A shard of tooth drops from my mouth into my hand. The break feels clean, permanent, smooth. I feel around with my tongue, searching for the empty space it left behind. I notice one of my back molars is angular in a way it wasn’t before. It has a sharp point, like a carnivore’s.
Somewhere below me is the southern edge of Iceland. The plane moves through the night, folding time, collapsing eight hours of darkness into three, and I can’t sleep. The man in the seat next to me, a thirty-something with skinny thighs, is slumped and snoring. His shoulder presses against mine, and I like the weight of it. I can imagine he’s my brother, my partner, my lover. I can imagine biting into his exposed neck with my sharpened molar, drawing blood before he even wakes.
I switch on my reading light. I look at the piece of tooth in my hand. Nothing seems wrong with it at all. It’s like I’ve simply shed it, like a strand of hair. I place the shard of tooth in the front pocket of my jeans, and it disappears behind the denim, weightless.
I check my watch. There are still two hours until the plane lands in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Scotland: a place my mother left when I was still a knuckle of cells hidden inside of her, small and secret. Somewhere there is a father that I’ve never met. A father who loved my mother for a night, just long enough to make me.
I am not here for him.
I reach above me, turn the light back off. In the darkness of the plane, time smooths. I fall asleep with my head against the window, dark sky stretched out above and below me, and dream of incisors cracking bone, a flurry of fur, a scattering of spilled ash.
Scotland is all heather-stark valleys, crumbled stone towers, and black lakes. I watch it through the windows of the train that takes me north out of Edinburgh. My mother had always told me that she met my father in the farthest away place she could find. When I asked her what he looked like, she said she couldn’t remember his face. All she remembered was the sound of waves lapping against a shore, the smell of damp moss crushed under her shoulder blades.
There was a brief time, when I was seven or eight, when all I wanted was to know was who my father was. My mom would get angry with me when I brought him up. “You’re all mine,” she’d say. “I dreamed about you for twenty-five years before you were born. All he did was shake you loose.”
When the train reaches the end of its rails, I board another plane, smaller than the one I took to Edinburgh. It shudders over mountainsides painted with snow, then over the sea, and finally lands on an island called Shetland.
This is not the farthest away place I could find, but I hope it is close enough. When I leave the airport, it is nighttime and subfreezing. I like the way the cold makes me extra aware of my skin, goose-pimpled and electric. I climb into a cab, and the cold radiates off me, like it’s my skin that’s made of ice.
I have a hotel booked in a nearby town called Lerwick. My plan was to get some sleep, to shower off the miles I’ve traveled in the last twenty-four hours. In the morning I’d explore town. Maybe find a local boy to buy me a drink.
But as my cab gets into town, the driver’s forced to a stop. The streets teem with people. Young and old, couples and families, gloved hands holding gloved hands, all walking in the same direction. I crane my neck to get a better look, but everyone’s face is in shadow, or hidden under a hood, or wrapped under scarves.
“It’s okay,” I say to the driver. “I’ll get out here.”
I step out onto a street flanked by boxlike houses, gray and white and small-windowed. The sound of footsteps echoes flatly off the buildings, but other than that, it’s eerily quiet. I think of the warm hotel bed waiting for me just a couple blocks away and realize I’m not at all sleepy. I feel more awake than I’ve been for days, maybe weeks.
At the end of the street, the crowd gathers in a courtyard. They’ve begun forming a circle around a large bonfire, and as I get closer, I see there’s a long, narrow ship in the center of the flames. On its prow: the carved face of a wolf, already blackened and half-chewed away by the blaze.
The crowd presses me closer to the fire until I can feel the heat against my cheeks. Someone’s shoulder collides sharply with mine, and I stumble forward. When I find my balance, I’m surrounded by men in Viking helmets, torches gripped in their hands. They form a wall around the burning ship, separating it and the crowd, and I’m on the wrong side. The flames from their torches bend sideways in the wind. I smell scorching wood. My skin prickles with heat as the bottom of the ship gives out and the bonfire rears up.
Suddenly someone grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me back into the crowd, away from the fire. I turn to thank the stranger, and I’m met with a man in a dark red cloak and a silver helmet. A torch is in his hand. He is tall and his hair is dark and long enough to stick out below his helmet. There’s a small scar in the shape of an arrow on his jaw.
He takes a step back, stretching out his arms to make way for me to retreat farther from crowd’s center.
But I don’t. Not right away.
When my mother met a faceless stranger in a faraway place, she was not afraid.
I take him by the hand. His skin is warm and dry. His fingers close around mine.
I stand on my toes and move my mouth close to his ear and tell him, “My mother is dead. She was killed on a corner by a man who wanted something from her. She fought back, but it wasn’t hard enough. Or maybe she fought too hard. Anyway, I was all hers, and now that she isn’t here, I don’t know what I am.”
I pull back, and he looks at me, but he doesn’t say he’s sorry. He’s the only person I’ve told who hasn’t said he’s sorry.
At first, I am leading him, and then he is leading me. He leads me away from the fire to a gray house. He drops my hand as he fumbles beneath his cape, searching for something. He places his torch into a puddle by the front stoop, where it goes out in an instant and starts to smoke.
He unearths a key and unlocks the door and we walk through a hallway of doors until we reach the end, and then he takes me into his apartment. He doesn’t turn on the lights, but the window blinds are open and the fire from the courtyard is enough to see by. I stand by the door as he removes his helmet and his armor, places them carefully, deliberately on the floor. I go to the window. “How far away is the sea?” I ask.
“Close enough to hear when there’s a storm.”
He takes the cushions off the couch and unfolds a bed. I lie down before he does. I take off my clothes.
When he pulls a condom out of a drawer, I tell him no. I take it from him and put it back in its place. I reach for his hand again and drag him down next to me.
Under the covers, I use my body to hold him close. I grip his hips, his shoulders, his thighs. I make sure his body never separates from mine.
Afterwards, neither of us falls asleep. We watch the shadows move across the walls as the flames die in the courtyard.
“This night feels so long,” I say.
He murmurs, sleepy, “In the winter in this city, it’s almost always night.”
I reach for my jeans on the floor, and remember the shard of tooth out in my pocket. I run my tongue along my teeth and feel for the sharp point. I wonder if he felt it when he was kissing me. I lean over and place my teeth around his elbow resting on the pillow, but I don’t bite down. I’m like a dog, just play fighting. Testing the boundary between hurt and play. I think about how strange it is that humans are one of the few animals that doesn’t attack with its teeth.
Beyond the window, the last flames go out. The room goes flat with darkness. If it wasn’t for the sound of the man breathing on the other side of the mattress, I could pretend I was alone.
I feel around in the front pockets of my jeans for the lost piece of tooth, but I can’t find it. I dig into the corners. I check the back pockets, though I already know it won’t be there.
I lie back, flat on the bed, a space between me and the man. I imagine a part of me rolling across a train platform or snagging on a heather-choked hill or being washed down a gutter into a bay. I wonder if teeth, like hair, continue to grow after you’re dead. I wonder if teeth are like seeds, and when they detach from your body, something inside of them clicks and they split open, begin to grow roots.
Dana Diehl earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. She is the author of OUR DREAMS MIGHT ALIGN (Splice UK, 2018) and THE CLASSROOM (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV GIRLS, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest. She lives in Tucson.