Milk Teeth and Heartwood by Kathryn McMahon

The fingers welcome you first. No, not fingers, despite their grip. Twigs. Green, if you snap them. Still alive. You don’t feel that way, almost to the door. How many times have you dreamed of not going back? Of saws and the echo of an empty field?

The twigs tousle your hair. You hate it. Your mother said to think of it as affection. When you were small, they only took the milk teeth that you buried under moss. A few torn nails. A flicker of skin, scratching your calf as you crept past their shadows. You never thought much of the red that laced your mother’s arms. That’s how you’d always known her. Red-armed and beautiful with long, swishing skirts.

You were ten when they took you whole. It was autumn and the last of their leaves raked your cheek as branches collected your wrists. They rolled you into the hollow of a dying stump. Rot-warm, you slept for days until you woke suffocating in mulch. All your hair fell out. Your mother gathered it and stitched you a wig. Then she pulled off her own and pressed her bare scalp to yours.

In spring, the stump grew new shoots. Your hair never returned.

If the trees didn’t take you walking out the door, they’d steal you from where you hid under your blanket. How long had they done this? Your mother never spoke of her childhood. But once, while polishing cupboards, you begged her to move. Find a new house. An apartment, somewhere high off the ground. She bent to the wood grain and whispered quick apologies. Glared.

“Remember the forest fire that didn’t reach here? The storm that unhinged the door? They protect the house. Us. Give them this.”

You spotted the lichen on the back of her neck. Blue-green flakes, like moldy snow. Blunt and rough. You crawled into a lap that smelled of earth. When she kissed your cheek, it stung with splinters.

The next time you woke, you weren’t missing days. You were missing seasons. Your mouth was gummy with compost. The bed? Fairy-ringed by mushrooms, a centipede nesting in your pillow. You examined yourself in the mirror. Red lace trailed up your arms, up all of you. So you yanked moss from your throat. Swept woodlice from your sheets. Refused to eat anything that grew in the ground.

When honeysuckle snaked from your ankle to your shin, you left. You broke into a convenience store for a jug of weed killer, and headed for concrete shadows.

After all that was taken, you were hollow. You found strange things to fill the void that home had carved. The lace stayed. It tasted like stories to the lovers who watched you sleep and stroked the marks to speak you into themselves.

You couldn’t keep the lovers. You told yourself it was your cravings for rainwater that drove them away, not the gall wasp in your ear. Or the blight in your heart.

The old door looms. You scratch your neck. The lichen there is ochre. Itchy. Should you knock? Awkward, but you do it, anyway.

Your mother answers. Her long skirt barely swishes over the creaking trunks of her legs. She hugs you so hard, she snaps off her finger. Inside, it is green.


Kathryn McMahon’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, and others, as well as in the food and horror anthology Sharp & Sugar Tooth: Women Up to No Good (Upper Rubber Boot, 2019). Recently, she has received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart, and she was a finalist in the 2017 Wyvern Litflash fiction contest. On Twitter, she is @katoscope. Find more of her writing at