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Elsa M. León


My obsession with tooth and mouth started early. When the dog mother took my fingers into her mouth and bit through to the bone all I could do was stare at the gums while she worked my hand into red meat. The gums looked bruised, blue and purple and now red too, the colors wet, running together like paintings in a children's book.

Years later and I'm in a chair and a man hovers over me. I don't register it but he has my gums flayed open and he's digging around inside. He doesn't find the anomaly he had set out to find and with a shrug he puts my mouth back together. A few weeks later and the swelling is gone. I swallow the stitches.

The girl lost most of her teeth in the accident. Rumor went around that her mother replaced what she lost with animal teeth, forcing them into place with metal and wire. We sat on a log together once and I kept imagining her lost teeth sinking into the damp earth and taking root. A few miles away the swamp is all teeth and eyes and tourists from up north stop their cars to throw oily food to the alligator gods.

First kiss but just beforehand I'm prying open your mouth. Crooked teeth. Gums as swollen with blood as mine. Canines that look like they were honed on stone. I let go and you smile and thank god it's no white picket fence smile. I want to pull your teeth up by the roots. I want to wear them on my throat. I lunge at you instead and smash my lips against yours, our jaws smacking together until our teeth rattle in our skulls. Outside, the rain mouths at the windows.

Peter Pan

I.       Stones

My father earned the name 'Tirapiedras.' Stone thrower. Slingshot. When he was young in Cuba, my father threw stones at everything and everyone, even the giant crocodiles in the river. I like to imagine the story differently. I picture him wading into the murk, his eyes trained on the biggest specimen. She seethes through the mass of reptile and he can see her grin below the cloudy nebula of her single eye. She speaks and her voice overlaps his thoughts.

I can hear your heartbeat beat-beating

I wonder how you would look inside out

Like a clock your pink insides ticking like a clock

He stoops and picks the smoothest stone he can find, scooping it from the blanket of silt at the bottom of the river, the wet grass curling around his fingers like mermaid hair. He would not drown today. His legs were too strong and set, ready to spring, long and knotted like a hare's.

The stone does not leave his hand. He lunges to her first and removes each stained tooth, using only the stone and his fingers. He collects each one and pockets them as devotedly as a mother with baby teeth. The crocodile disappears, reeling away in a scream of fury and churned mud. She would grow them back.

She always did.

II.       Flight

Remember the man on the train,

the one in uniform who caught you throwing stones

at his windows. He ran after you, his hand

hooking into your shirt.


how young you were when you left Cuba,

you didn't know if you could make it,

if you could force yourself to fly.

Your sister flew alongside you,

fingers interlaced with yours and a necklace

of crocodile teeth

leaving red smiles on her neck.

III.       Ghosts

For a small breath of years, his sister challenged time,

the marks from the crocodile teeth faint on her flesh.

She could no longer hear the ticking. The mass of angry cells in her brain was too noisy,

growling even in its sleep,

a hornets' nest sitting where no one could reach. It stung everything down her left side, turning it

blue and frozen.

Her breath rattled, her heart like a bird too big for its cage.

I sat behind my father, his calls unable to reach her, his tears darkening the room. There were

ghosts at every corner of her bed, inside every one of us.

She left once she knew that everyone had arrived. We swept all the dust under the bed.

There would be no more flying.

It was hard to believe in anything the night her light died, put out like a firefly in rain,

a fairy clenched in a fist.

I placed a hand on my father's pocket. There were no crocodile teeth.

Alice Decays

Alice in a room with a phonograph that only plays rabbit screams over and over. Alice with her necklace of human teeth mirroring the grin on her face. Alice rapping a knuckle against her inflamed gums until they become pockets of blood. Alice sitting with her little sister in the shade of the tree on the river bank. She's grown tired of the books and takes to dunking her sister's head in the river water for fun. Afterwards, she finds a dead deer by the rabbit hole, its body split down from its chest to its hind legs. Its eyes had been picked away and its decomposition-grin is so contagious, Alice can't help but smile back. The rot smell backhands her and she pants excitedly. The deer's open belly is seething with fattened maggots. Flies, their bodies blue and green, buzzed around the buck in a cloud. She puts a leg on either side of the deer carcass and crouches, sticking two fingers into the mass of writhing, other hand clutching an exposed rib. She comes up with a chunk of intestine, the maggots hot, undulating between her fingers. She looks toward the river again, where her sister sits, still crying and coughing up water, hair clinging damp to her face. Alice beckons, maggot-covered finger arching in the air. Her sister starts up her wailing again, shaking her head. Alice's eyes harden, the maggots waving in the air again.

When her sister doesn't budge, Alice reaches her in three long-legged strides, dragging her by her wet locks. The two scream and struggle and Alice crams her fist into the smaller girl's mouth. At the sensation of the maggots on her tongue and Alice's fist against her uvula, little sister screams and chokes, held fast by Alice's fingers on her throat. Looking up, little sister sees Alice's decomposition-grin, human teeth necklace also smiling. Fat, bloodied flies cling to Alice's cheeks and the corners of her lips and circle her head. Eventually, little sister collapses and Alice throws the body down the rabbit hole, watching the ground swallow it up. She returns to her dead deer and shivers, slipping one foot into the filth. She lowers her body into the deer's infested belly, the skirt of her white dress fanning open. Her arms curl, imitating ribs, eyes wide and faraway. Flies crawl across her open mouth and gather on her eyes and she feels the maggots squirming everywhere beneath her, intestines wrapping around her legs as she crams them deeper into the carcass, the smell dizzying her. She grips the sides of the cavity, pulling it tight as one would a suit, her hands lurching up and gripping the deer's antlers. Her eyes close and her mouth works itself into a tight line then opens, flies escaping en masse into the air.


Six-foot-two, lean, knots of muscle running up her arms. Mouth full and red and mean. Throat thick with vultures. One side of her head is shaven down, cross-hatched with scars, the other side bristles over one shoulder, hair coarse and dark. She has a canine's face, sharp and beautiful, the lips soft but the jaw angular and full of teeth. Sometimes she holds a gun or a knife and sometimes it's just her fist, knuckles bruised and dark red.

I'm always kneeling a few feet away, my mouth dry, full of ash and orchids. She prowls the room and stops in her usual spot and her arm lifts, fist clenched, bloodied knuckles extended toward me, the red running like watercolor. She bares her teeth and her breasts and I think of my teething, wondering if I should tell her that my teeth are already too sharp to nurse and I'll surely pull blood.

Instead, my mouth falls open and for a moment there's no ash, no orchids. I try to tell her I love her but her hands lurch up and stop me, palms facing out. Her fingers wing open and I can see a blazing green eye in each gap. When she speaks it's through the vultures in her vocal chords:

Tú nunca estás en mis sueños

(You're never in my dreams)

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