فصل 02کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 2
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متن انگلیسی فصل
Two Fall 1952
Father had never before hit Abdullah. So when he did, when he whacked the side of his head, just above the ear—hard, suddenly, and with an open palm—tears of surprise sprung to Abdullah’s eyes. He quickly blinked them back.
“Go home,” Father said through gritted teeth.
From up ahead, Abdullah heard Pari burst into sobs.
Then Father hit him again, harder, and this time across the left cheek. Abdullah’s head snapped sideways. His face burned, and more tears leaked. His left ear rang. Father stooped down, leaning in so close his dark creased face eclipsed the desert and the mountains and the sky altogether.
“I told you to go home, boy,” he said with a pained look.
Abdullah didn’t make a sound. He swallowed hard and squinted at his father, blinking into the face shading his eyes from the sun.
From the small red wagon up ahead, Pari cried out his name, her voice high, shaking with apprehension. “Abollah!”
Father held him with a cutting look, and trudged back to the wagon. From its bed, Pari reached for Abdullah with outstretched hands. Abdullah allowed them a head start. Then he wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands, and followed.
A little while later, Father threw a rock at him, the way children in Shadbagh would do to Pari’s dog, Shuja—except they meant to hit Shuja, to hurt him. Father’s rock fell harmlessly a few feet from Abdullah. He waited, and when Father and Pari got moving again Abdullah tailed them once more.
Finally, with the sun just past its peak, Father pulled up again. He turned back in Abdullah’s direction, seemed to consider, and motioned with his hand.
“You won’t give up,” he said.
From the bed of the wagon, Pari’s hand quickly slipped into Abdullah’s. She was looking up at him, her eyes liquid, and she was smiling her gap-toothed smile like no bad thing would ever befall her so long as he stood at her side. He closed his fingers around her hand, the way he did each night when he and his little sister slept in their cot, their skulls touching, their legs tangled.
“You were supposed to stay home,” Father said. “With your mother and Iqbal. Like I told you to.”
Abdullah thought, She’s your wife. My mother, we buried. But he knew to stifle those words before they came up and out.
“All right, then. Come,” Father said. “But there won’t be any crying. You hear me?”
“I’m warning you. I won’t have it.”
Pari grinned up at Abdullah, and he looked down at her pale eyes and pink round cheeks and grinned back.
From then on, he walked beside the wagon as it jostled along on the pitted desert floor, holding Pari’s hand. They traded furtive happy glances, brother and sister, but said little for fear of souring Father’s mood and spoiling their good fortune. For long stretches they were alone, the three of them, nothing and no one in sight but the deep copper gorges and vast sandstone cliffs. The desert unrolled ahead of them, open and wide, as though it had been created for them and them alone, the air still, blazing hot, the sky high and blue. Rocks shimmered on the cracked floor. The only sounds Abdullah heard were his own breathing and the rhythmic creaking of the wheels as Father pulled the red wagon north.
A while later, they stopped to rest in the shadow of a boulder. With a groan, Father dropped the handle to the ground. He winced as he arched his back, his face raised to the sun.
“How much longer to Kabul?” Abdullah asked.
Father looked down at them. His name was Saboor. He was dark-skinned and had a hard face, angular and bony, nose curved like a desert hawk’s beak, eyes set deep in his skull. Father was thin as a reed, but a lifetime of work had made his muscles powerful, tightly wound like rattan strips around the arm of a wicker chair. “Tomorrow afternoon,” he said, lifting the cowhide water bag to his lips. “If we make good time.” He took a long swallow, his Adam’s apple rising and dropping.
“Why didn’t Uncle Nabi drive us?” Abdullah said. “He has a car.”
Father rolled his eyes toward him.
“Then we wouldn’t have had to walk all this way.”
Father didn’t say anything. He took off his soot-stained skullcap and wiped sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt.
Pari’s finger shot from the wagon. “Look, Abollah!” she cried excitedly. “Another one.”
Abdullah followed her finger, traced it to a spot in the shadow of the boulder where a feather lay, long, gray, like charcoal after it has burned. Abdullah walked over to it and picked it by the stem. He blew the flecks of dust off it. A falcon, he thought, turning it over. Maybe a dove, or a desert lark. He’d seen a number of those already that day. No, a falcon. He blew on it again and handed it to Pari, who happily snatched it from him.
Back home, in Shadbagh, Pari kept underneath her pillow an old tin tea box Abdullah had given her. It had a rusty latch, and on the lid was a bearded Indian man, wearing a turban and a long red tunic, holding up a steaming cup of tea with both hands. Inside the box were all of the feathers that Pari collected. They were her most cherished belongings. Deep green and dense burgundy rooster feathers; a white tail feather from a dove; a sparrow feather, dust brown, dotted with dark blotches; and the one of which Pari was proudest, an iridescent green peacock feather with a beautiful large eye at the tip.
This last was a gift Abdullah had given her two months earlier. He had heard of a boy from another village whose family owned a peacock. One day when Father was away digging ditches in a town south of Shadbagh, Abdullah walked to this other village, found the boy, and asked him for a feather from the bird. Negotiation ensued, at the end of which Abdullah agreed to trade his shoes for the feather. By the time he returned to Shadbagh, peacock feather tucked in the waist of his trousers beneath his shirt, his heels had split open and left bloody smudges on the ground. Thorns and splinters had burrowed into the skin of his soles. Every step sent barbs of pain shooting through his feet.
When he arrived home, he found his stepmother, Parwana, outside the hut, hunched before the tandoor, making the daily naan. He quickly ducked behind the giant oak tree near their home and waited for her to finish. Peeking around the trunk, he watched her work, a thick-shouldered woman with long arms, rough-skinned hands, and stubby fingers; a woman with a puffed, rounded face who possessed none of the grace of the butterfly she’d been named after.
Abdullah wished he could love her as he had his own mother. Mother, who had bled to death giving birth to Pari three and a half years earlier when Abdullah was seven. Mother, whose face was all but lost to him now. Mother, who cupped his head in both palms and held it to her chest and stroked his cheek every night before sleep and sang him a lullaby:
I found a sad little fairy Beneath the shade of a paper tree. I know a sad little fairy Who was blown away by the wind one night.
