"The world exists only because it is always too late to retreat."
– Witold Gombrowicz
The headache never faded. First dip to the knee and a hammer struck anvil behind my eyes. But always I bent the knee, noting the location of the latest corpse, prone in sand, fully clothed, face seared red with particles of gold, mica in the pores, mouth open for a final scream that never came, voice overtaken by the scream of bombs.
I opened the dead man's jaw to its limit, then with pliers worked a gold tooth loose. Grinding at the root to dislodge it from the order of the mouth, no more blood (thank God!) but a light purple dust escaped the gum. The former dentist with his gloved hands, albino hair, blue eyes and stocky form entered every mouth to peel back a scorched black tongue. Through rows of teeth like pearl, coated in saliva and particles of dust that glint with each turn of the sun.
I not only took the gold, for somewhere it must have been worth a lot, but sometimes other teeth as well. For in the dead of night (in a world populated by the dead, this old cliché attained new wealth), when birds collected on skeletons to peck their way from flesh to bone, I could have easily gone mad without a hobby of my own. So I pulled threads from dead men's clothes, scraped holes in each white tooth, and linked them into necklaces.
No place existed to wash, rinse or spit. I have no idea why I wore rubber gloves when they had a probed a thousand mouths, fingering the teeth inside. Surely each synthetic finger carried a disease which must have passed from mouth to mouth. The stench no longer bothered me. It was no better or no worse than halitosis, just turned up a notch, and death is always with us, as I learned in church and medicine.
I slept in sand. Everything was gritty, so the slightest turn from stomach onto back, the slightest twitch of limb, sounded like a tooth inside my pliers. Was I being pulled apart by God as I slept, torn from my spot on earth for some diviner kingdom?
Such questions were best asked in sleep, for they implied a hope much more familiar in the days of life. What or who entitled me to wonder over God in a land where hours passed without demarcation, where muscles cramped and anvils sounded in my head, stillness rewarded only when a mourning dove flew low and slow enough for capture in a burlap bag?
Inside the bag, the bird beat its wings for life, which only made me clutch it tighter. The bird pecked and cried, feathers falling in the struggle, until its body slowed in time. Only then did I reach inside the bag and twist its neck until it snapped precisely, like the root of a tooth.
"I'm sorry," I said aloud to the bird, "but there is little else to live on. All the vegetation has run dry. Warm and living flesh is at a premium. The land is full of sand and bloated bodies. None of it will keep my body going."
"But why keep going," the bird might have answered, had I not already broken all its bones between my teeth. "All attachments that make life worth living, all the virtues like love, work, prayer and artistry, have been reduced to ash."
(Was it fair to anthropomorphize such an animal? Who was left to correct me?)
"The answer, my fine bird, is that I don't know why. It's the same perpetuation of motion that once awoke me at a certain hour of each day, ordered me to dress, and sent me off to work or school or church or beds for making love or tables set with candles at my favorite restaurant."
"But how did my species survive?" the bird asked from the acids of my stomach. "How did you survive? And finally, for what?"
"I can't answer for birds," I said. "Why did I survive? To practice my trade, I suppose. Dentistry is dentistry. In some prior age it was done as I am forced to do it now, traveling from mouth to mouth, opening the jaws as if for revelation before ridding them of pain, extracting teeth for gold in times of poverty, placing teeth beneath a pillow in a sleep's anticipation of their changing into coin, relics of a saint or sacrifice worn on a thread. Out of small effects like these are born a culture."
"Culture? From a man who strangles birds to eat?" The bird laughed its passage through my underbelly.
Who in God's name could remember pleasure in the thick of all that pain? Who especially would have cared to reproduce? Only a human monster, maimed by radiation and virus, stubborn with the will to live while simultaneously rotting inside-out, sores that smelled of earth along the face and thighs.
I met such a creature, right eye dangling from his socket, the rest of him rust-red from acids in the sky. He found a woman with half her face missing. Though her wound left her white and seething, bestiality nonetheless unfolded from his soul. He sought to rape her in the sand, particles aglitter on his thighs. It should have been easily dismissed, another form of death within a landscape full of it, more spiritual than physical in this case. Perhaps their sounds, however brutal, would have lent me company. But for reasons beyond me, perhaps from a time when order offered meaning, I intervened.
