Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. III, Issue 12

Check out what you missed this week at Dr. Hurley HQ.


Monday – Poetry

Wednesday – Art

Friday – Smithsonian

More to come next week.

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Bobbity loved nothing more

Photographs of “Bobbity”, a Perognathus pacificus (pocket mouse) by Vernon Orlando Bailey.

She always found photographs of hands arresting. Some photos draw attention to the sinews and blood vessels, making the hand look simultaneously engineered and fragile. Other photos flattened the hand into a collection of more or less soft planes, puffy almost-sausages attached to a child-sized balloon. My hands always look puffy in photos, she thought. Stieglitz understood hands, she thought, imagining the photographer posing the painter’s hands just so. Sometimes she tried to mimic those poses, shocked at how strange – and painful – some of them were.

Often her father would ask her to hold up a hand for scale in a photo.  Her hands were documented from childhood on, held up in black and white (then color) next to giant leaves, roses whose thorns seemed to be inches long, baguettes impossibly long and thin. Or photos of her hands full of bunches of just-harvested green beans, fresh-dug new potatoes, giant tomatoes (how did the vine support them?), small dogs.

How different would it be if scientific journals were illustrated not by charts and graphs, but by images of the scientists’ hands dug into their materials, handling chemicals (gloves on, especially with mercury), poking and prodding new species, manipulating contraptions meant to test engineering principles? Certainly those sciences are tangible, but described in such a way to divorce them from human touch. Artists are better at that, she thought. Their works are tied inextricably to their hands.

Now when she thought of photographs of hands, she thought mostly of his. Large knobs of knuckles, skin wrinkled but surprisingly soft, calluses worn smooth by time, flat fingernails with the occasional black spot where a hammer or door left its mark. Hands that did not tremble, but did fidget, as if restless. Sometimes his hands simply flexed, gripping and releasing something unseen. Maybe for exercise? Or remembering some work done?  And she remembered his exceptional gentleness; the same hands that built and dug – and, at some point, fought, she thought – could smooth her hair, clasp her hand in his, rhythmically but randomly pat one of those small dogs.

Hands show wear and tear, she thought, looking at a tiny, persistent scar on the back of her own hand and thinking of the strangely smooth skin of the thumb he hurt in that accident, and the ridges of growing-out scabs under his fingernails. Scars are sometimes quite beautiful, she thought, wishing at the same time that her hands had no such marks.

Diamonds Below the Agulhas Negras

“Not much more now,” he said. “You’ve got to believe me.”

She looked up to see his figure standing erect against the frantic blue of the sky. “How can you be sure?” or “You’ve been saying that for hours!” she wanted to yell, or at least whine. No voice, though. Just a throatful of husks she could not swallow, a mouthful of gritting teeth and her eyes filled with tears. Tears like diamonds. Tears getting quickly dry.

“Brian, please,” she managed to whisper. He didn’t hear, but stopped to wait for her. She was thankful and mad at the same time. Her powerlessness made her furious, though it was nobody’s fault that they had lost their way repeatedly that day. At the same time she felt grateful for the brief pause. Seeing him there, she knew she was not capable of another step. She wanted to reach him and then stop again, but her feet wouldn’t move. Amanda just sat and then lay down in exhaustion. Brian hopped down back to her and squatted. He was so fresh and full of energy, that she hated him even more.

“I promise this will be the last hill we climb. I had nearly reached the peak when you called me. After that peak the path only walks downwards. It does.” Brian looked her in the eyes. She said nothing. Her strength sufficed for panting only, she couldn’t even look around or make grimaces.

“OK, take a rest.” Brian said.

Amanda didn’t move. She didn’t care about him, or herself, or this place, or what he had to say. She wanted to stay like this forever. Or, at least until she felt better. It was very hot. The whole day had been steamy even at such height. The open spaces didn’t help much. The sun was merciless, blessing them with its light. Brian reached out, pulled her white kerchief from around her neck and started fanning it above her. Oh, Amanda loved that. She felt she could breathe better and more easily. She felt more air come to her. Her eyes closed, she dreamt of Coke – black, fizzy Coke, not too cold, but not warm either, just the right temperature. Yes, a Coke would get her to her feet. A Coke could be available at the shelter they were headed to, she thought.

