Fées des Dents
George S. Walker
Wailing, an emaciated child dropped to her knees on the dusty African
path leading to the Medecins Sans Frontieres clinic. Her tiny black
hands, slimy with blood, clutched at her mouth.
Dr. Mallory rushed from the tent where he'd been working and crouched
beside her. Filled with tears, her dark eyes looked up into his. The
girl was about six. From the blood on her face, he thought someone had
struck her in the mouth. Only when he gently pulled her hands away to
examine her mouth did he see that all her teeth had been pulled. She
continued sobbing. He picked her up and carried her toward the white MSF
In the distance, he heard the crash of trees falling, like giants
fighting. But AIDS had killed off the last of the true giants a decade
ago. All that remained of them in Sudan were skeletons in hard-to-find
burial crypts. Smoke rose from the direction of the trees. Probably a
He wiped his dusty shoes on the mat outside the clinic and entered. One
of the Sudanese nurses, a woman named Kola, came to take the girl from
"Fées des dents," said Dr. Rousseau, glancing up from his own patient.
The French words meant nothing to Dr. Mallory.
"Tooth fairies," Kola translated, pulling on a pair of sterile gloves.
Mallory had arrived from London less than a week ago, and for all his
medical background - five years as a heart surgeon - felt lost here in
Sudan. People suffered and died from things unheard of in Europe:
malaria, cholera, dragon venom. He knew of tooth fairies, but the ones
in London were scavengers, not predators like the African breed.
Kola bent over the girl on the cot, gently cleaning her mouth and
applying medicine to staunch the bleeding. The girl howled and fought
until Mallory helped, holding her and applying a damp cloth to her
forehead. Kola spoke to the girl in Dinka, calming her.
"You find her alone?" asked Kola.
Mallory nodded. "She walked here."
"No family?" said Kola. "Girl this age need be careful. Mouth ripe. New
teeth loosening little ones. Fairies smell teeth a long way."
"Why don't the villages drive the fairies away? Burn the groves where
Kola shook her head. "Spirit creatures no fear of fire."
That evening shouts came from the clearing in front of the MSF clinic.
The source of the commotion was an old man with wrinkled black skin, a
wooden staff, and a commanding presence. Kola fetched Mallory from the
tent where he'd gone to read after supper.
"A shaman," she said.
"What does he want?"
"Help for his village. Dragon burns."
Mallory got the keys to a Land Rover. He and Kola loaded burn kits. The
shaman squatted on the dry grass, watching impatiently. The sun hadn't
set yet, and a vulture circled high overhead.
There wasn't a real road to the shaman's village, just a trail. The old
man sat in the front seat next to Mallory, pointing the way as the
vehicle bounced over the trail. Kola sat in back, translating
occasionally, but the shaman spoke little, even when questioned.
Mallory drove the Land Rover as far as he could, finally reaching an
erosion gully it couldn't cross. They got out, Mallory and Kola carrying
as much as they could, the shaman leading the way.
After about fifteen minutes of walking, Mallory asked, "How much
farther?" His arms were tiring.
He listened without comprehension to the exchange between Kola and the
shaman. Her frustration showed in her speech and animated facial
Soon he smelled smoke. The shaman pointed to his village through the
trees: mud and thatch huts. The thatch roofs of several huts were burned
It wasn't until the shaman led them out of the trees that Mallory saw
the soldiers. For a second, he thought they were there to help. Then he
saw that instead of shovels or fire gear, they carried AK-47s. Four
uniformed Sudanese soldiers stood near a Chinese advisor.
The shaman hobbled over to them. Mallory and Kola hung back. The old man
pointed to them as he spoke to the soldiers.
"What's he saying?" Mallory whispered.
"He say you and many come to help village. Soldiers must leave now."
Mallory began to sweat. The shaman's bluff was so weak it was laughable.
The soldiers must know how small the Medecins Sans Frontieres clinic
was. And he'd left the two-way radio in the Land Rover.
The Chinese advisor, cradling his assault rifle, marched over to
"English?" he said. His face was like stone.
"I'm a British citizen," said Mallory warily.
"Great mans?" said the advisor and pantomimed.
"Giants, you mean?" asked Mallory. "They're all dead."
"Yes, yes. Dead giants." He pointed at the ground.
