In her grandfather’s bedroom, at the age of ten, Iris Bean read The Boston Strangler. She hid the book in an old trunk filled with antiquated, sepia-tone photos of people who weren’t afraid to show how truly unhappy they were or how dour and severe their personality, how unfortunate and downright hard their circumstances. Not a toothy, fake smile on these women’s faces. Stern and mean as steers being prodded with a steely rod. They could do some serious hair pulling and throw some knock-down punches Iris imagined, and many of them did, from the stories that were told about these women; cousins, aunts, sisters from the 19th and early 20th century.
Iris’ grandmother, a terrified woman who painted her windows shut and kept doors locked at all times, had the capacity to see through walls and know every move and thought everyone was making and having in the little bungalow house on 13th Avenue. She knew Iris was in the dimly lit back bedroom with peeling wallpaper, the room smelling oddly like damp socks, reading The Boston Strangler. Grama Vivian scolded her from a distance as she crocheted dog sweaters for the animal shelter while watching Perry Mason or Marcus Welby. But secretly Iris’ grandmother knew, even before Iris did, that Iris was training for her work as a forensic feminist.
Iris’ grandfather read faithfully Master Detective, This American Killer, Alleyways and Crawl Spaces, and all the latest crime magazines while sitting in his olive green velvet recliner, dotted with cigarette burns, covered up by doilies and hand towels, sometimes with two or three cigarettes burning at a time, with a can of Schlitz beer hidden in the chair’s side pocket. Grampa Henry was a voracious reader and read all about tomato gardens, horse racing, politics, baseball trivia, and murdered women. Iris would quietly giggle to herself when he read; his lips moved as he sounded out the words, like the dumb boys in her class who still couldn’t read very well. Iris seemed to know how to read and spell from the time she can remember, always winning the spelling bees, she knew instinctively about words. She wondered if she was born knowing how to read.
There was another kind of reading that Iris did too, and that was, as she began to understand from her great-auntie Clara sitting at her kitchen table telling stories, she could “read people” and had an uncanny ability to know little known details about them or things that could and sometimes did happen to them. It was as easy as reading a book for Iris, yet sometimes she too was a bit shocked to have these quirky, disjointed images pop into her head; like seeing Mayella Cerzaski’s strange habit of collecting doll’s heads and peeing in her vegetable garden, or Martha Stoyzen’s husband’s accident on the train tracks…Iris saw Martha crying in a hospital room with her husband sleeping in a white room with no windows.
Iris had what great-auntie Clara called a file cabinet memory and the ability, like grama Vivian, to see through walls; she filed all the stories that interested her and some of the gruesome photos (even though Iris knew they were staged and not real but taken from real life stories) from the magazine crime scenes into her memory and could call them up as if she were rifling through a large stack of papers and photographs.
Some of the most disturbing of front covers and headlines went something like this; “Blonde Beauty Found in Tennessee Wildlife Sanctuary Bludgeoned with Rubber Mallet”, “Sexy Waitress Heard Screaming for Help from Trailer Crawl Space”, “Young Unwed Mother’s Deadly Flirtations in Texas Pool Hall Leads to Strangulation.” In this Texas pool hall story the woman’s red dress was pulled over her head with lace panties down around the ankles but her legs were crossed so Iris wasn’t able to look at her private parts. Iris was mostly appalled at these hideous displays of violence, but couldn’t stop looking. Growing up next to the Utterback’s, Iris never knew what or who was going to come flying out of that house. With old man Utterback chasing the boys around the yard with knives and hitting the animals and his wife with brooms or shovels, Iris knew a thing or two about cruel and violent males.
Iris snuck The Boston Strangler book out of her grandparents house when she reached the last chapter. She disguised it by making a book cover from the local newspaper, just like she did with her other books so the nuns wouldn’t see that she was reading it, which would result in her mother getting called in for another meeting. Like what happened when Iris snuck her mother’s girdle, panty hose, and Cosmopolitan magazine in her lunch box. She put the girdle and panty hose on in the school bathroom and wore them with increasing discomfort through lunch time.
Iris was actually relieved when she was ordered by Sister Paul Michael to take off the girdle and hose. They were embarrassingly sagging down around her ankles, and the girdle, which she had to pin to her uniform skirt to hold it in place was pinching around her stomach. From that day on Iris never desired to wear a girdle and couldn’t imagine how her grandmother wore one every day to work at the Red Cross where she coordinated where the blood donations were to be sent.