Amanda stood up, took her kerchief from Brian and started towards the peak. She was not sure if the peak they were headed to was the Agulhas Negras, but it was some high place, for sure. Besides, it was seen to the right from the plane of Itatiaia. They must be on the Itatiaia plane below the peak, so according to the map those heights over there had to be the Agulhas Negras. Oh, how much she hoped that! And how little reason was there in her frantic reasoning. Once up there, they could take a look around the area and get some better orientation. A couple of steps up, she stopped again. Her boots were killing her. They were so hard, endlessly pressing on her toes. The sole felt like wood. Or worse. If anything could be worse. No, she couldn’t do it. Even with the image of the craved Coke in her mind, and before her closing eyes, Amanda was too tired and weak to continue. She put her hands on her knees and leaned to the front to rest a bit. Looking at Brian who was unaware of what she was doing, Amanda saw the crawling signs of concern on his face. She froze. If Brian was concerned, she really must be a mess.

It was nearly 4pm. It would get dark soon. Here, there was no twilight. Darkness fell as fast and as thick as you can imagine. Amanda felt she needed to brace up her powers and get going. Yet, she couldn’t. She said, “Brian, why don’t you go to the peak by yourself? From there you‘ll see what’s on the other side and make something out. Perhaps you will conjure something up.” Brian looked at her, sighed and nodded, “OK. I’ll leave my backpack up there and then come back and carry yours. I guess the sleeping bag is too heavy on you.” Amanda felt embarrassed as she knew Brian carried a sleeping bag, too, in addition to a tent with all its poles and tackles. She had no strength to feel sympathy or regret, though. She relished the rest she was allowed, lay down again and closed her eyes. This time she knew it would be for longer. After all, they could always set up their tent and spend the night out. The breeze was that of paradise caressing her sweaty face.

When Amanda opened her eyes again, there was silence and nothing moved. It was blissful. She propped herself up on her elbows and looked around nonchalantly to see where Brian was. At first she couldn’t make his figure out against the grey rock of the slope. Then she noticed the brown backpack slowly crawling up. “Shall I shout out to him?” she thought, but decided she wouldn’t. “I’m still too weak,” was her reasoning. “He is alright, why should I bother him with shouts?” She closed her eyes again. Her whole inner self relaxed and she fell asleep.

All of a sudden, she thought she could hear Brian. She opened her eyes and still in the midst of dozing, she searched for his figure against the rocky slope. It took her some time to notice him. It seemed he was in trouble. He made a jerking movement and then moved somewhere to a lower level. She heard a shriek and could see him no more.

*

Mary Agnes thought, “Now, this is a marvelous view. Denis, please, hop on to the equipment sack and bring me my camera. I simply must shoot this place.” Denis hurried to a large sack that was on the ground where the rest of the crew were resting and started rummaging inside. In a while, he yelled, “Mam, I don’t find it. Are you sure it’s here?” Mary Agnes frowned a bit, and walked to the sack herself. Denis was still making a mess of the contents.

“Please, Denis, stop doing that. That way we can never find our stuff.” Denis looked up with a sincere face, “Sorry, mam.” She smiled broadly, “Did you check the side pockets of the sack, too?”

Denis bit his lips, “No.” He opened one and there it was. Mary Agnes took the camera and went back to the cliff edge. “I’ll miss the good light.” She prepared the camera very carefully in order to get the best possible shot and then took the picture. She was wondering whether to take a couple more, just in case this one didn’t develop that well. Her film supplies were very scanty, as were all the supplies in this expedition, yet she tried to do the best possible job with them. She decided to take just one more shot and walked a couple of feet to the right, where she had a better view of the slope itself. She was getting ready to take the picture, when Denis said right next to her, “Look, there’s somebody down there.” Mary Agnes strained her eyes a bit and looked in the direction he pointed to. She saw a figure that was sprawled some distance down the slope. Denis yelled, “Hello, down there! How are you?” As there was no answer, Denis called towards the others of their group. “Hey, Jim, Bob, come over here. There’s somebody down the hill. They look unwell.”

*

When Amanda opened her eyes again, she was in a small dark room. She was in a bed, and could smell the somewhat stale and moist whiff of the sheets as she jerked them to the side. She was relieved to see that she was in one piece and there was no feeling of pain. Amanda sat up in the bed very easily. She felt strong enough to take that backpack again, put on those hard and pressing shoes and head to the peak. To whatever peak. She only needed to locate Brian.

