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Mother’s Teeth

The shadow that wears his mother’s teeth appears at the window again. Noah, the shadow whispers from between lipless jaws, or maybe it is only the winter wind murmuring against the glass. Noah burrows deeper under his covers, hugging his teddy bear for protection and warmth. The chill has peeled back his skin and crept inside, wearing him like a blanket until his fingers don’t feel like they belong to him anymore.

Noah. His name starts with a click—the tongueless teeth attempting to form the N—and ends in a sigh that shivers down Noah’s spine.

The shadow oozes closer to the curtainless window. If it had a face, it would be pressing it against the glass. Instead it only has teeth, and the teeth knock on the panes in a patient rhythm, as if expecting Noah to let them in. Tap. Tap. Tap.

From his bed Noah recognizes the uneven dip of the canines. The slight chip in the upper front tooth. The delicate chisels of the lower incisors, the metallic crown of a back molar. These teeth have smiled down at him before, framed words of comfort and love. Now they are stripped of gums and flesh, the upper and lower jawbones suspended in shadow like a fly in a spiderweb. The shadow is blacker than a starless night, blacker than the stain under his closet door. It peels back from the teeth, baring them in a perpetual grimace.

The enamel gleams dully, jaundiced from either the dim light or the months spent in a stifling coffin with the rest of his mother’s body. The teeth remind him of an old pearl necklace Mrs. Yu once showed him. Real pearls, their shapes surprisingly squat and imperfect, shining a lustrous cream instead of the glossy silver-white of imitations. They were nothing like the pearl buttons in his mother’s sewing box, and so they didn’t seem quite right although they were real. The same is true of his mother’s teeth.

The pearls were cool to the touch although easily warmed in his hand. Mrs. Yu said they had to be occasionally worn against the skin, to preserve them.

His mother’s teeth have not touched skin for over a year, he knows.

Do other parts of his mother roam at night? A finger, a femur, one of fragile bones of the foot? But no others would be able to say his name on a frigid winter night. Noah.

The teeth continue to bat against the window like an errant bumblebee. The rhythmic tapping lulls Noah to sleep, as if he’s in his mother’s arms again.

Noah lives with a father he’s never known past alternate weekends and Christmas, in a shambling old house Dad bought after his one-bedroom condo in the city proved to be too small for a man and boy. Dad is kind, but can be as removed as the shadow that visits Noah every night behind glass. He’s used to his one-bedroom life and hasn’t adjusted yet to caring for someone other than himself.

Dad has an important job in the city that requires him to wear ties and shout a lot into his cell phone. At home he takes off the tie and shouts at the TV instead until he falls asleep sitting up in his recliner. He never shouts at Noah, although Noah never gives him reason to. Noah is like a ghost haunting his own house, and that suits both of them.

The house is what adults call a fixer-upper, although Noah has yet to witness Dad doing any fixing, as he had promised when they’d moved in at the end of summer. It has good bones, Dad said, and it’s all it has. The scuffed floorboards creak, the pipes rattle, the naked light fixtures left behind by the previous tenants fizz and hum. The rooms still reek of latex paint, which Noah suspects had been hastily slapped on to hide flaws in the drywall. Because there must be some, if Dad was able to buy a house so quickly and for so cheap.

When the heat turns on, the ancient accordion-like radiators clang and hiss, releasing a burnt musk into the already stagnant air. Noah is sure they’re tapping out a message like Morse code, and the message is Get out. Because despite the dry, nose-pinching heat, Noah’s room is always cold, a cold that wraps arms around him and slowly squeezes until he cannot breathe. He complains to Dad but Dad only turns up the thermostat and the radiators cry their warning louder.

And then there is his closet.

If a house is a body with good bones, Noah’s bedroom closet is an infected sinus. It is an abscess. It is a tumour, a cyst, a growth nobody asked for, growing silently beneath taut skin.

Noah has opened the closet only twice—once to slide in a box of old toys packed from the apartment he’d shared with his mother, and again to retrieve said box, only to discover a black stain seeping up the sides of the cardboard. A coppery taste flooded his mouth, as if he’d bitten his tongue, and he had the distinct feeling that if he stood there too long with the door open the stain would seep into his skin too.

