Fiction · 09/03/2014

Teeth, or The Women In My Family

The Other Women in my family think writing is an ugly, dirty process.

“It’s destructive,” Mother warned me.

And my aunts echoed, “Yes, yes. After all, to write each son must kill his own father.”

But how? I wondered. By eating him? And what must the daughters do?

The Other Women in my family have tidy careers. Mother is a dental hygienist. My two aunts wash hair at a salon just down the street. All of my girl cousins are chimney sweeps. I would call myself a writer but in the year since Arty left I’ve written nothing but stories about teeth. Or series of teeth. Or series of stories about a single tooth.

I had a sister who might have been an artist but she ran away from home. For this I am always resentful.

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My girl cousins used to tell the same story every night: My mother’s mother, they said all at once, was born with two sets of teeth. As soon as her parents saw her they knew she was a witch. Her father enjoyed a clear, simple hatred for the baby. He felt no maternal sense of guilt, not having unleashed the toothy beast from the inside of his womb. He decided to abandon her in the wilderness and soon, he forgot all about the monster. His wife never got over the shock of it. That birth, her daughter, those teeth.

My cousins repeated this story with matching grins spread out between smudged cheeks: As the witch grew up in the woods, every part of her face became disfigured. Her skin rotted and flaked off. Warts speckled her jaw line. But her teeth. She took good care of them and they remained healthy and strong. On quiet nights her mother heard her gargling by the riverbank. It kept her awake. It told her she was safe.

“My darlings,” the witch would say, staring lovingly at her overabundance of teeth, doubled and redoubled in the water’s reflection.

“My darling,” her mother lying awake would echo back.

At this point in their story-telling, there would be a series of interrupting hushes and then the oldest girl would stand up to proceed. She told the end of the story with fiery bright eyes, opening her mouth up wide: Many years after the birth of the tooth witch, her father disappeared from bed without a trace. The townspeople searched for him in the woods, guided by the light of the full moon. But he was never seen again. Every year on that day, the tooth witch returned to the village and stole men out of their beds. As one set of teeth worked through their flesh and chewed through their bone, the other set stayed firmly clenched in a beautiful, enchanting smile. You could see this smile reflected in the moon.

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When the story ended my cousins went to bed in a pile but I’d stay up, too haunted to fall asleep. I’d sneak into my sister’s room and we’d talk late into the night about the women in my family and our vague familial resemblance. There was something not completely attractive in the mouth or the chin area, we’d admit. My sister attempted to draw it. She filled sketchbooks with it but she could never fully capture the strange, indistinguishable flaw that we all shared. The Other Women tried to call attention away from it. They avoided lipstick and flossed frequently, more out of compulsion than habit. Mother would often excuse herself from the dinner table mid-bite to run to the bathroom. She’d stare at the vanity and relieve herself by baring her teeth. Even our girl cousins caught anxious sideways glances in every mirror. It was as if the same thing, or sets of things, were hiding from us, just below the surface. And at any time, this threat below the gum-line could emerge.

Mother wanted my sister to be a housemaid. When Mother found her sketchbook, my sister ran away. No one ever speaks of this incident.

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We used to believe everything the Other Women told us. When my sister’s first baby tooth fell out, she approached them with it in the palm of her hand. They were eating a late, leisurely dinner.

“Great.” Mother said, folding the tooth up neatly in a napkin. “Tonight the fairy will come. That’s great.”

With her mouth still bleeding, my sister nodded in earnest belief.

That night her eyes opened to a tooth fairy standing frozen by her bedside. One hand was still under her pillow and surprise flushed to her tiny face. She was not entirely pretty. When she gasped, my sister felt her breath against her cheek.

In the morning, she recounted this occurrence and the Other Women in my family frowned.

“There is no tooth fairy,” Mother said. “You must have been dreaming.”

I searched for that lost tooth in the Other Women’s belongings without finding it. For a long time after that I didn’t know what to believe.

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When I met a boy named Arty, I learned to create my own meaning. Arty was a sanitation employee by day and a sculptor by night. He made beautiful works from the abandoned treasure he found in his garbage. They were messy and smelled bad but they were swollen with significance. Each time we made love Arty would say, “An orgasm is a metaphor for something,” and then he’d fall asleep before deciding what for.

