Parvana doesn’t tell Mother that Shauzia wants to go dig up bones. The next day at the market, Parvana worries that this is a horrible idea, but Shauzia only says that she’s glad Parvana brought her blanket—they can use it to carry lots of bones. Nervously, Parvana follows Shauzia and a group of boys. They walk to a part of Kabul that rockets destroyed, about an hour away. Bombs didn’t just fall on buildings, though—they also fell on the cemetery and disturbed the graves. Bones stick up from the earth, and Shauzia and Parvana can smell something rotting. They watch the other boys start digging and Shauzia points out the bone broker, the man who buys bones. She doesn’t know what he does with them, but she doesn’t care.
The prospect of disturbing graves to sell the bones is understandably frightening to Parvana—the act of burying a body is, after all, meant to protect it from this kind of disturbance and most cultures see this as disrespectful. However, given the difficult times, this seems like one of the best ways for Shauzia and Parvana to make money—and given their families’ poverty, it’s imperative that they figure something out so everyone can continue to eat.
The girls decide to start with a grave that already has a bone sticking out to minimize the risk of discovering a decomposing body. They spread out their blanket and stare nervously at each other and the grave. Shauzia announces that they’re here to make money and pulls out the bone sticking out of the ground. Parvana digs with a bit of board and starts pulling bones out too. She wonders aloud whether the dead would mind being dug up. Shauzia suggests that the dead wouldn’t mind if they were generous in life. Parvana asks Shauzia if she’d mind, but Shauzia can’t answer.
The discussion of whether the dead would mind being dug up betrays just how uncomfortable the girls are with what they’re doing. Shauzia’s unwillingness to answer whether she minds suggests that she probably would mind—even though she’d also probably consider herself kind and generous. Her clear discomfort with digging up the bones but her willingness to do so anyways highlights the lengths that people in situations like this must go in order to survive.
A minute later, Parvana digs up the skull and proudly holds it out to Shauzia. Shauzia and Parvana name the skull “Mr. Skull” and prop him on the gravestone to be their mascot. They take Mr. Skull with them to the next five graves and arrange the other skulls they find next to him. After a while, Parvana whispers that she has to pee. Shauzia points to a doorway in a ruined building and offers to keep watch over the bones. As Parvana starts to head for the doorway, Shauzia jokingly tells Parvana to watch out for land mines. Parvana remembers Father saying that “Kabul has more land mines than flowers,” and she remembers a presentation in school about what land mines look like. Some are disguised as toys and are designed to blow up children.
Naming and hanging onto Mr. Skull reads as somewhat immature. However, it’s also a way for the girls to try to deal with the horrifying nature of what they’re doing. As Mr. Skull, they can come up with a persona for the body they’re exhuming and create a story that gives them permission to dig. Parvana’s fear of land mines is understandable, especially given that a land mine tragically killed her older brother, Hossain.
Parvana nervously peers in the doorway and wonders if a land mine destroyed the building. She can’t hold it until she gets home later, and she definitely can’t pee outside the door—everyone in the graveyard will discover she’s a girl. Her only option is to hope she doesn’t explode. Though Parvana jokes with Shauzia upon her return that she kicked the land mines away, she’s shaking. Once Shauzia uses the bathroom, the girls drag their bundle of bones to the broker. They silently accept the money, afraid that the broker made a mistake. When they’re out of earshot, Parvana whispers that it took her three days last week to make this much money. Shauzia hands her half and they agree to keep digging. Parvana tries to come up with an excuse for Mother as to why she didn’t come home in the afternoon.
For Parvana, death is less terrifying than being found out to be a girl. This highlights how desperate she is to help her family by earning money. The money, however, makes the fear and the danger seem worth it—and makes lying to Mother about her whereabouts seem like a reasonable plan. In this moment, then, Parvana is learning to exercise her independence and her agency in a way that she knows Mother wouldn’t approve of. She becomes more mature and adult as she does this, as she begins to see the sense in lying if it means the family can eat.
A few hours later, the cloud cover clears and sunlight illuminates the graveyard. Parvana nudges Shauzia and they look out over the scene of dirty boys digging up gleaming white bones. Parvana says they must remember this in the future, even if no one believes it actually happened. They work for the rest of the afternoon. When they’re finished, Shauzia says she’s going to keep some of her money for herself so she can buy her trays; her family will just spend it if she hands it all over. Neither girl wants to tell their families what they did all day, but they agree to dig again tomorrow. Before heading home, Parvana washes herself in the tap, clothes and all. She hides her extra money in her pack and puts her head back under the tap, hoping to wash the image of Mr. Skull from her mind.
Even if Parvana is well aware that she made more money today than she ever dreamed of making, this doesn’t mean that the experience of digging up bones wasn’t horrifying and disturbing. This is why she tries to wash the image of Mr. Skull out of her mind in the tap; she’s struggling to reconcile what she did with the knowledge that she can now feed her family for a while. Shauzia, however, shows that she’s a bit more independent when she decides to save money for herself. To her, it’s more important to move up in business than it is to demonstrate her loyalty to her family.