He ran to Dad but when Dad opened the closet, there was only the box and the cracked drywall and the rod with its naked wire hangers. The stain was gone. Although Dad didn’t yell, Noah could tell by the thump of footsteps going back down the stairs he was annoyed Noah had interrupted his TV show.

Noah learned that the closet, like the house, is not to be trusted.

“I heard they found scrape marks on the inside of the coffin lid.”

The loud whisper finds Noah’s ears as he lingers by the cubbies, reluctantly struggling into his snowpants and boots for the walk home.

“No!” His teacher, Mrs. Sharma, clutches a hand to her heart. “Like she was trying to claw her way out?”

Ms. Yang, who teaches the other grade 2 class, nods. “And the jawbone was missing. Nothing else.”

Not that there was anything to take from his mother’s coffin but a tattered dress and bones. Noah wonders if she had good bones, like the house.

Mrs. Sharma catches sight of Noah and her guilty smile doesn’t quite touch her eyes. “Are you ready to go, dear?” she says at a normal volume.

“Almost,” he says meekly.

He doesn’t know why they whisper. He knows the scrape marks were made by teeth, not fingernails. He also doesn’t know why they won’t talk about his mother in front of him. He did know her best, after all. He’d shared her quiet moments, her happy moments, her sad moments—which became longer and longer as she fell sick. It was strange they were trying to protect him from her death now she had actually died, as if he hadn’t held her hand in the hospital until the very end.

“Is he old enough to walk home by himself?” Ms. Yang says, as if Noah isn’t right there. That is another strange thing adults do, and stranger still for a teacher.

“He’s only a block away. He lives in the house at the end of Pomerantz Avenue,” Mrs. Sharma says.

Ms. Yang’s eyebrows lift. “Ohhhh,” she says, as if it explains everything. And maybe it does. Noah’s house isn’t the grey house, or the old house. It is the house. “I heard the last owners didn’t even move in. They put it right back on the market.”

“Shush,” Mrs. Sharma says.

Noah zips up his coat, hefts his backpack over one shoulder, and sets off for the end of the street.

December pinches like a stiff pair of jeans. Noah balls up his hands inside his mittens. He hopes the bitter cold will keep the shadow at bay, or at least slow it down, like refrigerated honey. Or the naked, winter-brittle branches of the tree outside his window will no longer bear its weight. Which is only wishful thinking, he knows. How much can a shadow weigh?

How much do teeth weigh?

His mother kept his baby teeth in a plastic sandwich bag, and they were nothing in his young hand, feather-light like a bird’s hollow bones. Maybe like a bird his mother’s teeth have been set aloft, free from their skeleton at last.

That night Noah holds his teddy bear close, afraid to fall asleep. He misses his mother with an ache that cuts as keenly as the cold, but he does not know what her teeth might want with him. I’ll eat you up I love you so, she once read to him from Where the Wild Things Are, her favourite book as a child. She had pretended to chew his plump and tender toddler arms while he squealed with delight.

Perhaps divested of a brain and body, the teeth are coming to show his mother’s love the only way they know how.

In the dark the gap under the closet door expands, as black and thick as clotted blood. The gap appears to spread and pool sluggishly across the floor, a stain reaching toward the bed with long fingers. Noah holds his breath, his heart rabbiting in his chest. If the teeth don’t reach him, the stain will.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

At first he thinks something is knocking from behind the closet door. But then his mother’s teeth flash from behind the window, curving in their jawbones as if strung together like Mrs. Yu’s pearl necklace.

Did the teeth have to travel far from the graveyard? His mother is buried a twenty-minute drive away. Sometimes when Dad takes him to the mall—the large one where you have to drive between stores, not the one downtown he and his mother used to take the subway to—they pass the cemetery where she’s buried. The teeth strain against the glass the way Noah will press his face against the car window to catch a glimpse of her gravestone. The next time he passes the cemetery Noah will not look, afraid he’ll see the stone askew and the shadow roosting in the trees above like a bird.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

When he dares to glance back at the closet, the gap under the door appears its normal size.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

He falls asleep.

It’s Mrs. Yu next door who tells him about hungry ghosts.

“It’s for them,” she said, when Noah had asked once if he could have an orange from the plate in front of her husband and parents’ photographs. “You have to feed them or they get hungry.”

“Hungry for what?”

“Everything.” She didn’t say anything more.

