Everything Tastes Better in Winter
Dawn came late to Reykjavík. Sunlight stretched lazily across Faxaflói Bay, prodding the northern mountains where they lie, gray and gruesome on the beach. They looked like dead bodies, bloated and pale, floating just offshore.
I walked along the harbor, taking notes, trying to get dead mountains to tell me their story. Winter had stripped them naked and gnawed them to bones. Between ridges, their ribs gleamed. Their spines were sharp as knives, cutting through a thin skin of snow. Skin translucent, stretched taut, skeleton bruising through. Indigo shadows marked white snow: a handful of violence that left only fingerprints.
In the low-slung sunlight, the mountain corpses glistened like unstrung pearls. I felt an awful kinship with the mountains. For years, I had wanted to look just like them, trimmed to the bone, ribs so sharp they could cut skin. I had made up some gods with deer-legs and hollow cheeks and sacrificed myself to an insatiable gobbler who ate me up from the inside. I was always cold. Like Agamemnon, and Cassiopeia, and all the others who fed their daughters to monsters or gods, I believed my sacrifice was for a greater good. Perfection over pasta. Beauty over bread. The more it hurt, the better. At lunch in high school, I watched my friends sink their forks into lasagna and enchiladas and all my other ex-favorite foods. I looked away, digging my nails into my palms as the gobbler dug its fangs into my guts.
I don’t know what the gobbler looked like, only that it was mostly teeth and always hungry. I felt most holy when I ached, when the teeth had ripped into my intestines like spaghetti. Piece by piece, I fed myself to the beast, letting it live off the fat of my limbs while I starved on little bowls of salad that left my stomach feeling empty as an ice palace.
The mountains were winter’s first victims, but I knew the killing spree would run until spring-thaw. By Christmas, the whole city would be one glistening, white crime scene. As I crossed Austurstræti, I pulled my hood up. I could feel winter stalking me up the street, breathing down the back of my neck. Scheming winter had turned the sidewalks to gleaming murder-traps, hoping I would slip and crack my skull like a soft-boiled egg.
Later that afternoon, Eiður and I walked to the downtown art museum, a big glass box that looks out across the bay. Pressing close to the window, we watched the mountains turn pink at twilight. Sunset seeped into snow, and for a moment the mountains were suffused with a healthy glow. Then their borrowed blood drained away, leaving them pale as cadavers. As we walked to dinner, Eiður, who grew up with this homicidal winter, held my hand, steering me clear of icy sidewalks. Winter would have to try harder if it wanted to kill me this year.
Once, it might have been easier. When I wanted to look like the mountains. When I lived for the deer-legged gods. When I was warned that I might be doing harm to my reproductive system and I laughed. I didn’t care. I wanted to die in the body of a seventeen-year-old virgin.
Eventually, I stopped believing in the deer-legged gods. Somewhere between fainting, naked, in front of a dozen artists who were in the midst of sketching me, and confessing, naked, to Eiður that once upon a time I had a pet eating disorder, I let the gods die. Or maybe they had died a long time ago and I hadn’t noticed. But the gobbler outlived the gods.
At dinner, I ate most of a grilled portabella sandwich with basil aioli on ciabatta. Each bite of mushroom cleaved like meat between my teeth, dripping salty juice down my chin. The ciabatta was grilled golden crisp and left my fingers slick with olive oil. Eiður and I barely spoke, too deep in the ceremony of eating.
That winter, he cooked for me: pasta aglio olio, homemade falafel, hand-pulled noodles, French onion soup, hand-tossed pizza. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I baked for him: biscuits with lemon curd, cinnamon rolls with citrus icing, scones with jam, American pancakes flooded in Canadian maple syrup. Together, we would feast. All through the winter, we ate hot, homemade meals together. My belly was always warm.
I feel like Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, tricked into sacrificing herself to Artemis. At the last minute, the goddess shoved the girl out of the way, lashed a deer in her place, and took her to Tauris where Iphigenia became a priestess of Artemis. Apparently, Artemis already had enough dead virgins by the time Iphigenia arrived to sacrifice herself. Artemis didn’t need another one; she needed a strong young woman who was having second thoughts about the place she grew up, and could run up and down the temple’s twelve hundred steps without the stars coming out in the daytime when she reached the top. The stars still come out in the day for me sometimes, but I haven’t fainted since that figure-drawing class.
When I stopped believing in the deer-legged gods and they died, or got adopted by another girl, or turned into streamers of light in the aurora borealis, I needed something else to believe in. I was so in love with Iceland and Eiður that when I looked in the mirror, I saw someone else entirely: I wasn’t the girl the goddess saved—I was the goddess who saved the girl.
