فصل 03

کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 3

و کوه طنين انداخت

10 فصل

فصل 03

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  • زمان مطالعه 45 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

این فصل را می‌توانید به بهترین شکل و با امکانات عالی در اپلیکیشن «زیبوک» بخوانید

دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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متن انگلیسی فصل

Three Spring 1949

Parwana smells it before she pulls back the quilt and sees it. It has smeared all over Masooma’s buttocks, down her thighs, against the sheets and the mattress and the quilt too. Masooma looks up at her over her shoulder with a timid plea for forgiveness, and shame—still the shame after all this time, all these years.

“I’m sorry,” Masooma whispers.

Parwana wants to howl but she forces herself into a weak smile. It takes strenuous effort at times like this to remember, to not lose sight of, one unshakable truth: This is her own handiwork, this mess. Nothing that has befallen her is unjust or undue. This is what she deserves. She sighs, surveying the soiled linens, dreading the work that awaits her. “I’ll get you cleaned up,” she says.

Masooma starts to weep without a sound, without even a shift in her expression. Only tears, welling, trickling down.

Outside, in the early-morning chill, Parwana starts a fire in the cooking pit. When the flames take hold, she fills a pail with water from Shadbagh’s communal well and sets it to heat. She holds her palms to the fire. She can see the windmill from here, and the village mosque where Mullah Shekib had taught her and Masooma to read when they were little, and Mullah Shekib’s house too, set at the foot at a mild slope. Later, when the sun is up, its roof will be a perfect, strikingly red square against the dust because of the tomatoes his wife has set out to dry in the sun. Parwana gazes up at the morning stars, fading, pale, blinking at her indifferently. She gathers herself.

Inside, she turns Masooma onto her stomach. She soaks a washcloth in the water and rubs clean Masooma’s buttocks, wiping the waste off her back and the flaccid flesh of her legs.

“Why the warm water?” Masooma says into the pillow. “Why the trouble? You don’t have to. I won’t know the difference.”

“Maybe. But I will,” Parwana says, grimacing against the stench. “Now, quit your talking and let me finish this.”

From there, Parwana’s day unfolds as it always does, as it has for the four years since their parents’ deaths. She feeds the chickens. She chops wood and lugs buckets back and forth from the well. She makes dough and bakes the bread in the tandoor outside their mud house. She sweeps the floor. In the afternoon, she squats by the stream, alongside other village women, washing laundry against the rocks. Afterward, because it is a Friday, she visits her parents’ graves in the cemetery and says a brief prayer for each. And all day, in between these chores, she makes time to move Masooma, from side to side, tucking a pillow under one buttock, then the other.

Twice that day, she spots Saboor.

She finds him squatting outside his small mud house, fanning a fire in the cooking pit, eyes squeezed against the smoke, with his boy, Abdullah, beside him. She finds him later, talking to other men, men who, like Saboor, have families of their own now but were once the village boys with whom Saboor feuded, flew kites, chased dogs, played hide-and-seek. There is a weight over Saboor these days, a pall of tragedy, a dead wife and two motherless children, one an infant. He speaks now in a tired, barely audible voice. He lumbers around the village a worn, shrunken version of himself.

Parwana watches him from afar and with a longing that is nearly crippling. She tries to avert her eyes when she passes by him. And if by accident their gazes do meet, he simply nods at her, and the blood rushes to her face.

That night, by the time Parwana lies down to sleep, she can barely lift her arms. Her head swims with exhaustion. She lies in her cot, waiting for sleep.

Then, in the darkness:

“Parwana?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember that time, us riding the bicycle together?”

“Hmm.”

“How fast we went! Riding down the hill. The dogs chasing us.”

“I remember.”

“Both of us screaming. And when we hit that rock …” Parwana can almost hear her sister smiling in the dark. “Mother was so angry with us. And Nabi too. We ruined his bicycle.”

Parwana shuts her eyes.

“Parwana?”

“Yes.”

“Can you sleep by me tonight?”