When I was with Arty, my hair tangled in a nest. The Other Women, who part their hair evenly down the center, did not approve of our lifestyle.

“He smells disgusting,” Mother said.

And my aunts agreed, “And if it weren’t bad enough to pick up trash all day, he has to play with it throughout the night as well.”

“And this — This! — is called Art?”

My cousins laughed as if they didn’t spend their own days elbow deep in grime. But they were careful now to wash their faces clean of soot. And they wore their hair smoothed back with bobby pins. So for this they were allowed to persist.

I was prolific when Arty was with me. I wrote manuscripts full of poetry with gruesome verses that I only shared with him. With Arty everything could mean anything and nothing could mean what it was. It was tiring, but I let it feel real.

With Arty in my bed I dreamed vividly. Once, I dreamed of Arty at his garbage dump. But in my dream, his dump was full of lost teeth. I was there too, but I wasn’t myself.

I went to a pile of teeth and held up the topmost one. “This,” I told him, “is the tooth you lost when you bit into an apple at the age of five.” I threw it down at his feet. “Do you remember? You should have been more careful. This is the one you swallowed with a glass of milk….”

I went through the mountain of teeth this way, retelling the story of each of his losses. There were more teeth than he remembered having. More of anything than he remembered having lost.

When I finished, I approached Arty and stood beside him. I could feel his hot breath against my face. He was frightened. “Yes,” I said, “you really should have been more careful.” As I opened my mouth, I woke up.

I wanted to tell Arty what happened and to figure out what it could mean. I reached for him, but he was gone. I never saw Arty again.

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Without Arty, I felt detached and confused. I bleached my sheets and found new pillowcases. Upon Mother’s insistence, I let my aunts comb my hair. For a year, I wrote nothing. I felt lifeless and purged.

“Time for a career change,” one of my girl cousins said and offered me her chimney sweep. But I had no energy to try it.

Around this time, my sister mailed me a journal. It was small with unlined pages and a smooth, white cover. She included no letter and no return address.

“Once,” I scribbled with a leaky pen, “I had a tooth that was loose for a full year. For twelve months it hung there in my mouth by just a thread.”

This was a true occurrence. This was a delicate year.

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Nothing more came of this journal. In all the time since Arty left me, I’ve written only false starts to stories about teeth. None of them finished. I find little meaning in it. I’ve stopped dreaming and have begun clenching my jaw at night. I wake in the morning with a taste like sawdust coating my throat.

Today Mother knocks on my door. She comes by once in a while with offerings of food. I eat her meals ravenously, ungratefully, hardly bothering to swallow before taking my next bite. In this way, I’ve gotten quite fat.

“I woke with a headache this morning,” I tell Mother on this occasion. “I think it’s from grinding my teeth.”

“Oh?” She says. She sits upright in an armchair with her legs crossed. She doesn’t eat anything. “Would you mind if I take a look inside your mouth?”

I grunt, swallow a large bite, and open wide in consent. Mother sticks her head in and begins poking my gums with an index finger. She pushes down on my tongue to see further, “Say, ‘Ahh.’”

It doesn’t hurt but it feels uncomfortable and I gag. She crawls her fingers in further and presses down on my teeth, one by one, as if testing them for something. I can taste her salty hands. My mouth begins to water. I drool down my chin.

“You’ve made molehills of your molars,” she says and laughs at herself. Then she looks at me and pulls her hand out like I’ve given her a bite.

I wipe saliva off my face. She is looking at her feet now, seeming oddly timid and suddenly small. Pain shoots through my jawbone. I howl, drop a handful of food, and grab my face. I think I know what must be happening but I open my mouth and feel inside it to be sure.

“I’m sorry,” I tell Mother, “Really I am.” But even as I say it, I’m smiling. I hear the crunching of bone and it’s all sinking in. Somewhere my sister is being pulled toward the full moon. And finally, my stories fall out.

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Rebekah Bergman writes fiction and poetry. She is an MFA candidate at The New School and an associate editor at NOON. Her recent work has appeared in Spittoon, Banango Street, and Literary Orphans.