فصل 04کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 4
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In the Name of Allah the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful, I know that I will be gone when you read this letter, Mr. Markos, for when I gave it to you I requested that you not open it until after my death. Let me state now what a pleasure it has been to know you over the last seven years, Mr. Markos. As I write this, I think fondly of our yearly ritual of planting tomatoes in the garden, your morning visits to my small quarters for tea and pleasantry, our impromptu trading of Farsi and English lessons. I thank you for your friendship, your thoughtfulness, and for the work that you have undertaken in this country, and I trust that you will extend my gratitude to your kindhearted colleagues as well, especially to my friend Ms. Amra Ademovic, who has such capacity for compassion, and to her brave and lovely daughter, Roshi.
I should say that I intend this letter not just for you, Mr. Markos, but for another as well, to whom I hope you will pass it on, as I shall explain later. Forgive me, then, if I repeat a few things you may already know. I include them out of necessity, for her benefit. As you will see, this letter contains more than an element of confession, Mr. Markos, but there are also pragmatic matters that prompt this writing. For those, I fear I will call upon your assistance, my friend.
I have thought long on where to begin this story. No easy task, this, for a man who must be in his mid-eighties. My exact age is a mystery to me, as it is to many Afghans of my generation, but I am confident in my approximation because I recall quite vividly a fist-fight with my friend, and later to be brother-in-law, Saboor, on the day we heard that N?der Shah had been shot and killed, and that N?der Shah’s son, young Zahir, had ascended to the throne. That was 1933. I could begin there, I suppose. Or somewhere else. A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later. But I suppose I ought to begin this tale with the same thing that ends it. Yes, I think it stands to reason that I bookend this account with Nila Wahdati.
I met her in 1949, the year she married Mr. Wahdati. At the time, I had already been working for Mr. Suleiman Wahdati for two years, having moved to Kabul from Shadbagh, the village where I was born, back in 1946—I had worked for a year in another household in the same neighborhood. The circumstances of my departure from Shadbagh are not something I am proud of, Mr. Markos. Consider it the first of my confessions, then, when I say that I felt stifled by the life I had in the village with my sisters, one of whom was an invalid. Not that it absolves me, but I was a young man, Mr. Markos, eager to take on the world, full of dreams, modest and vague as they may have been, and I pictured my youth ebbing away, my prospects increasingly truncated. So I left. To help provide for my sisters, yes, that is true. But also to escape.
Since I was a full-time worker for Mr. Wahdati, I lived at his residence full-time as well. In those days, the house bore little resemblance to the lamentable state in which you found it when you arrived in Kabul in 2002, Mr. Markos. It was a beautiful, glorious place. The house shone sparkling white in those days, as if sheathed with diamonds. The front gates opened onto a wide asphalt driveway. One entered into a high-ceilinged foyer decorated with tall ceramic vases and a circular mirror framed in carved walnut, precisely the spot where you for a while hung the old homemade-camera photo of your childhood friend at the beach. The marble floor of the living room glistened and was partly covered by a dark red Turkoman carpet. The carpet is gone now, as are the leather sofas, the handcrafted coffee table, the lapis chess set, the tall mahogany cabinet. Little of the grand furniture has survived, and I am afraid it is not in the shape it once was.
The first time I entered the stone-tiled kitchen, my mouth fell wide open. I thought it had been built large enough to feed all of my home village of Shadbagh. I had a six-burner stove, a refrigerator, a toaster, and an abundance of pots, pans, knives, and appliances at my disposal. The bathrooms, all four of them, had intricately carved marble tiles and porcelain sinks. And those square holes in your bathroom counter upstairs, Mr. Markos? They were once filled with lapis.
Then there was the backyard. You must one day sit in your office upstairs, Mr. Markos, look down on the garden, and try to picture it as it was. One entered it through a semilunar veranda bordered by a railing sheathed with green vines. The lawn in those days was lush and green, dotted with beds of flowers—jasmine, sweetbriar, geraniums, tulips—and bordered by two rows of fruit trees. A man could lie beneath one of the cherry trees, Mr. Markos, close his eyes and listen to the breeze squeezing through the leaves and think that there wasn’t on earth a finer place to live.
My own living space was a shack in the back of the yard. It had a window, clean walls with white paint, and provided enough space to accommodate an unmarried young man his meager needs. I had a bed, a desk and a chair, and enough room to unroll my prayer rug five times a day. It suited me just fine then and it suits me fine now.
I cooked for Mr. Wahdati, a skill I had picked up first from observing my late mother and later from an elderly Uzbek cook who worked at a household in Kabul where I had served for a year as his help. I was also, and quite happily, Mr. Wahdati’s chauffeur. He owned a mid-1940s model Chevrolet, blue with a tan top, matching blue vinyl seats, and chrome wheels, a handsome car that drew lingering looks wherever we went. He allowed me to drive because I had proven myself to be a prudent and skilled driver, and, besides, he was the rare breed of man who did not enjoy the act of operating a car.
Please do not think I am boasting, Mr. Markos, when I say I was a good servant. Through careful observation, I had familiarized myself with Mr. Wahdati’s likes and dislikes, his quirks, his peeves. I had come to know his habits and rituals well. For instance, every morning after breakfast he liked to go for a stroll. He disliked walking alone, however, and thus I was expected to accompany him. I abided by this wish, of course, though I did not see the point of my presence. He hardly said a word to me in the course of these walks and seemed forever lost in his own thoughts. He walked briskly, hands clamped behind his back, nodding at passersby, the heels of his well-polished leather loafers clicking against the pavement. And because his long legs made strides I could not match, I was always falling behind and forced to catch up. The rest of the day, he mostly retreated to his study upstairs, reading or playing a game of chess against himself. He loved to draw—though I could not attest to his skills, at least not then, because he never shared his artwork with me—and I would often catch him up in the study, by the window, or on the veranda, his brow furrowed in concentration, his charcoal pencil looping and circling over the sketch pad.
I drove him around the city every few days. He went to see his mother once a week. There were also family gatherings. And though Mr. Wahdati avoided most of them, he did attend on occasion, and so I would drive him there, to funerals, birthday parties, weddings. I drove him monthly to an art supply store, where he restocked his pastel pencils, his charcoal, and his erasers and sharpeners and sketchbooks. Sometimes, he liked to sit in the backseat and just go for a drive. I would say, Where to, Sahib? and he would shrug, and I would say, Very well, Sahib, and I would shift into gear and off we would go. I would drive us around the city, for hours, without aim or purpose, from one neighborhood to another, alongside the Kabul River, up to Bala Hissar, sometimes out to the Darulaman Palace. Some days, I drove us out of Kabul and up to Ghargha Lake, where I would park near the banks of the water. I would turn off the engine, and Mr. Wahdati would sit perfectly still in the backseat, not saying a word to me, seemingly content enough to just roll down the window and look at the birds darting from tree to tree, and the streaks of sunlight that struck the lake and scattered into a thousand tiny bobbing specks on the water. I would gaze at him in the rearview mirror and he looked to me like the most lonesome person on earth.
Once a month, Mr. Wahdati, quite generously, let me borrow his car, and I would drive down to Shadbagh, my native village, to visit my sister Parwana and her husband, Saboor. Whenever I drove into the village, I would be greeted by hordes of hollering children, who would scamper alongside the car, slapping the fender, tapping at the window. Some of the little runts would even try to climb atop the roof, and I would have to shoo them away for fear that they would scratch the paint or cause a dent in the fender.
Look at you, Nabi, Saboor said to me. You are a celebrity.
Because his children, Abdullah and Pari, had lost their natural mother (Parwana was their stepmother), I always tried to be attentive to them, especially to the older boy, who most seemed to need it. I offered to take him alone for rides in the car, though he always insisted on bringing his baby sister, holding her tightly in his lap, as we circled the road around Shadbagh. I let him work the wipers, honk the horn. I showed him how to switch the headlights from dim to full.
After all the fuss about the car died down, I would sit for tea with my sister and Saboor and I would tell them about my life in Kabul. I took care not to say too much about Mr. Wahdati. I was, in truth, quite fond of him, for he treated me well, and speaking of him behind his back seemed to me like a betrayal. If I had been a less discreet employee, I would have told them that Suleiman Wahdati was a mystifying creature to me, a man seemingly satisfied with living the rest of his days off the wealth of his inheritance, a man with no profession, no apparent passion, and apparently no impulse to leave behind something of himself in this world. I would have told them that he lived a life lacking in purpose or direction. Like those aimless rides I took him on. A life lived from the backseat, observed as it blurred by. An indifferent life.
This is what I would have said, but I did not. And a good thing I did not. For how wrong I would have been.
One day, Mr. Wahdati came into the yard wearing a handsome pin-striped suit, one I had never seen on him before, and requested that I drive him to an affluent neighborhood of the city. When we arrived, he instructed me to park on the street outside a beautiful high-walled house, and I watched him ring the bell at the gates and enter when a servant answered. The house was huge, bigger than Mr. Wahdati’s, and even more beautiful. Tall, slender cypresses adorned the driveway, along with a densely packed array of bushes of a flower I did not recognize. The backyard was at least twice the size of Mr. Wahdati’s, and the walls stood tall enough that if a man climbed on the shoulders of another, he still could hardly steal a peek. This was wealth of another magnitude, I recognized.
It was a bright early-summer day, and the sky was brilliant with sunshine. Warm air wafted in through the windows, which I had rolled down. Though a chauffeur’s job is to drive, he actually spends most of his time waiting. Waiting outside stores, engine idling; waiting outside a wedding hall, listening to the muffled sound of the music. To pass the time that day, I played a few games of cards. When I tired of cards, I stepped out of the car and took a few steps in one direction, then the other. I sat inside once more, thinking I might steal a nap before Mr. Wahdati returned.
It was then that the front gates opened and a black-haired young woman emerged. She wore sunglasses and a short-sleeved tangerine-colored dress that fell short of the knees. Her legs were bare, and so were her feet. I did not know whether she had noticed me sitting in the car, and, if she had, she offered no indication. She rested the heel of one foot against the wall behind her and, when she did, the hem of the dress pulled up slightly and thus revealed a bit of the thigh beneath. I felt a burning spread down from my cheeks to my neck.
Allow me to make another confession here, Mr. Markos, one of a somewhat distasteful nature, leaving little room for elegant handling. At the time, I must have been in my late twenties, a young man at the prime of his desires for a woman’s company. Unlike many of the men I grew up with in my village—young men who had never seen the bare thigh of a grown woman and married, in part, for the license to at last cast their gaze upon such a sight—I did have some experience. I had found in Kabul, and on occasion visited, establishments where a young man’s needs could be addressed with both discretion and convenience. I mention this only to make the point that no whore I had ever lain with could compare with the beautiful, graceful creature who had just stepped out of the big house.
