The church was built like a fortress, walls thick and hewn from boulders hauled from the gorge below, towers jutting skyward like battlements, and caverns carved deep into the mountain used for storing wine, weapons, and relics of strange, forgotten saints.
Not quite East and not quite West, the church occupied a sort of borderland so remote that blue twilight began just after midday. Those who lived near this borderland spoke of it with magical words, and the first monks were led there by their stories. The monks came from other lands, forded the rivers and climbed the mountains, felling only the most necessary trees and damming only the most necessary streams. These monks built the church and its outer buildings, edifying the grounds already hidden by the forest and guarded by the wolves. Their cells, connected to the church by a long, low tunnel, were spartan, each warmed by a single small stove fueled by blistering embers of wood and dry rotted earth from the forest beyond the walls.
The location and fortification of the church implied what was true, that it had not been built to welcome visitors. The monks preferred an atmosphere of near silence and, since they had not taken sacrosanct vows, they did not hear confessions or consider hospitality to be their duty. Still, some visitors came, sometimes from below the mountain to seek a night’s rest or a brief communion. The monks ignored the latter but obliged the former, if only to prevent their visitor from returning to the night woods and falling victim to its predators. A disappeared visitor would bring even more, probably teams of men and their dogs looking for a fallen friend. So the monks allowed the rare visitor to stay, offering not a cell of one’s own but a spot at the base of the altar in the church. There was no fire there and dark owls roosted in the eaves, and the twisted agony of a prophet on a cross was absolution enough for their souls.
Some visitors came from far beyond the mountains. They did not seek to take sacraments or commune with their gods, but rather came to trade. This is how the monks came to be in possession of the teeth.
The teeth were traded by a traveler who claimed to have come upon them in a gamble with a Turk on the Silk Road. The traveler knew them to be relics and they had not yet served him as a talisman, so he accepted a small clutch of gold and three emerald chips in return for his prize. The monks added this new item of holy mortis to their collection of rag and bone and at first light, they woke the traveler from his spot at the altar and were once again left to little else but their prayers.
As collectors of relics, the monks were familiar with items like the teeth. These teeth had come from a man, that much was obvious, as they resembled neither the oafish sabres of a bear nor the sleek, vulpine knives of a dog. What some monks found unusual about these teeth was that they came attached; they had not been pulled from their owner one-by-one and tossed together into a velvet pouch. They had not been threaded with a cord and worn around the extractor’s neck. The teeth traded to the monks were whole, still clustered together as they had appeared originally, organically, although at some point in their history, someone had taken the time to fashion a kind of clasp to serve as their mouth. The clasp had been beaten from silver and filigreed by a craftsman, set with a smooth hinge at the back and a simple, almost crude cross of strange proportions impressed onto the top plate. It was not a standard or Orthodox cross as far as the monks knew, but it was of the basic shape and therefore marked the teeth as the relic of a martyr. The monks may have had lenient views on the official requirements of sainthood, but they believed that a sacrifice such as a martyrdom birthed its own source of power, and that the magnitude of suffering that must have accompanied the wholesale removal of ones teeth was very powerful, indeed. This is why they kept the teeth. This is why they hid them down in the cellar.
There was no official abbot at the monastery, no monk who would willingly step forward to claim higher wisdom over the others, but there were elder monks who, by virtue of living longer and spending more winters at the monastery, could claim some authority.
Arius was the eldest of the monks, and the farthest-traveled. He had seen the traditional Bavarian charivari, the sometimes morbid charms worn by hunters during traditional festivals in the deep Black Forest to the west. The hunters’ charivari ranged from bits of horn or claws to the cleaved feet of game birds and, occasionally, whole skulls of voles, martens or foxes. The teeth bartered by the traveler reminded him of charivari, although he understood them to be much older, far more rare, and, of course, human. He could not purport to know their origin but, on the basis of the cross shape and the working of the silver, guessed they had been fashioned somewhere in North or East Africa.
It was Arius who ordered the teeth to their place in the cellar amongst the other relics, and Arius who first dreamed of them. The dream was innocuous as dreams go. In the dream, Arius slipped from the pallet in his cell and padded down frigid stone halls in his bare feet to the cellar steps. Upon reaching these, he extended a blue-veined hand to touch the barred oaken door. The door opened quietly, easily, the lock did not catch. Arius went down the stairs to the cellar, finding his way from chamber to anteroom to sub-cellar without a lamp. In his dream, he entered the relic room.
The relic room had no shelves to speak of, but there were a few tables, some irregular stones jutting from the floor, and hollows dug into the shale-and-earth walls by the arthritic fingers of earlier monks. All surfaces were piled with detritus. Scrolls and jars, weapons and shrouds, dead candles and the occasional fingerbone, pieces scattered in various stages of desiccation. The teeth had been placed in a wall hollow in a disused corner of this grimoire. Arius found them before he knew he was searching. He reached for the teeth, and as he caressed each molar, each canine incisor, each curve of the palate imprinted with the cross, he felt his own teeth with his tongue and took a mental inventory of their peaks and crennelations.
Arius woke then and felt as if there had occurred an animus in his teeth, deep in the hasp of his jaws, as if the machinations of his dentata were prickling with renewed purpose. It was not pain, although Arius was no stranger to pain, and it was not frightening, although Arius was no stranger to fear, either. On his hard pallet in his cold cell, Arius understood this to be a sensation, nothing more, and was not overly disturbed by an enhanced awareness of his anatomy.
