Donna Lee Miele plays with characters, settings, and conflicts that evoke her mixed heritage and her parents’ experiences of war. While she also writes historical fiction, she finds greater freedom to explore (and greater fun) in stories with less concrete settings, which was her intention with “Crocodile Teeth.” She hopes that readers will enjoy playing in this fictional intersection of contemporary Southeast Asia and the Depression-era United States. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in |tap| litmag, Atticus Review, Red Fez, and elsewhere, and she is a founding member of River River Writers’ Circle.
Excerpt from “Crocodile Teeth”
We were the ones who found the abandoned boathouse upriver of the delta. Most people had better places to go—even Edward and I wouldn’t have started hanging out there if not for the way things were, him with his sister running things at his grandma’s place, me with my dad out to get me all the time. We were always looking for a place of our own, and no one else wanted the boathouse. It had fallen out of use since the mining operations upriver had moved away, leaving no use for the canoes to guide the barges through the shallows. And it was beyond broken since the storm, which had carried away most of the canoes. But one end of it was packed with sacks that someone had left behind. The sacks turned out to be stuffed with teeth. Edward said they were crocodile teeth, and that the poachers shot last year in the raids must have lived here. I wasn’t convinced. The teeth were so small.
“Baby crocodiles,” Edward shrugged. “Easier to catch.”
We took the teeth to an older guy who made bracelets for the tourists. He made a ton of rosaries, naturally, out of the usual local seed pods, but had recently become known for merchandise featuring sharks’ teeth. He was impressed with our teeth. He said they were a good size for bracelets and anklets. Any bigger or sharper and the tourists tried to return the merchandise because the teeth bit into their ankle bones and the soft skin on the insides of their wrists. Sometimes they called the cops on him when he refused to refund their money. One time, he’d even had to disappear for a few days.
Excerpt from Statement
I have an anklet made of hematite beads with a single crocodile tooth. I got it from a hustler in Palawan, Philippines, where tensions run high between crocodile conservation efforts and human well-being. On this resort island on the South China Sea, white-glove service and procurement of a tourist’s every last desire have probably been the rule for as long as there have been tourists and desires. There are a lot of such areas in the world—where the resort beaches wear the white gloves, and the beaches in between resorts strip down to nothing but hustle.
That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But children grow up in such places, so there’s play in the hustle, and in case you’re thinking that hustlers are whores, most of them are not. Most kids grow up playing along with the hustles of their elders, and one day find themselves self-reliant.
My own grandmother learned her hustle in the Philippines early in the twentieth century, after “graduating” from a Presbyterian orphanage, where she was placed not long after the Spanish-American War. She found her way out of economic want by selling foodstuffs and, probably, trinkets, just like the guy who sold me my hematite beads with the single crocodile tooth. My father was a hustler, too, growing up during the Great Depression in New York City, and his labors varied from shining shoes to working for pushcart vendors to hauling ice.
Depressed economies twist families; and men, as the traditional heads of household, are often the unfortunate faces of families distorted by economic challenges. My grandmother went into the orphanage after her mother’s second marriage—whether because her stepfather would not take her in or for some other familial war-related trauma, no one knows. My father was the first person in his family on either side to graduate high school, but his father would not pay for him to go to college, out of pride in a peasant’s existence—if the strength of his back, a roof over his head, and a hot dinner at the end of the day was not enough for a man, he was, in my grandfather’s judgment, something less than a man.