Noah goes to Mrs. Yu’s house every day after school, because she refuses to stay with him at his house. That is fine with him. Her home is bright and warm and filled with photos of her family. Her grandchildren look mostly like him—solemn and pale, with dark brown hair and eyes—and he can pretend he’s her grandchild too. She lets him watch cartoons and gives him walnut date candies wrapped in rice paper, and for a brief time each day his world is full of colour and light.

“Are ghosts dangerous?” he asks her as she sits beside him on the sofa in front of the TV. She smells like salted plums and Tiger Balm, which makes him miss his mother.

Her eyes narrow. “Why do you ask? Are the children at school spreading rumours about the house again?” The house. Not his house. He guesses the house has only belonged to itself for a long time.

“What rumours?”

Her eyes, so focused before, slide away. “Never you mind.”

“Please, I want to know.” Like his mother, the house is another one of those subjects adults won’t discuss around him.

Mrs. Yu sighs. “You know how people are, spreading stories. In the thirty years I’ve lived here that house has been mostly vacant. No one stays for long. So local kids make up stories about it being haunted or cursed. When my children were your age, they said it once belonged to a Satanic cult. When they reached high school, they said a serial killer had lived there. When they left for college, it was supposedly the site of a murder-suicide. Now it’s all made up,” she adds, emphasizing each word with a jab of her finger toward him. “I don’t want you to have nightmares.”

Noah thinks of the shadow’s teeth tapping on his window, and the stain biding its time in his closet. It is too late. The nightmares have found him.

At dinnertime Dad picks him up and slips Mrs. Yu a twenty, which she always protests but takes in the end. Sometimes she gives him almond cookies or homemade steamed buns. Noah’s noticed his father evokes a lot of sympathy. Strangers, friends, acquaintances will gaze at Dad with pity when they hear his ex-wife passed away, as if Dad is the one who bears the burden of her death. Parenting a motherless boy is apparently more tragic than not having a mother in the first place.

Noah has a mother. She just isn’t in the house. The house probably wouldn’t have let her in anyway if she’d still been alive. The house is a hungry ghost too, feeding on sadness and bad feelings. It hoards them greedily. At night Noah lies in bed and listens to the house groan and gibber. Dad says it’s only the pipes, but Noah knows it’s the stored-up feelings scuttling between the walls like rats. Seeping through the cracks, like the black stain beneath his closet door.

Noah follows Dad to the house while Mrs. Yu watches from the window like she fears she’ll never see him again. As they step over the invisible line that separates the properties, he

tries to tell Dad about the oranges Mrs. Yu leaves out for the dead. If they fed his mother’s ghost, maybe her teeth would stop knocking at his window.

Dad’s nose is pink, either from the cold or because he’d done a lot of shouting at work that day. He has his own dark closet behind his eyes. Whether it was always there, or had been installed after they moved in to the house, Noah does not know. But the stain has been spreading there too. Dad looks haggard lately, gaunt and hollow-eyed from the short, dreary winter days and sleeping on the recliner. Noah can’t remember the last time he slept in his bedroom, as if he unconsciously knows he shouldn’t go upstairs at night.

“Your mother’s family believed in crap like that,” Dad says, shoving his key into the front door’s cold-stiffened lock, and that is the end of the discussion. There is no need for him to explain what he believes in.

It is always jarring to return home from Mrs. Yu’s house after school. All the colour drains from Noah’s vision as soon as he steps inside. The varnish on the hardwood floors is thin and sallow, and the walls are painted a bland mushroom-grey. Dad says he’ll repaint in the spring, when the days are longer, but Noah knows it won’t help. The house’s pallid lights leech everything of colour and Noah’s world becomes an ink wash, a spill of tea across a dull tablecloth.

The dinners Dad cooks are similarly leeched of colour: canned peas, limp white rice microwaved from a pouch, chicken drumsticks baked with a breadcrumb coating out of a box. Dad asks perfunctory questions about Noah’s day, but Noah can tell he’s not really interested because he only repeats Noah’s answers back to him. “How was school?” Dad asks.

“It was fine.”

“It was fine?”

And so on. Noah does not mention ghosts again, or the closet, or how cold his room is. When Dad gets up to grab another beer from the fridge, Noah wraps a drumstick in a paper napkin and tucks it into the kangaroo pocket of his sweatshirt.