Mary Agnes entered the room to see Amanda looking for her clothes. Amanda shone with mirth. Mary Agnes’ face was dark with the tidings she brought.

“Hello, dear. Sit down, please.” When Amanda was seated on the bed, Mary Agnes continued, “My name is Mary Agnes Chase and I’m an assistant botanist for the US Department of Agriculture. We are here doing some field work…”

*

They had found Brian lying a couple of hundred meters from the path. It appeared he had taken a bad step and fallen from the path. When they found him, his leg was broken and he was dead. In his right hand Denis found a small object which Brian was holding very tight. Probably that was why he couldn’t reach out to grab something on his way down, everybody thought. They gave it to Amanda together with all Denis’ belongings. The small object was wrapped in a piece of paper. She opened the paper. In it was a beautiful diamond ring. An engagement ring Brian was no doubt planning to give her that same night. A shiny token of their love he held on to with his last breath. Tears like diamonds rolled down her cheeks.

* * *

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.

* * * * *

Mariya Koleva is Bulgarian and writes poetry and fiction in English, though she is not a native speaker. She teaches EFL, English literature, and translates for a living. Writing simply came along. She blogs here and is on Twitter here. This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.

The Kindness of Strangers

 

Bob Bartlett and local inhabitant aboard ship during Bartlett’s Arctic Expedition, 1933

.

.
here’s no such thing as cold for Ataninnuaq. Just the wind: less bite or more bite. Like the animals he can dress against it and have shelter from it, be warm. So whether he’s crouching down low over ice or running his dogs over the northern expanses, it’s at times like these that Ataninnuaq feels most at home in the world. He likes the winter. A world without snow means nothing to him. Where the others see colors, abundance, all he sees is a barren earth, naked without its soothing white mantle. Summer, which must come to these parts too inevitably, makes him uneasy. So when the expedition is looking for a guide, he eagerly offers to take them to the heart of the land, where the ice doesn’t melt.

*

They hunt for keepsakes, or so the captain tells them. Trinkets and old animals that hardly leave a mark, except perhaps in ice. This seems futile to Ataninnuaq, but he doesn’t object. Instead, he watches them zealously work through the snow, their faces set with determination.

Ataninnuaq knows things happen many times and therefore nothing really changes. Like the mountain hare he hunts. It comes to die and so he kills it. After a time it comes again, gloriously reborn. He knows this is because he treats its spirit properly, lets it roam free. Sometimes at night, when he and the captain smoke their pipes in the low rays of the midnight sun, he thinks that’s the best we can hope for in life, to be treated properly. And in death to have our souls drift free.

But these are linear men. They take a ship from there to here and think everything is different. Maybe that’s why they keep to themselves mostly and don’t bother with feeding the dogs or checking the lines. They eat the fish and the meat Ataninnuaq hunts for them without question, without interest.

The only one who concerns himself with Ataninnuaq is the captain. He has the familiar face of an old forgotten friend and Ataninnuaq is happy to find the captain is measured against life in the North. At night, when the others moan about the eternal light, the captain quietly sits rubbing his hands, otherwise unperturbed.

His name is simple, without much length or meaning. Bob. Bob. It sounds like the punchline to a joke Ataninnuaq tells the children. They love his jokes with funny faces. Meanwhile the captain struggles to master Ataninnuaq’s name and other words he tries to learn them. They both laugh at his attempts. As it turns out, Bob is a goofy fellow as well and though they hardly understand what they are saying, most of the time they get the joke. It makes the journey that much easier – and the others all the more distant.

*

When they reach their destination somehow the roles reverse. Now the expedition men are the experts, setting to work meticulously, while the captain and Ataninnuaq are reduced to useless bystanders. They trudge around camp, trying to keep it tidy and safe, while out there excitement rules as the men prod and drill and chafe and hack.

It’s bugs they’re really after, animals without bones, trapped beneath layers of endless ice. The captain tries to explain these things to Ataninnuaq, how each living thing can be classified. He counts them off on his thumb: things with gills, with bones, with webbed feet and so on, until Ataninnuaq loses track. The captain seems to think ordering the world like this makes it safe and comprehensible and Ataninnuaq doesn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.

On the third day, they get called over to the finding area. The men have excavated quite a generous space and while Ataninnuaq sees nothing of importance down there, they look proud and content. They show him artifacts they have found as well and the captain makes it clear to him they want his opinion on them. Hesistantly Ataninnuaq spins an old arrowhead between his fingers. He wonders if it will break easily. He wonders what they want him to say.