Parwana kicks off her quilt, makes her way across the hut to Masooma, and slips under the blanket beside her. Masooma rests her cheek on Parwana’s shoulder, one arm draped across her sister’s chest.

Masooma whispers, “You deserve better than me.”

“Don’t start that again,” Parwana whispers back. She plays with Masooma’s hair in long, patient strokes, the way Masooma likes it.

They chat idly for a while in hushed voices of small, inconsequential things, one’s breath warming the other’s face. These are relatively happy minutes for Parwana. They remind her of when they were little girls, curled up nose to nose beneath the blanket, whispering secrets and gossip, giggling soundlessly. Soon, Masooma is asleep, her tongue rolling noisily around some dream, and Parwana is staring out the window at a sky burnt black. Her mind bounces from one fragmented thought to another and eventually swims to a picture she saw in an old magazine once of a pair of grim-faced brothers from Siam joined at the torso by a thick band of flesh. Two creatures inextricably bound, blood formed in the marrow of one running in the veins of the other, their union permanent. Parwana feels a constriction, despair, like a hand tightening inside her chest. She takes a breath. She tries to direct her thoughts to Saboor once more and instead finds her mind drifting to the rumor she has heard around the village: that he is looking for a new wife. She forces his face from her head. She nips the foolish thought.

Parwana was a surprise.

Masooma was already out, wriggling quietly in the midwife’s arms, when their mother cried out and the crown of another head parted her a second time. Masooma’s arrival was uneventful. She delivered herself, the angel, the midwife would say later. Parwana’s birth was prolonged, agonizing for the mother, treacherous for the baby. The midwife had to free her from the cord that had wrapped itself around Parwana’s neck, as if in a murderous fit of separation anxiety. In her worst moments, when she cannot help being swallowed up by a torrent of self-loathing, Parwana thinks that perhaps the cord knew best. Maybe it knew which was the better half.

Masooma fed on schedule, slept on time. She cried only if in need of food or cleaning. When awake, she was playful, good-humored, easily delighted, a swaddled bundle of giggles and happy squeaks. She liked to suck on her rattle.

What a sensible baby, people said.

Parwana was a tyrant. She exerted upon their mother the full force of her authority. Their father, bewildered by the infant’s histrionics, took the babies’ older brother, Nabi, and escaped to sleep at his own brother’s house. Nighttime was a misery of epic proportion for the girls’ mother, punctuated by only a few moments of fitful rest. She bounced Parwana and walked her all night every night. She rocked her and sang to her. She winced as Parwana ripped into her chafed, swollen breast and gummed her nipple as though she was after the milk in her very bones. But nursing was no antidote: Even with a full belly, Parwana was flailing and shrieking, immune to her mother’s supplications.

Masooma watched from her corner of the room with a pensive, helpless expression, as though she pitied her mother this predicament.

Nabi was nothing like this, their mother said one day to their father.

Every baby is different.

She’s killing me, that one.

It will pass, he said. The way bad weather does.

And it did pass. Colic, perhaps, or some other innocuous ailment. But it was too late. Parwana had already made her mark.

One late-summer afternoon when the twins were ten months old, the villagers gathered in Shadbagh after a wedding. Women worked with fevered focus to pile onto platters pyramids of fluffy white rice speckled with bits of saffron. They cut bread, scraped crusty rice from the bottom of pots, passed around dishes of fried eggplant topped with yogurt and dried mint. Nabi was out playing with some boys. The girls’ mother sat with neighbors on a rug spread beneath the village’s giant oak tree. Every now and then, she glanced down at her daughters as they slept side by side in the shade.

After the meal, over tea, the babies woke from their nap, and almost immediately, someone snatched up Masooma. She was merrily passed around, from cousin to aunt to uncle. Bounced on this lap, balanced on that knee. Many hands tickled her soft belly. Many noses rubbed against hers. They rocked with laughter when she playfully grabbed Mullah Shekib’s beard. They marveled at her easy, sociable demeanor. They lifted her up and admired the pink flush of her cheeks, her sapphire blue eyes, the graceful curve of her brow, harbingers of the startling beauty that would mark her in a few years’ time.