The half-man must have thought I meant to join him. No jealousy existed in his gaze. He was prepared to empty what violence lay within him and then allow my turn. It reminded me of moments past, even in more ordered times.
I weighed his form, as ruined as any of the dead, and then his savagery, which seemed slow, given the way he toyed with the woman. She was clearly in such pain from her wound that to struggle against him would have killed her physically. But why again shouldn't she have taken death over lingering in so much pain, only to be amplified by further pain this human monster sought to place inside of her?
I didn't answer my own question. The only appropriate answer would have been stillness, inactivity, the contemplative gaze of insect or monk. I let sand whistle over me, carried by wind, crunching with my steps, brittle on the skin. I drew close to the man and sealed my hands around his neck. Why he let me do this without battle I will never know. He closed his eyes as if it were a relief to capture death. Or perhaps he recognized my actions as appropriate from his past, the pleasure of order restored in the face of a crime, no matter how despised the order.
His throat was like a wave of sand in which my fingers disappeared. The woman, in her pain, sat as if held in place. The man's neck snapped. I laid him on the sand and opened his mouth. Finding no gold, I broke loose three fine teeth into my hand.
As I dug holes and strung the teeth together, the woman shaved the dead man's head and beard with a stone. She gathered this hair in a bunch that must have been soft to the skin. It startled me to be so utilitarian. Over this table of flesh and bone, the woman and I looked at one another, perhaps as future sources of the goods we were collecting there. Or perhaps the newness of the corpse beneath our hands threw our own lives into stark relief. As she bore pain within her face, I bore mine inside my head, anvil struck by hammer. I could catch two mourning doves instead of one, and we could eat in society.
For months and months she peeled skin from her face and arms, legs and chest. The heat that burned down life also burned her down, layer by layer. We seldom touched except when I handed her a bird and our fingers grazed. Even then I could have sworn she bore the sun inside her skin.
Each new layer emerged pink and healthy to the surface, until a rising of the sun and moon had passed and then it stained again, an unnatural purple, festering. I offered her a few wet leaves that grew inside a cavern and these she pressed to her skin. They did nothing but increase the luster of the wound, liquid catching there like the glass of a mirror, reflecting light.
She adapted to the wound or didn't feel it. Adaptation, under Darwin's eyes, was about survival of the individual if not the race. In this case the race was human. But why should it survive, capable as it had proven itself of annihilation by its own hand?
We moved through sand as if we belonged together, a couple of some sort, though no desire or word of commitment passed between us. What were words, anyway? A grunt, which took much less thought, analysis and pre-commitment, opened from our throats and sufficed to draw attention to the motion of the body underneath it.
I had learned many words in my day, Latin for symptoms of teeth, mouth and gums. If a man came in with cancer of the mouth, however, no words softened the effects of the tobacco he had stuck between his cheek and gum since childhood. Just the permutation of the cells, which then attacked other cells or altered them completely. Instead of genetics making him more fit to live and procreate, he regressed to empty space, the origin of all: Nothing.
But is death nothing?
In front of us, upon these sands, death assumed a shape. If a body lay long enough, its mouth filled up with sand. Liver spots formed on my hands of thirty-six years. This was death, occupier of surfaces, filler of gaps. As if any gaps existed independent of death, space an illusion of humanity when in actuality we spread a curtain of transparent cells in the air. No space existed between us. We could have pushed through at any time and merged. But to what effect? Certainly not pleasure, for pleasure is constructed over life. We were only faintly alive, which made it vicious to imagine pleasure.
We two nightmares started a fire. In sheer boredom I rubbed two sticks together because to keep my hands moving, spots and all, was to keep blood flowing and presumably the limbs alive. The unexpected part, which must have been shared by some other man or woman eternities ahead of us, was a shower of sparks on the ground. The sand brightened with it, struck by sunlight. She and I breathed a little deeper, as if for an instant we were taken back to something earlier. We remembered beauty, for it arrested our breath in the same way, though we may have had entirely different conceptions of it. For me, a painting on the wall perhaps. For her, a lover with eyes just that bright reclined against a bed perhaps.