Qarsoq?’ he ventures. ‘Arrow.’

They nod expectantly. ‘Rubbish,’ he explains, with a dismissive gesture that seems to shock them. One of them takes the arrowhead from him with a reverence he hasn’t seen them showing anything else. He decides to try them out.

‘Forefathers,’ he says pointing at the arrowhead. The captain dutifully translates. Instantly they show him an hungry interest. ‘Inussuaq.‘ He stomps around in his imitation of the great Raven that always gets a laugh out of the children. ‘Very big. Strong.’

The expedition men nod and nod, but the captain glances at him sideways. ‘Why would a giant use such a small arrow?’ the men want to know.

Ataninnuaq shrugs. ‘Perhaps a toothpick?’ Eagerly the men take notes. He sets a solid face to keep from laughing. The captain’s mouth quivers but he too manages to keep it straight.

*

On the last day out they find something special, even though they themselves are oblivious to it. They debate amongst themselves at first, so it takes a while before he can take look at it. It’s a simple necklace. A few blue beads and two teeth of the polar bear.

Nanoq,’ he whispers. His fierce daughter. She went kayaking near the end of summer. Sometimes she was like that and needed to go out alone, to measure up against the elements. No trail survives of her. Only her name, Nanoq. Spirit of the polar bear.

‘Yes, a polar bear,’ one of them says dismissively. They don’t give him the necklace to inspect   and instead tug it away quickly with the other extra finds that mean so little to them but that they take anyway. That night he sleeps alone under a helpless sky.

*

The journey home is slow. The men are no longer eager to reach a goal, but linger in various places, as if something somehow opened their eyes to the land. Ataninnuaq doesn’t mind, he is in no hurry. His house is a dark place during summer. The light reveals too many things that had better stayed hidden, like his wife’s sadness or his own loss of purpose. He wonders if the captain has a special place for fruitless animals, animals that leave no trace in the world, not even in the harsh frost of Greenland.

The captain too seems reluctant to head back and Ataninnuaq suspects that, in spite of what he said before, he finds his home too orderly, too safe and he will miss the vile wind of the North, the one that rips at your soul. So when they finally see the outlines of the houses and the masts of the ships etched against the horizon, both their spirits sink and they complete the last leg of their journey in the back of their small band, in silence. They know it is unlikely they will ever meet again.

*

Being back on his ship livens the captain’s spirits though and he wants to make a memory. He believes he can freeze them both in time, make an imprint much like the resinous insects the expedition men take home. He orders Ataninnuaq to sit and perches down next to him, while one of his men sets up an instrument and orders them to smile. This is the closest Ataninnuaq has been to the captain, to Bob. He smells oily, of adventure and violent storms.

‘Forget that man,’ the captain instructs. ‘Forget everything. Just smile.’ This seems odd to Ataninnuaq but he tries to do as the captain wants. ‘Think of our journey,’ the captain tells him, ‘Think of the arrow. Remember? Your giant toothpick?’  They both laugh and Ataninnuaq is happy the instrument captures this moment, this fine joke and not his torn-up soul.

When Ataninnuaq gets ready to go off board, the captains holds him back and puts something in his hand. It’s the necklace. The years have dulled the colors, but in every other way it is as vibrant when Ataninnuaq made it and his daughter wore it. ‘A keepsake,’ the captain says and closes Ataninnuaq’s fingers around it. ‘To remember me.’  He gives him a sharp look with those blue eyes that can rage like the sea and for a moment Ataninnuaq feels his soul is bare. Then the captain turns and orders his crew to cast off.

For a long time Ataninnuaq stands at the quay, the necklace safely in his pocket. Only when the last speck of the ship has disappeared into the thick arctic mist does he trudge homewards, with heavy feet, knowing eternity is waiting for him.

*

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.

* * * * *

Milla van der Have (1975) wrote her first poem at 16, during a physics class. She has been writing ever since. Milla lives and works in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Her other work can be found here.

Nomads

Laysan albatross, Laysan Island, circa 1961-1973.

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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.

* * * * *

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.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest Volume I: Smithsoniana and Non-Fiction

Today we bring you the results of the first year of Smithsonian-inspired posts as well as our non-fiction selections.