After a lukewarm bath that cools too quickly Noah brushes his teeth in front of the mirror, watching them closely for signs of wanderlust. Perhaps this is what adult teeth do after they’ve grown in. Baby teeth fall out, and adult teeth, longing for that freedom, will stray from your head if you let them, if you go hungry for too long.

He leaves his bedroom door open. Voices drift from the TV downstairs, bright and friendly, lifting some of the weight that settles on his chest as he curls up in bed. The napkin with the chicken drumstick is a cold, greasy handful under his pillow.

When his eyes adjust to the dark he can trace the outlines of his bookcase, his dresser. The closet door too, but not the growing black stain on the floor in front of it, as if someone has unrolled a carpet runner like the ones in the school hallways for snow-dappled boots.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The shadow bats against the window with his mother’s teeth. Noah’s pulse thumps a counterpoint in his ears. He forces himself out of bed, one jerky movement at a time, clutching the drumstick like a weapon while his teddy bear stays back by his pillow and watches.

He creeps to the window. The floor is ice beneath his socked feet, as cold as the shiver travelling down his back. Noah, the shadow says, teeth glimmering in the moonlight.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

He flips the window latch with cold- and fear-numbed fingers. The teeth bat rhythmically against the glass, slow and steady. They have the patience of the dead. He struggles but eventually the sash creaks upward a couple inches. It is enough.

Noah, the shadow says and he swears he feels breath frosting his knuckles. Or maybe it is only the winter wind. Terrified, he shoves the chicken drumstick through the gap. It catches between his mother’s teeth.

He uses his last ounce of courage to pull down the sash and lock it again. Just in time, because the shadow begins to chew. Noah looks away but his legs lock into place with fear. The meat squelches, the bone splinters, the cartilage squeaks. The grinding of bone on bone follows, the sound scraping through Noah’s soul like nails on a chalkboard. He squeezes his eyes shut but can’t move his hands to cover his ears. They remain fisted by his sides, afraid if he unfurls them, they will meet the same fate as the drumstick.

The noises finally subside and are capped by a sigh. Not his name, but a wheeze of contentment.

Noah’s legs unlock and he slips back into his bed, his heart racing. He twines his greasy fingers together under the duvet, silently counting them one by one.

The black stain recedes on the floor, rolling back into the closet like a canopy.

Noah stops in his backyard on his way to Mrs. Yu’s house the next day. His boots crunch as they break through the untouched crust, the sound reminiscent of his mother’s teeth the previous night.

He stops at the towering tree that stands outside his window. Grey splinters of bone fan out from its base. He stares until his eyes cannot bear the kaleidoscopic twinkling of ice crystals. He turns toward Mrs. Yu’s house, and the afterimage spreads on the snow like a bruise. Maybe that is what the shadow is, an afterimage of his mother’s brightness printed inside his eyelids.

It does not explain her teeth, however.

That night Dad catches him squirrelling away a fish stick and makes him eat it. “Finish everything on your plate,” he grumbles, scrolling through emails on his phone. There’s nothing left for the shadow except crumbs, and nothing in the fridge. Tomorrow is Friday, and Dad always orders pizza on Fridays.

Noah goes to bed that night with a sick feeling in his stomach. He tugs on his pajamas and tries not to wonder if his bones will crunch the same way as the chicken drumstick. When he pulls the covers under his chin, the black stain oozes out from under the closet door. It stretches languorously across the floorboards, immune to the comforting light and chatter stuttering up the stairs from the TV.

The windowpanes glow a deep indigo from the cloudless sky outside. A weight slowly settles on Noah’s chest, squeezing out all joy and hope like toothpaste from a tube. Shadows inside and out, that is all this house attracts to its rotting bones. Shadows and teeth. Despair clings inside Noah’s constricting lungs. He doesn’t believe what Mrs. Yu said about rumours, something bad once happened in this house. It remembers. Unlike Mrs. Yu’s house, all it has been taught is pain and terror and misery.

The house thinks this is what a home should be.

Downstairs Dad shouts at the television, and Noah shudders at the clang of an empty beer can hitting the wall. Or maybe it’s the radiators again, trembling in fury. Or fear.

The indigo light from his window suddenly blinks out. It’s the shadow crowding at the glass. Noah, it sighs. The teeth tap urgently against the panes in time with the jangling radiators. Tap. Tap. Tap.

