بخش 7کتاب: هزار خورشید تابان / فصل 7
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متن انگلیسی فصل
Jbarly one morning the next spring, of 1993, Mariam stood by the living-room window and watched Rasheed escort the girl out of the house. The girl was tottering forward, bent at the waist, one arm draped protectively across the taut drum of her belly, the shape of which was visible through her burqa. Rasheed, anxious and overly attentive, was holding her elbow, directing her across the yard like a traffic policeman. He made aWait here gesture, rushed to the front gate, then motioned for the girl to come forward, one foot propping the gate open. When she reached him, he took her by the hand, helped her through the gate. Mariam could almost hear him say,”Watch your step, now, my flower, my gul.”
They came back early the next evening.
Mariam saw Rasheed enter the yard first. He let the gate go prematurely, and it almost hit the girl on the face. He crossed the yard in a few, quick steps. Mariam detected a shadow on his face, a darkness underlying the coppery light of dusk. In the house, he took off his coat, threw it on the couch. Brushing past Mariam, he said in a brusque voice, “I’m hungry. Get supper ready.”
The front door to the house opened. From the hallway, Mariam saw the girl, a swaddled bundle in the hook of her left arm. She had one foot outside, the other inside, against the door, to prevent it from springing shut. She was stooped over and was grunting, trying to reach for the paper bag of belongings that she had put down in order to open the door. Herface was grimacing with effort. She looked up and saw Mariam.
Mariam turned around and went to the kitchen to warm Rasheed’smeal.
“Irs like someone is ramming a screwdriver into my ear,” Rasheed said, rubbing his eyes.He was standing in Mariam’s door, puffy-eyed, wearing only aiumban tied with a floppy knot.His white hair was straggly, pointing every which way. “This crying. I can’t stand it.”
Downstairs, the girl was walking the baby across the floor, trying to sing to her.
“I haven’t had adecent night’s sleep in twomonths,” Rasheed said. “And the room smells like a sewer. There’sshit cloths lying all over the place. I stepped on onejust the other night.”
Mariam smirked inwardly with perverse pleasure.
“Take her outside!” Rasheed yelled over his shoulder. “Can’t you take her outside?”
The singing was suspended briefly.”She’ll catch pneumonia!”
Rasheed clenched his teeth and raised his voice. “I said, It’s warm out!”
“I’m not taking her outside!”
The singing resumed
“Sometimes, I swear, sometimes I want to put that thing in a box and let her float down Kabul River. Like baby Moses.”
Mariam never heard him call his daughter by the name the girl had given her, Aziza, the Cherished One. It was alwaysthe baby, or, when he was really exasperated,thai thing.
Some nights, Mariam overheard them arguing. She tiptoed to their door, listened to him complain about the baby-always the baby-the insistent crying, the smells, the toys that made him trip, the way the baby had hijacked Laila’s attentions from him with constant demands to be fed, burped, changed, walked, held. The girl, in turn, scolded him for smoking in the room, for not letting the baby sleep with them.
There were other arguments waged in voices pitched low.
“The doctor said six weeks.”
“Not yet, Rasheed. No. Let go. Come on. Don’t do that.”
“It’s been two months.”
“Sshi.There. You woke up the baby.” Then more sharply,”Khosh shodi? Happy now?”
Mariam would sneak back to her room.
“Can’t you help?” Rasheed said now. “There must be something you can do.”
“What do I know about babies?” Mariam said.
“Rasheed! Can you bring the bottle? It’s sitting on thealmari. She won’t feed. I want to try the bottle again.”
The baby’s screeching rose and fell like a cleaver on meat.
Rasheed closed his eyes. “That thing is a warlord. Hekmatyar. I’m telling you, Laila’s given birth to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.”
Mariam watched as the girl’s days became consumed with cycles of feeding, rocking, bouncing, walking. Even when the baby napped, there were soiled diapers to scrub and leave to soak in a pail of the disinfectant that the girl had insisted Rasheed buy for her. There were fingernails to trim with sandpaper, coveralls and pajamas to wash and hang to dry. These clothes, like other things about the baby, became a point of contention.
“What’s the matter with them?” Rasheed said
“They’re boys’ clothes. For abacha”
“You think she knows the difference? I paid good money for those clothes. And another thing, I don’t care for that tone. Consider that a warning.”
Every week, without fail, the girl heated a black metal brazier over a flame, tossed a pinch of wild rue seeds in it, and wafted theespandi smoke in her baby’s direction to ward off evil.
Mariam found it exhausting to watch the girl’s lolloping enthusiasm-and had to admit, if only privately, to a degree of admiration. She marveled at how the girl’s eyes shone with worship, even in the mornings when her face drooped and her complexion was waxy from a night’s worth of walking the baby. The girl had fits of laughter when the baby passed gas. The tiniest changes in the baby enchanted her, and everything it did was declared spectacular.
“Look! She’s reaching for the rattle. How clever she is.”
“I’ll call the newspapers,” said Rasheed.
Every night, there were demonstrations. When the girl insisted he witness something, Rasheed tipped his chin upward and cast an impatient, sidelong glance down the blue-veined hook of his nose.
“Watch. Watch how she laughs when I snap my fingers. There. See? Did you see?”
Rasheed would grunt, and go back to his plate. Mariam remembered how the girl’s mere presence used to overwhelm him. Everything she said used to please him, intrigue him, make him look up from his plate and nod with approval.
The strange thing was, the girl’s fall from grace ought to have pleased Mariam, brought her a sense of vindication. But it didn’t. It didn’t. To her own surprise, Mariam found herself pitying the girl.
