Teeth Wisdom

by Kristi Petersen


When Peter was on the cusp of adulthood, his parents thought he was a genius, and since they were exorbitantly wealthy and took pity on the poor and the middle class, they thought it best he use his gift for the betterment of society.

One evening, after Mass, they offered to send him to the great halls of Harvard or Yale or anywhere he wished, as long as he were to use the education to do something humanitarian. Peter accepted and said he had a plan to change the world.

“Just be certain you don’t waste our money on something ignoble,” said his mother while whisking eggs and sugar. “Would you be a dear and bring over the molasses?”

Peter was obsessed with teeth. He’d been blessed, by heredity and excellent habits, with strong ones, and in the mornings and evenings he stood before the mirror and counted them with a silver letter opener: 29, 30, 31, 32. They were even so perfect that when he was a child he’d kept all his baby teeth in a jar — despite the smell — and flatly instructed his parents to keep the tooth fairy away from it, for his teeth he could not replace, but quarters, he said, he could always obtain.

He was often saddened by people who did not have such fortune as he, people like Uncle John, whose teeth were not secure in his gums and fell from their sockets into bowls of soup. Or like Delilah Symonds, who had a crush on him which he could not requite because of her lack of quality dentition. He wanted to grow up and fix the wounded mouths of all souls, rescue them from canines that cut into the upper lip or from jumbled overcrowding on the bottom jaw.

“Did you know,” he said to his mother, who stood in the kitchen rolling pie crust, “did you know that I think one of the great solutions to the problem of rotten teeth could be in a mussel’s byssal threads? The material they’re made of is so strong that if we figure out how to extract it, we could make teeth with roots that would never rot.”

“That’s fanciful, dear,” his mother said. “Would you be a love and bring over the sugar?”

Not surprisingly, he was also fascinated with fossil teeth. When he’d been in grade school, he had gone on many field trips to museums in New York, where he’d purchased them by the dozens, and over the course of his formative years he had amassed hundreds.

The singular greatest characteristic of each tooth in his collection — the fan-shaped of the lungfish, the three-pronged of the prehistoric shark, the triangular of the mighty Tyrannosaur — was that even after millions of years these teeth did not show any sign of further decay.

He therefore thought in his wise capacity that a fusion of these two passions with regard to his studies might benefit mankind, so he chose a good school, where he was able to learn not only the mechanics of extraction, bonding, and orthodontics, but also the field skills and academics required for unearthing and studying fossil teeth.

When, at last, he graduated, he announced he was going to spend his life traveling the world to fix people’s teeth — much to the chagrin of his parents.

“It’s time to make a name for yourself like the other men in your family before you,” his mother said.

“I would be making a name for myself,” Peter said. “I’m the only one who needs to know.”

“Don’t be silly,” his mother said, taking a pie from the oven. “We didn’t spend all that money so you could be an anonymous humanitarian.”

But Peter would hear none of it.

Since many countries were in need of his services, it seemed unfair to choose the beneficiaries at random. He decided to work his way through the world alphabetically, except Afghanistan was too barren, the Alaskans had a diet he didn’t think he could stomach, and Albania was too cold.

So the first on his list was the Amazon rainforest, where he hired many to build a plantation large enough for him and several people from the nearby village of what translated in English to “Place of Closed Mouths.” He promised them they could live within the plantation’s walls and be guaranteed food, clothing and shelter in exchange for doing a few chores — and allowing him to fix their teeth.

When he left to move on to his next destination, they could keep not only their sparkling new smiles but his plantation as well. The villagers were at first hostile but then, through the services of an interpreter, seemed to comprehend that this was an offer in their favor, and so they agreed.

Peter spent his days repairing teeth in his very modern and clinical dental center; he passed his nights on the porch of his great white house, watching the village children marvel at the clothes and toys he’d brought them from America. The members of the tribe, one by one, were happy with his work; there was no more pain and suffering, and they no longer died from “muddy mouth” as they’d come to call it. The months went by, and soon he had repaired everyone, save for two children who did not yet have their adult teeth.

One day his interpreter came to him with news that some of the villagers living at the edge of the compound had been killed.

“They were shot in the mouth,” he said.

This disturbed Peter, for who would murder these kind souls and rob them of the rest of their healthier lives?

During the next week, four more villagers died the same way; fear spread through the plantation.

“They believe that many years ago, a healer did a bad thing,” the interpreter told Peter. “The gods turned him into a paraiba, a shark of the rivers. We have angered him, because we have violated Nature. He has sprouted legs and is wreaking his revenge.”

Peter summoned all of his charges to the banquet hall for a feast, and as they ate and drank heartily he strode at the front of the room, tapping his ring against his gold cane. His interpreter spoke everything after him.

“I understand that you are all frightened,” he said. “But I want to assure you that we will stop this killing.”

There were splutters from the tables.

“They say they don’t want new teeth,” his interpreter said. “They say they want their old teeth back.”

“I can’t return the old teeth,” Peter said. “Explain that. They have permanent implants now.”

One of the children who had yet to receive the surgical miracle spit something soft and bloody into her bowl.

“See what happens?” He pointed his cane at the girl. “See what happens if you do not take the teeth? I have given you all a reason to live! I have liberated you all!”

A little boy began to cry.

“We must band together to catch this abomination!”

One of the village men stood up and began talking very fast. The interpreter leaned over to Peter. “He’s telling them he’s never been so happy with his life, and they should all be grateful to you. He is putting himself forth as the lead hunter in a party that will patrol the perimeters at night to capture the beast.”

Peter eyed the interpreter, who, like himself, had perfect teeth, but not because Peter had put them there. The interpreter had once had bad teeth, he’d said, but then a riding accident had knocked them out; he’d decided, when the rubble had cleared, to have implants put in so they’d give him no more trouble.

“Give them what they need,” Peter said, “provisions and weapons, and instruct them to move their women and children up here to the big house.”

Three nights passed and the killings stopped, but the hunting party had little luck catching the culprit. On the fourth night, Peter sat in his robe on the porch, enjoying a goblet of wine, when the lead hunter and another villager approached, dragging between them a wild-eyed, nest-haired woman.

“You are so frail,” he said. “You can’t be the one who is killing my people.”

The woman struggled and kicked.

“They found her carrying this.” The interpreter presented Peter with a shotgun.

“Why?” Peter took off his hat. “Why would you do this?”

“Demon!” she spat.

“Nonsense!” His eyes were black with rage at the injustice, and he set his hands on his hips and moved toward the hysterical woman, who wriggled like an eel and cast her arms as though she were hexing him. But she was not a villager, that much was clear: she was not speaking in the villagers’ tongue; she was speaking a broken form of English

Peter stepped down from his porch and waved the restraining men away.

The woman fixed her torn clothes, covering herself.

Peter set a hand on her shoulder. “Now, now, be calm,” he said. “Explain why you would shoot my good men.”

“I save them from you!”

He looked beyond her. “I don’t understand why you would say this,” he said. “They are handsome men. I have helped them. See their fine teeth.”

“No, no!” she screamed. She covered her eyes. “I set it right! You make evil! You make demons! You ignoble!”

Peter knit his eyebrows and stroked his chin. One of the men grinned at him, and Peter could not help taking a moment to admire his handiwork: there, jutting from between the man’s berry-stained lips, was a full set of fossil shark teeth.

When the shotgun sounded for one last time in the village of Place of Closed Mouths, Peter realized that it was time to lend Angola the help of an anonymous humanitarian.


Copyright © 2007 by Kristi Petersen

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