بخش 3کتاب: هزار خورشید تابان / فصل 3
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- سطح خیلی سخت
دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»
این فصل را میتوانید به بهترین شکل و با امکانات عالی در اپلیکیشن «زیبوک» بخوانید
برای دسترسی به این محتوا بایستی اپلیکیشن زبانشناس را نصب کنید.
متن انگلیسی فصل
On the third and last day of Eid, Rasheed went to visit some friends. Mariam, who’d had a queasy stomach all night, boiled some water and made herself a cup of green tea sprinkled with crushed cardamom. In the living room, she took in the aftermath of the previous night’s Eid visits: the overturned cups, the half-chewed pumpkin seeds stashed between mattresses, the plates crusted with the outline of last night’s meal. Mariam set about cleaning up the mess, marveling at how energetically lazy men could be.
She didn’t mean to go into Rasheed’s room. But the cleaning took her from the living room to the stairs, and then to the hallway upstairs and to his door, and, the next thing she knew, she was in his room for the first time, sitting on his bed, feeling like a trespasser.
She took in the heavy, green drapes, the pairs of polished shoes lined up neatly along the wall, the closet door, where the gray paint had chipped and showed the wood beneath. She spotted a pack of cigarettes atop the dresser beside his bed. She put one between her lips and stood before the small oval mirror on the wall. She puffed air into the mirror and made ash-tapping motions. She put it back. She could never manage the seamless grace with which Kabuli women smoked. On her, it looked coarse, ridiculous.
Guiltily, she slid open the top drawer of his dresser.
She saw the gun first. It was black, with a wooden grip and a short muzzle. Mariam made sure to memorize which way it was facing before she picked it up. She turned it over in her hands. It was much heavier than it looked. The grip felt smooth in her hand, and the muzzle was cold. It was disquieting to her that Rasheed owned something whose sole purpose was to kill another person. But surely he kept it for their safety. Her safety.
Beneath the gun were several magazines with curling corners. Mariam opened one. Something inside her dropped. Her mouth gaped of its own will.
On every page were women, beautiful women, who wore no shirts, no trousers, no socks or underpants. They wore nothing at all. They lay in beds amid tumbled sheets and gazed back at Mariam with half-lidded eyes. In most of the pictures, their legs were apart, and Mariam had a full view of the dark place between. In some, the women were prostrated as if-God forbid this thought-insujda for prayer. They looked back over their shoulders with a look of bored contempt.
Mariam quickly put the magazine back where she’d found it. She felt drugged. Who were these women? How could they allow themselves to be photographed this way? Her stomach revolted with distaste. Was this what he did then, those nights that he did not visit her room? Had she been a disappointment to him in this particular regard? And what about all his talk of honor and propriety, his disapproval of the female customers, who, after all, were only showing him their feet to get fitted for shoes?A woman’s face, he’d said,is her husband’s business only. Surely the women on these pages had husbands, some of them must. At the least, they had brothers. If so, why did Rasheed insist thatshe cover when he thought nothing of looking at the private areas of other men’s wives and sisters?
Mariam sat on his bed, embarrassed and confused She cupped her face with her hands and closed her eyes. She breathed and breathed until she felt calmer.
Slowly, an explanation presented itself He was a man, after all, living alone for years before she had moved in. His needs differed from hers. For her, all these months later, their coupling was still an exercise in tolerating pain. His appetite, on the other hand, was fierce, sometimes bordering on the violent. The way he pinned her down, his hard squeezes at her breasts, how furiously his hips worked. He was a man. All those years without a woman. Could she fault him for being the way God had created him?
Mariam knew that she could never talk to him about this. It was unmentionable. But was it unforgivable? She only had to think of the other man in her life. Jalil, a husband of three and father of nine at the time, having relations with Nana out of wedlock. Which was worse, Rasheed’s magazine or what Jalil had done? And what entitled her anyway, a villager, aharami, to pass judgment?
Mariam tried the bottom drawer of the dresser.
It was there that she found a picture of the boy, Yunus. It was black-and-white. He looked four, maybe five. He was wearing a striped shirt and a bow tie. He was a handsome little boy, with a slender nose, brown hair, and dark, slightly sunken eyes. He looked distracted, as though something had caught his eye just as the camera had flashed.
Beneath that, Mariam found another photo, also black-and-white, this one slightly more grainy. It was of a seated woman and, behind her, a thinner, younger Rasheed, with black hair. The woman was beautiful. Not as beautiful as the women in the magazine, perhaps, but beautiful. Certainly more beautiful than her, Mariam. She had a delicate chin and long, black hair parted in the center. High cheekbones and a gentle forehead. Mariam pictured her own face, her thin lips and long chin, and felt a flicker of jealousy.
She looked at this photo for a long time. There was something vaguely unsettling about the way Rasheed seemed to loom over the woman. His hands on her shoulders. His savoring, tight-lipped smile and her unsmiling, sullen face. The way her body tilted forward subtly, as though she were trying to wriggle free of his hands.
Mariam put everything back where she’d found it.
Later, as she was doing laundry, she regretted that she had sneaked around in his room. For what? What thing of substance had she learned about him? That he owned a gun, that he was a man with the needs of a man? And she shouldn’t have stared at the photo of him and his wife for as long as she had. Her eyes had read meaning into what was random body posture captured in a single moment of time.
What Mariam felt now, as the loaded clotheslines bounced heavily before her, was sorrow for Rasheed. He too had had a hard life, a life marked by loss and sad turns of fate. Her thoughts returned to his boy Yunus, who had once built snowmen in this yard, whose feet had pounded these same stairs. The lake had snatched him from Rasheed, swallowed him up, just as a whale had swallowed the boy’s namesake prophet in the Koran. It pained Mariam-it pained her considerably-to picture Rasheed panic-stricken and helpless, pacing the banks of the lake and pleading with it to spit his son back onto dry land. And she felt for the first time a kinship with her husband. She told herself that they would make good companions after all.
On the bus ride home from the doctor, the strangest thing was happening to Mariam. Everywhere she looked, she saw bright colors: on the drab, gray concrete apartments, on the tin-roofed, open-fronted stores, in the muddy water flowing in the gutters. It was as though a rainbow had melted into her eyes.
Rasheed was drumming his gloved fingers and humming a song. Every time the bus bucked over a pothole and jerked forward, his hand shot protectively over her belly.
“What about Zalmai?” he said. “It’s a good Pashtun name.”
