This afternoon, Iris’s mother plans to swallow a pill that will dissolved her thyroid gland, cure her hyperactive metabolic disorder, and turn her, temporarily, radioactive. She will lift the white pill over her blushed lips and open her teeth so that the chalky capsule can dissolve in her arteries and turn her blue veins nuclear. All of this, the doctor assures Iris and her sister, is a routine procedure. He explains the radioactive iodine procedure in the simplest possible terms. Yes, in the interest of avoiding radiation poisoning it’s recommended that she spend the first night away from home. Yes, she may set off airport security alarms for up to six months. Yes, parts of her insides will decay like nuclear waste: with a half-life. She’ll be like a superhero, he insists. Like Spiderman, but bitten by a radioactive pill instead of a spider.
But before the turn from mother to radical, there is lunch. Iris and her mother sit in the hard plastic chairs of the hospitals cafeteria and stare at each while Celia, Iris’s sister, talks loudly into her cellphone. She is talking to her fiancé, Tom who wants to know if they can meet up this weekend. Their meet-ups require careful planning because Tom lives three hundred miles away in West Virginia. Celia and Tom dated in high school and recently reconnected via Facebook. He proposed to her via text.
On the phone, Celia and Tom settle that they will meet the next morning at Wolf Gap Mountain. They settle that Iris and her boyfriend, Lyle, will tag along, even though Iris does not want to double date with Tom. If Celia and Iris were still the type of sisters who fought about things, Iris would make this fact known. She would tell her sister how pathetic she finds her relationship with Tom. In response to this, Celia would roll her eyes and ask why Iris is always so skeptical, so uncharitable. When they were young this was always her closing refrain: Iris, why can’t you ever be charitable? Now, though, her sister has no need for sibling bickering; she has religion. Not the soft, Southern kind of faith that requires neighborly kindness and philanthropy, but the kind of religion that encourages exclusion. It has been sixteen months since her sister watched the news.
“It’s never happy is it?” she explained, when Iris discovered that her sister could not name the current president candidates. “I prefer to surround myself with positive things.”
At the hospital cafeteria, Iris’s mother orders a shrimp salad, no dressing. Iris watches her divide it up into mathematical portions: seven boiled shrimp, six tomato wedges, eight hearts-of-palm. She spears each item with two shreds of lettuce and then cuts the pile into smaller bites, swallowing them quickly, maybe without chewing.
“So, Iris,” her mother says, cut-up lettuce on her fork. “How’s Fish Boy these days?”
By “Fish Boy,” she means Iris’s boyfriend, Lyle, who recently directed a failed children’s movie about a family of psychic mermaids. It was through this film that Iris and Lyle met; she applied the mermaid tail makeup to the actors’ shins. The most memorable part of the whole movie was the father, Simon, who had a giant unicorn horn growing out of the center of his head, which caused Iris’s mother to mockingly title the film “The Freudian Fishes.”
“Lyle is fine,” Iris says, wedging her knife against the fattiest part of her meat. She piles it onto her fork, gnawing her way through the overly-gristled bite, desperate for this lunch to be over. Iris is happy her mother is having this procedure; she wants to be clear about this. She wants her to get well. But she wishes she didn’t have to witness it. Her post-hyperthyroidism mother is so thin that Iris wonders if she even weighs a hundred pounds anymore. Her mouth sprawls across her face, pulsing when she speaks like a giant, gaping blowhole. Her eye sockets have sunk into her skin far enough that the rounded sides of her eyes show. When she hugs her daughter Iris is acutely aware of the malleability of her own flesh, the way the weight around her hips catches on her mother’s fingers. Iris is aware that her mother waited almost thirty years for one of her daughters to grow into a woman like her. Instead she has one born-again Christian and a one hundred and seventy-five pound woman dating a Fish Boy.
After the pill and the hospital, Iris’s mother takes a cab to the hotel where she will spend the weekend so her newly nuclear self doesn’t irradiate her dog. Iris invites Celia over for dinner and offers to make her famous risotto, an offer Celia cannot refuse. Celia is good and charitable and full to the brim with God’s love, so she does not judge Lyle like their mother. She sits next to him on the floor and the two of them begin leafing through Iris’s records, trying to choose just one to play.