She ran to other bodies and stripped them of their clothes. Mold disappeared in sparks that caught and burned to life. We sat around it and its heat pulsed through us. Other beasts, the few alive, sat near the fire too. We didn't harm them, for just that instant. They were allowed to recall this sensation as well. This heat may have meant our common and collective soul. We struggled for the name of it. Once we would have called it God. Death left no room to think of God. God was where we wished to rest when still alive. This wasn't a question of rest. It was a question of finding life, and once found, what to do with it other than kill or eat it.
If I'd been a poet, I would have closed my eyes and shared my visions. That was how humanity had survived so long: it replaced what lay in front of it with what lay inside it. But behind the headaches lay nothing. I closed my eyes and no longer dreamed. A series of shapes evolved there, a maze into which I wandered further and further, not on foot but in the motion of the mind's eye, toward no definite object because definite objects in the waking world were rigid and decayed with death. The only poetry was the wiggle of a loose tooth sunken into the flesh of a mourning dove.
What did I look like? I must have had blood and soot all over my face. It hadn't occurred to me for God knows how long to find a version of my face somewhere and examine it. It didn't matter. With my gloved hands I turned over corpses and their faces were eroded beyond any point I cared to see in myself. They were no longer human; they were objects. I robbed them of their human wares and wore those around me as if to say: Here was once a race of beings capable of anything. And with those teeth, those small shapes I once tended like so many crops of value, they took apart food and bit into one another. Across the teeth spilled words, jokes, laughter, and songs. Do you understand why those growths were so important, touching as they did the residue of all familiar pleasure? If I didn't repair them, they would fall apart and food would necessarily turn soft, words less lucid, laughter more restrained and songs less likely to be made at all.
Teeth: biting handlebars of a bicycle, parked along a street outside Theresa Spencer's house, metal cold and pulsing through a nerve as I sat and clouds moved into rain. Immediately I wished to erase those echoes of a former life. They couldn't possibly have happened. No one waited for anything in the now except the lowest flying bird to seize and strangle. My spit hissed in the sand.
And what did the woman recall? She touched fingers to the wound on her face and perhaps it seared still deeper down inside of her, the echo of a voice saying, "I once looked beautiful, or human at least, and now look at me…"
What door did I open when I wondered about her life prior to the devastation? It was like the moment of surprise prior to opening a new patient's mouth, waiting for the first scent to strike the nostril, a glow of light on moist epiglottis. How many holes were rotted in the teeth, how many white patches grew on the mucosa or tongue? Did the pallet bear a tiny cleft, or were the teeth distended from years of sucking thumb?
I wanted her to have been a mother because it implied a kindness of instinct. I wanted her to have had many lovers, men or women or both, so the damage to her face still left memories of being touched and tasted with pleasure. I couldn't bear pleasure but maybe she could. She did nothing that would have once been called womanish. Who could have imagined her naked?
I did. One night, while she slept, I removed her clothes, which were heavy with blood, soot and sand. She carried so much pain all day inside her body that a mere undressing, even carried out by a stranger, wasn't enough to rouse her. The organism dwelled deepest inside her skull. I wasn't rough in my gestures, though there was no reason not to be. I unbuttoned buttons as if modesty was of some consequence.
Beneath the stiffness of the fabric, the turns of her body that I forced so as to free her, I found little of surprise. Her navel was full of sand as sharp as glass. Her thighs were painted such a deep red they neared black. Everything was matted in dirt and blood. And finally the breasts. One breast, on the same side as her face, had also been taken off. All that remained in place of the breast was a scar, pulsing red and purple. It saddened but didn't repulse me. It changed nothing, other than tell me her face was less a worry to her. This part she wrapped and protected.
Even as I unwove her, I sought to weave her back. I spent the next day not only picking corpses for gold and molars, but also for relatively clean strips of fabric, which I peeled off inside my pliers' mouth. By night, as she again slept, I placed the strips over the wound where once lay her breast. A healer is a healer is a healer.
