By Shannon Grasser
Something somewhere sent me a cat for my eleventh birthday. My new bedroom smelled of incense and lemon polish and was crowded with four beds, and there I found the tiny hellion sleeping, haloed in a dusty sunbeam. She must have wandered in through the side window, a fixture abnormally low to the ground, and drunkened herself with that unfamiliar warmth. The bedrooms in the General German Orphan Home had the softest carpets of all the homes I’d been in, and the feral animals seemed to like them just as much as I did.
The cat was a skinny little thing and white all over, and I named her Angel, and she slept right by my head that first night, and I was a little bit allergic to her but it wasn’t so bad. The Sisters wouldn’t let her stay, though, so I had to make a tiny towel fort beneath my bed for her so no one would see her around. She ate the table scraps I stuffed in my pockets every evening and never moved much. I thought she might have a better
life outside, where she could roam the whole world, but I could never get her to go.
When Angel spoke, she only spoke in German, and she only spoke to me. German was a language I was supposed to understand but still struggled with. It was a language dead to me. But I could still understand her when she asked me who I was, where I was going, where it hurt. Stuff like that. Her voice was deep and leaden, and it fed me like oxygen on the days I’d spend tethered to my bed in time out. Often.
The General German Orphan Home was a massive building that stood tall between the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and miles of wet woodlands. The days passed in the orphanage like sticky sewer sludge, a kind so thick it could choke you dead. I could spend days in my bed just to find out I was only hours older. It was a few weeks after I found Angel that I found my jar.
It was tucked deep into the trees and buried halfway into the earth. It took me three weeks to grow my nails out long enough to dig it up. Sister Elizabeth helped me clean out the insides but the greenish glass was so weathered that its once crystal clear sheen had long since fogged over. To make up for its dullness, Sister Elizabeth found me a good cork from the kitchen and told me to use the jar to hold all my secrets.
Angel took no interest in my jar until I fastened my first item inside it: a baby tooth of mine. It was a canine from my upper jaw, the last of my baby teeth to be lost except for my big molars in the back, and had been loose for weeks by then. I’d gotten so sick of the whistling it made that I reached my stubby fingers in and yanked the hanging chrysalis right out, then licked the blood off the candyfloss I’d severed. A new tooth sprouted only days later, a little ice cap compared to the glaciers of my other teeth. But from that first day forth, Angel wouldn’t sleep without my baby tooth jar beside her head.
I left my jar with Angel the day we all went to the beach. Oscar and I stood side-by-side facing the gushing ocean, eyes squinting and heads cocked. We were not allowed to go in, so everyone was stuck building sandcastles on the shore.
“Someone has probably upchucked in there,” Oscar said, eyes locked on the pulsing tides.
I had looked at him and made a noise of disgust just as a breeze passed us by. It carried with it a putrid, ungodly stench that wormed its way into all my ducts. Oscar plugged his nose at the rotting waft, shivering like a sick mouse.
“What the heck is that?” he said nasally.
I looked in the direction it came from to discover a tiny cluster of trees and marsh only yards ahead.
“Don’t-“ Oscar tugged on my sleeve, but I was already slipping away from him. I was happy to find something to do instead of build sandcastles with the others, who didn’t like me much anyway.
I walked fast but still Oscar followed close behind, muttering about how the Sisters will not be happy if they found out we left the group. I nearly stumbled back into him when I found the source of the smell, right at the clearing of the weeds. It was a small orange fox– dead since the last nightfall, easy. Its stomach had already been ripped opened by tiny scavengers, those not strong enough to carry the bigger pieces, those who would come back for seconds. I nudged the thing with my shoe.
“Helena!” Oscar yelped by my ear. I jumped at the sound and shoved him. He stumbled sideways and caught his pant leg in a thistle bush.
“Verpiss dich!” He exclaimed.
He thought my German was worse than it was.
“Muschi,” I said, and then knelt down beside the corpse. “What a poor little thing.”