Mallory had no idea what the soldier wanted. "We're here to help the
burn victims." Slowly he set the burn kits on the ground, then handed
one to the Chinese. He saw the Sudanese soldiers watching him. Mallory's
mouth had gone dry. Kola stood behind him, probably as scared as he
The advisor glanced at the burn kit and handed it back. "Dead giants?"
he asked again.
Mallory gestured his ignorance.
The man scowled at him, then spun on his heel and joined the other
soldiers. He led them out of the village on the other side.
Mallory exhaled. He hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath. His
heart was still hammering in his chest.
The shaman returned Mallory and Kola.
"Where are the burn victims?" asked Mallory.
A long exchange between Kola and the shaman followed.
"No one burns," said Kola. She looked relieved.
"That's what I thought. Was there even a dragon?"
"Yes. First dragon, next soldiers. They hunt giants grave."
Kola shrugged. "He say you save village."
"I did nothing."
She raised an eyebrow. "And no fear?"
Never ask an Englishman if he's afraid. "No."
The next morning, before the clinic let in new patients, Mallory went to
Dr. Rousseau's tent.
"What do the Chinese want with dead giants?"
Dr. Rousseau scratched his gray beard and tilted his head. "What did the
Americans want when the giants were alive, eh?" He had a thick French
The Americans, like the Europeans, had been far more interested in
Africa before the giants died out. The Chinese and their dragons had
filled the void.
"Why did you come to Sudan, Dr. Mallory? Penance, no?"
"I came to help. So far, I'm not succeeding much. What can I do about a
"Petition the government in Khartoum," said Rousseau.
Mallory detected the sarcasm in his voice.
"It will return," said Dr. Rousseau.
Rousseau shrugged. "Who comprehends les dragons?"
"But you know it will be back. How?"
"A year ago, same thing. Near a clinique in Darfur. Dragon burning
"And there was nothing you could do?"
Rousseau shook his head. "Finally it stops." He went to a case beside
his cot and rummaged through papers. Eventually he found what he sought:
Mallory took it from him. It showed a dead dragon lying on its side in a
clearing. Its distended abdomen had ruptured, and bloody, smoking
intestines snaked across the clearing.
"I thought they were immortal," said Mallory.
"Once we thought that about giants. Now, all gone."
"What killed it?"
Rousseau gave his wry French smile. "You think I did an autopsy, no?"
Mallory considered this. "Yes, I think you would."
"I desired to. I returned to la clinique to get my instruments, but the
Chinese found and removed the corpse before I could return."
The Chinese treated their dragons like military secrets. Rousseau was
lucky the army hadn't caught him near the corpse.
"I wish I had taken more photographs," said Rousseau. "Interesting
evolutionary branch, les dragons. Did you know they have gizzards, as
fowl? It was there the rupture occurred. Like a burst appendix. But
The clinic treated refugees from another village that day, one that
soldiers had raided, and by evening, Mallory was exhausted. He went to
Screams awakened him after midnight: terrified children. He burst from
his tent. The moon was a waning crescent. Hardly any lights. The
clinic's generator was only putting out enough power for the intensive
care tent. The screams came from the pediatrics tent.
Mallory ran toward it and knocked over a child on crutches fleeing the
tent. He helped the child up, then plunged inside. Where was the night
duty nurse? There were no lights in the tent, and hardly any filtering
in from outside. Mallory couldn't find the switch. There was only one
boy left crying in the tent. He felt his way from cot to cot toward the
He was thrashing, screaming, tangled in his sheet. The boy must be
having a nightmare. Mallory put his hands on the child to awaken him.
He felt something else moving under the sheet. More than one something.
Things that vibrated and crawled like giant winged insects.
The boy wasn't wailing from a nightmare; he was being attacked. Mallory
felt desperately for an edge of the sheet, but failed. He grabbed the
sheet with both hands and yanked, pulling the boy off the cot, catching
him against his own legs. The child was still struggling, wrapped in the
sheet as if something was holding it shut.