Parwana was left in her mother’s lap. As Masooma performed, Parwana watched quietly as though slightly bewildered, the one member of an otherwise adoring audience who didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Every now and then, her mother looked down at her, and reached to squeeze her tiny foot softly, almost apologetically. When someone remarked that Masooma had two new teeth coming in, Parwana’s mother said, feebly, that Parwana had three. But no one took notice.

When the girls were nine years old, the family gathered at Saboor’s family home for an early-evening iftar to break the fast after Ramadan. The adults sat on cushions around the perimeter of the room, and the chatter was noisy. Tea, good wishes, and gossip were passed around in equal measure. Old men fingered their prayer beads. Parwana sat quietly, happy to be breathing the same air as Saboor, to be in the vicinity of his owlish dark eyes. In the course of the evening, she chanced glances his way. She caught him in the midst of biting into a sugar cube, or rubbing the smooth slope of his forehead, or laughing spiritedly at something an elderly uncle had said. And if he caught her looking at him, as he did once or twice, she quickly looked away, rigid with embarrassment. Her knees began to shake. Her mouth went so dry she could hardly speak.

Parwana thought then of the notebook hidden under a pile of her things at home. Saboor was always coming up with stories, tales packed with jinns and fairies and demons and divs; often, village kids gathered around him and listened in absolute quiet as he made up fables for them. And about six months earlier, Parwana had overheard Saboor telling Nabi that one day he hoped to write his stories down. It was shortly after that that Parwana, with her mother, had found herself at a bazaar in another town, and there, at a stall that sold used books, she had spotted a beautiful notebook with crisp lined pages and a thick dark brown leather binding embossed along the edges. Holding it in her hand, she knew her mother couldn’t afford to buy it for her. So Parwana had picked a moment when the shopkeeper was not looking and quickly slipped the notebook under her sweater.

But in the six months that had since passed, Parwana still hadn’t found the courage to give the notebook to Saboor. She was terrified that he might laugh or that he would see it for what it was and give it back. Instead, every night she lay in her cot, the notebook secretly clutched in her hands under the blanket, fingertips brushing the engravings on the leather. Tomorrow, she promised herself every night. Tomorrow I will walk up to him with it.

Later that evening, after iftar dinner, all the kids rushed outside to play. Parwana, Masooma, and Saboor took turns on the swing that Saboor’s father had suspended from a sturdy branch of the giant oak tree. Parwana took her turn, but Saboor kept forgetting to push her because he was busy telling another story. This time it was about the giant oak tree, which he said had magic powers. If you had a wish, he said, you had to kneel before the tree and whisper it. And if the tree agreed to grant it, it would shed exactly ten leaves upon your head.

When the swing slowed to a near stop, Parwana turned to tell Saboor to keep pushing but the words died in her throat. Saboor and Masooma were smiling at each other, and in Saboor’s hand Parwana saw the notebook. Her notebook.

I found it in the house, Masooma said later. Was it yours? I’ll pay you back for it somehow, I promise. You don’t mind, do you? I just thought it was perfect for him. For his stories. Did you see the look on him? Did you, Parwana?

Parwana said no, she didn’t mind, but inside she was crumpling. Over and over she pictured how her sister and Saboor had smiled at each other, the look they shared between them. Parwana might as well have winked out into thin air like a genie from one of Saboor’s stories, so unaware had they been of her presence. It cut her to the bone. That night, on her cot, she cried very quietly.

