The bones made us so happy. We had been searching for anything to play with for weeks. You couldn’t do much with a wet twig or a handful of bark. We tried bowling with balls of dried mud but that fell apart quickly.
“I guess that’s the way the mud ball crumbles,” our mother said.
No one laughed. We hadn’t laughed at her jokes in six weeks. We laughed yesterday when she stubbed her toe in the river but that was it. She laughed too, like the thin streams of blood flowing from her foot and swirling around her ankle were her idea.
We found the bones at the base of a tree we’d never noticed before. The bones were probably a part of a larger set of bones, bigger than a watermelon but smaller than a pig. Thinner bones flowed from a single, thickest bone.
First we tried the bones out as a musical instrument. We ran a twig over the ribs, experimenting. We heard light, pleasant thunks like birds landing on tree limbs. Then the youngest of us tapped his twig too hard and snapped the smallest bone. We kicked him and pushed him down a hill. We called him a baby and a retard. Our mother watched from her favorite sitting rock, humming and playing with the bit of cloth wrapped around her stubbed toe. Half of us guarded the bones and half of us guarded the youngest, making sure that our mother didn’t disturb either.
“Everyone puts my baby at the bottom of the hill,” our mother said finally, when the sun had begun to dunk below the sky. No one laughed. We’d seen the movie before but the reminder gave color to the ache. Movies were the first thing she had stolen from us. A house was the last. The oldest threw a slim rock near her, close enough to make her duck. We demanded dinner. She stood without comment. A bird shrieked somewhere over the tree cover.
Our mother came back to our thicket carrying a large rabbit by its ears. Its head was pulpy and dark; white chunks dripped down its back. She said she smashed it with a rock. We looked at each other. In the beginning, we would not have accepted this. We liked bunnies too much. But now we were hungry. We nodded our okay. We let the youngest scramble up the hill. The oldest girl kissed his cheek and ordered him to kneel near the bones and apologize.
We brainstormed other ideas of what to do with the bones while our mother slit the rabbit open. The youngest wanted the heart and we let him have it. He was too young to remember what hearts looked like but knew that the girls talked about them often, drawing shapes in the dirt and guessing which one might be the right one. We told him that the heart shape isn’t like the hearts inside of living things but that didn’t matter. He poked at the rabbit heart, squealing when it oozed onto his palm.
Could the bones be a game, we wondered? A gentle game, the kind we remembered playing inside, kneeling on the floor. We collected piles of small rocks and crouched on the forest floor. We pushed the rocks from one pile to another, trying to feel a sense of fun. There was nothing. Our mother walked by with wood on her shoulder. The fire she built crackled. The youngest put his bloodied and browned hands to his face.
Our mother added the wood to the fire and sparks popped, then flew. We tried not to grant her any attention by watching but couldn’t help it. She hefted the rabbit now, a stick speared through its center. Even in the dusk you could see its neck bent backward, its open mouth, its teeth glinting.
“This rabbit’s too hot to trot,” she said, settling the rabbit’s spear onto two pronged sticks.
We were too tired to punish, so we ignored her, turning our backs. We sat and
wondered if we should break the bones up. Right now they still attached to that biggest bone. Were they supposed to be separated? Would they be more powerful alone, we wondered.
“This rabbit is putting the all in almost,” our mother said.
We looked at her without wanting to. Maybe the oldest girl among us didn’t. The rest of us couldn’t help it. Our mother’s hair hung over her face as she bent to the fire, reddened hand turning the stake. The rabbit’s paw extended upward. The burning fur was a smell we remembered from the classroom, though in memory, school had shrunk to a bricked rectangle containing other rectangles.
We could remember school one scent at a time: glue was a scent burnt in the nose, a rectangle in the eye, a roving buzz in the ear. The last day there had been so confusing. Someone at home had told us not to bring our backpacks, that we were leaving soon.
Our mother’s thick grip turned the stake and the rabbit’s tail flopped off first, softly pitching into the fire. A whoosh whooshed, flame lapping at the rabbit’s whole body, which it took then, swooping back into the coals. The fire blinked nearly out then, smothered by the rabbit. But it hissed and burst over the rabbit, eating it. Our mother was shrieking. She danced backward in pain. The stake in her hand was on fire and so was her arm.
We did not know it but the bones’ fate was decided then. What was left for us to do but rise and join our mother’s shrieks? Our bellies roared in the emptiness of their own walls. The roar went past our bellies and into our legs, filling them; we moved together and kicked our mother in bursts toward the hills. The original fire burned on behind us, with the rabbit a full part of it now, its eyeballs the same black round as the rocks. Our mother’s arm burned on too, a smoky, waving tree in the foreground of the other trees, these stilled in green and brown. We kicked her along.
She crumpled before falling to the bottom of the hill. There she flattened out, quieter than the youngest had been. He pitched his rabbit heart after her but his throw wasn’t good enough. The heart landed halfway down the hill. On the way to secure our mother with the bones, we kicked clumps of dirt over it.
The oldest girl reached the bottom of the hill first. She used a knife to pierce holes in our mother’s clothes. The fabric was worn and tore easily, its fibers parting in silence.
We gently wrenched the bones from the bigger bone — was it a spine? — and handed them to her. The oldest girl threaded the bones through the holes and drove them into the dirt. I’m sure our mother could have struggled and snapped the bones and overthrown all of us but she let us work and stared up at the sky in rapture, smiling and sniffing sometimes, as if the gathering clouds were one big joke. The clouds swelled until they blocked the sun, which had ducked away by then anyway, and we felt the ground beneath us cool. The flesh on our mother’s arm bubbled white. In other spots, closer to the wrist, it was a flat, shining pink speckled with darker bits. We kicked some dirt over her and the bone stakes worked; she rolled a little against them but didn’t move. She stayed on the ground. We waited for a joke from her but none came. We dug our toes deeper into the dirt that was cooling off without the sun around to warm it up. We looked up the hill toward the thicker parts of our fake home, our new home, the brown forest embroidered with dark greens and wet blacks. If you were too hot, this forest’s cool dirt might feel nice.