“Alaia”: The Commission

The Commission

Bertrand plunges from the ether into the conducting fluid of Old Man Jennings’ mouth and Jennings’ teeth spread before him like an ivory road.

From tooth to tooth he runs, soaring between the gaps, to the consternation of the bacteria.

The manifest form of the god of Jennings’ mouth, its tendrils streaming, races beside him. It matches daring to daring, life for life, skipping in and out around Jennings’ teeth and nearly cutting Bertrand off at the left canine.

Pulling marginally ahead, Bertrand releases a great shout, “Ha!”

Then the life that burns in Jennings unexpectedly goes out.

The road dissolves around Bertrand. Bertrand’s shape becomes disorder. His pattern turns static and fades out. The god seizes him, wraps him in its tendrils, and gives him one more moment of coherence in which to send a warning free:

Old Man Jennings is dead.

Together they tumble to the places dead things go.

It was Kelly Whitecap who’d made Jennings’ teeth all those years ago. She’d gone into the surging wilds of his gums and given them form. Her spirit had dwelt with that toothway while it lasted, had shone forth from its craftsmanship for all who rode the road to see.

“And now,” says Hank, her last surviving student, “it’s like a little more of her is gone.”

Sandra puts her hand upon his back.

They’re staring at the toothway nub, a protrusion of enameled solidity into the indifferent substance of their world, and thinking of the path where once it led. Jennings wasn’t the last of Kelly Whitecap’s brood, but he’d been her best: untroubled perfect teeth for all the long years of his life, a joyful god, and a road to New Jerusalem.

“In thirty years,” Hank says, “nobody’ll even know that work like hers was done.”

Sandra becomes angry when he says that. Red blooms on her face and a throbbing tension grows inside her limbs. But she doesn’t say anything in response, not until several minutes have passed.

“Some kid,” she says, “out there, some kid’s going to need teeth that go to New Jerusalem.”

“Some kid,” Hank says. He stares out at the void. Then he startles. “You don’t mean me? You don’t mean I’m to make them? Sandra, I’m retired.”

“Like I don’t know that,” Sandra says.

“Oh?”

“But you’re wasting yourself,” Sandra says. “Out in the suburbs with your sheepfoam and your fields. You’re bloody Hank Makeway, Hank, you’re the smith of children’s teeth, and you’re going to make a toothway to New Jerusalem now that the last of them’s been sealed. You’re going to make your master proud, Hank, and I’m going to give you the horses you’ll use to do it.”

A little smile crosses his face.

“Ah, there’s the truth of it,” he says.

He’s teasing her for having an ulterior motive, but it makes her, if anything, more stern.

“I made them,” Sandra says, “six years ago, Hank. A team of eight white horses, pure as the teeth of Heaven, and I knew they were for you. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know when and I sure didn’t plan it in the making of them. But there isn’t anyone else for them, Hank. And there isn’t anyone else for this.”

“The world is such a fragile thing,” Hank says.

He’s staring at the toothway nub. He’s thinking of all of us who make our work and put our lives into our work and know that it will one day pass.

That’s when she knows he’ll do it; and after a moment, he knows it too.

He puts on the decision like he’s shouldering a coat, and the old weary smile comes onto his face, and he says, “It’ll be beautiful, won’t it?”

“They all are,” Sandra says.

The horses that a smith rides out are standing waves. They are surging, elemental things, like white fires burning in the bleakness. Now one imagines the shape of an equine head; now the stomping, chomping movement becomes a hoof, and it leaves its imprint semicircle on the floor. Wine-Drinker shakes his hair and it seems there is a fall of leaves. Crust-Cruncher dances in her place and pulls against her reins. And beside them are Flesh-Ripper, Stress-Grinder, Milk-Guzzler, Drought-Ender, Drink-Deep, and Paneity. Such are the horses Sandra’s made for Hank Makeway, the smith of children’s teeth.

He stares at them in awe.

Hank holds his hand out to Drought-Ender. He feels a licking awareness of the horse’s presence against his open palm. He makes a caress; the horse shifts suddenly closer, stares with her wild eyes into his own, and he is transfixed as a man in the presence of a god. But reflex saves him; his hand tightens; he murmurs, “What there?” and the horse sees the smithcraft in him and goes quiet, gentle, even calm.

“Three for the road,” says Sandra. “Three for the roof.”

“And two to set the teeth in,” Hank answers.

She shines with quiet pride.

“Already,” he says, in gentle complaint, “I am to replace the work of Kelly Whitecap; and make a road to New Jerusalem, suffused with grace. And now you give me this to equal, Sandra of the Rise.”

“And now I give you this to equal,” she agrees.

So he takes up the ropes and picks and standards of his art and he says, “Do we know a ripening child?”

“Sleeping in Chicago’s spires,” Sandra says. “Between the towers and the gums.”

“Streets,” he corrects.

“Whatever.”

And Hank sets out.

but it is late and we are weary; so we shall wait until tomorrow to tell you how Hank ground the wilds into truth.

3 thoughts on ““Alaia”: The Commission

  1. I’m mostly thinking of the riddle about teeth in the Hobbit, about white horses on a red hill.

    Why teeth? Is it because of the resonance with “tooth” and “truth”?

Leave a Reply