Iris walks into the kitchen and begins preparing their dinner. She simmers the oil and slices the chicken. She heats the stove, sautés the vegetables. She shakes the box and the rice skips into the mushrooms and onions, next to the chicken broth and the white wine. She stirs. Risotto is one of those dishes that requires constant action, so she doesn’t look up, not even when Celia and Lyle finally agree upon “Rumors” and the two of them stand close together and start shaking their hips. Celia grabs Lyle’s arms and twirls herself around him.
No, she doesn’t look up. She turns her wrist and the spoon through the rice over and over, folding in the chicken and the tomatoes and finally a heavy spoonful of butter. The air grows thick, fatty; Iris thinks she can feel its greasy coat on her teeth. The satisfaction she usually feels while cooking eludes her. The noises in the living room distract her. Usually, Lyle makes no secret of the fact that he finds Celia’s blind faith contemptible. He is an angry man and poor at concealing it. As a boy, his parents (both psychiatrists) gave him a small blue notebook and told him to document each moment of the day that he felt anger. Then they made him apologize for each instance, explain how he could have been more kind. This exercise was intended to build his character, his compassion, although Lyle hasn’t visited his parents in years and writes TV pilot after TV pilot starring heroic orphan boys.
Tonight, though, Celia seems to have fallen into Lyle’s good graces. Perhaps he is in one of his forgiving moods. Perhaps it is Celia’s red crop-top, the sinewy swing of her stomach as she dances to Stevie Nicks. Iris peers into the living room and spots Lyle doing an elaborate impression of the excitable dog their neighbor owns. He sniffs at the air and props himself up on his knees, pawing at Celia’s shoulders, her collarbone. He pushes his nose into the ticklish skin of her neck and Celia squeals, thrilled.
In this moment, Iris feels herself wishing, although she can’t say exactly for what. She looks down at the ballooning rice and listens to the two of them out in the living room. Craving grinds inside of her gut. She moves her lips silently as she stirs and thinks about what a simple sort of magic cooking is. Casual alchemy. It was Iris’s mother, of course, who first taught her magic: the magic of control, of transfiguration. The trick to being hungry and wanting it—the dry mouth, how grapefruit juice would settle in the stomach and staunch cravings. No dressing on salad, no breading on chicken. Small bites to trick the mouth into being full. She studied and practiced until the not-bark of a hungry stomach was agony. In place of this fullness: anger. A life of craving. No enchantment was enough to silence it.
Although enchantment is exactly what she feels now, her wooden spoon moving through the bubbling, bickering boil. Iris dips her tasting fork into the skillet. The risotto is soft now; red tomatoes and basil and butter soaked into the rice. She whispers again to the simmer, grinding up rosemary and sage in her palms and sifting the spice through her fingers, a slow sprinkling of green to accompany her still-nebulous wishing. Across the room Celia leans away from Lyle until she topples off the couch.
“Bad dog,” she says and smacks him across the nose.
After the wishing, Iris sets the table and presents the risotto in a blue serving pan. Celia cuts up mangoes and tomatoes and golden raisins for a spinach salad and Lyle pours them all slender glasses of red wine. Everyone eats until Celia suddenly looks into the kitchen and pauses.
“Iris,” she says. “Did you use that white cutting board earlier for the chicken?”
“Yes,” Iris says.
Celia buries her face in her hands and then reveals that she used the same cutting board for the tomatoes.
“Stop eating,” she says. “Everything is covered in raw chicken.”
Lyle doesn’t stop.
“Lyle,” Iris says. “Stop.”
“Absolutely not.” He laughs at them. “This is delicious.”
“No,” Celia says. “I’ve ruined it. I’ve given us all salmonella.”
“You know what kills bacteria?” Lyle asks. “Alcohol.”
Then he fills everyone’s glasses to the brim.
