These pressure-loving microbes live in the ocean depths under extreme hydrostatic pressure. They exist not in spite of the ocean’s crushing weight, but because of it. Without this pressure to fight against, they would perish.
—Marvelous Species: Investigating Earth’s Mysterious Biology
THE DAYS WERE already growing shorter, prodding us toward summer’s end, when my mother and I left Boston for the sequestered town of Nye. She hummed to the radio and I sat strapped into the passenger seat, like a convict being shuttled between prisons. In the last six months my Beacon Hill neighborhood had shrunk to the size of a single room: Dr. Patrick’s office, with its greasy magazines and hieroglyphic water stains. The vast landscape that opened before us now wasn’t any more comforting. The mountainous peaks resembled teeth. The road stretched between them like a black tongue. And here we were, in our small vehicle, speeding toward that awful mouth.
From the maps and photographs I had uncovered at the Boston Public Library, I knew that Nye would be a nest of gloomy woods sunk into one of these mountains. The mountain had no name, which troubled me. Even the word “Nye” sounded like a negation, an absence, a place conflicted about its own existence.
My mother (Ivy League MRS recipient and full-time philanthropy board member) was unimpressed by this detail. In fact, she was chipper as a Today Show host. “Isn’t it exciting, Iris! Starting high school on a new foot?”
“You want to replace my biological foot with a prosthetic one?”
“Don’t give me that cliché nonsense.”
You mean anti-cliché nonsense, I thought, and switched the station to NPR. I tried to let the familiar voices soothe me, but every mile brought us closer to the hunching mountains, those hills overlapping like the folds of a thick curtain, hiding Nye from sight.
The official reason for my family’s move was professional. My father (savvy businessman, befuddled parent) was opening a second Berkshires resort for tourists who liked to experience nature while they had their leg hair singed off with lasers and their eyelashes dyed. The unofficial reason we were leaving Boston, however, was Dr. Patrick. I’d started seeing him six months before, after my mother found me arguing emphatically with the wall. Well, all she saw was the wall, but I was having a conference with my spiritual mentor, Edward R. Murrow. (And, yes, I knew he’d been dead for forty-seven years, but why should a person limit her interlocutors to the living?) And because there was no “What to Do When Your Daughter Talks to Dead Journalists” chapter in the myriad self-help books my mom had been reading, she shipped me straight off to the good doctor.
After rooting around inside my head for a while, Dr. Patrick decided I was in the “gray area for developing depression and anxiety.” (“Gray area” was a cliché, I complained to Murrow. If Patrick was going to worry his patients with ominous diagnoses, he could at least do so with less tired nouns and verbs.) Of course, the announcement of my encroaching mental collapse sent my parents into nuclear-winter mode. It wasn’t healthy, they fretted, for a fourteen-year-old to spend her time writing rough drafts of her Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech, or to show a greater interest in nationally renowned media personalities than in boys, or to make imaginary friends instead of real ones. I’d had a “very difficult year” (hardly breaking news to this reporter), and I needed a chance to heal. So off we went to my very own Magic Mountain.
I’d been watching the trees flash by for hours now, hypnotized by the endless thicket of forest, when our car rounded a bend and hurled us toward a wall of rock. I gripped the seat, bracing for the crash, but the road skirted the rock face by inches and swept us into the mountains. Their shadows engulfed our car like nets and hauled us in. Soon we were ascending a series of slopes, each steeper and more densely wooded than the one before it. Whoever built these roads had confused a highway with a roller coaster, and my stomach twisted with the wrenching turns and precipitous climbs. The leaves shivered, reminding me of my best friend, Dalia, bare-armed and shaking in the late-fall wind. I don’t remember why she’d run outside on that particular occasion, only that her father was forced to carry her back into the house.
“Roll up the window, sweetie,” my mother said, and the picture of Dalia dissolved in a blur. I stared in the side mirror, watching as the trees swallowed the road. The seat belt held me like a straitjacket.
In the late afternoon we turned onto Church Street. After our long ascent toward Nye, we were suddenly plunging downward as though into the pit of a canyon. Tall, turreted Victorians rose to the left and right, narrow and sharp as spikes. They reminded me of oversize dollhouses in various stages of decay and abandonment. My mother kept her foot on the brake, the car sliding around each turn. And just when I swore we were going to fall into some sinkhole and never be heard from again, we stopped. There before us were three stories of creamy, upper-middle-class, Colonial largesse, complete with wraparound porch and swing. This home belonged to my father’s friend Elliott Morgan, and we’d be living here while the house my parents had bought underwent renovations. Mr. Morgan was in my father’s final club at Harvard (i.e., mated to him for life), and as he was currently in London researching a book on long-winded British writers, he’d offered us his family manse. A small team of movers who’d come ahead with my father scurried back and forth through the open front door.
I unfastened myself and went to inspect an enormous oak tree standing sentry at the yard’s edge. The tree was gnarled with branches that rose above my head in endless chutes and ladders. I felt an urge to shimmy up the trunk and burrow into the leaves. Instead, I went looking for my bedroom. I was to live in the space previously occupied by the Morgans’ only child, Lily, now grown and departed from the Commonwealth. “It makes perfect sense,” my mother said when she first announced the decision. Perfect sense to sleep in another girl’s bed, study at her desk, pee in her toilet? Or maybe we were doppelgangers, since I was a flower (Iris) and she was a flower (Lily). Of course, Lilies were no competition for Irises. Iris was the goddess of dawn and helped the Dionysian masses wake up hangover free. Lilies, on the other hand, reeked of death. Even in new bloom, their sweetness smelled rotten.
I’d never met Lily, but I knew (excellent eavesdropper being part of my growing reporter’s skill set) that she had suffered some awful tragedy as a teenager. The parents Dupont refused to provide specifics when I questioned them, worried as they were about my fragile emotional state. “It’s in the past,” my mother said.
Anyway, I knew Lily’s room when I found it. From the carpet to the flowered wallpaper to the matching bedspread, it was colored like a powder puff. I eyed the pink dust ruffle that skipped across the bed frame and the lacy pink pillows. Not only did Lily appear to have a princess complex, but her room looked like it hadn’t been touched in years. Most parents turned childhood bedrooms into home offices when their kids l...