Laysan albatross, Laysan Island, circa 1961-1973.

hey came to dance
. This was their island, a jagged assortment of rocks, grass, and sand breaking the continuity of the northern Pacific. Since the last days of their youthful sea exiles, the pair of sleek-winged, splay-footed Laysan albatrosses had flown to this place, mapped onto their minds, to come back to the dance they created together, their only source of grace on land.

They had hatched from eggs on islands such as this one, fledging and then spending their first years of life over the ocean. Their narrow gray wings sliced the air directly above the water, and sometimes didn’t flap for days as they rode the air currents close to the waves. They stayed far away from land, could sense its dry presence in their tucked-in, inexperienced feet. The openness embraced them. Their dark wings and dorsal sides offered long, feathered spans to the sky, their white underbellies cast slim reflections on the water. They were nomads of the sea.

The two albatrosses had crash-landed on the same island decades ago. They gave their lives to skimming the sea, but after their period of complete watery exile, they looked for land to start their species’ yearly courtship ritual. Both being unaccustomed to and uninterested in terra firma, the young birds flew against their natural direction to the first bit of land that tickled their feet. Having been airborne or floating gently on the water the entirety of their young lives, the birds knew only the stinging salt greeting of Pacific air and the certainty of the sea. Land was a strange, ill-understood concept, forgotten from their days as hatchlings but reborn in their brains by an instinctual reminder suddenly awakened.

As this feeling reached its apex, each bird picked out a dry spot in their familiar ocean and aimed their beaks toward it. They were joined by a nautical plague’s worth of other albatrosses, all earthbound, quickly dropping from the sky and populating islands normally forsaken by all but the wind. Neither had attempted to land on something other than water. From the east, the female glided over the island, then, unsure of the correct next steps, catapulted her slight bones onto the beach. From the west, the male, not thinking to skim the land like water, folded in his wings and stuck out his feet. The falling birds scraped the rocky sand, drawing feathered wing lines and etching frantic footsteps. When the momentum of flight finally ran out, their paths halted less than a wingspan away from each other.

Before they even got to their land-shy webbed feet, their beaks met the same angle from their respective crash sites. After the sea, their only known home, the first thing they saw after their land reawakening was each other. Six-foot wingspans, now out of the air, spread across the sand, and a disorienting firmness spread beneath their hollow-boned bodies. But their tiny bird hearts beat flutteringly in the mess of it all. They were for each other. No other albatross would do.

The birds, unused to ambulatory support, struggled to regain balance. Without water or wind, their means of transport were effectively amputated. But each found bearing in the gaze of the other, a pull that helped them find their feet. The long look was their fist sustained avian contact since flying away from their parents. They felt it coming. It was like an echo that had finally found its canyon wall. The dance of their ancestors awoke in their chests, reminded their wings of their grace, and traveled down their feet and electrified the space between them. Evolutionarily speaking, it was courtship and mating. But it was also the beginning of a loving allegiance, a partnership beyond the individual sustenance and spiritual guidance of the sea.

Their first dance began with a bow. Now fully on their feet, the albatrosses acknowledged their new affinity for each other in a synchronized, stately brush of the ground with their beaks. Their bodies seemed to know this rhythm, to start a choreography for the future. Besides flight, it was the beauty in their lives. The birds drew out of their bow to face each other again, seeing the years of sea in the other’s black-rimmed eye. The male started a deep coo, making his feathers rustle as if windswept. The female echoed his sound and added a series of clicks, sending her beak into blurry pecks at the air. The bird ballet had begun.

In this first instance of their dance, every movement was spontaneous, yet grounded in a genetic code, and beautifully matched. It was perfect togetherness. Their bones were made to blend, their steps coded in ritual but performed for the first time. They came to dance.

Amid their mutual background of clicks, coos, and warbling, the shared choreography unfolded. With a sudden, simultaneous inhalation, the birds nimbly aligned their legs, necks, and beaks to the sky, looking to something open like the sea. They held their breath, directed to the sky. Then back, their beaks tucked into an upturned wing, each on the opposite side. Though removed from the air, it was a series of avian movements with the sinuous continuity of flight, the unbroken sincerity of a long glide on a wind current. The ritual went on. Neither bird knew a way to break the patterns manifesting themselves in feathers, beaks, and webbed feet. As the island’s rocks cooled in the day’s retreat, the albatrosses finally drew together, feather to feather, tucked beaks into wings, and slept their due sleep.

