Wilbur Armistead Nelson (1889-1969), photograph by Frank Thone.
eeth could sometimes be a reluctant bunch. But Dr. Johannes T. Cadmus was a patient man. He did not pull, pry, or force loose. He talked to a tooth, listened, extracted its secrets along with bone matter. He knew when it was ready. The sign outside the window read “Dr. J.T. Cadmus, Dentist,” but the title was not his true vocation. His dentistry was a dance of extraction and rebirth, a choreographed cycle of creation. He saw the tooth business not as a loss for the patient, but a rite of purification, and an act of growth for him. He was really more of a transplantational horticulturalist.
Johannes’ duty as a dentist was to seek out rot, to root out pain. But his calling was as a sower of teeth, the seeds that masquerade as bone in the mouth. Search and rescue. Johannes weeded the garden of the gums and cultivated plots of his own. Only there could certain teeth grow into their true selves. These were the ones he could hear.
He had not set out to be a sower of teeth. He sailed for America with just his father’s suitcase of dental instruments, with a whetstone giving his livelihood a reassuring heft. He boarded the train and got off at a place with a name that sounded like a thudding stone. He opened his practice in a storefront with a large display window. He did not wait long. The residents of the town came one by one, each with their oral ailments. The community had been without a dentist for some time, and looked with awed curiosity at the instruments Johannes kept sharp and meticulously ordered. Some families came with bevies of children, their teeth already succumbing to the attrition in their lives. Despite this, Johannes noticed that the town as a whole seemed to suffer from hyperdontia. This was the beginning of the reaping.
His dentist’s office was awash in white and gray, but Johannes’ garden was an olfactory color factory. He dulled his patients’ senses, cleansed their mouths, and rid them of rot, but the back door of his practice concealed a wild repository of previously staunched growth. From the impacted molar of a housemaid he had grown a robust oak whose branches drew a map of shadows on the lawn. The broken maxillary central incisor of a goldsmith yielded a delicate quilt of tiny lavender flowers that bloomed once and never returned. The teeth that had caused the most pain and discomfort were often the ones that produced the most beautiful and intriguing fauna.
Johannes had only one operating chair, and his office and living space were two variations on a spartan theme. The architect of the narrow two-story building seemed to have a strong disdain for wasted space and the spreading of limbs. But the backyard was reigned in only by a loose stone fence. When Johannes moved in, the open space mirrored the bareness of the building, but he soon heard his calling as a cultivator. Before long, the sun’s rays traveled across wide leaves, mysterious flowers, and climbing plants, and Johannes told time by the light and shadows. A quarter past the trumpet voluntaire lily, half an hour until the staghorn fern.
Johannes first heard a tooth while inspecting the mouth of an aging widow. She told him of frequent toothaches and a feeling of crowding in her gums. When she opened her mouth, he saw her supernumerary situation. He got straight to the extraction, but while he was choosing his instruments, he heard a quiet humming from the woman’s gaping jaw. As he addressed a baby canine embedded high in an inflamed gum, the whispering, suspiring chorus continued. White-gloved and tough-jawed, Johannes felt the canine’ s residual resistance and slowly guided its path like the hatching of a chick. With an encouraging caress, he willed it to join its long fallen-out brethren. Coaxed by Johannes’ reciprocal whispers, it and the rest of the vestigial teeth finally came with a series of soft, gummy sighs.
Long after the widow was relieved of her aches, the sounds did not abate. Her extracted teeth still lay on a tray, and no matter where in the house Johannes went, the mysterious wailing carried to his ears. He thought he might be able to hear voices speaking, but he could not fix the language. As he tried to sleep, the noise hummed and thrummed. Finally, he took action.
Deep in the night, with a shovel and a bag filled with the teeth, Johannes stood in the yard, the moon a dull rock overhead. He could feel the dental detritus shaking with sound in the bag. He could think of no other way to silence but to bury the bones. In a corner of the yard, he emptied the bag into a shallow hole and piled on some dirt. With a gentle hiss, the mound retired into quiet. Inside, Johannes fell into a firm and noiseless sleep.
He woke to the sensation of green on his face. The window looked like stained glass, and the whole room had a verdant glow. When he opened the window, smooth fronds gently brushed his face. He was standing in the fanning leaves of a sturdy palm tree. Out in the yard, it cast a green sheen over the ground. The sun seemed to shine more brightly into the space, drawn to the novelty of plant life.
The inadvertent palm tree transplantation gave Johannes over to a deep listening. He grew to understand the humming teeth, that they were calling for new roots. As he eased the town’s toothaches, cut out rot, and culled the residents’ dental overabundance, he cultivated his garden sprung from gums. After each extraction, some new and wonderful plant took its place in the fledgling jungle. All Johannes had to do was heed the calls. Soon, he thought, the wall would have to come down.
This post is part of our series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.
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Claire Brindley lives in Washington, DC, where she walks herself silly in search of the unknown. This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.