The Day I Buried the Horse Tooth

By Ernie Jones
Photo by Patrik Nygren
Child in woods
Photo by Patrik Nygren

I can’t remember now where I got the horse tooth. But where does a boy get any of the junk he collects?

I remember I had a winter coat, the kind I called a caterpillar coat. Had a red bike reflector in the pocket for quite a while. A couple of little stones that struck sparks. A series of pocket knives. Who knows what all stuff I’ll never think of again.

The horse tooth was special because it was part of an animal, and came from its mouth. So I’d carried it around for a very long time, a good portion of my life when you come to think about it, and back when time moves so slowly, too. Somehow I felt like I was its guardian.

And then it wanted to be buried.

The urge came on me several times before I acted on it. It seemed crazy, like a betrayal. This, after all, was the coolest thing I had, and I had been entrusted with it. But the urge got stronger and one day I stopped on my way to school, dug a hole in the ground, and buried the horse tooth.

This was back when we did walk to school, or ride bikes. Milk cartons and computers hadn’t scared the bejeezus out of everyone yet, so we enjoyed a longer leash.

It was, in a way, a cowardly choice of time and place, because I figured I could come dig it up on my way home if I felt I’d done the wrong thing. And sure enough, by lunch I had repented. Why, God knows. But it had come to feel bad, and after school I went back to the grave.

But one patch of smalltown Georgia looks pretty much like any other, and it wasn’t in any of the places I was certain I had buried it.

Which meant, I suddenly realized, that I had done absolutely the right thing. The spirit of the horse was now back in the earth completely. Balance had been restored to the universe.

Still, you wonder what it is that can change a child’s heart like that, to invest so much into an object then so quickly want nothing more to do with it.

It’s hard to recall anything so early with any real clarity. The brain can’t take that shape anymore. So many of the old patterns in the neural geography are lost in the overgrowth, or pruned out forever. So you look at it, your deepest past, and you feel it and you smell it, in shifting pieces and patches like light underwater.

Maybe I wanted to get rid of it because it was important to me. And because it was just a thing. Every toddler is at heart an animist. And then somehow the spirits dissolve from out of the stuffing and the wood and the rocks, and it’s all just the furniture of the world now.

So maybe it was either a ritual burial or enduring the sad dissolve of the mirage, to wake up one morning and put on my coat and come to understand I had a damn dirty horse’s tooth in my pocket for no real reason.

Still, I think of it from time to time. Especially in the fall, not just because it happened then, but because fall is kind of a tooth burying season anyway. You want to shrug off your old habits like dead leaves, strip things down, get a little leaner, get your mind right to learn a few lessons from the winter because you know they’re coming.

And besides, empty pockets are just open options after all.