In the morning, Celia and Lyle are pale, bloated messes while Iris has escaped unscathed. This is because Iris was the only one not to touch the risotto. Or, because each time Lyle poured her a glass of wine she dumped it out in the sink, toasting without swallowing to give herself the appearance of revelry.
“I can’t tell if it’s salmonella,” Celia says. “Or just a hangover.”
“It’s a hangover,” Lyle says. “Let’s go hiking. Exercise is good for these things.”
They walk out into the cold, December air and Iris takes the keys to the car, driving through the bare-limbed Virginia trees while Celia and Lyle rest their cheeks against the car windows and groan. Tom is waiting for them at the trailhead of Wolf Gap Mountain and Iris can’t help but remember what Celia used to say about him when they dated in high school—I love him, she would say, but dating him is like dating a disgruntled bear. At least in this aspect, Tom has not changed at all; he still reminds Iris of a large and malcontent animal. His knuckles are red from the December wind and he shifts from foot to foot in the cold. He announces that they are twenty minutes late. He takes one look at Celia’s smudged eyeliner, Lyle practically pouring out of the backseat, and frowns. On cue, Lyle curls half of his body behind the car and noisily vomits.
“There is a slight chance,” Celia says to Tom’s shoes. “That I’m a little hung-over.”
“Or that we have Salmonella,” Iris adds.
If Celia expects sympathy from Tom, she is disappointed. He just nods, turns, and begins hiking up the trail. Celia catches Iris by the arm.
“Can we not,” Celia attempts to whisper. “Inform the love of my life that some time in the next fifty-two hours I might start erupting out of both ends?”
“I’m sorry,” Iris says, clearly not sorry.
(and Iris is prepared for the requests for charity, the holy grandstanding, but instead Celia closes her mouth, gags once, and continues)
—quit acting like such a bitch.”
Iris can’t help it; she smiles. The urge for competition, for rivalry. Its nostalgic thrill fills her. She smirks and pushes forward, leaving her sister behind, a small contest. Already Tom is yards ahead of them and Iris rushes forward, jogs up behind him and puts her hand on his shoulder so he will slow and walk by her side. Tom can tell an Ash from an English Oak by the ridges of its bark. He rubs his thumb into the gaps of the trees’ furrows to show Iris their different patterning. He lifts up a fallen leaf the size of her head and props it into her hair. She wears it like a crown; she hopes Celia can see.
Celia struggles through the snow behind them and Iris can tell that Celia knows nothing about hiking. The route she has chosen climbs at a steep, almost ninety degree angle up a mountainside composed of nothing but rocks and tree roots. It’s clearly been snowing here for days and the road is covered in three inches of packed white, slightly softened in the sun but only just enough to make their feet slip instead of crunch. Even Celia’s apparel defeats her ascent: tight red pants, treadless heeled booties, and a coat missing all the buttons. She and Lyle waver in the background, the snow sledding them backwards then forwards. They groan often, a thick, meaty sound of protest.
Iris and Tom push onwards, breaking free of the snow-slipped ascent first, up onto the flat, crested ridge. Here, the trail is nothing more than the wire thin ridge of the mountain’s rocky vertebrae. Tom doesn’t even turn to check on Celia’s progress. He only looks forward, still identifying trees—Hornbeam, Great Willow, Wild Cherry, Rowan—and Iris wonders if the two of them are actually in love, or just lonely. She thinks of how eager her sister was to accept her dinner offer last night, to sleep on Iris’s tight, cramped couch.
Up in the branches of a tree, a large hawk is picking apart a mess of carrion. The image makes Iris think of her mother. When she and Celia were girls, her mother loved to grill meats—lamb racks, rib steaks, pork cutlets—but she never actually ate anything she cooked. Instead, Iris would find her after dinner, hunched over the sink, working on the bones left on her children’s plates like a dog. Iris never stopped her mother; she never asked what she was doing. It is true what her sister says; she is not charitable. Her guilt settles into a stomachache that stretches into her back, her kidneys. The sky looks fuzzed like a broken television and she feels bubbles in her throat.