It was also over dinner that the girl let loose a steady stream of worries. Topping the list was pneumonia, which was suspected with every minor cough. Then there was dysentery, the specter of which was raised with every loose stool. Every rash was either chicken pox or measles.
“You should not get so attached,” Rasheed said one night.
“What do you mean?”
“I was listening to the radio the other night. Voice of America. I heard an interesting statistic. They said that in Afghanistan one out of four children will die before the age of five. That’s what they said. Now, they-What? What? Where are you going? Come back here. Get back here this instant!”
He gave Mariam a bewildered look. “What’s the matter with her?”
That night, Mariam was lying in bed when the bickering started again. It was a hot, dry summer night, typical of the month ofSaratan in Kabul. Mariam had opened her window, then shut it when no breeze came through to temper the heat, only mosquitoes. She could feel the heat rising from the ground outside, through the wheat brown, splintered planks of the outhouse in the yard, up through the walls and into her room.
Usually, the bickering ran its course after a few minutes, but half an hour passed and not only was it still going on, it was escalating. Mariam could hear Rasheed shouting now. The girl’s voice, underneath his, was tentative and shrill. Soon the baby was wailing.
Then Mariam heard their door open violently. In the morning, she would find the doorknob’s circular impression in the hallway wall. She was sitting up in bed when her own door slammed open and Rasheed came through.
He was wearing white underpants and a matching undershirt, stained yellow in the underarms with sweat. On his feet he wore flip-flops. He held a belt in his hand, the brown leather one he’d bought for hisnikka with the girl, and was wrapping the perforated end around his fist.
“It’s your doing. I know it is,” he snarled, advancing on her.
Mariam slid out of her bed and began backpedaling. Her arms instinctively crossed over her chest, where he often struck her first.
“What are you talking about?” she stammered.
“Her denying me. You’re teaching her to.”
Over the years, Mariam had learned to harden herself against his scorn and reproach, his ridiculing and reprimanding. But this fear she had no control over. All these years and still she shivered with fright when he was like this, sneering, tightening the belt around his fist, the creaking of the leather, the glint in his bloodshot eyes. It was the fear of the goat, released in the tiger’s cage, when the tiger first looks up from its paws, begins to growl-Now the girl was in the room, her eyes wide, her face contorted “I should have known that you’d corrupt her,” Rasheed spat at Mariam. He swung the belt, testing it against his own thigh. The buckle jingled loudly.
“Stop it,basl” the girl said. “Rasheed, you can’t do this.”
“Go back to the room.”
Mariam backpedaled again.
“No! Don’t do this!”
Rasheed raised the belt again and this time came at Mariam.
Then an astonishing thing happened: The girl lunged at him. She grabbed his arm with both hands and tried to drag him down, but she could do no more than dangle from it. She did succeed in slowing Rasheed’s progress toward Mariam.
“Let go!” Rasheed cried.
“You win. You win. Don’t do this. Please, Rasheed, no beating! Please don’t do this.”
They struggled like this, the girl hanging on, pleading, Rasheed trying to shake her off, keeping his eyes on Mariam, who was too stunned to do anything.
In the end, Mariam knew that there would be no beating, not that night. He’d made his point. He stayed that way a few moments longer, arm raised, chest heaving, a fine sheen of sweat filming his brow. Slowly, Rasheed lowered his arm. The girl’s feet touched ground and still she wouldn’t let go, as if she didn’t trust him. He had to yank his arm free of her grip.
“I’m on to you,” he said, slinging the belt over his shoulder. “I’m on to you both. I won’t be made anahmaq, a fool, in my own house.”
He threw Mariam one last, murderous stare, and gave the girl a shove in the back on the way out.
When she heard their door close, Mariam climbed back into bed, buried her head beneath the pillow, and waited for the shaking to stop.
Three times that night, Mariam was awakened from sleep. The first time, it was the rumble of rockets in the west, coming from the direction of Karteh-Char. The second time, it was the baby crying downstairs, the girl’s shushing, the clatter of spoon against milk bottle. Finally, it was thirst that pulled her out of bed.
Downstairs, the living room was dark, save for a bar of moonlight spilling through the window. Mariam could hear the buzzing of a fly somewhere, could make out the outline of the cast-iron stove in the corner, its pipe jutting up, then making a sharp angle just below the ceiling.
On her way to the kitchen, Mariam nearly tripped over something. There was a shape at her feet. When her eyes adjusted, she made out the girl and her baby lying on the floor on top of a quilt.
The girl was sleeping on her side, snoring. The baby was awake. Mariam lit the kerosene lamp on the table and hunkered down. In the light, she had her first real close-up look at the baby, the tuft of dark hair, the thick-lashed hazel eyes, the pink cheeks, and lips the color of ripe pomegranate.
Mariam had the impression that the baby too was examining her. She was lying on her back, her head tilted sideways, looking at Mariam intently with a mixture of amusement, confusion, and suspicion. Mariam wondered if her face might frighten her, but then the baby squealed happily and Mariam knew that a favorable judgment had been passed on her behalf.
“Shh,”Mariam whispered “You’ll wake up your mother, half deaf as she is.”
The baby’s hand balled into a fist. It rose, fell, found a spastic path to her mouth. Around a mouthful of her own hand, the baby gave Mariam a grin, little bubbles of spittle shining on her lips.
“Look at you. What a sorry sight you are, dressed like a damn boy. And all bundled up in this heat. No wonder you’re still awake.”
Mariam pulled the blanket off the baby, was horrified to find a second one beneath, clucked her tongue, and pulled that one off too. The baby giggled with relief. She flapped her arms like a bird.
As Mariam was pulling back, the baby grabbed her pinkie. The tiny fingers curled themselves tightly around it. They felt warm and soft, moist with drool.
“Gunuh,”the baby said.
