The Gum-Gaoler, Martha Watson
I pulled my duvet up high, until it rested on my chin, and I could smell Granny’s washing powder; floral, sweet. She stood in the doorway, and the light from the hallway behind her drowned her in a silhouette, her curls the only definite feature I could make out.
“Watch out for the Gum-gaoler,” the door snapped shut. Submerged in darkness, I watched the thin, rectangular crack of light still peeking through the doorframe. Granny’s footsteps faded to nothing, and I clenched the duvet in small fists.
I hoped the Gum-gaoler wouldn’t come.
Where most children grew up with the knowledge of fairies that traded coins for teeth, I was plagued with the knowledge of the Gum-gaoler. Granny had tugged me onto her lap at the age of three and warned me of what to expect late at night, in the dark, when I was sleeping.
Granny lived on a farm right in the middle of nowhere. Granny kept a map on the wall, with a crude sketch of her farmhouse among some trees, a red circle surrounding it, a perfect perimeter of twenty miles to the nearest house.
“This is the dream,” Granny whispered, propping me on her hip with one hand, and jabbing at the map with the other. I nodded, far too young to understand what she was talking about, and far too bored to bother asking questions.
The woods that surrounded the house stretched for almost the entirety of the twenty miles, and it was within these woods that Granny said the Gum-gaoler was rumoured to live. In the dark, where the moss-covered trees served as a bed, and the leaves were knotted with the branches, allowing no rain to enter. The Gum-gaoler didn’t like rain, Granny said. It eroded its skin, like acid, until bare bones poked through. That’s how you spotted him, you looked for the white holes in his skin.
I sometimes stood on Granny’s porch, and stared into the trees, straining to see between the tree trunks, waiting for the white holes to appear. I never knew if I wanted to see the Gum-gaoler, to see if Granny was right, or if I would rather he never appeared, too frightened of what might happen if he were to spot me.
One day, I was waiting on the porch wearing my pyjamas, my old dressing gown and slippers. Young, and growing, the gown barely covered my knees, and the edges of the slippers pinched at my toes. Granny was busying herself in the kitchen with breakfast, some song about rabbits winding its way through the window in her gravelly voice. I stood stoically, willing myself not to blink, or I may miss it. The air was cool, and my skin stood in pimples.
A flash of white, buried in the leaves. I jumped, tasting my heart, my blood. The white shivered, drifting between tree trunks, hazy, but there. I thought of running, but where would I go? Then, Grandma called, breakfast was ready, and the white melded back into the darkness.
When my first tooth fell out, I ran to Granny, grinning, a black hole poking out in the smile. Granny held her hand out for the missing tooth, and I presented it to her proudly, an almost weightless chip of bone and blood. Granny held it up to the light, and a shimmer found her eyes.
“Ah, you’ve started. The Gum-gaoler will be pleased.”
I once asked Granny why he was called the Gum-gaoler. It was late in the day, to me. A period of time that could have been between 5pm or midnight, but the sun was down, and to my childish mind darkness meant sleeping, dreaming, and the monsters under my bed. Granny had lit the fire, and I was knelt in front of it, almost unaware of the heat seeping through my clothes. Granny held a book open on her lap, completely silent except for her breathing, occasionally licking a finger to flick a page. She didn’t want to read me a bedtime story: they were for babies, and I wasn’t a baby, she said.
Granny lifted a finger, halting my questions whilst she finished reading. Her eyes drew lines in the page, and I picked at the rug beneath me with my thumb. When she finally looked up, the light from the fire had inked shadows from her nose, her cheeks, and stained her skin red.
“What does he do?”
“What does who do?”
Granny chewed her cheek, and I was still pulling at the rug, now twisting a loose thread around my finger.
“Well, he does exactly that. He guards your gums.”
Granny set the book aside and patted her lap. I scrambled to my feet and hurried over, knowing Granny didn’t like to ask twice. And then, when I was settled, and she was sure I was listening, Granny told me the story of the Gum-gaoler.
A long time ago, a man was borne was the depths of the forest. He had no parents, no family, he simply came to be, growing from the moss, building his own bones from animal carcasses, gluing himself together with mud and water. He wandered the forest his whole life, looking for ways to replicate the human appearance, observing people from a distance so he could copy their mannerisms, their expressions, their voices.
Over time, the Gum-gaoler grew frustrated. He was unable to find ways of smoothing his moss-covered skin or patching the holes that exposed his bones. But the one thing that frustrated the Gum-gaoler the most was his inability to replicate a human smile. His teeth, just clusters of gravel meshed in his gums, did not have the friendliness, the vibrancy, of the smiles he had witnessed from beyond the trees.
In distress, he devised a plan, that, if he couldn’t replicate human teeth some other way, he would simply have to take them for his own. And his favourite teeth of all were fresh teeth, the ones grown by children who had recently lost them.
“So,” Granny whispered, her arms tightening around my shoulders, “If you ever wake to find a piece of gravel under your pillow, and a gap within your gums, you’ll know the Gum-gaoler has visited.”
I frowned, feeling a stirring in my stomach, and hoping that this was all made up, fabricated by Granny’s mind, based on addled thoughts instead of fact. So, I asked for proof:
“Granny, how do you know all of this?”
“Sometimes,” Granny grinned then, a wide grin that stretched every wrinkle in her skin, exposed every tooth in her mouth, “sometimes, these things are better left unsaid.”
And there, in the darkened corners of Granny’s smile, I saw jagged pieces of gravel where her teeth should have been.
I shouldn’t have slept a wink that night. Granny’s story should have rendered me captured, gripped in fear, my eyes ripped open as my heart thudded faster than any drum I’d ever heard. But, for whatever reason, perhaps sheer exhaustion from worry, I did sleep. And as I woke to hear the cawing of the crows outside my window, I felt a gaping hole in my gum, undeniable as I prodded it with my tongue. The taste of blood.
And when I slid my hand under my pillow, I felt the cool, sharp prod of gravel beneath my fingers. And I knew, the Gum-gaoler had come for me.
Martha Watson is a writer based in the Yorkshire Dales, with work in Ellipsis Zine Magazine and forthcoming in ’Tales of the Supernatural’ at Otranto House.