Up ahead of her, Tom stands spread-eagle upon a tilted, granite stone. A valley dips below the mountain. Across the chasm, houses line a shallow hill. Their marigold Christmas lights stand out even from this distance and Iris wants a million more moments just like this one—the light cutting faces into the sides of the mountain, the named trees shading her with their palms. Then, Tom looks up at the sky and crosses himself once. Iris bites her tongue and turns away, watches the light splinter as the sun dips towards the horizon.
“We should go back,” she says. Tom turns. He nods.
They descend nearly the entire mountain before they find them. Celia and Lyle are leaning against opposing trees and staring past each other. Celia clutches her stomach and won’t let go even when Tom puts his hands on her shoulders and calls her baby. Lyle’s breath stinks with a sour fever.
“You’re so beautiful.” Lyle puts his hand on Iris’s face. He grabs her around the waist and she can feel the softer parts of her body sigh. “So beautiful. I love you.”
“Let’s go,” she says.
Lyle doesn’t move. He settles his head back against the tree and sniffs its bark.
“I love you so much,” He says again. “I am overflowing with love for you.”
“I’m exploding from both ends,” Celia says.
She giggles. Lyle giggles, too.
“Maybe they’re really sick,” Tom says.
“They’re okay,” Iris says, although she suspects he’s correct. “They’re hung-over. They haven’t eaten anything all day.”
“Are you sure?” Tom puts his hand to Celia’s pale cheek. “Maybe I should take her with me. Take care of her.”
Iris thinks, uncharitably, that all men love women most when they are weak.
“No,” Celia says. “I want to go home.”
“Darling,” Lyle says, pulling Iris closer. “My darling, darling, darling.”
He looks across to the opposing hill, the one with all the houses. He reaches his fingers out towards them, pinching his fingers like he’s plucking one and then he holds it over his mouth, opens his gullet and gulps the phantom house down. She hears his teeth grind against each other as he pretends to chew.
“I’m going to eat you, too.” He tells Iris. “I’m going to eat you like a wolf.”
“No wolves here,” she says. “Just a mountain with a silly name.”
Iris lifts Lyle’s hand out of his mouth and pulls him away from the tree. He paws at her shoulder, lifts her wrist to his mouth and nips once at the skin. Then he sucks the fabric of her sleeve between his teeth. She drags him across the trail to where Celia is waiting and when her sister sees them she smiles, and bites her teeth down around Iris’s other sleeve. So Iris leads them both, sucking on the hem of her jacket like horses on a bit, down the white spine of the mountain.
At the hospital, a doctor confirms that Celia and Lyle have salmonella. It’s not the same doctor who fed her mother the superhero pill. This one is fatter, more skeptical. He wants to know why they didn’t come to the hospital as soon as they started experiencing symptoms, why they stressed their bodies even further instead.
“Love,” Celia says. Her lips are white and cracking at the corners.
Lyle laughs. He looks at Iris.
“Christ,” he says, “she never quits, does she?”
Celia doesn’t hear him but Iris smiles. She pushes his dark hair back from his face and rubs his temples. She sits in the hospital room long after they have both fallen asleep. Looking at the two of them, plastic IVs running through their arms to rehydrate them, Iris can’t help worrying that this is all somehow her fault, that she caused it with her shapeless invocation.
It’s dark inside the hospital room and when she turns off the bedside lamp the green glow of the street and the moon shade the white sheets, the white faces of her family. Everything starches and blends. In the eerie palate around her, Iris imagines her mother suddenly emerging, still sleeping. Celia and Lyle disappear. Iris touches her mother’s hand. Skin like the dried leaves in the December woods. Already, her fingers feel heavier. Already, her body soaking in nutrients. Maybe this is what Iris wished for. Not the sickness, the salmonella, but this dark room. Her knuckles on top of her mother’s knuckles. Likeness emerging between the two of them, their differences dissolving. Iris steps back from the scene. She imagines she is viewing it all through the lens of an x-ray. Two skeletons. Bones over bones. How, after all this time, both of their bodies would glow.
- Origin Story - July 3, 2017