Leaning against the wall, she lit a cigarette and smoked without hurry and with bewitching grace, holding it at the very tip of two fingers and cupping her hand before her mouth each time she raised it to her lips. I watched with rapt attention. The way her hand bent at its slender wrist reminded me of an illustration I had once seen in a glossy book of poems of a long-lashed woman with flowing dark hair lying with her lover in a garden, offering him a cup of wine with her pale delicate fingers. At one point, something seemed to catch the woman’s attention up the street in the opposite direction, and I used the brief chance to quickly finger-brush my hair, which was beginning to mat down in the heat. When she turned back, I froze once more. She took a few more puffs, crushed the cigarette against the wall, and sauntered back inside.
At last, I could breathe.
That night, Mr. Wahdati called me into the living room and said, “I have news, Nabi. I am getting married.”
It seemed I had overestimated his fondness for solitude after all.
News of the engagement spread swiftly. And so did rumors. I heard them from the other workers who came and went through Mr. Wahdati’s house. The most vocal of these was Zahid, a gardener who came in three days a week to maintain the lawn and trim the trees and bushes, an unpleasant fellow with the repulsive habit of flicking his tongue after each sentence, a tongue with which he cast rumors as offhandedly as he tossed fistfuls of fertilizer. He was part of a group of lifelong laborers who, like me, worked in the neighborhood as cooks, gardeners, and errand men. One or two nights a week, after the workday was over, they squeezed into my shack for after-dinner tea. I do not recall how this ritual started, but, once it did, I was powerless to stop it, wary of seeming rude and inhospitable, or, worse, of appearing to think myself superior to my own kind.
Over tea one night, Zahid told the other men that Mr. Wahdati’s family did not approve of the marriage because of his bride-to-be’s poor character. He said it was well known in Kabul that she had no nang and namoos, no honor, and that though she was only twenty she had already been “ridden all over town” like Mr. Wahdati’s car. Worst of all, he said, not only had she made no attempt to deny these allegations, she wrote poems about them. A murmur of disapproval spread through the room when he said this. One of the men remarked that in his village they would have slit her throat by now.
That was when I rose and told them that I had heard enough. I berated them for gossiping like a sewing circle of old women and reminded them that without people like Mr. Wahdati the likes of us would be back in our villages collecting cow dung. Where is your loyalty, your respect? I demanded.
A brief moment of quiet passed during which I thought I had made an impression on the dullards and then laughter broke out. Zahid said I was an ass-licker, and perhaps the soon-to-be mistress of the house would ink a poem and call it “Ode to Nabi, the Licker of Many Asses.” I stomped indignantly out of the shack to an uproar of cackles.
But I did not stray too far. Their gossip, by turns, revolted and fascinated me. And despite my show of righteousness, for all my talk of propriety and discretion, I stayed within earshot. I did not want to miss a single lurid detail.
The engagement lasted only days and culminated not in a big ceremony with live singers and dancers and merriment all around but with a brief visit by a mullah, a witness, and the scribbling of two signatures across a sheet of paper. And with that, less than two weeks after I had laid eyes on her for the first time, Mrs. Wahdati moved into the house.
Allow me a brief pause here, Mr. Markos, to say that I will from here on refer to Mr. Wahdati’s wife as Nila. Needless to say, this is a liberty I was not allowed back then and one I would not have accepted even if it had been offered to me. I referred to her always as Bibi Sahib, with the deference expected of me. But for the purposes of this letter, I will dispense with etiquette and refer to her the way I always thought of her.
Now, I knew from the start that the marriage was an unhappy one. Rarely did I see a tender look pass between the couple or hear an affectionate word uttered. They were two people occupying the same house whose paths rarely seemed to intersect at all.
In the mornings, I served Mr. Wahdati his customary breakfast—a piece of toasted naan, half a cup of walnuts, green tea with a sprinkle of cardamom and no sugar, and a single boiled egg. He liked the yolk to run just so when he punctured the egg, and my initial failures to master this particular consistency had proved a source of considerable anxiety on my part. While I accompanied Mr. Wahdati on his daily morning walk, Nila slept in, often until noon or even later. By the time she rose, I was all but ready to serve Mr. Wahdati his lunch.
All morning, as I tended to my chores, I ached for the moment when Nila would push the screen door that opened from the living room out onto the veranda. I would play games in my head, guessing at her appearance that particular day. Would her hair be up, I wondered, tied in a bun at the back of her neck, or would I see it loose, tumbling down over her shoulders? Would she wear sunglasses? Would she opt for sandals? Would she choose the blue silk robe with the belt or the magenta one with the big round buttons?
When she made her entrance at last, I would busy myself in the yard, pretending the hood of the car needed wiping, or else I would find a sweetbriar bush to water, but the whole time I watched. I watched when she pushed up her sunglasses to rub her eyes, or when she removed the elastic band from her hair and threw back her head to let the dark lustrous curls fall loose, and I watched when she sat with her chin resting on her knees, staring into the yard, taking languid drags of her cigarette, or when she crossed her legs and bobbed one foot up and down, a gesture that suggested to me boredom or restlessness or perhaps heedless mischief barely held in check.
Mr. Wahdati was, on occasion, at her side, but often not. He spent most of his days as he had before, reading in his upstairs study, doing his sketches, his daily routines more or less unaltered by the fact of marriage. Nila wrote most days, either in the living room or else on the veranda, pencil in hand, sheets of paper spilling from her lap, and always the cigarettes. At night, I served them dinner, and they each received the meal in pointed silence, gaze lowered to the platter of rice, the quiet broken only by a muttered Thank you and the tinkling of spoon and fork against china.
Once or twice a week, I had to drive Nila when she needed a pack of cigarettes or a fresh set of pens, a new notepad, makeup. If I knew ahead of time that I would be driving her, I always made sure to comb my hair and brush my teeth. I washed my face, rubbed a sliced lemon against my fingers to rid them of the scent of onions, patted the dust off my suit, and polished my shoes. The suit, which was olive colored, was in fact a hand-me-down from Mr. Wahdati, and I hoped that he hadn’t told this to Nila—though I suspected he may have. Not out of malice, but because people in Mr. Wahdati’s position often cannot appreciate how small, trivial things like this could bring shame to a man like me. Sometimes, I even wore the lambskin cap that had belonged to my late father. I would stand there before the mirror, tilting the cap this way and that on my head, so absorbed in the act of rendering myself presentable to Nila that if a wasp had landed on my nose it would have had to sting me to make its presence known.
Once we were on the road, I looked for minor detours to our destination, if possible, detours designed to prolong the trip by a minute—or maybe two, but no more lest she grow suspicious—and thereby extend my time with her. I drove with both hands clenching the wheel, and my eyes firmly on the road. I exercised rigid self-control and did not look at her in the rearview mirror, doing so only if she addressed me. I contented myself with the mere fact of her presence in the backseat, with breathing in her many scents—expensive soap, lotion, perfume, chewing gum, cigarette smoke. That, most days, was sufficient to lend wings to my spirits.
It was in the car that we had our first conversation. Our first real conversation, that is, discounting myriad times she had asked me to fetch this or carry that. I was taking her to a pharmacy to pick up medicine, and she said, “What is it like, Nabi, your village? What is it called again?”
“Shadbagh, Bibi Sahib.”
“Shadbagh, yes. What is it like? Tell me.”
“There isn’t much to say, Bibi Sahib. It is a village like any other.”
“Oh, surely there is some distinguishing thing.”
I stayed calm in my appearance, but I was frantic inside, desperate to retrieve something, some clever oddity, that might be of interest to her, that might amuse her. It was no use. What could a man like me, a villager, a small man with a small life, possibly have to say that would capture the fancy of a woman like her?
“The grapes are excellent,” I said, and no sooner had I uttered the words than I wished to slap my own face. Grapes?
“Are they,” she said flatly.
“Very sweet indeed.”
I was dying a thousand deaths inside. I felt moisture beginning to form under my arms.
“There is one particular grape,” I said from a suddenly dry mouth. “They say it grows only in Shadbagh. It is very brittle, you see, very fragile. If you try to grow it in any other place, even the next village over, it will wither and die. It will perish. It dies of sadness, people in Shadbagh say, but, of course, that is not true. It’s a matter of soil and water. But that is what they say, Bibi Sahib. Sadness.”
“That’s really lovely, Nabi.”
I chanced a quick glance at the rearview mirror and saw that she was looking out her window, but I also found, to my great relief, the corners of her mouth curled up just so, in a shadow of a smile. Heartened now, I heard myself say, “May I tell you another story, Bibi Sahib?”
“By all means.” The lighter clicked, and smoke drifted toward me from the backseat.
“Well, we have a mullah in Shadbagh. All villages have a mullah, of course. Ours is named Mullah Shekib, and he is full of stories. How many he knows, I could not tell you. But one thing he always told us was this: that if you look at any Muslim’s palms, no matter where in the world, you will see something quite astonishing. They all have the same lines. Meaning what? Meaning that the lines on a Muslim’s left hand make the Arabic number eighty-one, and the ones on the right the number eighteen. Subtract eighteen from eighty-one and what do you get? You get sixty-three. The Prophet’s age when he died, peace be upon him.”
I heard a low chuckle from the backseat.
“Now, one day a traveler was passing through, and, of course, he sat with Mullah Shekib for a meal that evening, as is custom. The traveler heard this story and he thought about it, and then he said, ‘But, Mullah Sahib, with all due respect, I met a Jew once and I swear his palms bore the very same lines. How do you explain it?’ And Mullah said, ‘Then the Jew was a Muslim at heart.’ ”
Her sudden outburst of laughter bewitched me for the rest of the day. It was as though it—God forgive me for this blasphemy—had descended down on me from Heaven itself, the garden of the righteous, as the book says, where rivers flow beneath, and perpetual are the fruits and the shade therein.
Understand that it wasn’t merely her beauty, Mr. Markos, that had me so spellbound, though that alone might have been enough. I had never in my life encountered a young woman like Nila. Everything she did—the way she spoke, the way she walked, dressed, smiled—was a novelty to me. Nila pushed against every single notion I had ever had of how a woman was to behave, a trait that I knew met with the stout disapproval of people like Zahid—and surely Saboor too, and every man in my village, and all the women—but to me it only added to her already enormous allure and mystery.