“What if it’s a girl?” Mariam said.
“I think it’s a boy. Yes. A boy.”
A murmur was passing through the bus. Some passengers were pointing at something and other passengers were leaning across seats to see.
“Look,” said Rasheed, tapping a knuckle on the glass. He was smiling. “There. See?”
On the streets, Mariam saw people stopping in their tracks. At traffic lights, faces emerged from the windows of cars, turned upward toward the falling softness. What was it about a season’s first snowfall, Mariam wondered, that was so entrancing? Was it the chance to see something as yet unsoiled, untrodden? To catch the fleeting grace of a new season, a lovely beginning, before it was trampled and corrupted?
“If it’s a girl,” Rasheed said, “and it isn’t, but, if itis a girl, then you can choose whatever name you want.”
Mahiam awoke the next morning to the sound of sawing and hammering- She wrapped a shawl around her and went out into the snowblown yard. The heavy snowfall of the previous night had stopped. Now only a scattering of light, swirling flakes tickled her cheeks. The air was windless and smelled like burning coal. Kabul was eerily silent, quilted in white, tendrils of smoke snaking up here and there.
She found Rasheed in the toolshed, pounding nails into a plank of wood. When he saw her, he removed a nail from the corner of his mouth.
“It was going to be a surprise. He’ll need a crib. You weren’t supposed to see until it was done.”
Mariam wished he wouldn’t do that, hitch his hopes to its being a boy. As happy as she was about this pregnancy, his expectation weighed on her. Yesterday, Rasheed had gone out and come home with a suede winter coat for a boy, lined inside with soft sheepskin, the sleeves embroidered with fine red and yellow silk thread.
Rasheed lifted a long, narrow board. As he began to saw it in half, he said the stairs worried him. “Something will have to be done about them later, when he’s old enough to climb.” The stove worried him too, he said. The knives and forks would have to be stowed somewhere out of reach. “You can’t be too careful Boys are reckless creatures.”
Mariam pulled the shawl around her against the chill.
The next morning, Rasheed said he wanted to invite his friends for dinner to celebrate. All morning, Mariam cleaned lentils and moistened rice. She sliced eggplants forborani, and cooked leeks and ground beef foraushak. She swept the floor, beat the curtains, aired the house, despite the snow that had started up again. She arranged mattresses and cushions along the walls of the living room, placed bowls of candy and roasted almonds on the table.
She was in her room by early evening before the first of the men arrived. She lay in bed as the hoots and laughter and bantering voices downstairs began to mushroom. She couldn’t keep her hands from drifting to her belly. She thought of what was growing there, and happiness rushed in like a gust of wind blowing a door wide open. Her eyes watered.
Mariam thought of her six-hundred-and-fifty-kilometer bus trip with Rasheed, from Herat in the west, near the border with Iran, to Kabul in the east. They had passed small towns and big towns, and knots of little villages that kept springing up one after another. They had gone over mountains and across raw-burned deserts, from one province to the next. And here she was now, over those boulders and parched hills, with a home of her own, a husband of her own, heading toward one final, cherished province: Motherhood. How delectable it was to think of this baby,her baby,their baby. How glorious it was to know that her love for it already dwarfed anything she had ever felt as a human being, to know that there was no need any longer for pebble games.
Downstairs, someone was tuning a harmonium. Then the clanging of a hammer tuning a tabla. Someone cleared his throat. And then there was whistling and clapping and yipping and singing.
Mariam stroked the softness of her belly.No bigger than afingernail, the doctor had said.
I’m going to be a mother,she thought.
“I’m going to be a mother,” she said. Then she was laughing to herself, and saying it over and over, relishing the words.
When Mariam thought of this baby, her heart swelled inside of her. It swelled and swelled until all the loss, all the grief, all the loneliness and self-abasement of her life washed away. This was why God had brought her here, all the way across the country. She knew this now. She remembered a verse from the Koran that Mullah Faizullah had taught her:And Allah is the East and the West, therefore wherever you turn there is Allah’s purpose … She laid down her prayer rug and didnamaz. When she was done, she cupped her hands before her face and asked God not to let all this good fortune slip away from her.
It was Rasheed’S idea to go to thehamam. Mariam had never been to a bathhouse, but he said there was nothing finer than stepping out and taking that first breath of cold air, to feel the heat rising from the skin.
In the women’shamam, shapes moved about in the steam around Mariam, a glimpse of a hip here, the contour of a shoulder there. The squeals of young girls, the grunts of old women, and the trickling of bathwater echoed between the walls as backs were scrubbed and hair soaped. Mariam sat in the far corner by herself, working on her heels with a pumice stone, insulated by a wall of steam from the passing shapes.
Then there was blood and she was screaming.
The sound of feet now, slapping against the wet cobblestones. Faces peering at her through the steam. Tongues clucking.
Later that night, in bed, Fariba told her husband that when she’d heard the cry and rushed over she’d found Rasheed’s wife shriveled into a corner, hugging her knees, a pool of blood at her feet.
“You could hear the poor girl’s teeth rattling, Hakim, she was shivering so hard.”
When Mariam had seen her, Fariba said, she had asked in a high, supplicating voice,It’s normal, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Isn ‘i it normal?
Another bus ride with Rasheed. Snowing again. Falling thick this time. It was piling in heaps on sidewalks, on roofs, gathering in patches on the bark of straggly trees. Mariam watched the merchants plowing snow from their storefronts- A group of boys was chasing a black dog. They waved sportively at the bus. Mariam looked over to Rasheed. His eyes were closed He wasn’t humming. Mariam reclined her head and closed her eyes too. She wanted out of her cold socks, out of the damp wool sweater that was prickly against her skin. She wanted away from this bus.
At the house, Rasheed covered her with a quilt when she lay on the couch, but there was a stiff, perfunctory air about this gesture.
“What kind of answer is that?” he said again. “That’s what a mullah is supposed to say. You pay a doctor his fee, you want a better answer than ‘God’s will.’”
Mariam curled up her knees beneath the quilt and said he ought to get some rest.
“God’s will,” he simmered.
He sat in his room smoking cigarettes all day.
Mariam lay on the couch, hands tucked between her knees, watched the whirlpool of snow twisting and spinning outside the window. She remembered Nana saying once that each snowflake was a sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. That all the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below.
As a reminder of how women like us suffer,she’d said.How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.