At this latitude where the people are fair as the full moon on snow, I looked like the daughter of the sun. By December, night had crushed day in its glittering jaws, leaving just a four-hour sliver of light. The moon was a good friend in the long night, but the sun was a treasure rare as saffron. I took to wearing nothing but my underwear around the apartment, in love with my own sun-stained skin.
It was my cousin, a year earlier, who had informed me that I had inherited our family’s coveted “Puerto Rican butt.” To me, it was just another meat-sack to feed the gobbler. Fortunately, Eiður noticed it and convinced me it was very worth keeping.
Before Iceland, all I could say about my tiny apricot breasts was that they didn’t get in the way. My body, you see, had been intended as a sacrifice to the deer-legged gods. Men didn’t come into the story. I wasn’t starving myself for them. I was sacrificing myself so that someday my skin would hold nothing but beauty and perfection. But Eiður, who is the most honest person I know, told me my breasts were already perfect. Before Iceland and Eiður, I had never spent so much time naked with myself, but the more I did, the more I agreed with him.
I want to be clear though. Eiður didn’t kill the monster and carry me off to the altar. The monster will probably outlive us all. It’s a parasite. I’ve heard twelve-steps alumni who haven’t had a drink in twenty years say they’re still alcoholics. I think it’s probably the same with eating disorders. There’s no evicting the gobbler. But with enough doughnuts and decaf coffee, you can keep it docile and sleepy.
Eiður was the first (and, until now, only) person I told about my gobbler. We were snuggled under two feather duvets and up way past our bedtime. A gale keened at the window of his basement apartment, trying to pry its icicle-tipped nails under the latch. “I just want to wake up next to you,” I had told Eiður weeks ago, the first time I “missed” the last bus back to Garðabær and had to stay the night. I hadn’t slept in my own bed since. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have monsters of his own. But they weren’t hiding under the bed. He’d introduced me to his monsters within the first couple hours of our first date. They were one of the reasons the date lasted nine hours. I had never met anyone who knew his monsters so well that he could talk about them with someone who was only two hours away from a total stranger. So with the wind gouging its name into the snow outside, I told Eiður about the monster in me.
I still haven’t told my parents. If we never talk about the gobbler, we can pretend I never fed it my own flesh, piece by piece, right there at the dinner table where, rather than going for seconds, I loudly criticized my mother’s chilis and tofu scrambles. I want to protect my parents. I don’t want them to feel complicit in the sacrifice of their only daughter. They didn’t chain me to that salt-washed rock and whisper prayers to a deer-legged god; I did. But they’d probably blame themselves.
It was much easier with Eiður. I didn’t have to ask for forgiveness. I just answered his gentle questions. How long? How come? He hugged me all night. The next morning, through sunlight thin and blue as skim milk, we walked to breakfast with all our monsters. They left no footprints in the eiderdown snow.
I ate long, crusty batons of just-baked sourdough bread, topped with thin slices of avocado like pale green crescent moons, every bite dripping with golden olive oil and sparkling with crystals of Icelandic sea salt.
Everything tastes better in winter. One Saturday, Eiður and I drove to the woods out near Mosfellsbær, where he grew up. It was only three or four in the afternoon, but the woods were already thick with dusk. Once we broke through the tree line, we followed rabbit tracks across bare, snowy slopes. Twice the tracks were blotted with blood, as if someone had scattered red rose petals over the snow. As we crossed an iced brook, Eiður pointed upstream: the waterfall had frozen solid. We climbed along the creek bed until we stood just below the frozen falls. From our aerie above the trees, we watched the sun bob on the horizon. Like a cheap fisherman’s float, its color leached into the graphite waves, yellow melting into grey before it finally sank away into the bay. In the gathering dark, the waterfall shone silver. It was a will-o’-the-wisp at the edge of night, as if that moment when it froze still glowed, light turned ice all those cold weeks ago.
Trying to keep ahead of night, we charged down the hill. When we made it back to his car, we treated our numb fingers and dripping socks to all the heat it could make for us. As darkness snuck out from under the trees, we had a candy picnic there in the parking lot. His pick-n-mix sack bulged with every shape and flavor of sour gummy. Mine was all chocolate: peppermint-flavored balls the size of marbles with matte candy shells in pastel pink or green, and dark chocolate animals filled with a salty black licorice syrup. I always ate the squirrels last. Cheap candy, but with my socks steaming on the heater, ice melting in my eyelashes, and my fingers still so cold they didn’t soften the chocolate, it tasted better than any artisanal bean-to-bar.
