Children’s story: The Dentist’s Apprentice

Artwork by Jared Oliver Adams.

Brecan felt a tremor. Then came another, and another: the footsteps of a fellow giant, a league or more away. Brecan kept whistling and pulling leaves out of Dr. Audley’s gutters.

The human shopkeepers on either side of Dr. Timon Audley’s Tooth and Jaw Services began to shutter their windows and bolt their doors. They were used to giants – and other visitors – here on the Borderlands. They knew the difference between the rumble of a giant’s amble and the quaking of a giant’s march. These footsteps rattled the windows. These footsteps meant trouble.

Dr. Audley poked his head out his front window, right over the flowerbox, and looked in each direction, up Chepe Street and down it. Then he cranked his head to look up at the sky, at Brecan. Brecan was not yet fully grown, but he could look down at Dr. Audley’s gutters without standing on his tiptoes.

“And what is that racket?” Dr. Audley demanded. He managed to make it sound as if Brecan were responsible.

“I expect it is Mrs. Knaggs,” said Brecan. He plucked a clump of brown slime out of the gutter, grimaced and let it plop onto the pile next to his toe. This was not the sort of work an apprentice should do, in his opinion. But Dr. Audley was the only dentist in the Borderlands, so it was Dr. Audley’s opinion on the duties of apprentices that mattered.

“Who?”

“Your customer of last Tuesday. The giantess. I suspect her new teeth are giving her trouble.”

Dr. Audley blanched, muttered something about“this blasted place” and ducked his head back into the house.

A moment later, his head popped out again.

“Quick, boy,”the dentist shouted.“Get the big chair down while I lock up. We don’t want to give her any inkling that we might be open for business.”

The big chair sat in the yard behind Dr. Audley’s dentistry, for his larger customers. It was a groaning contraption of tree trunks slotted and lashed together in a precise and precarious arrangement. It would have taken Dr. Audley an hour of sweat and curses to dismantle that chair. It took Brecan five minutes.

The big chair – and the occasional big clients who made use of it – was the main reason Dr. Audley kept Brecan on as his apprentice. Brecan knew that. He was not much use with the human clients, who used the human-sized chair inside Dr. Audley’s house, whose heads were the size of one of Brecan’s fists.

Brecan harbored dreams of becoming a dentist himself. There was little hope of it, though. Giants were scarce, even in the Borderlands. A dentist who could only take giants as clients would never make a living unless he could take every giant, from this town and all the others within a day’s march on giant legs.

Brecan had other uses, too, and not just cleaning the gutters and fixing the roof. He had a little magic in him. He could sense things. He knew by touch when a tooth was unsound, so Dr. Audley had taken to having Brecan “clean”his giant clients’ teeth before the exams, to save him the energy of looking for holes himself. (Brecan suspected the doctor was a little afraid of being so close to giant mouths.) Cleaning teeth was a new notion in the Borderlands; most of Dr. Audley’s work was done with pliers. But Dr. Audley pretended cleaning was always done in the City and his clients submitted to it. Brecan went into their mouths with a pine sapling, cleaning the teeth and surreptitiously touching them, feeling for weakness within.

The feeling he got when he touched an unsound tooth was the same feeling he got when he touched a standing stone. He had always kept away from those stones. In the Borderlands, children learned early what places to avoid. One could scarcely walk through the forest without falling into a goblin trap and the plains were dotted with rings of stones that cast the wrong shadows. Horses walked around such places, whether their riders directed them to or not.

But a few weeks ago, Dr. Audley had ordered Brecan to go to the nearest circle of standing stones, the place they called Strewnstreth, in the dead of night. He told Brecan to pull the stones down and cart them to Dr. Audley’s cellar.

Brecan had objected, had warned his employer. But Dr. Audley had insisted.

“All these giants, missing teeth, wanting replacements,”Dr. Audley had squeaked, wringing his hands. “Just where do you think I can get my hands on teeth to fit the mouths of your kind, boy? It isn’t as if giant molars are lying around for the taking. And giants are too stupid to realize what I’m putting in their mouths, anyway. Most of them don’t even ask, and the ones that do seem to think it quite possible for me to get my hands on giant teeth for them. I mutter something about the North: ‘Frost Giants, you know. Very warlike.’ And they nod and give me their money. But we do not have Frost Giant teeth, as you well know, and so we must have rocks, boy. We must have something and we have used up all the suitable ones within an hour’s journey. You really must do away with these country superstitions.”

So Brecan had gone to do as he was told, because Dr. Audley was the only dentist he had ever met, and Brecan wanted very badly to be a dentist.

Of course he was not fool enough to walk right into the circle of standing stones. Dogs, chasing squirrels or sunshine, sometimes disappeared that way. But one could uproot a stone by standing on the outside of the circle, where life was as safe as life ever could be.

When he put his hand on the warm, gray rock, he could feel the weakness between the worlds, a soft spot. He knew no good would come of Dr. Audley’s plan. He sighed, and ripped the stones out of the ground just as Dr. Audley would pull bad molars out of a mouth; Brecan almost expected the holes to bleed.

