Usually a stone that escapes into rice and finds its way to the mouth is a dumb shock in the jaw. It is a clapped hand over lips, a finger that explores for injuries, and a slap to whoever’s job it was to wash stones from the rice in the first place. But Neemu had been seven and the stone angled just so; snapping her two front teeth, which were new. She had washed the rice herself and there was nobody to slap.

Her tongue spilled through the gap, clean as a cut in a pig’s throat, and I guessed that she had been taught to compensate by smiling and speaking rarely, with the punishment of a drunkard for a husband in the future or none at all. I had visited her mother’s shop several times before, a place where you waited on a straw mat while your vegetables were weighed, and realized Neemu had been kept from me, and from most visitors. Her appearance was a grievance for her mother.

“A daughter with half a face,” she told me, “and not even a son, for the fire.”

“A daughter would give you a fire,” I shrugged. Neemu eyed me sideways.

“And where will I end up?” the mother spat.

“A son would be in the Gulf, at the rate Nepal is going,” I couldn’t resist retorting, “He wouldn’t be allowed to come for your funeral.”

Neemu kept her teeth in a tiffin can with some other treasures. She showed them to me shyly, with glances at the door. I knew the sharp edge of the teeth from childhood. It was in the embarrassment of broken china, snuggly fitted shards, red-faced reprimands. I, too, had been the clumsiest of children, paying the price less severely now, with herring-bone scarred knees and a slightly bent nose on which boys liked to comment.

“I have teeth in a box at home, too,” I confessed. “Not mine though. Some from buffalo, and a puppy.” I leaned closer. “One from a python my grandfather killed, also.”

Her mother called me back outside to collect my vegetables. I watched Neemu touch her tongue to her lips, still cautious, and I noticed that one of her tooth stubs was snake-sharp. I was usually unconcerned with faces, nervous of tying girls down to pretty or beautiful, but I was quite certain that hers was a face I have seen before. In fact, I must have loved this face as a child, perhaps on one of my elders, liquid-lipped and blinking as if in sunlight, the rare smiles as improbable as a red moon through clouds. I could recognise a mind that had roughened like a mouth on broken stubs of tooth, and a mouth that quivered like a stone through sieve and grain.

“Come again,” the mother said without smiling, and marched inside.

Neemu helped me tie the vegetable sacks to the back of my bicycle. When I dropped the tomatoes, she hurried to gather them. Wiping each one on the front of her kurta, she began to smile but in a flickered kind of way, a smile that grew as she fought with herself, like a match catching light against a breeze.

“Imagine, when they find out you have a python tooth,” she said. “You’re going to get in such trouble.”

 

Eleanor Walsh

Eleanor Walsh

Eleanor Walsh attended Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia where she studied English, and she later completed her MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University in the UK. She is now in Nepal on a doctoral research where she studies oral literature from low-caste communities in the Terai – a place where she draws much inspiration for her own poetry. The Nepalese villagers teach her how to harvest rice and often tell her to lighten up.

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