Times were strange, and those who survived the collapse had a jarring mixtape of skills. Plumbers were holy men, exorcising the encampments of the demons of human waste. They brought forth, stored and dispensed the holiest sacrament of all, clean water. Warriors emerged from the strangest of places, sex workers commanded respect and were offered it gladly.
Fai had been working a mussel farm off the rocky coastal desert that once had been Baja when one foot slid on algae and she fell onto a barnacle crusted jab of rock. Her shoulder was popped out of joint and her nose cracked. Worst of all, two molars shattered into shards, cutting up the inside of her mouth. Fai couldn’t breathe through her broken nose, each inhalation was a twisting knife of pain. The healer she limped to was of the chanting , hand-laying sort. She told Fai there was a man who had once been a dentist. He was willing to trade. Fai hitched a ride on a panga down-coast half a day. She hiked inland over scrub and treacherous earth until El Oasis shimmered into view. Fai’s mouth was packed with cloth, her eyes black, rimmed red. Pink crust surrounded her swollen lips. The guard at El Oasis grimaced at her and directed her to the man who would offer her the chance to chew again.
El Buitre loved both bones and mouths, beast and man. His shoulders slumped forward from the years bent over reclined bodies. He didn’t mind the name he’d been given. His birth name had been Fausto, so El Buitre made sense to him. He was used to looking at the wet insides of things . . . He was thin in body and strength, but his trade allowed him a power he’d never known before, for there was a horrible period during the months after everything fell apart when the survivors were reduced to using their teeth as tools, and there was no pain as constant and cruel as mouth pain. He could have demanded anything, and at first set himself up in one of the larger camps. Instead, he traded the removal of wisdom teeth for a motorhome trailer. He made a deal with the plumber lords of that encampment and they provided him clean enough water. In return they had first choice of his offerings, other than whatever food he chose to keep for himself. And even then, if a patient had provided something the plumbers wanted, he gave it to them. Water was essential for his practice. He worked, and accumulated and traded until he was exhausted. The encampment had grown to a town and instead of emergency care, he was cleaning teeth, replacing crowns. He had hired an assistant to refurbish toothbrushes, but he was dissatisfied with what his life had become. He hitched his trailer to a small modified tractor and headed South to El Oasis.
• • • •
Fai’s exhaustion caught up to her. She collapsed on a shaded bench outside the modified trailer decorated with the jawbones of various animals. She panted, resting her elbows on her knees, her jaw pain a mask of fire that radiated into her left eye and shoulder, the rest of her body tense in compensation.
A weight settled onto the bench beside her. Her eyes were closed.
A cup was pushed into her hands, a stainless steel straw protruding from it. Luxury, Fai thought, sipping and spilling as her swollen lips split, unable to close around the straw. The liquid she was able to swallow was cool, astringent. Almost immediately the pain flared up, then began to dissipate. Fai sucked in her saliva as her mouth numbed, she moved her jaw tentatively back and forth. Pain. She grimaced. The voice spoke again.
“Not so soon. Drink a little more, this will cost you nothing.”
Fai spent a day contemplating El Buitre’s offer. He told her no rush, he could show her how to grind her food to maintain an appropriate nutrition level, for a small exchange of labor. Or, he could fix her mouth, rebuild her molars, adjust her nose. Her skills were scant, but chewing was something she could not let go of. There had already been so much to let go of; deviled eggs, smoothies, a reasonable expectation to live out a mundane life, she could not go without chewing.
“I will accept nothing from you that you do not willingly offer,” El Buitre said, polishing a scalpel. “I can teach you to assist me, in my practice, my life. My life is my practice.” He smiled, mouth closed. Fai distrusted him, a dentist who smiled without showing his teeth. But she needed to chew, to sink her teeth into food, clench her jaw in frustration, to nip at a lover, gnaw a little. She thought of her beloved Flaquis. Flaquis of jagged smile. Flaquis of wide laugh. Flaquis knee-deep in low-tide, her chisel and mallet prying the mussels loose.
“How long?” Fai murmured. Though her swelling had gone down, her mouth was still a wound in her head. It was just after sunset, she had spent the day in contemplation.
“Sixteen months,” he said, “But you will chew long before then. You can be free of pain in three days.”