I wanted to hear pianos again, the sea with beautiful chimes on the shore. This world was inhabited by a low-grade hum, the last breath of bodies about to expire. Wings of a dove were louder than machinery. If a bird cried we halted to listen, for the next in peril might have been us. We made little noise ourselves, except as we awakened and for an instant forgot who and where we were, yawning and bellowing. This quieted as our senses keened again.
It would have been frightening to speak in a natural voice. What voice would have sounded natural? Would it have sounded like my voice in puberty, cracking because the vocal cords were out of practice in this new range, after years? Days? Months? Hours? Minutes? Seconds?
Sand made the most present of sounds, whispering and crunching at the feet. A body turned over, with the guidance of my hands, a soft thud in its new bed. It expelled air from mouth and anus, sounds similar to those of life. I hesitated over the corpse, wondering if it wasn't yet alive, threading its last ounce of energy to remote points in the skin as a signal.
If I waited long enough, no more sound emerged, though every period of waiting summoned hope. The hope for life arrived still strong, despite the worthlessness of its appearance there. "Thank you, God," I might have said, had the body actually awakened. Or, "Curse you, God, for wasting yet another spirit in this element." In time it was just a matter of extracting pliers and working on a tooth, preferably a canine to remind me of the human link to animality.
Gloves allowed my hands to touch no surface, so that sense in me stayed dead. My vision was acute, except when I decided to turn away. Taste would have interfered with the swallowing of bones, blood and feathers. Smell remained the largest sense and even that was stunted. Every scent lay at an extreme. Wind carried rot and flies, spinning them to small tornadoes in the air. I smelled nothing pungent on myself. Dirt was a far tamer smell than carrion and death.
One night I awoke with the woman's hands on me. She removed my slacks, which were merely rags and tatters anyway. Small flames seemed to catch where she touched her fingers to bare skin. I couldn't tell if she was trying to arouse me or simply couldn't believe my existence and so needed to confirm it by touch. She wasted no time on the formality of buttons when it came to my shirt. She ripped it open with a sound like teeth on grains of sand.
I had no wounds on my body except a few scratches, cuts and bruises. Nonetheless my skin's exposure to air might have been the proverbial raven plunging its beak into my heart. I gasped with each thrill of wind. Her hands burned trails on my skin, the parts of me laden with hair particularly sensitive. My hair turned red with contact.
After touching she lay down next to me, which sent still more fires through my flesh until all of it seemed a dense, lush forest, intact and healthy on the outside, flames consuming only those parts hidden to the eye. Once she settled in, the fires concentrated into one, lit only where her shoulder touched my ribs. I allowed an arm to fall across her, drawing deeper into warmth.
I didn't sleep any more that night. I lay wide awake, completely still, drinking in the fires of her body like a liquid through my pores. How long had it been since someone, anyone, lay crushed against me without my needing to fear their awakening and murder? Maybe this was her memory of motherhood from lives before, proximity as love, or at least peace, in a landscape where a child would be born in screams against the elements, toothless, sightless, calling out for drops of milk.
We lay like this for nights ahead, never so much as hands brushing during the day, but with the fall of temperature in darkness she walked over to me and pressed against my skin, which she exposed each night. I made no assumptions. She compressed her body so the touch was slight but still allowed us to converge, in an atmosphere where it would have been just as easy to devour one another.
Perhaps there came a flash of jealousy, or of possessiveness, the way my arm fell over her. She didn't flinch. She slept her customary sleep though I sometimes wished to know more what the pictures were inside her head, especially the shape and form my arm took there. Flames passed through my body from her touch. Sometimes a glimmer of arousal at the center of my body too, though I resisted it.
I'd never had children and never really wished to. I couldn't have imagined a smaller version of myself wandering the planet, growing up inside a house where rows of teeth were more abundant than religious paraphernalia. But I could have imagined making love to one woman whom I loved, love containing such gravity that the rows of teeth would have been hidden under photographs of her if not her actuality. In the act I would have understood each contour of her body, the tension in each muscle, and allowed myself release inside of her. Two concentrations pushing back and forth against each other, trying to surmount some hidden barrier between them, not of flesh or word but perhaps of spirit, so protective were we as a race of our divinity.