He wished he could love his new mother in the same way. And perhaps Parwana, he thought, secretly wished the same, that she could love him. The way she did Iqbal, her one-year-old son, whose face she always kissed, whose every cough and sneeze she fretted over. Or the way she had loved her first baby, Omar. She had adored him. But he had died of the cold the winter before last. He was two weeks old. Parwana and Father had barely named him. He was one of three babies that brutal winter had taken in Shadbagh. Abdullah remembered Parwana clutching Omar’s swaddled little corpse, her fits of grief. He remembered the day they buried him up on the hill, a tiny mound on frozen ground, beneath a pewter sky, Mullah Shekib saying the prayers, the wind spraying grits of snow and ice into everyone’s eyes.
Abdullah suspected Parwana would be furious later to learn that he had traded his only pair of shoes for a peacock feather. Father had labored hard under the sun to pay for them. She would let him have it when she found out. She might even hit him, Abdullah thought. She had struck him a few times before. She had strong, heavy hands—from all those years of lifting her invalid sister, Abdullah imagined—and they knew how to swing a broomstick or land a well-aimed slap.
But to her credit, Parwana did not seem to derive any satisfaction from hitting him. Nor was she incapable of tenderness toward her stepchildren. There was the time she had sewn Pari a silver-and-green dress from a roll of fabric Father had brought from Kabul. The time she had taught Abdullah, with surprising patience, how to crack two eggs simultaneously without breaking the yolks. And the time she had shown them how to twist and turn husks of corn into little dolls, the way she had with her own sister when they were little. She showed them how to fashion dresses for the dolls out of little torn strips of cloth.
But these were gestures, Abdullah knew, acts of duty, drawn from a well far shallower than the one she reached into for Iqbal. If one night their house caught fire, Abdullah knew without doubt which child Parwana would grab rushing out. She would not think twice. In the end, it came down to a simple thing: They weren’t her children, he and Pari. Most people loved their own. It couldn’t be helped that he and his sister didn’t belong to her. They were another woman’s leftovers.
He waited for Parwana to take the bread inside, then watched as she reemerged from the hut, carrying Iqbal on one arm and a load of laundry under the other. He watched her amble in the direction of the stream and waited until she was out of sight before he sneaked into the house, his soles throbbing each time they met the ground. Inside, he sat down and slipped on his old plastic sandals, the only other footwear he owned. Abdullah knew it wasn’t a sensible thing he had done. But when he knelt beside Pari, gently shook her awake from a nap, and produced the feather from behind his back like a magician, it was all worth it—worth it for the way her face broke open with surprise first, then delight; for the way she stamped his cheeks with kisses; for how she cackled when he tickled her chin with the soft end of the feather—and suddenly his feet didn’t hurt at all.
Father wiped his face with his sleeve once more. They took turns drinking from the water bag. When they were done, Father said, “You’re tired, boy.”
“No,” Abdullah said, though he was. He was exhausted. And his feet hurt. It wasn’t easy crossing a desert in sandals.
Father said, “Climb in.”
In the wagon, Abdullah sat behind Pari, his back against the wooden slat sides, the little knobs of his sister’s spine pressing against his belly and chest bone. As Father dragged them forward, Abdullah stared at the sky, the mountains, the rows upon rows of closely packed, rounded hills, soft in the distance. He watched his father’s back as he pulled them, his head low, his feet kicking up little puffs of red-brown sand. A caravan of Kuchi nomads passed them by, a dusty procession of jingling bells and groaning camels, and a woman with kohl-rimmed eyes and hair the color of wheat smiled at Abdullah.
Her hair reminded Abdullah of his mother’s, and he ached for her all over again, for her gentleness, her inborn happiness, her bewilderment at people’s cruelty. He remembered her hiccuping laughter, and the timid way she sometimes tilted her head. His mother had been delicate, both in stature and nature, a wispy, slim-waisted woman with a puff of hair always spilling from under her scarf. He used to wonder how such a frail little body could house so much joy, so much goodness. It couldn’t. It spilled out of her, came pouring out her eyes. Father was different. Father had hardness in him. His eyes looked out on the same world as Mother’s had, and saw only indifference. Endless toil. Father’s world was unsparing. Nothing good came free. Even love. You paid for all things. And if you were poor, suffering was your currency. Abdullah looked down at the scabby parting in his little sister’s hair, at her narrow wrist hanging over the side of the wagon, and he knew that in their mother’s dying, something of her had passed to Pari. Something of her cheerful devotion, her guilelessness, her unabashed hopefulness. Pari was the only person in the world who would never, could never, hurt him. Some days, Abdullah felt she was the only true family he had.
The day’s colors slowly dissolved into gray, and the distant mountain peaks became opaque silhouettes of crouching giants. Earlier in the day, they had passed by several villages, most of them far-flung and dusty just like Shadbagh. Small square-shaped homes made of baked mud, sometimes raised into the side of a mountain and sometimes not, ribbons of smoke rising from their roofs. Wash lines, women squatting by cooking fires. A few poplar trees, a few chickens, a handful of cows and goats, and always a mosque. The last village they passed sat adjacent to a poppy field, where an old man working the pods waved at them. He shouted something Abdullah couldn’t hear. Father waved back.
Pari said, “Abollah?”
“Do you think Shuja is sad?”
“I think he’s fine.”
“No one will hurt him?”
“He’s a big dog, Pari. He can defend himself.”
Shuja was a big dog. Father said he must have been a fighting dog at one point because someone had severed his ears and his tail. Whether he could, or would, defend himself was another matter. When the stray first turned up in Shadbagh, kids had hurled rocks at him, poked him with tree branches or rusted bicycle-wheel spokes. Shuja never fought back. With time, the village’s kids grew tired of tormenting him and left him alone, though Shuja’s demeanor was still cautious, suspicious, as if he’d not forgotten their past unkindness toward him.
