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Tooth, Teeth, Tongue

TOOTH

“Isn’t this exciting!” said my mother as she plucked my tooth from the flesh of minced pork encased within the half-bitten fish ball.

Nestled in the center of my mother’s palm was the small canine. Blood from my gums found a home in the creases and lines of her hand, overfilling them before dripping down the side of her palm onto the dining table, as she stuck a finger into my mouth, checking for the gap. Plop, plop, plop. The sound seemed to echo through the room, mixing in with the hissing steam of the pressure cooker on the stove. Bubbles prodded then pounded against the lid of the pop before foaming down the cooker’s metal body, sizzling as it hit the flames below.

I flinched when my mother found the gap, a sharp pain shooting up the root.

I was only six, and though my mother was excited for this moment, it horrified me. My breaths quicken, becoming shallow before morphing into hyperventilation and uncontrollable hiccups. Blood continued to pool in my mouth, escaping from the corner of my lips as my mother hurried to dab at it with a tissue. She was smiling, but her hands shook.

My index finger hovered above the tooth still sitting in her other hand. I wanted to prod it, but I wasn’t able to find the courage to do so. It looked too white, too unnatural. My tongue caressed the hole the tooth left in my mouth. The taste of metal and soup mingled.

“Am I going to die?” I asked, transfixed on this small stained porcelain object that once kept me whole. It was only a small part of me, but I felt the growing weight of its missing presence the longer I stared.

My mother laughed at my petrified face. Blood, saliva, and soup wouldn’t stop dribbling from my mouth still agape. She reached forward and lifted my chin. My tongue was still fixated on the gap my tooth left, rubbing the open wound more raw than it already was. Plop, plop, plop.

“No, you’re not going to die,” Mother said. A mischievous expression overtook her features. “But you’ll get a very special visitor tonight . . . ”

She had paused for emphasis, suspense, then leaned back in her chair with a glint in her dark eyes hooded by thick lashes, loose veined purple skin dotted with red sagged underneath. I found myself leaning towards her the farther she withdrew, until her chair tilted at a delicate balance between being perfectly suspended in the air—as though time had paused—and crashing with a tragic jolt onto the ceramic tiles, shaking each bone within her body.

“The Tooth Fairy!” Mother shouted, suddenly snapping upright in her chair, almost headbutting me. There was a strange, fervent expression stretched across her face. Her wide smile and crooked teeth looked sinister rather than carrying its usual warmth and tenderness.

I offered a blank stare but cowered in my seat, shrinking away from my mother’s towering figure looming over me. My mother held up my tooth in triumph before she lowered it back down. She pried open my hands which had balled up in fists from the fright and placed the tooth in my palm.

Mother told me the Tooth Fairy was like Santa Claus, but instead of offering gifts, the Tooth Fairy traded shiny gold coins for fallen teeth.

“You want shiny gold coins, don’t you?” Mother whispered in my ear. She sat back down, sipped the soup in silence before speaking again—this time more to herself than to me: “Don’t you?” She stared hard at the soup with its oil collecting on top. We’d been sitting at the dinner table for far too long. Every dish had cooled. No longer did appetizing steam drift into the air.

In my mind, the Tooth Fairy looked like the fairy godmother from Cinderella with the ability to grant beautiful wishes. At least that was what the fairies in movies and shows and books looked like.

“I will still be able to speak, right?”

My mother’s laugh was a gurgling choke, as though someone clawed at her throat, holding the airpipe closed.

That night, I waited both in anticipation for the Tooth Fairy after placing my canine—which most other children lost last—under my pillow. I gripped it in my hand, the small point dug into my flesh. Rather than joy, I felt a slight fear as though I had lost the protection from the tooth’s pointed edge. The curtains billowed and tangled, the wind a howling cry. I yelled for my mother to close the window, afraid to climb out of bed to do it myself. Even cocooned within the thick blankets I still felt bare, exposed—vulnerable.

“Next time, you’ll have to do it yourself,” she said before leaving the room without looking at me once.

My body quivered as I drew up my knees into a fetal position, the tooth still in my hand. Outside the closed window, shadows attacked the glass, carving the word “speak” over and over. I shut my eyes, opened my mouth. No words came out.

In the morning, the canine was gone—in its place was a gold coin with a man’s face staring up at me from the bedsheets. The window was normal once more—scratch-less. I wondered if the coin was worth losing the canine’s protection. The gap the missing tooth left in my gums was still raw from my tongue’s relentless attacks.

Before I lost all my baby teeth, we moved the Canada. Moving to a new place was hard. But moving to a new place without half my teeth made things even harder.

I wished none of my other teeth would fall, but of course, they did. And I wished that the Tooth Fairy would stop visiting, but of course they didn’t.

TEETH

At the beginning of sixth grade, I met the Tooth Fairy—Tanya Fin. She looked nothing like Cinderella’s fairy godmother or Winx Club characters; her hair was a dull, lifeless brown and her cold, dark eyes resembled scratched-up buttons.