It was Sister Anaclita who saw Iris pass the Cosmopolitan over to Jackie Grudzinski in the lunch line. A pale timid Polish girl, Jackie was Iris’ best friend and comrade in mischievousness, after a few lessons from Iris. Iris’ punishment was a Saturday spent at the rectory polishing Msgr. Costimo’s personal Jesus and saint statues. It would be the first of many visits as punishment that Iris would have at the rectory. It was no punishment at all for Iris because she was able to go into the upstairs of the rectory where Msgr. Costimo slept. She tiptoed into his room quietly opening doors and closets to see who this tall old man was. The “reading people” sense was kicking in and Iris suspected that Lilliath the rectory housekeeper and cook also spent time in the upstairs room. She felt her presence, and it was confirmed when Iris spotted a floral robe hanging on a hook on the bedroom door. Iris wasn’t aware then Lilliath was also a “seer” who knew things before they happened and had the “reading people” gift. Lilliath liked Iris immediately.
Iris was riding the 5th Avenue bus to her grandparents house after school when she realized that the reason she was so deeply enthralled with the crime magazines, the reason maybe Grampa Henry was so curious about murdered women was because of the murders. Three women had been murdered in the neighborhood over several years and Margie Mulvehill, their next door neighbor regaled in telling Iris and whomever would listen the stories of the murders. She knew every detail. When Iris turned nine she finally convinced Margie to tell her everything she knew, heard, and perhaps even made up about the murders. Over fried chicken and strawberry-rhubarb pie ala mode, Iris stayed the whole day while Margie Mulvehill in her beehive hair do with frosted tips, wearing a low cut cashmere sweater told her the stories.
Rita Ann Farmington was killed with a pick axe by her grandson while in a drug addled stupor. Margie said he’d fallen off the roof when he was a child and hadn’t been right since. The head injured grandson claimed it was self defense, that he had to chop up his grandmother because she was turning into a two headed snake. That was the first story Iris had heard of a demon killer chopping up a body and she couldn’t believe such a thing could happen in real life but when she read the newspaper story she found it was true. Clyde Bolander sawed off off his grandmother’s legs, head, and hands with a buzz saw. Colleen McShane who lived four blocks to the east, was walking home from the Good Day Dairy on a Sunday afternoon eating a marshmallow sundae when she was pulled into a car by a man dressed as the famous actress and singer Cher. Margie said the killer had a whole suitcase of women’s clothes and wigs, and size 12 stiletto heels in the trunk of the car. Margie knew about the shoe size from a neighbor who worked at Claremont Shoes who sold him his women’s shoes, most of which had to be special ordered. Colleen’s body was found stuffed in a leaf and lawn bag on the banks of the Mosquito creek. The third one was a high school girl who had just returned from swimming lessons. The murderer was already in the house, hiding behind a chinese silk screen room divider when he plunged a knife into Sharon Connor’s back. Margie said Sharon’s parents were friends with the boys parents, bowled on the same team and went to the same church. Sharon turned him down for prom, and he had a terrible case of acne, which may have contributed to the stabbing, according to Margie. Iris thought about acne and rejection; that combination just didn’t seem at all like a reason to break into someone’s home and stab them.
The images and stories of girls and women being murdered, abducted, raped, beaten, lured, trapped and left for dead in nature preserves and abandoned buildings, and stuffed in suitcases and tossed in dumpsters haunted Iris deeply, but even more so, she was obsessed with the questions of why and how. Iris pondered these questions as she sat in her backyard treehouse licking a cherry popsicle as she stared off into the Gillwood’s backyard. Why do some males do these horrible things? Are they born this way? Are they really demons and not humans at all? And how does one know how to spot them? And how does a girl protect herself from these types of creatures who may be from another planet even?
Iris didn’t have the answers yet, but she did have a keen sense of knowing things beyond the ordinary; a super charged sensory detector that tuned her in, like a radio channel, to danger and evil. It was a feeling that pulsed through her body like an electrical current. Iris’ awakening experience of the current was at her friend Chrissy Gillwood’s house when she first encountered Chrissy’s mom’s boyfriend. He wanted to take the girls to get ice cream and to the park. That sounded like fun at first, but then, the creep detecting current arrived and Iris said she had to go home. She ran as fast as her legs could go until she got to Beasley’s grocery store for a bottle of chocolate soda.