By the time she and her sister were eleven, Parwana had developed a precocious understanding of the strange behavior of boys around girls they privately liked. She saw this especially as she and Masooma walked home from school. School was really the back room of the village mosque where, in addition to teaching Koran recitation, Mullah Shekib had taught every child in the village to read and write, to memorize poetry. Shadbagh was fortunate to have such a wise man for a malik, the girls’ father told them. On the way home from these lessons, the twins often came across a group of boys sitting on a wall. As the girls passed, the boys sometimes heckled, sometimes threw pebbles. Parwana usually shouted back and answered their pebbles with rocks, while Masooma always pulled her elbow and told her in a sensible voice to walk faster, to not let them anger her. But she misunderstood. Parwana was angry not because they threw pebbles but because they threw them only at Masooma. Parwana knew: They made a show of the ribbing, and the bigger the show, the deeper their desire. She noticed the way their eyes ricocheted off her and trained themselves on Masooma, forlorn with wonder, helpless to pull away. She knew that behind their crass jokes and lascivious grins, they were terrified of Masooma.

Then, one day, one of them hurled not a pebble but a rock. It rolled to the sisters’ feet. When Masooma picked it up, the boys snickered and elbowed one another. An elastic band held a sheet of paper wrapped around the rock. When they were at a safe distance, Masooma unrolled it. They both read the note.

I swear, since seeing Your face,

the whole world is fraud and fantasy.

The garden is bewildered as to what is leaf or blossom.

The distracted birds can’t distinguish the birdseed from the snare.

A Rumi poem, one from Mullah Shekib’s teachings.

They’re getting more sophisticated, Masooma said with a chuckle.

Below the poem, the boy had written I want to marry you. And, below that, he had scribbled this addendum: I’ve got a cousin for your sister. He’s a perfect match. They can graze my uncle’s field together.

Masooma tore the note in half. Don’t mind them, Parwana, she said. They’re imbeciles.

Cretins, Parwana agreed.

Such effort it took to plaster a grin on her face. The note was bad enough, but what really stung was Masooma’s response. The boy hadn’t explicitly addressed his note to either one of them, but Masooma had casually assumed that he’d intended the poem for her and the cousin for Parwana. For the first time, Parwana saw herself through her sister’s eyes. She saw how her sister viewed her. Which was the same as how the rest of them did. It left her gutted, what Masooma said. It flattened her.

Besides, Masooma added with a shrug and a grin, I’m already taken.

Nabi has come for his monthly visit. He is the family’s success story, perhaps the entire village’s too, on account of his working in Kabul, his driving into Shadbagh in his employer’s big shiny blue car with the gleaming eagle’s-head hood ornament, everyone gathering to watch his arrival, the village kids hollering and running alongside the car.

“How are things?” he asks.

The three of them are inside the hut having tea and almonds. Nabi is very handsome, Parwana thinks, with his fine chiseled cheekbones, his hazel eyes, his sideburns, and the thick wall of black hair swept back from his forehead. He is dressed in his customary olive-colored suit that looks a size or so too big on him. Nabi is proud of the suit, Parwana knows, always tugging at the sleeves, straightening the lapel, pinching the crease of his pants, though he has never quite managed to eradicate its lingering whiff of burnt onions.

“Well, we had Queen Homaira over for tea and cookies yesterday,” Masooma says. “She complimented our exquisite choice of décor.” She smiles amiably at her brother, revealing her yellowing teeth, and Nabi laughs, looking down at his cup. Before he found work in Kabul, Nabi had helped Parwana care for their sister. Or he had tried for a while. But he couldn’t do it. It was too much for him. Kabul was Nabi’s escape. Parwana envies her brother, but she does not entirely begrudge him even if he does—she knows that there is more than an element of penance in the monthly cash that he brings her.

Masooma has brushed her hair and rimmed her eyes with a dash of kohl as she always does when Nabi visits. Parwana knows that she does it only partially for his benefit and more for the fact that he is her tie to Kabul. In Masooma’s mind, he connects her to glamour and luxury, to a city of cars and lights and fancy restaurants and royal palaces, regardless of how remote this link might be. Parwana remembers how, long ago, Masooma used to say to her that she was a city girl trapped in a village.

“What about you? Have you found yourself a wife yet?” Masooma asks playfully.

Nabi waves a hand and laughs her off, as he used to when their parents asked him the same question.