He avoided everyone in Shadbagh but Pari. It was for Pari that Shuja lost all composure. His love for her was vast and unclouded. She was his universe. In the mornings, when he saw Pari stepping out of the house, Shuja sprang up, and his entire body shivered. The stump of his mutilated tail wagged wildly, and he tap-danced like he was treading on hot coal. He pranced happy circles around her. All day the dog shadowed Pari, sniffing at her heels, and at night, when they parted ways, he lay outside the door, forlorn, waiting for morning.
“When I grow up, will I live with you?”
Abdullah watched the orange sun dropping low, nudging the horizon. “If you want. But you won’t want to.”
“Yes I will!”
“You’ll want a house of your own.”
“But we can be neighbors.”
“You won’t live far.”
“What if you get sick of me?”
She jabbed his side with her elbow. “I wouldn’t!”
Abdullah grinned to himself. “All right, fine.”
“You’ll be close by.”
“Until we’re old.”
“Yes, for always.”
From the front of the wagon, she turned to look at him. “Do you promise, Abollah?”
“For always and always.”
Later, Father hoisted Pari up on his back, and Abdullah was in the rear, pulling the empty wagon. As they walked, he fell into a thoughtless trance. He was aware only of the rise and fall of his own knees, of the sweat beads trickling down from the edge of his skullcap. Pari’s small feet bouncing against Father’s hips. Aware only of the shadow of his father and sister lengthening on the gray desert floor, pulling away from him if he slowed down.
It was Uncle Nabi who had found this latest job for Father—Uncle Nabi was Parwana’s older brother and so he was really Abdullah’s stepuncle. Uncle Nabi was a cook and a chauffeur in Kabul. Once a month, he drove from Kabul to visit them in Shadbagh, his arrival announced by a staccato of honks and the hollering of a horde of village kids who chased the big blue car with the tan top and shiny rims. They slapped the fender and windows until he killed the engine and emerged grinning from the car, handsome Uncle Nabi with the long sideburns and wavy black hair combed back from his forehead, dressed in his oversize olive-colored suit with white dress shirt and brown loafers. Everyone came out to see him because he drove a car, though it belonged to his employer, and because he wore a suit and worked in the big city, Kabul.
It was on his last visit that Uncle Nabi had told Father about the job. The wealthy people he worked for were building an addition to their home—a small guesthouse in the backyard, complete with a bathroom, separate from the main building—and Uncle Nabi had suggested they hire Father, who knew his way around a construction site. He said the job would pay well and take a month to complete, give or take.
Father did know his way around a construction site. He’d worked in enough of them. As long as Abdullah could remember, Father was out searching for work, knocking on doors for a day’s labor. He had overheard Father one time tell the village elder, Mullah Shekib, If I had been born an animal, Mullah Sahib, I swear I would have come out a mule. Sometimes Father took Abdullah along on his jobs. They had picked apples once in a town that was a full day’s walk away from Shadbagh. Abdullah remembered his father mounted on the ladder until sundown, his hunched shoulders, the creased back of his neck burning in the sun, the raw skin of his forearms, his thick fingers twisting and turning apples one at a time. They had made bricks for a mosque in another town. Father had shown Abdullah how to collect the good soil, the deep lighter-colored stuff. They had sifted the dirt together, added straw, and Father had patiently taught him to titrate the water so the mixture didn’t turn runny. Over the last year, Father had lugged stones. He had shoveled dirt, tried his hand at plowing fields. He had worked on a road crew laying down asphalt.
Abdullah knew that Father blamed himself for Omar. If he had found more work, or better work, he could have bought the baby better winter clothes, heavier blankets, maybe even a proper stove to warm the house. This was what Father thought. He hadn’t said a word to Abdullah about Omar since the burial, but Abdullah knew.
He remembered seeing Father once, some days after Omar died, standing alone beneath the giant oak tree. The oak towered over everything in Shadbagh and was the oldest living thing in the village. Father said it wouldn’t surprise him if it had witnessed the emperor Babur marching his army to capture Kabul. He said he had spent half his childhood in the shade of its massive crown or climbing its sweeping boughs. His own father, Abdullah’s grandfather, had tied long ropes to one of the thick boughs and suspended a swing, a contraption that had survived countless harsh seasons and the old man himself. Father said he used to take turns with Parwana and her sister, Masooma, on this swing when they were all children.
But, these days, Father was always too exhausted from work when Pari pulled on his sleeve and asked him to make her fly on the swing.
Maybe tomorrow, Pari.
Just for a while, Baba. Please get up.
Not now. Another time.
She would give up in the end, release his sleeve, and walk away resigned. Sometimes Father’s narrow face collapsed in on itself as he watched her go. He would roll over in his cot, then pull up the quilt and shut his weary eyes.
Abdullah could not picture that Father had once swung on a swing. He could not imagine that Father had once been a boy, like him. A boy. Carefree, light on his feet. Running headlong into the open fields with his playmates. Father, whose hands were scarred, whose face was crosshatched with deep lines of weariness. Father, who might as well have been born with shovel in hand and mud under his nails.
They had to sleep in the desert that night. They ate bread and the last of the boiled potatoes Parwana had packed for them. Father made a fire and set a kettle on the flames for tea.
Abdullah lay beside the fire, curled beneath the wool blanket behind Pari, the soles of her cold feet pressed against him.
Father bent over the flames and lit a cigarette.
Abdullah rolled to his back, and Pari adjusted, fitting her cheek into the familiar nook beneath his collarbone. He breathed in the coppery smell of desert dust and looked up at a sky thick with stars like ice crystals, flashing and flickering. A delicate crescent moon cradled the dim ghostly outline of its full self.
Abdullah thought back to the winter before last, everything plunged into darkness, the wind coming in around the door, whistling slow and long and loud, and whistling from every little crack in the ceiling. Outside, the village’s features obliterated by snow. The nights long and starless, daytime brief, gloomy, the sun rarely out, and then only to make a cameo appearance before it vanished. He remembered Omar’s labored cries, then his silence, then Father grimly carving a wooden board with a sickle moon, just like the one above them now, pounding the board into the hard ground burnt with frost at the head of the small grave.