I trudged down the hall towards my last period class with my best friend Fein when Tanya’s gaze honed in on my smile. She cackled whenever my tongue stumbled on certain words and sentences, hitching in my throat. I was trying to explain what I did on the weekend. Fein looked away, embarrassed.

My accent was made worse by a missing tooth—one of my last baby ones. Nobody had told me that the Tooth Fairy was biased towards the colour of my skin, or the shape of my eyes and nose, or the accent from my motherland.

At lunch, Tanya dumped her tray with pizza and a can of sprite in front of me. Fein stood behind Tanya like a shadow. When our eyes met, she looked away. I curled into myself, hiding behind the steam of the dumplings my mother packed. She held her nose and tsked at my lunch.

Tanya squinted her eyes at me. “Ch—” She snapped her lips shut, whispering the rest of it as a teacher walked by: —ink. Her face rested in a smile with her teeth lengthening, sharpening, digging into her lip-glossed lips.

I prodded the gap left by my last baby tooth.

Speak.

I stood and walked away, lips sealed shut.

Speak.

By the beginning of high school, Tanya’s sharpened, grew ever longer, while my shook in their places. No one told me that the Tooth Fairy’s wings were made of dust that came from the salt of our tears. And that their own teeth strengthened by weakening the rest of ours.

When all my adult teeth grew in, they grew in crooked.

My parents thought braces would help straighten them. But they didn’t realize that having these crutches for my teeth would only draw the Tooth Fairy back to me.

Tanya and I ended up at the same high school, Fein too. Though Fein’s teeth still looked quite normal, they had started taking on an unsettling point. The two girls approached me in the hallway where I sat leaning against my locker during lunch. In my hands sat a thermos filled with congee.

“What’s up with your teeth?” Tanya sneered. Her words threatened to break the support that barely held my trembling teeth in place. “And also, is that muddy water?” She pointed to my thermos.

I stared down at the congee my mother forced me to bring after I got my braced tightened instead of the pizza pockets I prepared. I flicked my tongue over my braces, lifted my thermos, and threw its contents into Tanya’s face. My hands shook with shock.

Tanya’s shriek, though ear piecing, was satisfying. My mouth fell open as I watched the hot congee roast Tanya’s pale cheeks, marking them with angry, red splotches. As she clawed at her face, I saw her sharp teeth wobbling in her gums. She didn’t come to school for a week. But when she returned, it was like nothing ever happened—

Because nothing had. I had only imagined tossing the congee in Tanya’s face. She was only absent was because of chicken pox. But I liked to imagine browning scars from the once red swollen pricks were because of me.

Speak.

TONGUE

I could only escape Tanya when I left everything behind in Canada to study abroad in the U.S.—except it didn’t matter anyway, because another Tooth Fairy found me. His name was T. F. King—the irony—and he found payment in silence. He prided himself in dressing in clothing that cost more than my tuition.

“You want that promotion, don’t you?” he asked, leaning by my desk before work ended.

Meredith in the cubicle next to me glared in my direction.

I didn’t answer, but I didn’t need to.

T. F. knocked against my desk. “Settles it then. Tonight at 8.”

I had no choice but to smile. The man was attracted to crooked teeth. Meredith’s was far too straight, slightly pointed, for T. F. I’d abandoned my retainers when I left home, and my teeth shifted back to their wobbling, misaligned state. If I’d kept the retainers, maybe my teeth would be like Meredith’s. But just thinking of Tanya made me shudder. When I bumped into Fein in the streets on my way to the airport, her teeth looked just like Tanya’s. We exchanged smiles: her mouth opened, my mouth closed.

When I arrived at the restaurant five minutes early, I saw T. F. through the window tipping something into the glass in front of the empty seat across from him. My water. I threw up by the sidewalk and took a taxi home, handing in my resignation letter the next time. Meredith’s beady eyes bored into my back as I entered T. F.’s offer. He greeted me with an expressionless face. I greeted him with a close-lipped smile.

Speak.

My tongue curled, working to form the words with my teeth and lips: “Good bye.”

When I returned home to visit my mother before the winter holidays, she asked me how work was going, wondering why I’d turned up earlier than expected.

“I had to see the Tooth Fairy every day,” I said, thinking of T.F. I had purchased a last minute plane ticket when I received my last pay cheque.

I held the few leftover American bills in my hands, waving them in the air, pinched between two fingers. I held them differently from the way I clutched onto the gold coin like a lifeline as a child—in a way that suggested the money pained me to hold.

Where I received gold as a token of love, a warning, a lesson from my mother when I was younger, it had changed to receiving dollar bills for obedience and silence from the Tooth Fairy. I offered parts of myself, eager for opportunity. But it was never worth it, was it?

My mother pushed forward a bowl of dumplings. Fish balls bobbled in soup next to it. When I took a bite, unashamed, she took my hands into her own—mine were beginning to callus, cold; hers were like leather with a warm glow.

She offered a smile, revealing teeth that sat crooked but steady.

About the Author

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She draws on cultures and landscapes of the lands she has walked for inspiration. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, The Dark, Jellyfish Review, Hobart Pulp, among others. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (aijiang.ca).