My first skull was a roadkill deer in town. It was November, and I had been a month separated from my husband, seeing him only for dinner at our shared home a couple of times a week. Driving home for one of these dates, I saw a struck doe flopped in the grass across the street from the big cemetery in the middle of Oxford, Mississippi.
“I want that deer’s skull,” I told him when I got there. “Do you want to help me get it?”
Mutilating a roadkill carcass of indeterminate expiration date was a big ask of my partially-estranged husband. On one hand, he was used to a certain amount of unpredictability (what I privately liked to think of as “delightful chaos”) from me. But I’d already put him through one of the biggest shocks of his life when I had come home in October and told him, after several months of marital counseling, that I’d found a temporary place across town and I would pack a couple bags and stay there for a while.
He did not want to help me get the skull.
I put in a few calls to friends and found someone willing to hold my flashlight while I hacked with a shovel at the vertebrae connecting the head to the neck and used a pair of shears to cut the skin. In the middle of this process, the Methodist church next door let out their Wednesday night prayer meeting. The faithful exiting the parking lot got an eyeful of me, illuminated by their headlights, wearing disposable painter’s coveralls and a face mask, gleefully mutilating a corpse near William Faulkner’s grave.
I carried the head back to our house in a garbage bag, dug a hole in the backyard, and dumped it in. It looked up at me while I covered it with dirt.
When I moved all of my stuff out for good in May, I returned to the mound of earth I’d marked with a couple of bricks. Digging down through the soft soil, I worried at first the skull had disappeared, been scavenged or rotted, or merely dissolved into the ground. But then yellowed bone gleamed up at me through crumbling dirt. The soil where I’d buried it had been too moist, and the bone had started to decompose, creating deep cracks radiating up from the snout.
But the incisors fell loose from the skull into my hand, a few ivory slivers about the length of my thumbnail. The teeth were pristine.
Once I had that first skull, I got a taste for it. It quickly snowballed, friends getting on board to tell me where they’d seen roadkill raccoons or calling me to come over and collect dead squirrels or mummified frogs found in attic boxes.
I was surprised by how important teeth were to identifying unknown skulls. The first question is, “Was this a predator, or prey?”, and that’s answered with one quick check for canines. Past that, though, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of skull identification. I once found one with long yellowed incisors that curled into the skull, twice as long as what was sticking out of the bone. Squirrel? Rabbit? Beaver?
Muskrat, it turned out.
Have you ever held a single tooth in your hand? They are tiny, ugly things, instantly recognizable yet anonymous. Like tree roots, they’re best left mostly covered. The skull’s smile, that final lipless grin at death, exposes what some of us spend years hiding from: the frightening reality that we will die.
But something of us will stick around, and it’s likely to be our teeth. Tooth enamel is harder than steel. Teeth can survive cremation and are used to identify bodies long after the rest of us has crumbled or liquified. Once, I had an entire fox skeleton disintegrate over just a couple of months; the soil where I’d buried it had been too acidic. The teeth were still there, though, clinging to a shard of jaw. I wore one as an earring for a couple of days, a bright pointed dart through my pierced lobe, and felt raw, witchy. Primal.
Before I started collecting skulls, I hadn’t given much thought to teeth, other than to wonder about my own. When I was a kid, one of my front teeth stuck straight out of my mouth, like a tilt-up garage door opening. I still have the plaster cast that the orthodontist made and every time I look at it, it shocks me how intense the misalignment was. I had my palate widened in fifth grade, which involves a four-legged metal device that slowly breaks the bone of the upper mouth and jaw–still cartilaginous before puberty–and spreads them apart. Every month or two, the orthodontist would slide his gloved hand into my mouth and turn a metal key that would widen the expander another millimeter and cause me a week or more of pain. I hated the smell of the latex, the scratch of the brackets against the inside of my lips, the dull ache of my young bones learning to spread. The only thing I liked was picking the colors of my rubber bands–hot pink, electric blue, and purple.
In high school, I had braces again, this time to straighten errant teeth. I opted for clear brackets and rubber bands–anything to diminish the obviousness of my dental gear. The day I got them off, I couldn’t stop licking my teeth, relishing how straight and slick they were.
They didn’t stay that way, though. Despite the palate widening, my teeth are still crowded, too many of them jostling for space in my skull.
When we were in marriage counseling, my husband complained that I was always changing my mind.
“It’s a midlife crisis,” he told the therapist. “I don’t think she really wants to end this. She’s just got an idea in her head, but that happens all the time, and then she moves on.”
