When I was growing up, there was a skeleton in my basement. Huddled under the covers in bed, I imagined it clacking together, realigning to its former, living order and climbing up to the second floor. You may imagine the bones as white, but they were black. They were the old, dead bones of a once living soul, not a plastic copy like those seen in life drawing classes, or schools. My father was a doctor and he taught at medical school. In those days, it was possible to have a box of someone in your possession, as a teaching tool. I only looked at it rarely because it was just too powerful. The ju ju in that box was immense.
I recently tripped over an uneven sidewalk and a gold crown dislodged, revealing the tooth underneath to be black. Heavy in my palm, the gold shines against the black. The crown looks like an ethnically inspired piece of jewelry, not the practical masticator it has been for the last 20 years. The tooth underneath had died without any complaint, without my noticing, which makes me wonder what else is giving up the ghost in this body of mine.
This isn’t my first experience with a black tooth. When in kindergarten, my baby tooth turned black and stayed prominently in place, and my adult tooth grew in crooked beside it. Obviously not the proper course of events, it marked me as somehow wrong. I developed the habit of smiling behind my fingers. Mostly I just played and no one looked at me. I was the fourth of five children and there are a million pictures of my oldest brother, but by the time me and my little brother came along, the desire to record our precious antics had long since dwindled in the parents and we were fed and left to ourselves.
Eventually the black tooth fell out and the adult tooth splayed out with its partner to give me a bucktoothed smile. My sister, three years older than me, had the same. She had too many teeth in her head and the dentist removed six before putting her in braces. He gave me a retainer to push my teeth in line and they crossed over, and my sister’s teeth crossed over, so we had identical crooked teeth into adulthood. It would be interesting to view the rest of this dentist’s handiwork, to look at pictures of his other patients. My sister recently had braces again and fixed her situation but my husband thinks my tooth sticking out is adorable, so I have left it as is.
Teeth are the only part of the skeleton that is exposed and I am intrigued by our insides, in organs and bones. My father was a surgeon and he used to read journals called Gut at the lunch table. I worked in a surgical medical research institute as a file clerk in my undergrad years, as a summer job. Dentistry occupied the front half of the building and at some point I decided to become a dentist. I went to the main dentistry office in a summer dress with my long blonde hair and they gave me the dental hygienist package. I went back and got the proper application to enrol in dentistry, but I never filled it out. People were so put off by the idea. Why would you want to become a dentist?
I’ve sustained an enduring interest in teeth that pops up randomly, for instance while I watched the documentary Honeyland on a flight home. The main character, born in 1964, lives in a stone shed, in an abandoned village with her 85-year-old mother. This documentary had quite an effect on me, as I am the same age as the main character and my 87-year-old mother lives nearby, although in luxury by contrast. The Turkish beekeepers have so little, and yet the woman bought hair dye with her meagre honey sales because, as she told her mother, everybody wants to look good, mother, even me. The hair dye wasn’t worth it in my opinion, but I thought how beautiful she would look living here, in my place, with all her teeth fixed.
If I lived in the mountains, in the beekeeper’s place, I would have no teeth at all, because my mouth is full of crowns and fillings. I would look like her mother, toothless. Her mother’s beautiful soul shines through her appearance, even though she has been bedridden for four years. For some reason, she seems to feel lucky. “I can’t believe I just had watermelon!” she exclaims when her daughter woke her up to feed her a piece from the shifty new neighbour. The beekeeper herself is also beautiful, so dignified, strong and knowledgeable and I chastise myself over criticizing her brown and crooked teeth (this documentary had nothing to do with anyone’s teeth).
Teeth predominated my thoughts when my daughter’s boyfriend came to live with us a few years ago and it became apparent at the supper table that his teeth were rotting in his head. We fixed him up and the dentist explained how he had to brush his teeth to maintain mouth hygiene, but my daughter’s boyfriend simply doesn’t believe it. He stays away from sugar and toothpaste, believing them both to have caused his cavities in the first place. As you can imagine, this has been difficult to accept.
I met a woman when I attended the Banff school for a creative writing workshop. She shared the same name as me and I felt such empathy for her when she read out story about her adopted son, who had fetal alcohol syndrome. When he was a teenager, she spent a fortune making his teeth perfect with braces, but then he became an alcoholic himself, homeless and engaged in countless fights. His teeth were destroyed, along with the rest of him. My daughter has moved away with her boyfriend and they’re well, especially compared to the Banff writer’s son. My daughter’s boyfriend has a full-time job. I’m glad they don’t live with us anymore, it was time for them to go, but I press my fingers to my mouth when I think of them. It’s as if the broken, neglected teeth in their mouths symbolized the greater chaos overarching their lives and I want to go in there and fix it all. Not actually standing over two adults brushing their teeth twice a day but somehow, if I could make it happen, like magic.
Watching the movie Howard’s End, there is a point in the story in which the main characters stand beside a wych elm tree, where the local villagers had embedded pig’s teeth. The villagers believed that chewing on its bark would cure toothache. I find this deeply satisfying. Imagine walking in the woods by your old cottage and finding a tree embedded with teeth. How wonderful! How satisfying to cut a piece of bark and give it a good chew, in the belief that it would dull your pain.
Teeth are potent holders of magical meaning. In the fall, I read of Ohaguro, or teeth blackening. Married Japanese women had a custom of dying their teeth black in ancient times, along with plucking out their eyebrows. Black lacquer was highly regarded and it somehow was translated to the idea of black teeth as an ideal in beauty. I put down my book to imagine myself like that. If you walked up to me and I turned around slowly, you would see that something was off. You would think perhaps I had cancer because I would have no eyebrows. My forehead would be strangely naked and then I would smile, revealing a set of black teeth. You would think—madness, this woman is insane.
The fiction course where I learned of Ohaguro examined the daemonic, writing from the unconscious parts of our brain, tapping into the irrational parts of ourselves, rooting around in what you find there. I think of the Japanese nonagenarian artist Yayoi Kusama and her infinity mirror rooms, with all their beautiful names: The chandelier of grief, The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens, Longing for Eternity, and You who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies. Kusama lives in an asylum with significant mental health struggles and yet has brought such richness to other’s lives through her artistic expression fuelled by obsession.
One of my preoccupations, as is no doubt evident by now, is teeth: the mouth full of bones. I imagine the tooth faerie’s palace made of baby teeth gathered from under the pillows of sleeping children. I keep my daughter’s baby tooth (still white) in a silver locket, as a token of my love for her. Once a part of me, I have my gold crown nestled in its velvet bed in my jewelry box. It’s possible I’ve missed my calling because teeth are calling to me still. That box in my childhood basement, that collection of bones was, at one time, a live person, not someone to fear, but to learn from. If they ever climbed the three floors to my bed, they might’ve leaned over to give me this kindhearted advice: Follow your obsessions, try to create something beautiful, fail and try again, before you end up in a box like me.
Previously published by (mac)ro(mic), July 22, 2020.