“All right, Ms; let go.”
The baby hung on, kicked her legs again.
Mariam pulled her finger free. The baby smiled and made a series of gurgling sounds. The knuckles went back to the mouth.
“What are you so happy about? Huh? What are you smiling at? You’re not so clever as your mother says. You have a brute for a father and a fool for a mother. You wouldn’t smile so much if you knew. No you wouldn’t. Go to sleep, now. Go on.”
Mariam rose to her feet and walked a few steps before the baby started making theeh, eh, eh sounds that Mariam knew signaled the onset of a hearty cry. She retraced her steps.
“What is it? What do you want fromme?”
The baby grinned toothlessly.
Mariam sighed. She sat down and let her finger be grabbed, looked on as the baby squeaked, as she flexed her plump legs at the hips and kicked air. Mariam sat there, watching, until the baby stopped moving and began snoring softly.
Outside, mockingbirds were singing blithely, and, once in a while, when the songsters took flight, Mariam could see their wings catching the phosphorescent blue of moonlight beaming through the clouds. And though her throat was parched with thirst and her feet burned with pins and needles, it was a long time before Mariam gently freed her finger from the baby’s grip and got up.
Of all earthly pleasures, Laila’s favorite was lying next to Aziza, her baby’s face so close that she could watch her big pupils dilate and shrink. Laila loved running her finger over Aziza’s pleasing, soft skin, over the dimpled knuckles, the folds of fat at her elbows. Sometimes she lay Aziza down on her chest and whispered into the soft crown of her head things about Tariq, the father who would always be a stranger to Aziza, whose face Aziza would never know. Laila told her of his aptitude for solving riddles, his trickery and mischief, his easy laugh.
“He had the prettiest lashes, thick like yours. A good chin, a fine nose, and a round forehead. Oh, your father was handsome, Aziza. He was perfect. Perfect, like you are.”
But she was careful never to mention him by name.
Sometimes she caught Rasheed looking at Aziza in the most peculiar way. The other night, sitting on the bedroom floor, where he was shaving a corn from his foot, he said quite casually, “So what was it like between you two?”
Laila had given him a puzzled look, as though she didn’t understand.
“Laili and Majnoon. You and theyakknga,the cripple. What was it you had, he and you?”
“He was my friend,” she said, careful that her voice not shift too much in key.She busied herself making a bottle.”You know that.”
“I don’t knowwhat Iknow.” Rasheed deposited the shavings on the windowsill and dropped onto the bed. The springs protested with a loud creak. He splayed his legs, picked at his crotch. “And as….friends, did the two of you ever do anything out of order?”
“Out of order?”
Rasheed smiled lightheartedly, but Laila could feel his gaze, cold and watchful. “Let me see, now. Well, did heever give you a kiss? Maybeput his hand where it didn’t belong?”
Laila winced with, she hoped, an indignant air. She could feel her heart drumming in her throat.”He was like abrother to me.”
“So he was a friend or a brother?”
“Which was it?”
“He was like both.”
“But brothers and sisters are creatures of curiosity.Yes. Sometimes a brother lets his sister see his pecker, and asister will-“
“You sicken me,” Laila said.
“So there was nothing.”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Rasheed tilted his head, pursed his lips, nodded. “People gossiped, you know. I remember. They said all sorts of things about you two. But you’re saying there was nothing.”
She willed herself to glare athim.
He held her eyesfor an excruciatingly long time in an unblinking way that made her knuckles go pale around the milkbottle, and it took all that Laila could muster to not falter.
She shuddered at what he would do if hefound out that she had been stealing from him. Every week, since Aziza’s birth, she pried his wallet open when he wasasleep or in the outhouse and took a single bill. Some weeks, if the wallet was light, she took only a five-afghanibill, or nothing at all, for fear that he would notice. When the wallet was plump, she helpedherself to a ten or a twenty, once even risking two twenties. She hid the money in a pouchshe’d sewn in the lining of her checkered winter coat.
She wondered what he would do if he knew that she was planning to run away next spring. Next summer at the latest. Laila hoped to have a thousand afghanis or more stowed away, half of which would go to the bus fare from Kabul to Peshawar. She would pawn her wedding ring when the time drew close, as well as the other jewelry that Rasheed had given her the year before when she was still themalika of his palace.
“Anyway,” he said at last, fingers drumming his belly, “I can’t be blamed. I am a husband. These are the things a husband wonders. But he’s lucky he died the way he did. Because if he was here now, if I got my hands on him…” He sucked through his teeth and shook his head.
“What happened to not speaking ill of the dead?”
“I guess some people can’t be dead enough,” he said.
Two days later, Laila woke up in the morning and found a stack of baby clothes, neatly folded, outside her bedroom door. There was a twirl dress with little pink fishes sewn around the bodice, a blue floral wool dress with matching socks and mittens, yellow pajamas with carrot-colored polka dots, and green cotton pants with a dotted ruffle on the cuff.
“There is a rumor,” Rasheed said over dinner that night, smacking his lips, taking no notice of Aziza or the pajamas Laila had put on her, “that Dostum is going to change sides and join Hekmatyar. Massoud will have his hands full then, fighting those two. And we mustn’t forget the Hazaras.” He took a pinch of the pickled eggplant Mariam had made that summer. “Let’s hope it’s just that, a rumor. Because if that happens, this war,” he waved one greasy hand, “will seem like a Friday picnic at Paghman.”
Later, he mounted her and relieved himself with wordless haste, fully dressed save for histumban, not removed but pulled down to the ankles. When the frantic rocking was over, he rolled off her and was asleep in minutes.
