“The Unfed” – Fiction by Nancy Au

gwashingtonsteethlocFalse teeth, depleted mountaintops, and mysterious fruit tarts are just a few of the key ingredients in “The Unfed,” Nancy Au‘s fantastic short story from our Winter 2017 issue.

{ X }

BEA OGILBY POPS HER NEW DENTURES into her dress pocket for safe-keeping, runs her fingers along the empty grooves & bumps of her mouth’s spongy pink mountain range. She glances at her reflection in the mirror before heading out. White hair twisted in a bun. Her smile, all gums, no more chomp and chew.

Outside, blinded by the bright September sunlight, Bea nearly stumbles over a fruit tart left on her doorstep. The mountaintop, which once protected her home from the afternoon glare, had been stolen by Ye Old Mining Company; millions of pounds of rock and dirt, acres of trees and shrubs ripped from the mountain in order to extract coal. The village’s sacred mountain could no longer be called The Great Peak because all that remained was a grizzled, flattened stump. No trees to glue the remaining boulders in place, to keep mud from surging down the steep slope and destroying the village during the next monsoon. No guide posts pointing tourists up the path, nor signs to indicate the diminished mountain ever even had a name.

Across the narrow dirt road, her neighbor, Teddy Nun, waves. “Hello there!” Teddy is working in his meager vegetable garden. Misshapen carrots and wilted kale poke out of the sandy soil. Bea bends down to pick up the tart, observes the glistening strawberries and buttery crust. She eagerly dips her finger in the sugary dew, and tastes a lick.

“Hello there!” repeats Teddy.

Bea points to the tart, “Did you see who?”

Teddy shrugs, Bea nods. His useless I don’t know shrugging responses are legendary in town. But Bea appreciates this in a neighbor, with stories and gossip flowing in only one direction across the narrow road. Like, when the last of her teeth were pulled, gums red, swollen, tender—a finger without the nail—she’d asked the incurious retiree: How does the Tooth Fairy for the elderly work? Where do your teeth go when the Tooth Fairy dies? Teddy’s response that time was a handful of ice carefully wrapped in a red dishtowel, a cold compress for Bea’s sore mouth.

{ X }

The first to perish while rebuilding the mountaintop was an aging horse with a three-year-old mentality, named Wilson. This equine senior dragged boulders and planks of knotted pine, in metal carts with leather straps, up the steep rocky trail using just his chompers. Every tooth of this odd-toed ungulate were bloody and broken by the time he reached the top. Bea had nightmares for weeks after this first death, awakening at dawn, soft mouthing the horse’s name over and over, as if in prayer.

{ X }

Bea takes the strawberry tart with her down the road. As she strides, the crumbling pastry cradled in her cupped hands, the town’s eldest elder recalls the string of anonymous love letters she’d received after the death of her husband. She wonders if the person who left the tart is the same admirer. She once surmised that it was Teddy, but has never been able to decipher a distinction in his useless shrugs.

As Bea rounds the first bend in the road, she remembers the last time with her husband of sixty-five years; the touch, glowing warmth. When her legs pounded and her heart could bend, and her arms gripped tightly to his body. Their mouths enmeshed. Pink, plush-rug furniture dimples. Aching in their wrists, shoulders, ankles, hips, knees, neck. Their courageously wrinkled bodies. Her husband sliding his hand up her leg, and tickling her moss, then sinking in up to his palms, and pulling, stroking with his fingers, and later with his mouth.

On his last night of life, Bea crawled into bed with him. And although he did not wake, she rested her head on his chest, listened to his final breaths. She placed his hand on her left breast, hoping to share her heartbeat. She put her mouth to his and exhaled deeply, hoping to share her breath.

Bea tries to imagine a life unfed, without magic and mystery. Unspent. Without her moss, her mud, and long thighs. River waves rolling big, fully, slowly. Trembling sighs.

{ X }

As a girl, Bea’s dreams were the least imaginative; her one love was playing in the mud, moulding it into shapes that she let dry in the sun. She’d try to bring home small statuettes of April sun goddesses and humpback whales, but the figures would crumble by the time she returned home. Imagine: ten-year-old Bea, dirt falling between her fingers, facing her mother, the last healer, a magic known only to the town.

So Bea endeavoured to find out how to fuse her statues. She practiced magic stolen from her mother’s spellbooks. And then one afternoon after a solid week of rain, a hillside threatened to destroy the small school; Bea’s mother had gone to assist a neighbor with a difficult birth. So Bea pooled her mediocre powers together, and enchanted the mud so that it held in place until her mother returned. Following the rigid rules of healer’s magic, so long as Bea returned each morning until the rains stopped, the school was safe.

And, now, without kin to carry on the magic that tiptoed through Bea’s veins, the town depended on the old woman to hold up the mountain for as long as she was alive, in the hopes that the pine and hemlock and chestnut oak would take root in Bea’s enchanted mud. And that their mountaintop would grow once again.

{ X }

The second death was the barber, the Town Brain who engineered the rebellion to regrow the mountaintop stolen by Ye Old Mining Co. Always stepping back to view the big picture, so overburdened with the mountain’s lack of symmetry, the Brain stepped off the chiseled escarpment and plunged nearly a thousand feet. It is told now as a campfire story that as he plummeted, he appraised his hard work and mastery. He landed in exactly the spot he wanted.

{ X }

Bea buried her original teeth along with the town’s time capsule at the opening ceremonies of the mountaintop rebuilding. Bea could not explain to the dentist why her teeth suddenly began to fall out the day after her husband’s funeral. Her enchantments that glued the boulders in place, that kept the mud from sliding down the mountain and destroying the town during monsoons, were not strong enough to save her teeth.