With one hand Mallory found an edge and pulled. Something whirred near
his face with a tiny fan of air. Then he felt the miniature hands of a
tooth fairy forcing his lips apart. The creature's feet began kicking
his front teeth. Mallory let go of the edge of the sheet, shook his head
sharply and grabbed the thing from his mouth. He tried to crush it in
his fist, and failing that, to tear its wings off. The creature seemed
indestructible, immortal. When he loosened his grip, it flew away,
The struggling boy had slid to the floor, landing on Mallory's feet. He
crouched and found the edge of the sheet again. Yanking with both hands,
he freed the boy's head. Mallory felt fairies swarming on the boy's
sweaty face and mouth as he continued to shriek. Mallory caught a fairy
and pulled it away, then another. The boy struggled free of his sheet,
fairies clinging like leeches to his face. Mallory used the sheet like a
net, grabbing fairies off the boy and wrapping them in it. The boy
sobbed, fighting to pull fairies out of his mouth. Mallory grabbed them
from his wet little hands, stuffing them into the sheet.
The lights came on in the pediatrics tent. The sheet, Mallory's hands,
and the boy's face were scarlet with blood. Mallory grabbed another
fairy, surprised by its beauty in his hand. The remaining ones flew from
the boy's mouth, shaking blood from their wings as they darted for the
tent's exit, past the night duty nurse. She stood in a state of
half-undress, her hand on the light switch.
She ran to the boy and held him to her as he continued sobbing. Shouts
approached outside, and children's faces peeked in from the tent
Mallory knotted the sheet, found an empty storage bin, and crammed it
inside, latching the bin. He wondered if there was an MSF procedure for
disposing of tooth fairies.
The next day, the night duty nurse was fired for leaving the children
unprotected. That afternoon, a new group of refugees trickled in. A few
burn cases, but mostly villagers whose homes and crops had been
destroyed. Mallory thought he recognized the shaman in the food line,
but his face had a beaten look, not the commanding presence of the
previous day. When Mallory could take a break, he asked Kola to
accompany him to translate.
They found the shaman sitting alone in a patch of shade. His eyes were
closed, and he rocked slowly.
Mallory asked if the soldiers had returned.
His answer through Kola was simply, "The dragon." When he looked at up
at Mallory, there was disappointment in his eyes. He closed them and
resumed his meditative rocking.
On the walk back to the clinic tents, Mallory asked Kola, "What did he
expect of me?"
"A miracle," she said sadly.
Mallory spread his hands. "I'm a doctor, not a magician."
After regular clinic hours, Mallory went to see Dr. Rousseau again.
"The dragon came back."
"As I said, no?" replied Dr. Rousseau.
"Isn't this futile? The dragon burns down their village and routs their
cattle, we feed and heal them, they return to rebuild their village, and
the dragon returns."
"The circle of life."
"Of death," said Mallory.
"Shall we assault le dragon with our scalpels?" He made stabbing motions
with his index fingers.
Mallory frowned. "What does it eat? Can we poison its food? Or does it
"Les dragons are fond of bones."
Hours later, Kola came to Mallory's tent. It was getting dark. She
He noticed the shaman behind her.
"He dreams you," she said. "He says you be dragon death."
"The dragon will kill me?"
The shaman stepped forward, gripped Mallory's arm, and spoke fervently.
"He says you kill the dragon. You save his village."
Mallory shook his head. "It's just a dream."
She spoke to the shaman, and his eyes flashed anger as he replied.
"He says he has power, too," Kola translated. "Not only you. He desires
you bring magic to his village."
"There's his misunderstanding. I haven't any magic."
Kola translated for him, then for the shaman: "He says magic in a box."
"What kind of magic? Like a camera?"
Kola gave Mallory a withering look. "Camera is science, not magic."
The shaman pantomimed a large box, and something clicked for Mallory.
"The bin where I trapped the tooth fairies?"
Kola translated, and the shaman finally smiled.
"He says dragon death is tonight," Kola added.
"I'm not going anywhere in the dark."
"He believes in you," said Kola. "Why you do not believe in yourself?"
"My beliefs are stronger in daylight."
Kola spoke to the shaman. After he replied, she turned back to Mallory.
"Tonight," she insisted.
"And you think we should go."
The answer was in her eyes.
He risked running into a band of marauding soldiers. Or the dragon,
though that seemed less likely: it had already torched the village. Kola
was a local, and a trusted MSF employee, and if she insisted it was the
right thing to do... He hadn't come to Africa to be safe.