Smithsoniana

Non-Fiction

The Growth of Dr. Cadmus

Wilbur Armistead Nelson (1889-1969), photograph by Frank Thone.

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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.

* * * * *

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.

Return to Planet Alpha

The Cat's Eye Nebula Redux (click image for more info)

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he flex of the glass always bothered him. It warped against the vacuum and threatened to collapse. He knew that, in reality, the screen was not a glass screen, and that he was safe behind it for several hundred years before there was any danger of fissures or implosion, but that didn’t rid him of the dreams that resurfaced before every tour. Dreams where the glass bubbles inwards until the front of the capsule brushes his body, and then a sudden force drags him out into the airlessness of space until…

Dexter snapped himself out of his daydream and pressed a gloved finger against the screen. It was solid enough. A mere three hundred light years ahead, so close that he almost felt like he could reach into the nearest planet’s core, was the Hadley System.

A static cough signaled a message from the Icarus.

“Dexter, what’s your status? Over.” It was Santos, the Icarus’ captain.

“I’m coming up close, Icarus. It’s a gorgeous thing,” Dexter replied. The nearest planet, observable only from the OC Capsule, shone a pink-hued blue. Codenamed Hadley Alpha, it showed greatest promise of life.

“Remember, Dexter, obs only, stay within 700 of the Icarus. Over.”

“Understood, over,” Dexter replied.

As the OC Capsule rolled steadily onward, Dexter saw a ring appear around Alpha. Not natural, not mineral, he decided. Distinctly artificial. He supposed that there must be some kind of life down there, if satellites and digital instruments were already circling the planet. But their slow orbit, like a destructive ballet, worried him.

Dexter guided the OC gently until it matched speed with several of the smaller satellites. One just up ahead was revolving slowly, counter to its planetary orbit, spinning aimlessly just feet away from where Dexter sat, buckled in place, trapped behind the warping glass. “Not good,” he muttered.

Between cloud cover, there was land below. It was rocky, mostly red, like the deserts in which he had trained back home. He ran the topography program and waited. Turning endlessly, over and over, the satellite up ahead spun. Dexter knew that it would continue, like Planet Alpha, spinning in the vacuum until it simply fell apart.

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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.

Some Diseases, Ailments, and General Discomforts of Orville McLean, Age 77

Pre-traumatic stress disorder
Glaucoma
Melanoma
Oklahoma
Family-friendly Tourette’s
Avian gonorrhea
Blocked tear ducts
Rotator cuff links
Torn ACL
Hot ATL
A case of the hibbity-jibbities
Proceeding hairline
Lyme disease
Lemon disease
Type II hiccups
Pink Eyes
Sties
House of Pies
Cracker Barrel night terrors
Canis lupis
Scuffleberries
Shrinking wrist disorder
Bovine-derived shin splints
Upsidedown’s syndrome
Premature ejaculation
Postmature ejaculation
Deep dish depression
Jane’s addiction
Associate’s degree burns
George burns
Compulsive cataracts
Terminal cooties

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This post is one in a 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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Edward Garza is a junior at the University of Houston, where he is earning his Bachelor of Arts in Literary Studies. He asserts that Houston is a captivating city – if you know what you’re doing. He works as a consultant at UH’s Writing Center, is an editor for the literary journal The Aletheia, and is a staff writer for the magazine Stryve. Additional work can be found in The Venture and 50 to 1. His other contributions to Snake-Oil CUre can be found here.

Foreign Body

Elephas imperator, Right Foreleg, 1900-1935.

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he effort was enormous but the rewards worth it. He knew it was never part of him. A foreign body, sapping him, draining his will to go on.

Over the years he had tried various ways to get rid of it. He didn’t want to call it a leg, because that would denote ownership.

It was always there, and he hated it. When he was six he tucked it up in his pyjama leg and wished for more than the tooth fairy.

The knife sliced the frozen flesh, and his relief grew with every cut. The tourniquet gripped the living, a line in the sand between indecision and release.

He knew when it would be too late to repair, and only then did he call for an ambulance.

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This post is one in a 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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As a writer Hettie Ashwin does her best. She writes for magazines, radio and fun. Hettie has a healthy ego, and a fertile imagination which combines with a robust work ethic to make her a well rounded individual. As the proud possessor of an enlarged funny bone, it has a marked influence on her writing style and her life in general. Hettie blogs here. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.