Dr. Audley was just clicking the padlock on the shutters, trying to keep his balance on the quaking ground, when Mrs. Knaggs strode down Chepe Street toward them, her handbag swinging like a mace.

“Doctor,” she said, from the other side of the house, looking at him over his own roof, “I’m not at all satisfied with my new teeth.”

He turned, his expression sweet.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Mrs. Knaggs was big even for a giantess. Brecan saw a few of the more curious neighbors’ windows open a crack. The presence of onlookers seemed to bolster Dr. Audley’s courage; perhaps he thought of them as witnesses.

“As you can see,” Dr. Audley said, “I’m just closing up. Something, ah, personal to attend to, I’m afraid. But if you’d care to make an appointment…”

She shook her head, iron-gray curls bobbing under her pink hat. “I won’t be making an appointment. This is an emergency. This can’t go on.”

Dr. Audley kept smiling. “Well, perhaps you could tell me what the trouble is.”

Brecan held his breath, waiting for her answer.

Mrs. Knaggs drew herself up. “They’re giving me the megrims.”

“The megrims,” Dr. Audley said.

“Indeed. I’m seeing things out of the corner of my eyes, even when my eyes are shut. Shimmering lights. I’m quite sick to the stomach, and my head’s not at all right.”

Mrs. Knaggs looked right at Brecan, then. But Brecan hung his head. It was not his place to step in when customers complained; Dr. Audley had told him that many times.

“I don’t see what that has to do with your teeth,” Dr. Audley said “A fine set. Best of my inventory.”

Mrs. Knaggs, Brecan recalled, hadn’t asked about where Dr. Audley got his teeth. She’d leaned back in the giant chair and let Brecan fit her with a mouthful of rocks, with Dr. Audley below, calling out instructions from the ground. Brecan had barely listened. It was Brecan, after all, who had twisted the giant-sized wire, who had taken up a giant mallet and shaped the rocks into something that looked like teeth, and who had invented the system for wiring the rocks together.

“I’ve never seen any megrims before,” said Mrs. Knaggs, peering at the dentist. “It all started when you put these in. There’s something ferlie about them.”

Brecan set the big chair up again, even more quickly than he had taken it down. He had left some of the joints of the chair assembled; he had suspected that the footsteps belonged to Mrs. Knaggs, and he had known she would not be satisfied without an examination.

The ladder was almost as spindly as Dr. Audley himself but Brecan held it steady as the dentist mounted to the very top and teetered there, unwilling to brace himself against his client’s powdered cheek.

“I see nothing amiss,” came Dr. Audley’s voice, a little shaky. “I can of course replace them altogether, but as there is no sign of misalignment or defect, I regret to say the cost would not be covered.”

“You don’t regret it at all,” boomed Mrs. Knaggs.

“Well,” said the dentist, making his way down the ladder altogether too quickly for dignity, “you are of course welcome to inquire with my competitors but I doubt you will get a better price.”

Mrs. Knaggs grabbed her handbag.

“I expected better,” she said, looking straight at Brecan, “from you.”

As Mrs. Knaggs stomped away, Brecan could feel his heart pound to the beat of her steps. She had put her faith in him – not in Dr. Audley, but in him.

The shopkeepers opened their doors and Dr. Audley muttered something; an expression of relief, perhaps, that the encounter had ended so well.

“One must show backbone with these people,” he said to Brecan, “or they will demand free services and discounts, you know, because of their size. It is a risk but the risk of not standing up to them is greater.”

Dr. Audley mopped his brow and slumped on his front bench.

“One more year,” Dr. Audley muttered. “One more year and I’ll be able to afford a place in the City and really make a go of it. I just have to put up with these people one more year.”

Brecan began to dismantle the chair again as his employer sat, waiting, doing nothing to help, as usual. He did not even look behind him to see how Brecan was getting on.

Brecan took a deep breath, and pulled a large key out of his pocket.

“Ah,” he said, but his throat caught. He cleared it, and then said, again, loud and clear: “Ah. She must have dropped this.”

The dentist turned. “Bah. She’ll be back for it, then. Run after her, will you, and save me having to deal with her again.”

Brecan nodded, and sauntered after the retreating form of Mrs. Knaggs, just as she was rounding the corner, leaving Chepe Street.

“Wait!” he called.

She turned, like a ship turns.

“I must apologize,” he puffed, “for my employer’s behavior.”

Mrs. Knaggs looked down her nose at him.

“You believe me, then? You believe the teeth are giving me the megrims?”

Brecan nodded. “I’d be happy to replace them. With better rocks. Rocks that won’t give you the megrims. I’ll carve them to fit perfectly, I promise.”

“I see. And what will you charge me for this service?”

“Nothing,” he said, willing himself not to look behind, not to look back. “I ask only that if the new teeth are satisfactory, you tell the other giants. Tell them there is a new dentist in the Borderlands. Tell them about the importance of regular cleanings.”

She smiled at him, with her mouth full of gray teeth sparkling a little where they caught the sunlight.

 

THE END

Published in Spellbound, Winter 2013

 

 

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