He brought up my fascination with the musical Hamilton, which had been intense but ultimately waned. There were several examples of this tendency to obsess over something and then fully abandon it. Supernatural fanfic. Sewing and crafting. Eating only local foods. I tossed myself into my passions, but in six months or a year I’d be onto something else.
I wondered if he was right. Was I flighty, unable to commit to anything? Could my unhappiness be a phase? Were all the things I wanted–travel, sex, artistic success, to own a home–temporary passions that would die down with enough time? From high school, I’d always recognized myself as someone full of appetite. I wished I had ten lifetimes. I wanted to do and be and fuck everything.
But my longings began to crowd each other, cutting me from the inside.
Teeth are, as Titus from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt says, “bones that live on the outside.” Humans use them to bite, chew, talk, and emote. They represent our biggest urges. The drive to grow, to change, to nourish ourselves. The drive to feel pain and pleasure.
Yes, pleasure. Teeth can be sexy. Constantly pressed against our lips, nestled inside our cheeks, embracing our tongue. In the Edgar Allan Poe short story “Berenice,” a man fixates on a woman’s teeth, imagines holding them, looking at them from every angle. After Berenice is buried, he goes into a trance and digs up her (still-living, in one version) corpse to pull all the teeth out of her mouth. He wakes up covered in dirt and blood, with the shovel and a box of teeth next to him. You can see how Poe (because somehow Poe seems to inhabit every one of his male narrators) might be entranced by them, might want to slip a finger into a soft, warm, wet mouth to trace their hardness, tease their sharp edges.
Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe I want my fingers in your mouth.
Because when Lady Gaga sings, “Show me your teeth,” I think about sex. “Don’t be scared / I’ve done this before,” Gaga murmurs over insistent drum beats, like a bedframe thumping against a wall. Because she knows what I know, what the best lovers know–the point of teeth is, well, the point. The pressure. The biting. The thrill of an incisor against skin is the sharp pain of the present and the mark left behind. A reminder of pleasure, a reminder of mortality. This is how close we came, it says, to something else. A different kind of animal.
I had an astrology reading done, and the astrologer said that I should consider Demeter, the goddess of grain and the harvest, the cycle of life and death, as a patron goddess. I think this had something to do with how much Saturn I had in my chart. A kind of death-driven energy, a fascination with endings and, consequently, beginnings.
I dismissed this recommendation initially. Sure, I might collect skulls, but I never felt like I was a Demeter girl. She was too sedate, agricultural, matronly. If anything, I was Artemis, the goddess of the wilderness, the moon, female independence. Or possibly Odin, the wandering one-eyed sorcerer with his raven messengers, Huginn and Muninn.
As I thought about it, though, I kept remembering Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, stolen away by Hades, the god of the dead, and taken to rule by his side as the queen of the underworld. Demeter’s grief at her loss was all-consuming. It ended harvests and started an eternal winter. The only way to restore the world to order, to some semblance of wholeness, was for Demeter to get Persephone back.
But even then, she couldn’t keep her forever.
My ex-husband’s teeth are white, square, and even, with the smallest hairline gap between his front incisors. Set in a wide mouth that is even wider when he smiles, which he did often. Big teeth, big mouth, big man.
Now that we’re divorced, I have to go back to Facebook to see him, to remember his teeth exactly. In the process, I get caught up looking at old photos of us. So many happy times–a trip to Stone Mountain, a holiday in Prague, the first house we lived in together on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. I examine how our faces, our haircuts changed over the years we shared. Remembering my striped pink scarf, his green vintage Tallahassee Parks and Recreation tee shirt, both gone now. We’ve lost them, but we still have our same smiles.
Did you know that teeth are one of the only parts of the body that cannot heal themselves?
“Tooth buds” start to form on the jawbone six weeks after conception.
Girls’ permanent teeth generally emerge before boys’.
A recent study of the plaque on a medieval woman’s teeth revealed traces of lapis lazuli, which helped determine that she was likely an illuminator, a skilled manuscript artist, a position historians hadn’t previously believed women held.
When teeth emerge, dentists call it “eruption.” Like a volcano, subtle movement under the surface before a violent change. These imposter bones tearing their way through our flesh and out into our mouths, to keep tearing our food for us so that our bodies can transform the food into more flesh. The teeth making up for what they destroyed.
Years ago, before my husband and I divorced, I was at his childhood home, helping him and his father sort through my late mother-in-law’s belongings. We had made it through her closet, her bathroom cabinets, and were working on excavating her bedside table. Amid handmade Mother’s Day cards and the kids’ ancient swimming awards was a tiny box, like a plastic pirate’s treasure chest.
Within, three small teeth, one each for my husband and his siblings.
