Our second contender in the Nebula short story category is The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by Phenderson Djèlí Clark. The story rests on an entry in the journal of the manager of Washington’s Mount Vernon property:
‘Lund Washington, George’s distant cousin who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution, made a notation in the plantation ledger books for May 1784: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.” This “Dr. Lemoire” was almost certainly George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, who corresponded with George Washington about his visit to Mount Vernon that summer.’http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/george-washingtons-false-teeth-come-slaves-look-evidence-responses-evidence-limitations-history/
The story opens with the same journal entry by Lund Washington and from there launches into speculation about the people from whom these teeth were taken. The idea of some being stealing teeth for their own purposes already has an edge of the supernatural and the folk tale. Slavery is inherently abhorrent but there is an additional horror to the forced intimacy of the taking of someones teeth.
Who were each of these someones? Djèlí Clark takes us on a strange journey of speculation. The first tooth we learn:
“came from a blacksmith, who died that very year at Mount Vernon of the flux. The art of the blacksmith had been in his blood—passed down from ancestral spirits who had come seeking their descendants across the sea. Back in what the elder slaves called Africy, he had heard, blacksmiths were revered men who drew iron from the earth and worked it with fire and magic: crafting spears so wondrous they could pierce the sky and swords with beauty enough to rend mountains. Here, in this Colony of Virginia, he had been set to shape crueler things: collars to fasten about bowed necks, shackles to ensnare tired limbs, and muzzles to silence men like beasts.”https://firesidefiction.com/the-secret-lives-of-the-nine-negro-teeth-of-george-washington
From there we learn in turn about each person whose tooth was stolen. Each vignette spins a short but rich picture of wonders. Collectively they show another world of magical events and beings and portals to other worlds. We glimpse mermen and fantastical cities and people raised from the dead.
Each tooth in turn has a different impact on George when he wears it in his mouth.
“When George Washington wore the tooth of his runaway cook, it was strangely at dinner parties. Slaves would watch as he wandered into the kitchen, eyes glazed over in a seeming trance, and placed drops of some strange liquid into the food and drink of his guests. His servants never touched those leftovers.”https://firesidefiction.com/the-secret-lives-of-the-nine-negro-teeth-of-george-washington
This is a beautifully written piece that bursts with magic. Nine very short stories the collectively describe an alternate 18th century America bursting with magic but full of the same evils and oppression as our own.
However, for readers who want a short story with a single narrative this piece will be less rewarding. Not every short that dispenses with a conventional narrative structure works but personally I found this to be an excellent example that plays with form and structure but which is grounded in the personal and the in the art of storytelling.