And so her laughter still rang in my ears as I went about my work that day, and later, when the other workers came over for tea, I grinned and muted their cackles with the sweet tinkle of her laughter, and I prided myself on knowing that my clever story had given her a bit of reprieve from the discontent of her marriage. She was an extraordinary woman, and I went to bed that night feeling like I was perhaps more than ordinary myself. This was the effect she had on me.
Soon, we were conversing daily, Nila and I, usually in the late morning when she sat sipping coffee on the veranda. I would saunter over under the pretense of some task or other and there I was, leaning against a shovel, or tending to a cup of green tea, speaking to her. I felt privileged that she had chosen me. I was not the only servant, after all; I have already mentioned that unscrupulous toad Zahid, and there was a jowly-faced Hazara woman who came twice a week to wash laundry. But it was me she turned to. I was the only one, I believed, including her own husband, with whom her loneliness lifted. She usually did most of the talking, which suited me well; I was happy enough to be the vessel into which she poured her stories. She told me, for instance, of a hunting trip to Jalalabad she had taken with her father and how she had been haunted for weeks by nightmares of dead deer with glassy eyes. She said she had gone with her mother to France when she was a child, before the Second World War. To get there, she had taken both a train and a ship. She described to me how she had felt the jostling of the train wheels in her ribs. And she remembered well the curtains that hung from hooks and the separated compartments, and the rhythmic puff and hiss of the steam engine. She told me of the six weeks she had spent the year before in India with her father when she had been very ill.
Now and then, when she turned to tap ash into a saucer, I stole a quick glance at the red polish on her toenails, at the gold-tinged sheen of her shaved calves, the high arch of her foot, and always at her full, perfectly shaped breasts. There were men walking this earth, I marveled, who had touched those breasts and kissed them as they had made love to her. What was left to do in life once you had done that? Where did a man go next once he’d stood at the world’s summit? It was only with a great act of will that I would snap my eyes back to a safe spot when she turned to face me.
As she grew more comfortable, she registered with me, during these morning chats, complaints about Mr. Wahdati. She said, one day, that she found him aloof and often arrogant.
“He has been most generous to me,” I said.
She flapped one hand dismissively. “Please, Nabi. You don’t have to do that.”
Politely, I turned my gaze downward. What she said was not entirely untrue. Mr. Wahdati did have, for instance, a habit of correcting my manner of speech with an air of superiority that could be interpreted, perhaps not wrongly, as arrogance. Sometimes I entered the room, placed a platter of sweets before him, refreshed his tea, wiped his crumbs off the table, and he would no more acknowledge me than he would a fly crawling up the screen door, shrinking me into insignificance without even lifting his eyes. In the end, though, this made for a minor quibble, given that I knew people living in the same neighborhood—people I had worked for—who beat their servants with sticks and belts.
“He has no sense of fun or adventure,” she said, listlessly stirring her coffee. “Suleiman is a brooding old man trapped in a younger man’s body.”
I was a little startled by her offhand candor. “It is true that Mr. Wahdati is uniquely comfortable with solitude,” I said, opting for cautious diplomacy.
“Maybe he should live with his mother. What do you think, Nabi? They make a good match, I tell you.”
Mr. Wahdati’s mother was a heavy, rather pompous woman who lived in another part of town, with the obligatory team of servants and her two beloved dogs. These dogs she doted on and treated not as equals to her servants but as superiors, and by several ranks at that. They were small, hairless, hideous creatures, easily startled, full of anxiety, and prone to a most grating high-pitched bark. I despised them, for no sooner would I enter the house than they would hop on my legs and foolishly try to climb them.
It was clear to me that every time I took Nila and Mr. Wahdati to the old woman’s house, the air in the backseat would be heavy with tension, and I would know from the pained furrow on Nila’s brow that they had quarreled. I remember that when my parents fought, they did not stop until a clear victor had been declared. It was their way of sealing off unpleasantness, to caulk it with a verdict, keep it from leaking into the normalcy of the next day. Not so with the Wahdatis. Their fights didn’t so much end as dissipate, like a drop of ink in a bowl of water, with a residual taint that lingered.
It did not take an act of intellectual acrobatics to surmise that the old woman had not approved of the union and that Nila knew it.
As we carried on with these conversations, Nila and I, one question about her bubbled up again and again in my head. Why had she married Mr. Wahdati? I lacked the courage to ask. Such trespass of propriety was beyond me by nature. I could only infer that for some people, particularly women, marriage—even an unhappy one such as this—is an escape from even greater unhappiness.
One day, in the fall of 1950, Nila summoned me.
“I want you to take me to Shadbagh,” she said. She said she wanted to meet my family, see where I came from. She said I had served her meals and chauffeured her around Kabul for a year now and she knew scarcely a thing about me. Her request confounded me, to say the least, as it was unusual for someone of her standing to ask to be taken some distance to meet the family of a servant. I was also, in equal measure, buoyed that Nila had taken such keen interest in me and apprehensive, for I anticipated my discomfort—and, yes, my shame—when I showed her the poverty into which I had been born.
We set off on an overcast morning. She wore high heels and a peach sleeveless dress, but I didn’t deem it my place to advise her otherwise. On the way, she asked questions about the village, the people I knew, my sister and Saboor, their children.
“Tell me their names.”
“Well,” I said, “there is Abdullah, who is nearly nine. His birth mother died last year, so he is my sister Parwana’s stepson. His sister, Pari, is almost two. Parwana gave birth to a baby boy this past winter—Omar, his name was—but he died when he was two weeks old.”
“Winter, Bibi Sahib. It descends on these villages and takes a random child or two every year. You can only hope it will bypass your home.”
“God,” she muttered.
“On a happier note,” I said, “my sister is expecting again.”
At the village, we were greeted by the usual throng of barefoot children rushing the car, though once Nila emerged from the backseat the children grew quiet and pulled back, perhaps out of fear that she may chide them. But Nila displayed great patience and kindness. She knelt down and smiled, spoke to each of them, shook their hands, stroked their grubby cheeks, tousled their unwashed hair. To my embarrassment, people were gathering for a view of her. There was Baitullah, a childhood friend of mine, looking on from the edge of a roof, squatting with his brothers like a line of crows, all of them chewing naswar tobacco. And there was his father, Mullah Shekib himself, and three white-bearded men sitting in the shade of a wall, listlessly fingering their prayer beads, their ageless eyes fixed on Nila and her bare arms with a look of displeasure.
I introduced Nila to Saboor, and we made our way to his and Parwana’s small mud house trailed by a mob of onlookers. At the door, Nila insisted on taking off her shoes, though Saboor told her it was not necessary. When we entered the room, I saw Parwana sitting in a corner in silence, shriveled up into a stiff ball. She greeted Nila in a voice hardly above a whisper.
Saboor flicked his eyebrows at Abdullah. “Bring some tea, boy.”
“Oh no, please,” Nila said, taking a seat on the floor beside Parwana. “It’s not necessary.” But Abdullah had already disappeared into the adjoining room, which I knew served both as kitchen and sleeping quarters for him and Pari. A cloudy plastic sheet nailed to the threshold separated it from the room where we had all gathered. I sat, toying with the car keys, wishing I had had the chance to warn my sister of the visit, give her time to clean up a bit. The cracked mud walls were black with soot, the ripped mattress beneath Nila layered with dust, the lone window in the room flyspecked.
“This is a lovely carpet,” Nila said cheerfully, running her fingers over the rug. It was bright red with elephant-footprint patterns. It was the only object of any value that Saboor and Parwana owned—to be sold, as it turned out, that same winter.
“It belonged to my father,” Saboor said.
“Is it a Turkoman rug?”
“I do love the sheep fleece they use. The craftsmanship is incredible.”
Saboor nodded his head. He didn’t look her way once even as he spoke to her.
The plastic sheeting flapped when Abdullah returned with a tray of teacups and lowered it to the ground before Nila. He poured her a cup and sat cross-legged opposite her. Nila tried speaking to him, lobbing him a few simple questions, but Abdullah only nodded his shaved head, muttered a one- or two-word answer, and stared back at her guardedly. I made a mental note to speak to the boy, gently chide him about his manners. I would do it in a friendly way for I liked the boy, who was serious and competent by nature.
“How far along are you?” Nila asked Parwana.
Her head down, my sister said the baby was due in the winter.
“You are blessed,” Nila said. “To be awaiting a baby. And to have such a polite young stepson.” She smiled at Abdullah, who remained expressionless.
Parwana muttered something that might have been Thank you.
“And there is a little girl too, if I recall?” Nila said. “Pari?”
“She’s asleep,” Abdullah said tersely.
“Ah. I hear she is lovely.”
“Go fetch your sister,” Saboor said.
Abdullah lingered, looking from his father to Nila, then rose with visible reluctance to bring his sister.
If I had any wish, even at this late hour, to somehow acquit myself, I would say that the bond between Abdullah and his little sister was an ordinary one. But it was not so. No one but God knows why those two had chosen each other. It was a mystery. I have never seen such affinity between two beings. In truth, Abdullah was as much father to Pari as sibling. When she was an infant, when she cried at night, it was he who sprung from the sleeping cot to walk her. It was he who took it upon himself to change her soiled linens, to bundle her up, to soothe her back to sleep. His patience with her was boundless. He carried her around the village, showing her off as though she were the world’s most coveted trophy.
When he carried a still-groggy Pari into the room, Nila asked to hold her. Abdullah handed her over with a cutting look of suspicion, as though some instinctive alarm inside him had been set off.
“Oh, she is darling,” Nila exclaimed, her awkward bounces betraying her inexperience with small children. Pari gazed with confusion at Nila, looked toward Abdullah, and began to cry. Quickly, he retrieved her from Nila’s hands.
“Look at those eyes!” Nila said. “Oh, and these cheeks! Isn’t she darling, Nabi?”
“That she is, Bibi Sahib,” I said.
“And she’s been given the perfect name: Pari. She is indeed as beautiful as a fairy.”
Abdullah watched Nila, rocking Pari in his arms, his face growing cloudy.
On the way back to Kabul, Nila slumped in the backseat with her head resting on the glass. For a long while, she didn’t say a word. And then, suddenly, she started to cry.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road.
She didn’t speak for a long time. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed into her hands. Finally, she blew her nose into a handkerchief. “Thank you, Nabi,” she said.
“For what, Bibi Sahib?”
“For taking me there. It was a privilege to meet your family.”
“The privilege was all theirs. And mine. We were honored.”
“Your sister’s children are beautiful.” She removed her sunglasses and dabbed at her eyes.
I considered for a moment what to do, at first opting to remain quiet. But she had wept in my presence, and the intimacy of the moment called for kind words. Softly I said, “You will have your own soon, Bibi Sahib. Inshallah, God will see to it. You wait.”
