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After everyone has passed it around, Tharani wraps it in a tissue and tucks it into her polar-fleece pocket.

Fiction | Flash Fiction
July 21, 2023

They don’t play twenty questions or tell stories at dinner, because Amma and Appa have just read important news. Tharani sorts the shell and wheel shapes in her pasta onto opposite sides of the plate, then splits them into more piles: yellow, green, red. Her parents talk to each other about Elephant Pass, the war, and going Home.

On the bus to camp, looking out at sheep-dotted fields, she tells Claire that, at Home, there will be jungles full of elephants, and snakes in her house. 

“And tigers and lions,” she adds, when Claire finally stops braiding her friendship bracelet to listen.

“Aren’t you scared?” 

“No, my parents grew up there, so I know what it’s like. There are palm trees, too. You can climb them and pick coconuts.” She looks at the sheep again. They are grayish, not the bright white of those in pictures. “I did it when I visited my grandparents, when I was little.” It could be true. Her parents have a book of children’s poetry that has something about climbing a palm tree. 

“Cool! When are you moving?” Claire pushes her feet against the seat in front, and Peter turns around to say, “Stop it!”

“Maybe in a year, because the war isn’t finished yet.” Tharani puts the end of one of her plaits in her mouth, feeling strands of hair shift against her tongue as she bites down.

Claire nods, kicking again, ignoring Peter’s glare. “That’s good. You can still come to my birthday party.”

They stay in bunkhouses with giant plastic-covered mattresses, and she sleeps in a sleeping bag for the first time in her life. No one invites her to join the pillow fights. Amma packed her food into labeled plastic boxes and gave it to the teachers, so she can’t eat with Claire and the others. Claire gifts the friendship bracelet to someone else. 

It doesn’t matter, because Tharani will go Home soon. 

After the teachers talk about the small-leaf white-trunk beech trees coated in smudgy black stuff, she draws them in her exercise book: insects eating through the bark, sucking in sticky-sweet sap, and pooping out stickier, sweeter, honeydew on which grows the fuzzy dark mold that covers the beech tree trunks. She makes sure to draw lots of wasps buzzing around, too.

They take their backpacks on a walk through a field between mountains, filled with green and red tussock that ripples when the wind rushes in her ears. Hidden between the long grass tufts, Tharani sees a flash of yellow-white, reaches down, pulls out a bone that’s smooth against her fingertips. 

Claire comes over to see. Several other girls follow, and then a teacher from another class.

“It looks like a rabbit’s jawbone,” he says. After everyone has passed it around, Tharani wraps it in a tissue and tucks it into her polar-fleece pocket. She doesn’t normally like bones, which make her think of fighting. Bones are best left for other kids, who don’t think of dead animals as family. But the war might be over soon, and bones won’t matter.

When they pick her up from school, she tells her parents about the bunkhouses, and how the scary black fungus on the beech trees swarming with wasps is because of the honeydew insects. She shows them the bone, unsure whether to be ashamed or proud of her find, and having brought it back. 

Appa forgives her for not washing the plastic boxes after she says they would have gone in the same water with dishes used for meat, though he makes her scrub out the rotten smell. He doesn’t say anything about the bone.

It’s five years later that her parents borrow the jawbone to put in a small cardboard box with a black cotton curtain stapled in front of it, and a sign that reads “Guess what?”

In the hall, they set up a table between Free Tibet, who give her a “Free Tibet” notepad, and Amnesty International, who give her a purple candle badge when she puts a dollar in their collection box.

Her family don’t have anything to give away. Visitors to their table reach through the curtain to feel the rabbit’s jawbone, and then they can read about mass graves.