november 15, 2022
dreamed I had swallowed a tooth and woke up with a sore throat, as if the bone-sharp incisor had fought its way down my esophagus. My partner was still asleep, sweating as he did all night every night, and as I lay there with his dampness in the canvas tent-cabin where we lived together, technically roommates, fellow rangers, I ran my index finger over all my teeth and felt no gaps. Wind shook the canvas walls like sheets on a line, and I fell in and out of sleep, dreaming I was in a small boat on choppy seas, and every whitecap was a molar, and when the wave crashed, the tooth melted to water. When he woke up, I told him what I’d dreamed, and he said, “Babe, I’m not even through my first cup” and the instant coffee smelled of earth, and I had the strongest urge to strip naked, go outside, and spin and spin and spin and spin inside the circle of these rippling canvas-sided cabins, all filled with park employees, to see if somehow my feet could bore themselves down into the morning moistness, the loamy soil, and then my ankles, calves, and thighs, and everything. I didn’t mention this to him.
My sister, through a bad connection, said dreaming of swallowing a tooth meant maybe I was pregnant, so I drove out of the park and wandered all around the nearest dollar store, up one aisle, down the other, until I realized the tests were by the register, as if someone would see them and think I guess I am feeling a little bloated, and I guess I am a little late and count back twenty-eight and balance the impulse-buy in their full hands, atop the paper towels, Campbell’s soup, and six-pack. The girl at the register, no older than eighteen, smiled much too long at me after ringing the purchase through. “Good luck,” she said. All I did was grunt.
“It’s negative,” I told my partner over scrambled eggs I’d burned in the shared kitchen of our canvas tent-cabin compound, and he said, “Huh?” and I said, “Nothing, never mind,” and pulled out my papers on New Zealand Mud Snails for a talk I was developing, a cautionary talk on how to stem the spread of these invasives.
A little girl asked if a snail could change its shell. I told her the shell grows along with its soft body. She asked if a snail is born inside its shell. I told her yes, it is. Her brother asked if a snail has teeth. I told him snails have rows and rows of teeth, and when a row wears down, a new one grows to fill its place. The girl asked if a snail can mend its shell, because her brother liked to crush them. I said yes, because it’s true they can mend small holes, but a crushed shell, all that broken calcium, means death. I couldn’t tell her that.
My partner became my ex, but not before he forced himself on me. The park superintendent was a man who’d been transferred from another park for groping women on their interviews, so I didn’t even try to get my not-yet-ex moved, not after we’d begged and pleaded for this canvas shack together. That’s why I was the one to move, when another so-called cabin had an open space. I took all my stuff over while he led a guided hike. My new roommate warned me her hamster would run laps on its wheel all night, and I would come to learn she wasn’t lying. Afterwards, I saw my ex in the dining hall. He swiped his card and sat down where we always sat. I swiped my card and left with gummy pasta that made me feel my mouth was mush.
My sister nearly missed her connection due to a coyote on the runway but deplaned resplendent, with an issue of Cosmopolitan and a bottle of duty-free tequila. “Happy housewarming!” she said, and I laughed because it was just the next cabin over, and my ex and I still shared a bathhouse. But my roommate left the valley for a wedding, so my sister had a bed to sleep in as she helped me to survive the break-up. We didn’t speak of trauma, of what he had tried to do to me. We annotated the shitty magazine, all its shitty sex tricks, like we’d done when we were kids, when I was much too young to be cackling at the concept of surprise prostate stimulation. I told her New Zealand Mud Snails reproduce asexually, so all it takes is one, and she said, “New Zealand what?” We got tequila-drunk. She held my hair as I puked, held me close as the hamster wheel whirred and rattled, and in the morning, my teeth looked yellow in the bathhouse mirror. My sister stepped out of the shower in her towel and caught me grimacing at my reflection. “Huh?” she said. “I dreamed my teeth were rotten.” I brushed so hard my gums bled then gave a talk on life that scurries through the park at night.
Since then, so many parks, so many lakes and rivers, mountains and canyons, because the truth is I never could relax again, not in the valley, not in that tent of rippling canvas, in that ring of tents that glowed white like luminescent teeth, where I dreamed my incisor crumbled and a soft snail body oozed to fill the cracks. I was adrift in a world of seasonal work, moving place to place, into tiny cabins and shared dorm rooms, old run-down farmhouses with bedroom doors with broken locks. Every national park was America’s best idea, so wasn’t it all worth it, even if wasps nested in my closet, even if the shower only ran ice-cold, even if one roommate, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, sleep-walked, reliving flashbacks, and once came into my room at night and woke me from a dream of dentures by lying down beside me and sweating in his night terrors, and wouldn’t you have let him sleep, knowing what you knew about the trauma he had gone through, and wouldn’t you have given him the benefit of the doubt, the space to heal, until he pinned your arms down in the morning and laughed when you finally, finally freed yourself from his vise grip? That night, you’d dream of scorpions. You’d dream you laughed as you pushed him off of you, like it was all a joke, and a scorpion dangled from the tip of your tongue, which was pierced through by its pincer. At least, that’s what I dreamed after it happened, and when I woke up, I had an email—I was being transferred to the desert.
I dreamed I ground my teeth to powder. Each morning, I’d bite down on scrambled egg or muffin, soft, and swear I was eating my own sand. The dentist said that’s not a dream and prescribed a night guard. I dreamed of blueprints, that contractors erected scaffolding behind my lips then toy soldiers with power tools and paintbrushes instead of guns were raised by pulley to my teeth, which needed fixing, and then the dream went dark, and all that lived within my cabin in a valley named for death was buzz of drill and pound of hammer, shellac-swish to bind my teeth in place.
