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.”