And now autumn’s end was in sight once more. Winter was already lurking around the corner, though neither Father nor Parwana spoke about it, as though saying the word might hasten its arrival.
“Father?” he said.
From the other side of the fire, Father gave a soft grunt.
“Will you allow me to help you? Build the guesthouse, I mean.”
Smoke spiraled up from Father’s cigarette. He was staring off into the darkness.
Father shifted on the rock where he was seated. “I suppose you could help mix mortar,” he said.
“I don’t know how.”
“I’ll show you. You’ll learn.”
“What about me?” Pari said.
“You?” Father said slowly. He took a drag of his cigarette and poked at the fire with a stick. Scattered little sparks went dancing up into the blackness. “You’ll be in charge of the water. Make sure we never go thirsty. Because a man can’t work if he’s thirsty.”
Pari was quiet.
“Father’s right,” Abdullah said. He sensed Pari wanted to get her hands dirty, climb down into the mud, and that she was disappointed with the task Father had assigned her. “Without you fetching us water, we’ll never get the guesthouse built.”
Father slid the stick beneath the handle of the teakettle and lifted it from the fire. He set it aside to cool.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You show me you can handle the water job and I’ll find you something else to do.”
Pari tilted up her chin and looked at Abdullah, her face lit up with a gapped smile.
He remembered when she was a baby, when she would sleep atop his chest, and he would open his eyes sometimes in the middle of the night and find her grinning silently at him with this same expression.
He was the one raising her. It was true. Even though he was still a child himself. Ten years old. When Pari was an infant, it was he she had awakened at night with her squeaks and mutters, he who had walked and bounced her in the dark. He had changed her soiled diapers. He had been the one to give Pari her baths. It wasn’t Father’s job to do—he was a man—and, besides, he was always too exhausted from work. And Parwana, already pregnant with Omar, was slow to rouse herself to Pari’s needs. She never had the patience or the energy. Thus the care had fallen on Abdullah, but he didn’t mind at all. He did it gladly. He loved the fact that he was the one to help with her first step, to gasp at her first uttered word. This was his purpose, he believed, the reason God had made him, so he would be there to take care of Pari when He took away their mother.
“Baba,” Pari said. “Tell a story.”
“It’s getting late,” Father said.
Father was a closed-off man by nature. He rarely uttered more than two consecutive sentences at any time. But on occasion, for reasons unknown to Abdullah, something in Father unlocked and stories suddenly came spilling out. Sometimes he had Abdullah and Pari sit raptly before him, as Parwana banged pots in the kitchen, and told them stories his grandmother had passed on to him when he had been a boy, sending them off to lands populated by sultans and jinns and malevolent divs and wise dervishes. Other times, he made up stories. He made them up on the spot, his tales unmasking a capacity for imagination and dream that always surprised Abdullah. Father never felt more present to Abdullah, more vibrant, revealed, more truthful, than when he told his stories, as though the tales were pinholes into his opaque, inscrutable world.
But Abdullah could tell from the expression on Father’s face that there would be no story tonight.
“It’s late,” Father said again. He lifted the kettle with the edge of the shawl draping his shoulders and poured himself a cup of tea. He blew the steam and took a sip, his face glowing orange in the flames. “Time to sleep. Long day tomorrow.”
Abdullah pulled the blanket over their heads. Underneath, he sang into the nape of Pari’s neck:
I found a sad little fairy Beneath the shade of a paper tree.
Pari, already sleepy, sluggishly sang her verse.
I know a sad little fairy Who was blown away by the wind one night.
Almost instantly, she was snoring.
Abdullah awoke later and found Father gone. He sat up in a fright. The fire was all but dead, nothing left of it now but a few crimson speckles of ember. Abdullah’s gaze darted left, then right, but his eyes could penetrate nothing in the dark, at once vast and smothering. He felt his face going white. Heart sprinting, he cocked his ear, held his breath.
“Father?” he whispered.
Panic began to mushroom deep in his chest. He sat perfectly still, his body erect and tense, and listened for a long time. He heard nothing. They were alone, he and Pari, the dark closing in around them. They had been abandoned. Father had abandoned them. Abdullah felt the true vastness of the desert, and the world, for the first time. How easily a person could lose his way in it. No one to help, no one to show the way. Then a worse thought wormed its way into his head. Father was dead. Someone had slit his throat. Bandits. They had killed him, and now they were closing in on him and Pari, taking their time, relishing it, making a game of it.
“Father?” he called out again, his voice shrill this time.
No reply came.
He called for his father again and again, a claw tightening itself around his windpipe. He lost track of how many times and for how long he called for his father but no answer came forth from the dark. He pictured faces, hidden in the mountains bulging from the earth, watching, grinning down at him and Pari with malice. Panic seized him, shriveled up his innards. He began to shiver, and mewl under his breath. He felt himself on the cusp of screaming.
Then, footsteps. A shape materialized from the dark.
“I thought you’d gone,” Abdullah said shakily.
Father sat down by the remains of the fire.
“Where did you go?”
“Go to sleep, boy.”
“You wouldn’t leave us. You wouldn’t do that, Father.”
Father looked at him, but in the dark his face dissolved into an expression Abdullah couldn’t make out. “You’re going to wake your sister.”
“Don’t leave us.”
“That’s enough of that now.”
Abdullah lay down again, his sister clutched tightly in his arms, his heart battering in his throat.
Abdullah had never been to Kabul. What he knew about Kabul came from stories Uncle Nabi had told him. He had visited a few smaller towns on jobs with Father, but never a real city, and certainly nothing Uncle Nabi had said could have prepared him for the hustle and bustle of the biggest and busiest city of them all. Everywhere, he saw traffic lights, and teahouses, and restaurants, and glass-fronted shops with bright multicolored signs. Cars rattling noisily down the crowded streets, hooting, darting narrowly among buses, pedestrians, and bicycles. Horse-drawn garis jingled up and down boulevards, their iron-rimmed wheels bouncing on the road. The sidewalks he walked with Pari and Father were crowded with cigarette and chewing-gum sellers, magazine stands, blacksmiths pounding horseshoes. At intersections, traffic policemen in ill-fitting uniforms blew their whistles and made authoritative gestures that no one seemed to heed.