“So when are you going to show me around Kabul again, brother?” Masooma says.

Nabi had taken them to Kabul once, the year before. He had picked them up from Shadbagh and driven them to Kabul, up and down the streets of the city. He had shown them all the mosques, the shopping districts, the cinemas, the restaurants. He had pointed out to Masooma the domed Bagh-e-Bala Palace sitting on a hill overlooking the city. At the gardens of Babur, he had lifted Masooma from the front seat of the car and carried her in his arms to the site of the Mughal emperor’s tomb. They had prayed there, the three of them, at the Shah Jahan Mosque, and then, at the edge of a blue-tiled pool, they had eaten the meal Nabi had packed for them. It had been perhaps the happiest day of Masooma’s life since the accident, and for that Parwana was grateful to her older brother.

“Soon, Inshallah,” Nabi says, tapping a finger against the cup.

“Would you mind adjusting this cushion under my knees, Nabi? Ah, that’s much better. Thank you.” Masooma sighs. “I loved Kabul. If I could, I’d march all the way there first thing tomorrow.”

“Maybe one day,” Nabi says.

“What, me walking?”

“No,” he stammers, “I meant …” and then he grins when Masooma bursts out laughing.

Outside, Nabi passes Parwana the cash. He leans one shoulder against the wall and lights a cigarette. Masooma is inside, taking her afternoon nap.

“I saw Saboor earlier,” he says, picking at his finger. “Terrible thing. He told me the baby’s name. I forget now.”

“Pari,” Parwana says.

He nods. “I didn’t ask, but he told me he’s looking to marry again.”

Parwana looks away, trying to pretend she doesn’t care, but her heart is thumping in her ears. She feels a film of sweat blooming on her skin.

“Like I said, I didn’t ask. Saboor was the one who brought it up. He pulled me aside. He pulled me aside and told me.”

Parwana suspects that Nabi knows what she has carried with her for Saboor all these years. Masooma is her twin, but it is Nabi who has always understood her. But Parwana doesn’t see why her brother is telling her this news. What good does it do? What Saboor needs is a woman unanchored, a woman who won’t be held down, who is free to devote herself to him, to his boy, his newborn daughter. Parwana’s time is already consumed. Accounted for. Her whole life is.

“I’m sure he’ll find someone,” Parwana says.

Nabi nods. “I’ll be by again next month.” He crushes his cigarette underfoot and takes his leave.

When Parwana enters the hut, she is surprised to see Masooma awake. “I thought you were napping.”

Masooma drags her gaze to the window, blinking slowly, tiredly.

When the girls were thirteen, they sometimes went to the crowded bazaars of nearby towns for their mother. The smell of freshly sprayed water rose from the unpaved street. The two of them strolled down the lanes, past stalls that sold hookahs, silk shawls, copper pots, old watches. Slaughtered chickens hung by their feet, tracing slow circles over hunks of lamb and beef.

In every corridor Parwana would see men’s eyes snapping to attention when Masooma passed by. She saw their efforts to behave matter-of-factly, but their gazes lingered, helpless to tear away. If Masooma glanced in their direction, they looked idiotically privileged. They imagined they had shared a moment with her. She interrupted conversations midsentence, smokers mid-drag. She was the trembler of knees, the spiller of teacups.

Some days it was all too much for Masooma, as if she was almost ashamed, and she told Parwana she wanted to stay inside all day, wanted not to be looked at. On those days, Parwana thought it was as though, somewhere deep inside, her sister understood dimly that her beauty was a weapon. A loaded gun, with the barrel pointed at her own head. Most days, however, the attention seemed to please her. Most days, she relished her power to derail a man’s thoughts with a single fleeting but strategic smile, to make tongues falter over words.

It blistered the eyes, beauty like hers.

And then there was Parwana, shuffling next to her, with her flat chest and sallow complexion. Her frizzy hair, her heavy, mournful face, and her thick wrists and masculine shoulders. A pathetic shadow, torn between her envy and the thrill of being seen with Masooma, sharing in the attention as a weed would, lapping up water meant for the lily upstream.