The creep detecting current didn’t happen all that often, but when it did, Iris knew there was something bad or dangerous that could happen. One day at the Orca swimming pool, Chrissy Gillwood told Iris that her mom’s boyfriend tried to kiss her in the car and Iris told Chrissy that she knew he was creepy because her creep danger detector went off when she was around him. It was a tingling sensation that started in her thighs and a panic that alerted Iris that there was danger.
This was a different feeling than what Iris felt at the rectory where she was sometimes sent for disrupting mass by making bird and cat sounds, or sneaking into the choir loft to send kleenexes wafting through the air. As she examined the feelings more closely, Iris knew that what she felt around Msgr. Costimo in the rectory was not danger or evil, but the fear of the consequences of her own impulsivity; the uncontrollable desire to surreptitiously create a small act of bedlam in the rectory or in church.
Iris was going for the barely noticeable gestures that would slightly confuse and muddle the rectory priests such as, reshuffling stacks of papers or putting Msgr. Costimo’s reading glasses in the kitchen sink or bringing in small stones from the rock garden and placing them under a throw pillow, or inside of shoes. In the downstairs of the rectory Iris had several opportunities to observe and feel the vibe of the old man. She watched him carefully and tuned in to how her body felt as Msgr. Costimo delivered his grim, disapproving sermon about little girls who are badly behaved, followed by a quaint parable of the divinely feminine obedient girl, and then of course the edict of repetition; a litany of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s repeated ad nauseum at the communion rail under the watchful eye of Sister Fermenica.
Iris considered herself quite fortunate to be able to wander through the old, meandering rectory house, conjuring up a prank. She wasn’t aware that often, Miss Lilliath, Msgr. Costimo’s housekeeper and cook, was watching Iris from an upstairs sitting room. The more Iris came to the rectory, which was about every 3 weeks, depending on the location of the moon (Miss Lilliath was also an astrologer and would talk to Iris about the moon) the more Miss Lilliath liked Iris and looked forward to her insurrections: The way Iris sat with her hands folded looking sheepish yet knowing she was in conjuring mode, the way Iris tiptoed around the rectory, peeking out windows and quietly opening drawers, the way her eyes widened with delight when eating strudel, or that precious impish smile that came over Iris when a thought of a new escapade would pop in. Yes, Miss Lilliath saw a glitter in Iris’ field and an unstoppable enchantment in Iris whom she recognized as a kindred spirit.
Miss Lilliath had once been consumed by the passion for disruption, rearranging the ordinary, muddling the mundane. And she reminded herself when in the company of Iris that, though in her 70’s and not as prone to her more youthful capers and japes, it is through words and conversations, bespelling as she calls it, that Miss Lilliath forges candor and bespeaks her truth. Not one for shying away from the hard conversations, she was known for speaking up for the intractable children and “single mothers” who were looked down on by the men of the cloth.
Miss Lilliath had more than once nearly lost her housekeeping job at the rectory for coming to the defense of one of the unreasonables, as the priests labeled the capricious and bright children like Iris. If it wasn’t for her gooseberry pies, cinnamon rolls, and her special massages with Msgr. Costimo she sure as fire would’ve been in the unemployment office.
Iris Bean didn’t mind the prayer penance dispensed by Msgr. Costimo because she got to spend time alone in the old church, next door to the rectory. Occasionally Curtis the janitor was there, mopping the wooden floors, or changing light bulbs, or a woman or two were lighting votive candles and praying for sick people, but usually it was just Iris and the Old Ones; the saints and angels. Iris believed wholly and unconditionally in angels, ghosts, spirits, and now, especially after reading The Boston Strangler, demons.
When standing under the luminous stained glass windows, when the sun was just right, Iris felt her body and soul being filled up with the sound of angels singing from the choir loft and all the colors of the rainbow pouring through her like a chalice of holy light. She knew she was protected.