“I don’t think He will. Even He can’t see to this.”
“Of course He can, Bibi Sahib. You’re so very young. If He wishes it, it will happen.”
“You don’t understand,” she said tiredly. I had never seen her look so exhausted, so drained. “It’s gone. They scooped it all out of me in India. I’m hollow inside.”
To this I could think of nothing to say. I longed to climb into the backseat beside her and pull her into my arms, to soothe her with kisses. Before I knew what I was doing, I had reached behind me and taken her hand into mine. I thought she would withdraw, but her fingers squeezed my hand gratefully, and we sat there in the car, not looking at each other but at the plains around us, yellow and withering from horizon to horizon, furrowed with dried-up irrigation ditches, pocked with shrubs and rocks and stirrings of life here and there. Nila’s hand in mine, I looked at the hills and the power poles. My eyes traced a cargo truck lumbering along in the distance, trailed by a puff of dust, and I would have happily sat there until dark.
“Take me home,” she said at last, releasing my hand. “I’m going to turn in early tonight.”
“Yes, Bibi Sahib.” I cleared my throat and dropped the shift into first gear with a slightly unsteady hand.
She went into her bedroom and didn’t leave it for days. This was not the first time. On occasion, she would pull up a chair to the window of her upstairs bedroom and plant herself there, smoking cigarettes, shaking one foot, staring out the window with a blank expression. She would not speak. She would not change out of her sleeping gown. She would not bathe or brush her teeth or hair. This time, she would not eat either, and this particular development caused Mr. Wahdati uncharacteristic alarm.
On the fourth day, there was a knock at the front gates. I opened them to a tall, elderly man in a crisply pressed suit and shiny loafers. There was something imposing and rather forbidding about him in the way he did not so much stand as loom, the way he looked right through me, the way he held his polished cane with both hands like it was a scepter. He had not said a word as yet, but I already sensed he was a man accustomed to being obeyed.
“I understand my daughter is not well,” he said.
So he was the father. I had never met him before. “Yes, Sahib. I’m afraid that is true,” I said.
“Then move aside, young man.” He pushed past me.
In the garden, I busied myself, chopping a block of wood for the stove. From where I worked, I had a good clear view of Nila’s bedroom window. Framed in it was the father, bent at the waist, leaning into Nila, one hand pressing on her shoulder. On Nila’s face was the expression people have when they have been startled by an abrupt loud noise, like a firecracker, or a door slammed by a sudden draft of wind.
That night, she ate.
A few days later, Nila summoned me into the house and said she was going to throw a party. We rarely, if ever, had parties at the house back when Mr. Wahdati was single. After Nila moved in, she arranged them two or three times a month. The day prior to the party, Nila would give me detailed instructions on what appetizers and meals I was to prepare, and I would drive to the market to purchase the necessary items. Chief among these necessary items was alcohol, which I had never procured before, as Mr. Wahdati did not drink—though his reasons had nothing to do with religion, he merely disliked its effects. Nila, however, was well acquainted with certain establishments—pharmacies, as she called them jokingly—where for the equivalent of double my monthly salary a bottle of medicine could be purchased subversively. I had mixed feelings about running this particular errand, playing the part of sin enabler, but, as always, pleasing Nila superseded everything else.
You must understand, Mr. Markos, that when we had parties in Shadbagh, be it for a wedding or to celebrate a circumcision, the proceedings took place at two separate houses, one for women, the other for us men. At Nila’s parties, men and women mingled with one another. Most of the women dressed as Nila did, in dresses that showed the entire lengths of their arms and a good deal of their legs as well. They smoked, and they drank too, their glasses half filled with colorless or red- or copper-colored liquor, and they told jokes and laughed and freely touched the arms of men I knew to be married to someone else in the room. I carried small platters of bolani and lola kabob from one end of the smoke-filled room to the other, from one cluster of guests to another, as a record played on the turntable. The music was not Afghan but something Nila called jazz, a kind of music that, I learned decades later, you appreciate as well, Mr. Markos. To my ears, the random tinkling of piano and the strange wailing of horns sounded an inharmonious mess. But Nila loved it, and I kept overhearing her telling guests how they simply had to hear this recording or that. All night, she held a glass and tended to it far more than the food I served.
Mr. Wahdati made limited effort to engage his guests. He made a token show of mingling, but mostly he occupied a corner, with a remote expression on his face, swirling a glass of soda, smiling a courteous, closemouthed smile when someone talked to him. And, as was his habit, he excused himself when the guests began asking Nila to recite her poetry.
This was my favorite part, by far, of the evening. When she started, I always found some task that would keep me nearby. There I would be, frozen in place, towel in hand, straining to hear. Nila’s poems did not resemble any I had grown up with. As you well know, we Afghans love our poetry; even the most uneducated among us can recite verses of Hafez or Khayy?m or Saadi. Do you recall, Mr. Markos, telling me last year how much you loved Afghans? And I asked you why, and you laughed and said, Because even your graffiti artists spray Rumi on the walls.
But Nila’s poems defied tradition. They followed no preset meter or rhyming pattern. Nor did they deal with the usual things, trees and spring flowers and bulbul birds. Nila wrote about love, and by love I do not mean the Sufi yearnings of Rumi or Hafez but instead physical love. She wrote about lovers whispering across pillows, touching each other. She wrote about pleasure. I had never heard language such as this spoken by a woman. I would stand there, listening to Nila’s smoky voice drift down the hallway, my eyes closed and my ears burning red, imagining she was reading to me, that we were the lovers in the poem, until someone’s call for tea or fried eggs would break the spell, and then Nila would call my name and I would run.
That night, the poem she chose to read caught me off guard. It was about a man and his wife, in a village, mourning the death of the infant they had lost to the winter cold. The guests seemed to love the poem, judging by the nods and the murmurs of approval around the room, and by their hearty applause when Nila looked up from the page. Still, I felt some surprise, and disappointment, that my sister’s misfortune had been used to entertain guests, and I could not shake the sense that some vague betrayal had been committed.
A couple of days after the party, Nila said she needed a new purse. Mr. Wahdati was reading the newspaper at the table, where I had served him a lunch of lentil soup and naan.
“Do you need anything, Suleiman?” Nila asked.
“No, aziz. Thank you,” he said. I rarely heard him address her by anything other than aziz, which means “beloved,” “darling,” and yet never did the couple seem more distant from each other than when he said it, and never did this term of endearment sound so starched as when it came from Mr. Wahdati’s lips.
On the way to the store, Nila said she wanted to pick up a friend and gave me directions to the home. I parked on the street and watched her walk up the block to a two-story house with bright pink walls. At first, I left the engine running, but when five minutes passed and Nila hadn’t returned I shut it off. It was a good thing I did for it was not until two hours later that I saw her slim figure gliding down the sidewalk toward the car. I opened the rear passenger door and, as she slid in, I smelled on her, underneath her own familiar perfume, a second scent, something faintly like cedarwood and perhaps a trace of ginger, an aroma I recognized from having breathed it at the party two nights before.
“I didn’t find one I liked,” Nila said from the backseat as she applied a fresh coat of lipstick.
She caught my puzzled face in the rearview mirror. She lowered the lipstick and gazed at me from under her lashes. “You took me to two different stores but I couldn’t find a purse to my liking.”
Her eyes locked onto mine in the mirror and lingered there awhile, waiting, and I understood that I had been made privy to a secret. She was putting my allegiance to the test. She was asking me to choose.
“I think maybe you visited three stores,” I said weakly.
She grinned. “Parfois je pense que tu es mon seul ami, Nabi.”
“It means ‘Sometimes I think you are my only friend.’ ”
She smiled radiantly at me, but it could not lift my sagging spirits.
The rest of that day, I set about my chores at half my normal speed and with a fraction of my customary enthusiasm. When the men came over for tea that night, one of them sang for us, but his song failed to cheer me. I felt as though I had been the one cuckolded. And I was sure that the hold she had on me had loosened at last.
But in the morning I rose and there it was, filling my living quarters once more, from floor to ceiling, seeping into the walls, saturating the air I breathed, like vapor. It was no use, Mr. Markos.
I cannot tell you when, precisely, the idea took hold. Perhaps it was the windy autumn morning I was serving tea to Nila, when I had stooped and was cutting for her a slice of roat cake, that from the radio sitting on her windowsill came a report that the coming winter of 1952 might prove even more brutal than the previous one. Perhaps it was earlier, the day I took her to the house with the bright pink walls, or perhaps earlier still, the time I held her hand in the car as she sobbed.
Whatever the timing, once the idea entered my head there was no purging it.
Let me say, Mr. Markos, that I proceeded with a mostly clean conscience, and with the conviction that my proposal was born of goodwill and honest intentions. Something that, though painful in the short term, would lead to a greater long-term good for all involved. But I had less honorable, self-serving motives as well. Chief among them this: that I would give Nila something no other man—not her husband, not the owner of that big pink house—could.
I spoke to Saboor first. In my defense, I will say that if I had thought Saboor would accept money from me, I gladly would have given it to him in lieu of this proposal. I knew he needed the money for he had told me of his struggles finding work. I would have borrowed an advance against my salary from Mr. Wahdati for Saboor to see his family through the winter. But Saboor, like many of my countrymen, had the affliction of pride, an affliction both misbegotten and unshakable. He would never take money from me. When he married Parwana, he even put an end to the small remittances I had been giving her. He was a man and he would provide for his own family. And he died doing just that, when he was not yet forty, collapsing one day while he was out harvesting a field of sugar beets somewhere near Baghlan. I heard he died with the beet hook still in his blistered, bleeding hands.
I was not a father and thus will make no pretense at understanding the anguished deliberations that led to Saboor’s decision. Nor was I privy to the discussions between the Wahdatis. Once I revealed the idea to Nila, I only asked that in her discussions with Mr. Wahdati she put forth the idea as her own and not mine. I knew that Mr. Wahdati would resist. I had never glimpsed in him a sliver of paternal instinct. In fact, I had wondered if Nila’s inability to bear children may have swayed his decision to marry her. Regardless, I steered clear of the tense atmosphere between the two. When I lay down to sleep at night, I saw only the sudden tears that had leaked from Nila’s eyes when I told her and how she had taken both my hands and gazed into me with gratitude and—I was sure of it—something quite like love. I thought only of the fact that I was offering her a gift that men with far greater prospects could not. I thought only of how thoroughly I had given myself over to her, and how happily. And I thought, hoped—foolishly, of course—that she may begin to see me as something more than the loyal servant.
