Papa sat on the edge of the bed and caressed Mama’s cheek. He took a rag soaked in a bowl of cold water, rung it out and wiped the sweat from her forehead. She stirred and winced. My younger brother Bertie squeezed my hand, moving close enough to step on my toe.
Mama’s sickness progressed to a stage where even Healer stopped paying visits. When broths mixed with crushed whale bone, Chickweed and herbs became useless, Healer left only a poppy paste to help dull the pain.
Papa looked over and smiled, an attempt at reassurance that did exactly the opposite. His teeth were all gone, a reminder they were spent foolishly in his youth. His emotions overruled reason and he surrendered teeth freely to the Taking Tree instead of facing heartache. Now, when it mattered most, he had no teeth left to give.
In our village, a man like this is soft. I could not help but feel a mixture of pity and contempt.
“Mama needs her rest. The time is near,” Papa said. Bertie started to cry.
Papa sat in silence during supper. With every disquieting movement he wanted to speak, accompany the meal with wisdom, teach us about restraint and how to make good choices, unlike the ones he had made. Mama’s sickness was lesson enough.
“I don’t understand. Why can’t I give a tooth?” Bertie asked.
“You only have baby teeth. The roots are not deep enough,” I said.
“I love her just as much as you. It shouldn’t matter!”
“Silence, Bertie. This is Milena’s choice,” Papa said.
I wanted him to offer comfort, possibly some consolation or guidance. His guilty conscience made it impossible, knowing that my worth would immediately be diminished with every tooth given. I too would be considered soft, the foolish daughter of the foolish man who couldn’t overcome obstacles. Maybe it would be best to let Mama die, to be seen as unwavering in the face of a tragedy.
Papa could not persuade me either way. The tooth had to be given without influence. That made it more difficult. If he could force me, demand that I obey him, then I could tell others I had no choice.
“I will go,” I said.
“So be it. You will leave first thing in the morning and take Bertie with you,” Papa said.
“No, it’s hard enough. He should stay, just in case Mama passes while I’m gone. He can say his goodbyes.”
“He needs to understand it’s not a decision to be made lightly.”
“We all have to pay for your mistakes.”
Papa ignored me and began to clear the table. He instructed Bertie to do the same, and while they busied themselves, I sat in silence, determined that the man I married would not be so careless. He would have all of his teeth.
When morning arrived, I packed lunch for the journey back. I didn’t know if I would feel like eating. Those offering teeth to the Taking Tree have shared why they gave, but absent from the retellings is any mention of the extraction method.
“I love you, Milena,” Papa said, and then before I could reply, “Be good for your sister, Bertie, and remember all that you see.”
He shooed us out the door as Mama’s breathing labored in the background.
Bertie wanted me to talk more, just like I wanted Papa to talk more, but I refused to give in to the silence. It wouldn’t be a long journey and I didn’t mean to prolong it.
“I would do it. I know you don’t believe me,” Bertie said.
“I know you would and that’s the problem,” I said.
“You’re doing it, so what’s wrong with me doing it?”
“Tell me why you would do it.”
“Because I would miss Mama.”
“Exactly, it’s all about you, Bertie. That’s Papa’s fear, is that you’ll learn to give for selfish reasons. Then one day your wife will become sick and you’ll watch her die slowly, wishing you had saved just one more tooth. The one you gave for Mama.”
Bertie remained quiet for the rest of the way as we entered deep into the forest. The light faded into long shadows while the path narrowed. When we reached a small clearing, the Taking Tree stood alone. Its entire trunk, three grown men tall, was covered in teeth, some fresh and others barely visible. At the base none were visible, completely covered over with bark, creating a series of small misshapen lumps from centuries of desperate petitions.
“Sit and watch,” I said.
I walked over to the tree and thought of Mama, how she adored Papa, how she hummed while hanging laundry or picking raspberries — her bright smile, and how it grew brighter when she danced while Papa played his recorder.
“I give, so that Mama can live,” I said, and placed my hand on the tree.
The Taking Tree shivered, a few leaves detaching, riding on the air like boats floating on an invisible sea. My request had been heard. A few roots popped up through the loose dirt, circled around my feet and ankles, up my legs and arms, and then to my cheeks. I opened my mouth, and little tendrils inspected each tooth, settling on one near the back.
They went to work, wrapping themselves between and around, winding tight until I felt a building pressure under my gums. The roots extracted the tooth with a force I had not expected. I screamed from the pain, the taste of copper on my lips and tongue. A throbbing in my head grew intense, but just as I was about to pass out, another tendril filled the gap with a healing salve.
A deep sense of calm settled over me, the pain dissipated and the bleeding stopped. The Taking Tree accepted my gift. Mama would greet us at the door when Bertie and I arrived back at home, and I would try to smile.
Very interesting and original story. And well-written, too.
What a compact and powerful story of sacrifice Brian. It’s kind of magic how you created this world so economically. Loved it.