Pari on his lap, Abdullah sat on a sidewalk bench near a butcher’s shop, sharing a tin plate of baked beans and cilantro chutney that Father had bought them from a street stall.
“Look, Abollah,” Pari said, pointing to a shop across the street. In its window stood a young woman dressed in a beautifully embroidered green dress with small mirrors and beads. She wore a long matching scarf, with silver jewelry and deep red trousers. She stood perfectly still, gazing indifferently at passersby without once blinking. She didn’t move so much as a finger as Abdullah and Pari finished their beans, and remained motionless after that too. Up the block, Abdullah saw a huge poster hanging from the façade of a tall building. It showed a young, pretty Indian woman in a tulip field, standing in a downpour of rain, ducking playfully behind some kind of bungalow. She was grinning shyly, a wet sari hugging her curves. Abdullah wondered if this was what Uncle Nabi had called a cinema, where people went to watch films, and hoped that in the coming month Uncle Nabi would take him and Pari to see a film. He grinned at the thought.
It was just after the call to prayer blared from a blue-tiled mosque up the street that Abdullah saw Uncle Nabi pull up to the curb. Uncle Nabi swung out of the driver’s side, dressed in his olive suit, his door narrowly missing a young bicycle rider in a chapan, who swerved just in time.
Uncle Nabi hurried around the front of the car and embraced Father. When he saw Abdullah and Pari, his face erupted in a big grin. He stooped to be on the same level as them.
“How do you like Kabul, kids?”
“It’s very loud,” Pari said, and Uncle Nabi laughed.
“That it is. Come on, climb in. You’ll see a lot more of it from the car. Wipe your feet before you get in. Saboor, you take the front.”
The backseat was cool, hard, and light blue to match the exterior. Abdullah slid across it to the window behind the driver’s seat and helped Pari onto his lap. He noticed the envious way bystanders looked at the car. Pari swiveled her head toward him, and they exchanged a grin.
They watched the city stream by as Uncle Nabi drove. He said he would take a longer route so they could see a little of Kabul. He pointed to a ridge called Tapa Maranjan and to the dome-shaped mausoleum atop it overlooking the city. He said N?der Shah, father to King Zahir Shah, was buried there. He showed them the Bala Hissar fort atop the Koh-e-Shirdawaza mountain, which he said the British had used during their second war against Afghanistan.
“What’s that, Uncle Nabi?” Abdullah tapped on the window, pointing to a big rectangular yellow building.
“That’s Silo. It’s the new bread factory.” Uncle Nabi drove with one hand and craned back to wink at him. “Compliments of our friends the Russians.”
A factory that makes bread, Abdullah marveled, picturing Parwana back in Shadbagh slapping slabs of dough against the sides of their mud tandoor.
Eventually, Uncle Nabi turned onto a clean, wide street lined with regularly spaced cypress trees. The homes here were elegant, and bigger than any Abdullah had ever seen. They were white, yellow, light blue. Most had a couple stories, were surrounded by high walls and closed off by double metal gates. Abdullah spotted several cars like Uncle Nabi’s parked along the street.
Uncle Nabi pulled up to a driveway decked by a row of neatly trimmed bushes. Beyond the driveway, the white-walled, two-story home loomed impossibly large.
“Your house is so big,” Pari breathed, eyes rolling wide with wonderment.
Uncle Nabi’s head rolled back on his shoulders as he laughed. “That would be something. No, this is my employers’ home. You’re about to meet them. Be on your best manners, now.”
The house proved even more impressive once Uncle Nabi led Abdullah, Pari, and Father inside. Abdullah estimated its size big enough to contain at least half the homes in Shadbagh. He felt as though he had stepped into the div’s palace. The garden, at the far back, was beautifully landscaped, with rows of flowers in all colors, neatly trimmed, with knee-high bushes and peppered with fruit trees—Abdullah recognized cherry, apple, apricot, and pomegranate. A roofed porch led into the garden from the house—Uncle Nabi said it was called a veranda—and was enclosed by a low railing covered with webs of green vines. On their way to the room where Mr. and Mrs. Wahdati awaited their arrival, Abdullah spied a bathroom with the porcelain toilet Uncle Nabi had told them about, as well as a glittering sink with bronze-colored faucets. Abdullah, who spent hours every week lugging buckets of water from Shadbagh’s communal well, marveled at a life where water was just a twist of the hand away.
Now they sat on a bulky couch with gold tassels, Abdullah, Pari, and Father. The soft cushions at their backs were dotted with tiny octagonal mirrors. Across from the couch, a single painting took up most of the wall. It showed an elderly stone carver, bent over his workbench, pounding a block of stone with a mallet. Pleated burgundy drapes dressed the wide windows that opened onto a balcony with a waist-high iron railing. Everything in the room was polished, free of dust.
Abdullah had never in his life been so conscious of his own dirtiness.
Uncle Nabi’s boss, Mr. Wahdati, sat on a leather chair, arms crossed over his chest. He was looking at them with an expression that was not quite unfriendly but remote, impenetrable. He was taller than Father; Abdullah had seen that as soon as he had stood to greet them. He had narrow shoulders, thin lips, and a high shiny forehead. He was wearing a white suit, tapered at the waist, with an open-collared green shirt whose cuffs were held together by oval-shaped lapis stones. The whole time, he hadn’t said more than a dozen words.
Pari was looking down at the plate of cookies on the glass table before them. Abdullah had never imagined such a variety of them existed. Finger-shaped chocolate cookies with swirls of cream, small round ones with orange filling in the center, green cookies shaped like leaves, and more.
