how to restore peace so he might work, Steinmetz felt the spark of an idea. Why not investigate this ordinary mystery? Find a way to harness nature’s own extravagant power? In one pocket, his fingers curled around the shape of a book of matches; the skin on his forehead tingled and his jawtightened around the still-unlit cigar. To start with, the damage left by this electrical visitation could be preserved with the faithful box camera he kept on a bookshelf by the window. He could gather evidence of the path of discharge. Track it like some wild animal.
His friend Joseph Longboat would surely appreciate the analogy. Together they had frequently marveled at the life beneath the river’s opalescent surface, the coded language of geology and biology along the river’s edge. Shale flaking down in a stuttering whisper as the two men strolled, often without speaking, companions staring at the water and gazing into the sky. They compared knowledge of currents that moved the Mohawk, waves that moved as light. Joseph shared tobacco and silence; Steinmetz mentioned Frankenstein and Einstein. Once or twice they had discussed Michelangelo’s image of the gap between fingertips, animation touched into existence. When Joseph spoke of Spirit, Steinmetz knocked on flint.
Pausing only long enough to brew pot after pot of black coffee, occasionally remembering to chew on some stale biscuits and apples, the mathematician worked meticulously all weekend to reconstruct with patient exactitude the splintered mirror. Using two panes of glass to hold the pieces in place, he meant to build a map of the lightning’s choreography.
“This silver puzzle is more than a man-made thing,” he explained when Joseph made his usual Sunday afternoon appearance. “It’s a portrait of infinity. The story of what we’ve loved and have lost.”
Only with Joseph could he speak this way, about the world inside the world. “Bodies are energy fields,” Steinmetz said, pointing at theplace where his heart pumped along, faithful as ever. “Swirling patterns that we take to be our bones and organs, our vessels and skin.” He stubbed out the remains of a cigar and reached for a replacement. “When we chart the course of a natural force,” Steinmetz explained, “We find everything is as curved as my back. Even time itself!”
Joseph, the canoe maker, sat in a Shaker chair straddling the threshold of the open cabin door, so that he could survey the familiar layers of bedrock and sandstone, caves and sediment.
“You can look sideways through time,” he said. “It’s sticky like amber.”
Both men could hear the nearby bridge with occasional cars clattering across. The only missing sound, it being Sunday, was the end-of-day work whistle from the downtown factory.
“Home is where you come from and where you choose to build it,” Joseph said. “It’s where the pieces fit together.”
Steinmetz nodded, using tweezers to set the final splinters of glass into place. These two days had marked the beginning of a new game: erasures and incandescence, a mosaic bent by gravity. He believed in mathematics the way others believed in God. Notebooks lined every shelf, filled with scribbled formulas for magnetic reluctance and power surges, potential for control and its opposite. Several pages had been grabbed by wind and tossed into the river, but no matter. With equal parts perseverance and daring, a scientist could become a magician. Steinmetz had already experienced such a metamorphosis of his own, when he crossed from the Old World to the New.
In early spring, after months of bizarre explosions resounding from within Building 28, reporters from as far away as New York City were invited to witness the Wizard’s latest creation. The theoretical experiment devised at Camp Mohawk had gradually expanded to fill the space of a downtown warehouse, its solid walls creating a container as vast as it was secure. The Company always provided Steinmetz with whatever component parts he required, no questions asked. Sheet metal and vacuum tubes, porcelain insulators and tungsten wire. Equations were being translated into light, into voltage.
Even Edison was here for the demonstration, seated on an over-stuffed armchair brought in for the occasion. Increasingly deaf, he held his ear trumpet so as to capture whatever sound he could. When Steinmetz approached to offer a personal welcome, tapping in Morse code onto Edison’s arthritic knee, the old man offered a rare smile.
“You always understand me better than most!” Edison shouted. No need for amplification today, Steinmetz tapped. Believe me. The rest of the selected crowd stood at a specific distance from the model village of Electric City that had been arrayed on a room-size platform. Balsa wood and painted paper buildings wore stenciled labels to identify which was the hospital, which was the grocer, the undertaker. The university’s sixteen-sided Nott Memorial was graciously included, though its stained-glass windows were not as carefully detailed as the College President might have preferred. The marquee above Proctor’s Theatre promoted a feature called “Modern Jupiter!” The curving boundaries of the Vale Cemetery had been sketched into place on a green-painted hillside with clay tablets for tombstones. Railroad tracks ended abruptly at the edges of the stage. And a blinking circle of light was suspended above a miniature version of The Company’s headquarters.
Not counting Joe Hayden, the devoted assistant who had become Steinmetz’s adopted son, only two of the guests knew what they were about to see. An eleven-year-old fair-haired girl whose nicknameof Midget had been chosen by her adopted grandfather, “Daddy” Steinmetz. And Joseph Longboat, leaning almost invisibly against a far wall, casually but firmly holding onto the shoulders of the child. On both faces, matching grave expressions revealed nothing of the secret they had been sworn to keep.
“Artificial it may be, but like Nature herself, this will be loud and spectacular,” Steinmetz had promised Midge the day before, gazing into her dark, serious eyes with undisguised fondness. Of the three Hayden children, she was his favorite and everyone knew it. “You might want to cover your ears.”
The time had come. Steinmetz raised one hand in a sober request for silence, and with no further warning, the diorama was electrocuted by a generator’s split-second emission of one million volts.
Trees became smoke. A church steeple burst into flame.