Season after season, they had come to dance. The birds surrendered to the land, found the anchor of the other, and gave form to the rhythms embedded in the spaces between their nomadic hearts. In recent years, the eggs were no longer coming after the ritual. They no longer warmed a little being under their feathers, the reason for their union lost to a mystery of aging. But though courtship was no longer a necessity, it was still their ritual. The years piled up like rocks on the only beach they had ever slept on, and still they danced. In their yearly partnership, their wayfaring oceanic lives were translated into a terrestrial exchange.

Decades after their first dance, the birds looked once again into mirrored eyes. With the same nautical grace, they arced into their bow. Saluted, the steps began, as stately and well-defined as they had ever been, but perhaps the choreography would disappear, this iteration, into the mawing ocean silence after the ceremony unbraided the pattern. The aging albatrosses, following their ancient itinerant longing to turn back to the sea, could forsake land altogether, without the promise of return. Their dance would disappear with their slow-beating wings. Its only traces would linger in the blood of hatchlings fledged long ago, now feeling the perfect rhythm of their own steps.

At least once more, it was a rhapsody in two.


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. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.


hen the darkness cooled things off too much in the house, L. went out in the garden to put the heat back in her veins. There was nothing cold-blooded about her, but she needed the sun to keep her heart beating. It wasn’t just for mood-brightening and vitamin D purposes—the saving star was the reason she continued to walk on this earth.

All her life, she could feel the human temperature waning. When things became stagnant, L. had to bring the energy back. The only way was the sun. She knew this because of the shadowy house, where even the windows conspired against the light. She had to seek it out, invite it back through her skin. Somehow the gamma rays dimmed as they passed through the panes, lost their vitality before they could warm the floor tiles and revive the suffering houseplants. L. was living in a reverse greenhouse with a family that squinted at the first sign of radiation.

The house had once had a gardener, a small man partial to pruning and cutting, keeping in check. He preferred hedges and stiff stems, plants he could easily keep in straight, clean lines. But the darkness of the house had eventually driven him off. A man of soil cannot manipulate light’s wonders with that abyss staring at him, he said as he passed by L. one day with his shears tucked inside a heavy bag. So the gardener was gone, but his hedges and rosebushes took over his realm. They negotiated the spaces they had been sharply clipped out of before, and discovered the vining power previously discouraged. But L. had found the horizontal planes of the hedges to be sturdy support for her contemplations of the sun. As though reluctant to give up its legacy too quickly, one row of hedges was slow to lose its strictly sculptured shape. It was where L. had found her life again.

L.’s mother and father must have had some kind of pilot light inside of them, keeping their organs warm, because shadows seemed to give them more direction than the sun’s rays. Sometimes L. imagined she had had been born with a twin whose short life had been concealed from her. Had that being taken all the power to extract substance from darkness? These things were simply not discussed. There was certainly talk—about caves, the Marianas Trench, certain Mozart arias, outer space—but it did not extend to the brighter parts of the universe. L’s grandmother lived with them too, always ruminating in her chair on some seed or other, like a weathered crow. They were less a family than a collection of refugees, gathered in mutual avoidance. They talked, ate, listened to music, and even read together, straining to see the words, but L. was the only one who had a sense of a lost homeland, a heat-seeking tendency.

She was always hoarding candles and lightbulbs, hard as it was from the paltry supply kept on hand. In her room, she kept vigil with a carefully rationed lump of wax and a sad lamp a neighbor must have dropped in their yard. She also had a lantern left behind from the gardener. Even at night, you must keep the memory of illumination, he had said. He liked to walk about his handiwork after sundown, assuring the green of its eventual return to color. L. had not fully understood the concept of the sun, a massive life-giving fireball, until her seventh birthday. Before, she had only glimpsed it between wind rustles of the curtains, or as the gardener came in to get his pay. But the day she turned seven, her mother had led her to the garden door. Go out, she said, and see what’s there. She did not move, keeping her back to the door and tensing as if bracing for a blow. Feeling an unfamiliar but keen warmth from beneath the door, L. turned the rusting knob and stepped into the manicured garden. She inhaled, feeling like she had just arrived somewhere far away but inexplicably anticipated.

