My Grandmother’s Teeth

by Kayleigh Rhatigan

My grandmother threw her teeth
to the lamplight when she laughed.
In peacock blue she rises
above the camera,
a rosy-cheeked citadel
with lanterns in the windows.
(In another photo—
caught hiding in the bathroom
to have a good long talk with her oldest friends,
smile larger than her body.)
Her smile
so much larger than her body
on the baby blue bed
and in the crane they used to lift her
when her legs stopped working,
she hung beside me,
bare legs like a Barbie’s
held too long near a flame,
lifeless rubber flopping
She smiled
to hold my eyes on her face
she said
it’s like my very own cradle.
To reach her
we walked the labyrinth of bodies
curling inward
of bones arranged carefully on chairs.
My smile
was like the food:
an imitation of something alive beyond the walls,
almost worse than nothing.
We brought her good food,
homemade and take out,
hot dogs and ice cream,
and she took two bites of everything and pronounced herself full,
like her lunch
had simply been too large that day.
She never said,
my body doesn’t hunger anymore.
She never said,
my stomach is a sated acorn— 
my mind still hungers
as the waves of pain rise
each day with the tide and lap
at my toes.
I can no longer feel my toes.
My eyes hunger for my grandchildren,
the young ones who still cling to my body,
the old ones who want to know me.
I am still a child
afraid to face death without my mother by my side,
afraid to touch the sunlight knowing
that it is limited,
afraid to stop buying
clothes I will never wear,
and food I will never eat.
She told me to leave as planned,
and not to stay and watch her die.
She did not tell me to remain at her side
in case there was anything left to say
that would occur to her only later.
the door is swinging shut in the wind
and I could hear you, maybe,
over the storm,
if you shout.) 
Her silences blossom, 
retroactively, in my memory.
How old were you when you decided
some stories were only for forgetting?
off at college,
learning to drink wine
and hold friends close with laughter,
not secrets?
You grew your teeth big and strong,
the gleaming wall of the citadel
where the pilgrims,
children still,
search for hieroglyphics.
Is there peace in the city?
When your father came home in the night
and woke you, oldest girl,
and your mother
in the silence warmed by children’s braggart
uncowed breath
when you scrubbed
in your nightgown
and listened to the creaking
of your mother’s spine,
did you build your smile then
out of porcelain tiles
and rags that last for years
if soaked in vinegar?
I wish,
on dying,
your teeth had fallen out.
I wish I was brave
and didn’t want death
to look a little more like sleep.