Laila slipped out of the bedroom and found Mariam in the kitchen squatting, cleaning a pair of trout. A pot of rice was already soaking beside her. The kitchen smelled like cumin and smoke, browned onions and fish.
Laila sat in a comer and draped her knees with the hem of her dress.
“Thank you,” she said.
Mariam took no notice of her. She finished cutting up the first trout and picked up the second. With a serrated knife, she clipped the fins, then turned the fish over, its underbelly facing her, and sliced it expertly from the tail to the gills. Laila watched her put her thumb into its mouth, just over the lower jaw, push it in, and, in one downward stroke, remove the gills and the entrails.
“The clothes are lovely.”
“I had no use for them,” Mariam muttered. She dropped the fish on a newspaper smudged with slimy, gray juice and sliced off its head. “It was either your daughter or the moths.”
“Where did you learn to clean fish like that?”
“When I was a little girl, I lived by a stream. I used tocatch my ownfish.”
“I’ve never fished”
“Not much toit. It’s mostly waiting.”
Lailawatched her cut the gutted trout into thirds. “Did you sew the clothes yourself?”
Mariamrinsed sections offish in a bowl of water. “When I was pregnant the first time. Or maybe the second time. Eighteen, nineteen years ago. Long time, anyhow. Like I said, I never had anyuse for them.”
“You’re a really goodkhayai. Maybe you can teach me.”
Mariam placed the rinsed chunks of trout into a clean bowl.Drops of water drippingfrom her fingertips,she raised her head and looked at Laila, looked at heras if for the first time.
“The other night, when he…Nobody’s ever stood up for mebefore,” she said.
Laila examined Mariam’s drooping cheeks, the eyelids that sagged in tired folds, the deep lines that framed her mouth-she saw these things as though she too were looking at someone for the first time. And, for the first time, it was not an adversary’s face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured. If she stayed, would this be her own face, Laila wondered, twenty years from now?
“I couldn’t let him,” Laila said “I wasn’t raised in a household where people did things like that.”
“Thisis your household now. You ought to get used to it.”
“Not to/to I won’t.”
“He’ll turn on you too, you know,” Mariam said, wiping her hands dry with a rag. “Soon enough. And you gave him a daughter. So, you see, your sin is even less forgivable than mine.”
Laila rose to her feet. “I know it’s chilly outside, but what do you say we sinners have us a cup ofchai in the yard?”
Mariam looked surprised “I can’t. I still have to cut and wash the beans.”
“I’ll help you do it in the morning.”
“And I have to clean up here.”
“We’ll do it together. If I’m not mistaken, there’s somehalwa left over. Awfully good withchat.”
Mariam put the rag on the counter. Laila sensed anxiety in the way she tugged at her sleeves, adjusted herhijab, pushed back a curl of hair.
“The Chinese say it’s better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one.”
Mariam gave a half smile. “It’s a good saying.”
“But I can’t stay long.”
They sat on folding chairs outside and atehalwa with their fingers from a common bowl. They had a second cup, and when Laila asked her if she wanted a third Mariam said she did. As gunfire cracked in the hills, they watched the clouds slide over the moon and the last of the season’s fireflies charting bright yellow arcs in the dark. And when Aziza woke up crying and Rasheed yelled for Laila to come up and shut her up, a look passed between Laila and Mariam. An unguarded, knowing look. And in this fleeting, wordless exchange with Mariam, Laila knew that they were not enemies any longer.
Jr rom that night on, Mariam and Laila did their chores together. They sat in the kitchen and rolled dough, chopped green onions, minced garlic, offered bits of cucumber to Aziza, who banged spoons nearby and played with carrots. In the yard, Aziza lay in a wicker bassinet, dressed in layers of clothing, a winter muffler wrapped snugly around her neck. Mariam and Laila kept a watchful eye on her as they did the wash, Mariam’s knuckles bumping Laila’s as they scrubbed shirts and trousers and diapers.
Mariam slowly grew accustomed to this tentative but pleasant companionship. She was eager for the three cups ofchai she and Laila would share in the yard, a nightly ritual now. In the mornings, Mariam found herself looking forward to the sound of Laila’s cracked slippers slapping the steps as she came down for breakfast and to the tinkle of Aziza’s shrill laugh, to the sight of her eight little teeth, the milky scent of her skin. If Laila and Aziza slept in, Mariam became anxious waiting. She washed dishes that didn’t need washing. She rearranged cushions in the living room. She dusted clean windowsills. She kept herself occupied until Laila entered the kitchen, Aziza hoisted on her hip.
When Aziza first spotted Mariam in the morning, her eyes always sprang open, and she began mewling and squirming in her mother’s grip. She thrust her arms toward Mariam, demanding to be held, her tiny hands opening and closing urgently, on her face a look of both adoration and quivering anxiety.
“What a scene you’re making,” Laila would say, releasing her to crawl toward Mariam. “What a scene! Calm down. Khala Mariam isn’t going anywhere. There she is, your aunt. See? Go on, now.”
As soon as she was in Mariam’s arms, Aziza’s thumb shot into her mouth and she buried her face in Mariam’s neck.
Mariam bounced her stiffly, a half-bewildered, half-grateful smile on her lips. Mariam had never before been wanted like this. Love had never been declared to her so guilelessly, so unreservedly.
Aziza made Mariam want to weep.
“Why have you pinned your little heart to an old, ugly hag like me?” Mariam would murmur into Aziza’s hair. “Huh? I am nobody, don’t you see? Adehatl What have I got to give you?”
But Aziza only muttered contentedly and dug her face in deeper. And when she did that, Mariam swooned. Her eyes watered. Her heart took flight. And she marveled at how, after all these years of rattling loose, she had found in this little creature the first true connection in her life of false, failed connections.
