Gnashing of Teeth, Ryan Napier
This story was originally published in the South Florida Arts Journal.
His name was David. His parents had named him after the king. He learned about the king in Sunday school: the teacher told him that his name meant “beloved” and that “beloved” meant “someone who is loved.”
For many years, the meaning of his name was the most useful thing he learned in Sunday school. Which was not to say that Sunday school was useless or even boring. He went gladly every week, and he usually found the stories entertaining. He remembered them well: in the weeks where there was no lesson and they instead played Bible trivia, he was a fierce competitor and frequent winner.
He knew the stories well, but he did not particularly care about them. He never thought about them during the week, outside of class. Not until the story about the end of the world.
He was seven then, and it was a regular Sunday in February. One of those middle Sundays of Lent, after the sweetness of Christmas but before the drama of Easter. The stories that they read during these weeks were, to be honest, not as good. Usually, Jesus just told some story about grain or gold.
The teacher treated it like any other Sunday. She gave them the story sheets, and as usual for a February Sunday, the drawing on the front showed Jesus telling some story. There was a little crowd of people in sandals, and Jesus had his hands in the air like someone had just scored a touchdown.
The children gathered on the floor around the teacher’s chair, and she told them to turn their sheets over and follow along as she read:
“One day Jesus told his disciples about the end of the world. He told them a parable:
“‘Once there were ten people,’ Jesus said. ‘Five were wise and five were foolish. All ten went to the master’s house. But the master was not there. The ten people had to wait. The five wise people brought oil for their lamps. The five foolish people did not bring any oil at all.
“‘They waited and waited for the master, but he did not come. The five foolish people did not have enough oil, so their lamps went out. They knew that they could not wait in the dark. They left to buy more oil. The five wise people had enough oil, and they continued to wait.
“‘While the foolish people were gone, the master came home. He invited the five wise people into the house. The master shut the door and had a big feast with the five wise people. Later, the foolish people knocked at the door. ‘Let us in!’ they said. But the master did not let them in. ‘You were not prepared,’ he said. They had to wait outside forever. It was dark outside, and there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“Jesus said, ‘This is what the end of the world will be like. It will come suddenly, like a thief in the night. Be prepared, because no one knows the day or the hour when it will happen.”
The teacher finished the story and, as usual, asked them some questions. As always, David was quick to answer: the master was Jesus, the big feast was heaven. “And what,” she said, “did Jesus tell us to do?” David did not answer: he had already said too much. The other children picked at the carpet or stared at the reflection in their shiny church shoes. “Be prepared,” the teacher said. “That’s what Jesus tells us to do. Look at the last line: ‘No one knows the day or the hour.’ That means it will come when no one expects it.”
She did not ask the most important question, the one that had bothered David. And he could not bring himself to ask it. Even saying the words scared him.
David’s question was, “What is ‘gnashing of teeth?’” Gnashing was a new word, but it was one of those words that sounded like something. It reminded him of losing his first tooth. The tooth was loose for weeks. He lived with it so long that his mother had even given it a name: “Luther the Toother.” (They were, after all, Lutherans.) By the end, the tooth hung on by a single root. “Two seconds,” his father said. “One pull and it’s out. No pain, I promise. It’s not good to just have it dangling there, David.”
But he did not want to lose it, for reasons he could not explain. He simply did not want to be without it: he did not know why. He tried not to touch it, even with his tongue or his lips, which caused him to assume an odd position with his face—mouth slightly open, lips pushed slightly away from his teeth.
It came out anyway. He was eating a piece of pizza and lost it in the cheese. His father was right: no pain. There was so little feeling that he didn’t notice it had come out. He kept on chewing the pizza and crunched the tooth between his back molars. He chewed on his own tooth.
Even months later, the memory of chewing his own tooth raised goosebumps all over his body. If he remembered it while eating, he would stop chewing mid-bite, push the food into his cheek, and wait, sometimes for minutes, for the memory to pass.
And that was what he guessed “gnashing of teeth” to be: chewing your own tooth, over and over.
The teacher gave them another sheet, this one for coloring. She set the tub of crayons in front of them and suddenly the other children lost interest in the carpet and their shoes. But David was distracted with teeth: he missed the scramble for crayons and ended up with green and purple and brown. He used green to color the flames of the lamps of the wise.
His crayon moved over the same spot again and again, making a big green jag with no regard for the lines. He was thinking about gnashing.
The “thief in the night” did not scare him. Maybe it was scary back then, in Bible times. But his house had an alarm. No, the gnashing was what was scary. And the lamps. He did not understand the story: why did they need lamps? Why couldn’t the wise people share? Why were they all waiting there? But because he could not understand, he felt it was all the more powerful. He imagined the lamps lighting sweaty faces full of teeth, and he imagined the dark outside the house and all the teeth out there that you couldn’t see, and it was all mysterious and profound.
And gnashing. He did not want the gnashing. But he had it: the thought stayed with him in the afternoon. He remembered it again that night before bed, and again the next night.
He did not think of the feast with any excitement. That didn’t matter. He didn’t care about chewing some great food with Jesus: he only wanted to avoid chewing his own teeth.
The thought of gnashing came to him every night that week. He solved the problem on Friday. He remembered what the teacher had said, and suddenly the solution came to him. It was like when you memorized your times tables: when you really knew it, the answer would just arrive, and you understood it immediately, without having to do the work. All the steps, all the logic, happened at once, compressed into one moment of perfect knowing.
He knew what he had to do, but the logic of it was so beautiful and satisfying that he worked it out in his head over and over.
It went like this: the teacher had said that the end and the gnashing would come when no one expected it. So all he had to do was expect it every day, all the time, and it would never come. If he said, “I know it will end today,” and it really did end today, then he would prove Jesus wrong, because he, David, would have known the day and the hour. But Jesus couldn’t be wrong. So therefore it wouldn’t end if he only thought that it would end. All he had to do was was expect gnashing and it would be put off.
Expecting became a part of his routine. At bedtime, his parents stood in his doorway, and he sped through his regular prayer, as always: NowIlaymedowntosleep . . .” They shut off the lights and closed the door, and he turned toward the wall and said a second prayer: “Dear God, I know that the world will end tomorrow.” And the gnashing was therefore delayed another day.
He wondered if he were somehow cheating. Tricking God. But it was all there. It was just logic, just like a times table.
Every night he prayed this second prayer. After a few weeks, he came up with a total solution. “Dear God,” he prayed, “I know that the world will end sometime in the next one hundred thousand years.” Again, the logic was perfect. If the world did end sometime in the next one hundred thousand years, he would be right: he would have predicted the day and proved Jesus wrong. So it couldn’t happen in the next one hundred thousand years.
He understood the logic, but this time, it did not reassure him. Not like the nightly prayers did. The hundred thousand years felt too clever: it was too brilliant to be reassuring. He was sure that the logic worked, but he kept doing the nightly prediction of the end anyway, just in case. Best not to risk gnashing.
Of course, the nightly predictions stopped eventually, sometime before the end of the summer, before he turned eight. The predictions stopped not because he realized that they were silly, although if he had been asked to describe them out loud, he would have realized that they were silly. But he never spoke a word about them, and so losing them was less overt, less conscious. He simply forgot, slowly. The fear of gnashing just slipped away, lost to the gradual amnesia that allows us to stop doing something without ever renouncing it, that lucky selective drowsiness that keeps us from living with a perpetual wince of embarrassment over the ways we once thought and lived.
But even if he no longer made the predictions, even if he no longer remembered making them, he had learned their subtle lesson. He was seven years old, and already he knew that the entire world depended on him.