Like a Flock of Newly Shorn Ewes by Taylor Leigh Harper
Monty ignored the cavity on her lower third molar for as long as she could—she was successful for a little while, coming up with myriad ways to distract herself from the occasional jaw-clenching pulsating or toe-tingling aching—until the cavity started to sing. Even then, Monty tried to cover the cavity up, humming over the soft whine the holes produced. She was looking up online tutorials to teach herself how to whistle when her older sister Maureen made her cut the shit out.
“Mont,” Maureen said while peeling a tiny, cute orange in Monty’s doorway. “What’s that lovely buzzing noise all about?”
Monty tongued the cavity, hoping to silence the noise long enough to distract her sister. “What noise? What are you eating? Why didn’t you bring me one of those?”
Maureen held the little precious peel of the tiny, cute orange in one hand. She popped a slice into her mouth, then offered Monty a piece with the other hand, as she said, “Just go to the dentist. You’re starting to sound like Mom.”
“Don’t be mean,” Monty said, even though she knew Maureen was right. Their mother had made all sorts of strange sounds before she lost all her teeth, which had been not long before she died. Her mother’s rotting molars had loved “Marcha Real,” while her chipped canines—ever so lingually inclined—played a haunting rendition of Chopin’s “No. 1 in F Minor.”
It wasn’t their mother’s fault she couldn’t care for her teeth, not when some days had been so miserably heavy she couldn’t lift herself out of bed. Monty wanted to remember her as a woman who lived as long as she could stand to, not as someone without teeth and without clean hair and without any laughter and without much energy left for affection and without any beautiful songs or nursery rhymes or hymns left to sing.
In the dentist’s waiting room, Monty swore she smelled oranges again. Maureen was thumbing through a two-year old magazine, no citrus in sight. Monty thought about crying—maybe if she threw a fit, a real tantrum like she did when she was younger and such outbursts were more acceptable—she wouldn’t be dragged back into a cold white room to sit on a cold plastic chair while a dentist dug around in her mouth with their room temperature, gloved hands.
But her cavity had begun to carol, loud and just slightly off key, so Maureen and the receptionist and all three other patients waiting were doing their best not to look at Monty. Even if she threw herself on the ground, nothing would change what was happening, or what rotting had already begun.
Dr. Santos was older than Monty expected. Her white hair was cropped short, and of course her teeth were also wool-white, even, and completely silent. Monty wondered if maybe her mother might have grown old enough someday to look like Dr. Santos.
“Have you ever had a cavity before?” Dr. Santos asked.
“Arve nhgla thad ploun,” Monty tried to say without biting down on the dentist’s rubber-covered fingers.
“Ah, you’re lucky. Your dental hygiene seems fine, except for this one tooth.”
“Chaow whad eah et?”
“It’s not all that bad,” the dentist continued. “We’re in the very early stages of decay.”
That word made Monty’s stomach hurt. She imagined herself tossing an orange back and forth between her hands. The feeling of the fruit’s pitted flesh. The weight of such a small, tender thing. The realness of something not there, not quite, just out of her reach.
“We’ll fill it, and you’ll be good as new,” Dr. Santos said. She was marking up a chart, her hands finally out of Monty’s mouth.
“Will it hurt?”
The dentist smiled. Monty willed herself not to cry. Her cavity began to hum again, something low and unfamiliar, sweet and sad.
“I love Emmylou Harris,” Dr. Santos said. “I’ll make sure you’re all numbed up. You’ll only feel the needle, and not even that for very long.”
The dentist stepped away to get her assistant, who would watch Monty’s cavity be filled up as a live demonstration in her dental school education. Monty wished she had asked for Maureen to come back, even though her sister probably would have laughed if she had asked to hold her hand. Maureen still would have done it, though. She would have laughed, but she would have held Monty’s hand, if she admitted she was scared of the pain to come, however brief.
While the dentist prepared her long syringe, Monty focused on what she could see and taste and hear.
Monty could see the white walls surrounding the square windows. Outside those windows, she could see green leaves. She could see the blue sky beyond that. She could see the tiled ceiling. She could see the bright yellow light they were shining down into her mouth.
Monty could taste Dr. Santos’ gloves once again. Peat, she thought—the rubber tasted like peat. She could taste a little bit of bile rising up in a nervous fit. She could taste her mother’s perfume, a lingering mix of sandalwood and seawater, lemon and cassis, alcohol and lime.
Monty listened. She listened to the dental assistant turning on the water pick. She listened as Dr. Santos counted down from three before sticking her gum with novacaine, and then she couldn’t taste anything at all. She listened for a metal fumbling—someone reaching for a chisel, then a hatchet or a hoe, to begin filling the little holes that had eaten away at her enamel as a moth to fiber.
She heard a final song, a dirge-like hoedown being drowned out by all the dental tools. Monty was listening as closely as she could while her cavity bleated on in French about all the things she wished she had told her mother, and all the things she might yet admit to Maureen, and still all that might be heard if she could just let herself cry.
Taylor Leigh Harper is a Filipino American writer living in Southern California. Her writing has appeared in LEON Literary Review, The Ilanot Review, SPLASH!, In Parentheses, and elsewhere. She is a contributing writer and curator for agoodmovietowatch. When she is not writing, you can find her on twitter @misstaywrites.