Bea remembers the dentist handing her a tortoiseshell mirror, his excitement to show off his handiwork plastered on his face. Bea grinned manically at her reflection, opening her mouth wide and then snapping the plastic shut. Each tooth perfectly sized and bright white, like the glare on a truck’s freshly polished windshield. Bea thinks of George Washington’s dental fittings constructed out of hippopotamus ivory, brass screws, lead, gold wire, and the teeth of slaves. She recalls the history books she’d read as a child that described this slave owner’s constant pain, the embarrassment Washington felt when he learned that the British had intercepted his desperate letters from the battlefield, that begged his wife to send his fallen teeth so that he could add them to his newest dental fittings. Bea pictures slaves pulling out their own teeth, using pliers or the shorn metal of their chains, in desperation and fear, in the hopes that blood from their torn gums would be enough to free them. She wonders if Washington provided for manumission of both his slaves and their teeth in his will.

When Bea buried her teeth with the town’s artefacts, she thought about who would find them long after her demise, imagines how they will hold the teeth in their spindly fingers, open and close, open and close, a puppet mouth. She wonders whether they will turn her teeth into dentures like Washington’s. Will they smack their lips? Will her teeth say all of the things that she could not?  For now, Bea knows that the mountain speaks for her.

{ X }

The third death was a mute child named Maurice, nicknamed Tender. Dimples, pink neck. He showed off to his friends and sisters the best way to hurl into the mud while his mother, a sculptor, helped shape the bedrock with the town’s other devoted artists and builders. Each time Tender climbed, slip slip slip slip slip up to the top of a boulder, pockets stuffed with moss. He’d mouthed the word Freedom!, and then a spinning leap. On his final jump, Tender’s feet slipped, and as he tumbled, he clipped his head on the boulder. Blood and brain and mud made a sludge around the other children’s feet.

His mother goes to that boulder every year to paint his likeness on the enormous stone. She awakens Tender’s ashes with water and mud from the mountain stream, uses a slurry of marshmallowy ash coated up to her longest knuckle. Paints hieroglyphs of her son, imagining him as he bloomed. Let his black hair grow long, wild, fallow. Makes him taller each year. Sketches the words: Tender. Mud. Town. And while she paints, sings the mountain songs of springtime ginger-sweet blossoms.

The town buried Tender under the mountain’s new trailhead sign, under the crushed yellow grasses and aching clouds. At the end of the informal service, the mayor wrapped the mother in a grief hug.

{ X }

Bea and her husband were once soon-to-be parents. She was told by the town’s doctor to throw her placenta off the spot where the barber once stood, to appease the spirits who might think that she expected perfection from her child. The Birth Spirit that mountain mothers most feared was feathered-black, cawing. It was believed that the spirit had the power to steal the roundness from them. So, the town taxidermist made stuffed birds for the town museum housed in the library. New fathers rented these spirits to bring home, for the mothers to practice not being scared. Bea was never scared. She cheered the goal-oriented, no-nonsense villains in the books that she read. She revolted against the banality of a heroine’s day job, of overly tender motherhood. When their newborn arrived, blue and unbreathing, she called herself The Devil until the day her husband left the mountain, leaving nothing behind but his shoes.

{ X }

The fourth death was the town’s mayor, nicknamed the Town Clock because he went to the mountain to check on the progress each morning before work began. Taking in deep breaths of chilly morning air, the view of the wood scaffolding surrounding the hollow sun-filled peak, he did not see the blue jay that startled the squirrel that terrified the bear that dislodged the boulder that would crush him. The mayor’s hat was recovered after two days of digging. The mayorless town holds festivals every year at the top to commemorate his devotion. His ghost continues to haunt the town as a polite old shadow.

{ X }

Bea’s toenails are too long for her shoes.  On her walk under young pines, through asters and blueberry replanted by the town, she passes a tailing pond and tosses pebbles into the thick yellow water that is tinged blood red around the rim. She steps over rusted wire ropes the width of her thigh. Rocks slip into her loose socks, sharp enough to awaken something tender. She remembers a time from before, when her heels were smooth as river rocks, slick as a new photograph just printed, wet, still developing in the bath tub.

Bea stops walking, places her tart on a rickety doorstep, sits to untie her sneaker. The doorstep belongs to the head of The Committee of Committees, Sue “Sunbeam” Chau, the tallest woman in town. Sunbeam had gathered together the eldest and most retired elders to committee the Mountain when the mining company refused to repair the gaping wound it left behind.

Sunbeam had lost everything when her wife died, but had carried Bea for months on her own strapped shoulders, cinching her belt tighter, leaving food and sundries on Bea’s doorstep whenever she could. Maybe the tarts were the town’s offering, Bea thought, a way to lessen the load of Sunbeam’s diligence.

{ X }

Bea nibbles the center of the tart with her gums, wonders who baked in the strawberry’s sour pinch. She worries: what if her old dentures have nothing to say? She pictures what she’d say to her husband’s ghost. How would she describe her waning life under the mountain’s diminished shadow? Or, how the spoils of the mines buried their beloved valley? Would she tell him that the town still could not decide on a new name for their new peak, one strong enough, that wouldn’t slip in the mud?

Bea leaves the half-eaten tart on Sunbeam’s doorstep, slips her hands inside her pockets and feels for her dentures, whistles a song about the full moon, mud and mountain moss, holding the crimson bittersweet emptiness in her mouth.

{ X }

nancy-au-head-shotNANCY AU‘s stories have appeared in Midnight Breakfast, Foglifter, Liminal Stories, SmokeLong Quarterly, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Word Riot, Identity Theory, among others. She was awarded the Spring Creek Project collaborative residency (Oregon State University), which is dedicated to writers inspired by nature and science. She is an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative writing at California State University Stanislaus.

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