I held the box in my palm, presented it to him, then set it aside as a keepsake. It fit with what I remembered of her: practiced hostess, devoted mother, shuffling around the dim house in slippers, skinny legs protruding under her terry cloth robe, asking me once more before bed if I needed anything. Her own teeth, long, rectangular, stained from coffee and cigarettes. She didn’t show them often. When she smiled for the camera, posing next to or behind her kids, it was demure, a bit embarrassed, a tinge of “ah, you’ve caught me!” hanging around her expression.
But digging farther down, past detritus of family vacations and a fourth-grade report card noting my husband’s tendency to goof off in class, we found more teeth. In drawstring velvet jewelry bags. In tiny manila folders. In a flat box with cardboard dividers, each tooth carefully placed like a kitchen utensil. Cuspids, molars, the odd incisor, some clean and shining, others clinging to shreds of old blood, and one with a metal brace epoxied onto its thin ivory surface. When we got to the bottom of the drawer, receipts and pictures and birthday cards removed, there were still more loose teeth, rolling around among the dust and grit–too many, I felt, for three children to lose.
The part of the Demeter story that I find the most poignant is the tension between permanence and change. She gets her daughter back, but has to immediately accept that she will lose her again. Again and again and again. When Persephone left Hades, she plucked those three seeds like garnet teeth from the mouth of the pomegranate, setting into motion an inescapable cycle of loss and reunion. Of change.
“All changed, changed utterly,” Yeats says in his elegiac poem “Easter 1916.” He calls this change “A terrible beauty.” The terror, I can see. The last three years of my life have included an axis-shifting divorce, a public coming-out, another shattering breakup, and a global pandemic. These changes have wrung and frightened and depleted and exhausted me; they’ve scratched at my spirit, torn my self-image. I’m sorry, Yeats, but I struggle to see the beauty in change.
Except, maybe, when I’m looking at a skull.
Why did I want that deer skull to begin with?
A friend of mine collected natural curiosities. I went to his house every now and then, went for long rambling walks with his wife around their property while we talked about writing and dogs and, always, eventually, my marriage. Beautiful, inspiring, intimate conversations that made me feel like it was normal to be a little unhappy. It felt grown-up, even artistic, to have one understanding of my marriage at home–supportive, fun, loving, the kind of daily domestic ease many people dream of–and then a different understanding when I talked about my marriage with friends. I was obsessed with what wasn’t happening, all the sex I wasn’t having, how a chance to understand my own queerness had already passed me by, and those doors were closing forever now. The person I wanted to be–the person I could have been–was receding from me and, naturally, it was my marriage’s fault. But this passage-of-time stuff was iconic, too. I thought about all the unhappy marriages I saw on TV and film, all the Don and Betty Drapers living beautiful but passionless lives in tandem. Marriage wasn’t glamorous anymore; what was glamorous was being quietly, stoically disappointed by marriage.
After these conversations, I’d go inside my friend’s beautiful home and look at his collection. Hagstones, rocks with natural holes in them. A bone from a walrus penis. A big bull skull covered in turquoise. He had an entire bookshelf full of bones, jars of feathers. I wanted these things, and more than that, I wanted to be the kind of person who would have these things. Someone in touch with nature, someone with the kind of sight that would go out into the world and notice an interesting knothole, know how to tell a swallows’ nest from a wrens’.
When I decided to harvest the skull from that roadkill deer, I didn’t know at the time what I wanted from it. If I was trying to be edgy, to figure out unusual ways I could break out of a stultifying traditional heterosexuality, or was just unhappy and needing a thrill that wasn’t sex.
But I know now that it sparked something in me, an urge to collect the world’s small, hidden, hard things. To hold them in my hands, display them in my home. And most of all to preserve the thing that doesn’t disintegrate. To remember that, underneath the muscle and skin and fur and everything else that changes and shifts, some things remain.
When I finally got to the bottom of my mother-in-law’s bedside drawer, I had stopped feeling tender and awed, had stopped laughing. It wasn’t cute anymore; it was uncanny. I brushed the dozens of baby teeth out of the drawer into the garbage can with the blade of my palm, then wiped it on my jeans, trying to rid myself of the feel of teeth. Where had they all come from? And why had she kept so many? There was something strange here, something I couldn’t understand, that I didn’t feel comfortable looking too closely at.
Now, several skulls later, I know. When I think about what part of myself is going to remain–to outlast my marriage, the pandemic, this season of decay and loss–I understand why someone might hold onto what is small and durable.
She didn’t want things to change.
Kate Lechler’s (she/they) work has appeared in Fireside Fiction, Podcastle, and Shimmer, among other places. They teach British literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., where they live with their dog, Charlie, collect skulls, and write about the apocalypse.