Fiction

Split Tooth

We pile our hair as high as it will go, even though the wind destroys our hairdos to the point that every time we come in from outside, the girls’ bathroom is a haze of Final Net

BY

Illustration by Maria Nguyen


It’s early morning. The Frosted Flakes have grown soggy. I’m stuck staring at one of the half-submerged flakes, half-crispy, half-mushy. Tap tap tap the spoon against the ceramic bowl; it seems to help shake off the sleep that refuses to lift from the top of my head. It feels fuzzy and numb. Boredom hangover. It’s pitch black outside. Dead winter. We have not seen the sun in weeks. Stars stare at me through the window. Wind screams urgently, shaking the house. Wind sings but carries an axe instead of a note.

A dog howls. Five more follow suit. I put on my kamiik and kick the door open because it has frozen shut. School has not been cancelled: it’s not cold enough outside. It has to be at least minus fifty with the wind chill to merit a day off. The roads are frozen solid; they will stay that way until May or June.

The permafrost is living under everything, slowing time and preserving what would normally rot. Kamiit help feet deftly navigate the slip of the ice, the crunch of the snow, and the depths of the drifts. The sealskin is warm, but I have lost the blood my feet carry. The Cold has scared the blood out of my toes. Our feet have built-in memory of which tendons to curl to prevent falling on all different kinds of ice. The Snow would sometimes slice the surface of the ice in half with a drift and try to trick us into falling. The Snow could crunch underfoot or chase you loosely. The Snow could hold your whole body weight or decide to deceive you and plunge you into the down underneath.

Snow is fickle. Snow picks itself up and goes wherever Wind tells it to. One element controls the other in a cyclical oblivion. Weather is just the earth’s breaths. Wind is the cold bearer and the death bringer. Streetlights hold halos of swirling snow; rainbows appear if you look at the streetlights and squint. My footsteps the only sound of any human being, I continue the hollow morning walk to school.

Grade eight. Ugh. I have another giant cold sore on my chin. It’s ten miles wide and oozing. I do my best to disguise it with my scarf and steel my ego for the taunting that I am about to receive. “Soresees” is the name that gets appointed to the person suffering from a cold sore for the entirety of its duration. This name can also be applied to chicken pox, eczema, bed-bug bites, zits, or any other skin ailment. The series of nicknames allotted to the students in our school was never kind but was often so amusing that we were happy to carry the burden when it was our turn. I silently thank the universe that I will never be branded “Nibble-a-cock” like my friend Casper Noviligak because she gave a blowjob to that hotdog on a dare last Thursday.

It took me fifteen minutes to pull these jeans on this morning. They are so tight that it hurts to breathe. Sometimes, I have to use a coat hanger to get the zipper up. The tighter the jeans the better, and neon is in; neon leg warmers, neon tights, neon shirts, neon banana clips. We pile our hair as high as it will go, even though the wind destroys our hairdos to the point that every time we come in from outside, the girls’ bathroom is a haze of Final Net. We sport Chip & Pepper heat-sensitive, colour-changing muscle shirts (leaving us hiding our fluorescent-orange armpits after gym) and pair them with acid-washed jeans and light-blue eyeshadow. AC/DC. Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap.

The frosted-pink lip gloss clashed with my cold sore, so I didn’t wear it today. My lips are cracked and chapped, and my hair is flying with static electricity and keeps getting into my cold sore. Winter is dry. Like, zero humidity. The cold holds moisture hostage. The boys scuff their socks on the carpet and shock the girls with pointed fingers and malicious glee. I hate it.

I want to be the size of an ant, or just disappear. This year everyone got boobs except me. Every morning brings the measuring tape to the mirror in the hopes of the miracle of being suddenly blessed with tits, forever ending the reign of my nickname: Golf Balls. In lieu of breasts, I arrange sheets of toilet paper to make a home nest in my brassiere. The indignities we suffer as children will only grow larger as we get older, so we are told. That seems impossible.

I get good grades in school without putting in much effort. I fail tests on purpose to avoid drawing too much ire from the popular girls, who seemed to think that accomplishing anything scholastically made you vain. School is scary and awkward; I guess it’s supposed to be. Sitting still for that long is impossible. My ass is numb. Who made this system? It feels like a slow torture watching the second hand tick by, watching the flakes of dandruff fly around the teacher’s head when he stands in the light. How can someone be almost bald and still have dandruff? Getting old is so gross. Watching people slowly rot is unnerving. I listen to the children breathing and sighing. We steal glances at one another. Listening to pencils scratching, we yearn for movement. Listening to the wind howl in screaming freedom, we all feel muted.

Math class. The cute boy peeks up and smiles at me over his math book while holding hands under the table with the pretty girl. I’m aware that he is manipulating me, but I still die a little inside. His black hair is in a brush cut, and he smells a little mouldy, like his mom took too long to get the clothes into the dryer. He makes up for it with a searing confidence and sharp wit. Brightness. It shocks me every time he looks at me. He has already seen too much in life, and his natural propensity for cruelty coupled with the hormones coursing through his body has him playing girls against each other like bristling sled dogs. He still gets to taste them all. I’ve always hated this social display of jealousy, girls scratching each other’s eyes out for boys. If he leaves me alone, I can maintain my dignity, but I feel the pull of him in a place that is foreign to me. It is my first real crush. Our teacher is discussing physics.

