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From Our Community

The Dragon Tooth

Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang

By Kao Kalia Yang

As we enter the year of the dragon this month, I’m reminded of a tale from another year of the dragon: 1964.

A young boy played beside a tumbling stream in the high mountains of Laos. Among the speckled river rocks, he saw something jagged and white, a giant tooth big as his torso. The boy lifted it with shaking hands, felt its weight, touched its smooth texture and looked into its glimmering depth. For a moment, he thought he saw an image from deep within coming through to the light. Half-afraid and half-excited, the boy slammed it hard against a heavy boulder. It shattered into pieces, white as clouds.

Over half a century later and far across the ocean, that boy, an old man now, sits near me at a long table. He reflects wistfully, “It could have been a dinosaur tooth. It could have been a dragon tooth. There’s no knowing now. All I knew then was that I was holding something old and sacred, something whose history I could not begin to fathom, and so I cracked it hoping that it would spill its secrets, but all I managed was to destroy it.”

Two young boys sit at the same table, mouths open in amazement, round eyes trained on the white-haired man and ears cocked in my direction, waiting for me to translate the Hmong words into English.

“Wow! Why did you do that?” they ask.

The man shrugs his shoulders, and tells the boys, “I was young. I did not know better.”

One responds, “You could have been a paleontologist, Yawm Txiv.” The other shakes his head vigorously, unbelievingly, “Man, it could have been a pov haum.”

I’m surprised that they know what a pov haum is: a powerful token, often found in the natural world, a little object embedded with magical powers.

The wrinkles deepen around the old man’s eyes and he shares another story. Once, his own grandfather had found a pov haum in the belly of a wild boar. It was a small, shiny rock, no bigger than the tip of a thumb. He’d brought it home. One daughter couldn’t quite see the shine by the family’s firelight, so she threw it high to see how it might reflect the flames. With her mouth wide open, the pov haum slipped down her throat. Many years later, that daughter chanced upon a beautiful white rooster. The rooster led her to a cave. Inside its depths, she found coffers of precious gold bars, necklaces made of precious metals and gems and other artifacts of wealth. She became rich. Her discovery was attributed to the pov haum that she carried deep within her being.

The kids and I are mystified. What a reality to inhabit. I ask, “What if it had been a dragon’s tooth?”

The man looks at me across the length of the table. When he speaks again, his voice enters the room like wind through a window.

“We lived a world where the dragons dwelled in the stillest, deepest ponds, where the rivers were their highways. If it had indeed been a dragon’s tooth that I had found, it would not have been an accident. If I had kept it, no doubt the dragon would have come for it sooner or later, and whatever the outcome of that encounter, my life would not have been lived as it has been. Because I did not keep the tooth, because I had broken it into pieces, whatever grand plan there had been shattered. Instead, I was left to devise a life on my own, one that would see my world fall on me, that would have me flee, via the waterways of the world, for a life on distant shores.”

The young boy at the river in Laos grew up and became my father and the boys’ grandfather. Now, at our table in Minnesota, he sits sharing the stories of his past, instilling the magic and mystery of our ancestors, and planting seeds of wisdom for the shatterings, the discoveries and the possibilities of what is and can never be known as we greet once again the year of the dragon.

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong American author for children and adults, a sought-after national public speaker and an educator. Yang is a Soros, McKnight and Guggenheim fellow. Her new memoir Where Rivers Part will be released in March 2024.