Early the following yeah, in January 1994, Dostumdid switch sides. He joined Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and took up position near Bala Hissar, the old citadel walls that loomed over the city from the Koh-e-Shirdawaza mountains. Together, they fired on Massoud and Rabbani forces at the Ministry of Defense and the Presidential Palace. From either side of the Kabul River, they released rounds of artillery at each other. The streets became littered with bodies, glass, and crumpled chunks of metal. There was looting, murder, and, increasingly, rape, which was used to intimidate civilians and reward militiamen. Mariam heard of women who were killing themselves out of fear of being raped, and of men who, in the name of honor, would kill their wives or daughters if they’d been raped by the militia.
Aziza shrieked at the thumping of mortars. To distract her, Mariam arranged grains of rice on the floor, in the shape of a house or a rooster or a star, and let Aziza scatter them. She drew elephants for Aziza the way Jalil had shown her, in one stroke, without ever lifting the tip of the pen.
Rasheed said civilians were getting killed daily, by the dozens. Hospitals and stores holding medical supplies were getting shelled. Vehicles carrying emergency food supplies were being barred from entering the city, he said, raided, shot at. Mariam wondered if there was fighting like this in Herat too, and, if so, how Mullah Faizullah was coping, if he was still alive, and Bibijo too, with all her sons, brides, and grandchildren. And, of course, Jalil. Was he hiding out, Mariam wondered, as she was? Or had he taken his wives and children and fled the country? She hoped Jalil was somewhere safe, that he’d managed to get away from all of this killing.
For a week, the fighting forced even Rasheed to stay home. He locked the door to the yard, set booby traps, locked the front door too and barricaded it with the couch. He paced the house, smoking, peering out the window, cleaning his gun, loading and loading it again. Twice, he fired his weapon into the street claiming he’d seen someone trying to climb the wall.
“They’re forcing young boys to join,” he said. “TheMujahideenare. In plain daylight, at gunpoint. They drag boys right off the streets. And when soldiers from a rival militia capture these boys, they torture them. I heard they electrocute them-it’s what I heard-that they crush their balls with pliers. They make the boys lead them to their homes. Then they break in, kill their fathers, rape their sisters and mothers.”
He waved his gun over his head. “Let’s see them try to break into my house. I’ll crushtheir balls! I’ll blow their heads off! Do you know how lucky you two are to have a man who’s not afraid of Shaitan himself?”
He looked down at the ground, noticed Aziza at his feet. “Get off my heels!” he snapped, making a shooing motion with his gun. “Stop following me! And you can stop twirling your wrists like that. I’m not picking you up. Go on! Go on before you get stepped on.”
Aziza flinched. She crawled back to Mariam, looking bruised and confused. In Mariam’s lap, she sucked her thumb cheerlessly and watched Rasheed in a sullen, pensive way. Occasionally, she looked up, Mariam imagined, with a look of wanting to be reassured.
But when it came to fathers, Mariam had no assurances to give.
Maeiam was relieved when the fighting subsided again, mostly because they no longer had to be cooped up with Rasheed, with his sour temper infecting the household. And he’d frightened her badly waving that loaded gun near Aziza.
One day that winter, Laila asked to braid Mariam’s hair.
Mariam sat still and watched Laila’s slim fingers in the mirror tighten her plaits, Laila’s face scrunched in concentration. Aziza was curled up asleep on the floor. Tucked under her arm was a doll Mariam had hand-stitched for her. Mariam had stuffed it with beans, made it a dress with tea-dyed fabric and a necklace with tiny empty thread spools through which she’d threaded a string.
Then Aziza passed gas in her sleep. Laila began to laugh, and Mariam joined in. They laughed like this, at each other’s reflection in the mirror, their eyes tearing, and the moment was so natural, so effortless, that suddenly Mariam started telling her about Jalil, and Nana, andthe jinn. Laila stood with her hands idle on Mariam’s shoulders, eyes locked on Mariam’s face in the mirror. Out the words came, like blood gushing from an artery. Mariam told her about Bibi jo, Mullah Faizullah, the humiliating trek to Jalil’s house, Nana’s suicide. She told about Jalil’s wives, and the hurriednikka with Rasheed, the trip to Kabul, her pregnancies, the endless cycles of hope and disappointment, Rasheed’s turning on her.
After, Laila sat at the foot of Mariam’s chair. Absently, she removed a scrap of lint entangled in Aziza’s hair. A silence ensued.
“I have something to tell you too,” Laila said.
Maeiamdid not sleep that night. She sat in bed, watched the snow falling soundlessly.
Seasons had come and gone; presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered; an empire had been defeated; old wars had ended and new ones had broken out. But Mariam had hardly noticed, hardly cared. She had passed these years in a distant corner of her mind A dry, barren field, out beyond wish and lament, beyond dream and disillusionment- There, the future did not matter. And the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion. And whenever those twin poisonous flowers began to sprout in the parched land of that field, Mariam uprooted them. She uprooted them and ditched them before they took hold.
But somehow, over these last months, Laila and Aziza-aharami like herself, as it turned out-had become extensions of her, and now, without them, the life Mariam had tolerated for so long suddenly seemed intolerable.
We’re leaving this spring, Aziza and I. Come with us, Mariam.
The years had not been kind to Mariam. But perhaps, she thought, there were kinder years waiting still. A new life, a life in which she would find the blessings that Nana had said aharami like her would never see. Two new flowers had unexpectedly sprouted in her life, and, as Mariam watched the snow coming down, she pictured Mullah Faizullah twirling hisiasbeh beads, leaning in and whispering to her in his soft, tremulous voice,But it is God Who has planted them, Mariam jo. And it is His will that you tend to them. It is His will, my girl.