The stain creeps across the floor toward Noah’s bed. The weight on his chest and dread in his bones freeze him in place. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide from the encroaching dark. It will swallow him up—I’ll eat you up I love you so—and he too will be a shadow, a stain on the floor. He will be a whisper passed between adults, and a legend among children. He will become a character in the cautionary tale that comes with this house.

The shadow pulls back from the window, and for a hopeful second Noah thinks it’s going away. But then his mother’s teeth slam against the glass. Again and again the shadow rears back, only to throw itself harder against the window. Noah’s pulse fractures into shallow beats as a spiderweb of cracks blooms in the glass. Raucous laughter cackles from the television downstairs, mocking him.

Below his feet, the stain carpets the floorboards up to his bed. Noah dives under the covers, accidentally kicking his teddy bear to the floor. The black stain seeps into one outstretched paw, and the bear’s plush limb withers like a rotting pumpkin. Noah’s breath escapes in gasps from his tightened chest. Soon that will be him.

He jerks at the sound of shattering glass, his eyes flying open. The night air bites at his face and the bare fingers painfully clutching the duvet.

The shadow soars through the jagged hole like a plastic bag caught in the wind. Noah ducks but it stops a few feet from the bed to stand between him and stained floor. It stretches upward until it nearly touches the ceiling, arching and hissing like a cat. His mother’s jaws, suspended within, open wide. A high-pitched shriek rings from between the teeth and Noah curls into a knot, covering his ears.

The pipes groan. The walls creak and sway angrily. The radiators clash and clatter like warriors at battle. Noah feels each bang reverberate in his body. The house is shaking, or maybe it is just him. The shadow shrieks as if trying to find the right resonance to bring the house down. Noah’s blood roars in his ears until all he can hear is terror. He might have screamed, but no one can hear him. Not his father snoring downstairs, not the furious shadow or the quaking house.

When the noise stops it’s like a blow to the face. The house stills. Suddenly Noah can breathe again. His hands slip from his head and he unfurls his posture one vertebra at a time. The grip around his lungs slackens and his chest shudders as he sucks in cold, fresh air.

The stain has started to shrink. The shadow contracts, coming down from the ceiling with a sigh. The jaws pivot to face him, baring two rows of familiar teeth in a perpetual smile or grimace.

Noah hears an impossible sound: silence, save for the gentle whistling through the broken window. The television has been turned off. Dad climbs the stairs, socked feet padding on floorboards that do not yield and betray him.

The house is finally at peace.

The shadow glides behind the door as Dad stands in the doorway for a moment. He doesn’t notice the broken glass. That is a mystery for daylight.

Noah pretends to be asleep. He knows Dad won’t believe him if he tells him about the shadow lurking in the corner, waiting for him to leave. He’ll only make Noah stay in bed. Dad picks the teddy bear off the floor, tucks it under the covers, and kisses Noah’s forehead. Through cracked eyelids Noah can see the bear’s paw is back to normal, and the empty space behind Dad’s eyes is gone.

The shadow slides out as Dad closes the door behind him. Noah squints but can’t make out the edges. The shadow has no recognizable form, only a fluid, nebulous shape like an oilslick, with his mother’s teeth in the center.

The teeth click together.


Noah scoots back in his bed, pressing himself into the wall. The shadow slips itself around him like a cape. He struggles at first, but the shadow rubs his back the way his mother would when he was upset. He had thought the shadow’s touch would be cold, but it is warm and heavy as a blanket. His chilled skin thaws, and his anxious shoulders slump and soften.

The shadow gently lays him back on his pillow and croons a tuneless lullaby with his mother’s teeth. The teeth are cold and dry as paper as they press against his cheek in a lipless kiss. They smell like damp earth and the bergamot from the tea his mother used to drink, before she got sick.

The shadow rocks Noah in its embrace. Either its singing or the wind from the broken window stirs the hair from his forehead with icy fingers. But safe and warm at last, he does not mind.

As he falls asleep, the teeth nip softly at his upper arm.

About the Author

E. L. Chen is the author of the YA fantasy novels The Good Brother and Summerwood/Winterwood. Her short fiction has been published in venues such as Tesseracts Fifteen, Strange Horizons, On Spec, and Lackington’s. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her son.