Milk Teeth

by by Doreen St. Félix

illustration by by Drew Foster & Sarah Grimm

At the age of six, in some cases earlier and in others later, the process of shedding teeth begins with the fall of the first tooth. Children around the world are struck by the new pulp vacancy in their gums, by the body part in their hands, struck by how unfinished their smiles now look.

Their adults tell them what to do:

In the United States, you place the tooth underneath your pillow before going to sleep. In the night, a flying figure called the Tooth Fairy drops magically into your room. She is in the business of collecting teeth. Quietly, she slips her hand beneath the bed pillows and collects her prize, which you call a “baby tooth.” She always leaves a reward in return—a quarter, a dollar, a small gift—so that you will gain something in the morning after you have lost something in the night. Besides her wings and the trail of sparkles from her wand, what she really looks like is unknown. But she is, most likely, a certain shade of blue.

In Spain, you place the tooth underneath the pillow before going to sleep. A 117-year-old rat named Ratoncito Pérez will enter your room with the moonlight by the cracks in the door. Pérez, who is from Madrid, is said to live in a box of sugar cookies with his precious wife, La Ratita Presumida, Vain Little Mouse, and his children, when he is not out collecting what is known in most European languages as “milk teeth.” His wife is the most beautiful mouse in all of Spain—the Donkey dreams of her, the Dog barks longingly for her, even the Cat thinks she is almost too beautiful to eat! Pérez is a handsome and sturdy rat. His bifocals perch on his perfectly sloped nose, he wears a freshly pressed corduroy jacket, and he tops off his dandy outfit with a calico wide-rimmed hat. When he hears the sweet, glittering sound of your falling tooth, he kisses his beautiful wife goodbye and scurries through the marvelous maze of pipes underneath Madrid to your very bedroom. In exchange for your tooth, it is customary that he will also leave you a small gift, usually one of the cookies from his home.

In Peru, he is called El Raton de los Dientes.

In Argentina, he is El Raton Pérez.

In Venezuela, he is also the spokesman for Colgate.

In Colombia, his name is not Spanish. Like his fellow indigenous folkloric characters, he does not dress in the European style. No bifocals, no jackets, no calico wide-brimmed hat. In fact, this mouse does not dress at all. Long ago, the people who lived on the land before it was named after Christopher Colombus recognized that mice teeth, strong and sharp, never stop growing. And so the little mouse became the cultural tooth-gatherer. The tradition drifted to Europe many centuries after, but it has been forgotten amongst jars of molasses, bundles of sugarcane, pounds of tobacco­—the pounds of bodies.

In France, in the countryside, you leave your tooth to wait for La Petite Souris. Also a mouse, but French- rather than Spanish-speaking, the Good Little Mouse turns into a fairy during the day so that she can care for neglected children. She returns to her tiny size at night; simply, it is much easier to navigate your downy pillows this way. But if you live on the stirring, cosmopolitan streets of Paris, you will probably leave your tooth for the American Tooth Fairy because you’ve never heard of the Good Little Mouse, much to the resigned disappointment of your grandparents, whose teeth are also falling.

In Egypt, you wrap your bloodied tooth in the whitest cloth. You fling the small package as high as you possible can, so that the Sun God Ra might catch it. As it is ascending, you recite this wish:

Shiny Sun, Shiny Sun.
Take this buffalo’s tooth
And give me a bride’s tooth.

In Norway, you drop your tooth in a glass of water on your nightstand. It is much easier for Tannfe, the Norwegian Tooth Fairy, to find your tooth in clear water than in opaque pillows—her eyes are so very old and tired. In the morning, sunk in the bottom of the glass, you will find a silver coin.