Sensation was a thing to possess, of course, and above all – above silence, above isolation, above their altar and its doomed prophet – the monks valued possession. The experience of the dream and the impression it caused were kept by Arius, hidden away in his brain as a relic in the cellar, gathering dust until its worth could be revealed or forgotten.
Silence echoed through the monastery into the long weeks of winter, when visitors were kept out of the mountains and the snows, winds, and darkness were kept in. It was not remarked upon when monks did not appear at morning meal, or when they appeared to labor over midday fires, and at night, the odd cry of pain could not rise above the howling of the forest beyond. Dried ochre-hued spots on pallets and in the halls were scrubbed clean the next day, and the oaken door to the cellar was always locked. These tasks were never discussed, and no human voices disturbed the stillness of the monastery.
Arius continued to dream of the relic room and the teeth, and in his dreams, he had begun to recognize that the teeth bought from the traveler from the Silk Road were no longer alone in their spot on the wall. In the beginning, a single tooth had joined the ornately-turned piece. This tooth was not set into a denture or inlaid with a cross. Instead, it was alone, and bare, and had a raw, stained appearance that would suggest it had recently been pulled, and from a mouth that did not belong to an ancient saint. Later, the alcove that belonged – for the monastery was still, always, a place of possession – to the teeth became a shelf for other single specimens, until the crevice was crowded with them, and they began to fill the spaces around the alcove as if a pebbly, ivory mortar. While there had been the one tooth on the first night after the initial dream, on the nights that followed, the teeth had multiplied, and Arius no longer kept count or noticed the droplets of blood or spittle on the stones in the cellar.
In his waking hours, he moved through the tunnels of the monastery in a fugue state, scarcely registering the even deeper silence absent of soft footfalls or knuckles kneading dense, seeded dough in the kitchens. When he looked into the face of a fellow monk – and this happened so rarely these days, it seemed, the vows of solitude renewed with such discipline – he found himself staring deep into a similarly empty gaze, the pallor of others taut with a desperation none could name. The odor of the monastery had changed, as well. Arius could detect a corporeal redolence behind the familiar shale, earth, and granite, and discerned a fecund heat, like a pulsing fever, at the cell doors. The wolves in the forest had begun baying during the day. He wondered why he could not remember the last time any of them had reached the gate.
For seven nights, Arius dreamed of going into the relic room to see the teeth, and for seven nights, the teeth surrounding them had bred. No, not bred, they could certainly not have propagated of themselves, not when a metallic tang spiced the air and the sourness of sick crept down the walls. They had been placed there, Arius realized, they have been given by hands that had swept stone halls and tended heavy pots and been clasped in prayer. They had been given to the teeth, the ones with the hinge and the cross. Gifts. Possessions. They belonged to the teeth.
It was curious, Arius thought, in his dream, that he could experience the now familiar sensation in his mouth, the insistent nagging upon his mandible and the itching ache at his eyeteeth. He brought his fingers to his lips and, with some force, pushed them through, past the chapped skin that would not kiss, past the rows of streaked enamel that demanded attention even in his sleep, in the cellar, past the still and lonely tongue until they reached the hinge in Arius’s throat, the joint, the bearing upon which his voice had been so sparingly used.
His fingers that had done labor and writ judgements found the largest, widest tooth at this mighty hasp and closed around it. The tooth was old; it was riddled with tobacco-colored decay. Tightening their grasp, the fingers wrenched one way, and then the other, and as Arius’s jaw resisted the motion, the fingers pulled, pulled harder, until Arius felt a suction followed by an emptiness, which was then filled with a wetness that tasted of iron.
Extracting his fingers from his mouth, back the way they came, Arius took note of the object they held. It was gnarled and yellowed, smeared with blood and a liquid of a more viscous nature. Arius’s instincts told his fingers to drop the object where he stood, and while they did release the object, it was not to the floor. Instead, Arius saw himself, his hand, his fingers, their gnarled knuckles tufted with the wiry gray hairs of an aging man, gingerly place the object into a loose section of rock in the wall near the teeth. Once the object was secure between the stones, Arius felt his abused mouth stretch into what might have been a ghastly smile. A gift, he thought, and felt his fingers intrude again, past his lips, his tongue, and diving back to where the weakest and most diseased teeth lay, waiting for extraction.
One by one, a methodical and repetitive violence followed by absence and a wound, a gift that felt to Arius like a purification. If he experienced visions during this ritual, he did not realize them. The burning, gleaming altars, glades and dells of squirming life and the stealthy, stinking death that sought it, a lean boatman taking a coin. These images did not seem to Arius as anything out of the ordinary; instead, they flickered behind his milky eyes and sputtered out, a necessary piece of the ritual.
What Arius knew then was that the other monks had all left the cellar and returned to their cells. They had curled drooling on their pallets, attempting to leech the last of the heat from dying embers. They had remained there, growing cold with their stoves, graying and silent, still. Arius could not return to his cell. The monastery was not his but needed a keeper, a sentry, and as the oldest and farthest-traveled, Arius had taken this mantle. He would stay there, then, in the cellar, in the seat of power, for power was in the possessions. He would stay there with his relic.
And the teeth would stay, as well, until Arius himself grew cold in visions of an oar dipping into Stygian currents, silent and dim. They would remain until it was discovered again, as it had been in the past. The teeth would seek their own possessions, willingly given, visions of a prize forged, lost, found, won, sold, and waiting in the dark.