In those days, there were doctors of teeth already, just as there are now. And in those days, the doctors of teeth were avoided by most, just as they are now. The doctors did their best, just as they do now, the good ones that is. One such doctor of teeth did his best, but failed to root out the deep infection that had taken hold in his patient’s mouth, an infection that had seeped from the teeth to the gums to other teeth, and then began creeping to the patient’s brain and his heart. The man—the patient—was past middle age but not yet old. He died of that infection. A painful and bloody death.
Many doctors and healers had tended to him. But the family he left behind, to whom he was beloved, blamed only one. The doctor of teeth. For before he came, the patient appeared to be suffering some pain but in general was in good spirits. It was poor luck, on the part of the doctor of teeth. The infection had already taken hold. None could have stopped it. But the family did not know this. And perhaps would not have cared if they did. For even if the man had lived, the screams he uttered during the surgery upon his teeth, those screams alone would have earned the doctor of teeth an enemy or two in the family.
He gave his condolences, took no payment, and went on with his work and his life, not knowing that a curse followed him home that day. A curse laid by the mother of the man who died, and fortified by all her kin.
The doctor of teeth lived with his wife and their first child, a little girl, along with his father and his wife’s mother and father.
It so happened that his daughter was soon to lose a tooth. It was not the first of her baby teeth to be lost. She had already lost five. And according to the custom of their family, the first was tossed in a fire, the second was buried, and the rest were left on the floor beneath her bed as an offering to the mice, so that they might leave with her the strength of their own hardy teeth.
One day, the girl’s mother was putting her to bed and noticed that there was a gap in the girl’s mouth where her loose tooth had been. So she asked her daughter for the tooth, as she had asked for all the others. But the girl said that she had already given it away.
“To whom?” her mother asked, after checking under the bed and seeing that the tooth was not there.
“To the man,” the girl replied.
And her mother was at first confused, wondering if her daughter meant one of her grandfathers. But her mother soon learned that a man had approached her daughter while they were at the market, and had asked for the girl’s tooth. It was so near to falling out that she was able to wiggle it loose and give it to him. He had told her that he would give her a reward for the tooth, but once he had the tooth, he walked away. The mother warned her daughter against giving anything to or taking anything from strangers, and promised a gift for the sacrificed tooth. And by morning, there was a small pile of copper coins under the girl’s bed.
Despite her mother’s warning, the girl again was found with a gap in her mouth one day and no tooth to hand over to her mother. She again spoke of giving the tooth to “a man” whom she could not describe beyond saying he wore a dark suit and a dark hat. And she thought that perhaps he did not have any teeth. When her mother asked her why she thought that, the girl replied that the man spoke in a strange way, keeping his lips together. The girl never saw his teeth.
Her mother warned the girl again, and asked her to point the man out if she should ever see him again. The rest of the family was warned as well, to watch the girl when they were out and about. And even as she worried over one child, the girl’s mother placed her hand on her round belly within which grew another.
The girl did as she was instructed by her mother. The next time she had a loose tooth and was approached by the man in the market, the girl asked him to wait while she fetched her mother. He said nothing, so the girl turned to call to her mother. But by the time her mother came, a baby cradled in one arm, and a summer melon in another, the man had disappeared.
“He was here,” the girl said, afraid her mother would not believe her. But her mother did believe her. For her mother caught a whiff of something in the air that she did not like, something sulfurous.
That very night, the household lay in restless sleep, a sleep that was soon disturbed by the screams of a child.
Her father reached her first, throwing open the door to her bedchambers, to find his daughter’s bed empty, the sheets rolled aside.
Before his heart could stop completely, he heard a whimpering from the corner of the room, and turned his head to find his daughter curled up in her reading chair, gazing wide-eyed at her bed.
Or rather…under her bed.
She said that the man had come. He had come to collect her tooth from under the bed where she had placed it as an offering for the mice.