The grief kept surprising Mariam. All it took to unleash it was her thinking of the unfinished crib in the toolshed or the suede coat in Rasheed’s closet. The baby came to life then and she could hear it, could hear its hungry grunts, its gurgles and jabbering- She felt it sniffing at her breasts. The grief washed over her, swept her up, tossed her upside down. Mariam was dumbfounded that she could miss in such a crippling manner a being she had never even seen.
Then there were days when the dreariness didn’t seem quite as unrelenting to Mariam. Days when the mere thought of resuming the old patterns of her life did not seem so exhausting, when it did not take enormous efforts of will to get out of bed, to do her prayers, to do the wash, to make meals for Rasheed.
Mariam dreaded going outside. She was envious, suddenly, of the neighborhood women and their wealth of children. Some had seven or eight and didn’t understand how fortunate they were, how blessed that their children had flourished in their wombs, lived to squirm in their arms and take the milk from their breasts. Children that they had not bled away with soapy water and the bodily filth of strangers down some bathhouse drain. Mariam resented them when she overheard them complaining about misbehaving sons and lazy daughters.
A voice inside her head tried to soothe her with well-intended but misguided consolation.
You ‘ll have others,Inshallah.You ‘re young. Surely you’ll have many other chances.
But Mariam’s grief wasn’t aimless or unspecific. Mariam grieved forthis baby, this particular child, who had made her so happy for a while-Some days, she believed that the baby had been an undeserved blessing, that she was being punished for what she had done to Nana. Wasn’t it true that she might as well have slipped that noose around her mother’s neck herself? Treacherous daughters did not deserve to be mothers, and this was just punishment- She had fitful dreams, ofNma’sjinn sneaking into her room at night, burrowing its claws into her womb, and stealing her baby. In these dreams, Nana cackled with delight and vindication.
Other days, Mariam was besieged with anger. It was Rasheed’s fault for his premature celebration. For his foolhardy faith that she was carrying a boy. Naming the baby as he had. Taking God’s will for granted. His fault, for making her go to the bathhouse. Something there, the steam, the dirty water, the soap, something there had caused this to happen. No. Not Rasheed.She was to blame. She became furious with herself for sleeping in the wrong position, for eating meals that were too spicy, for not eating enough fruit, for drinking too much tea.
It was God’s fault, for taunting her as He had. For not granting her what He had granted so many other women. For dangling before her, tantalizingly, what He knew would give her the greatest happiness, then pulling it away.
But it did no good, all this fault laying, all these harangues of accusations bouncing in her head. It waskojr, sacrilege, to think these thoughts. Allah was not spiteful. He was not a petty God. Mullah Faizullah’s words whispered in her head: Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He Who has power over all things, Who created death and life that He may try you.
Ransacked with guilt, Mariam would kneel and pray for forgiveness for these thoughts.
Meanwhile, a change had come over Rasheed ever since the day at the bathhouse. Most nights when he came home, he hardly talked anymore. He ate, smoked, went to bed, sometimes came back in the middle of the night for a brief and, of late, quite rough session of coupling. He was more apt to sulk these days, to fault her cooking, to complain about clutter around the yard or point out even minor uncleanliness in the house. Occasionally, he took her around town on Fridays, like he used to, but on the sidewalks he walked quickly and always a few steps ahead of her, without speaking, unmindful of Mariam who almost had to run to keep up with him. He wasn’t so ready with a laugh on these outings anymore. He didn’t buy her sweets or gifts, didn’t stop and name places to her as he used to. Her questions seemed to irritate him.
One night, they were sitting in the living room listening to the radio. Winter was passing. The stiff winds that plastered snow onto the face and made the eyes water had calmed. Silvery fluffs of snow were melting off the branches of tall elms and would be replaced in a few weeks with stubby, pale green buds. Rasheed was shaking his foot absently to the tabla beat of a Hamahang song, his eyes crinkled against cigarette smoke.
“Are you angry with me?” Mariam asked.
Rasheed said nothing. The song ended and the news came on. A woman’s voice reported that President Daoud Khan had sent yet another group of Soviet consultants back to Moscow, to the expected displeasure of the Kremlin.
“I worry that you are angry with me.”
His eyes shifted to her. “Why would I be angry?”
“I don’t know, but ever since the baby-“
“Is that the kind of man you take me for, after everything I’ve done for you?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Then stop pestering me!”
“I’m sorry.Bebakhsh, Rasheed. I’m sorry.”
He crushed out his cigarette and lit another. He turned up the volume on the radio.
“I’ve been thinking, though,” Mariam said, raisingher voice so as to be heard over the music.
Rasheedsighed again, more irritably this time, turned down the volume once more. He rubbed hisforehead wearily. “What now?”
“I’ve been thinking, that maybe we should have a proper burial For the baby, I mean. Just us, a few prayers, nothing more.”
Mariam had been thinking about it for a while. She didn’t want to forget this baby. It didn’t seem right, not to mark this loss in some way that was permanent.
“What for? It’s idiotic.”
“It would make me feel better, I think.”
“Thm youdo it,” he said sharply. “I’ve already buried one son. I won’t bury another.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m trying to listen.”
He turned up the volume again, leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
One sunny morning that week, Mariam picked a spot in the yard and dug a hole.
“In the name of Allah and with Allah, and in the name of the messenger of Allah upon whom be the blessings and peace of Allah,” she said under her breath as her shovel bit into the ground. She placed the suede coat that Rasheed had bought for the baby in the hole and shoveled dirt over it.
“You make the night to pass into the day and You make the day to pass into the night, and You bring forth the living from the dead and You bring forth the dead from the living, and You give sustenance to whom You please without measure.”
She patted the dirt with the back of the shovel.She squatted by the mound, closed her eyes.
Give sustenance, Allah.
Give sustenance to me.
On April 17,1978, the year Mariam turned nineteen, a man named Mir Akbar Khyber was found murdered Two days later, there was a large demonstration in Kabul. Everyone in the neighborhood was in the streets talking about it. Through the window, Mariam saw neighbors milling about, chatting excitedly, transistor radios pressed to their ears. She saw Fariba leaning against the wall of her house, talking with a woman who was new to Deh-Mazang. Fariba was smiling, and her palms were pressed against the swell of her pregnant belly. The other woman, whose name escaped Mariam, looked older than Fariba, and her hair had an odd purple tint to it. She was holding a little boy’s hand. Mariam knew the boy’s name was Tariq, because she had heard this woman on the street call after him by that name.
