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William Hawkins


There are small villages in the Italian countryside where the fairy is a saint — a young woman in a roughspun habit who sneaks into the bedrooms of all the baptized boys and girls with a loose tooth in their mouths. Those visited say the saint is silent save for the drip-drip-drip of blood, forever trickling off her chin. The terrified children pretend to sleep as the saint approaches, an ancient pair of pliers in one hand and with the other she pries open children’s mouths. There is the smell of smoke and burned hair. She wedges the pliers into their mouths — the children’s eyes squeezed tightly shut, clenching their throats to keep an small noise of horror  inside — and pulls forth the loose tooth. They feel her make the sign of the cross over them before she departs as wordlessly as she arrived. If, once the bedroom window or door has been shut once more, the child’s eyes fly open and they spring out of bed, they might yet see the trail of blood, the juice of her wounded mouth. The blood will be gone in the morning, while the children’s own gums will have healed. The tooth that grows in the missings’ place will be strong and resistant to decay. There must be blessing, after all, in a saint’s visitation.

            This is the lore of the children who pretend at sleep, those who keep their eyes closed.  And certainly there are some children who don’t have the need to pretend, the lucky children who simply sleep through the visitation and wake the next morning with no memories, only a newfound absence where once was a tooth. These children, foolishly, believe they swallowed the tooth sometime in the night. They laugh off the story of the saint.

            And then there are the children who could not resist the temptation of opening their eyes. The children who have gazed upon the smile of Santa Apollonia. It took me some time, but finally I found one such, now a grown man, willing to speak. In the Province of Reggio Emilia, on the banks of the Enza, less than an hour’s drive from Parma, there is a ristorante of no great notice, with a linoleum floor and white tablecloths on plastic tables, a television set in to the corner which always plays futbol. But the food is good and the service is friendly. My informant could often be found there. Unlike the others, he did not resist my questions. I don’t know why, what marked him as compared to the others, the men and women who had seen Santa Apollonia standing over them.

            “Her smile,” my informant said, in an informal Italian, “It was raw meat. You could see where they beat her jaw in. You could see the jagged stumps of her broken teeth. You could see the burnt peels of skin that had once been her cheeks. Her fire-shriveled eyes. I tell you, you could see everything. It was all one long and terrible seeing. You say the others have told you that she opened their mouths with her hand. She did not with me. I had opened my own mouth to scream, but there was no scream, just an awful silence that choked me. She, how do you say it, she reached in with her pliers. She knew the tooth she wanted, and she pulled it free. She dropped it into the palm of her other hand. Cradled the baby tooth in her palm. That little bone. Then she closed her fist over it and leaned down and to kiss, here, right here on the forehead. It burned. It burned like the fire she had leapt into. Sometimes, I see a fire, how do you say, a bonfire, yes, I’ll see a bonfire from the road, workers clearing scrub or old tree limbs, or maybe in a festival, a winter bonfire, and there is an urge to run straight into the flames, an urge which comes from here, this very spot she kissed. She left me that. And of course, with the calling.”

            The calling. Yes. Once this man unburdened himself to me I saw the others, those kissed by the ruined lips of Apollonia. They have offices throughout the countryside, as my informant did, not far from where I had found him in his cups. I’ve been to several, ostensibly just for a consultation. I do not tell them what I am actually there for. There are many dentists in the world, but the ones who follow the saint are, to a one, exceptional at their vocation. As they ask you, politely, to open your mouth, as they inspect your teeth and clean them, you would wonder that they are even at work, so light is their touch, so capable their hands. In Italian, the common translation of dentist is denista, a feminine noun, and I wonder if Apollonia is why. I wonder at that, that and the look in the eyes of the men and women who must heed her call. Capable all, and all of them — all I visited, at any rate — had the same look tucked into their eyes, which I could nonetheless saw, knowing where to look. A burning sorrow. A saint’s stigmata. None of them wanted their hands in a stranger’s mouth. But fate compels each to hold the delicate instruments of torture, to pry open the mouth, to peer down the wet gullet of sinners and pry out the rot from their flesh. Their eyes are the eyes of the hopeless. “Please,” they must beg, “open wide.”


William Hawkins has been published in Granta, ZZYZYVA and TriQuarterly, among others. Originally from Louisiana, he currently lives in Los Angeles where he is at work on a novel.