To Lose a Jaw
“Oh, dear,” said the dentist, peering into Chiku’s throat.
“Whuaht?” gargled Chiku. The dentist left the dull hooked tool dangling from her mouth. The metal piece hung across from the small tube that dripped water into her throat.
“You have mouth cancer,” said the dentist.
Chiku pulled the objects from her mouth and placed them on the metal tray next to her inclined chair. She took out her notepad and wrote “mouth cancer” beneath her list of things to research in the island library. “Is there a medical term for that?” she asked.
“Mouth cancer is medical enough,” replied the dentist. “You’ll need to fly to one of the larger islands for treatment. I should tell you, though—even then, it’s not a guaranteed recovery."
“Who’s gonna pay for that? You? Will you take care of my family during that time too?” said Chiku. Her family depended on the small production of their farm, where every hand gave fruition to their living. “No. I need this fixed now,” she said.
“It’s 1969. Not 2001.”
He grabbed her chin and stared into her mouth. With his other hand, he reached for the X-ray. He glanced between the X-ray and her gums, then said, “There’s a lot of tumor formations. Good news, though, it’s only along your bottom gums. It’s easy, really.” He released her and placed the X-rays back in a manila folder. “We’ll just remove your jaw.”
By the end of the week, only two-thirds of Chiku’s face remained. For two months, stitches aligned the bottom of her cheeks. Gauze wrapped around her throat, holding up her tongue. For eternity, everything below her only row of teeth: air.
For eternity, everything below her only row of teeth: air.
This new form hardly bothered Chiku. She became skilled at feeding her tongue mush instead of dumping food into the open hole of her esophagus. After enough practice, she was able to drink with a straw. She communicated with a series of snaps and throaty whistles. Her husband, Pete, as well as her daughter, Fina, grew to understand her outside of words.
Chiku was not ashamed. Still, she stayed close to the island’s countryside. The military people near the villages treated her like a deformity. Their faces of disgust and horror—as if she was committing some act of indecency—reminded her why she could no longer commit to her favorite pastime: walking Fina to school. When Chiku lost part of her face, Fina was forced to walk with her aunt and cousin instead. Only at this time did Fina feel the absence of her mother’s jaw. Only at this time did she ever feel the absence of a mother at all. For the rest of that school year, Fina and Chiku dreaded her cousin’s morning knock on their door.
After Fina left for school, Chiku sometimes stood in the hallway mirror and pretended her face was full. Chiku kept the rest of herself floating in a jar of formalin labeled “Caution: May contain carcinogens.” The surgeon was careful to make a clean cut across her cheek, so clean that a touch of red lipstick remained on her now-separated bottom lip. She would hold the jar next to her head. If you ignored the raw flesh and the flaccid tongue, her puzzle-piece face appeared whole.
Pete laughed when she did this. He would put the jar back on the hallway table and say, “You’re still more beautiful than Sophia Loren.” Chiku wondered what she might look like with Sofia Loren’s jaw.
Summer became a relief for both mother and daughter. Door knocks no longer haunted them. Fina spent the break learning how to make mwarmwars. The day before school began, she made her magnum opus, which she named a maskaran mwarmwar. Adapted flower crown in hand, she took the untied row of flowers after dinner, held it against her mother’s only row of teeth, looped it around Chiku’s left ear, and tied off the braided leaves behind her right. The lower half of Chiku’s face appeared consumed by the flowers. Chiku looked in the hallway mirror, left the jar on the table, and decided she could walk again.
The lower half of Chiku’s face appeared consumed by the flowers.
The next morning, Chiku discovered a new love for the sunrise, the way the morning crisp wrapped around every object on the dirt road, including the dwindling innocence of her daughter. She swore to God and her ancestors that she had never seen a morning like this. She rarely noticed the cars that slowed or the people who quickly glanced away when she looked towards them. For the first half of the school year, Chiku walked Fina to school and listened to Fina plan her Halloween costume. Then October’s end came and Pete left to trick-or-treat with Fina dressed as a pig-nosed nurse. Chiku stayed home to hand out candy.
The first trick-or-treaters were Fina’s classmates, two little boys. They wore small Sunday school dresses with white collars and tennis shoes. Flowers were taped to their face. Chiku quickly gave them candy and slammed the door, hoping that would keep her deformities away. But the rest of the night was filled with Frankensteins, astronauts, gorillas, and Chikus trickled within each group. Every child, even the gorillas, stifled laughter.
With each flowered child, Chiku felt she was losing herself. She stared into the mirror, questioning her hibiscuses, when she was interrupted with another set of knocks. She opened the door to two middle school boys with strings of flowers wrapped around their heads. They tried to say “Trick or treat” with their lips shut, then erupted into fits of laughter. Chiku could not breathe. She ripped the maskaran mwarmwar off, revealing raw flesh, a black hole, and a tongue that snaked in the air. The boys began to cry. Chiku’s face reddened. Her tongue went limp. She tried to comfort them but they jumped back, shrieking. She threw handfuls of candy into their baskets, then slammed the door. She waited for the crying to fade as the boys walked across her lawn.
She picked the maskaran mwarmwar off her floor and walked to the hallway mirror. She ignored the desperate knocks that followed, holding the jar against her face until her arms ached. She placed herself back on the table, put her maskaran mwarmwar on, and went to bed.
Chiku spent the next morning sweeping flower petals off her porch.
A. Sirena is a Chamoru-American currently residing in the heart of shrimp and grits country. She was a finalist for Black Warrior Review's 2018 Flash Prose contest. When she's not writing or reading, she spends her time giving belly rubs to her cat, Mojo.
Illustration by Meghan Irwin.