The desert came alive at night, and so did we. We’d gather outside the cabins to drink heady homebrew from a man with a Civil War mustache; we’d dance with an audience of glowing eyes, unblinking from the darkness, as creatures came to bid us well, and my bed was rarely empty, and as I slept beside the man I’d marry, I could feel the tug as an owl-dentist with its owl-eyes magnified still further yanked my teeth out one-by-one with talons. We flew my sister to Las Vegas as our witness, lost so much money at the slots, and married in a chapel favored by B-list celebrities. It was beautiful, and after, we watched stars fall all around us from the casino’s rooftop pool until we stumbled back to bed. When I dreamed that I was giving a talk on how animals find water in the desert and kept pausing to spit teeth one-by-one into my palms until both hands filled up, and the campfire-circle children took them and roasted them on sticks so they puffed up, I rolled over to hold my new husband, and when that didn’t soothe me into sleep, I knocked on my sister’s door, and climbed into bed beside her, and she held me like we were kids, and I outslept my hangover and woke to old music on the radio, the sort we’d listen to with a cassette tape in, waiting for our favorite song to play so we could hit record and save that song forever.
When I turned out to be truly pregnant, my dreams did not portend it. Instead, I had a string of dreamless nights that turned into bloodless days, and when I bought the pregnancy test, my husband was there beside me, and he held it in his hand as the two lines appeared. I sent my sister all the metaphors—the fetus is now the size of a fig—and she would text back, weird. I sent them as a joke, but I did feel perhaps there was some unruly life inside me, something beyond the growth of cells that would one day live and walk and breathe outside my body. I dreamed my mouth swelled with the progression of the fruits, until I couldn’t speak, until I could scarcely swallow, and I woke to sharp-then-throbbing pain, a strobe light of it, and my husband drove the many miles to the nearest hospital, dodging coyotes and jackrabbits on the ribbon of road that ran through their nighttime thoroughfares, and the doctors said I didn’t have a fever, said I didn’t seem to be in any danger.
But the pain persisted, and I dreamed I tried to bite into the fruits my child was becoming and couldn’t and couldn’t and couldn’t because my teeth would wobble in my gums, until I twisted out the two teeth front-and-center and whistled when I talked. I told my sister, and she called the doctor for me, and the doctor said she couldn’t talk to her to protect my privacy, but she said I should come in for an ultrasound, so I did, and the doctor didn’t want to show me pictures, just the text of the report, but eventually I got them—images of a tooth inside my left ovary, seemingly tethered to my little fruit by the fallopian tube. I dreamed my child reached out little arms and wound up the fallopian tube like an extension cord or leash or lasso and held the tooth to its chest. Then I dreamed the child swallowed it, swallowed this wayward tooth.
My sister talked to her own doctor, who said this sort of thing is not uncommon. Sometimes it’s teeth, sometimes it’s hair, sometimes it’s even bones and skin. I couldn’t get the dermoid cyst removed, not with the life ripening inside of me. An extraction would be too dangerous, so it grew alongside my child. I could have given a program on it—how this tooth sprang from the same cells as the egg that would grow into a human. Likely, it arose from the cells that were left over from the development of that very ovum. Under the right conditions, this tooth could have been another life. So much comes down to right conditions, to right environment. I had to sit down, out-of-breath, so often. I sweated through my wool-and-polyester uniform. The light glinting off the sand could blind me with a headache. I vomited from pain then smiled my way through a talk on desert pupfish, resilient creatures the size of a baby’s pinkie-finger, which survived the massive shrinking and salinization of their ancient lake to survive the hot-water springs and desert streams that eons of change have left them with; cut off from others of their species, they’ve formed distinct and dazzling sub-species. Even when I went on leave, when the dermoid cyst made even these campground talks too painful, I kept reading about the strange life of this isolated place. My husband held me close through all of it, microwaved packets of plain rice when that was all I could keep down. When I read that the Badwater snail is the size of a grain of rice, I dreamed rice crunched like snail shells when I ate it, and the snails stitched their shells back together and came to life inside my womb. My husband squeezed lemons into water, did all he could to tame the nausea.
I called my sister every day. She told me it would be okay. She told me the child wouldn’t come out cradling this invasive tooth. She told me the tooth wouldn’t grow into my child’s chest, wouldn’t lodge into my child’s head, wouldn’t cut me on its way out. My husband gave a program on the food chain of the desert. He ordered owl pellets online, had them shipped to the park office. I think they came from Illinois, a sham. But the children loved it. And when I was nearly due and couldn’t bear to be alone for all my fear about delivery, fear of water breaking and the baby flooding out, all covered in teeth, I went with him, unpaid, to help. I showed the children how to slice open the oblong mass of refuse, to extract what the owl spit up from its living, wriggling meal—the bones, the keratin of claws, the hair. I opened up my pellet, and there it was—a tooth, so perfect and so smooth. I held onto that tooth, thought to string it on a necklace chain, but after a night of dreams in which the wayward tooth inside me gnawed its way out through my navel, I placed it on the steps outside our cabin and, with the heel of my park boots, I crushed it. I don’t know if I dreamt it, but I think I felt the baby kick when that sharp tooth turned to powder. ♦
Kate Finegan is a fiction writer whose work has been supported by Access Copyright Foundation, Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. She is novel/novella editor for Split/Lip Press and was winner of PRISM International's 2020 Jacob Zilber Prize for short fiction, as selected by Kristen Arnett. She was also awarded The Fiddlehead’s 2017 fiction prize for a story which judge Rabindranath Maharaj called “pitch perfect” in its balance of “humour and pathos.” She was runner-up for The Puritan’s Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for a story featuring chickens which, according to judge Heather O’Neill, “have the personality and depth of Dickensian characters.” She grew up in Tennessee and recently moved from Toronto to Saskatchewan with her spouse and two cats.