Intraphase: Homeostasis; the phase before. Each chromosome makes an exact copy of itself so that the cell has two identical sets.
I inherited my mother’s skin: quick to burn, temperamental, prone to acne blooms. At forty-five my mother needed two different skin creams: one to treat deepening lines and wrinkles and the other to quiet the acne that continued, undaunted, in the creases between her nose and cheek, in the deep crevice of her chin. Her skin was a tapestry of scars both healed and emerging: pinched and knotted, then swollen red. In summer she wore wide brimmed hats and thick sunblock that left her reflective and two shades lighter. Later, she’d blame this too for breakouts.
Until I turned twenty, I believed I had escaped this inheritance. My skin was clear and then it wasn’t. Inside my body was a gene waiting to be turned on.
Prophase: The nuclear membrane disintegrates, the nucleolus disappears, and the centrosomes move toward opposite poles of the cell.
There is an aroma to thunderstorms that is both sweet and pungent. This is the smell of ozone, created when lightning splits atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen molecules to form nitric oxide. Ozone is carried in the air ahead of the rain giving storms their distinctive smell. Despite its association with the Great American Plains, Tornado Alley reaches as far north as southern Ontario where the warm air from the Great Lakes collides with the cool air from the north. Every year Ontario sees twenty-five to thirty tornados, though it’s common for this area to see more. Before a tornado develops, ozone combines with sudden, heavy humidity. Everything falls silent. The aroma is warning and stagnant earth. From the living room window we watch as clouds gather in the distance, the light is tinged green and the hair on our bodies becomes charged with electricity.
In 1985 an EF4 struck a neighborhood in Barrie, Ontario where my aunt and uncle lived with their three children. The rain that had been falling all afternoon obscured the body of the half mile wide tornado so completely that no one saw it coming. At 5pm my aunt put the baby to bed upstairs and when she came back down, the living room window blew in. She had just enough time to barricade herself and her two older children in the basement before the house was overtaken. The sound of shattering glass and buckling wood—indistinguishable from the roar of the wind.
Photos from that day show a staircase and a second floor bedroom standing in a sea of debris. There are no images of my aunt or cousins, no pictures of the neighbors who braved the exposed stairs to uncover the baby left sleeping in her crib, nothing to document the miracle of her still alive shape, reunited in the arms of her mother.
When I ask my aunt why she thinks my cousin survived, she credits an extra thick quilt, tucked between the crib rails.
Prometaphase: The nuclear envelope around the chromosomes breaks down. Now there is no nucleus and the sister chromatids are free.
Accutane is a vitamin A derived medication used to treat severe acne. It works by altering the body’s DNA transcription to decrease the size and output of sebaceous glands while also making those glands less sticky so that acne is harder to form. Like vitamin A, Accutane accumulates in body tissue so should be taken under strict observation by a doctor and never for longer than 20 weeks.
Side effects include but are not limited to || skin sensitivity || dry skin || chapped lips || itchy skin || thinning hair || excessive skin peeling || increased acne || muscle aches and pains || headaches || psychosis || suicide ideation || cornea ulcers || night blindness || an increase in liver enzymes causing jaundice and hepatitis || profound birth defects || congenital heart disease || missing eyes || hydrocephalus || microcephaly. Patients taking Accutane must have long term birth control measures in place as well as a backup method for pregnancy prevention like condoms or spermicides. If pregnancy occurs, termination is recommended.
I was thirteen when my mother finished her first cycle of Accutane and seventeen when she finished her second. Neither round cured her acne.
Metaphase: The spindle fibers attach and line up the chromosomes along the center of the cell.
I find a mouse at the bottom of an empty bin of dog food. It must have fallen in and as its tiny paws slipped against the slick plastic walls, realized it couldn’t get itself back out. It is a defeated ball of gray curled in the scoop. At first, I believe I have found a dead mouse in the dog food but as I lift the bin the mouse jumps, and I then jump, and then both of us nearly fall on the floor. I have only seen mice in pet store cages; running in plastic wheels and burrowed deep behind glass panels or metal bars. I have no idea what to do with something so wild, set loose inside my home. I take the bin to the backyard and gently tilt it until the mouse slides across and then over the bin’s lip, touching the ground and disappearing beneath a rock. I am not so close to the house but not so far away either.
Later, I hear scratching in the walls and attic; I count tiny mouse footprints by the back door; I notice miniscule tunnels beneath layers of snow. At night I hear burrowing above my head and I am plagued by thoughts of mice chewing through ceiling tiles; growing enormous on a diet of insulation and dust. In my restless half-sleep mice become rats, become squirrels, become undefined mutations of rodent, their edges indistinguishable from the dark corners in which they hide. I am paralyzed by the unknowing.
Anaphase: The spindle fibers pull the sister chromatids away from each other, toward opposite ends of the cell. This step is essential, ensuring that each daughter cell will have a complete set of chromosomes.
In the basement my aunt’s arms are wrapped around two of her children while she prays for her third to be spared. She bargains and negotiates. She tells me how close she came to running upstairs and into the storm, how it was the grip of those older two that persuaded her to stay. They would follow, she tells me, and then she’d be responsible for the deaths of them all.
My infant cousin grows into a woman who is deaf in her right ear, who cannot have children, who adopts animals instead. Currently, she has four dogs and a single gray cat. She makes a living baking dog-friendly doughnuts out of peanut butter and oat flour and pumpkin puree which she sells online.
My aunt believes my cousin’s deafness and sterility are transactional, the price paid for life. When the doctors find a mass in my aunt’s breast she feels relief. Finally, she tells me, she’ll get the chance to repay the debt herself.
Telophase: The mitotic spindle breaks down and a nuclear membrane begins to form around each set of daughter chromosomes.
Cancer is domestic, a mutation of the body without a means for self correction. Left alone, the body consumes itself: cell replication amped up; gone haywire; out of control, until a mutated cell infiltrates liver then kidney and lungs; depositing itself in the body’s blood to be carried to organ after organ until each is littered with displaced bits of something else. Tiny colon cells living inside organs that are not colon.
The images taken of my mother’s insides are splatter art. Dark spots in her lower left lung, both kidneys, her liver, stomach. There’s little we can do, the doctor tells us. How could she not have known, I want to know, how could they have missed this? Such small things are hard to see, he says, and your mother, she had no symptoms.
Maybe it was the meat, my mother says, I always ate too much red meat. Or the dairy. Maybe, she says, it was that second round of Accutane. She imagines molecules of vitamin A lingering in tissue that was once colon. She wants to know if they can cause cancer. She wants to know what she did wrong. She is desperate to find a thing to blame.
Dacia Price is an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University where she teaches composition and is associate editor for Passages North. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, The Forge Literary Magazine, Pacifica Literary Review, 45th Parallel, and others. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net in both 2019 and 2020 and in 2022 her flash essay “Here // Not Here” won the Roadrunner Nonfiction Prize.