All her life, Parwana had made sure to avoid standing in front of a mirror with her sister. It robbed her of hope to see her face beside Masooma’s, to see so plainly what she had been denied. But in public, every stranger’s eye was a mirror. There was no escape.

She carries Masooma outside. The two of them sit on the charpoy Parwana has set up. She makes sure to stack cushions so Masooma can comfortably lean her back against the wall. The night is quiet but for the chirping crickets, and dark too, lit only by a few lanterns still shimmering in windows and by the papery white light of the three-quarter moon.

Parwana fills the hookah’s vase with water. She takes two matchhead-sized portions of opium flakes with a pinch of tobacco and drops the mix into the hookah’s bowl. She lights the coal on the metal screen and hands the hookah to her sister. Masooma takes a deep puff from the hose, reclines against the cushions, and asks if she can rest her legs on Parwana’s lap. Parwana reaches down and lifts the limp legs to rest across her own.

When she smokes, Masooma’s face slackens. Her lids droop. Her head tilts unsteadily to the side and her voice takes on a sluggish, distant quality. A whisper of a smile forms on the corners of her mouth, whimsical, indolent, complacent rather than content. They say little to each other when Masooma is like this. Parwana listens to the breeze, to the water gurgling in the hookah. She watches the stars and the smoke drifting over her. The silence is pleasant, and neither she nor Masooma feel an urge to fill it with needless words.

Until Masooma says, “Will you do something for me?”

Parwana looks at her.

“I want you to take me to Kabul.” Masooma exhales slowly, the smoke twirling, curling, morphing into shapes with each blink of the eye.

“Are you serious?”

“I want to see Darulaman Palace. We didn’t get a chance to last time. Maybe go visit Babur’s tomb again.”

Parwana leans forward to decipher Masooma’s expression. She searches for a hint of playfulness, but in the moonlight she catches only the calm, unblinking glitter of her sister’s eyes.

“It’s a two-day walk at least. Probably three.”

“Imagine Nabi’s face when we surprise him at his door.”

“We don’t even know where he lives.”

Masooma listlessly sweeps her hand. “He already told us which neighborhood. We’ll knock on some doors and ask. It’s not that difficult.”

“How would we get there, Masooma, in your condition?”

Masooma pulls the hookah hose from her lips. “When you were out working today, Mullah Shekib came by, and I spoke to him a long time. I told him we were going to Kabul for a few days. Just you and I. He gave me his blessing in the end. Also his mule. So you see, it’s all arranged.”

“You are insane,” Parwana says.

“Well, it’s what I want. It’s my wish.”

Parwana sits back against the wall, shaking her head. Her gaze drifts upward into the cloud-mottled darkness.

“I’m so bored I’m dying, Parwana.”

Parwana empties her chest of a sigh and looks at her sister.

Masooma brings the hose to her lips. “Please. Don’t deny me.”

One early morning, when the sisters were seventeen, they sat on a branch high up the oak tree, their feet dangling.

Saboor’s going to ask me! Masooma had said this in a high-pitched whisper.

Ask you? Parwana said, not understanding, at least not immediately.

Well, not him, of course. Masooma laughed into her palm. Of course not. His father will be doing the asking.

Now Parwana understood. Her heart sank to her feet. How do you know? she said through numb lips.

Masooma began to speak, words pouring from her mouth at a frenzied pace, but Parwana hardly heard any of it. She was picturing instead her sister’s wedding to Saboor. Children in new clothes, carrying henna baskets overflowing with flowers, trailed by shahnai and dohol players. Saboor, opening Masooma’s fist, placing the henna in her palm, tying it with a white ribbon. The saying of prayers, the blessing of the union. The offering of gifts. The two of them gazing at each other beneath a veil embroidered with gold thread, feeding each other a spoonful of sweet sherbet and malida.

And she, Parwana, would be there among the guests to watch this unfold. She would be expected to smile, to clap, to be happy, even as her heart splintered and cracked.