Mariam and Rasheed didn’t join the neighbors. They listened in on the radio as some ten thousand people poured into the streets and marched up and down Kabul’s government district. Rasheed said that Mir Akbar Khyber had been a prominent communist, and that his supporters were blaming the murder on President Daoud Khan’s government. He didn’t look at her when he said this. These days, he never did anymore, and Mariam wasn’t ever sure if she was being spoken to.
“What’s a communist?” she asked.
Rasheed snorted, and raised both eyebrows. “You don’t know what a communist is? Such a simple thing.
Everyone knows. It’s common knowledge. You don’t…Bah. I don’t know why I’m surprised.” Then he crossed his ankles on the table and mumbled that it was someone who believed in Karl Marxist.
“Who’s Karl Marxist?”
On the radio, a woman’s voice was saying that Taraki, the leader of the Khalq branch of the PDPA, the Afghan communist party, was in the streets giving rousing speeches to demonstrators.
“What I meant was, what do they want?” Mariam asked. “These communists, what is it that they believe?”
Rasheed chortled and shook his head, but Mariam thought she saw uncertainty in the way he crossed his arms, the way his eyes shifted. “You know nothing, do you? You’re like a child. Your brain is empty. There is no information in it.”
“I ask because-“
It wasn’t easy tolerating him talking this way to her, to bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. But after four years of marriage, Mariam saw clearly how much a woman could tolerate when she was afraid And Mariamwas afraid She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not.
In the four years since the day at the bathhouse, there had been six more cycles of hopes raised then dashed, each loss, each collapse, each trip to the doctor more crushing for Mariam than the last. With each disappointment, Rasheed had grown more remote and resentful Now nothing she did pleased him. She cleaned the house, made sure he always had a supply of clean shirts, cooked him his favorite dishes. Once, disastrously, she even bought makeup and put it on for him. But when he came home, he took one look at her and winced with such distaste that she rushed to the bathroom and washed it all off, tears of shame mixing with soapy water, rouge, and mascara.
Now Mariam dreaded the sound of him coming home in the evening. The key rattling, the creak of the door- these were sounds that set her heart racing. From her bed, she listened to theclick-clack of his heels, to the muffled shuffling of his feet after he’d shed his shoes. With her ears, she took inventory of his doings: chair legs dragged across the floor, the plaintive squeak of the cane seat when he sat, the clinking of spoon against plate, the flutter of newspaper pages flipped, the slurping of water. And as her heart pounded, her mind wondered what excuse he would use that night to pounce on her. There was always something, some minor thing that would infuriate him, because no matter what she did to please him, no matter how thoroughly she submitted to his wants and demands, it wasn’t enough. She could not give him his son back. In this most essential way, she had failed him-seven times she had failed him-and now she was nothing but a burden to him. She could see it in the way he looked at her,when he looked at her. She was a burden to him.
“What’s going to happen?” she asked him now.
Rasheed shot her a sidelong glance. He made a sound between a sigh and a groan, dropped his legs from the table, and turned off the radio. He took it upstairs to his room. He closed the door.
On April 27, Mariam’s question was answered with crackling sounds and intense, sudden roars. She ran barefoot down to the living room and found Rasheed already by the window, in his undershirt, his hair disheveled, palms pressed to the glass. Mariam made her way to the window next to him. Overhead, she could see military planes zooming past, heading north and east. Their deafening shrieks hurt her ears. In the distance, loud booms resonated and sudden plumes of smoke rose to the sky.
“What’s going on, Rasheed?” she said. “What is all this?”
“God knows,” he muttered. He tried the radio and got only static.
“What do we do?”
Impatiently, Rasheed said, “We wait.”
Later in the day, Rasheed was still trying the radio as Mariam made rice with spinach sauce in the kitchen. Mariam remembered a time when she had enjoyed, even looked forward to, cooking for Rasheed. Now cooking was an exercise in heightened anxiety. Thequrma% were always too salty or too bland for his taste. The rice was judged either too greasy or too dry, the bread declared too doughy or too crispy. Rasheed’s faultfinding left her stricken in the kitchen with self-doubt.
When she brought him his plate, the national anthem was playing on the radio.
“I madesabzi, “ she said.
“Put it down and be quiet.”
After the music faded, a man’s voice came on the radio. He announced himself as Air Force Colonel Abdul Qader. He reported that earlier in the day the rebel Fourth Armored Division had seized the airport and key intersections in the city. Kabul Radio, the ministries of Communication and the Interior, and the Foreign Ministry building had also been captured. Kabul was in the hands of the people now, he said proudly. Rebel MiGs had attacked the Presidential Palace. Tanks had broken into the premises, and a fierce battle was under way there. Daoud’s loyalist forces were all but defeated, Abdul Qader said in a reassuring tone.
Days later, when the communists began the summary executions of those connected with Daoud Khan’s regime, when rumors began floating about Kabul of eyes gouged and genitals electrocuted in the Pol-e-Charkhi Prison, Mariam would hear of the slaughter that had taken place at the Presidential Palace. Daoud Khanhadbten killed, but not before the communist rebels had killed some twenty members of his family, including women and grandchildren. There would be rumors that he had taken his own life, that he’d been gunned down in the heat of battle; rumors that he’d been saved for last, made to watch the massacre of his family, then shot.
Rasheed turned up the volume and leaned in closer.
“A revolutionary council of the armed forces has been established, and ourwatan will now be known as the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan,” Abdul Qader said. “The era of aristocracy, nepotism, and inequality is over, fellowhamwaians. We have ended decades of tyranny. Power is now in the hands of the masses and freedom-loving people. A glorious new era in the history of our country is afoot. A new Afghanistan is born. We assure you that you have nothing to fear, fellow Afghans. The new regime will maintain the utmost respect for principles, both Islamic and democratic. This is a time of rejoicing and celebration.”
Rasheed turned off the radio.
“So is this good or bad?” Mariam asked.
“Bad for the rich, by the sound of it,” Rasheed said. “Maybe not so bad for us.”
Mariam’s thoughts drifted to Jalil. She wondered if the communists would go after him, then. Would they jail him? Jail his sons? Take his businesses and properties from him?
“Is this warm?” Rasheed said, eyeing the rice.
“I just served it from the pot.”
He grunted, and told her to hand him a plate.
Do”WN the street, as the night lit up in sudden flashes of red and yellow, an exhausted Fariba had propped herself up on her elbows. Her hair was matted with sweat, and droplets of moisture teetered on the edge of her upper lip. At her bedside, the elderly midwife, Wajma, watched as Fariba’s husband and sons passed around the infant. They were marveling at the baby’s light hair, at her pink cheeks and puckered, rosebud lips, at the slits of jade green eyes moving behind her puffy lids. They smiled at each other when they heard her voice for the first time, a cry that started like the mewl of a cat and exploded into a healthy, full-throated yowl. Noor said her eyes were like gemstones. Ahmad, who was the most religious member of the family, sang theazan in his baby sister’s ear and blew in her face three times.
“Laila it is, then?” Hakim asked, bouncing his daughter.
“Laila it is,” Fariba said, smiling tiredly. “Night Beauty. It’s perfect.”
Rasheed made a ball of rice with his fingers. He put it in his mouth, chewed once, then twice, before grimacing and spitting it out on thesofrah.
“What’s the matter?” Mariam asked, hating the apologetic tone of her voice. She could feel her pulse quickening, her skin shrinking.
“What’s the matter?” he mewled, mimicking her. “What’s the matter is that you’ve done it again.”
“But I boiled it five minutes more than usual.”
“That’s a bold lie.”
He shook the rice angrily from his fingers and pushed the plate away, spilling sauce and rice on thesojrah. Mariam watched as he stormed out of the living room, then out of the house, slamming the door on his way out.
Mariam kneeled to the ground and tried to pick up the grains of rice and put them back on the plate, but her hands were shaking badly, and she had to wait for them to stop. Dread pressed down on her chest. She tried taking a few deep breaths. She caught her pale reflection in the darkened living-room window and looked away.
Then she heard the front door opening, and Rasheed was back in the living room.
“Get up,” he said. “Come here. Get up.”
He snatched her hand, opened it, and dropped a handful of pebbles into it.
“Put these in your mouth.” “What?”
“Put. These. In your mouth.”
“Stop it, Rasheed, I’m-“
His powerful hands clasped her jaw. He shoved two fingers into her mouth and pried it open, then forced the cold, hard pebbles into it. Mariam struggled against him, mumbling, but he kept pushing the pebbles in, his upper lip curled in a sneer.
“Now chew,” he said.
Through the mouthful of grit and pebbles, Mariam mumbled a plea. Tears were leaking out of the corners of her eyes.
“CHEW!” he bellowed. A gust of his smoky breath slammed against her face.
Mariam chewed. Something in the back of her mouth cracked.
“Good,” Rasheed said. His cheeks were quivering. “Now you know what your rice tastes like. Now you know what you’ve given me in this marriage. Bad food, and nothing else.”
Then he was gone, leaving Mariam to spit out pebbles, blood, and the fragments of two broken molars.
JN ine-year-old Laila rose from bed, as she did most mornings, hungry for the sight of her friend Tariq. This morning, however, she knew there would be no Tariq sighting.
“How long will you be gone?” she’d asked when Tariq had told her that his parents were taking him south, to the city of Ghazni, to visit his paternal uncle.
“It’s not so long. You’re making a face, Laila.”
“I am not.”
“You’re not going to cry, are you?”
“I am not going to cry! Not over you. Not in a thousand years.”
She’d kicked at his shin, not his artificial but his real one, and he’d playfully whacked the back of her head.
Thirteen days. Almost two weeks. And, just five days in, Laila had learned a fundamental truth about time: Like the accordion on which Tariq’s father sometimes played old Pashto songs, time stretched and contracted depending on Tariq’s absence or presence-Downstairs, her parents were fighting. Again. Laila knew the routine: Mammy, ferocious, indomitable, pacing and ranting; Babi, sitting, looking sheepish and dazed, nodding obediently, waiting for the storm to pass. Laila closed her door and changed. But she could still hear them. She could still hearher Finally, a door slammed. Pounding footsteps. Mammy’s bed creaked loudly. Babi, it seemed, would survive to see another day.
“Laila!” he called now. “I’m going to be late for work!”
Laila put on her shoes and quickly brushed her shoulder-length, blond curls in the mirror. Mammy always told Laila that she had inherited her hair color-as well as her thick-lashed, turquoise green eyes, her dimpled cheeks, her high cheekbones, and the pout of her lower lip, which Mammy shared-from her great-grandmother, Mammy’s grandmother.She was a pari,a stunner, Mammy said.Her beauty was the talk of the valley. It skipped two generations of women in our family, but it sure didn’t bypass you, Laila The valley Mammy referred to was the Panjshir, the Farsi-speaking Tajik region one hundred kilometers northeast of Kabul. Both Mammy and Babi, who were first cousins, had been born and raised in Panjshir; they had moved to Kabul back in 1960 as hopeful, bright-eyed newlyweds when Babi had been admitted to Kabul University.
Laila scrambled downstairs, hoping Mammy wouldn’t come out of her room for another round. She found Babi kneeling by the screen door.
“Did you see this, Laila?”
The rip in the screen had been there for weeks. Laila hunkered down beside him. “No. Must be new.”
“That’s what I told Fariba.” He looked shaken, reduced, as he always did after Mammy was through with him. “She says it’s been letting in bees.”
Laila’s heart went out to him. Babi was a small man, with narrow shoulders and slim, delicate hands, almost like a woman’s. At night, when Laila walked into Babi’s room, she always found the downward profile of his face burrowing into a book, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Sometimes he didn’t even notice that she was there. When he did, he marked his page, smiled a close-lipped, companionable smile. Babi knew most of Rumi’s and Hafez’sghazals by heart. He could speak at length about the struggle between Britain and czarist Russia over Afghanistan. He knew the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, and could tell you that the distance between the earth and the sun was the same as going from Kabul to Ghazni one and a half million times. But if Laila needed the lid of a candy jar forced open, she had to go to Mammy, which felt like a betrayal. Ordinary tools befuddled Babi. On his watch, squeaky door hinges never got oiled. Ceilings went on leaking after he plugged them. Mold thrived defiantly in kitchen cabinets. Mammy said that before he left with Noor to join the jihad against the Soviets, back in 1980, it was Ahmad who had dutifully and competently minded these things.
“But if you have a book that needs urgent reading,” she said, “then Hakim is your man.”
Still, Laila could not shake the feeling that at one time, before Ahmad and Noor had gone to war against the Soviets-before Babi hadlet them go to war-Mammy too had thought Babi’s bookishness endearing, that, once upon a time, she too had found his forgetfulness and ineptitude charming.
“So what is today?” he said now, smiling coyly. “Day five? Or is it six?”
“What do I care? I don’t keep count,” Laila lied, shrugging, loving him for remembering- Mammy had no idea that Tariq had left.
“Well, his flashlight will be going off before you know it,” Babi said, referring to Laila and Tariq’s nightly signaling game. They had played it for so long it had become a bedtime ritual, like brushing teeth.
Babi ran his finger through the rip. “I’ll patch this as soon as I get a chance. We’d better go.” He raised his voice and called over his shoulder, “We’re going now, Fariba! I’m taking Laila to school. Don’t forget to pick her up!”
Outside, as she was climbing on the carrier pack of Babi’s bicycle, Laila spotted a car parked up the street, across from the house where the shoemaker, Rasheed, lived with his reclusive wife. It was a Benz, an unusual car in this neighborhood, blue with a thick white stripe bisecting the hood, the roof, and the trunk. Laila could make out two men sitting inside, one behind the wheel, the other in the back.
“Who are they?” she said.
“It’s not our business,” Babi said. “Climb on, you’ll be late for class.”
Laila remembered another fight, and, that time, Mammy had stood over Babi and said in a mincing way,That’s your business, isn’t it, cousin? To make nothing your business. Even your own sons going to war. Howl pleaded with you. Bui you buried your nose in those cursed books and let our sons go like they were a pair of haramis.
Babi pedaled up the street, Laila on the back, her arms wrapped around his belly. As they passed the blue Benz, Laila caught a fleeting glimpse of the man in the backseat: thin, white-haired, dressed in a dark brown suit, with a white handkerchief triangle in the breast pocket. The only other thing she had time to notice was that the car had Herat license plates.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, except at the turns, where Babi braked cautiously and said, “Hold on, Laila. Slowing down. Slowing down. There.”
In class that day, Laila found it hard to pay attention, between Tariq’s absence and her parents’ fight. So when the teacher called on her to name the capitals of Romania and Cuba, Laila was caught off guard.
The teacher’s name was Shanzai, but, behind her back, the students called her Khala Rangmaal, Auntie Painter, referring to the motion she favored when she slapped students-palm, then back of the hand, back and forth, like a painter working a brush. Khala Rangmaal was a sharp-faced young woman with heavy eyebrows. On the first day of school, she had proudly told the class that she was the daughter of a poor peasant from Khost. She stood straight, and wore her jet-black hair pulled tightly back and tied in a bun so that, when Khala Rangmaal turned around, Laila could see the dark bristles on her neck. Khala Rangmaal did not wear makeup or jewelry. She did not cover and forbade the female students from doing it. She said women and men were equal in every way and there was no reason women should cover if men didn’t.
She said that the Soviet Union was the best nation in the world, along with Afghanistan. It was kind to its workers, and its people were all equal. Everyone in the Soviet Union was happy and friendly, unlike America, where crime made people afraid to leave their homes. And everyone in Afghanistan would be happy too, she said, once the antiprogressives, the backward bandits, were defeated.
“That’s why our Soviet comrades came here in 1979. To lend their neighbor a hand. To help us defeat these brutes who want our country to be a backward, primitive nation. And you must lend your own hand, children. You must report anyone who might know about these rebels. It’s your duty. You must listen, then report. Even if it’s your parents, your uncles or aunts. Because none of them loves you as much as your country does. Your country comes first, remember! I will be proud of you, and so will your country.”
On the wall behind Khala Rangmaal’s desk was a map of the Soviet Union, a map of Afghanistan, and a framed photo of the latest communist president, Najibullah, who, Babi said, had once been the head of the dreaded KHAD, the Afghan secret police. There were other photos too, mainly of young Soviet soldiers shaking hands with peasants, planting apple saplings, building homes, always smiling genially.
“Well,” Khala Rangmaal said now, “have I disturbed your daydreaming,Inqilabi Girl?”
This was her nickname for Laila, Revolutionary Girl, because she’d been born the night of the April coup of 1978-except Khala Rangmaal became angry if anyone in her class used the wordcoup. What had happened, she insisted, was aninqilab, a revolution, an uprising of the working people against inequality.Jihad was another forbidden word. According to her, there wasn’t even a war out there in the provinces, just skirmishes against troublemakers stirred by people she called foreign provocateurs. And certainly no one,no one, dared repeat in her presence the rising rumors that, after eight years of fighting, the Soviets were losing this war. Particularly now that the American president, Reagan, had started shipping the Mujahideen Stinger Missiles to down the Soviet helicopters, now that Muslims from all over the world were joining the cause: Egyptians, Pakistanis, even wealthy Saudis, who left their millions behind and came to Afghanistan to fight the jihad.
“Bucharest. Havana,” Laila managed.
“And are those countries our friends or not?”
“They are,moolim sahib. They are friendly countries.”
Khala Rangmaal gave a curt nod.
When school let out. Mammy again didn’t show up like she was supposed to. Laila ended up walking home with two of her classmates, Giti and Hasina.
Giti was a tightly wound, bony little girl who wore her hair in twin ponytails held by elastic bands. She was always scowling, and walking with her books pressed to her chest, like a shield. Hasina was twelve, three years older than Laila and Giti, but had failed third grade once and fourth grade twice. What she lacked in smarts Hasina made up for in mischief and a mouth that, Giti said, ran like a sewing machine. It was Hasina who had come up with the Khala Rangmaal nickname-Today, Hasina was dispensing advice on how to fend off unattractive suitors. “Foolproof method, guaranteed to work. I give you my word.”
“This is stupid. I’m too young to have a suitor!” Giti said.
“You’re not too young.”
“Well, no one’s come to ask formy hand.”
“That’s because you have a beard, my dear.”
Giti’s hand shot up to her chin, and she looked with alarm to Laila, who smiled pityingly-Giti was the most humorless person Laila had ever met-and shook her head with reassurance.
“Anyway, you want to know what to do or not, ladies?”
“Go ahead,” Laila said.
“Beans. No less than four cans. On the evening the toothless lizard comes to ask for your hand. But the timing, ladies, the timing is everything- You have to suppress the fireworks ‘til it’s time to serve him his tea.”
“I’ll remember that,” Laila said.
“So will he.”
Laila could have said then that she didn’t need this advice because Babi had no intention of giving her away anytime soon. Though Babi worked at Silo, Kabul’s gigantic bread factory, where he labored amid the heat and the humming machinery stoking the massive ovens and mill grains all day, he was a university-educated man. He’d been a high school teacher before the communists fired him-this was shortly after the coup of 1978, about a year and a half before the Soviets had invaded. Babi had made it clear to Laila from ayoung age that the most important thing in his life, after her safety, was her schooling.
I know you’re still young, bull waniyou to understand and learn this now,he said.Marriage can wait, education cannot You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila No chance.
But Laila didn’t tell Hasina that Babi had said these things, or how glad she was to have a father like him, or how proud she was of his regard for her, or how determined she was to pursue her education just as he had his. For the last two years, Laila had received theawal numra certificate, given yearly to the top-ranked student in each grade.
She said nothing of these things to Hasina, though, whose own father was an ill-tempered taxi driver who in two or three years would almost certainly give her away. Hasina had told Laila, in one of her infrequent serious moments, that it had already been decided that she would marry a first cousin who was twenty years older than her and owned an auto shop in Lahore.I’ve seen him twice, Hasina had said.Both times he ate with his mouth open.
“Beans, girls,” Hasina said. “You remember that. Unless, of course”-here she flashed an impish grin and nudged Laila with an elbow-“it’s your young handsome, one-legged prince who comes knocking- Then…”
Laila slapped the elbow away. She would have taken offense if anyone else had said that about Tariq. But she knew that Hasina wasn’t malicious. She mocked-it was what she did-and her mocking spared no one, least of all herself.
“You shouldn’t talk that way about people!” Giti said.
“What people is that?”
“People who’ve been injured because of war,” Giti said earnestly, oblivious to Hasina’s toying.
“I think Mullah Giti here has a crush on Tariq. I knew it! Ha! But he’s already spoken for, don’t you know? Isn’t he, Laila?”
“I do not have a crush. On anyone!”
They broke off from Laila, and, still arguing this way, turned in to their street.
Laila walked alone the last three blocks. When she was on her street, she noticed that the blue Benz was still parked there, outside Rasheed and Mariam’s house. The elderly man in the brown suit was standing by the hood now, leaning on a cane, looking up at the house.
That was when a voice behind Laila said, “Hey. Yellow Hair. Look here.”
Laila turned around and was greeted by the barrel of a gun.
The gun was red, the trigger guard bright green. Behind the gun loomed Khadim’s grinning face. Khadim was eleven, like Tariq. He was thick, tall, and had a severe underbite. His father was a butcher in Deh-Mazang, and, from time to time, Khadim was known to fling bits of calf intestine at passersby. Sometimes, if Tariq wasn’t nearby, Khadim shadowed Laila in the schoolyard at recess, leering, making little whining noises. One time, he’d tapped her on the shoulder and said,You ‘re so very pretty, Yellow Hair. I want to marry you.
Now he waved the gun. “Don’t worry,” he said. “This won’t show. Noton your hair.”
“Don’t you do it! I’m warning you.”
“What are you going to do?” he said. “Sic your cripple on me? ‘Oh, Tariq jan. Oh, won’t you come home and save me from thebadmashl’”
Laila began to backpedal, but Khadim was already pumping the trigger. One after another, thin jets of warm water struck Laila’s hair, then her palm when she raised it to shield her face.
Now the other boys came out of their hiding, laughing, cackling.
An insult Laila had heard on the street rose to her lips. She didn’t really understand it-couldn’t quite picture the logistics of it-but the words packed a fierce potency, and she unleashed them now.
“Your mother eats cock!”
“At least she’s not a loony like yours,” Khadim shot back, unruffled “At least my father’s not a sissy! And, by the way, why don’t you smell your hands?”
The other boys took up the chant. “Smell your hands! Smell your hands!”
Laila did, but she knew even before she did, what he’d meant about it not showing in her hair. She let out a high-pitched yelp. At this, the boys hooted even harder.
Laila turned around and, howling, ran home.
She drew water from the well, and, in the bathroom, filled a basin, tore off her clothes. She soaped her hair, frantically digging fingers into her scalp, whimpering with disgust. She rinsed with a bowl and soaped her hair again. Several times, she thought she might throw up. She kept mewling and shivering, as she rubbed and rubbed the soapy washcloth against her face and neck until they reddened.
This would have never happened if Tariq had been with her, she thought as she put on a clean shirt and fresh trousers. Khadim wouldn’t have dared. Of course, it wouldn’t have happened if Mammy had shown up like she was supposed to either. Sometimes Laila wondered why Mammy had even bothered having her. People, she believed now, shouldn’t be allowed to have new children if they’d already given away all their love to their old ones. It wasn’t fair. A fit of anger claimed her. Laila went to her room, collapsed on her bed.
When the worst of it had passed, she went across the hallway to Mammy’s door and knocked. When she was younger, Laila used to sit for hours outside this door. She would tap on it and whisper Mammy’s name over and over, like a magic chant meant to break a spell:Mammy, Mammy, Mammy, Mammy… But Mammy never opened the door. She didn’t open it now. Laila turned the knob and walked in.
Sometimes Mammy had good days. She sprang out of bed bright-eyed and playful. The droopy lower lip stretched upward in a smile. She bathed. She put on fresh clothes and wore mascara. She let Laila brush her hair, which Laila loved doing, and pin earrings through her earlobes. They went shopping together to Mandaii Bazaar. Laila got her to play snakes and ladders, and they ate shavings from blocks of dark chocolate, one of the few things they shared a common taste for. Laila’s favorite part of Mammy’s good days was when Babi came home, when she and Mammy looked up from the board and grinned at him with brown teeth. A gust of contentment puffed through the room then, and Laila caught a momentary glimpse of the tenderness, the romance, that had once bound her parents back when this house had been crowded and noisy and cheerful.
Mammy sometimes baked on her good days and invited neighborhood women over for tea and pastries. Laila got to lick the bowls clean, as Mammy set the table with cups and napkins and the good plates. Later, Laila would take her place at the living-room table and try to break into the conversation, as the women talked boisterously and drank tea and complimented Mammy on her baking. Though there was never much for her to say, Laila liked to sit and listen in because at these gatherings she was treated to a rare pleasure: She got to hear Mammy speaking affectionately about Babi.
“What a first-rate teacher he was,” Mammy said. “His students loved him. And not only because he wouldn’t beat them with rulers, like other teachers did. They respected him, you see, because he respectedthem. He was marvelous.”
Mammy loved to tell the story of how she’d proposed to him.
“I was sixteen, he was nineteen. Our families lived next door to each other in Panjshir. Oh, I had the crush on him,hamshirasl I used to climb the wall between our houses, and we’d play in his father’s orchard. Hakim was always scared that we’d get caught and that my father would give him a slapping. ‘Your father’s going to give me a slapping,’ he’d always say. He was so cautious, so serious, even then. And then one day I said to him, I said, ‘Cousin, what will it be? Are you going to ask for my hand or are you going to make me comekhasiegari to you?’ I said it just like that. You should have seen the face on him!”
Mammy would slap her palms together as the women, and Laila, laughed.
Listening to Mammy tell these stories, Laila knew that there had been a time when Mammy always spoke this way about Babi. A time when her parents did not sleep in separate rooms. Laila wished she hadn’t missed out on those times.
Inevitably, Mammy’s proposal story led to matchmaking schemes. When Afghanistan was free from the Soviets and the boys returned home, they would need brides, and so, one by one, the women paraded the neighborhood girls who might or might not be suitable for Ahmad and Noon Laila always felt excluded when the talk turned to her brothers, as though the women were discussing a beloved film that only she hadn’t seen. She’d been two years old when Ahmad and Noor had left Kabul for Panjshir up north, to join Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces and fight the jihad Laila hardly remembered anything at all about them. A shiny allah pendant around Ahmad’s neck. A patch of black hairs on one of Noor’s ears. And that was it.
“What about Azita?”
“The rugmaker’s daughter?” Mammy said, slapping her cheek with mock outrage.
“She has a thicker mustache than Hakim!”
“There’s Anahita. We hear she’s top in her class at Zarghoona.”
“Have you seen the teeth on that girl? Tombstones. She’s hiding a graveyard behind those lips.”
“How about the Wahidi sisters?”
“Those two dwarfs? No, no, no. Oh, no. Not for my sons. Not for my sultans. They deserve better.”
As the chatter went on, Laila let her mind drift, and, as always, it found Tariq.
Mammy had pulled the yellowish curtains. In the darkness, the room had a layered smell about it: sleep, unwashed linen, sweat, dirty socks, perfume, the previous night’s leftoverqurma. Laila waited for her eyes to adjust before she crossed the room. Even so, her feet became entangled with items of clothing that littered the floor.
Laila pulled the curtains open. At the foot of the bed was an old metallic folding chair. Laila sat on it and watched the unmoving blanketed mound that was her mother.
The walls of Mammy’s room were covered with pictures of Ahmad and Noor. Everywhere Laila looked, two strangers smiled back. Here was Noor mounting a tricycle. Here was Ahmad doing his prayers, posing beside a sundial Babi and he had built when he was twelve. And there they were, her brothers, sitting back to back beneath the old pear tree in the yard.
Beneath Mammy’s bed, Laila could see the corner of Ahmad’s shoe box protruding. From time to time, Mammy showed her the old, crumpled newspaper clippings in it, and pamphlets that Ahmad had managed to collect from insurgent groups and resistance organizations headquartered in Pakistan. One photo, Laila remembered, showed a man in a long white coat handing a lollipop to a legless little boy. The caption below the photo read:Children are the intended victims of Soviet land mine campaign. The article went on to say that the Soviets also liked to hide explosives inside brightly colored toys. If a child picked it up, the toy exploded, tore off fingers or an entire hand. The father could not join the jihad then; he’d have to stay home and care for his child. In another article in Ahmad’s box, a young Mujahid was saying that the Soviets had dropped gas on his village that burned people’s skin and blinded them. He said he had seen his mother and sister running for the stream, coughing up blood.
The mound stirred slightly. It emitted a groan.
“Get up, Mammy. It’s three o’clock.”
Another groan. A hand emerged, like a submarine periscope breaking surface, and dropped. The mound moved more discernibly this time. Then the rustle of blankets as layers of them shifted over each other. Slowly, in stages, Mammy materialized: first the slovenly hair, then the white, grimacing face, eyes pinched shut against the light, a hand groping for the headboard, the sheets sliding down as she pulled herself up, grunting. Mammy made an effort to look up, flinched against the light, and her head drooped over her chest.
“How was school?” she muttered.
So it would begin. The obligatory questions, the perfunctory answers. Both pretending. Unenthusiastic partners, the two of them, in this tired old dance.
“School was fine,” Laila said.
“Did you learn anything?”
“Did you eat?”
Mammy raised her head again, toward the window. She winced and her eyelids fluttered The right side of her face was red, and the hair on that side had flattened.
“I have a headache.”
“Should I fetch you some aspirin?”
Mammy massaged her temples. “Maybe later. Is your father home?”
“It’s only three.”
“Oh. Right. You said that already.” Mammy yawned. “I was dreaming just now,” she said, her voice only a bit louder than the rustle of her nightgown against the sheets. “Just now, before you came in. But I can’t remember it now. Does that happen to you?”
“It happens to everybody, Mammy.”
“I should tell you that while you were dreaming, a boy shot piss out of a water gun on my hair.”
“Shot what? What was that? I’m sony.”
“That’s…that’s terrible. God I’m sorry. Poor you. I’ll have a talk with him first thing in the morning. Or maybe with his mother. Yes, that would be better, I think.”
“I haven’t told you who it was.”
“Oh. Well, who was it?”
“You were supposed to pick me up.”
“I was,” Mammy croaked. Laila could not tell whether this was a question. Mammy began picking at her hair. This was one of life’s great mysteries to Laila, that Mammy’s picking had not made her bald as an egg. “What about…What’s his name, your friend, Tariq? Yes, what about him?”
“He’s been gone for a week.”
“Oh.” Mammy sighed through her nose. “Did you wash?”
“So you’re clean, then.” Mammy turned her tired gaze to the window. “You’re clean, and everything is fine.”
Laila stood up. “I have homework now.”
“Of course you do. Shut the curtains before you go, my love,” Mammy said, her voice fading. She was already sinking beneath the sheets.
As Laila reached for the curtains, she saw a car pass by on the street tailed by a cloud of dust. It was the blue Benz with the Herat license plate finally leaving. She followed it with her eyes until it vanished around a turn, its back window twinkling in the sun.
“I won’t forget tomorrow,” Mammy was saying behind her. “I promise.”
“You said that yesterday.”
“You don’t know, Laila.”
“Know what?” Laila wheeled around to face her mother. “What don’t I know?”
Mammy’s hand floated up to her chest, tapped there. “Inhere. What’s inhere. “ Then it fell flaccid. “You just don’t know.”
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