While her father and mother searched the house, tearing through it in fear and rage, her grandparents sat with her, encircling her on three sides.
Her mother and father found no one, of course. The man was long gone.
Long gone and soon to return.
He returned every time the girl lost a tooth. And he no longer bothered with meeting her at the market. He must have found it easier to come at night and claim his prize when everyone slept. The family could never catch him, and no one but the girl ever saw him. So they began to bury her teeth in the ground in the front yard, hoping the man would find it and not come inside the house.
In the morning, they would find the hole dug up and the tooth gone.
It could have been animals. After a while, that is what the family told themselves. That they had started a new tradition. One they carried on with the eldest daughter, and one they started with the second child, a boy, as soon as he began to lose his teeth.
The family seemed to be at peace for some years, while they grew in number, from two children to seven. There were plenty of fallen baby teeth to seed the earth around the house.
The house was full, and it was full of goodness and laughter. And so perhaps it was bound to happen, that so much joy chased away the memory of fear and horror.
And one day, they forgot to bury a fallen baby tooth from the second youngest child.
That very night, the household lay in restless sleep, a sleep that was disturbed by the screams of a child.
The family woke, and they flew to the second youngest child. He shared a room with his brother, who had seen nothing. But the second youngest child told his tale. When his mother forgot to ask him for his tooth, he had put it under his bed, as he had heard his classmates say they did with their teeth.
But he was woken by a noise from under his bed, a snuffling, grunting noise, like that of a dangerous beast. He shivered under his covers, gazing over at his sleeping brother, too afraid to call out.
He heard the thing scuttle out from under the bed, and step toward the window. And he dared to turn his head and look.
What the second youngest child glimpsed was monstrous. Its flesh was light in color, a yellowing white, pocked and pitted and stained with gray patches. It must have sensed him watching it, for it turned its small human-like head, and it stared at him with its milky eyes and smiled a wide smile filled with dozens of long tapering teeth strung with a greenish film.
The boy shut his eyes and the catch in his throat released. He took a breath and screamed. And that was when the family came running.
No one else saw the monster.
The eldest, amidst her fear for her brother, her family, and herself, wondered at his description of the monster that stole his tooth. She wondered if it could be the same creature who had come to take her teeth away, in the guise of an ordinary man. And she wondered why she had not seen through the disguise as her brother had.
Perhaps it was not a failing in her perception, but the creature’s choice of how he—or it—presented itself.
The practice of burying teeth would resume, it was decided, and all would be responsible for ensuring it was done. The family would make a ritual of it so they would not forget.
In the meantime, the father, the doctor of teeth, would try and discover what this person or monster was, and why it was tormenting them.
He did not learn much before the monster visited again.
But this time, there was no tooth to be found under anyone’s bed.
And this time, the screams that woke them did not come from any of the children.
The eldest watched and listened while her father’s father relayed the story of what had just happened to him, even as his son tended to his wounds.
A few hours past midnight, the house should have been quiet, only mice and spiders stirring in the dark, going about their ordinary work. Instead, the whole house was lit. The fireplace was crackling. Kettles were gurgling and whistling. The members of the household were gathered in the living room.
The grandfather was missing a tooth. He still wore his bed-shirt, and it was sprayed with the blood that had spurted from the socket where his tooth had been.
He said he woke that way, with a bloody mouth, and a sore spot where his missing tooth had been, a tooth that had been in no way wiggling or rotted.
He spoke of a nightmare, of a demon sitting on his chest, reaching into his mouth and pulling out his tooth.
This demon looked like the one that his grandson had described. The yellowing white flesh, the mouthful of rotten needle-like teeth.
“They were stolen teeth,” the grandfather said, wincing and still spitting blood. “And in its mouth they’ve grown rotten and deformed.”
The next night, the family kept watch, taking turns, even the eldest children.
But the demon, did not come.