The latched fairy bin was in his tent, because he hadn't known what else
to do with it. Maybe the shaman would bury it as part of his ritual,
and at least the clinic would be rid of the fairies. When he picked up
the bin, he heard whispery rustlings within it.
He fetched car keys from the administration tent and led the way toward a
Land Rover. As he set the bin in the back, Kola and the shaman were
"He says I stay," said Kola. She looked unhappy. "In his dream, only you
She shook her head. "Dangerous. No guide."
"I'll have the shaman."
"You cannot speak. Cannot ask."
"I don't need directions." Mallory had already made up his mind. He
wasn't backing out now.
She stepped back, still looking unhappy. The shaman got in the Land
Mallory drove with the headlights on. He couldn't see otherwise; there
was barely any moon. But he worried that the headlights would attract
unwanted attention. Both he and the shaman were silent the whole way. At
the gully near the village, he stopped the car. They got out. Mallory
took his flashlight and the fairy bin. The whispering within it sounded
more eerie in the dark.
The shaman led the way toward the village. The night was quiet, with no
small arms fire. The only sounds were from their trudging through the
dry underbrush, and a cacophony of insects. The bin with the tooth
fairies was much lighter than the medical supplies he'd carried on his
first trip to the village. Did fairies even have mass? Some things were
His flashlight outlined burned trees before they reached the village. A
gentle breeze carried the smell of smoke. Within the village perimeter,
everything except the mud walls of huts had been destroyed. A layer of
ash and cinders coated the ground.
The shaman didn't stay in the village; probably he had only come to get
his bearings. He led Mallory through a grove of trees to another
clearing. There was a small hut with the thatch burned away, and in
front of it, a post with the horns of several oxen.
A shrine. Now what? A ritual with ox horns and fairies? The fairies
would take flight as soon as Mallory opened the bin, off to find more
children to prey on.
The shaman entered the roofless hut. Mallory shined his flashlight
around the dirt floor. The shaman knelt in the center, scraping away
dirt and ash with his staff, and motioned for Mallory to do the same.
"If you'd asked, I'd have brought a shovel," Mallory muttered. He knew
the shaman couldn't understand him. He set down the bin and the
flashlight. Finding a stick, he began digging.
They struck wood a few inches under the dirt. Mallory shined his
flashlight into the hole, and the shaman began prying thick sticks out
of the opening. Dirt sifted between the remaining sticks into a cavity
It dawned on Mallory that this was what the soldiers had been seeking: a
giant's grave. The shaman had known all along. If they were discovered,
Mallory was an accomplice. His anxiety grew.
When the wood was out of the way, Mallory shined his flashlight down.
The underground chamber was about twelve feet deep. It spread out below,
beyond the reach of his light. Descending into the tomb was a ladder
made from rope-bound branches. It was human-sized. Had the Dinka built
the tomb for the giants? That would explain why they hadn't told the
The shaman slowly made his way down the ladder. At the bottom, he
Mallory swung his leg onto the ladder. He looked up. The sky was empty
except for stars. As he began to descend, the shaman spoke. Mallory
shined the flashlight down.
The shaman pantomimed holding a box. Mallory nodded and got the fairy
bin. He put his flashlight in his teeth, the bin on his shoulder, and
descended the ladder.
The ladder was propped against the wall of the chamber. At the bottom,
Mallory set the bin on the ground and turned around, shining his
flashlight into the cool darkness.
He shivered. Several huge skeletons lay in fetal positions on the floor.
They looked human, resembling the ones in his anatomy lectures. But
these were nearly the size of the large dinosaur remains in the British
Museum. The chamber was circular, over twenty feet in diameter, its
walls lined with adobe bricks. The roof was made of logs and dried mud.
Mallory walked hesitantly among the skeletons. Around the chamber's
perimeter were a half-dozen huge baskets and jars taller than Mallory.
The shaman knelt in the middle of the tomb, meditating.
After a few respectful minutes, Mallory lost patience. "We need to be on
our way. We brought the magic box. That was the goal, right?" He wished
Kola were here to translate. He gestured behind him at the ladder with
his flashlight. "Go now?"
There was a thunderous crash against the roof. Fist-size chinks of dried
mud rained down. Mallory swore and ducked in a crouch, covering his
head. His shaking light illuminated a steady shower of adobe and sand
from above. As the sound of falling debris tapered off, he heard deep,
heavy wheezing from behind him, above. Mallory's heart raced. He turned,
afraid of what he would see.
