by Han Whiteoak
The day after the funeral, the first tooth erupts in my armpit. At first, I assume it’s a skin tag, but when I grip it between my fingers it’s smooth and hard. I tug, but it doesn’t budge.
The doctor takes one look and wrinkles her nose. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Hormones, probably. Come back in a week if it’s no better.”
We’re into flu season, so the next available appointment is five weeks away. I book it. All the way home on the bus, the tooth bites into my arm as I lean away from the man beside me.
While I’m sorting through Mum’s kitchen cupboards, another tooth breaks through the arch of my foot. When I stand up, it clacks against the tiled floor. Again, it resists any attempts to pull it out. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m balancing awkwardly on one foot, surrounded by canned chocolate puddings and packets of out-of-date biscuits.
Putting my shoes back on is impossible. I find a pair of old flip-flops in Mum’s wardrobe and hobble home, forcing smiles at the jokers who tell me my feet must be cold.
By the next morning, a third tooth is threatening to erupt on the bridge of my nose. I prod at the lump, hoping it’s just a spot, until the skin splits over yellow-white enamel.
I phone the GP surgery. My call is important to them, the recording says, before the line goes dead.
Once, I would have called Mum to ask her advice. Instead, I send a photo to my yoga group. Replies flood in.
Are you sure it’s a tooth?
Have you tried reiki?
Go to the doctor!
You poor thing. Our Amelia is teething right now. Here she is chewing her little fist.
After an hour trying to make concealer stick to enamel so I can go to the shops, I throw the tube to the bathroom floor, wash my face, and try to channel Mum. She’d tell me to stop mithering and go out; there’s no law against having a tooth growing from my nose.
The man behind the counter at the Co-Op makes a face as he scans my six pints of milk. “You want to get that seen to, love.”
I smile, jaw tense. The backs of my knees tingle with erupting teeth.
Perhaps a dentist could help? But I called them all last summer, trying to find one to sort Mum’s dentures, and none were taking on patients.
My flip flops slide around in the rain, so I take them off and stuff them into my handbag. The foot tooth clacks rhythmically against the stone as I walk, like Mum’s keyboard as she used to type out long, newsy emails to her sister.
“Put some shoes on!” a man shouts from a car.
“Fuck off!” I yell, but he’s already driven away.
A new tooth slices through the palm of my hand. Trying to push it back inside does nothing but cut the pad of my thumb.
When I arrive home and peel off my jeans, incisors line my shins like gravestones.
How will I shave my legs?
Don’t be ridiculous, I tell myself. Shaving is the least of your problems.
Mum always rolled her eyes at my smooth shins. She’d grown out her body hair in her twenties and never looked back. She used to buzz her head hair every few months, then let it grow until it got in her eyes. The last time I went to visit her in the nursing home, a woman had been fussing her hair with curling tongs, trying to work it into a style.
“She likes it how it is,” I said.
“Don’t be silly!” The woman laughed. “We need to give her a little dignity.”
Mum slumped in the chair like a cut-string puppet, staring blankly at the wall.
The call two weeks later hit me like a punch in the mouth. I was in a routine, bringing ever-smaller stacks of library books, chasing up her appointments, and suddenly I was lost. She got out of bed and collapsed, the carers said. Nothing they could do. Every time I thought about it, my jaw clenched.
Sometimes I call her just to hear her voicemail. Someone who says, “I’ll get back to you,” so cheerfully can’t be dead. Leaning on the kitchen counter, I press the phone to my ear, trying to ignore the bumps appearing on the back of my hand.
“Hello?” a man says.
“Oh,” I say. “Who is this?”
He reels off Mum’s digits. “I just got this phone.”
“Oh. It was my mum’s number.”
“Looks like it got reassigned,” he says. “Hey, sweetheart, you OK?”
I hang up.
“Are you sure you want to block Mum?” my phone asks.
As I tap to confirm, a tooth breaks through the back of my hand.
This has gone too far. I dig out Mum’s tool kit and try using the pliers to tug the tooth. Next I try tying a thread around it, looping the other end around the door handle, and slamming the door.
“Stop that racket!” comes a shout from the next flat.
Teeth bristle along both arms, across my cheeks, in a ring around my belly button. Each one is larger than the last, its chewing surface more serrated. The ones on my thighs grind together as I pace the kitchen, like they want to eat the world.
Loud music pumps from the shouty neighbor’s flat. Hypocrite. If Mum were here, she’d go around and give him what for until he mumbled a shame-faced apology, but I don’t have that skill. I’m not half the woman she was. I put my hands over my ears, the teeth in my palms knocking loudly against the teeth sprouting from the sides of my head.
“Shut up!” I scream. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
The music stops. A door bangs. Fear ripples down my spine as footsteps stomp along the corridor. In its wake come teeth: hard, cold, sharp.
Fangs slide from my gums.
When I open the door, the neighbor’s fist is raised, ready to pound again. Seeing me, his eyes widen. He whimpers. I try to speak, but it comes out as a growl.
The neighbor runs for his flat, fumbling the key into the door. I curl my lips back, enjoying the feeling of power. He finally gets the door open and rushes inside. The awful music stops.
In the silence, my shoulders relax. I’ve been holding them stiffly for weeks, trying to avoid irritating the tooth in my armpit, which I can no longer feel. I check; it’s gone.
I watch teeth slide back into my arms, the backs of my hands, my palms. Each retracts into its own tiny pocket, over which the skin closes, leaving an opening no bigger than a pore. Using muscles I didn’t know I had, I suck the fangs back into my gums, tucking them away in case I need them again. Smiling at myself in the hallway mirror, I realize the teeth have always been there, sharp as my mother, waiting for their time to burst forth.