The release itself would have been like the collapsing of a dam, which I had actually seen soon after the first bombs fell, small protections of concrete and steel capitulating to the fury of the waters, fluid passing back and forth until all sides were full of it. In her body, then, would have lain my presence. She would have met me there with presence of her own.
To have borne a child there. It couldn't have been done. The child would have turned into carrion. And would the mother have survived, given pain and no medicine, given the gloves I wore with long defilement? A moment crystallized in me: I had rediscovered mercy and concern. I didn't know this woman at all. She was no better defined than any fallen figure on the sand. But still I recognized her life, and lent that life respect, and this brought me into contact with her flesh, which bore a flame primordial.
I asked to see inside her mouth. I had no tools. I removed the filthy gloves and touched inside, for my fingers were probably cleaner than any other part of me. I no longer cared if I contracted a disease. It would simply remove me from the landscape, and I sensed she would have made use of my remains in a way to keep herself alive for even longer, which seemed as good a use of my body as any.
She had many gaps between her teeth, pulled or rotted out. A few more had formed holes that smelled of decay, sweet but pungent in the nostril. It was familiar from my practice and did not pull me thoroughly away. Her gums and the roof of her mouth were covered in abrasions, the bones of mourning doves we ate breaking open with each bite and sometimes biting back, opening her tissue to the dusk of blood, further salting the flesh of the birds.
I wished for an ointment to place on each nick and cut. She shut her mouth against the ache as I touched them. My fingers pressed firmly and gently against her jaw until she opened it again. My fingers returned to her mouth, tracing her tongue, moving so far back in the throat she choked for just a second, until I pulled back and started tapping on the teeth again.
She must have trusted me, for I could have easily broken off her teeth, as she'd seen me do with so many other bodies. She might have even borne the pain with dignity as I pried them loose. But she must have sensed I wanted otherwise. What I wanted was to see inside a living mouth again, remember what I might have done to heal her had I been inside my office with my suction and my gauze, my medicine and sinks, my putties and my braces.
I liked the warmth against my hands. My fingers shook more than I recalled, so inflaming was the moisture of her mouth. She lay still, not a squirm, not a struggle, just her breath against my wrists. I massaged the muscles of her jaw from time to time as they cramped from holding open. I watched her throat bob up and down, swallowing saliva. This was a living, working mouth, with cavities and throbbing at the roots.
Why did I kiss her when I closed the mouth again? I knew all its secrets, yet still sought to be closer to its bearer. The gesture was old-fashioned, from another time, and even then I would have never kissed a patient, for that would have been unethical. But where in God's name was there room for ethics there? The ethicist and the aesthete grew warm, remembered a lover and kissed her, the first kiss in an hour or for all eternity.
She didn't so much kiss me back as allow the kiss, much as she allowed my arm to fall across her, as if she drew enough warmth from our other contact that this extra liberty could be accepted without harm. It wasn't a passionate kiss but mere grazing contact. Sand and gnats swirled at our heads. Her lips were wet with spit. It was familiar and yet unfamiliar too, the grit between our teeth just after, the way the earth groaned underneath our weight, the downward motion of the kiss burying us under grains of glass.
My entire body was aroused. It was different than in the past for the sensation wasn't hurried. It grew in the center of my body and expanded like a summer's mercury throughout my veins, radiating into fires that burst inside my chest, my nipples, the hair along my body standing up, locking in the headache past my eyes. Even the headache was sweet and tonic.
She did nothing but read into my eyes. What did she read? Did the fire burn its orange into pages there? Or was there nothing, the human being having fled its cage of flesh, leaving only animality behind, which bore itself in gray film on the eyes?
I read her eyes as well. They frightened me for their familiarity. They said: "I am cold and scared. Nurse from me and I will nurse from you."
No one could see us, hear us, speak to us, except perhaps for God, but we trusted God was nowhere near. Left to our own devices, we could have measured one act as valuable as the next. Instead of tragedy and murder, however, we chose to comfort one another. Behind flesh and bone lay something luminous, inarticulate and calm, so we reached for one another as sand sought to smooth our features down.
"Shhhhhh," I said, though no one spoke a word.