As daylight steadily bleached darkness from the skythat spring morning of1994, Laila became certain that Rasheed knew. That, any moment now, he would drag her out of bed and ask whether she’d really taken him for such akhar, such a donkey, that he wouldn’t find out. Butazan rang out, and then the morning sun was falling flat on the rooftops and the roosters were crowing and nothing out of the ordinary happened She could hear him now in the bathroom, the tapping of his razor against the edge of the basin. Then downstairs, moving about, heating tea. The keys jingled. Now he was crossing the yard, walking his bicycle.
Laila peered through a crack in the living-room curtains. She watched him pedal away, a big man on a small bicycle, the morning sun glaring off the handlebars.
Mariam was in the doorway. Laila could tell that she hadn’t slept either. She wondered if Mariam too had been seized all night by bouts of euphoria and attacks of mouth-drying anxiety.
“We’ll leave in half an hour,” Laila said.
In the backseat of the taxi, they did not speak. Aziza sat on Mariam’s lap, clutching her doll, looking with wide-eyed puzzlement at the city speeding by.
“Ona!”she cried, pointing to a group of little girls skipping rope. “Mayam!Ona”
Everywhere she looked, Laila saw Rasheed. She spotted him coming out of barbershops with windows the color of coal dust, from tiny booths that sold partridges, from battered, open-fronted stores packed with old tires piled from floor to ceiling.
She sank lower in her seat.
Beside her, Mariam was muttering a prayer. Laila wished she could see her face, but Mariam was in burqa-they both were-and all she could see was the glitter of her eyes through the grid.
This was Laila’s first time out of the house in weeks, discounting the short trip to the pawnshop the day before-where she had pushed her wedding ring across a glass counter, where she’d walked out thrilled by the finality of it, knowing there was no going back.
All around her now, Laila saw the consequences of the recent fighting whose sounds she’d heard from the house. Homes that lay in roofless ruins of brick and jagged stone, gouged buildings with fallen beams poking through the holes, the charred, mangled husks of cars, upended, sometimes stacked on top of each other, walls pocked by holes of every conceivable caliber, shattered glass everywhere. She saw a funeral procession marching toward a mosque, a black-clad old woman at the rear tearing at her hair. They passed a cemetery littered with rock-piled graves and raggedshaheed flags fluttering in the breeze.
Laila reached across the suitcase, wrapped her fingers around the softness of her daughter’s arm.
At the Lahore Gate bus station, near Pol Mahmood Khan in East Kabul, a row of buses sat idling along the curbside. Men in turbans were busy heaving bundles and crates onto bus tops, securing suitcases down with ropes. Inside the station, men stood in a long line at the ticket booth. Burqa-clad women stood in groups and chatted, their belongings piled at their feet. Babies were bounced, children scolded for straying too far.
Mujahideen militiamen patrolled the station and the curbside, barking curt orders here and there. They wore boots,pakols, dusty green fatigues. They all carried Kalashnikovs.
Laila felt watched. She looked no one in the face, but she felt as though every person in this place knew, that they were looking on with disapproval at what she and Mariam were doing.
“Do you see anybody?” Laila asked.
Mariam shifted Aziza in her arms. “I’m looking.”
This, Laila had known, would be the first risky part, finding a man suitable to pose with them as a family member. The freedoms and opportunities that women had enjoyed between 1978 and 1992 were a thing of the past now- Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule,It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila Since the Mujahideen takeover in April 1992, Afghanistan’s name had been changed to the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The Supreme Court under Rabbani was filled now with hard-liner mullahs who did away with the communist-era decrees that empowered women and instead passed rulings based on Shari’a, strict Islamic laws that ordered women to cover, forbade their travel without a male relative, punished adultery with stoning. Even if the actual enforcement of these laws was sporadic at best.But they’d enforce them on us more, Laila had said to Mariam,if they weren’t so busy killing each other. And us.
The second risky part of this trip would come when they actually arrived in Pakistan. Already burdened with nearly two million Afghan refugees, Pakistan had closed its borders to Afghans in January of that year. Laila had heard that only those with visas would be admitted. But the border was porous-always had been-and Laila knew that thousands of Afghans were still crossing into Pakistan either with bribes or by proving humanitarian grounds- and there were always smugglers who could be hired.We’ll find a way when we get there, she’d told Mariam.
“How about him?” Mariam said, motioning with her chin.
“He doesn’t look trustworthy.”
“Too old. And he’s traveling with two other men.”
Eventually,Laila found him sitting outside on a park bench,with a veiled woman at his side and a little boy in a skullcap, roughly Aziza’s age, bouncing on his knees.He wastall and slender, bearded, wearing an open-collaredshirt and a modest gray coat with missing buttons.
“Wait here,”she said to Mariam. Walking away, she again heard Mariam muttering a prayer.
When Laila approached the young man, he looked up, shielded the sun from his eyes with a hand.
“Forgive me, brother, but are you going to Peshawar?”
“Yes,” he said, squinting.
“I wonder ifyou can help us. Can you do us a favor?”
He passed the boy to his wife. He and Laila stepped away.
“What is it,hamshiraT’
She was encouraged to see that he had soft eyes, a kind face.
She told him the story that she and Mariam had agreed on. She was abiwa,she said, a widow. She and her mother and daughter had no oneleft in Kabul. They were going to Peshawar to stay with her uncle.
“You want to come with my family,” the young man said
“I know it’szahmat for you. But you look like a decent brother, and I-“
“Don’t worry,hamshira I understand. It’s no trouble. Let me go and buy your tickets.”
“Thank you, brother. This issawab, a good deed. God will remember.”