They began to call it a demon now, not just because of how it appeared to the grandfather and the second youngest child. But also because the doctor of teeth had traced back his troubles to a patient who had died under his care. He had learned that the patient’s family had spoken of cursing him, in retribution for the harm he had caused in his failed attempts to treat the man. The thing that visited them, the thing that hungered for their teeth, it had been set loose upon them. He had aimed to visit the family and beg them to remove the curse. But they had moved away. To reach them, he would have to travel for many days, and leave his own family.
The next day, the second youngest child lost another tooth. The family went to bury it in the yard. And again they stayed up at night and kept watch.
The eldest daughter was taking her watch when she saw the thing approach. It was not a man. It was the thing that her brother and grandfather had described. It was the same height as the man she had seen, shorter than her father. The night was frigid, but the thing wore no clothes. Its flesh was pale, a yellowing white, pitted and pocked, and stained with gray patches. She watched it dig up her brother’s tooth. She glared at it. And even as she dared it, in her mind, to turn and face her, she was terrified that it would turn and face her.
But it did not. It curled its fingers around something in the dirt, the tooth. And then it loped away into the fog that was forming around the grounds.
The very next night, they kept watch again. Already they were tired. Even though there were many people in the house, less than half were fit to keep awake for hours at night. The youngest children always slept, as did the grandmother, who was sensitive to the cold weather and tended to fall ill during the winter.
The family had prepared bedding in the living room, near the fireplace, which they kept burning night and day. That was where the grandmother slept, and sometimes the youngest children if they tired of their sleeping bags by the fireplace.
The family was vigilant and watchful, especially of the living room.
And so the screams were unexpected, even with all they had suffered. The screams of the grandmother were unexpected as she lay in her bed and a demon sat upon her chest with its fingers in her mouth, tearing off a tooth.
The eldest daughter ran into the living room, and saw the demon yank out the bloody tooth with one hand, and swipe the other hand in front of her grandmother’s mouth. The screams stopped. Her grandmother’s mouth still gaped open, and her thin shoulders still pumped up and down, as if she were screaming. But she made no sound. And the eldest daughter realized that the demon had stolen her grandmother’s screams as well.
The rest of the family converged in the living room, halting when they saw the demon.
The father pointed a pistol at the demon.
He called out for the family to move away so he could shoot the demon.
His hand trembled, but as the eldest watched, it steadied. And he shot.
At the same time, the demon vanished.
No one believed it had been vanquished.
No one believed it had been hurt.
The demon had escaped, somehow. They were cursed. And so it needed no invitation to come and go as it pleased. And it had grown greedy and hungry for teeth, even when there were no teeth for them to offer it.
The very next day, the youngest child lost his first tooth. And his mother asked for it, so they could offer it to the tooth demon, and at least have one night of peace. But the boy would not give up his tooth. He knew that if he did, the demon would not be satisfied with just one. It would return, tooth after tooth, until it claimed all of the boy’s teeth, whether or not they fell out.
His mother could have taken it from him by force. His father could have. But they didn’t. They decided that they would each offer up a tooth of their own and make a bargain with the demon. If it got two teeth, it would leave their youngest son be for the rest of his life, never claiming any of his teeth.
They did not know it, but their eldest daughter was listening in when they spoke to each other. She was old enough to be ready to bear the burden of the curse herself. But she didn’t want her younger siblings to suffer the curse. She knew her parents were doing their best. But only one child spared out of seven was not enough. So she thought about what her parents had said, about making the bargain with the demon.
And she devised a plan, a plan to free all her family of the demon.
There was little time left, so she gathered her family together, she admitted to eavesdropping upon her parents, and she told them of her plan.
She was the eldest, but still a child, and more so in the eyes of her parents and grandparents. And yet, when she laid out her plan, they listened, for her voice was smooth and cool as steel, while her eyes flashed with the fierce fire of the hearth.
And though they all feared, they all agreed.
That night, they all gathered in the living room. The eldest daughter held her little brother’s tooth in her hand and paced before the roaring fireplace.