Fai thought of the years behind her, then stopped. It did no good to look back, to imagine herself—it didn’t matter. She was no longer who she had been, the world no longer the same. The wind blew in, gritty, dusty, dry.
“I want to chew again,” she said, doing her best not to move her mouth. El Buitre held out a hand, they shook.
• • • •
El Buitre wondered where, if anywhere, there was room for romance in the world they were living in. Fai was under, a heavy dose of analgesic tea and herbs. He didn’t look at her body, floppy and loose on the chair, her mouth held open with retractors he’d made from the horn of big-horned sheep. They were nasty breaks, the tooth shattered below the gumline, an abscess starting to turn into a cyst. Messy, but El Buitre was used to messy. He cleaned up as best he could, packing the wounds with a numbing moss he traded for. He placed the mold of her mouth he’d made into a jar and stood to stretch. He looked at her body, akimbo in the white tent he operated in, a system of mirrors suspended to catch the sunlight and reflect it into the patient’s mouth. The light on Fai’s face wavered, her mouth attempting to form a name.
Flaquis had been away when Fai fell. Gone South to learn how to throw a net from the hips, for the shrimp that were returning. It would be weeks until the shrimp returned to their depths, diminished. Fai had no choice but to leave. She knew Flaquis would understand, they had that between them. Her body fit against her beloved’s bone, Fai nested in Flaquis, and Flaquis loved her with a ferocity enhanced by survival. There were no casual relationships anymore. Fai dreamt of her lover, watched her casting a net beneath a moon, hauling in the wriggling insects of the sea. She knew Flaquis would wait for her return.
Fai was pain free as promised. El Buitre had taken his time with her new teeth, picking through the boneyard, examining jaw after jaw. He took Fai with him, piling bones in her arms, muttering to himself, yelping in fear whenever he shook free a scorpion. El Oasis was a pit stop between the larger encampments to the North and South, a stop between coasts. A watering hole, a few medics, a spot for traders and refugees to gather and pass through. El Buitre was the bone man, de-facto doctor. Fai kept quiet, gathering the bones he gave her, watching every move he made.
It wasn’t his fault he fell in love with her; he hated clichés as much as anyone. Fai worked for him, but she never served him, and El Buitre was intrigued by her reticence. A classic story, he told himself as he was falling asleep at night, the stars above like salt spilled on asphalt. He missed asphalt, the smell of tar, of rubber on road. Fai was exactly the kind of woman who would have ignored him before the collapse. She confirmed for him all the ways he hated himself. He was never cruel in what he asked of her; he didn’t have it in him.
“Fai, this new world has medicines the science of the past could never have imagined,” he confessed to her one evening, after a patient had traded a box of wine for an extraction. “What we called modern medicine was lazy, privileged. Look at this world.” He leaned back so his body dipped outside the light of the fire. “It is only after being broken open that we found what we are capable of.”
El Buitre swerved back up, nodding at the fire, staring into it as if it were oracular. Fai sipped at the small cup of wine she’d accepted from him. Her jaw moved back and forth, a habit she’d developed when the mammal bones had been rooted into her mouth. Her jaw felt alive to her, as if it carried the knowledge of the body that had made it. As if the bone were reborn, adhering its knowledge to hers.
“This is a beginning for us, the first step to something greater. A whale bone, whittled down to fit your mouth. What can come next? The land itself is offering us more than it ever has before.” He gesticulated to the desert beyond El Oasis.
The land was offering up more than it had, but only because a hungry child makes its mother produce more milk, Fai thought to herself. It was a conversation she and Flaquis had many nights and mornings. Flaquis had recounted the feathery starts of trees that sprang up after a forest fire. Life kept going, no matter the destruction. Fai yawned, her body calling out for a deep sleep of waves and silence.
He wanted to make jaws, Fai finally figured out. He spent hours with his fingers in her mouth, asking her to open and close, making notes in a small journal he kept with him always. Her mouth was used to his intrusions; it had taken months for the whale bone to take root. The glass teeth he had made her shattered in her sleep. The bighorn sheep bone rotted to blackness within days, giving Fai fever dreams where Flaquis dove in and out of the sea, coming up only to breathe. El Buitre would sometimes disappear for a half a day to follow a trader out of the outpost. He took his tools with him but never Fai. She knew he was experimenting.
