Michelle G. Lee
The thing grows in my mouth overnight, in the shape of a screw the wrong way out. It is right next to my back left molar, and it hurts, bad. Mom says it is time.
Time for what? I ask. Time for you to grow your own, she says, and she guides me to the backyard, dangerous from disuse. She holds in her fist something that looks like a jjut stick, but the end has carved into it a smooth sphere of a stone. She rubs it against where it throbs. This will help with the pain, she says. Is it right there?
Yeah, I say, and the stone is cool, the feeling of mint. She massages for another few seconds and then whacks my face with it. When I come to, I spit blood and the thing.
It is a purple blue, a sharp tooth. I cup it in my palm, and it shakes like a cold animal. Oh my god, I say.
Hand it over, she says. Remember, this is both yours and you.
She gives me a shovel ready to share tetanus and has me dig a hole in overripe soil for the tooth to sleep in, and she wets the ground with pungent syrup from a dark bottle. She circles the hole and sprinkles stuff the scent of hanyak. She has me spit a few times in there, too, before she tells me to seal it with dirt. I am sweaty and exhausted. Rust flavors my throat, my hands.
Your grandmother’s didn’t sprout for a decade, mine did in a year. We’ll see what this soil gives to you.
I’m not paying attention because of the pain. Are you sure I don’t need to go to the dentist? I ask. I could use some novacaine.
Your teeth are fine and you don’t need drugs, she says. She smacks my back. No drugs, you hear?
The next morning, we drive together seven hours up north with a packed car, and I move to the Bay for college. I am gone for four years, and in my fifth year up north my mother tells me to come back home for a day.
It’s waiting for you, she says.
What is? I ask, because I have already forgotten, because I am busy working for terrible money at an expensive café, and then spending it on farmer’s markets, falling in and out of love, film screenings, a crap studio in Oakland.
Your seed, it’s just born, she says, and I remember the extraction. I thought it was her version of the tooth fairy, or one of those rituals she does sporadically, a reminder of her mudang blood. You will learn all this too, she had promised the girl me, but I never felt compelled to learn.
Can’t I go home next week? I ask.
It’ll be dead by then, she says, and I know what she says is true. So I drive home, head full with Red Bull.
I park in the driveway of our little house in Tustin. Mom is cradling something on the couch, and it makes soft wheezing noises in her arms. Let me see, I say, and I open the swaddled blanket. It is a lump of quivering clay, wet and speckled with blanket fibers and dust. It is a uniform splotch, the color of an old bruise.
My god, that’s what came out of my mouth? I ask.
Shut up and give it breath, she says.
So I breathe an open kiss onto the mass that most resembles a head. It coughs, and gains shape. The skin forms into the texture of something between feathers and fur. It is somewhat the size and shape of a dog. There’s no face, other than a crude mouth.
I know it is mine, and yet I am repulsed. Why does it look like that? I ask.
That’s all you gave it, she says, peeved. She pets the thing and it wags its spiky looking tail. Mine was way cuter, but this little guy is nice.
We eat kalbitang, and the thing’s mouth melts a little when it laps up hot broth. The next morning, mom warms up Hot Pockets for my drive and sees me off.
Watch over it until it is dry, she says. You’ll know what to do, then.
Uh huh, sure, I say, and the thing whines when it no longer sees my mother from the window.
The thing, the dog, it paws at the glass and loves sticking its head out, and its malleable head catches bits of bird poo and pebbles, flung from the feet of other cars. It’s a mess by the time I make it home. The dog fills my studio with its earthy wet musk smell.
You stink, I say, also, do you pee? It cocks its head and whines. I take it to grass and it simply rolls around in it, still soft enough to bring back tufts of green on its back.
My dog is a stalker, I learn. I leave it at home during my morning and afternoon shifts, but it finds me at work and watches me from the bushes. Do you see that, I ask a coworker making a latte, and he looks out and says, huh?
It also likes to growl. The late nights I walk back home, it copies the movement of my shadow and snaps at strangers who come too close. They look at me like I’m the one making noises.
I kiss its temple in thanks and leave lip shaped indentations. It wags its tail.
Mom calls a few times, in the weeks it slowly hardens. How’s it going, and has it gotten bigger, and the dog will come close to the phone and pace around in circles. Tell it I miss it, she says.
It’s gotten fur, and it’s quite soft. The body is warm, and it has the same pulse pulse that it had when I held it as a tooth. It likes to sleep tight against my body, curled up against my stomach.
