If you cross the street and walk up the hill through the Hyatts' property, you'll come to a dirt road. Follow it until you reach a clearing, the first in a series, all with stakes driven in them to form grids. I have no idea what the stakes are for, or why the clearings were made in the first place.
In one corner of the second clearing—this is what I wanted to show you—are the remains of a graveyard. It's not the old town graveyard; that one is at the bottom of the hill, behind the clapboard church. The founders are buried there, their descendants arrayed around them. Because it's not directly down the hill from this graveyard, but rather a hundred or so yards to the north, no affinity is suggested between the two, not even the affinity of gravity, as though the founders had begun here, and then rolled down the hill with the pebbles and rain.
This graveyard is entirely overgrown, and the stones have fallen every which way, vectors for the invisibly slow heave of the earth. One is tilted to the angle of a cannon; a second has collapsed on its face, or on its back—without a single legible inscription, it's impossible to tell—; a third, entirely lifted out of the soil, rests in the crook of a squat tree. Taken together, they look like sailors frozen in the moment of being tossed from a boat by a surfacing whale. Nor is it possible to tell quite where the site begins and ends. Those toppled columns might be stones, or perimeter markings—again, there is not a single legible inscription. You might be walking over graves already swallowed. For the way the ground is hunched, and particularly for the way some of the markers have sunk up to their cornices, you get the feeling that the stones will soon go the way of the bodies, that the stones are themselves bodies of sorts. It's difficult to imagine that the coffins aren't long since splintered, the bodies inside ground up by the mortar-and-pestle earth.
Amtrak's Cardinal line, train number fifty-one westbound, passes through Arlington, and then through a number of little towns in western Maryland and West Virginia: towns sunken under hills with bare trees along their spines, like quills; huddled towns of doublewides and letterbox homes, with narrow steeples poking up here and there, stovepipes and woodpiles and silo-shaped swimming pools, the tarps thrown over them sagging with rainwater. In a fair number of these little towns you will see graveyards for the military dead, as white as the one at Arlington, the stones all at attention, in perfectly-measured rows. A flawless dentition; teeth the people who live here could never afford for their children. And for each stone, a pinwheel, a bouquet of flowers, a sad little American flag.
In Ovid, transgressors are caught on the lam, or in fits of weeping. At Pompeii, the victims' arms are thrown up before the blinding ash-god. But here, one gets the impression they waited in their rows for the stone to encase them.
Those monuments are a cult of death, or of the order and honor and sacrifice that would presume to overcome it.
Imagine, instead, the earth growing up over them in a slow tide. The earth, masticating the caskets and swallowing the bodies, husk and nut; the stones, as worn and crooked and root-shat as the teeth of the elderly.
I remember my mother's dentist telling me that I would die with all my teeth. He said it with an air of triumph, for all of us, I guess. As if the reason I brushed and flossed were to make a more beautiful skull. True, teeth are forward-looking in this way, the skull made visible every time you part your lips, even in a smile. Especially in a smile. Maybe he thought I would appreciate the company: my teeth, like mourners around my bed, my tongue stilled at last; mourners, like teeth set in a jaw.
Conodonts were once believed to be the microfossil remains of crustaceans, or molluscs, or worms, until paleontologists discovered they were actually the teeth of an extinct eel. The ocean floor is littered with them, as I imagine the whole earth must be, with the teeth of the chordate dead. Hundreds of millions of years from now, the dominant species will know us not from the language of our vanished names, or even by the vanity of our stones, as inconspicuous as arrowheads, but by our teeth.
If you follow the clearings south, the land begins to descend, until you reach a gulch. Cross the gulch, and you leave the Hyatts' property for a landscaping company: a vast terrain of vegetating automobiles, stacks of pallets and fenceposts and cross-ties, rolls of wire, piles of cut wood and mulch and different grades of stone. Nearest the highway, where the cars rush by so close you can almost see their shadows through the thicket, there is a pile of monuments. Some are blank; on others, the name is misspelled. They will all be broken up for filler.
“Parts. I've never done whole … parts.” So says Re-animator's Herbert West, shortly after decapitating his nemesis Dr. Carl Hill with a shovel (“plagiarist!”), and directly before injecting the severed head with re-animating serum. So “Teeth,” one piece of something I am draftly calling the Anatomies: animations of / meditations on body parts and mortality. The bit on conodonts comes by way of Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish—highly recommended!