A wind swept through the tree, made the branches around them shake and the leaves rattle. Parwana had to steady herself.

Masooma had stopped talking. She was grinning, biting her lower lip. You asked how I know that he’s going to ask. I’ll tell you. No. I’ll show you.

She turned from Parwana and reached into her pocket.

And then the part that Masooma knew nothing about. While her sister was facing away, searching her pocket, Parwana planted the heels of her hands on the branch, lifted her bottom, and let it drop. The branch shook. Masooma gasped and lost her balance. Her arms flailed wildly. She tipped forward. Parwana watched her own hands move. What they did was not really push, but there was contact between Masooma’s back and the pads of Parwana’s fingertips and there was a brief moment of subtle shoving. But it lasted barely an instant before Parwana was reaching for her sister, for the hem of her shirt, before Masooma was calling her name in panic and Parwana hers. Parwana grabbed the shirt, and it looked for just a moment as though she might have saved Masooma. But then the cloth ripped as it slipped from her grip.

Masooma fell from the tree. It seemed to take forever, the fall. Her torso slamming into branches on the way down, startling birds and shaking leaves free, her body spinning, bouncing, snapping smaller branches, until a low, thick branch, the one from which the swing was suspended, caught her lower back with a sick, audible crunch. She folded backward, nearly in half.

A few minutes later, a circle had formed around her. Nabi and the girls’ father crying over Masooma, trying to shake her awake. Faces peering down. Someone took her hand. It was still closed into a tight fist. When they uncurled the fingers, they found exactly ten crumbled little leaves in her palm.

Masooma says, her voice shaking a bit, “You have to do it now. If you wait until morning, you’ll lose heart.”

All around them, beyond the dim glow of the fire Parwana has stoked from shrubs and brittle-looking weeds, is the desolate, endless expanse of sand and mountains swallowed up by the dark. For nearly two days they have traveled through the scrubby terrain, heading toward Kabul, Parwana walking alongside the mule, Masooma strapped to the saddle, Parwana holding her hand. They have trudged along steep paths that curved and dipped and wound back and forth across rocky ridges, the ground at their feet dotted with ocher- and rust-colored weeds, etched with long spidery cracks creeping every which way.

Parwana stands near the fire now, looking at Masooma, who is a horizontal blanketed mound on the other side of the flames.

“What about Kabul?” Parwana says.

“Oh, you’re supposed to be the smart one.”

Parwana says, “You can’t ask me to do this.”

“I’m tired, Parwana. It’s not a life, what I have. My existence is a punishment to us both.”

“Let’s just go back,” Parwana says, her throat beginning to close. “I can’t do this. I can’t let you go.”

“You’re not.” Masooma is crying now. “I’m letting you go. I am releasing you.”

Parwana thinks of a long-ago night, Masooma up on the swing, she pushing her. She had watched as Masooma had straightened her legs and tipped her head all the way back at the peak of each upward swing, the long trails of her hair flapping like sheets on a clothesline. She remembers all the little dolls they had coaxed out of corn husks together, dressing them in wedding gowns made of shreds of old cloth.

“Tell me something, sister.”

Parwana blinks back the tears that are blurring her vision now and wipes her nose with the back of her hand.

“His boy, Abdullah. And the baby girl. Pari. You think you could love them as your own?”

“Masooma.”

“Could you?”

“I could try,” Parwana says.

“Good. Then marry Saboor. Look after his children. Have your own.”

“He loved you. He doesn’t love me.”

“He will, given time.”

“This is all my doing,” Parwana says. “My fault. All of it.”

“I don’t know what that means and I don’t want to. At this point, this is the only thing I want. People will understand, Parwana. Mullah Shekib will have told them. He’ll tell them that he gave me his blessing for this.”

Parwana raises her face to the darkened sky.

“Be happy, Parwana, please be happy. Do it for me.”