When Mr. Wahdati eventually buckled—which didn’t surprise me, Nila was a woman of formidable will—I informed Saboor and offered to drive him and Pari to Kabul. I will never fully understand why he chose to instead walk his daughter from Shadbagh. Or why he allowed Abdullah to come along. Perhaps he was clinging to what little time he had left with his daughter. Perhaps he sought a measure of penance in the hardship of the journey. Or perhaps it was Saboor’s pride, and he would not ride in the car of the man who was buying his daughter. But, in the end, there they were, the three of them, coated in dust, waiting, as agreed, near the mosque. As I drove them to the Wahdati home, I did my best to seem cheerful for the children’s benefit, the children who were oblivious to their fate—and to the terrible scene that would soon unfold.
There is little point in recounting it in detail, Mr. Markos, the scene that did unfold precisely as I had feared. But all these years later, I still feel my heart clench when the memory of it forces its way to the fore. How could it not? I took those two helpless children, in whom love of the simplest and purest kind had found expression, and I tore one from the other. I will never forget the sudden emotional mayhem. Pari slung over my shoulder, panic-stricken, kicking her legs, shrieking, Abollah! Abollah! as I whisked her away. Abdullah, screaming his sister’s name, trying to fight past his father. Nila, wide-eyed, her mouth covered with both hands, perhaps to silence her own scream. It weighs on me. All this time has passed, Mr. Markos, and it still weighs on me.
Pari was nearly four years old at the time, but, despite her young age, there were forces in her life that needed to be reshaped. She was instructed not to call me Kaka Nabi any longer, for instance, but simply Nabi. And her mistakes were gently corrected, by me included, over and over until she came to believe that we bore no relation to each other. I became for her Nabi the cook and Nabi the driver. Nila became “Maman,” and Mr. Wahdati “Papa.” Nila set about teaching her French, which had been her own mother’s tongue.
Mr. Wahdati’s chilly reception of Pari lasted only a brief time before, perhaps to his own surprise, little Pari’s tearful anxiety and homesickness disarmed him. Soon, Pari joined us on our morning strolls. Mr. Wahdati lowered her into a stroller and pushed her around the neighborhood as we walked. Or else he sat her up on his lap behind the wheel of the car and smiled patiently while she pushed the horn. He hired a carpenter and had him build a three-drawer trundle bed for Pari, a maple chest for toys, and a small, short armoire. He had all the furniture in Pari’s room painted yellow since he had discovered this was her favorite color. And I found him one day sitting cross-legged before the armoire, Pari at his side, as he painted, with rather remarkable skill, giraffes and long-tailed monkeys over its doors. It should speak volumes about his private nature, Mr. Markos, when I tell you that in all the years I had watched him sketch, this was the first time I had actually laid eyes on his artwork.
One of the effects of Pari’s entrance was that for the first time the Wahdati household resembled a proper family. Bound now by their affection for Pari, Nila and her husband took all their meals together. They walked Pari to a nearby park and sat contentedly beside each other on a bench to watch her play. When I served them tea at night after I had cleared the table, I often found one or the other reading a children’s book to Pari as she reclined on their laps, she, with each passing day, more forgetful of her past life in Shadbagh and of the people in it.
The other consequence of Pari’s arrival was one I had not anticipated: I receded into the background. Judge me charitably, Mr. Markos, and remember that I was a young man, but I admit I had hopes, foolish as they might have been. I was the instrument of Nila’s becoming a mother, after all. I had uncovered the source of her unhappiness and delivered an antidote. Did I think we would become lovers now? I want to say I was not so foolish as that, Mr. Markos, but that wouldn’t be entirely truthful. I suspect the truth is that we are waiting, all of us, against insurmountable odds, for something extraordinary to happen to us.
What I did not foresee was that I would fade away. Pari consumed Nila’s time now. Lessons, games, naps, walks, more games. Our daily chats went by the wayside. If the two of them were playing with building blocks or working on a puzzle, Nila would hardly notice that I had brought her coffee, that I was still in the room standing back on my heels. When we did speak, she seemed distracted, always eager to cut the conversation short. In the car, her expression was distant. For this, though it shames me, I will admit to feeling a shade of resentment toward my niece.
As part of the agreement with the Wahdatis, Pari’s family was not allowed to visit. They were not allowed any contact at all with her. I drove to Shadbagh one day soon after Pari moved in with the Wahdatis. I went there bearing a small present each for Abdullah and for my sister’s little boy, Iqbal, who was a toddler by then.
Saboor said pointedly, “You’ve given your gifts. Now it’s time to go.”
I told him I didn’t understand the reason for his cold reception, his gruff manner with me.
“You do understand,” he said. “And don’t feel like you have to come out and see us anymore.”
He was right, I did understand. A chill had grown between us. My visit had been awkward, tense, even contentious. It felt unnatural to sit together now, to sip tea and chat about the weather or that year’s grape harvest. We were feigning a normalcy, Saboor and I, that no longer was. Whatever the reason, I was, in the end, the instrument of his family’s rupture. Saboor did not want to set eyes on me again and I understood. I stopped my monthly visits. I never saw any of them again.
It was one day early in the spring of 1955, Mr. Markos, that the lives of all of us in the household changed forever. I remember it was raining. Not the galling kind that draws frogs out to croak, but an indecisive drizzle that had come and gone all morning. I remember because the gardener, Zahid, was there, being his habitual lazy self, leaning on a rake and saying how he might call it a day on account of the nasty weather. I was about to retreat to my shack, if only to get away from his drivel, when I heard Nila screaming my name from inside the main house.
I rushed across the yard to the house. Her voice was coming from upstairs, from the direction of the master bedroom.
I found Nila in a corner, back to the wall, palm clasped over her mouth. “Something’s wrong with him,” she said, not removing her hand.
Mr. Wahdati was sitting up in bed, dressed in a white undershirt. He was making strange guttural sounds. His face was pale and drawn, his hair disheveled. He was repeatedly trying, and failing, to perform some task with his right arm, and I noticed with horror that a line of spittle was streaking down from the corner of his mouth.
“Nabi! Do something!”
Pari, who was six by then, had come into the room, and now she scampered over to Mr. Wahdati’s bedside and pulled on his undershirt. “Papa? Papa?” He looked down at her, wide-eyed, his mouth opening and closing. She screamed.
I picked her up quickly and took her to Nila. I told Nila to take the child to another room because she must not see her father in this condition. Nila blinked, as if breaking a trance, looked from me to Pari before she reached for her. She kept asking me what was wrong with her husband. She kept saying that I must do something.
I summoned Zahid from the window and for once the good-for-nothing fool proved of some use. He helped me put a pair of pajama pants on Mr. Wahdati. We lifted him off the bed, carried him down the stairs, and lowered him into the backseat of the car. Nila climbed in next to him. I told Zahid to stay at the house and look after Pari. He started to protest, and I struck him, open-palmed, across the temple as hard as I could. I told him he was a donkey and that he must do as he was told.
And, with that, I backed out of the driveway and peeled out.
It was two full weeks before we brought Mr. Wahdati home. Chaos ensued. Family descended upon the house in hordes. I was brewing tea and cooking food almost around the clock to feed this uncle, that cousin, an elderly aunt. All day the front gates’ bell rang and heels clicked on the marble floor of the living room and murmurs rippled in the hallway as people spilled into the house. Most of them I had rarely seen at the house, and I understood that they were clocking in an appearance more to pay respect to Mr. Wahdati’s matronly mother than to see the reclusive sick man with whom they had but a tenuous connection. She came too, of course, the mother—minus the dogs, thank goodness. She burst into the house bearing a handkerchief in each hand to blot at her reddened eyes and dripping nose. She planted herself at his bedside and wept. Also, she wore black, which appalled me, as though her son were already dead.
And, in a way, he was. At least the old version of him. Half of his face was now a frozen mask. His legs were almost of no service. He had movement of the left arm, but the right was only bone and flaccid meat. He spoke with hoarse grunts and moans that no one could decipher.
The doctor told us that Mr. Wahdati felt emotions as he had before the stroke and he understood things well, but what he could not do, at least for the time being, was to act on what he felt and understood.
This was not entirely true, however. Indeed, after the first week or so he made his feelings quite clear about the visitors, his mother included. He was, even in such extreme sickness, a fundamentally solitary creature. And he had no use for their pity, their woebegone looks, all the forlorn headshaking at the wretched spectacle he had become. When they entered his room, he waved his functional left hand in an angry shooing motion. When they spoke to him, he turned his cheek. If they sat at his side, he clutched a handful of bedsheet and grunted and pounded the fist against his hip until they left. With Pari, his dismissal was no less insistent, if far gentler. She came to play with her dolls at his bedside, and he looked up at me pleadingly, his eyes watering, his chin quivering, until I led her out of the room—he did not try to speak with her for he knew his speech upset her.
The great visitor exodus came as a relief to Nila. When people were packing the house wall to wall, Nila retreated upstairs into Pari’s bedroom with her, much to the disgust of the mother-in-law, who doubtless expected—and, really, who could blame her?—Nila to remain at her son’s side, at least for the sake of appearances if nothing else. Of course Nila cared nothing about appearances or what might be said about her. And plenty was. “What sort of wife is this?” I heard the mother-in-law exclaim more than once. She complained to anyone who would listen that Nila was heartless, that she had a gaping hole in her soul. Where was she now that her husband needed her? What sort of wife abandoned her loyal, loving husband?
Some of what the old woman said, of course, was accurate. Indeed, it was I who could be found most reliably at Mr. Wahdati’s bedside, I who gave him his pills and greeted those who entered the room. It was me to whom the doctor spoke most often, and therefore it was me, and not Nila, whom people asked about Mr. Wahdati’s condition.
Mr. Wahdati’s dismissal of visitors relieved Nila of one discomfort but presented her with another. By holing up in Pari’s room and closing the door, she had kept herself at a remove not only from the disagreeable mother-in-law but also from the mess that her husband had become. Now the house was vacant, and she faced spousal duties for which she was uniquely ill suited.
She couldn’t do it.
And she didn’t.
I am not saying she was cruel or callous. I have lived a long time, Mr. Markos, and one thing I have come to see is that one is well served by a degree of both humility and charity when judging the inner workings of another person’s heart. What I am saying is that I walked into Mr. Wahdati’s room one day and found Nila sobbing into his belly, a spoon still in her hand, as pureed lentil daal dripped from his chin onto the bib tied around his neck.
“Let me, Bibi Sahib,” I said gently. I took the spoon from her, wiped his mouth clean, and went to feed him, but he moaned, squeezed his eyes shut, and turned his face.