A few weeks in, I wake up to the absence of warmth. It’s four in the morning, and it is splayed at the window, sleeping in moonlight. It has grown eyes and a little stump of a snout.
Oh jeez, I wish you would form stuff at the same time, I tell it. The nose is damp, so I shape it to make it less terrifying looking.
I’m gonna call you Tooth, I say. Do you like that? It wags its tail, and when it licks me, it leaves a streak of dirt on my cheek.
Tooth begins to form more details, and it also grows, a late spurt. Soon it expands to the size of an adult St. Bernard, and for some reason it is shedding feathers. The skin is almost fully hardened, and only its belly stays damp. Tooth keeps chewing at the junction between his leg and stomach, enough to leave behind chunks the texture of dirt.
I call my mom. I’m worried, I say. Tooth seems to be in pain.
The whole process involves pain, she says, and does not explain.
This is how she has taught me, all my life. I am more comfortable with uncertainty than most. She has waited for me to gain her sight, the shin eyes, and sometimes she’ll check my pupils and tut. Not yet, she’d say, but I know you will, because the blood runs just as thick in you.
My friends always found my mom creepy. She’d say things like your mother should stay away from red cars, or to another one your father is very loose, like a parachute, he just descends on whoever’s within his radius. Everything she said was true, though. She said it was because she had seen the gods descending. The gods will speak to you soon, she says to me, just like they have with me and the women before me, and you will understand then who we are, because you have your seed now.
Tooth is very sad, the last week I have it. It curls at the door and sighs, big heaving noises, and once it left behind a puddle that smelled like the water mom poured over its birthing hole.
You are mine, I tell it, the night before it dies. Don’t go anywhere without me.
I leave for work in the morning and see it in the distance. At night I decide to go to a party, one that a friend of a friend is hosting, and I leave early. The apartment smells like B.O, and there’s a guy with a pale mustache who keeps telling me I have really big eyes, like really big ones, and I know what he means and tell him to go to hell. When I walk back home around midnight, I don’t hear Tooth following, and I worry for myself and for it. Tooth is not home. I walk the block looking for it along my usual routes and find it in a public park.
Tooth is dead. There are deep grooves in its abdomen, the violence clear in the absence of gore. Soft underbelly is strewn along its tentative, ruined shape. It is too big to bring home, but I take a wet handful of it with me and shape it the best I can into a miniature version. I breathe upon it. It does not move, and I cannot sleep, I am filled with nausea and loss.
I call my mother. Tooth died, I say, and she is quiet, and then she says, I see.
Mom drives up, this time. I help her bring Tooth’s body into the trunk of her minivan. She tells me she will take care of the rites.
Do you know what got to him? I ask.
The things you don’t yet know, she says. A lot of them are worse than ghosts. She cannot hide her disappointment. It was yours and you, she says. I don’t know how the gods will descend upon you, now.
She takes Tooth’s body home, and I miss it. The palpable, huge shape of its absence, its hanyak smell. It has made its way into the follicles of my nose, and I smell Tooth everywhere I go.
The clay flesh I brought back home, it refuses to harden, and I play with it some nights that sleep evades me. One night, I take off the little stump I made into a tail, and I ball up the piece into a round sphere and swallow it. The clay is as bitter as those pasty herbal balls, the ones that treat anxiety, stage fright, fearful children at night. Mom would push them down my throat with a finger when I had night terrors, dreams of demons I no longer remember. I take apart my miniature Tooth into perfect spheres, and I swallow all of it, and the anger and apologies, they are absorbed by the clay, by the sour taste of herbs and medicine.
I fall asleep and in dreams pain splits me open straight down the middle, and from the seam between my eyes I see spirits, creatures, the things that are worse than ghosts. I wake in the nighttime, and my body shakes, hurts. I call my mother, to tell her that the gods have come to me. She says, leave my daughter. I tell her I don’t understand, and I also say I cannot, and my throat widens to accommodate the space of two voices, drawn taunt. My mother weeps.
This is not how it is done. I pack a duffle and lock my apartment. I go to the park with the pieces of Tooth rattling in my guts. Where its body once was, there is now a shivering hole, its contents darker than closed eyelids at night. It yawns, and permits me entry.
Here is where Tooth was supposed to go, on its own. It is a place where gods and the things worse than ghosts come to live, or to die, or to simply be. I make a home close to the edges of the hole, and wait for answers.
Michelle G. Lee grew up in Southern California, where she currently resides. She holds degrees in history and anthropology, with focuses in folklore and animal studies, and has worked for nonprofits and academic publishers.