Chocolate. Pasta. Rice. Potatoes. The cheapest, simplest, happiest carbs. I had forgotten how delicious they could be. Especially in winter. Even now, almost two years later, I marvel at how good a mouthful of rice tastes. The way the grains cling to each other, each bite unique as a snowflake. How just a pinch of salt in the water makes each mouthful taste so buttery. The gobbler is satisfied with rice and potatoes. And in summer we feast on Kansas corn so juicy and sweet I eat it raw off the cob, peaches and cherries so cheap I buy them by the pound and bake them into cobblers, and tomatoes the colors of precious gems, like little sacks of sunshine bursting on my tongue.
The deer-legged gods are very dead. But in the dark, I see all the gobbler’s teeth still gleaming. When it gets very, very dark, I miss the feel of those teeth in me. Sometimes, I give in. For an hour. For a day. I promise myself I am in control. I give myself to those teeth. I let the monster tear into me like my intestines are one big bowl of spaghetti.
I used to think I would grow out of it. Or it would grow out of me. This terrified me. The beast was a piece of the gods, a gnawing reminder that I could hunger toward perfection. Without it, I would be vulnerable to that most ungodly travesty: mediocrity. The idea that I might one day go in for my annual physical exam without sweaty palms and a heart rate of 120 bpm, that I could step off the scale without my weight raising red flags, that I would never have to lie to a doctor again—I would hate every minute of it, I was sure. I wanted all the red flags.
I’m not sure the gobbler will ever leave. Its gods are dead, and I keep it fed on home-baked focaccia and peach cobbler. We’re not friends, but we’ve arrived at an arrangement. As long as I keep it well-fed, the monster won’t nibble my liver.
After Artemis shoved Iphigenia off the chopping block and slapped a doe down in her place, she got the girl a job sweeping her temple steps. That body was worth a lot more to her alive. That’s what saved me, too. There was so much to enjoy in Iceland, with Eiður. And I couldn’t enjoy it as a fainting meat-sack. To keep up with Eiður, to keep up with winter, to keep up with Iceland, I had to eat.
Most days after lunch, before going back to work, I climbed to the top of the hill that looks out across the Heiðmörk nature reserve in Garðabær. The climb was exhausting, especially in heavy boots and layers of wool. From the top of the hill, it’s all mountains to the east and sea to the west. At midwinter, the sea was stained black at the horizon, even at noon. The stain seeped into the water from the north, where the sky was always dark. But by late January, the sea-sky was a little brighter, and I was a little less tired. February was even better.
Once, as I followed the ridge towards the mountains, I listened to Andrew Rea reading poems from Whitman. Scaly with ice, the path crackled under my red boots. The day was dark, with a white velvet snow-sky and no sun. But we had already survived the longest night.
When I reached the lookout over the lake, I rested, watching ravens pour inky calligraphy into the soft sky. Whitman’s words were still warm in my ears. I felt part of a huge, hungry organism. On the city streets below me, the trees were all strung with fairy-lights, golden and white; the lights formed a vast mesh across the city, a glittering system of incandescent arteries.
From up there on the ravens’ ridge, the roads I would follow downtown to Eiður’s apartment looked like veins, branching blue under a thin sheath of ice. I should have felt infinitely small, just a splat of carbon doing its part in a hungry, hungry organism. But I didn’t. I felt colossal. If I stretched out my arms, I could brush the snow off Mount Esjan, all the way across the bay, or pluck a day out of March and examine it up close.
And it felt fantastic to be gigantic. To belong to this beast whose blood is the color of winter, this leviathan so vast that when it lays down, its toes tickle the Big Bang and its ears are up near the Heat Death of the Universe. To know that somewhere in this seething organism, Whitman’s atoms got shuffled into apples and cats and the silver-green fiddleheads of a cinnamon fern. As I hiked back down the ridge, I followed my bootprints, interwoven now with the tracks of cats and ravens. Up on the ridge, I felt like I could swallow the whole world. I let myself wonder, for the first time, what it would be like to grow a new little world in my belly. A tiny world with ten fingers and ten toes. I am still afraid of what the monster might do, but perhaps with the gods dead long enough, it will lose its appetite for flesh.
Someday, I want to bring a tiny world up here to the ravens’ ridge. I want to show my little world how to find the city’s starry arteries, how to stretch far enough to almost touch Esjan, how to count the mountains lined up like ribs to the east. I want to show that beautiful little world that we are those mountains. Our bones are made from the same hard minerals. The same dawn turns our skin gold in the morning. We don’t have to sacrifice anything. We are already divine. Our bodies are marked. Even in the snow, we are the sun’s own daughters.
Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.