It was not long after that I was lugging a pair of suitcases down the stairs and handing them to a driver, who stowed them in the trunk of his idling car. I helped Pari, who was wearing her favorite yellow coat, climb into the backseat.
“Nabi, will you bring Papa and visit us in Paris like Maman said?” she asked, giving me her gap-toothed smile.
I told her I certainly would when her father felt better. I kissed the back of each of her little hands. “Bibi Pari, I wish you luck and I wish you happiness,” I said.
I met Nila as she came down the front steps with puffy eyes and smudged eyeliner. She had been in Mr. Wahdati’s room saying her good-byes.
I asked her how he was.
“Relieved, I think,” she said, then added, “although that may be my wishful thinking.” She closed the zipper to her purse and slung the strap over her shoulder.
“Don’t tell anyone where I’m going. It would be for the best.”
I promised her I would not.
She told me she would write soon. She then looked me long in the eyes, and I believe I saw genuine affection there. She touched my face with the palm of her hand.
“I’m happy, Nabi, that you’re with him.”
Then she pulled close and embraced me, her cheek against mine. My nose filled with the scent of her hair, her perfume.
“It was you, Nabi,” she said in my ear. “It was always you. Didn’t you know?”
I didn’t understand. And she broke from me before I could ask. Head lowered, boot heels clicking against the asphalt, she hurried down the driveway. She slid into the backseat of the taxi next to Pari, looked my way once, and pressed her palm against the glass. Her palm, white against the window, was the last I saw of her as the car pulled away from the driveway.
I watched her go, and waited for the car to turn at the end of the street before I pulled the gates shut. Then I leaned against them and wept like a child.
Despite Mr. Wahdati’s wishes, a few visitors still trickled in, at least for a short while longer. Eventually, it was only his mother who turned up to see him. She came once a week or so. She would snap her fingers at me and I would pull up a chair for her, and no sooner had she plopped down next to her son’s bed than she would launch into a soliloquy of assaults on the character of his now departed wife. She was a harlot. A liar. A drunk. A coward who had run to God knows where when her husband needed her most. This, Mr. Wahdati would bear in silence, looking impassively past her shoulder at the window. Then came an interminable stream of news and updates, much of it almost physically painful in its banality. A cousin who had argued with her sister because her sister had had the gall to buy the same exact coffee table as she. Who had got a flat tire on the way home from Paghman last Friday. Who had got a new haircut. On and on. Sometimes Mr. Wahdati would grunt something, and his mother would turn to me.
“You. What did he say?” She always addressed me in this manner, her words sharp and angular.
Because I was at his side more or less all day, I had slowly come to unlock the enigma of his speech. I would lean in close, and what sounded to others like unintelligible groans and mumbles I would recognize as a request for water, for the bedpan, an appeal to be turned over. I had become his de facto interpreter.
“Your son says he would like to sleep.”
The old woman would sigh and say that it was just as well, she ought to be going anyway. She would lean down and kiss his brow and promise to come back soon. Once I had walked her out to the front gates, where her own chauffeur awaited her, I would return to Mr. Wahdati’s room and sit on a stool next to his bed and we would relish the silence together. Sometimes his eyes caught mine, and he would shake his head and grin crookedly.
Because the work I had been hired for was so limited now—I drove only to get groceries once or twice a week, and I had to cook for only two people—I saw little sense in paying the other servants for work that I could perform. I expressed this to Mr. Wahdati, and he motioned with his hand. I leaned in.
“You’ll wear yourself out.”
“No, Sahib. I’m happy to do it.”
He asked me if I was sure, and I told him I was.
His eyes watered and his fingers closed weakly around my wrist. He had been the most stoic man I had ever known, but since the stroke the most trivial things made him agitated, anxious, tearful.
“Nabi, listen to me.”
“Pay yourself any salary you like.”
I told him we had no need to talk about that.
“You know where I keep the money.”
“Get your rest, Sahib.”
“I don’t care how much.”
I said I was thinking of making shorwa soup for lunch. “How does that sound, shorwa? I would like some myself, come to think of it.”
I put an end to the evening gatherings with the other workers. I no longer cared what they thought of me; I would not have them come to Mr. Wahdati’s house and amuse themselves at his expense. I had the considerable pleasure of firing Zahid. I also let go of the Hazara woman who came in to wash clothes. Thereafter, I washed the laundry and hung it on a clothesline to dry. I tended to the trees, trimmed the shrubs, mowed the grass, planted new flowers and vegetables. I maintained the house, sweeping the rugs, polishing the floors, beating the dust from the curtains, washing the windows, fixing leaky faucets, replacing rusty pipes.
One day, I was up in Mr. Wahdati’s room dusting cobwebs from the moldings while he slept. It was summer, and the heat was fierce and dry. I had taken all the blankets and sheets off Mr. Wahdati and rolled up the legs of his pajama pants. I had opened the windows, the fan overhead wheeled creakily, but it was little use, the heat pushed in from every direction.
There was a rather large closet in the room I had been meaning to clean for some time and I decided to finally get to it that day. I slid the doors open and started in on the suits, dusting each one individually, though I recognized that, in all probability, Mr. Wahdati would never don any of them again. There were stacks of books on which dust had collected, and I wiped those as well. I cleaned his shoes with a cloth and lined them all up in a neat row. I found a large cardboard box, nearly shielded from view by the hems of several long winter coats draping over it. I pulled it toward me and opened it. It was full of Mr. Wahdati’s old sketchbooks, one stacked atop another, each a sad relic of his past life.
I lifted the top sketchbook from the box and randomly opened it to a page. My knees nearly buckled. I went through the whole book. I put it down and picked up another, then another, and another, and another after that. The pages flipped before my eyes, each fanning my face with a little sigh, each bearing the same subject drawn in charcoal. Here I was wiping the front fender of the car as seen from the perch of the upstairs bedroom. Here I was leaning on a shovel by the veranda. I could be found on these pages tying my shoelaces, chopping wood, watering bushes, pouring tea from kettles, praying, napping. Here was the car parked along the banks of Ghargha Lake, me behind the wheel, the window rolled down, my arm hanging over the side of the door, a dimly drawn figure in the backseat, birds circling overhead.
It was you, Nabi.
It was always you.
Didn’t you know?
I looked over to Mr. Wahdati. He was sleeping soundly on his side. I carefully placed the sketchbooks back in the cardboard box, closed the top, and pushed the box back in the corner beneath the winter coats. Then I left the room, shutting the door softly so as not to wake him. I walked down the dim hallway and down the stairs. I saw myself walk on. Step out into the heat of that summer day, make my way down the driveway, push out the front gates, stride down the street, turn the corner, and keep walking, without looking over my shoulder.
How was I to stay on now? I wondered. I was neither disgusted nor flattered by the discovery I had made, Mr. Markos, but I was discomfited. I tried to picture how I could stay, knowing what I knew now. It cast a pall over everything, what I had found in the box. A thing like this could not be escaped, pushed aside. Yet how could I leave while he was in such a helpless state? I could not, not without first finding someone suitable to take over my duties. I owed Mr. Wahdati at least that much because he had always been good to me, while I, on the other hand, had maneuvered behind his back to gain his wife’s favors.
I went to the dining room and sat at the glass table with my eyes closed. I cannot tell you how long I sat there without moving, Mr. Markos, only that at some point I heard stirrings from upstairs and I blinked my eyes open and saw that the light had changed, and then I got up and set a pot of water to boil for tea.
One day, I went up to his room and told him that I had a surprise for him. This was sometime in the late 1950s, long before television had made its way to Kabul. He and I passed our time those days playing cards, and, of late, chess, which he had taught me and for which I was showing a bit of a knack. We also spent considerable time with reading lessons. He proved a patient teacher. He would close his eyes as he listened to me read and shake his head gently when I erred. Again, he would say. By then, his speech had improved quite dramatically over time. Read that again, Nabi. I had been more or less literate when he had hired me back in 1947, thanks to Mullah Shekib, but it was through Suleiman’s tutoring that my reading truly advanced, as did my writing by consequence. He did it to help me, of course, but there was also a self-serving element to the lessons for I now could read to him books that he liked. He could read them on his own, naturally, but only for short bursts, as he tired easily.
If I was in the midst of a chore and could not be with him, he didn’t have much to occupy himself with. He listened to records. Often, he had to make do with looking out the window, at the birds perched on the trees, the sky, the clouds, and listen to the children playing on the street, the fruit vendors pulling their donkeys, chanting, Cherries! Fresh cherries!
When I told him about this surprise, he asked me what it was. I slid my arm under his neck and told him we were going downstairs first. In those days, I had little trouble carrying him for I was still young and able. I lifted him with ease and carried him to the living room, where I gently reclined him on the sofa.
“Well?” he said.
I pushed in the wheelchair from the foyer. For over a year, I had lobbied for it, and he had obstinately refused. Now I had taken the initiative and bought one anyway. Immediately, he was shaking his head.
“Is it the neighbors?” I said. “Are you embarrassed by what people will say?”
He told me to take him back upstairs.
“Well, I don’t give one damn what the neighbors think or say,” I said. “So, what we are going to do today is go for a walk. It’s a lovely day and we are going for a walk, you and I, and that is that. Because if we don’t get out of this house, I am going to lose my mind, and where would that leave you if I went insane? And honestly, Suleiman, quit your crying. You’re like an old woman.”
Now he was crying and laughing, and still saying, “No! No!” even as I lifted him and lowered him into the wheelchair, and as I covered him with a blanket and wheeled him through the front door.
It would merit mentioning here that I did at first search for a replacement for myself. I did not tell Suleiman I was doing so; I thought it best to find the right person and then bring the news to him. A number of people came to inquire about the work. I met with them outside the house so as to not rouse suspicion in Suleiman. But the search proved far more problematic than I had anticipated. Some of the candidates were clearly made of the same cloth as Zahid, and those—whom I sniffed out easily due to my lifelong dealings with their sort—I dismissed swiftly. Others didn’t have the necessary cooking skills, for, as I mentioned earlier, Suleiman was a rather fussy eater. Or they could not drive. Many could not read, which was a serious impediment now that I habitually read to Suleiman late in the afternoons. Some I found to be impatient, another grave shortcoming when it came to caring for Suleiman, who could be exasperating and at times childishly petulant. Others I intuitively judged to lack the necessary temperament for the arduous task at hand.