Its eyes were open in perpetual apathy, a gruesome display of such a warm gold. I drew a hand to its cheek and stroked the coarse fur by its muddied mouth. Its tongue, riddled with dry cracks like a desert, peeked through the teeth and touched the grass. I took a moment to wonder if the fox’s teeth would please Angel just as much as my own baby canine had. I felt it nice to bring her presents, as she had already done so much for me.
In an instant, the Sisters shouted Oscar’s and my names from the shore, rustling the whole grove with annoyance.
“Great.” Oscar tugged at my dress sleeve and started pivoting. “Now we’re really up shit creek. C’mon!”
“You go,” I said, a pinched a finger and a thumb around the fox’s exposed right canine. I tugged.
“You’re off your nuts,” Oscar said, already turning and retreating back to the group.
The tooth wouldn’t budge from the animal’s mouth so I found a rock and hammered it out of its face as gently as possible. When it finally loosened, I chucked the rock away and twisted the tooth from its socket with my hands, then rubbed the clumps of blood and gums from the sprout and shoved the thing down my dress pocket.
When I came home that evening, I found Angel had eaten my tooth. I told her I would have made her dinner.
She is just as elated to see her new present, though it is grimier and pointier than the last. I put it in the jar and tell her not to eat it.
I had collected sixteen teeth in the next sixteen days. I took one from every animal I could catch at recess. The front teeth came out easy if I got a good enough grip and could twist it far enough. The ones farther back were harder, but Angel liked variety, so I did my best.
I swear I saw Angel’s blue eyes go black the first night I hadn’t brought home a new tooth. I was laying on the floor of the bedroom journaling when I heard her start to growl from beside me. It started low and guttural, rising aggressively the longer I took to notice. But I knew she was mad at me, so I didn’t want to look. She only liked the teeth so much because she liked to eat them, and she had so many still left in her jar if she wanted one.
When I finally turned to her, she told me, quietly, “The next time it rains you will bleed.”
I furrowed my brow at her and mumbled, “Miststück,” yet hoped she hadn’t heard it. I didn’t really believe her, but I went to sleep almost immediately after the omen, afraid of what she might have done if I talked back. I sewed myself into bed. I faced the wall. I had gone the next two days without any injury, and eventually forgot about the threat. But then Saturday arrived, the third day, and the tiniest raindrop hit my forehead while I was outside for recess.
Before I even had time to register the feeling, a blow hit me in the small of my back and sent me face-first into the curb in front of me. The concrete caught the side of my lip, and something cracked inside my jaw, my front teeth slamming down onto my tongue like machinery.
When the blast of it all stopped echoing in my head, I heard the bark of shrill bitch laughter from behind me. I spat blood on to the pavement and looked up at Oscar who towered above me. He turned his head toward the sound and whispered venomously, “Fucking Josie.”
Ten minutes later, I was in Sister Elizabeth’s room icing my lip when she held her hand out to surprise me with a tiny gift.
“A token of your bravery,” she said, and dropped a small yellowed tooth into my palm delicately. “You lost it in the blow.”
I heard a small purr, and then caught the white tail of the beast as she crossed in front of the open bedroom door. I swallowed hard.
It soon became too taxing to steal animal teeth every single day for Angel, but I feared what she might do if I stopped. I tried to offer things in their place. I said I would gather pebbles at recess; I would get all different sizes and colors. I said I would save the skin of all my hangnails. I said I would break a window into little bits and pieces until they are small enough to fit inside the lip of the jar. She said no.
She drove me manic. I started listening to the walls, I cried into thin air. I spent hours trying to lock her out, only for her to find ways back in. I heard Bertha talk about a loose tooth at lunch and I snuck into her room to rip it out in her sleep. I bumped into Minnie in the cafeteria and swiped her jogged tooth from the floor when I helped her up. When Oscar complained of a loose one, I paid him two-weeks' allowance to have it when it came out. I locked myself in the bathroom with a pair of pliers and ripped out every last one of my baby teeth until I choked on my own blood. I wanted to kill her, I’d have done it mercilessly if I could, but I couldn’t bring myself to ever get close enough to hurt her. She starting walking with a black halo around her body, and I never saw her blue eyes again.
I asked her what she was and where she came from.
She told me, “I bit the hand of God, and now you’re all that feeds me.”