“Would you like one?” Mrs. Wahdati said. She was the one doing all the talking. “Go ahead. Both of you. I put them out for you.”
Abdullah turned to Father for permission, and Pari followed suit. This seemed to charm Mrs. Wahdati, who tented her eyebrows, tilted her head, and smiled.
Father nodded lightly. “One each,” he said in a low voice.
“Oh, that won’t do,” Mrs. Wahdati said. “I had Nabi go to a bakery halfway across Kabul for these.”
Father flushed, averted his eyes. He was sitting on the edge of the couch, holding his battered skullcap with both hands. He had angled his knees away from Mrs. Wahdati and kept his eyes on her husband.
Abdullah plucked two cookies and gave one to Pari.
“Oh, take another. We don’t want Nabi’s troubles to go to waste,” Mrs. Wahdati said with cheerful reproach. She smiled at Uncle Nabi.
“It was no trouble at all,” Uncle Nabi said, blushing.
Uncle Nabi was standing near the door, beside a tall wooden cabinet with thick glass doors. On the shelves inside, Abdullah saw silver-framed photos of Mr. and Mrs. Wahdati. There they were, alongside another couple, dressed in thick scarves and heavy coats, a river flowing foamily behind them. In another picture, Mrs. Wahdati, holding a glass, laughing, her bare arm around the waist of a man who, unthinkably to Abdullah, was not Mr. Wahdati. There was a wedding photo as well, he tall and trim in a black suit, she in a flowing white dress, both of them smiling with their mouths closed.
Abdullah stole a glance at her, at her thin waist, her small, pretty mouth and perfectly arched eyebrows, her pink toenails and matching lipstick. He remembered her now from a couple of years earlier, when Pari was almost two. Uncle Nabi had brought her to Shadbagh because she had said she wanted to meet his family. She had worn a peach dress without sleeves—he remembered the look of astonishment on Father’s face—and dark sunglasses with thick white rims. She smiled the whole time, asking questions about the village, their lives, asking after the children’s names and ages. She acted like she belonged there in their low-ceilinged mud house, her back against a wall black with soot, sitting next to the flyspecked window and the cloudy plastic sheet that separated the main room from the kitchen, where Abdullah and Pari also slept. She had made a show of the visit, insisting on taking off her high-heeled shoes at the door, choosing the floor when Father had sensibly offered her a chair. Like she was one of them. He was only eight then, but Abdullah had seen through it.
What Abdullah remembered most about the visit was how Parwana—who had been pregnant with Iqbal then—had remained a shrouded figure, sitting in a corner in stiff silence, shriveled up into a ball. She had sat with her shoulders gathered, feet tucked beneath her swollen belly, like she was trying to disappear into the wall. Her face was shielded from view with a soiled veil. She held a knotted clump of it under her chin. Abdullah could almost see the shame rising from her, like steam, the embarrassment, how small she felt, and he had felt a surprising swell of sympathy for his stepmother.
Mrs. Wahdati reached for the pack next to the cookie plate and lit herself a cigarette.
“We took a long detour on the way, and I showed them a little of the city,” Uncle Nabi said.
“Good! Good,” Mrs. Wahdati said. “Have you been to Kabul before, Saboor?”
Father said, “Once or twice, Bibi Sahib.”
“And, may I ask, what is your impression?”
Father shrugged. “It’s very crowded.”
Mr. Wahdati picked at a speck of lint on the sleeve of his jacket and looked down at the carpet.
“Crowded, yes, and at times tiresome as well,” his wife said.
Father nodded as if he understood.
“Kabul is an island, really. Some say it’s progressive, and that may be true. It’s true enough, I suppose, but it’s also out of touch with the rest of this country.”
Father looked down at the skullcap in his hands and blinked.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” she said. “I would wholeheartedly support any progressive agenda coming out of the city. God knows this country could use it. Still, the city is sometimes a little too pleased with itself for my taste. I swear, the pomposity in this place.” She sighed. “It does grow tiresome. I’ve always admired the countryside myself. I have a great fondness for it. The distant provinces, the qarias, the small villages. The real Afghanistan, so to speak.”
Father nodded uncertainly.
“I may not agree with all or even most of the tribal traditions, but it seems to me that, out there, people live more authentic lives. They have a sturdiness about them. A refreshing humility. Hospitality too. And resilience. A sense of pride. Is that the right word, Suleiman? Pride?”
“Stop it, Nila,” her husband said quietly.
A dense silence followed. Abdullah watched Mr. Wahdati drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair, and his wife, smiling tightly, the pink smudge on the butt end of her cigarette, her feet crossed at the ankles, her elbow resting on the arm of the chair.
“Probably not the right word,” she said, breaking the silence. “Dignity, perhaps.” She smiled, revealing teeth that were straight and white. Abdullah had never seen teeth like these. “That’s it. Much better. People in the countryside carry a sense of dignity. They wear it, don’t they? Like a badge? I’m being genuine. I see it in you, Saboor.”
“Thank you, Bibi Sahib,” Father muttered, shifting on the couch, still looking down at his skullcap.
Mrs. Wahdati nodded. She turned her gaze to Pari. “And, may I say, you are so lovely.” Pari nudged closer to Abdullah.
Slowly, Mrs. Wahdati recited, “Today I have seen the charm, the beauty, the unfathomable grace of the face that I was looking for.” She smiled. “Rumi. Have you heard of him? You’d think he’d composed it just for you, my dear.”
“Mrs. Wahdati is an accomplished poet,” Uncle Nabi said.
Across the room, Mr. Wahdati reached for a cookie, split it in half, and took a small bite.
“Nabi is being kind,” Mrs. Wahdati said, casting him a warm glance. Abdullah again caught a flush creeping up Uncle Nabi’s cheeks.
Mrs. Wahdati crushed her cigarette, giving the butt a series of sharp taps against the ashtray. “Maybe I could take the children somewhere?” she said.
Mr. Wahdati let out a breath huffily, slapped both palms against the arms of his chair, and made as if to get up, though he didn’t.