Winter came, dry and cold with cruel hours of extreme heat. Fai’s period of service would end as soon as the winds gasped their way Southward. Too soon, too soon: El Buitre made it into a mantra.
The morning of her last day, El Buitre gave Fai a cup of astringent liquid to drink. She was ready, each breath a victory against giving up. The liquid was tepid, bitter with ferment gone old. Fai swallowed and left her mouth open, jaw unhinged, tongue flaccid.
El Buitre adjusted the tent so that the new wind wouldn’t blow grit into his eyes, Fai breathed through her nose, her mind already moving toward Flaquis, the salt of their connection. El Buitre’s fingers in her mouth were nothing new. He kept his fingernails trimmed and filed so that he wouldn’t cut the membrane of her inner cheeks. He traced over the familiar tendon, inhaled the damp inside smell of her. Over their months her skin had darkened and dried, scaling over in some places to protect itself against dryness. El Buitre tapped on the molars he had carved from bone; he had rooted them into her body with sea lion placenta.
“Your mouth belongs to the sea,” he said.
Fai kept her eyes soft beneath her closed lids. It wasn’t only chewing he had given her. She knew bones now, their patterns of breakage, how to feel for the story beneath the skin. She would take with her knowledge she had gleaned from his arrogance. The sutures she’d seen would go far, as would the ways of packing the open parts of a body to keep it alive. It wasn’t just chewing.
“You can stay,” El Buitre offered. “In this part of the world there are always wounds, and we work well together.”
Fai pushed his fingers out of her mouth with her tongue. The bone in her jaw vibrated. She was being called. Flaquis. Harvests. Songs at the water’s edge. The brine of saltwater mollusks sliding down her throat, all the gifts the sea offered. Her skin ready to slough. And there were other gifts offered. Her purpose was one of community, a tendril that came from the vast network of roots that were forming beneath the land, to move them from surviving to thriving. In the mussel camp, she was loved.
In her previous life she had waited tables. Spent her nights in cross-trainers, delivering endless breadsticks to people on cheap first dates. Her days had been a gauntlet, taking care of her diabetic mother in an apartment filled to bursting with the detritus of misspent fear and credit cards. Fai had stayed with her mother for days after the first long blackout. She had traded something she never thought of again for a case of insulin. But there was no ice. Fai decided she had suffered enough and kissed her swollen mother goodbye. A chance encounter on the street with a grade school friend who’d turned gangster and she was on her way South, beyond the wall.
Fai thought of mussel camp, the workers and their wounds. There were wounds everywhere in this new world, and few who knew how to tend to them with the resources available.
El Buitre sat still, hands in his lap. Fai’s eyes were fixed on a point beyond his left shoulder. He counted his breaths to calm himself.
“Teach me,” Fai said.
Who knew there was such glory in bones, El Buitre sang to himself each morning he awoke to Fai, unbound and willing, at the woodfire. She made teas, tinctures, medicine. She bartered with traders and refugees. They trusted her more than they trusted him. Her skill with people paired with his skill with bones made El Buitre feel a fear he had never known. He knew, in his own bones, he was halved without her.
She was able to procure tools and bones he never would have wished for. She knew the line between a seduction and a sale and rode it well. He had gas for the first time since the collapse, a recliner and a stool on wheels. A woman at his side. He had never been so rich. Syringes of composite, trays, a headlamp.
Fai was falling in love with what El Oasis offered. As she learned from El Buitre there was another knowledge accepting its way into her body. It was the bones, she often thought during long nights, nights she unhinged herself from thinking of Flaquis. Flaquis who had never come. But the bones in her mouth were a part of something; what that something was, she couldn’t tell, but it was coming. It sang to her, those nights she unhinged herself.
Winter came again, twenty-one months since Fai had stumbled into El Oasis, crusty and swollen. She had her own roof, a windowless minivan. She’d claimed a narrow ridge of rocky outcrop for herself, a hard haul for water. She’d bartered a gunny sack of the death root for the van. She had no use of the root, there was no chance she’d ever risk being a mother.