Angel is still not satisfied. She’s raging again. This whole building is. The yellowed wallpaper screams and the rotting cupboards open like maws full of teeth and the dirty mirrors shatter like music. This house, this cubbyhole, this orphanage in its all its bottomless glory has opened its mouth and dropped me down its throat, and I’m stuck here like a fishbone, like something meant to be swallowed.
“Bushwa!” Josie exclaims. “She’s a dirty rat. Smells like one too. Henry would never like a girl like her.”
“Well he does,” Ruth says loudly over the buzz of the cafeteria. “He told me so yesterday at wash-up.”
I fidget with the sleeves of a dress that doesn’t fit me anymore, the waistband slicing my hips like a ham. It’s been years since I got a new one. Josie shovels a fresh forkful of mashed rice into her pink kisser and rolls her eyes twice around. She sits across the table from me but I can still hear the mush slosh between her cheeks.
“I won’t believe that.” She spits a piece out by accident and I stare it at, squished there on the plastic between us. It looks like a tooth.
I slam my spoon down hard.
“What’s in your heart, Josie?” I ask, meeting her burning eyes. “And what do you feed it?”
The whole table, seated with ten other girls and boys goes silent. I watch as Josie sets her utensils down gently, then murmurs, “Vergib mir Vater, dass ich im Begriff bin zu sündigen.“
In a second she’s out of her seat and pouncing over the table at me. She gets in just one hard slap to my face before I pull her away with a fistful of her hair. She shrieks and makes a jab at my shoulder but can’t connect before the Sisters pull her off of me and send us to our rooms for the night.
I don’t go to bed that night. I lie on the floor and talk to the walls until I am sure everyone in the house is asleep. When I stand up and move for the door, Angel follows me at my feet. We walk to Josie’s room, Room Ü, where she sleeps alongside Ruth, Jessie, and Jeanne.
She is asleep on her back, her arms up by her head. Her eyes open for a split second before my hands smash the bedside lamp down on her forehead. She goes out cold, a stream of blood flowing down the side of her forehead from the gash. My eyes glance to the other beds. The only movement comes from Angel, who walks delicately around Ruth’s sleeping body, purring audibly.
My fingers tug the pliers from the waistband underneath my nightgown, then they pull Josie’s lifeless head to face the ceiling. My right hand holds her mouth open while my left sticks a straw between her jaws, then they pull the first tooth out. The snap of the stringy gums hits my ears like a chorus, and I can’t stop myself from taking more. The empty craters pour blood like little faucets down her throat and I think that if she’s still alive she’d be drowning by now.
A gasp. I turn. Ruth is awake and sitting upright. She rushes to the door to hit the lights. When the scene is illuminated, she screams my name, then Josie’s name, then rushes out of the room. Jessie and Jeanne are awake now too, and the room is full of screams, and the stairs outside are full of footsteps, but I still yank more teeth. I get drunk off the sound of the enamel clinking the glass jar as I drop them in. I get drunk, I get drunk.
There are arms around me now, and Josie’s body is shaking, but I don’t know if she knows it. I kick at the legs below me and stab the pliers at the supple flesh, but the grip only tightens. My feet leave the floor as I’m dragged out of the room, blood on my hands and black in my eyes. The arms put me down in the living room, but I bolt back for the door. I am caught again. This time, they open the front door and deposit me on the doorstep. When I turn, I see it is Sister Elizabeth, with eyes full of fire straight from Hell.
She says nothing as she slams the door on me, locking it in place.
Three hours later, I am still on the step. I scratch at the door with bloodied fingers and bitten nails, begging to be let in. I struggle to keep my tired eyes open. I hear myself screaming in a language nobody can understand.
I bend and break under the weight of this secret no one will take, and I shiver under the streetlamp with just one toe in reality. The door stays locked.
A window opens at my side and out steps Angel, delicate as ever, onto the sill. She hops down and circles my feet, rubbing her back against my ankles.
When she looks at me, her eyes are blue. When she speaks, it is soft.
“Nobody likes a girl who brings news of death,” She says. “They watch the girl become prophet become banshee become misery. They give you to the void willingly.”