“I’ll take them to the bazaar,” Mrs. Wahdati said to Father now. “If that’s all right with you, Saboor. Nabi will drive us. Suleiman can show you to the work site out back. So you can see it for yourself.”
Mr. Wahdati’s eyes slowly fell shut.
They got up to go.
Suddenly, Abdullah wished Father would thank these people for their cookies and tea, take his hand and Pari’s, and leave this house and its paintings and drapes and overstuffed luxury and comfort. They could refill their water bag, buy bread and a few boiled eggs, and go back the way they had come. Back through the desert, the boulders, the hills, Father telling them stories. They would take turns pulling Pari in the wagon. And in two, maybe three, days’ time, though there would be dust in their lungs and tiredness in their limbs, they would be back in Shadbagh again. Shuja would see them coming and he would hurry over, prance circles around Pari. They would be home.
Father said, “Go on, children.”
Abdullah took a step forward, meaning to say something, but then Uncle Nabi’s thick hand was on his shoulder, turning him around, Uncle Nabi leading him down the hallway, saying, “Wait ’til you see the bazaars in this place. You’ve not seen the likes of it, you two.”
Mrs. Wahdati sat in the backseat with them, the air filled with the thick weight of her perfume and something Abdullah didn’t recognize, something sweet, a little pungent. She peppered them with questions as Uncle Nabi drove. Who were their friends? Did they go to school? Questions about their chores, their neighbors, games they played. The sun fell on the right half of her face. Abdullah could see the fuzzy little hairs on her cheek and the faint line below her jaw where the makeup ended.
“I have a dog,” Pari said.
“He’s quite the specimen,” Uncle Nabi said from the front seat.
“His name is Shuja. He knows when I’m sad.”
“Dogs are like that,” Mrs. Wahdati said. “They’re better at it than some people I’ve come across.”
They drove past a trio of schoolgirls skipping down the sidewalk. They wore black uniforms with white scarves tied under their chins.
“I know what I said earlier, but Kabul isn’t that bad.” Mrs. Wahdati toyed with her necklace absently. She was looking out the window, a heaviness set on her features. “I like it best here at the end of spring, after the rains. The air so clean. That first burst of summer. The way the sun hits the mountains.” She smiled wanly. “It will be good to have a child around the house. A little noise, for a change. A little life.”
Abdullah looked at her and sensed something alarming in the woman, beneath the makeup and the perfume and the appeals for sympathy, something deeply splintered. He found himself thinking of the smoke of Parwana’s cooking, the kitchen shelf cluttered with her jars and mismatched plates and smudged pots. He missed the mattress he shared with Pari, though it was dirty, and the jumbles of springs forever threatened to poke through. He missed all of it. He had never before ached so badly for home.
Mrs. Wahdati slumped back into the seat with a sigh, hugging her purse the way a pregnant woman might hold her swollen belly.
Uncle Nabi pulled up to a crowded curbside. Across the street, next to a mosque with soaring minarets, was the bazaar, composed of congested labyrinths of both vaulted and open alleyways. They strolled through corridors of stalls that sold leather coats, rings with colored jewels and stones, spices of all kinds, Uncle Nabi in the rear, Mrs. Wahdati and the two of them in the lead. Now that they were outside, Mrs. Wahdati wore a pair of dark glasses that made her face look oddly catlike.
Hagglers’ calls echoed everywhere. Music blared from virtually every stall. They walked past open-fronted shops selling books, radios, lamps, and silver-colored cooking pots. Abdullah saw a pair of soldiers in dusty boots and dark brown greatcoats, sharing a cigarette, eyeing everyone with bored indifference.
They stopped by a shoe stall. Mrs. Wahdati rummaged through the rows of shoes displayed on boxes. Uncle Nabi wandered over to the next stall, hands clasped behind his back, and gave a down-the-nose look at some old coins.
“How about these?” Mrs. Wahdati said to Pari. She was holding up a new pair of yellow sneakers.
“They’re so pretty,” Pari said, looking at the shoes with disbelief.
“Let’s try them on.”
Mrs. Wahdati helped Pari slip on the shoes, working the strap and buckle for her. She peered up at Abdullah over her glasses. “You could use a pair too, I think. I can’t believe you walked all the way from your village in those sandals.”
Abdullah shook his head and looked away. Down the alleyway, an old man with a ragged beard and two clubfeet begged passersby.
“Look, Abollah!” Pari raised one foot, then the other. She stomped her feet on the ground, hopped. Mrs. Wahdati called Uncle Nabi over and told him to walk Pari down the alley, see how the shoes felt. Uncle Nabi took Pari’s hand and led her up the lane.
Mrs. Wahdati looked down at Abdullah.
“You think I’m a bad person,” she said. “The way I spoke earlier.”
Abdullah watched Pari and Uncle Nabi pass by the old beggar with the clubfeet. The old man said something to Pari, Pari turned her face up to Uncle Nabi and said something, and Uncle Nabi tossed the old man a coin.
Abdullah began to cry soundlessly.
“Oh, you sweet boy,” Mrs. Wahdati said, startled. “You poor darling.” She fetched a handkerchief from her purse and offered it.
Abdullah swiped it away. “Please don’t do it,” he said, his voice cracking.
She hunkered down beside him now, her glasses pushed up on her hair. There was wetness in her eyes too, and when she dabbed at them with the handkerchief, it came away with black smudges. “I don’t blame you if you hate me. It’s your right. But—and I don’t expect you to understand, not now—this is for the best. It really is, Abdullah. It’s for the best. One day you’ll see.”
Abdullah turned his face up to the sky and wailed just as Pari came skipping back to him, her eyes dripping with gratitude, her face shining with happiness.
One morning that winter, Father fetched his ax and cut down the giant oak tree. He had Mullah Shekib’s son, Baitullah, and a few other men help him. No one tried to intervene. Abdullah stood alongside other boys and watched the men. The very first thing Father did was take down the swing. He climbed the tree and cut the ropes with a knife. Then he and the other men hacked away at the thick trunk until late afternoon, when the old tree finally toppled with a massive groan. Father told Abdullah they needed the firewood for winter. But he had swung his ax at the old tree with violence, with his jaw firmly set and a cloud over his face like he couldn’t bear to look at it any longer.