Iris talked to Mary Magdalene and Saint Teresa and Mother Mary about her questions and concerns of the serial killers, war makers, and rapists; the violent demons on the Earth. These were thoughts and feelings she would only bring to the Old Ones for the subject matter, Iris felt, was far too strange for a child of ten to be pondering and researching with such veracity and intent and talking to the adults about. Iris feared she would be thought of as even more troublesome, more eccentric, if it was discovered that she was, with relative frequency, drawn to these gruesome violent stories and images. Turning such things over in her mind even frightened her at times.
Standing in her red-plaid uniform and patent leather shoes under the 7th station of the cross where Jesus falls again, Iris Bean clutched her Mother- of-Pearl rosaries and called on the Old Ones for guidance, as she felt that perhaps she was slipping too far into her genius, her fixations, her passion; a place where even she didn’t yet know the heights and depths of this internal terrain. A wave of panic rippled through Iris when the thought gripped her as she remembered the piercing accusations of her mother; on more than one occasion Iris’ mother assailed her with threats when Iris would challenge her authority and demand more independence. Sometimes Iris wondered if she was not a genius but a child of madness as sometimes her mother claimed. In that moment Iris feared that the power of her mind could carry her away, rip her from the tethers of reality like a swelling river whose currents and force can pull one in and under with no hope for rescue or return.
That night Iris dreamt she was on a bus sitting next to an old plump woman wearing a red head scarf and navy blue wool coat. Her eyes were small, blue as topaz. The woman had a white cat with long hair and orange eyes who was sitting inside of a black leather medical bag and seemed to understand everything they were talking about. The old woman told Iris that she was her great great great grandmother who now lives inside of dreams and passageways that are tunnels lit with light similar to the radiance Iris feels when standing under the stained glass windows.
The old woman gave Iris a chocolate cupcake and told her she was part of the 27. Iris asked her what that was and the old woman told Iris there are always on Earth at any given time in history 27 females who have the gift of seeing, feeling, and knowing. But more importantly, they are fearless in the face of evil and are well equipped to deal with such things that evil brings and they are very very smart and not mad at all. The 27 are scattered over all the continents and are joined by ancient planetary star bridges from several galaxies. She asked the old woman if she should be thinking about such things as murder and rape, that she was worried her mother and the nuns would think she was crazy and put her in a girl’s home or a mental hospital. Oh no, that will not ever happen said the old woman, for your magic is strong and the old ones are with you. You are our child who has come to learn about such things and to be of service. You will have some exceedingly strange and uncomfortable experiences, encounters that will challenge you and scare you, but it will exhilarate you for you are an heiress of Eris, the great planet beyond Neptune. So go ahead and keep reading about demons and serial killers. You have the power my dear. And the old woman and her cat got off the bus and walked down the street.
One afternoon when Iris was waiting for the 5th Avenue bus to her grandmother’s, Iris saw a short man wearing ill fitting pants with a sling on his arm talking to a young girl. His car was parked near the library and he watched her as she came out with a stack of books. Iris’ watched him from a distance and her creep detector was sounding on high alert. The girl looked frozen as he spoke to her and Iris could tell she didn’t know about this kind of reading or to say no to a man who Iris knew was asking for her help, feigning a story to get her to his car.
Iris assessed the situation and knew she had to act fast. She walked over to the girl and looked right into the pudgy creeps beady eyes and told him this was her sister and that their mother was waiting in the car for them. His eyes flared up in anger. Iris knew she had foiled his deviant attempt to do something evil. The creep moved closer towards Iris reaching out to grab her arm. Iris screamed to draw attention and she and the girl ran as fast as their legs would go into the basement of the county courthouse where Iris’ mother worked as a secretary. Iris’ mother told her that he was arrested and that he had kidnapped a child in another state.
In her journal that night , Iris wrote about her adventure with the girl at the library and the old woman in the dream. She remembered what the old woman had told her; that she would not ever be murdered by a serial killer or raped. (Iris learned this word and what it meant before she read The Boston Strangler, when Colleen McShane was murdered), that it was okay to keep reading about demons, and that she had the special gift of seeing, feeling, and knowing; a kind of uncommon magic and protection that was passed on through this line of bespellers and wise women. Iris fell asleep and dreamt about ice skating with Jackie and finding a red fox behind a hedge row of tall aromatic lavender.
And this is the story of how Iris Bean began her journey as a forensic feminist and demon tracker: A Sister of the Perpetual Order of Eris of the Sisterhood of the 27.