Parwana feels herself standing on the brink of telling her everything, telling Masooma how wrong she is, how little she knows the sister with whom she shared the womb, how for years now Parwana’s life has been one long unspoken apology. But to what end? Her own relief once again at Masooma’s expense? She bites down the words. She has inflicted enough pain on her sister.

“I want to smoke now,” Masooma says.

Parwana begins to protest, but Masooma cuts her off. “It’s time,” she says, harder now, with finality.

From the bag slung around the saddle’s tip, Parwana fetches the hookah. With trembling hands, she begins to prepare the usual mixture in the hookah’s bowl.

“More,” Masooma says. “Put in a lot more.”

Sniffling, her cheeks wet, Parwana adds another pinch, then another, and yet more again. She lights the coal and places the hookah next to her sister.

“Now,” Masooma says, the orange glow of the flames shimmering on her cheeks, in her eyes, “if you ever loved me, Parwana, if you were ever my true sister, then leave. No kisses. No good-byes. Don’t make me beg.”

Parwana begins to say something, but Masooma makes a pained, choking sound and rolls her head away.

Parwana slowly rises to her feet. She walks to the mule and tightens the saddle. She grabs the reins to the animal. She suddenly realizes that she may not know how to live without Masooma. She doesn’t know if she can. How will she bear the days when Masooma’s absence feels like a far heavier burden than her presence ever had? How will she learn to tread around the edges of the big gaping hole where Masooma had once been?

Have heart, she almost hears Masooma saying.

Parwana pulls the reins, turns the mule around, and begins to walk.

She walks, slicing the dark, as a cool night wind rips across her face. She keeps her head down. She turns around once only, later. Through the moisture in her eyes, the campfire is a distant, dim, tiny blur of yellow. She pictures her twin sister lying by the fire, alone in the dark. Soon, the fire will die, and Masooma will be cold. Her instinct is to go back, to cover her sister with a blanket and slip in next to her.

Parwana makes herself wheel around and resume walking once more.

And that is when she hears something. A faraway, muffled sound, like wailing. Parwana stops in her tracks. She tilts her head and hears it again. Her heart begins to ram in her chest. She wonders, with dread, if it’s Masooma calling her back, having had a change of heart. Or maybe it is nothing but a jackal or a desert fox howling somewhere in the dark. Parwana can’t be sure. She thinks it might be the wind.

Don’t leave me, sister. Come back.

The only way to know for sure is to go back the way she had come and Parwana begins to do just that; she turns around and takes a few steps in Masooma’s direction. Then she stops. Masooma was right. If she goes back now, she will not have the courage to do it when the sun rises. She will lose heart and end up staying. She will stay forever. This is her only chance.

Parwana shuts her eyes. The wind makes the scarf flap against her face.

No one has to know. No one would. It would be her secret, one she would share with the mountains only. The question is whether it is a secret she can live with, and Parwana thinks she knows the answer. She has lived with secrets all her life.

She hears the wailing again in the distance.

Everyone loved you, Masooma.

No one me.

And why, sister? What had I done?

Parwana stands motionless in the dark for a long time.

At last, she makes her choice. She turns around, drops her head, and walks toward a horizon she cannot see. After that, she does not look back anymore. She knows that if she does, she will weaken. She will lose what resolve she has because she will see an old bicycle speeding down a hill, bouncing on rocks and gravel, the metal pounding both their rears, clouds of dust kicked up with each sudden skid. She sits on the frame, and Masooma is the one on the saddle, she is the one who takes the hairpin turns at full speed, dropping the bike into a deep lean. But Parwana is not afraid. She knows that her sister will not send her flying over the handlebars, that she will not hurt her. The world melts into a whirligig blur of excitement, and the wind whooshes in their ears, and Parwana looks over her shoulder at her sister and her sister looks back, and they laugh together as stray dogs give chase.

Parwana keeps marching toward her new life. She keeps walking, the darkness around her like a mother’s womb, and when it lifts, when she looks up in the dawn haze and catches a band of pale light from the east striking the side of a boulder, it feels like being born.

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