Now, beneath a stone-colored sky, men were striking at the felled trunk, their noses and cheeks flushed in the cold, their blades echoing hollowly when they hit the wood. Farther up the tree, Abdullah snapped small branches off the big ones. The first of the winter snow had fallen two days before. Not heavy, not yet, only a promise of things to come. Soon, winter would descend on Shadbagh, winter and its icicles and weeklong snowdrifts and winds that cracked the skin on the back of hands in a minute flat. For now, the white on the ground was scant, pocked from here to the steep hillsides with pale brown blotches of earth.
Abdullah gathered an armful of slim branches and carried them to a growing communal pile nearby. He was wearing his new snow boots, gloves, and winter coat. It was secondhand, but other than the broken zipper, which Father had fixed, it was as good as new—padded, dark blue, with orange fur lining inside. It had four deep pockets that snapped open and shut and a quilted hood that tightened around Abdullah’s face when he drew its cords. He pushed back the hood from his head now and let out a long foggy breath.
The sun was dropping into the horizon. Abdullah could still make out the old windmill, looming stark and gray over the village’s mud walls. Its blades gave a creaky groan whenever a nippy gust blew in from the hills. The windmill was home mainly to blue herons in the summer, but now that winter was here the herons had gone and the crows had moved in. Every morning, Abdullah awoke to their squawks and harsh croaks.
Something caught his eye, off to his right, on the ground. He walked over to it and knelt down.
A feather. Small. Yellow.
He took off one glove and picked it up.
Tonight they were going to a party, he, his father, and his little half brother Iqbal. Baitullah had a new infant boy. A motreb would sing for the men, and someone would tap on a tambourine. There would be tea and warm, freshly baked bread, and shorwa soup with potatoes. Afterward, Mullah Shekib would dip his finger in a bowl of sweetened water and let the baby suckle it. He would produce his shiny black stone and his double-edged razor, lift the cloth from the boy’s midriff. An ordinary ritual. Life rolling on in Shadbagh.
Abdullah turned the feather over in his hand.
I won’t have any crying, Father had said. No crying. I won’t have it.
And there hadn’t been any. No one in the village asked after Pari. No one even spoke her name. It astonished Abdullah how thoroughly she had vanished from their lives.
Only in Shuja did Abdullah find a reflection of his own grief. The dog turned up at their door every day. Parwana threw rocks at him. Father went at him with a stick. But he kept returning. Every night he could be heard whimpering mournfully and every morning they found him lying by the door, chin on his front paws, blinking up at his assailants with melancholy, unaccusing eyes. This went on for weeks until one morning Abdullah saw him hobbling toward the hills, head hung low. No one in Shadbagh had seen him since.
Abdullah pocketed the yellow feather and began walking toward the windmill.
Sometimes, in unguarded moments, he caught Father’s face clouding over, drawn into confusing shades of emotion. Father looked diminished to him now, stripped of something essential. He loped sluggishly about the house or else sat in the heat of their big new cast-iron stove, little Iqbal on his lap, and stared unseeingly into the flames. His voice dragged now in a way that Abdullah did not remember, as though something weighed on each word he spoke. He shrank into long silences, his face closed off. He didn’t tell stories anymore, had not told one since he and Abdullah had returned from Kabul. Maybe, Abdullah thought, Father had sold the Wahdatis his muse as well.
Other than these words from Parwana: It had to be her. I am sorry, Abdullah. She had to be the one.
The finger cut, to save the hand.
He knelt on the ground behind the windmill, at the base of the decaying stone tower. He took off his gloves and dug at the ground. He thought of her heavy eyebrows and her wide rounded forehead, her gap-toothed smile. He heard in his head the tinkle of her laughter rolling around the house like it used to. He thought of the scuffle that had broken out when they had come back from the bazaar. Pari panicking. Shrieking. Uncle Nabi quickly whisking her away. Abdullah dug until his fingers struck metal. Then he maneuvered his hands underneath and lifted the tin tea box from the hole. He swiped cold dirt off the lid.
Lately, he thought a lot about the story Father had told them the night before the trip to Kabul, the old peasant Baba Ayub and the div. Abdullah would find himself on a spot where Pari had once stood, her absence like a smell pushing up from the earth beneath his feet, and his legs would buckle, and his heart would collapse in on itself, and he would long for a swig of the magic potion the div had given Baba Ayub so he too could forget.
But there was no forgetting. Pari hovered, unbidden, at the edge of Abdullah’s vision everywhere he went. She was like the dust that clung to his shirt. She was in the silences that had become so frequent at the house, silences that welled up between their words, sometimes cold and hollow, sometimes pregnant with things that went unsaid, like a cloud filled with rain that never fell. Some nights he dreamed that he was in the desert again, alone, surrounded by the mountains, and in the distance a single tiny glint of light flickering on, off, on, off, like a message.
He opened the tea box. They were all there, Pari’s feathers, shed from roosters, ducks, pigeons; the peacock feather too. He tossed the yellow feather into the box. One day, he thought.
His days in Shadbagh were numbered, like Shuja’s. He knew this now. There was nothing left for him here. He had no home here. He would wait until winter passed and the spring thaw set in, and he would rise one morning before dawn and he would step out the door. He would choose a direction and he would begin to walk. He would walk as far from Shadbagh as his feet would take him. And if one day, trekking across some vast open field, despair should take hold of him, he would stop in his tracks and shut his eyes and he would think of the falcon feather Pari had found in the desert. He would picture the feather coming loose from the bird, up in the clouds, half a mile above the world, twirling and spinning in violent currents, hurled by gusts of blustering wind across miles and miles of desert and mountains, to finally land, of all places and against all odds, at the foot of that one boulder for his sister to find. It would strike him with wonder, then, and hope too, that such things happened. And though he would know better, he would take heart, and he would open his eyes, and walk.
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