Fai was asleep in the gutted vehicle when a clenching roused her from sleep. Every bone in her body hummed. Struggling to sit up, she realized she could barely open her mouth. She clutched at the side of the van, grasping for the handle that would open the sliding door. The door opened, Fai stumbled out, her bare knees hitting the earth hard. The impact reverberated through her muscle-tight body. Lights wavered against her closed eyes. The hum, the song came up through the skin on her knees. Beyond the sand grit, beyond the layer cake of stone, deeper to the memory of fire. Memory of the first brine. Her teeth turned to bristle, she took in a mouthful of brine, clenched, expelled it for what was left behind. Something in the brine embedded itself into her jaw. A wound formed. Hardened. Fai came to belly up in the moonlight, a body’s length away from her roof. She didn’t go back to sleep.
When Flaquis came, El Buitre was drinking the broth Fai made at sunset, made from the hint of fat gleaned from fish bones, kelp, husks of agave flower. It was his favorite time of day, when the sideways light from the West limned each scraggy plant in what looked like grace. The birds overhead who went sea to sea called out their goodbyes to day. Fai was at the fire, knees splayed in the dirt as she fed chollas into the fire. She glanced up when her Flaquis appeared, gasped.
El Buitre spilled his broth. It soaked through the fabric of his pants, the liquid hot and itchy against his thighs. Fai, his Fai was on the dirt, rolling against a taller, leaner body. Fai who had never shed anything was crying, shouting, sending up clouds of dry earth in her eagerness to press her body against a body that was not his.
El Buitre didn’t sleep that night. He imagined too much. The cries he heard were not animal, or not any animal he had encountered. He imagined Fai leaving, he would give her everything, anything she asked. He imagined himself following her, taking his best tools. He had lived without before. He finally attached a mask over his mouth, turned the nozzle on a canister. A hiss of gas entered his body, his blood went drunk, he closed his eyes.
Fai contemplated the futures Flaquis described. The war with trawlers was new, ugly. Old beasts from the past trying to rise up. The fish camps were engorged with fresh blood, warriors sent from other outposts. They scuttled the boats. Divers with hand-crank drills were easily injured. Fai had a new set of skills, new instincts, they could have their own home. Or, Flaquis offered, they could stay at El Oasis, the choice was hers. Fai gazed out the sunroof, arms folded behind her head.
There was a small crowd gathered outside the trailer where El Buitre lived. Fai quickened her step. A woman emerged from the crowd, triumphant, a package of gauze clutched under her armpit as she elbowed her way out. Fai pushed her way through the crowd, she could feel Flaquis behind her, following close.
El Buitre was hauling item after item from the trailer and tossing it to the crowd, not noticing who took what. The word had gone out through El Oasis, the bone man was giving up. Giving up was allowed in their world, and it was understood. People who had survived sometimes chose their death. No one judged them. El Buitre smelled Fai before he saw her; salt, sweat, sex. She looked softer than he had even seen her before. He reached into the trailer for the silver case he had carried with him since the beginning. Razors and knives, scalpels, tools he kept bright, polished with sand. He handed her the case.
“This is yours,” He said. His eyes watered. Her eyes met his. He gestured behind him, “Anything you want, is yours.”
Flaquis stepped forward, tall and scarred. Fai held the case against her chest. Flaquis pulled Fai a step backwards so that their bodies were one unit. El Buitre stared at his nemesis who was also his love, death and the opposite of death. Flaquis stared back, eyes older than any eyes had the right to be.
“I have nothing left to teach her, show her. I have skills but Fai has gifts.” He choked on the words, his throat was dry. No tea had been made that morning.
“There are other gifts,” Flaquis said, grinning. Perfect teeth, El Buitre noticed, just sharp enough for tearing.
He saw Flaquis, then, truly saw. Skin that was barely skin, a film of sweat that was just seawater. He began to laugh, belly laugh, madman laugh. Here he was worried about who he would be without Fai, and Fai was in love with the dark lady herself.
“Of course I will follow you,” El Buitre said. Fai handed his tools back to him. They packed and began the trek to the coast where a panga was waiting to take them upcoast. They would have to wait until darkness, to avoid the trawlers.
“There are more bones in the sea than you could imagine,” Fai told him, “Cartilage, beginnings, songs.” He rubbed the desert dust from nail beds, and went to step his feet into the water.