She fished the envelope from her pocket beneath the burqa and passed it to him. In it was eleven hundred afghanis, or about half of the money she’d stashed over the past year plus the sale of the ring. He slipped the envelope in his trouser pocket.
She watched him enter the station. He returned half an hour later.
“It’s best I hold on to your tickets,” he said. The bus leaves in one hour, at eleven. We’ll all board together. My name is Wakil. If they ask-and they shouldn’t-I’ll tell them you’re my cousin.”
Laila gave him their names, and he said he would remember.
“Stay close,” he said.
They sat on the bench adjacent to Wakil and his family’s. It was a sunny, warm morning, the sky streaked only by a few wispy clouds hovering in the distance over thehills. Mariam began feeding Aziza a few of the crackers she’d remembered to bring in their rush to pack. She offered one to Laila.
“I’ll throwup,” Laila laughed. “I’m too excited.”
“For this.For coming with us,” Laila said. “I don’t think I could do this alone.”
“You won’t have to.”
“We’re going to be all right, aren’t we, Mariam, where we’re going?”
Mariam’s hand slid across the bench and closed over hers. “The Koran says Allah is the East and the West, therefore wherever you turn there is Allah’s purpose.”
“Bov!”Aziza cried, pointing to a bus. “Mayam,bov”
“I see it, Aziza jo,” Mariam said. “That’s right,bov. Soon we’re all going to ride on abov. Oh, the things you’re going to see.”
Laila smiled. She watched a carpenter in his shop across the street sawing wood, sending chips flying. She watched the cars bolting past, their windows coated with soot and grime. She watched the buses growling idly at the curb, with peacocks, lions, rising suns, and glittery swords painted on their sides.
In the warmth of the morning sun, Laila felt giddy and bold. She had another of those little sparks of euphoria, and when a stray dog with yellow eyes limped by, Laila leaned forward and pet its back.
A few minutes before eleven, a man with a bullhorn called for all passengers to Peshawar to begin boarding. The bus doors opened with a violent hydraulic hiss. A parade of travelers rushed toward it, scampering past each other to squeeze through.
Wakil motioned toward Laila as he picked up his son.
“We’re going,” Laila said.
Wakil led the way. As they approached the bus, Laila saw faces appear in the windows, noses and palms pressed to the glass. All around them, farewells were yelled.
A young militia soldier was checking tickets at the bus door.
Wakil handed tickets to the soldier, who tore them in half and handed them back. Wakil let his wife board first. Laila saw a look pass between Wakil and the militiaman. Wakil, perched on the first step of the bus, leaned down and said something in his ear. The militiaman nodded.
Laila’s heart plummeted.
“You two, with the child, step aside,” the soldier said.
Laila pretended not to hear. She went to climb the steps, but he grabbed her by the shoulder and roughly pulled her out of the line. “You too,” he called to Mariam. “Hurry up! You’re holding up the line.”
“What’s the problem, brother?” Laila said through numb lips. “We have tickets. Didn’t my cousin hand them to you?”
He made aShh motion with his finger and spoke in a low voice to another guard. The second guard, a rotund fellow with a scar down his right cheek, nodded.
“Follow me,” this one said to Laila.
“We have to board this bus,” Laila cried, aware that her voice was shaking. “We have tickets. Why are you doing this?”
“You’re not going to get on this bus. You might as well accept that. You will follow me. Unless you want your little girl to see you dragged.”
As they were led to a truck, Laila looked over her shoulder and spotted Wakil’s boy at the rear of the bus. The boy saw her too and waved happily.
At the police station at Torabaz Khan Intersection, they were made to sit apart, on opposite ends of a long, crowded corridor, between them a desk, behind which a man smoked one cigarette after another and clacked occasionally on a typewriter. Three hours passed this way. Aziza tottered from Laila to Mariam, then back. She played with a paper clip that the man at the desk gave her. She finished the crackers. Eventually, she fell asleep in Mariam’s lap.
At around three o’clock, Laila was taken to an interview room. Mariam was made to wait with Aziza in the corridor.
The man sitting on the other side of the desk in the interview room was in his thirties and wore civilian clothes- black suit, tie, black loafers. He had a neatly trimmed beard, short hair, and eyebrows that met. He stared at Laila, bouncing a pencil by the eraser end on the desk.
“We know,” he began, clearing his throat and politely covering his mouth with a fist, “that you have already told one lie today,kamshira The young man at the station was not your cousin. He told us as much himself. The question is whether you will tell more lies today. Personally, I advise you against it.”
“We were going to stay with my uncle,” Laila said “That’s the truth.”
The policeman nodded. “Thehamshira in the corridor, she’s your mother?”
“She has a Herati accent. You don’t.”
“She was raised in Herat, I was born here in Kabul.”
“Of course. And you are widowed? You said you were. My condolences. And this uncle, thiskaka, where does he live?”
“Yes, you said that.” He licked the point of his pencil and poised it over a blank sheet of paper. “But where in Peshawar? Which neighborhood, please? Street name, sector number.”
Laila tried to push back the bubble of panic that was coming up her chest. She gave him the name of the only street she knew in Peshawar-she’d heard it mentioned once, at the party Mammy had thrown when the Mujahideen had first come to Kabul-“Jamrud Road.”
“Oh, yes. Same street as the Pearl Continental Hotel. He might have mentioned it.”
Laila seized this opportunity and said he had. “That very same street, yes.”
“Except the hotel is on Khyber Road.”
Laila could hear Aziza crying in the corridor. “My daughter’s frightened. May I get her, brother?”
“I prefer ‘Officer.’ And you’ll be with her shortly. Do you have a telephone number for this uncle?”
“I do. I did. I…” Even with the burqa between them, Laila was not buffered from his penetrating eyes. “I’m so upset, I seem to have forgotten it.”