In Japan, and in most East Asian countries, you call the first erupted tooth and the dissenters that will follow “fall teeth.” When translated, the word in Japanese for “fall” more accurately fits the English word “deciduous”—the translation, however, is still ill-fitting. The sensation of the Japanese “fall” is to describe the natural and inevitable falling away of what is no longer purposeful. Instead, you close your eyes, curl your knees forward and throw the tooth into the air. If a baby tooth on the lower dental arcade falls, then you throw it upwards, so that the little fallen soldier will land on the top of the roof. But if, instead, a baby tooth on the upper ridge falls, then you toss it below, underneath your home. You do this in wise anticipation of the future; the adult lower tooth will grow upwards, while the upper tooth, nestled in the en-no-shita portion of your house, will sprout downwards. Perfectly, vertically.

In Mongolia, you don’t throw the tooth at all. You pack it in meat fat and feed it to a young dog, hoping that the lard will blind him as he eats your tooth. The dog will stay with you—even when the unforgiving, icy season called zud forces your family to gather everything, forces your family to move towards warmth. Your first fall tooth, in turn, stays with him.  The dog is an earth-bound guardian for children and his consummation of the fall teeth ensures that your adult teeth will be as strong and destructive as his own, wherever the seasons move you.

In North Korea, you throw your tooth in the air. Perched, waiting, a black bird sees the dancing, white thing. It swoops through the sky, clutches it in its beak and flies away, invisible against the blackness of the night sky, the blackness of factory smoke.

In Costa Rica, you give your tooth to your mother, who has it plated in gold. If you are a girl, she has it made into an earring. If you are a boy, it is made into a charm necklace. The tooth and the cross you wear, both dipped in soft gold, should protect you from any harm or danger that might come your way. She cannot always stay with you but she knows your protectors always will.

In Sri Lanka, you must first coax a squirrel into staying with you a while. In his presence, you throw your tooth towards the upper branches of a tree. It is best to do this gently so he isn’t frightened and scurries away. When the tooth is nestled amongst the leaves, you tell the squirrel that the tooth is his if he agrees to bring you a new one. Of course, though you watch intently, you never can see him climb up the tree to retrieve it. When you finally begin to feel the new tooth scraping your tongue, you reason he must have fetched it during the few seconds you had to blink.

In Ukraine, in a corner of your home which light cannot find, you tuck your tooth in a tissue and leave it in the darkness. You whisper, “Take my old tooth and give me a new one,” but you are not sure to whom you are whispering.

In Nigeria, you hide your tooth in the attic so it does not get eaten, especially not by a mouse. The preservation of baby teeth is imperative to the health of your adult teeth, so while burying the tooth in the safe cobwebs of the uppermost floor in your home, you whisper this spell:

Mr. Mouse, Mr. Mouse, don’t you dare eat this tooth! If you do, my new tooth will not come out. If you eat my tooth, I’m coming, I’m coming to get you and I’ll find, I’ll find your whole family and kill you.

In Haiti, if you have not yet been told about the American tooth fairy, you bury your tooth underneath the tree your father planted for you the day you were born. That day, your father whispered his dreams for you into a carafe full of water. After wetting the earth, he nestled a seed and your umbilical cord into its dirt folds. He did this so that the tree would be a good guardian, having grown up with the part that holds you close to your mother by its seed. Its shade comforts you, its fruits nourish you, and its roots ground you, especially if your parents have gone away. You bury your milk teeth because of two palpable fears. If a witch doctor or loa spirit gets to your tooth, he can use it to do terrible things to your family, or to make sure that no part of your body ever grows. And if an animal eats the tooth, your adult teeth will come in grotesquely, like the animal’s.

If it is a pig, your teeth will come in flat and dull.

If it is a goat, your teeth will come in grey and smell like mud.

If it is a horse, your teeth will jut out of your mouth like mountains.

If it is a mouse, your teeth will get lost in your mouth, tinier than ginger candies plugged into your gums.

In Jordan, you throw the tooth not towards the roof but a distance farther—to the sun. The hope is that Allah will accept your supplication, blazing a flying white dot onto the burnt color of the sun, and grant you with a better, stronger adult tooth.

In Jamaica, you throw the tooth to the moon. If you angle your wrist perfectly, the sugar-white tooth should disappear into the sugar-white moon, if only for a brief second, before it drops down, down, down, back to the ground.