At the top of the ladder, the air shimmered like the aurora borealis,
and a huge reptilian snout poked down through the opening. A long forked
tongue flicked down, tasting the ladder. The creature exhaled, and the
air glittered along the full length of the ladder.
Mallory's eyes watered from the dust. He gasped for air, barely able to
Overhead there were several loud cracks as roof logs broke, tumbling
heavily into the chamber. Mallory scrambled back against the wall. One
log barely missed the shaman. He hobbled to join Mallory.
A huge lizard leg thrust down between the logs, then the remainder of
the roof collapsed with a roar like a dam breaking. Mallory and the
shaman pressed back against the wall, arms wrapped over their heads. All
the soil atop the roof collapsed into the chamber, along with the logs.
Light shimmered through the billowing dust, not from Mallory's
flashlight, but from the aura swirling around the fallen dragon.
The dragon's fall hadn't injured it. It wheezed, turning within the pit,
shoving logs aside. Its monstrous body slithered past Mallory, smelling
of ginger and sulfur, radiating heat. Only leaning logs blocked
Mallory's view of the night sky high above.
Flames blasted the far side of the chamber, setting logs on fire in
front of the dragon and sending waves of heat across the pit. The dragon
knocked aside burning logs. By the light of the flames and the aura of
the dragon's breath, Mallory saw it pick up a giant femur with its
clawed foreleg. Levering it beneath a log, it snapped the bone in half,
then shoved it down its gullet.
The shaman tugged on Mallory's arm, gesturing toward the fairy bin.
By the ladder.
Around the dragon.
When the shaman foretold he would kill the dragon, he hadn't said
whether Mallory would survive the encounter.
The shaman tugged again.
The dragon swallowed the other half of the femur and pawed through the
logs and dirt for another bone.
Mallory didn't see how the fairies could have any effect on the dragon.
But the old man's prophecy had been right so far. Mallory decided to
time his dash for when the dragon was farther away from the ladder. That
might take a while.
The shaman shoved him abruptly.
Mallory stumbled forward, landing on the dragon's tail. It slid
sideways, hot scales burning his skin, dragging him a couple yards
toward the ladder. A leaning log scraped him off the tail, landing him
on a giant's skeletal ribcage.
Mallory scrambled to his feet. He sprinted toward the ladder, dodging
logs and bones. Reaching it, he crouched by the bin. With trembling
hands he shook the dirt off it and found the latch. As he opened the
bin, he heard the dragon drop its bone.
Mallory yanked the sheet out. The dragon's aura swirled around him as it
turned to face him.
He dropped the bin and leapt sideways.
A blast of fire engulfed the bin. The sheet burst into flame. Within the
disintegrating cloth, fairies glowed bright green, spiraling upward
As Mallory scrambled away, the dragon took a step toward him. Bones in
the chamber rattled like tree branches in a storm. The dragon inhaled
for another blast of flame.
The fairies, which Mallory had assumed were dead, darted toward it,
flying into its mouth. It shook its head violently, and there was a
brief gout of flame before it gagged and swallowed. Its body heaved,
long neck swinging side to side as the dragon screamed. It writhed on
the floor of the tomb, sending logs rolling in all directions.
It began biting at its own abdomen, striking again and again like a
cobra. Teeth tore through scales and flesh, spraying blood throughout
the chamber. Its tail whipped through the tomb, scattering bones and
knocking Mallory's feet out from under him. He fell against a log. Pain
shot up his arm. He rolled onto his other side, struggling to crawl
The dragon screamed again, then went into convulsions. By the flames in
the tomb, Mallory saw that the dragon had disemboweled itself, tearing
open its own gizzard. Blood boiled from it, and Mallory saw that instead
of rocks for grinding bones, the organ was lined with tiny white
nodules, like teeth.
And bright green fairies, harvesting them.
The dragon's shudders weakened, its breath fading, and with it, the aura
in the pit.
Eventually, its wheezing stopped, and the only sounds in the tomb were
the crackling flames of the logs. The shaman hobbled toward him.
Mallory looked up at the night sky, scanning for helicopters.
The Chinese were going to be pissed.