L. walked along the perfect rows, marveling at colors she had never seen, and savoring the intensity of light on her face. It was almost painfully hot, but as the sun got higher, she felt stronger. When she reached the hedgerows, tyrannically trimmed, so well-planed they looked like verdant marble, she couldn’t resist the urge to lie down on a section. She wanted more of the sun—it was as though she was breathing through her skin, exhaling the years of darkness and taking in a brighter form of oxygen. She aligned her body on the perfectly horizontal hedge and aimed her chin toward the sun. The bush, though masterfully sculpted, was still a shape made of tiny, spiky branches, but despite this, the plant seemed to accept her form. L. lay still as the rays energized her and were finally allowed to reach into her heart and pump revitalized blood through parched, cooled veins.

Since that birthday, L. had rubbed the rust back off the doorknob. She went out more and more frequently for her sun sessions, leaving the cloaked house to offer herself up to the sun. If the three other dark-encased bodies noticed more of a void, they kept silent. L. realized that she might not have lasted long after age seven if her mother had not inexplicably given her a portal. She thought at first she was photosynthetic, but gradually surmised that was not her chemical situation. Her body was camouflaging itself to its thermal surroundings. But only light gave her the power to keep blood flowing through her body, the energy to keep moving. Possessing neither tail nor scales, her body had nonetheless revealed its reptilian rhythms.

As the coordinates of her life began to shift, so did the garden. The gardener abandoned his plants to a need for greater illumination, and his former kingdom began to bud in glorious revenge. The roses expanded their reach and inaugurated new colors in every blossom. Trees bore fruit L. had never seen before. Hummingbirds dipped in and out of shockingly large and fragrant flowers. Green reigned, but L.’s hedge kept adhering to her shape. The vines spread all around her as she took in the necessary rays, but her perch remained constant. While she cooked, she kept her nearly closed eyes on the mountain looming over the south wall, perhaps a few hours’ walk in the direction of the sea. She began to use it as her sundial.

On a day of intense sunshine, L. was finding it hard to get her fill. Usually the sun did not fail her. She had made sure to soak in the peak hours of light, and pivoted like a sunflower according to the brightest part of the sky. But her blood still felt like sludge in her veins, her skin still pricked with goosebumps. She had to harness that energy, but it wasn’t coming though as before. She rolled herself off the hedge and looked for a small glint through the thriving leaves of the jungle garden. If vines hadn’t enveloped and built a wall of their own over it, the gate could lead her out. L. hadn’t thought to leave her sun sanctuary, but her heat-seeking heart flared for sustenance. She felt through the climbing mandevilla and moonflower until her hands found a latch woven over with the thin but sinewy stems. Carefully, so as not to expend too much energy, she began to pry off the robust vegetation.

The reawakened garden had helped her find the sky, and the light it gave, but she needed higher ground. She had to get closer to the source. What little color she had been able to glean that day was already retreating form her cheeks. Tearing more stems and flowers from the gate, L. knew she would have to go to the mountain. Finally, she prised the vines from the gate and pushed the neglected hinge open. Southto the sea, north to the sun. Climbing the mountain would bring her that much closer to her star of worship. Losing heat, L. stopped to press her body against the bigger rocks that she passed. She wondered if she would make it by nightfall. At least there was a funicular to bring her nearer the summit once she reached the mountain. From curtained abyss to greening garden to a mountaintop, L. began to think she might sprout wings next. She slipped into a narrow space between two tall rocks to rest.

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This week, we’re featuring a new collaboration between photographer Naama Sarid, whose work we’ve featured in the past. Naama has been kind enough to share her work with some of our other contributors, and they have been writing and creating based on her wonderful photography. This piece is inspired by Exposure № 072: Mariposa. See Naama Sarid’s other Snake-Oil Cure contrubutions here.

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Claire Brindley lives in Washington, DC, where she walks herself silly in search of the unknown. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

The Growth of Dr. Cadmus

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.