Iodinical [story] by KT Browne

Iodine skips the liquid phase on its way to a gas; it streaks from whole to multitudes then, without a fluid bridge between. At the moment of its boil, iodine mists oddly purple. Thereafter, its particles thin and wisp and stand displaced amongst airspace, vaporous and otherwise invisible apart from the stark contours of every solid mass surrounding.

Iodine, once in thousands and thousands of indistinguishable particles, hurriedly roams the atmosphere without trajectory, wading and roving in search of a way to solidify, or least, to evaporate; and yet rare the earth’s surface though abundant undersea, iodine is the heaviest element needed by human organisms. However, one must search outside of the vessels of their bodies in order to obtain it. Though to accomplish this, one must know where in fact they ought to look.

//

Lights flickered, fading and saturating the walls in patterns; Irene was teetering along the bed’s edge, clinging to the metal of its frame in the morning. On the night table beside her—sunflowers; at the sight of their matte-yellow petals fraying up and into the room, Irene moved new muscles and lifted the weight of her head, as if she were just now being born.

“For you, Irene.”

A voice called out from afar, watching Irene’s limbs unfurl towards the flowers, her face nearing their odorous centers like a wasp.

“You are crowning.” The voice spoke again. “It always hurts to be born.”

Irene’s sleep stages were prominent, distinct. As she slept, a fever raged through her insides, plucking at her organs and intensifying her dreams. A music box played on a table nearby, and The Faces—overseers who had kept to Irene’s side through the long hours—waited and watched intently for a sign of her recovery. They listened the music box crack a melody into the earth, humming along to the tune, lowering their heads to Irene’s chest to assess her breathing.

“Irene come back to us, honey.”

The Faces said, nearly in unison like a chant.

“You’re here.”

An attempt to open her mouth resulted in a slit; and through that slit the whole world seeped in. The world tasted metallic to Irene and she couldn’t bear it. The Faces watched her clench her jaw, fists, grind her teeth. Her eyes blinked open and closed insistently, and like this she teetered back and forth between a blistering world and an indelible one. Asleep, Irene dreamt of waterways and lighthouses, dreamt of the complexity contained within the fins of a fish—or of how fish must balance their weight in order to move through currents; and how it is that they manage to thrive in cold blood.

Yet even in the deepest, most feverish sleep, Irene could sense The Faces hovering near her. She noticed the fleshy stench of the air as they lowered their eyes and ears to inspect her like a specimen and breathed, or as they held onto flashlights, shining lights into her eyes.

“Wild and worn.”

They’d say, lifting her eyelids with their fingertips.

“Like a traveler.”

And now Irene’s submerging into a watery world; she is trying to breathe in the deep blue. The Faces notice her stirring. Irene is reaching at the veins of her brain like a reign, hoping to ride it somehow but she fails. She falls backwards. She hears the city once more, pulsing outside of her, hears the sound of steel and helicopters, the radiated hum of wires overhead. Her body remains motionless in bed, her mouth cracked to only a hairline fracture. She whimpers—

“I’m tired. I just want to sle-ee-e—”

Tears form and fall and dampen the sheets that lie in a spiral by her face. Irene’s skin grows wet, soggy and The Faces continue to keep watch over her without flinching, steady like a machine.

“But hou’v-v-vve been slee-eeping for ho-o-oours, Irene! Da-a-aays!”

As time progressed, time marked by only shadows, voices and patterns of light, Irene’s fever rose. A dangerous heat powered through her insides. When delirium hit her in the night, and her eyes clenched closed with unbreakable force, The Faces fastened Irene’s body to the mattress with their arms and fed her spoonfuls of a powdery substance. With chemicals now surging through her, Irene processed a slew of mental images along the screen of her mind. Faded, flickering frames of remembered imagery played out ad nauseum, over and over and far beyond her control. They were radiant. When each dream ended and Irene resurfaced into a fragile, temporary lucidity, she would often start to cry—dense, unceasing tears, for though she loved her dreams, Irene sensed with each one that they were shifting, growing somehow and this change was frightening.

The Faces witnessed this all in the way that they could—from a distance, holding onto thermometers and dampened towels with furrowing eyes. When Irene’s fever spiked yet another degree in a sun-smeared dawn, they decided at last to peel her up and out of bed. They carried her by the shoulders into the kitchen, ran the faucet cold and splashed water across her face. Yet even then, Irene kept dreaming, fighting for sleep, subtly aware that life was carrying on around her yet wanting to stay far away from it. She started speaking in her sleep soon after, making small noises at first as her head rolled between varying levels of consciousness—she made muffled tones as if her voice were attempting to hold a tune, and then the words came. One after another, Irene repeated these words without syntax or sense.

“Radius.”

She cried out on an afternoon as The Faces held her searing body over a bathtub, forcing her to her knees above the tile floor. Motion proceeded in flashes. Capillaries burst beneath her skin; blue bruises formed. Tired screams emitted, the kind of screams one only half-forms in troubled sleep. Positioning Irene’s face beneath the faucet, The Faces poured iodine into the water.

“Watch how it blossoms, Irene.”

Irene watched the iodine spiraling underwater, her matted hair wiring towards the drain. She observed how its motions were almost floral, as if buds were growing out of the irreducible molecules of the liquid. She brought a finger down to the water’s surface and touched it, gently, causing the water to shake.

“I just want a radius.”

She muttered painfully into the drain, noticing tiny cracks along its surface.

“But listen, Irene…”

Whispered one of The Faces, the motherly one, coming nearer to pull her hand out of the water. Grabbing a hold of Irene’s frail wrists, the motherly Face turned them skyward and tapped out a code onto her skin.

“Listen for a melody.”

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This poem refers to Kelley White’s poem “First Birth After Sharon Olds.”]

KT is a writer and lens-based artist living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Passages North, The Review Review, and elsewhere. Her website is ktbrowne.com.

Image by Alice Popkorn