Crocodile Teeth – Mandira Pattnaik

Aunt Cheema walks barefoot so as not to disturb the crocodile teeth under the Melocana Bambusoides floor. It’s a collection from our ancestors, spread out underneath by Woama’s order — that Makara or the crocodile, equivalent of the Capricorn, the birth month of her husband, should be doubly respected. In our household of three Phom women, the men, even if they are dead, protect us. Like when I was stuck in traffic jam yesterday, inside the public bus from Yongnyah to Ao, and my School Board exams were to start in twenty minutes, I said a tiny prayer to my Father, though I’ve never seen him, and I am not sure if he’s dead, and then made a dash to the exam center, running all the way with my school bag on my back on the inter-state motorway choc-a-bloc with trucks carrying cattle, and soldiers, and metal rods.

Aunt Cheema comes and sits beside me, stares at my textbook. She never went to school, and I think she loves books, even if they’re difficult to cram by-heart.

“Your stomach’s lurching.” she says. “No”, I say, but she brings me some leftover sticky rice anyway. I find those bits of rice more appetizing when they have a sprinkling of shallots, or akhuni, or perhaps fried dry fish and chillies, but we have no choice.

Woama is out selling her ghost bibelots among the tourist crowd at Dzüko valley, claiming they are made of crocodile teeth, meant to ward off evil. They’re actually made of plaster and hand-painted, but no one bothers. Woama spins tales that they love — about the girl Tamang who jumped into the river to escape marrying against her wishes, and became a Hihu dolphin, and her lover who tied a rock to his back before following her into the river and became a crocodile. The tourists love Woama and sometimes write letters to her in fancy envelopes; at times, wire money. It’s love that matters, Woama says in all seriousness when she counts the cash and stashes it into the concealed chest at the underside of Mother’s dresser. I think Love? Then what?

Sometimes Woama breaks down and hugs the dresser, “My baby! My baby!”, as though it was Mother, before she was dragged away and mauled by a river crocodile, while working in the Intanki sanctuary. I was two weeks old then.

Aunt Cheema and I later double ride her rickety bicycle to the exam center. The bicycle can take a short-cut through paddy and tobacco fields, maneuver the goats and cattle better. Woama has placed a real crocodile tooth inside my school bag, pilfered from the floor-bed collection. Your good luck charm, she said, but I am not too hopeful. It’s just one of the eighty in the jaws of a crocodile, each replaced fifty times in its lifetime. If it had any charm, maybe it could replace my Father or Mother, bring me new ones instead.

When Aunt Cheema rushes back to work in the tobacco factory nearby, I can see her pedal away at full speed from my hilltop exam center, cycle between the bamboo groves, and then along the Bhogdoi river, its murky water glimmering in the sun. Woama says there are crocodiles in its waters, that ambush their preys, catch them unawares. I hope Aunt Cheema doesn’t pick up a pebble or two to put between her teeth, like gastrolith, so she can better ingest the weirdness, and emptiness, in our lives.

Mandira Pattnaik

Mandira Pattnaik is the author of collections “Anatomy” (Fahmidan, Poetry), “Girls Who Don’t Cry” (2023, ABP, Flash) and “Where We Set Our Easel” (forthcoming, Stanchion Publishing, Novella). Mandira’s work has appeared in McNeese Review, Penn Review, Quarterly West, Passages North, Timber, Contrary, Watershed Review and Quarter After Eight. More:

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