I think about the equal and opposite reaction to the look the boy just gave me and blush furiously. His girlfriend notices. Shit! I’m in for it after school. Doors open and close, the books in the library call me with their musty elder smell. The clocks rotate. I get my head slammed into my locker at recess, and the school day is over. Thank fuck.

Iwould call my parents and say I was sleeping over at your house. You would call your parents and say you were sleeping over at my house.

I don’t know how we fit so many children in the old nursing-station porch. There was nowhere else to go for shelter, because we had all told our parents that we were at one another’s houses. There was no other shelter from the screaming winds. We shivered, nervously laughing in our tight denim and big hair so meticulously sprayed into blooming fountains. The snow had blown into our hair, and now it was melting. Our magnificent towers were becoming flaccid mockeries of themselves. Our mascara ran down our faces—beauty problems at minus forty.

The porch was about ten feet by ten. There were seven kids in it. We lit up all the butts we had picked off the ground. I had that big cold sore on my chin. I thought I could distract from it by putting on a lot of shimmery blue eyeshadow. I don’t think it worked very well. Our breath slowly stopped showing as our body heat warmed up the small room. What should we do in this little porch? Someone touched my ass. I slapped his grubby little hand away. Let’s play a dare game!

We simply went around in a circle, taking turns, collectively agreeing on a dare for whoever’s turn it was. If you failed to do your dare, you were banished from the shelter. This system immediately went awry when a girl started to cry because she had to kiss the ugly boy. Fuck this. We left the shelter and went our separate ways.

Your uncle was out partying. We crashed at his place. After raiding the fridge, we put a movie on. I think it was The Dark Crystal.

We were coaxed out of our slumber by a thick smacking sound. Your uncle was a gentle man, slight and benign. He had been dating a very aggressive woman. I never understood how he put up with the abuse. We heard a woman weeping softly through the walls. We could hear him quietly asking her, “There, are you happy now?” And another thick, wet thud would come. Tears, snot, blood. Wet noises. She just took it. There was no struggle. I knew what a fight sounds like. This was quieter, more intimate.

I understood. She hated herself so much that she would berate him and beat him over and over until she got what she wanted, the proof that she deserved to be beaten. Their love for each other was indistinguishable from the hate they felt for themselves. Sometimes children see more clearly than adults. They loved the cycle of self-hatred and forgiveness. They perpetuated a perfect, violent machine. “You must like it.” Smack. “You make me do this.” Smack.

We plug our ears. Fall back asleep, not daring to move lest we alert them to our presence. “Let’s go,” you whisper, nudging me. It’s quiet in the house now. We tiptoe out of the bedroom. The sun is up. I adjust my eyes, looking for my jean jacket. I can smell the blood. There are pools of it on the floor. The cat had tracked it all over the living room. There are red paw prints everywhere.

I peek in the room. The couple is sleeping together, embracing. Forgiven. Bruised. Bloodied.

We walk home. We part ways at the stop sign. We never speak of this night again.

Iwas seventeen. Sent back home from residential school after a suicide attempt. Not a bad place all in all, Cambridge Bay. Curfews and duties seemed confining but comforting after the chaos of high school. The wind blew high, and we were freezing. My friend and I were hot for a party and dressed for it, though the temperature dipped down past minus forty. Seventeen is an age of freedom.

“There’s a party at my aunt’s house,” she said. We weighed the pros and cons. Her aunt was not one to be fucked with. When she was drinking, she was volatile. She was the self-appointed party police. But the buzz would make it worth our while if we could finagle a few beers to start the hunt off.

We walk in, the all-too-familiar smell of the clan, the blaring country music. The cigarette smoke saturates my clothing on impact. Ashtrays scattered around the room. Conflict lurking under smiles, waiting to pounce after a few more drinks. Silent Sam is lurking.

My glasses fog up. I am almost blind without them. I feel a presence before I feel his touch. A hand slides up my leg. I can hardly feel it, because the cold has almost frozen me through the tight denim, a shaky and thin hand, and a familiar hand. I know who it is before I can see him. His touch is like a bony finger that penetrates me and fuses with the bones in my spine. For years, this man would touch me during his class. Under tables, sneaking his hand in my pants. Touching my little-girl parts. After a while, I got used to it, even felt envious when he touched other kids.

I smile down at him. Ask him if he would like to join me for a smoke outside. I’m not six years old anymore. I get him outside. He’s pretty drunk, and I smile as I hit him as hard as I can. He starts to lose his balance, and I nudge him the rest of the way as he tumbles down the stairs. They are metal stairs, serrated to prevent slippage. I watch in glee as he lands at the bottom. He is drunk enough that he’s flaccid and doesn’t break anything.

“Someone fell down the stairs!” I exclaim to the party. My friend puts her boots on to investigate. People pile out the door to see what happened. He is unconscious but breathing as he is dragged up the stairs and back into the party. My friend’s aunt starts yelling about how he must have been pushed. We take turns yelling back and forth, and the huge woman nearly lifts me off the ground by my lapels before we escape, tears, laughter, and adrenalin coursing through the night. We are free.

Excerpted from Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq. Copyright © 2018 Tanya Tagaq Gillis. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Tanya Tagaq is a Polaris Prize and Juno Award-winning artist. Her latest album, Retribution, was released in 2016. Split Tooth is her first book.

Maria Nguyen is a Mississauga-based illustrator and designer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and the National Post.




SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER. Get the weekly roundup from The Walrus, a collection of our best stories, delivered to your inbox. Learn More »


Elsewhere on TheWalrus.ca