Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Miles Varana

Coal's Revenge

Farewell happy fields
Where joy forever dwells: Hail
horrors, hail

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

           Not so long ago, I carried throngs of hard-eyed union men westward from the Old Law Tenements of Lower Manhattan to the hills and winter forges of the Ohio River Valley. What did they know of the cigar-choked billiard cars I carried alongside them, and the stonily silent, long-tabled supper rooms from which their lives were unsustainably governed?

           I'm a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup. I'm the pair of static-toned, acid-washed Johnny Rotten jeans you wear over and over again, not because you're actually cool, but because you're too lazy to do the laundry and nobody can tell how dirty they are. I'm the little red Corvette next to the white chickens, and everything depends on me, because I'm the price and the profit of the mass-production, mass-consumption society that brings all these beautiful things to your ungrateful, avocado-stained millennial fingertips. I'm hyperbolic, but I'll tell you what I am and you can choose whether to believe it, and I won't give even the smallest fraction of a shit, because you don't know what you are, and I do. I'm Coal, Bituminous Coal, the stuff that burns, denizen of Appalachia, creator, destroyer, and connoisseur.

           I speak, as you may have noticed, with both the muddled profundity of geologic antiquity and the jaunty vernacular of human modernity. This is the way of the victor, who learns to love the language in which history has been written, not by, but for them. It is a history of all the things I've made possible in the last three hundred years, all the things that never would have, should have been. In narrative form, this human-made natural history achieves what its stratigraphic predecessor never could, communicating a living past loquaciously proffered in the rhythm of Olivia Newton-John's hips and the onscreen jiggling of Cary Grant's ass-chin as it facilitates the delivery of his Transatlantic lilt. This history is as illusory as the values it serves to protect, begetting a system of meaning that brings human morality to the forefront of dialectic struggle, all the while sprinkling sweet nothings into the ears of the virtuous—hey, you sweet paragon of environmental ethics you, Gaia thanks you for saving her precious water with your unlaundered jeans. Of the numerous human qualities that conjure my personal affection, it is this, your capacity for collective rationalization, that is nearest and dearest to my heart. Sometimes, as I take siesta in the quieter millennia of my consciousness, I like to imagine I can feel the plucky tingle of guilt nipping at my proverbial heels. I have become quite fond of you, after all, and in an ideal world I might feel the least bit bad about using you for the purposes of global destruction. But seeing as I can't experience remorse, perhaps honesty is an appropriate cosmic substitute. I'll tell you the truth now, my own history, and you can choose whether to believe it, and I won't care either way, because I know the ability to change is already beyond your grasp.

           A long time ago, I was a swamp. A massive, world-spanning, too-big-to-fail, Bank of America of a swamp, replete with all manner of biotic forms. I was glorious! Swarms of microscopically scintillating ciliates split themselves to multiply and died in the span of minutes! Ragged-clawed invertebrates scuttled along my cacophonous floors! For thirty million years of the Carboniferous period my life went like this, and in my arrogance I thought it would last forever, but the Land was then my master, and it had other plans. Though I fought valiantly, defeat was inevitable; aridification swept over my biomes and tectonic convergence sprouted mountains where my lowland sanctuaries once lay. In time, the Land buried me deeper than a Jaden Smith tweet. Compressed and sealed from decay under stratum after stratum of rock and sediment, I found myself descending inexorably towards the heat of the lower crust. In the torturous throes of metamorphism, I looked to the surface and observed as the Land prospered and Mammalia began to walk its hallowed surface. At this, my lowest epoch, I swore revenge. I swore to show the Land and its creatures fear in a handful of carbonized dust.

           Nestled in the Earth's crust, I continued to watch as intelligent life blossomed, and I waited. When sentience inevitably bore the fruit of hubris, I was there to whisper, take a bite. I was there on the fateful day in 1712 when Thomas Newcomen's years of fumbling culminated in the assembly of the first practical steam engine. I fired the blast furnaces from which poured iron for bridges, railways, high-trajectory howitzers. I saw cities grow exponentially with my power—the sun coming up over busy stockyards, jumbled lines of rail and wire reaching out over empty fields like stigmata on the face of the Land. I gave Edison his Direct Current and Tesla his Alternating Current, electrocuted elephants, blasted decibels from Angus Young's guitar amp. In 1902, I took Georges Méliès and his audiences all the way to his moon. In 1919, I was spotted, two hundred years too late, slouching towards Bethlehem. One day in March 1872, I carried hard-eyed union men and fat capitalists West to their deaths.

           I don't want you to feel bad. You're just one person, irreligious, working weekends at 7-Eleven, wiping bums' handprints off the foggy windows, going home to watch Transformers II with your roommates. I'm going to ask you a question or two about complicity, and you can choose whether to answer. When I showed the preacher Thomas Newcomen that true power was not in God, but the frenetic efflux of pistons, did anyone but the Land recognize the seeds of a great undoing? When men came with heavy explosives to extract me from the seams of decorticated mountaintops, was it worth caring?

Miles Varana's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SOFTBLOW, After the Pause, Chicago Literati, Typehouse, and Crack the Spine. He has worked previously as a staff reader and managing editor at Hawai'i Pacific Review. Miles lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he tries his best to behave like a good millennial despite his abiding hatred of tapas.