Outside, the snow fell softly and silently.
It could have been a jolly night with all sitting in warmth and comfort, protected from the dark and the chill.
But what they had to fear was not outside their house.
It appeared within.
They did not see how the demon came. It simply appeared as if slipping into view in that one moment when everyone blinked at once. It stood where the eldest stood, before the fireplace.
The eldest child held her hand close to her. She opened her fist to show the demon the tiny gleaming tooth she held within.
The demon stepped toward her.
The eldest, her heartbeats fluttering, tripping, held out her hand. Sweat trickled from her temple, and it was not the heat of the fireplace that made it so.
The demon took another step.
“Wait,” the eldest said. “I have a bargain to offer you.”
The demon said nothing. But it took no further steps toward her.
“You want teeth,” the eldest said. “I want my family to be safe. I believe we can both have what we want.”
She paused, and though it troubled her soul to look upon the demon, she peered at its milky eyes held its gaze.
“I will collect teeth for you,” she said. “Not just the teeth that fall from my family’s mouths but the teeth of other children, the children you cannot harm because they are protected from you by blessings, even as we are left open to you by a curse. I will collect from all the children in our town. There are many. You will not want for teeth. In return, you will agree to stop tormenting us. You will agree not to collect any teeth yourself, but to take only what I give you.”
The eldest once again paused, waiting for some response from the demon. She felt her family watching them, clutching each other and watching. But she dare not turn to them.
“Do you agree to this bargain?” she asked.
The demon’s mouth split into a grin made of rotted teeth. “Agreed,” it said.
Then came the moment the eldest most feared. The demon stepped forth to collect the tooth and seal their bargain.
The eldest too stepped forth and began to extend her hand.
Then she flicked her hand and tossed the baby tooth into the fireplace.
The demon’s milky eyes widened, and then, as the eldest had hoped, it dove into the fire after the little tooth. A screeching crackling cry rippled across the eldest child’s skin, making her hairs rise. A pale burning hand reached out of the fire. The eldest swiped a poker from beside the fireplace, and jabbed the hand, driving it back into the fire. The end of the poker sparked as she pulled it back.
At last, the eldest collapsed to her knees as her family rose and came to her as one.
And here was her plan completed. A simple plan. To trick the demon, to lull it with talk of a bargain and with the sight of a family in fear, and then destroy it by tossing the tooth into the fire. They did not know for certain that the demon would follow. It might have forsaken that tooth and come after them.
But it would have come after them anyway.
The eldest gambled that the demon’s desire and hunger for the tooth would drive it to dive into fire, to certain death.
The plan might have worked. It would have worked, had the eldest found some other way to distract the demon, had she not made the bargain.
But there is a price to be paid for making bargains with demons.
From that day on, the demon did not trouble the family. The eldest had succeeded in breaking the curse upon her family.
But she had done so by bringing a different curse upon herself.
She took upon herself some of the powers and qualities that the demon had possessed. The power to appear in a blink. The need to collect the fallen teeth of children. But these powers and qualities became twisted by her good nature from wicked ends to good ones. She did indeed appear to collect the fallen baby teeth of all the children in her town. But she did so only when invited. And she left little gifts in return.
Sometimes, she carried what appeared to be a wand that sparked on its end. And if a child were fearful and called upon her for comfort, she would shake her wand and the fear would melt away.
The eldest came to live apart from her beloved family. For while they began to grow up and grow old, she remained as she was on the day she broke the curse. And she came to go about only at night, for her shadow turned pale and sickly, like the color of rotting teeth, on the day she broke the curse. And her family feared that the demon had possessed her, but when they saw that her nature had not changed, they only feared that it was haunting her.
But the eldest thought it right to be reminded that her strange powers were not good. She had turned them good, and they would only remain good if she remained good.
And so she has. And when the children of that town speak of the being who visits them and collects their teeth to leave treasures behind, they do not speak of a frightful demon, but a friendly fairy.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel