بخش 6کتاب: هزار خورشید تابان / فصل 6
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متن انگلیسی فصل
Do you know who I am?”
The girl’s eyes fluttered
“Do you know what has happened?”
The girl’s mouth quivered. She closed her eyes. Swallowed. Her hand grazed her left cheek. She mouthed something.
Mariam leaned in closer.
“This ear,” the girl breathed. “I can’t hear.”
For the first “week, the girl did little but sleep, with help from the pink pills Rasheed paid for at the hospital. She murmured in her sleep. Sometimes she spoke gibberish, cried out, called out names Mariam did not recognize. She wept in her sleep, grew agitated, kicked the blankets off, and then Mariam had to hold her down. Sometimes she retched and retched, threw up everything Mariam fed her.
When she wasn’t agitated, the girl was a sullen pair of eyes staring from under the blanket, breathing out short little answers to Mariam and Rasheed’s questions. Some days she was childlike, whipped her head side to side, when Mariam, then Rasheed, tried to feed her. She went rigid when Mariam came at her with a spoon. But she tired easily and submitted eventually to their persistent badgering. Long bouts of weeping followed surrender.
Rasheed had Mariam rub antibiotic ointment on the cuts on the girl’s face and neck, and on the sutured gashes on her shoulder, across her forearms and lower legs. Mariam dressed them with bandages, which she washed and recycled. She held the girl’s hair back, out of her face, when she had to retch.
“How long is she staying?” she asked Rasheed.
“Until she’s better. Look at her. She’s in no shape to go. Poor thing.”
It was Rasheed who found the girl, who dug her out from beneath the rubble.
“Lucky I was home,” he said to the girl. He was sitting on a folding chair beside Mariam’s bed, where the girl lay. “Lucky for you, I mean. I dug you out with my own hands. There was a scrap of metal this big-“ Here, he spread his thumb and index finger apart to show her, at least doubling, in Mariam’s estimation, the actual size of it. “This big. Sticking right out of your shoulder. It was really embedded in there. I thought I’d have to use a pair of pliers.
But you’re all right. In no time, you’ll benau socha. Good as new.”
It was Rasheed who salvaged a handful of Hakim’s books.
“Most of them were ash. The rest were looted, I’m afraid.”
He helped Mariam watch over the girl that first week. One day, he came home from work with a new blanket and pillow. Another day, a bottle of pills.
“Vitamins,” he said.
It was Rasheed who gave Laila the news that her friend Tariq’s house was occupied now.
“A gift,” he said. “From one of Sayyaf s commanders to three of his men. A gift. Ha!”
The threemen were actually boys with suntanned, youthful faces. Mariam would see them when she passed by, always dressed in their fatigues, squatting by the front door of Tariq’s house, playing cards and smoking, their Kalashnikovs leaning against the wall. The brawny one, the one with the self-satisfied, scornful demeanor, was the leader. The youngest was also the quietest, the one who seemed reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace his friends’ air of impunity. He had taken to smiling and tipping his headsalaam when Mariam passed by. When he did, some of his surface smugness dropped away, and Mariam caught a glint of humility as yet uncorrupted.
Then one morning rockets slammed into the house. They were rumored later to have been fired by the Hazaras of Wahdat. For some time, neighbors kept finding bits and pieces of the boys.
“They had it coming,” said Rasheed.
The girl was extraordinarily lucky, Mariam thought, to escape with relatively minor injuries, considering the rocket had turned her house into smoking rubble. And so,slowly, the girl got better. She began to eat more, began to brush her own hair. She took baths on her own. She began taking her meals downstairs, with Mariam and Rasheed.
But then some memory would rise, unbidden, and there would be stony silences or spells of churlishness. Withdrawals and collapses. Wan looks. Nightmares and sudden attacks of grief. Retching.
And sometimes regrets.
“I shouldn’t even be here,”she said one day.
Mariam was changing the sheets. The girl watchedfrom thefloor, herbruised knees drawn up against her chest.
“My father wanted to take out the boxes. The books. He said they were too heavyfor me. But I wouldn’t let him. I was so eager. I should have been the one inside the house when it happened.”
Mariam snapped the clean sheet and let it settle on the bed She looked at the girl, at her blond curls, her slender neck and green eyes, her high cheekbones and plump lips. Mariam remembered seeing her on the streets when she was little, tottering after her mother on the way to the tandoor, riding on the shoulders of her brother, the younger one, with the patch of hair on his ear. Shooting marbles with the carpenter’s boy.
The girl was looking back as if waiting for Mariam to pass on some morsel of wisdom, to say something encouraging- But what wisdom did Mariam have to offer? What encouragement? Mariam remembered the day they’d buried Nana and how little comfort she had found when Mullah Faizullah had quoted the Koran for her.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. Or when he’d said of her own guilt,These thoughts are no good, Mariam jo. They will destroy you. It wasn’t your fault It wasn’t your fault.
What could she say to this girl that would ease her burden?
As it turned out, Mariam didn’t have to say anything. Because the girl’s face twisted, and she was on all fours then saying she was going to be sick.
“Wait! Hold on. I’ll get a pan. Not on the floor. I just cleaned…Oh. Oh.Khodaya. God.”
Then one day, about a month after the blast that killed the girl’s parents, a man came knocking. Mariam opened the door. He stated his business.
“There is a man here to see you,” Mariam said.
The girl raised her head from the pillow.
“He says his name is Abdul Sharif.”
“I don’t know any Abdul Sharif.”
“Well, he’s here asking for you. You need to come down and talk to him.”
JLaila sat across from Abdul Sharif, who was a thin, small-headed man with a bulbous nose pocked with the same cratered scars that pitted his cheeks. His hair, short and brown, stood on his scalp like needles in a pincushion.
“You’ll have to forgive me,hamshira,” he said, adjusting his loose collar and dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief “I still haven’t quite recovered, I fear. Five more days of these, what are they called…sulfa pills.”
Laila positioned herself in her seat so that her right ear, the good one, was closest to him. “Were you a friend of my parents?”
“No, no,” Abdul Sharif said quickly. “Forgive me.” He raised a finger, took a long sip of the water that Mariam had placed in front of him.
“I should begin at the beginning, I suppose.” He dabbed at his lips, again at his brow. “I am a businessman. I own clothing stores, mostly men’s clothing.Chapans, hats,iumban%, suits, ties-you name it. Two stores here in Kabul, in Taimani and Shar-e-Nau, though I just sold those. And two in Pakistan, in Peshawar. That’s where my warehouse is as well. So I travel a lot, back and forth. Which, these days”-he shook his head and chuckled tiredly-“let’s just say that it’s an adventure.
“I was in Peshawar recently, on business, taking orders, going over inventory, that sort of thing. Also to visit my family. We have three daughters,alhamdulellah. I moved them and my wife to Peshawar after the Mujahideen began going at each other’s throats. I won’t have their names added to theshaheedlist. Nor mine, to be honest. I’ll be joining them there very soon,inshallah.
“Anyway, I was supposed to be back in Kabul the Wednesday before last. But, as luck would have it, I came down with an illness. I won’t bother you with it,hamshira, suffice it to say that when I went to do my private business, the simpler of the two, it felt like passing chunks of broken glass. I wouldn’t wish it on Hekmatyar himself. My wife, Nadia jan, Allah bless her, she begged me to see a doctor. But I thought I’d beat it with aspirin and a lot of water. Nadia jan insisted and I said no, back and forth we went. You know the saying^stubborn ass needs a stubborn driver. This time, I’m afraid, the ass won. That would be me.”
He drank the rest of this water and extended the glass to Mariam. “If it’s not too muchzahmat.”
Mariam took the glass and went to fill it.
“Needless to say, I should have listened to her. She’s always been the more sensible one, God give her a long life. By the time I made it to the hospital, I was burning with a fever and shaking like abeid tree in the wind. I could barely stand. The doctor said I had blood poisoning. She said two or three more days and I would have made my wife a widow.
“They put me in a special unit, reserved for really sick people, I suppose. Oh,iashakor.” He took the glass from Mariam and from his coat pocket produced a large white pill. “Thesize of these things.”
Laila watched him swallow his pill She was aware that her breathing had quickened Her legs felt heavy, as though weights had been tethered to them. She told herself that he wasn’t done, that he hadn’t told her anything as yet. But he would go on in a second, and she resisted an urge to get up and leave, leave before he told her things she didn’t want to hear.
Abdul Sharif set his glass on the table.
“That’s where I met your friend, Mohammad Tariq Walizai.”
Laila’s heart sped up. Tariq in a hospital? A special unit?For really sick people?
She swallowed dry spit. Shifted on her chair. She had to steel herself. If she didn’t, she feared she would come unhinged. She diverted her thoughts from hospitals and special units and thought instead about the fact that she hadn’t heard Tariq called by his full name since the two of them had enrolled in a Farsi winter course years back. The teacher would call roll after the bell and say his name like that-Mohammad Tariq Walizai. It had struck her as comically officious then, hearing his full name uttered.
“What happened to him I heard from one of the nurses,” Abdul Sharif resumed, tapping his chest with a fist as if to ease the passage of the pill. “With all the time I’ve spent in Peshawar, I’ve become pretty proficient in Urdu. Anyway, what I gathered was that your friend was in a lorry full of refugees, twenty-three of them, all headed for Peshawar. Near the border, they were caught in cross fire. A rocket hit the lorry. Probably a stray, but you never know with these people, you never know. There were only six survivors, all of them admitted to the same unit. Three died within twenty-four hours. Two of them lived-sisters, as I understood it-and had been discharged.
Your friend Mr. Walizai was the last. He’d been there for almost three weeks by the time I arrived.”
So he was alive. But how badly had they hurt him? Laila wondered frantically. How badly? Badly enough to be put in a special unit, evidently. Laila was aware that she had started sweating, that her face felt hot. She tried to think of something else, something pleasant, like the trip to Bamiyan to see the Buddhas with Tariq and Babi. But instead an image of Tariq’s parents presented itself: Tariq’s mother trapped in the lorry, upside down, screaming for Tariq through the smoke, her arms and chest on fire, the wig melting into her scalp… Laila had to take a series of rapid breaths.
“He was in the bed next to mine. There were no walls, only a curtain between us. So I could see him pretty well.”
Abdul Sharif found a sudden need to toy with his wedding band. He spoke more slowly now.
“Your friend, he was badly-very badly-injured, you understand. He had rubber tubes coming out of him everywhere. At first-“ He cleared his throat. “At first, I thought he’d lost both legs in the attack, but a nurse said no, only the right, the left one was on account of an old injury. There were internal injuries too. They’d operated three times already. Took out sections of intestines, I don’t remember what else. And he was burned. Quite badly. That’s all I’ll say about that. I’m sure you have your fair share of nightmares,hamshira. No sense in me adding to them.”
Tariq was legless now. He was a torso with two stumps.Legless. Laila thought she might collapse. With deliberate, desperate effort, she sent the tendrils of her mind out of this room, out the window, away from this man, over the street outside, over the city now, and its flat-topped houses and bazaars, its maze of narrow streets turned to sand castles.
“He was drugged up most of the time. For the pain, you understand. But he had moments when the drugs were wearing off when he was clear. In pain but clear of mind I would talk to him from my bed. I told him who I was, where I was from. He was glad, I think, that there was ahamwaian next to him.
“I did most of the talking. It was hard for him to. His voice was hoarse, and I think it hurt him to move his lips. So I told him about my daughters, and about our house in Peshawar and the veranda my brother-in-law and I are building out in the back. I told him I had sold the stores in Kabul and that I was going back to finish up the paperwork. It wasn’t much. But it occupied him. At least, I like to think it did.
“Sometimes he talked too. Half the time, I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I caught enough. He described where he’d lived.
He talked about his uncle in Ghazni. And his mother’s cooking and his father’s carpentry, him playing the accordion.
“But, mostly, he talked about you,hamshira. He said you were-how did he put it-his earliest memory. I think that’s right, yes. I could tell he cared a great deal about you.Balay, that much was plain to see. But he said he was glad you weren’t there. He said he didn’t want you seeing him like that.”
Laila’s feet felt heavy again, anchored to the floor, as if all her blood had suddenly pooled down there. But her mind was far away, free and fleet, hurtling like a speeding missile beyond Kabul, over craggy brown hills and over deserts ragged with clumps of sage, past canyons of jagged red rock and over snowcapped mountains… “When I told him I was going back to Kabul, he asked me to find you. To tell you that he was thinking of you. That he missed you. I promised him I would I’d taken quite a liking to him, you see. He was a decent sort of boy, I could tell.”
Abdul Sharif wiped his brow with the handkerchief.
“I woke up one night,” he went on, his interest in the wedding band renewed, “I think it was night anyway, it’s hard to tell in those places. There aren’t any windows. Sunrise, sundown, you just don’t know. But I woke up, and there was some sort of commotion around the bed next to mine. You have to understand that I was full of drugs myself, always slipping in and out, to the point where it was hard to tell what was real and what you’d dreamed up. All I remember is, doctors huddled around the bed, calling for this and that, alarms bleeping, syringes all over the ground.
“In the morning, the bed was empty. I asked a nurse. She said he fought valiantly.”
Laila was dimly aware that she was nodding. She’d known. Of course she’d known. She’d known the moment she had sat across from this man why he was here, what news he was bringing.
“At first, you see, at first I didn’t think you even existed,” he was saying now. “I thought it was the morphine talking. Maybe I evenhopedyou didn’t exist; I’ve always dreaded bearing bad news. But I promised him. And, like I said, I’d become rather fond of him. So I came by here a few days ago. I asked around for you, talked to some neighbors. They pointed to this house. They also told me what had happened to your parents. When I heard about that, well, I turned around and left. I wasn’t going to tell you. I decided it would be too much for you. For anybody.”
Abdul Sharif reached across the table and put a hand on her kneecap. “But I came back. Because, in the end, I think he would have wanted you to know. I believe that. I’m so sorry. I wish…”
Laila wasn’t listening anymore. She was remembering the day the man from Panjshir had come to deliver the news of Ahmad’s and Noor’s deaths. She remembered Babi, white-faced, slumping on the couch, and Mammy, her hand flying to her mouth when she heard. Laila had watched Mammy come undone that day and it had scared her, but she hadn’t felt any true sorrow. She hadn’t understood the awfulness of her mother’s loss. Now another stranger bringing news of another death. Nowshe was the one sitting on the chair. Was this her penalty, then, her punishment for being aloof to her own mother’s suffering?
Laila remembered how Mammy had dropped to the ground, how she’d screamed, torn at her hair. But Laila couldn’t even manage that. She could hardly move. She could hardly move a muscle.
She sat on the chair instead, hands limp in her lap, eyes staring at nothing, and let her mind fly on. She let it fly on until it found the place, the good and safe place, where the barley fields were green, where the water ran clear and the cottonwood seeds danced by the thousands in the air; where Babi was reading a book beneath an acacia and Tariq was napping with his hands laced across his chest, and where she could dip her feet in the stream and dream good dreams beneath the watchful gaze of gods of ancient, sun-bleached rock.
I’m so sorry,” Rasheed said to the girl, taking his bowl ofmasiawa and meatballs from Mariam without looking at her. “I know you were very close….friends. ..the two of you. Always together, since you were kids. It’s a terrible thing, what’s happened. Too many young Afghan men are dying this way.”
He motioned impatiently with his hand, still looking at the girl, and Mariam passed him a napkin.
For years, Mariam had looked on as he ate, the muscles of his temples churning, one hand making compact little rice balls, the back of the other wiping grease, swiping stray grains, from the corners of his mouth. For years, he had eaten without looking up, without speaking, his silence condemning, as though some judgment were being passed, then broken only by an accusatory grunt, a disapproving cluck of his tongue, a one-word command for more bread, more water.
Now he ate with a spoon. Used a napkin. Saidlot/an when asking for water. And talked. Spiritedly and incessantly.
“If you ask me, the Americans armed the wrong man in Hekmatyar. All the guns the CIA handed him in the eighties to fight the Soviets. The Soviets are gone, but he still has the guns, and now he’s turning them on innocent people like your parents. And he calls this jihad. What a farce! What does jihad have to do with killing women and children? Better the CIA had armed Commander Massoud.”
Mariam’s eyebrows shot up of their own will.Commander Massoud? In her head, she could hear Rasheed’s rants against Massoud, how he was a traitor and a communist- But, then, Massoud was a Tajik, of course. Like Laila.
“Now,there is a reasonable fellow. An honorable Afghan. A man genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution.”
Rasheed shrugged and sighed.
“Not that they give a damn in America, mind you. What do they care that Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other? How many Americans can even tell one from the other? Don’t expect help from them, I say. Now that the Soviets have collapsed, we’re no use to them. We served our purpose. To them, Afghanistan is akenarab, a shit hole. Excuse my language, but it’s true. What do you think, Laila jan?”
The girl mumbled something unintelligible and pushed a meatball around in her bowl.
Rasheed nodded thoughtfully, as though she’d said the most clever thing he’d ever heard. Mariam had to look away.
“You know, your father, God give him peace, your father and I used to have discussions like this. This was before you were born, of course. On and on we’d go about politics. About books too. Didn’t we, Mariam? You remember.”
Mariam busied herself taking a sip of water.
“Anyway, I hope I am not boring you with all this talk of politics.”
Later, Mariam was in the kitchen, soaking dishes in soapy water, a tightly wound knot in her belly-It wasn’t so muchwhat he said, the blatant lies, the contrived empathy, or even the fact that he had not raised a hand to her, Mariam, since he had dug the girl out from under those bricks.
It was thestaged delivery. Like a performance. An attempt on his part, both sly and pathetic, to impress. To charm.
And suddenly Mariam knew that her suspicions were right. She understood with a dread that was like a blinding whack to the side of her head that what she was witnessing was nothing less than a courtship.
When shed at last worked up the nerve, Mariam went to his room.
Rasheed lit a cigarette, and said, “Why not?”
Mariam knew right then that she was defeated. She’d half expected, half hoped, that he would deny everything, feign surprise, maybe even outrage, at what she was implying. She might have had the upper hand then. She might have succeeded in shaming him. But it stole her grit, his calm acknowledgment, his matter-of-fact tone.
“Sit down,” he said. He was lying on his bed, back to the wall, his thick, long legs splayed on the mattress. “Sit down before you faint and cut your head open.”
Mariam felt herself drop onto the folding chair beside his bed.
“Hand me that ashtray, would you?” he said.
Obediently, she did.
Rasheed had to be sixty or more now-though Mariam, and in fact Rasheed himself did not know his exact age. His hair had gone white, but it was as thick and coarse as ever. There was a sag now to his eyelids and the skin of his neck, which was wrinkled and leathery. His cheeks hung a bit more than they used to. In the mornings, he stooped just a tad. But he still had the stout shoulders, the thick torso, the strong hands, the swollen belly that entered the room before any other part of him did.
On the whole, Mariam thought that he had weathered the years considerably better than she.
“We need to legitimize this situation,” he said now, balancing the ashtray on his belly. His lips scrunched up in a playful pucker. “People will talk. It looks dishonorable, an unmarried young woman living here. It’s bad for my reputation. And hers. And yours, I might add.”
“Eighteen years,” Mariam said. “And I never asked you for a thing. Not one thing. I’m asking now.”
He inhaled smoke and let it out slowly. “She can’t juststay here, if that’s what you’re suggesting. I can’t go on feeding her and clothing her and giving her a place to sleep. I’m not the Red Cross, Mariam.”
“What of it? What? She’s too young, you think? She’s fourteen.Hardly a child. You were fifteen, remember? My mother was fourteen when she had me. Thirteen when she married.”
“I.Idon’t wantthis,” Mariam said, numb with contempt and helplessness.
“It’s not your decision. It’s hers andmine.”
“I’m too old.”
“She’s tooyoung, you’retoo old. This is nonsense.”
“Iam too old. Too old for you to do this to me,” Mariam said, balling up fistfuls of her dress sotightly her hands shook.”For you, after all these years, to make me anambagh”
“Don’t be sodramatic. It’s a common thing and you knowit. I have friends whohave two, three, four wives. Your own father had three. Besides,what I’m doing now most men I know would have done long ago.You know it’s true.”
“I won’t allow it.”
At this, Rasheed smiled sadly.
“Thereis another option,” he said, scratching the sole of one foot with the calloused heel of the other. “She can leave. I won’t stand in her way. But I suspect she won’t get far. No food, no water, not a rupiah in her pockets, bullets and rockets flying everywhere. How many days do you suppose she’ll last before she’s abducted, raped, or tossed into some roadside ditch with her throat slit? Or all three?”
He coughed and adjusted the pillow behind his back.
“The roads out there are unforgiving, Mariam, believe me. Bloodhounds and bandits at every turn. I wouldn’t like her chances, not at all. But let’s say that by some miracle she gets to Peshawar. What then? Do you have any idea what those camps are like?”
He gazed at her from behind a column of smoke.
“People living under scraps of cardboard. TB, dysentery, famine, crime. And that’s before winter. Then it’s frostbite season. Pneumonia. People turning to icicles. Those camps become frozen graveyards.
“Of course,” he made a playful, twirling motion with his hand, “she could keep warm in one of those Peshawar brothels. Business is booming there, I hear. A beauty like her ought to bring in a small fortune, don’t you think?”
He set the ashtray on the nightstand and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
“Look,” hesaid, sounding more conciliatory now, asa victor could afford to. “I knew you wouldn’t take this well. I don’t really blame you. Butthis is for thebest. You’ll see. Think of it this way, Mariam. I’m givingyou help around the house andher a sanctuary. A home and a husband. These days, times being what they are, a woman needs a husband. Haven’t you noticed all the widows sleeping onthe streets? They would kill for thischance. In fact,this is. … Well, I’d say this is downright charitable of me.”
“The way I see it, I deserve amedal.”
Later, in the dark, Mariam told the girl.
Fora long time, the girl said nothing.
“He wants an answer by this morning,” Mariam said.
“He can have it now,” the girl said. “My answeris yes.”
Thenext day,Laila stayed in bed. She was under the blanket in the morning when Rasheed poked his head in and said he was going to the barber. She was still in bed when he came home late in the afternoon, when he showed her his new haircut, his new used suit, blue with cream pinstripes, and the wedding band he’d bought her.
Rasheed sat on the bed beside her, made a great show of slowly undoing the ribbon, of opening the box and plucking out the ring delicately. He let on that he’d traded in Mariam’s old wedding ring for it.
“She doesn’t care. Believe me. She won’t even notice.”
Laila pulled away to the far end of the bed. She could hear Mariam downstairs, the hissing of her iron.
“She never wore it anyway,” Rasheed said.
“I don’t want it,” Laila said, weakly. “Not like this. You have to take it back.”
“Take it back?” An impatient look flashed across his face and was gone. He smiled. “I had to add some cash too-quite a lot, in fact. This is a better ring, twenty-two-karat gold. Feel how heavy? Go on, feel it. No?” He closed the box. “How about flowers? That would be nice. You like flowers? Do you have a favorite? Daisies?
Tulips? Lilacs? No flowers? Good! I don’t see the point myself. I just thought…Now, I know a tailor here in Deh-Mazang. I was thinking we could take you there tomorrow, get you fitted for a proper dress.”
Laila shook her head.
Rasheed raised his eyebrows.
“I’d just as soon-“ Laila began.
He put a hand on her neck. Laila couldn’t help wincing and recoiling. His touch felt like wearing a prickly old wet wool sweater with no undershirt.
“I’d just as soon we get it done.”
Rasheed’s mouth opened, then spread in a yellow, toothy grin. “Eager,” he said.
Before Abdul Sharif’s visit, Laila had decided to leave for Pakistan. Even after Abdul Sharif came bearing his news, Laila thought now, she might have left. Gone somewhere far from here. Detached herself from this city where every street corner was a trap, where every alley hid a ghost that sprang at her like a jack-in-the-box. She might have taken the risk.
But, suddenly, leaving was no longer an option.
Not with this daily retching.
This new fullness in her breasts.
And the awareness, somehow, amid all of this turmoil, that she had missed a cycle.
Laila pictured herself in a refugee camp, a stark field with thousands of sheets of plastic strung to makeshift poles flapping in the cold, stinging wind. Beneath one of these makeshift tents, she saw her baby, Tariq’s baby, its temples wasted, its jaws slack, its skin mottled, bluish gray. She pictured its tiny body washed by strangers, wrapped in a tawny shroud, lowered into a hole dug in a patch of windswept land under the disappointed gaze of vultures.
How could she run now?
Laila took grim inventory of the people in her life. Ahmad and Noor, dead. Hasina, gone. Giti, dead. Mammy, dead. Babi, dead. Now Tariq… But, miraculously, something of her former life remained, her last link to the person that she had been before she had become so utterly alone. A part of Tariq still alive inside her, sprouting tiny arms, growing translucent hands.
How could she jeopardize the only thing she had left of him, of her old life?
She made her decision quickly. Six weeks had passed since her time with Tariq. Any longer and Rasheed would grow suspicious.
She knew that what she was doing was dishonorable. Dishonorable, disingenuous, and shameful. And spectacularly unfair to Mariam. But even though the baby inside her was no bigger than a mulberry, Laila already saw the sacrifices a mother had to make. Virtue was only the first.
She put a hand on her belly. Closed her eyes.
Laila would remember the muted ceremony in bits and fragments. The cream-colored stripes of Rasheed’s suit. The sharp smell of his hair spray. The small shaving nick just above his Adam’s apple. The rough pads of his tobacco-stained fingers when he slid the ring on her. The pen. Its not working. The search for a new pen. The contract. The signing, his sure-handed, hers quavering. The prayers. Noticing, in the mirror, that Rasheed had trimmed his eyebrows.
And, somewhere in the room, Mariam watching. The air choking with her disapproval.
Laila could not bring herself to meet the older woman’s gaze.
Lying beneath his cold sheets that night, she watched him pull the curtains shut. She was shaking even before his fingers worked her shirt buttons, tugged at the drawstring of her trousers. He was agitated. His fingers fumbled endlessly with his own shirt, with undoing his belt. Laila had a full view of his sagging breasts, his protruding belly button, the small blue vein in the center of it, the tufts of thick white hair on his chest, his shoulders, and upper arms. She felt his eyes crawling all over her.
“God help me, I think I love you,” he said-Through chattering teeth, she asked him to turn out the lights.
Later, when she was sure that he was asleep, Laila quietly reached beneath the mattress for the knife she had hidden there earlier. With it, she punctured the pad of her index finger. Then she lifted the blanket and let her finger bleed on the sheets where they had lain together.
In the daytime, the girl was no more than a creaking bedspring, a patter of footsteps overhead. She was water splashing in the bathroom, or a teaspoon clinking against glass in the bedroom upstairs. Occasionally, there were sightings: a blur of billowing dress in the periphery of Madam’s vision, scurrying up the steps, arms folded across the chest, sandals slapping the heels.
But it was inevitable that they would run into each other. Madam passed the girl on the stairs, in the narrow hallway, in the kitchen, or by the door as she was coming in from the yard. When they met like this, an awkward tension rushed into the space between them. The girl gathered her skirt and breathed out a word or two of apology, and, as she hurried past, Madam would chance a sidelong glance and catch a blush. Sometimes she could smell Rasheed on her. She could smell his sweat on the girl’s skin, his tobacco, his appetite. Sex, mercifully, was a closed chapter in her own life. It had been for some time, and now even the thought of those laborious sessions of lying beneath Rasheed made Madam queasy in the gut.
At night, however, this mutually orchestrated dance of avoidance between her and the girl was not possible. Rasheed said they were a family. He insisted they were, and families had to eat together, he said.
“What is this?” he said, his fingers working the meat off a bone-the spoon-and-fork charade was abandoned a week after he married the girl. “Have I married a pair of statues? Go on, Madam,gap bezan, say something to her. Where are your manners?”
Sucking marrow from a bone, he said to the girl, “But you mustn’t blame her. She is quiet. A blessing, really, because,wallah, if a person hasn’t got much to say she might as well be stingy with words. We are city people, you and I, but she isdehati. A village girl. Not even a village girl. No. She grew up in akolba made of mudoutside the village. Her father put her there. Have you told her, Mariam, have you told her that you are aharami1? Well, she is. But she is not without qualities, all things considered. You will see for yourself, Laila jan. She is sturdy, for one thing, a good worker, and without pretensions. I’ll say it this way: If she were a car, she would be a Volga.”
Mariam was a thirty-three-year-old woman now, but that word,harami, still had sting. Hearing it still made her feel like she was a pest, a cockroach. She remembered Nana pulling her wrists.You are a clumsy Utile harami.This is my reward for everything I’ve endured. An heirloom-breaking clumsy Utile harami.
“You,” Rasheed said to the girl, “you, on the other hand, would be a Benz. A brand-new, first-class, shiny Benz.Wah wah. But. But.” He raised one greasy index finger. “One must take certain…cares…with a Benz. As a matter of respect for its beauty and craftsmanship, you see. Oh, you must be thinking that I am crazy,diwana, with all this talk of automobiles. I am not saying you are cars. I am merely making a point.”
For what came next, Rasheed put down the ball of rice he’d made back on the plate. His hands dangled idly over his meal, as he looked down with a sober, thoughtful expression.
“One mustn’t speak ill of the dead much less the,shaheed.And I intend no disrespect when I say this, I want you to know, but I have certain… reservations…about the way your parents-Allah, forgive them and grant them a place in paradise-about their, well, their leniency with you. I’m sorry.”
The cold, hateful look the girl flashed Rasheed at this did not escape Mariam, but he was looking down and did not notice.
“No matter. The point is, I am your husband now, and it falls on me to guard not onlyyour honor butours, yes, ournang andnamoos. That is the husband’s burden. You let me worry about that. Please. As for you, you are the queen, themalika, and this house is your palace. Anything you need done you ask Mariam and she will do it for you. Won’t you, Mariam? And if you fancy something, I will get itforyou. You see, that is the sort of husband I am.
“All I ask in return, well, it is a simple thing. I ask that you avoid leaving this house without my company. That’s all. Simple, no? If I am away and you need something urgently, I meanabsolutely need it and it cannot wait for me, then you can send Mariam and she will go out and get it for you. You’ve noticed a discrepancy, surely. Well, one does not drive a Volga and a Benz in the same manner. That would be foolish, wouldn’t it? Oh, I also ask that when we are out together, that you wear a burqa. For your own protection, naturally. It is best. So many lewd men in this town now. Such vile intentions, so eager to dishonor even a married woman. So. That’s all.”
“I should say that Mariam will be my eyes and ears when I am away.” Here, he shot Mariam a fleeting look that was as hard as a steel-toed kick to the temple. “Not that I am mistrusting. Quite the contrary. Frankly, you strike me as far wiser than your years. But you are still a young woman, Laila jan, adokhtar ejawan, and young women can make unfortunate choices. They can be prone to mischief. Anyway, Mariam will be accountable. And if there is a slipup…”
On and on he went. Mariam sat watching the girl out of the corner of her eye as Rasheed’s demands and judgments rained down on them like the rockets on Kabul.
One day, Mariam was in the living room folding some shirts of Rasheed’s that she had plucked from the clothesline in the yard. She didn’t know how long the girl had been standing there, but, when she picked up a shirt and turned around, she found her standing by the doorway, hands cupped around a glassful of tea.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the girl said. “I’m sorry.”
Mariam only looked at her.
The sun fell on the girl’s face, on her large green eyes and her smooth brow, on her high cheekbones and the appealing, thick eyebrows, which were nothing like Mariam’s own, thin and featureless. Her yellow hair, uncombed this morning, was middle-parted.
Mariam could see in the stiff way the girl clutched the cup, the tightened shoulders, that she was nervous. She imagined her sitting on the bed working up the nerve.
“The leaves are turning,” the girl said companionably. “Have you seen? Autumn is my favorite. I like the smell of it, when people burn leaves in their gardens. My mother, she liked springtime the best. You knew my mother?”
The girl cupped a hand behind her ear. “I’m sorry?”
Mariam raised her voice. “I said no. I didn’t know your mother.”
“Is there something you want?”
“Mariam jan, I want to…About the things he said the other night-“
“I have been meaning to talk to you about it.” Mariam broke in.
“Yes, please,” the girl said earnestly, almost eagerly. She took a step forward. She looked relieved.
Outside, an oriole was warbling. Someone was pulling a cart; Mariam could hear the creaking of its hinges, the bouncing and rattling of its iron wheels. There was the sound of gunfire not so far away, a single shot followed by three more, then nothing.
“I won’t be your servant,” Mariam said. “I won’t.”
The girl flinched “No. Of course not!”
“You may be the palacemalika and me adehati, but I won’t take orders from you. You can complain to him and he can slit my throat, but I won’t do it. Do you hear me? I won’t be your servant.”
“No! I don’t expect-“
“And if you think you can use your looks to get rid of me, you’re wrong. I was here first. I won’t be thrown out. I won’t have you cast me out.”
“It’s not what I want,” the girl said weakly.
“And I see your wounds are healed up now. So you can start doing your share of the work in this house-“
The girl was nodding quickly. Some of her tea spilled, but she didn’t notice. “Yes, that’s the other reason I came down, to thank you for taking care of me-“
“Well, I wouldn’t have,” Mariam snapped. “I wouldn’t have fed you and washed you and nursed you if I’d known you were going to turn around and steal my husband.”
“I will still cook and wash the dishes. You will do the laundry and the sweeping- The rest we will alternate daily. And one more thing. I have no use for your company. I don’t want it. What I want is to be alone. You will leave me be, and I will return the favor. That’s how we will get on. Those are the rules.”
When she was done speaking, her heart was hammering and her mouth felt parched. Mariam had never before spoken in this manner, had never stated her will so forcefully. It ought to have felt exhilarating, but the girl’s eyes had teared up and her face was drooping, and what satisfaction Mariam found from this outburst felt meager, somehow illicit.
She extended the shirts toward the girl.
“Put them in thealmari, not the closet. He likes the whites in the top drawer, the rest in the middle, with the socks.”
The girl set the cup on the floor and put her hands out for the shirts, palms up. “I’m sorry about all of this,” she croaked.
“You should be,” Mariam said. “You should be sorry.”
JLaila remembered a gathering once, years before at the house, on one of Mammy’s good days. The women had been sitting in the garden, eating from a platter of fresh mulberries that Wajma had picked from the tree in her yard. The plump mulberries had been white and pink, and some the same dark purple as the bursts of tiny veins on Wajma’s nose.
“You heard how his son died?” Wajma had said, energetically shoveling another handful of mulberries into her sunken mouth.
“He drowned, didn’t he?” Nila, Giti’s mother, said. “At Ghargha Lake, wasn’t it?”
“But did you know, did you know that Rasheed…” Wajma raised a finger, made a show of nodding and chewing and making them wait for her to swallow. “Did you know that he used to drinksharab back then, that he was crying drunk that day? It’s true. Crying drunk, is what I heard. And that was midmorning. By noon, he had passed out on a lounge chair. You could have fired the noon cannon next to his ear and he wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.”
Laila remembered how Wajma had covered her mouth, burped; how her tongue had gone exploring between her few remaining teeth.
“You can imagine the rest. The boy went into the water unnoticed. They spotted him a while later, floating facedown. People rushed to help, half trying to wake up the boy, the other half the father. Someone bent over the boy, did the…the mouth-to-mouth thing you’re supposed to do. It was pointless. They could all see that. The boy was gone.”
Laila remembered Wajma raising a finger and her voice quivering with piety. “This is why the Holy Koran forbidssharab. Because it always falls on the sober to pay for the sins of the drunk. So it does.”
It was this story that was circling in Laila’s head after she gave Rasheed the news about the baby. He had immediately hopped on his bicycle, ridden to a mosque, and prayed for a boy.
That night, all during the meal, Laila watched Mariam push a cube of meat around her plate. Laila was there when Rasheed sprang the news on Mariam in a high, dramatic voice-Laila had never before witnessed such cheerful cruelty. Mariam’s lashes fluttered when she heard. A flush spread across her face. She sat sulking, looking desolate.
After, Rasheed went upstairs to listen to his radio, and Laila helped Mariam clear thesojrah.
“I can’t imagine what you are now,” Mariam said, picking grains of rice and bread crumbs, “if you were a Benz before.”
Laila tried a more lightheaded tactic. “A train? Maybe a big jumbo jet.”
Mariam straightened up. “I hope you don’t think this excuses you from chores.”
Laila opened her mouth, thought better of it. She reminded herself that Mariam was the only innocent party in this arrangement. Mariam and the baby-Later, in bed, Laila burst into tears.
What was the matter? Rasheed wanted to know, lifting her chin. Was she ill? Was it the baby, was something wrong with the baby? No?
Was Mariam mistreating her?
“That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Wallah o billah, I’ll go down and teach her a lesson. Who does she think she is, thatharami, treating you-“
He was getting up already, and she had to grab him by the forearm, pull him back down. “Don’t! No! She’s been decent to me. I need a minute, that’s all. I’ll be fine.”
He sat beside her, stroking her neck, murmuring- His hand slowly crept down to her back, then up again. He leaned in, flashed his crowded teeth.
“Let’s see, then,” he purred, “if I can’t help you feel better.”
First, the trees-those that hadn’t been cut down for firewood-shed their spotty yellow-and-copper leaves. Then came the winds, cold and raw, ripping through the city. They tore off the last of the clinging leaves, and left the trees looking ghostly against the muted brown of the hills. The season’s first snowfall was light, the flakes no sooner fallen than melted. Then the roads froze, and snow gathered in heaps on the rooftops, piled halfway up frost-caked windows. With snow came the kites, once the rulers of Kabul’s winter skies, now timid trespassers in territory claimed by streaking rockets and fighter jets.
Rasheed kept bringing home news of the war, and Laila was baffled by the allegiances that Rasheed tried to explain to her. Sayyaf was fighting the Hazaras, he said. The Hazaras were fighting Massoud.
“And he’s fighting Hekmatyar, of course, who has the support of the Pakistanis. Mortal enemies, those two, Massoud and Hekmatyar. Sayyaf, he’s siding with Massoud. And Hekmatyar supports the Hazaras for now.”
As for the unpredictable Uzbek commander Dostum, Rasheed said no one knew where he would stand. Dostum had fought the Soviets in the 1980s alongside the Mujahideen but had defected and joined Najibullah’s communist puppet regime after the Soviets had left. He had even earned a medal, presented by Najibullah himself, before defecting once again and returning to the Mujahideen’s side. For the time being, Rasheed said, Dostum was supporting Massoud.
In Kabul, particularly in western Kabul, fires raged, and black palls of smoke mushroomed over snow-clad buildings. Embassies closed down. Schools collapsed In hospital waiting rooms, Rasheed said, the wounded were bleeding to death. In operating rooms, limbs were being amputated without anesthesia.
“But don’t worry,” he said. “You’re safe with me, my flower, mygul. Anyone tries to harm you, I’ll rip out their liver and make them eat it.”
That winter, everywhere Laila turned, walls blocked her way. She thought longingly of the wide-open skies of her childhood, of her days of going tobuzkashi tournaments with Babi and shopping at Mandaii with Mammy, of her days of running free in the streets and gossiping about boys with Giti and Hasina. Her days of sitting with Tariq in a bed of clover on the banks of a stream somewhere, trading riddles and candy, watching the sun go down.
But thinking of Tariq was treacherous because, before she could stop, she saw him lying on a bed, far from home, tubes piercing his burned body. Like the bile that kept burning her throat these days, a deep, paralyzing grief would come rising up Laila’s chest. Her legs would turn to water. She would have to hold on to something.
Laila passed that winter of 1992 sweeping the house, scrubbing the pumpkin-colored walls of the bedroom she shared with Rasheed, washing clothes outside in a big copperlagoon. Sometimes she saw herself as if hovering above her own body, saw herself squatting over the rim of thelogoon, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, pink hands wringing soapy water from one of Rasheed’s undershirts. She felt lost then, casting about, like a shipwreck survivor, no shore in sight, only miles and miles of water.
When it was too cold to go outside, Laila ambled around the house. She walked, dragging a fingernail along the wall, down the hallway, then back, down the steps, then up, her face unwashed, hair uncombed. She walked until she ran into Mariam, who shot her a cheerless glance and went back to slicing the stem off a bell pepper and trimming strips of fat from meat. A hurtful silence would fill the room, and Laila could almost see the wordless hostility radiating from Mariam like waves of heat rising from asphalt. She would retreat back to her room, sit on the bed, and watch the snow falling.
Rasheed took her to his shoe shop one day.
When they were out together, he walked alongside her, one hand gripping her by the elbow. For Laila, being out in the streets had become an exercise in avoiding injury. Her eyes were still adjusting to the limited, gridlike visibility of the burqa, her feet still stumbling over the hem. She walked in perpetual fear of tripping and falling, of breaking an ankle stepping into a pothole. Still, she found some comfort in the anonymity that the burqa provided. She wouldn’t be recognized this way if she ran into an old acquaintance of hers. She wouldn’t have to watch the surprise in their eyes, or the pity or the glee, at how far she had fallen, at how her lofty aspirations had been dashed.
Rasheed’s shop was bigger and more brightly lit than Laila had imagined. He had her sit behind his crowded workbench, the top of which was littered with old soles and scraps of leftover leather. He showed her his hammers, demonstrated how the sandpaper wheel worked, hisvoice ringing high and proud-He felt her belly, not through the shirt but under it, his fingertips cold and rough like bark on her distended skin. Laila rememberedTariq’s hands, soft but strong, the tortuous, full veins on the backs of them, which she had always found soappealingly masculine.
“Swelling so quickly,” Rasheed said.”It’s going to be a big boy. My sonwill beapahlawanl Like his father.”
Laila pulled down her shirt. It filled her with fear when he spoke likethis.
“Howare things with Mariam?”
She said they were fine.
She didn’t tell him that they’d had their first true fight.
It had happened a few days earlier. Laila had gone to the kitchen and found Mariam yanking drawers and slamming themshut. She was looking, Mariam said, forthe long wooden spoon she used to stir rice.
“Where did you put it?” she said, wheeling around to face Laila.
“Me?” Laila said “I didn’t take it. I hardly come in here.”
“Is that an accusation? It’s how you wanted it, remember. You said you would make the meals. But if you want to switch-“
“So you’re saying it grew little legs and walked out.Teep, teep, teep, teep. Is that what happened,degeh?’
“I’m saying…” Laila said, trying to maintain control. Usually, she could will herself to absorb Mariam’s derision and finger-pointing. But her ankles had swollen, her head hurt, and the heartburn was vicious that day. “I am saying that maybe you’ve misplaced it.”
“Misplaced it?” Mariam pulled a drawer. The spatulas and knives inside it clanked. “How long have you been here, a few months? I’ve lived in this house for nineteen years,dokhiarjo. I have keptthat spoon inthis drawer since you were shitting your diapers.”
“Still,” Laila said, on the brink now, teeth clenched, “it’s possible you put it somewhere and forgot.”
“And it’spossible you hid it somewhere, to aggravate me.”
“You’re a sad, miserable woman,” Laila said.
Mariam flinched, then recovered, pursed her lips. “And you’re a whore. A whore and adozd. A thieving whore, that’s what you are!”
Then there was shouting- Pots raised though not hurled. They’d called each other names, names that made Laila blush now. They hadn’t spoken since. Laila was still shocked at how easily she’d come unhinged, but, the truth was, part of her had liked it, had liked how it felt to scream at Mariam, to curse at her, to have a target at which to focus all her simmering anger, her grief.
Laila wondered, with something like insight, if it wasn’t the same for Mariam.
After, she had run upstairs and thrown herself on Rasheed’s bed. Downstairs, Mariam was still yelling, “Dirt on your head! Dirt on your head!” Laila had lain on the bed, groaning into the pillow, missing her parents suddenly and with an overpowering intensity she hadn’t felt since those terrible days just after the attack. She lay there, clutching handfuls of the bedsheet, until, suddenly, her breath caught. She sat up, hands shooting down to her belly.
The baby had just kicked for the first time.
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