Dragon’s Teeth by Elizabeth Caswell

A man named Phil showed up at our house one day with clipboard and binder in hand, an army of pens in his pocket. I was twelve and therefore unseen as he shook my father’s hand, told my father that as he’d explained on the phone, he was conducting research on the aftereffects of the Vietnam War, thank you for participating in the study, his questions would all pertain to my father’s time as a Marine in Vietnam, is there somewhere we can talk? My father nodded, his teeth set hard.

In Greek Mythology, dragon’s teeth can be planted in the ground to grow into warriors.

As long as I could remember, shellacked plaques hung in our hallway that bore our names and their meanings in calligraphy. As the firstborn, mine hung above my sister’s and my brother’s and read: “Milo – soldier, gracious, rival.” An anomaly, a contradiction, an unknowable coded identity yoked to me by my father.

I followed the men up the stairs and was surprised when my dad and Phil passed through the kitchen without my dad’s standard offer of coffee. Phil looked around as my father silently led him through the living room. “Nice home you have, Curtis.” My father still said nothing as they passed by the name plaques.

My father’s service in the Vietnam War: he walked through a swamp and emerged with nearly a hundred leeches. He kept a stray dog. He ran into a fence. He took shrapnel to the hand. This was all I knew.

The Vietnam War: Platoon. Forrest Gump. We Were Soldiers. Good Morning, Vietnam. This was all I knew.

My father once won a local talent contest playing “The Marine Corp Hymn” by clacking his teeth together. He performed the song over the years for friends. Eventually, the song dimmed and morphed into a habitual clicking that punctuated everything he said and the enamel wore away, leaving his nerves exposed. His toothbrush was always an anomaly in the bathroom drawer: from the first use, the bristles splayed like he had scrubbed obsessively, trying to brush away some invisible stain.

 “I’m remodeling the bathroom,” my dad told Phil over his shoulder. He disappeared into my little brother’s bedroom and reemerged with a clackety folding chair he propped up in our tight hallway outside the bathroom door. He motioned to the chair. “Can we talk as I work?” Phil sat and rested the clipboard on his lap. I saw a list of questions running down the top page. At Phil’s feet, white dust and crumbs of old grout fanned out from the bathroom onto the gold shag carpet. My father walked into the bathroom and kneeled in the dust, picked up a wrench. He nodded once at me. “Go on, Milo.”

The mythology of dragons’ teeth is paralleled in modern medicine, albeit imperfectly. Baby teeth and wisdom teeth contain stem cells that can regrow bone and tissue for one’s children, regenerate what was. “Save it forward,” one stem cell ad reads. Pass it on.

Conversations past:

Me: Will you tell me something about Vietnam?

Dad: What’s there to tell?

Me: Did you really kill people?

Dad: Where are you hearing your stories?

Me: Well, did you see people die?

Dad: What a thing to ask.

Me: Is it sad for you to talk about it?

Dad: No, there’s just no reason to.

Me: But will you tell me about it?

Dad: There’s nothing to tell.

I backed away from the hallway as Phil rested his ankle on his knee and cleared his throat. He made a notation on his clipboard and said, “Okay, Curtis, let’s begin.”

Teeth are held in place by periodontic ligatures that maintain a “memory” of sorts of the teeth it holds, and – once those teeth are moved or removed – where they were. Or as Tim O’Brien wrote more succinctly, “The thing about remembering is you don’t forget.”

As I retreated I heard Phil clear his throat. “First, where were you stationed in Vietnam?”

Alternate definitions of “dragon’s teeth”:

  1. Concrete barriers used in war to slow tanks and other mechanized infantry down and to channel them into killing zones.
  2. A series of karsts rising up in Halong Bay, Vietnam, drawing tourists to the harmonious interplay of rock and sea. 


Honor. Courage. Commitment.

I stopped halfway across the living room and turned around. I could see my father now lying flat on his back with his upper body wedged inside the bathroom cabinet, fiddling with the sink plumbing as Phil took notes on his clipboard and my father’s muffled voice pushed through the tired wood of the vanity. I tiptoed closer still until his words took on a shape, until I could hear his teeth clicking between sentences, biting off words and spitting them out as his wrench twisted at metal piping. I ducked out of sight, around the corner next to the fireplace, my back pressed up against the scratch of brick, his answers marching down the hall. I leaned toward them, straining to learn my name.

ELIZABETH CASWELL — Elizabeth earned her MFA from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, where she also worked on the Water~Stone Review in a variety of roles. She is a mentor with MN Prison Writing Workshop, and her work has appeared in Puerto del Sol and the Brevity blog. She lives in the Minneapolis area with her husband, three children, and wonder-dog Benny.

Art by EMILY CALVO — Emily is a Chicago-based artist and poet who often creates “Wall Poems,” paintings that include her poems. Her work has been shown in numerous galleries, libraries, and festivals throughout the city as well as in The Art Center Highland Park and Fontenay Le Comte, France. Her art has been published in the Syracuse Cultural Workers Women’s Datebook, East on Central, and Windy City Review. Most recently, she completed paintings for an anthology edited by notable poet, Nikki Giovanni titled, Standing in the Need of Prayer. Her paintings can be seen at emilycalvo.com.