And so three years on, I was still at the house, still telling myself I intended to leave once I felt assured Suleiman’s fate was in hands I could trust. Three years on, I was still the one washing his body every other day with a wet cloth, shaving his face, clipping his nails, cutting his hair. I fed him his food and helped him on the bedpan, and I wiped him clean, the way you do an infant, and I washed the soiled diapers I pinned on him. In that time, we had developed between us an unspoken language born of familiarity and routine, and, inevitably, a degree of previously unthinkable informality had seeped into our relationship.
Once I got him to agree to the wheelchair, the old ritual of morning strolls was restored. I wheeled him out of the house, and we would go down the street and say hello to the neighbors as we passed by. One of them was Mr. Bashiri, a young, recent graduate of Kabul University who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He, his brother, and their respective wives had moved into a big two-story home three houses down across the street from us. Sometimes we ran into him as he was warming up his car in the morning to go to work, and I always stopped for a few pleasantries. I often wheeled Suleiman over to Shar-e-Nau Park, where we sat in the shade of the elms and watched the traffic—the taxi drivers pounding palms against horns, the ding-a-ding of bicycles, donkeys braying, pedestrians suicidally stepping into the path of buses. We became a familiar sight, Suleiman and I, in and around the park. On the way home, we paused often for good-humored exchanges with magazine vendors and butchers, a few cheerful words with the young policemen directing traffic. We chatted up drivers leaning against their fenders, waiting for pickups.
Sometimes I lowered him into the backseat of the old Chevrolet, stowed the wheelchair in the trunk, and drove out to Paghman, where I could always find a pretty green field and a bubbling little stream shaded by trees. He tried his hand at sketching after we ate lunch, but it was a struggle, for the stroke had affected his dominant right hand. Still, using his left hand, he managed to recreate trees and hills and bundles of wildflowers with far greater artistry than I could with my intact faculties. Eventually, Suleiman would tire and doze off, the pencil slipping from his hand. I would cover his legs with a blanket and lie on the grass beside his chair. I would listen to the breeze catching the trees, gaze up at the sky, the strips of clouds gliding overhead.
Sooner or later, I would find my thoughts drifting to Nila, who was an entire continent away from me now. I would picture the soft sheen of her hair, the way she bounced her foot, the sandal slapping her heel to the crackle of a burning cigarette. I thought of the curve of her back and the swell of her chest. I longed to be near her again, to be engulfed in her smell, to feel the old familiar flutter of the heart when she touched my hand. She had promised to write me, and though years had passed and in all likelihood she had forgotten me, I cannot lie now and claim I did not still feel an upsurge of anticipation each time we received correspondence at the house.
One day, in Paghman, I was sitting on the grass, studying the chessboard. This was years later, in 1968, the year after Suleiman’s mother died, and also the year both Mr. Bashiri and his brother became fathers, boys they had named, respectively, Idris and Timur. I often spotted the little baby cousins in their strollers as their mothers took them for leisurely walks around the neighborhood. That day, Suleiman and I had started a chess game, before he had dozed off, and I was trying now to find a way to equalize my position after his aggressive opening gambit, when he said, “Tell me, how old are you, Nabi?”
“Well, I’m past forty,” I said. “I know that much.”
“I was thinking, you should marry,” he said. “Before you lose your looks. You’re already graying.”
We smiled at each other. I told him my sister Masooma used to say the same to me.
He asked if I remembered the day he had hired me, back in 1947, twenty-one years earlier.
Naturally, I did. I had been working, rather unhappily, as an assistant cook at a house a few blocks from the Wahdati residence. When I had heard that he needed a cook—his own had married and moved away—I had walked straight to his house one afternoon and rung the bell at the front gates.
“You were a spectacularly bad cook,” Suleiman said. “You work wonders now, Nabi, but that first meal? My God. And the first time you drove me in my car I thought I would have a stroke.” Here he paused, then chuckled, surprised at his own unintended joke.
This came as a complete surprise to me, Mr. Markos, a shock, really, for Suleiman had never submitted to me in all these years a single complaint about either my cooking or my driving. “Why did you hire me, then?” I asked.
He turned his face to me. “Because you walked in, and I thought to myself that I had never seen anyone as beautiful.”
I lowered my eyes to the chessboard.
“I knew when I met you that we weren’t the same, you and I, that it was an impossible thing what I wanted. Still, we had our morning walks, and our drives, and I won’t say that was enough for me but it was better than not being with you. I learned to make do with your proximity.” He paused, then said, “And I think you understand something of what I am describing, Nabi. I know you do.”
I could not lift my eyes to meet his.
“I need to tell you, if only this once, that I have loved you a long, long time, Nabi. Please don’t be angry.”
I shook my head no. For minutes, neither of us spoke a word. It breathed between us, what he had said, the pain of a life suppressed, of happiness never to be.
“And I am telling you this now,” he said, “so you understand why I want you to go. Go and find yourself a wife. Start your own family, Nabi, like everyone else. There is still time for you.”
“Well,” I said at last, aiming to ease the tension with flippancy, “one of these days I just might. And then you’ll be sorry. And so will the miserable bastard who has to wash your diapers.”
“You always joke.”
I watched a beetle crawl lightly across a green-gray leaf.
“Don’t stay for me. This is what I’m saying, Nabi. Don’t stay for me.”
“You flatter yourself.”
“Again the joking,” he said tiredly.
I said nothing even though he had it wrong. I was not joking that time. My staying was no longer for him. It had been at first. I had stayed initially because Suleiman needed me, because he was wholly dependent on me. I had run once before from someone who needed me, and the remorse I still feel I will take with me to the grave. I could not do it again. But slowly, imperceptibly, my reasons for staying changed. I cannot tell you when or how the change occurred, Mr. Markos, only that I was staying for me now. Suleiman said I should marry. But the fact is, I looked at my life and realized I already had what people sought in marriage. I had comfort, and companionship, and a home where I was always welcomed, loved, and needed. The physical urges I had as a man—and I still had them, of course, though less frequent and less pressing now that I was older—could still be managed, as I explained earlier. As for children, though I had always liked them I had never felt a tug of paternal impulse in myself.
“If you mean to be a mule and not marry,” Suleiman said, “then I have a request of you. But on the condition that you accept before I ask.”
I told him he could not demand that of me.
“And yet I am.”
I looked up at him.
“You can say no,” he said.
He knew me well. He smiled crookedly. I made my promise, and he made his request.
What shall I tell you, Mr. Markos, of the years that ensued? You know well the recent history of this beleaguered country. I need not rehash for you those dark days. I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been sufficiently chronicled, and by pens far more learned and eloquent than mine.
I can sum it up in one word: war. Or, rather, wars. Not one, not two, but many wars, both big and small, just and unjust, wars with shifting casts of supposed heroes and villains, each new hero making one increasingly nostalgic for the old villain. The names changed, as did the faces, and I spit on them equally for all the petty feuds, the snipers, the land mines, bombing raids, the rockets, the looting and raping and killing. Ah, enough! The task is both too great and too unpleasant. I lived those days already, and I intend to relive them on these pages as briefly as possible. The only good I took from that time was a measure of vindication about little Pari, who by now must have grown into a young woman. It eased my conscience that she was safe, far from all this killing.
The 1980s, as you know, Mr. Markos, were actually not so terrible in Kabul since most of the fighting took place in the countryside. Still, it was a time of exodus, and many families from our neighborhood packed their things and left the country for either Pakistan or Iran, with hopes of resettling somewhere in the West. I remember vividly the day Mr. Bashiri came to say good-bye. I shook his hand and wished him well. I said my farewells also to his son, Idris, who had grown into a tall, lanky fourteen-year-old with long hair and peach fuzz above his lip. I told Idris I would miss very much the sight of him and his cousin Timur flying kites and playing soccer on the street. You may recall that we met the cousins many years later, you and I, Mr. Markos, when they were grown men, at a party you threw at the house in the spring of 2003.
It was in the 1990s that fighting at last broke out within the city limits. Kabul fell prey to men who looked like they had tumbled out of their mothers with Kalashnikov in hand, Mr. Markos, vandals all of them, gun-toting thieves with grandiose, self-given titles. When the rockets began to fly, Suleiman stayed in the house and refused to leave. He stoutly declined information about what was going on outside the walls of his house. He unplugged the television. He cast aside the radio. He had no use for newspapers. He asked that I not bring home any news of the fighting. He scarcely knew who was battling whom, who was winning, who was losing, as though he hoped that by doggedly ignoring the war it would return the favor.
Of course it did not. The street where we lived, once so quiet and pristine and gleaming, turned into a war zone. Bullets hit every house. Rockets whistled overhead. RPGs landed up and down the street and blasted craters in the asphalt. At night, red-and-white tracers flew every which way until dawn. Some days, we would have a bit of reprieve, a few hours of quiet, and then sudden bursts of fire would break it, rounds cracking off from every direction, people on the street screaming.
It was during those years, Mr. Markos, that the house absorbed most of the damage that you witnessed when you first saw it in 2002. Granted, some of it was due to the passage of time and neglect—I had aged into an old man by then and no longer had the wherewithal to tend to the house as I once had. The trees were dead by then—they had not borne fruit in years—the lawn had yellowed, the flowers perished. But war was ruthless on the once beautiful house. Windows shattered by nearby RPG blasts. A rocket pulverized the wall on the eastern face of the garden as well as half of the veranda, where Nila and I had held so many conversations. A grenade damaged the roof. Bullets scarred the walls.
And then the looting, Mr. Markos. Militiamen would walk in at will and make off with whatever struck their fancy. They whisked away most of the furniture, the paintings, the Turkoman rugs, the statues, the silver candlesticks, the crystal vases. They chiseled loose lapis tiles from the bathroom counters. I woke one morning to the sound of men in the foyer. I found a band of Uzbek militiamen ripping the rug from the stairwell with a set of curved knives. I stood by and watched them. What could I do? What was another old man with a bullet in the head to them?
Like the house, Suleiman and I too were wearing down. My eyesight dimmed, and my knees took to aching most days. Forgive me this vulgarity, Mr. Markos, but the mere act of urinating turned into a test of endurance. Predictably, the aging hit Suleiman harder than it did me. He shrank and became thin and startlingly frail. Twice, he nearly died, once during the worst days of the fighting between Ahmad Shah Massoud’s group and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s, when bodies lay unclaimed for days on the streets. Suleiman had pneumonia that time, which the doctor said he got from aspirating his own saliva. Though both doctors and the medicines they prescribed were in short supply, I managed to nurse Suleiman back from what was surely the brink of death.
Perhaps because of the daily confinement and the close proximity to each other, we argued often in those days, Suleiman and I. We argued the way married couples do, stubbornly, heatedly, and over trivial things.
You already cooked beans this week.
No I didn’t.
But you did. On Monday you did!
