Milk Tooth

Judy Darley

April 22nd 2022

I’m deep underground in a cave somewhere beneath the Dordogne, France, when my first infant tooth finally comes free. I’ve been wobbling it for days, probing with my tongue, nudge nudge nudge. I nudge the tooth as punctuation to my parents’ countless instructions: be quiet nudge be polite nudge be careful nudge be sensible nudge don’t draw attention to yourself. Nudge.

I nudge whenever my older sister draws breath to remind me how annoying I am, and whenever I feel the urge to run around and howl with boredom, which, on this ultra-cultural, ultra-grown-up trip is often.

The guide relays an endless commentary in French, which I don’t understand, and when I try inventing my own version of the pretty language, my dad shushes me (nudge).

The cave is lined by stalactites and stalagmites that glisten as though they’ve been spun from sugar (nudge). Electric lights glimmer in shadows (nudge). Water dribbles around us and somehow one of my neat, lace-frilled ankle-socks has grown damp (nudge). The air smells of our cellar at home, but I suspect (nudge) that the ghosts here are less friendly.

The flower-patterned cotton dress my ma picked out for me this morning does little to protect my six-year-old bones from the cold. I think of Dad’s hairy back, glimpsed at the hotel pool, and attempt by sheer willpower to force the down on my own soft skin to sprout more thickly.

We’ve been in the cave network for hours. The most interesting thing in this subterranean world is still my tooth, hanging on by a thin red strip of gore.

Nudge nudge nudge.

And then, like a wind-bullied pear from an autumn tree, it falls free: a rusty calcium pebble in the cradle of my month.

I nudge my ma and place the tooth in her palm for safe-keeping.

She glances at the treasure in her hand and her eyes widen, then pinch.

Unable to contain my triumph, I grin, baring the new gap in my gum. Already I can feel the tip of the fang that will fill the space.

I see the dismay in Ma’s eyes, and sense her warning as the heel of her hand pushes against my mouth. Nodding against her palm, I resist the temptation to bite. Don’t show anyone what you are. Nudge.

Author Bio: Judy Darley’s stories have been described as ‘shimmeringly strange’. She is the author of three fiction collections: Sky Light Rain (Valley Press) and Remember Me to the Bees (Tangent Books) and The Stairs are a Snowcapped Mountain (Reflex Press). Find Judy at http://www.skylightrain.com

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