Picture the logo—you can still see it anywhere. A monogram of curling letters meant to look like someone’s handwriting, adorning some appliance or other, your fridge or your stove, maybe a washing machine, a dryer. Now picture it huge, glowing neon white above the factory headquarters whose dull red façade shadowed a stretch of the Mohawk River. You could see it from the bridge, driving away from or toward downtown, with the river flowing dirty and despondent below. You could see it from all over town, and even in your dreams, hovering with incandescent power above elms and train platforms, above barns and telephone poles. Sometimes it seemed to cast a particular glow onto the mossy brick of the campus residence halls, the stately ones bearing plaques engraved with the Van Curler name. And sometimes it left an eerie sheen on the gravestones in the Vale Cemetery, that place where the living and the dead still meet.
In a company town, everything wore The Company insignia. “Live better electrically!” the slogan said. Everyone believed it.
And yet, on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, with autumn tipping into winter, when most but not quite all of the dying leaves were down on the frozen ground, when the vague but unmistakable smell of rotting pumpkins could be found in certain driveways and alleys, when the full moon had begun its slow climb into the darkening sky, when fathers all over town were driving home from work and mothers were preparing dinner and children were bent over their homework, the lights in Sophie Levine’s house flickered for a few seconds and faded to nothing. The refrigerator and dishwasher were suddenly mute; the electric stove lost its orange-hot flare. Even the clothes dryer ceased its tumbling.
Sophie, alone in the family room, had been avoiding completion of a trigonometry assignment, puzzling over an echo from that morning’s homeroom that wouldn’t quite leave her mind. A classmate who had refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance was sent to the Principal’s office, and she couldn’t stop wondering what his motives had been, what else would now happen to him. Absentmindedly flicking a nearby floor lamp on and off, on and off, she thought at first she’d simply burned out the bulb—or worse, had broken something in the wiring. But when she tried to turn on the television, that switch had no effect either, which had to amount to more than coincidence.
When her father’s car pulled into the garage much more noisily than usual, she realized this was because every other sound in the house was missing. It was November 9, 1965, and Sophie was fifteen years old.
Tuned to WABC, the kitchen radio had just been playing “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and it was funny, for a moment, to think that maybe this was what had happened. Everyone had simply launched into outer space. Miriam said the music was warping and wavering as though someone was holding a finger on the record player. “The electricity is slowing down!” the radio announcer said. “I didn’t even know that could happen.”
Even before her father had made it out of the garage, Sophie saw that her mother had already found matches and the box of white Sabbath candles, which she began lighting a few at a time. There was a decent flashlight in the broom closet, but its batteries were dead and Sophie was sent down to the basement holding a candle to see if she couldfind some new ones. Hot wax dripped onto her fingers and cooled just quickly enough not to burn; she stubbed her toe on the leg of a table in the hallway.
Sophie’s father said, “What’s going on?” when he met her at the bottom of the stairs.
“Good thing we have so many candles!” came the call from her mother in the kitchen. “Maybe this isn’t what they’re meant for, but still.” Sophie thought this was exactly what they were best for: pushing light against darkness. “No luck,” she called on the way back up, having found no spare batteries to replenish the flashlight. Returning, she saw her mother smile. Sophie loved watching her mother light candles on Friday nights and whisper the blessing so quietly that no one could make out the words. Miriam didn’t just close her eyes but placed both hands over them too, making sure to block out everything that might distract her from the intensity of her praying. Sophie long suspected that she wasn’t reciting the traditional Shabbat blessing but was instead making up her own words. Tonight, her mother lit candle after candle, blowing out matches just before they burned her fingertips. Once again, Sophie didn’t ask the question she always wanted to ask, What do you whisper? Instead she pulled aluminum foil off its tube and built makeshift holders; they had run out of candlesticks.
Sulfur from the extinguished match tips hung in the air, temporarily obscuring the other aromas of frying onions and meatloaf and dill on potatoes. In the moody glow, her mother looked wistful, as if she were listening for Sophie’s older brother Simon’s footsteps on the stairs. He was in his first year of college in California, and the three of them still weren’t used to his absence.
Her father put his briefcase in the hallway closet and hung up his overcoat in the usual way. He loosened his tie but didn’t take it off. “Let’s see what happens now,” he said.
The telephone began ringing and didn’t stop for the next half hour. All of the Levine family friends were checking on each other, a kind of impromptu phone tree spreading its limbs across town. Reena and Irving, Magda and Daniel, Rose and Benjamin. The women were making the calls, and the men were testing the fuse boxes, but eventually it became clear that the blackout had spread all over the city, and much farther, beyond the northern border of the United States even, into Canada. Sophie’s father’s transistor radio was a source of information, but at first nobody could explain much about the vastness of the power outage. Electric City had gone dark.
ELIZABETH ROSNER is the author of The Speed of Light, which has been translated into nine languages and was awarded the Harold U. Ribalow Prize administered by Hadassah Magazine and judged by Elie Wiesel. It was shortlisted for France’s Prix Femina and the recipient of the Prix France Bleu Gironde. Rosner also received the 2002 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer Award for fiction. Her second novel, Blue Nude, was named a 2006 Best book by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her essays have been published by The New York Times Magazine, Elle, the Forward, The Huffington Post, and many anthologies. She is a frequent book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Excerpted from Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner, by permission of Counterpoint Books. © 2014 by Elizabeth Rosner.
Photo credit: Julia McNeal