Disagreements on how many games of chess we had played the day before. Why did I always set his water on the windowsill, knowing the sun would warm it?
Why didn’t you call for the bedpan, Suleiman?
I did, a hundred times I did!
Which are you calling me, deaf or lazy?
No need to pick, I’m calling you both!
You have some gall calling me lazy for someone who lies in bed all day.
On and on.
He would snap his head side to side when I tried to feed him. I would leave him and give the door a good slam on my way out. Sometimes, I admit, I willfully made him worry. I left the house. He would cry, Where are you going? and I would not answer. I pretended I was leaving for good. Of course I would merely go down the street somewhere and smoke—a new habit, the smoking, acquired late in life—though I did it only when I was angry. Sometimes I stayed out for hours. And if he had really roiled me up, I would stay out until dark. But I always came back. I would enter his room without saying a word and I would turn him over and fluff his pillow, both of us averting our eyes, both of us tight-lipped, waiting for a peace offering from the other.
Eventually, the fighting ended with the arrival of the Taliban, those sharp-faced young men with dark beards, kohl-rimmed eyes, and whips. Their cruelty and excesses have also been well documented, and once again I see little reason to enumerate them for you, Mr. Markos. I should say that their years in Kabul were, ironically enough, a time of personal reprieve for me. They saved the bulk of their contempt and zealotry for the young, especially the poor women. Me, I was an old man. My main concession to their regime was to grow a beard, which, frankly, spared me the meticulous task of a daily shave.
“It’s official, Nabi,” Suleiman breathed from the bed, “you’ve lost your looks. You look like a prophet.”
On the streets, the Taliban walked past me as though I were a grazing cow. I helped them in this by willfully taking on a muted bovine expression so as to avoid any undue attention. I shudder to think what they would have made of—and done to—Nila. Sometimes when I summoned her in my mind, laughing at a party with a glass of champagne in hand, her bare arms, her long, slender legs, it was as though I had made her up. As though she had never truly existed. As though none of it had ever been real—not only she but I too, and Pari, and a young, healthy Suleiman, and even the time and the house we had all occupied together.
Then one morning in the summer of 2000 I walked into Suleiman’s room carrying tea and freshly baked bread on a platter. Immediately, I knew something had happened. His breathing was ragged. His facial droop had suddenly become far more pronounced, and when he tried to speak he produced croaking noises that barely rose above a whisper. I put down the platter and rushed to his side.
“I’ll fetch a doctor, Suleiman,” I said. “You just wait. We’ll get you better, like always.”
I turned to go, but he was shaking his head violently. He motioned with the fingers of his left hand.
I leaned in, my ear close to his mouth.
He made a series of attempts at saying something but I could not make out any of it.
“I’m sorry, Suleiman,” I said, “you must let me go and find the doctor. I won’t be long.”
He shook his head again, slowly this time, and tears leaked from his cataract-laden eyes. His mouth opened and closed. He motioned toward the nightstand with his head. I asked him if there was something there he needed. He shut his eyes and nodded.
I opened the top drawer. I saw nothing there but pills, his reading glasses, an old bottle of cologne, a notepad, charcoal pencils he had stopped using years before. I was about to ask him what I was supposed to find when I did find it, tucked underneath the notepad. An envelope with my name scribbled on the back in Suleiman’s clumsy penmanship. Inside was a sheet of paper on which he had written a single paragraph. I read it.
I looked down at him, his caved-in temples, his craggy cheeks, his hollow eyes.
He motioned again, and I leaned in. I felt his cold, rough, uneven breaths on my cheek. I heard the sound of his tongue struggling in his dry mouth as he collected himself. Somehow, perhaps through sheer force of will—his last—he managed to whisper in my ear.
The air whooshed out of me. I forced the words around the lump that had lodged itself in my throat.
“No. Please, Suleiman.”
“Not yet. I’m going to nurse you back. You’ll see. We’ll get through it like we always have.”
How long did I sit there by him? How long did I try to negotiate? I cannot tell you, Mr. Markos. I do remember that I finally rose, walked around the side of the bed, and lay down next to him. I rolled him over so he faced me. He felt light as a dream. I placed a kiss on his dry, cracked lips. I put a pillow between his face and my chest and reached for the back of his head. I held him against me in a long, tight embrace.
All I remember after was the way the pupils of his eyes had spread out.
I walked over to the window and sat, Suleiman’s cup of tea still on the platter at my feet. It was a sunny morning, I remember. Shops would open soon, if they hadn’t already. Little boys heading off to school. The dust rising already. A dog loped lazily up the street escorted by a dark cloud of mosquitoes swirling around its head. I watched two young men ride past on a motorcycle. The passenger, straddling the rear carrier pack, had hoisted a computer monitor on one shoulder, a watermelon on the other.
I rested my forehead against the warm glass.
The note in Suleiman’s drawer was a will in which he had left me everything. The house, his money, his personal belongings, even the car, though it had long decayed. Its carcass still sat in the backyard on flat tires, a sagging hulk of rusted-over metal.
For a time, I was quite literally at a loss as to what to do with myself. For more than half a century I had looked after Suleiman. My daily existence had been shaped by his needs, his companionship. Now I was free to do as I wished, but I found the freedom illusory, for what I wished for the most had been taken from me. They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind. And now that I had fulfilled mine, I felt aimless and adrift.
I found I could not sleep in the house any longer; I could hardly stay in it. With Suleiman gone, it felt far too big. And every corner, every nook and cranny, evoked ripe memories. So I moved back into my old shack at the far end of the yard. I paid some workers to install electricity in the shack so that I would have a light to read by and a fan to keep me cool in the summer. As for space, I did not need much. My possessions amounted to little more than a bed, some clothes, and the box containing Suleiman’s drawings. I know this may strike you as odd, Mr. Markos. Yes, legally the house and everything in it belonged to me now, but I felt no true sense of ownership over any of it, and I knew I never really would.
I read quite a bit, books I took from Suleiman’s old study. I returned each when I had finished. I planted some tomatoes, a few sprigs of mint. I went for walks around the neighborhood, but my knees often ached before I had covered even two blocks, forcing me to return. Sometimes I pulled up a chair in the garden and just sat idly. I was not like Suleiman: Solitude did not suit me well.
Then one day in 2002 you rang the bell at the front gates.
By then, the Taliban had been driven out by the Northern Alliance, and the Americans had come to Afghanistan. Thousands of aid workers were flocking to Kabul from all over the world to build clinics and schools, to repair roads and irrigation canals, to bring food and shelter and jobs.
The translator who accompanied you was a young local Afghan who wore a bright purple jacket and sunglasses. He asked for the owner of the house. There was a quick exchange of glances between the two of you when I told the translator he was speaking to the owner. He smirked and said, “No, Kaka, the owner.” I invited you both in for tea.
The conversation that ensued, on the surviving section of the veranda over cups of green tea, was in Farsi—I have, as you know, Mr. Markos, learned some English in the seven years since, largely thanks to your guidance and generosity. Through the translator, you said you were from Tinos, which was an island in Greece. You were a surgeon, part of a medical group that had come to Kabul to operate on children who had suffered injuries to their face. You said you and your colleagues needed a residence, a guesthouse, as it is called these days.
You asked how much I would charge you for rent.
I said, “Nothing.”
I recall still how you blinked after the young man in the purple jacket translated. You repeated your question, perhaps thinking I had misunderstood.
The translator drew himself forward to the edge of his chair and leaned toward me. He spoke in a confidential tone. He asked if my mind had gone to rot, whether I had any idea what your group was willing to pay, did I have any notion of what rentals were going for now in Kabul? He said I was sitting on gold.
I told him to remove his sunglasses when he spoke to an elder. Then I instructed him to do his job, which was to translate, not give advice, and I turned to you and offered, among my many reasons, the one that was not private. “You have left behind your country,” I said, “your friends, your family, and you have come here to this godforsaken city to help my homeland and my countrymen. How could I profit off you?”
The young translator, whom I never saw with you again, tossed his hands up and chuckled with dismay. This country has changed. It was not always like this, Mr. Markos.
Sometimes at night, I lie in the dark privacy of my quarters and I see the lights burning in the main house. I watch you and your friends—especially the brave Miss Amra Ademovic, whose enormous heart I admire to no end—on the veranda or in the yard, eating food from plates, smoking cigarettes, drinking your wine. I can hear the music too, and at times it is jazz, which reminds me of Nila.
She is dead now, this I know. I learned it from Miss Amra. I had told her about the Wahdatis and shared with her that Nila had been a poet. She found a French publication on the computer. They had published online an anthology of their best pieces of the last forty years. There was one about Nila. The piece said she had died in 1974. I thought of the futility of all those years, hoping for a letter from a woman who was already long dead. I was not altogether surprised to learn that she had taken her own life. I know now that some people feel unhappiness the way others love: privately, intensely, and without recourse.
Let me finish with this, Mr. Markos.
My time is near now. I weaken by the day. It will not be much longer. And thank God for that. Thank you as well, Mr. Markos, not only for your friendship, for taking the time to visit me daily and sit down for tea and for sharing with me news of your mother on Tinos and your childhood friend Thalia, but also for your compassion for my people and the invaluable service you are providing children here.
Thank you as well for the repair work that you are doing around the house. I have spent now the bulk of my life in it, it is home to me, and I am certain that I will soon take my last breath under its roof. I have borne witness to its decline with dismay and heartbreak. But it has brought me great joy to see it repainted, to see the garden wall repaired, the windows replaced, and the veranda, where I spent countless happy hours, rebuilt. Thank you, my friend, for the trees you have planted, and for the flowers blooming once more in the garden. If I have in some way aided in the services you render the people of this city, then what you have graciously done for this house is more than enough payment for me.
But, at the risk of appearing greedy, I will take the liberty of asking you for two things, one for me, one for another. First is that you have me buried in the Ashuqan-Arefan cemetery, here in Kabul. I am sure you know it. Walk to the north end from the main entrance and if you look for a short while you will find Suleiman Wahdati’s grave. Find me a plot nearby and bury me there. This is all I ask for myself.
The second is that you try to find my niece Pari after I am gone. If she is still alive, it may not prove too difficult—this Internet is a wondrous tool. As you can see enclosed in the envelope along with this letter is my will, in which I leave the house, the money, and my few belongings to her. I ask that you give her both this letter and the will. And please tell her, tell her that I cannot know the myriad consequences of what I set into motion. Tell her I took solace only in hope. Hope that perhaps, wherever she is now, she has found as much peace, grace, love, and happiness as this world allows.
I thank you, Mr. Markos. May God protect you.
Your friend always,
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