He sighed through his nose. He asked for the uncle’s name, his wife’s name. How many children did he have? What were their names? Where did he work? How old was he? His questions left Laila flustered.
He put down his pencil, laced his fingers together, and leaned forward the way parents do when they want to convey something to a toddler. “You do realize,hamshira, that it is a crime for a woman to run away. We see a lot of it. Women traveling alone, claiming their husbands have died. Sometimes they’re telling the truth, most times not. You can be imprisoned for running away, I assume you understand that,nay1?”
“Let us go, Officer…” She read the name on his lapel tag. “Officer Rahman. Honor the meaning of your name and show compassion. What does it matter to you to let a mere two women go? What’s the harm in releasing us? We are not criminals.”
“I beg you, please.”
“It’s a matter ofqanoon, hamshira, a matter of law,” Rahman said, injecting his voice with a grave, self-important tone. “It is my responsibility, you see, to maintain order.”
In spite of her distraught state, Laila almost laughed. She was stunned that he’d used that word in the face of all that the Mujahideen factions had done-the murders, the lootings, the rapes, the tortures, the executions, the bombings, the tens of thousands of rockets they had fired at each other, heedless of all the innocent people who would die in the cross fire.Order. But she bit her tongue.
“If you send us back,” she said instead, slowly, “there is no saying what he will do to us.”
She could see the effort it took him to keep his eyes from shifting. “What a man does in his home is his business.”
“What about the law,then, Officer Rahman?” Tears of rage stung her eyes. “Will you be there to maintain order?”
“As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with private family matters,hamshira”
“Of course you don’t. When it benefits the man. And isn’t this a ‘private family matter,’ as you say? Isn’t it?”
He pushed back from his desk and stood up, straightened his jacket. “I believe this interview is finished. I must say,hamshira, that you have made a very poor case for yourself. Very poor indeed. Now, if you would wait outside I will have a few words with your…whoever she is.”
Laila began to protest, then to yell, and he had to summon the help of two more men to have her dragged out of his office.
Mariam’s interview lasted only a few minutes. When she came out, she looked shaken.
“He asked so many questions,” she said. “I’m sorry, Laila jo. I am not smart like you. He asked so many questions, I didn’t know the answers. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Mariam,” Laila said weakly. “It’s mine. It’s all my fault. Everything is my fault.”
It was past six o’clock when the police car pulled up in front of the house. Laila and Mariam were made to wait in the backseat, guarded by a Mujahid soldier in the passenger seat. The driver was the one who got out of the car, who knocked on the door, who spoke to Rasheed. It was he who motioned for them to come.
“Welcome home,” the man in the front seat said, lighting a cigarette.
“You,” he said to Mariam. “You wait here.”
Mariam quietly took a seat on the couch.
“You two, upstairs.”
Rasheed grabbed Laila by the elbow and pushed her up the steps. He was still wearing the shoes he wore to work, hadn’t yet changed to his flip-flops, taken off his watch, hadn’t even shed his coat yet. Laila pictured him as he must have been an hour, or maybe minutes, earlier, rushing from one room to another, slamming doors, furious and incredulous, cursing under his breath.
At the top of the stairs, Laila turned to him.
“She didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I made her do it. She didn’t want to go-“
Laila didn’t see the punch coming. One moment she was talking and the next she was on all fours, wide-eyed and red-faced, trying to draw a breath. It was as if a car had hit her at full speed, in the tender place between the lower tip of the breastbone and the belly button. She realized she had dropped Aziza, that Aziza was screaming. She tried to breathe again and could only make a husky, choking sound. Dribble hung from her mouth.
Then she was being dragged by the hair. She saw Aziza lifted, saw her sandals slip off, her tiny feet kicking. Hair was ripped from Laila’s scalp, and her eyes watered with pain. She saw his foot kick open the door to Mariam’s room, saw Aziza flung onto the bed. He let go of Laila’s hair, and she felt the toe of his shoe connect with her left buttock. She howled with pain as he slammed the door shut. A key rattled in the lock.
Aziza was still screaming. Laila lay curled up on the floor, gasping. She pushed herself up on her hands, crawled to where Aziza lay on the bed. She reached for her daughter.
Downstairs, the beating began. To Laila, the sounds she heard were those of a methodical, familiar proceeding. There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten, thethump, thump of something solid repeatedly striking flesh, something, someone, hitting a wall with a thud, cloth ripping. Now and then, Laila heard running footsteps, a wordless chase, furniture turning over, glass shattering, then the thumping once more.
Laila took Aziza in her arms. A warmth spread down the front of her dress when Aziza’s bladder let go.
Downstairs, the running and chasing finally stopped. There was a sound now like a wooden club repeatedly slapping a side of beef.
Laila rocked Aziza until the sounds stopped, and, when she heard the screen door creak open and slam shut, she lowered Aziza to the ground and peeked out the window. She saw Rasheed leading Mariam across the yard by the nape of her neck. Mariam was barefoot and doubled over. There was blood on his hands, blood on Mariam’s face, her hair, down her neck and back. Her shirt had been ripped down the front.
“I’m so sorry, Mariam,” Laila cried into the glass.
She watched him shove Mariam into the toolshed. He went in, came out with a hammer and several long planks of wood. He shut the double doors to the shed, took a key from his pocket, worked the padlock. He tested the doors, then went around the back of the shed and fetched a ladder.
A few minutes later, his face was in Laila’s window, nails tucked in the comer of his mouth. His hair was disheveled. There was a swath of blood on his brow. At the sight of him, Aziza shrieked and buried her face in Laila’s armpit.
Rasheed began nailing boards across the window.
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