PART THREE 1 страница

27.

Mariam

Do you know who I am?"

The girl's eyes fluttered.

"Do you know what has happened?"

The girl's mouth quivered. She closed her eyes. Swallowed. Her hand grazed her left cheek. She mouthed something.

Mariam leaned in closer.

"This ear," the girl breathed. "I can't hear."

FOR THE FIRST WEEK, the girl did little but sleep, with help from the pink pills Rasheed paid for at the hospital. She murmured in her sleep. Sometimes she spoke gibberish, cried out, called out names Mariam did not recognize. She wept in her sleep, grew agitated, kicked the blankets off, and then Mariam had to hold her down. Sometimes she retched and retched, threw up everything Mariam fed her.

When she wasn't agitated, the girl was a sullen pair of eyes staring from under the blanket, breathing out short little answers to Mariam and Rasheed's questions. Some days she was childlike, whipped her head side to side, when Mariam, then Rasheed, tried to feed her. She went rigid when Mariam came at her with a spoon. But she tired easily and submitted eventually to their persistent badgering. Long bouts of weeping followed surrender.

Rasheed had Mariam rub antibiotic ointment on the cuts on the girl's face and neck, and on the sutured gashes on her shoulder, across her forearms and lower legs. Mariam dressed them with bandages, which she washed and recycled. She held the girl's hair back, out of her face, when she had to retch.

"How long is she staying?" she asked Rasheed.

"Until she's better. Look at her. She's in no shape to go. Poor thing."

IT WAS RASHEED who found the girl, who dug her out from beneath the rubble.

"Lucky I was home," he said to the girl. He was sitting on a folding chair beside Mariam's bed, where the girl lay. "Lucky for you, I mean. I dug you out with my own hands. There was a scrap of metal this big-" Here, he spread his thumb and index finger apart to show her, at least doubling, in Mariam's estimation, the actual size of it. "This big. Sticking right out of your shoulder. It was really embedded in there. I thought I'd have to use a pair of pliers. But you're all right. In no time, you'll be nau socha. Good as new."

It was Rasheed who salvaged a handful of Hakim's books.

"Most of them were ash. The rest were looted, I'm afraid."

He helped Mariam watch over the girl that first week. One day, he came home from work with a new blanket and pillow. Another day, a bottle of pills.

"Vitamins," he said.



It was Rasheed who gave Laila the news that her friend Tariq's house was occupied now.

"A gift," he said. "From one of Sayyaf s commanders to three of his men. A gift. Ha!"

The three men were actually boys with suntanned, youthful faces. Mariam would see them when she passed by, always dressed in their fatigues, squatting by the front door of Tariq's house, playing cards and smoking, their Kalashnikovs leaning against the wall. The brawny one, the one with the self-satisfied, scornful demeanor, was the leader. The youngest was also the quietest, the one who seemed reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace his friends' air of impunity. He had taken to smiling and tipping his head salaam when Mariam passed by. When he did, some of his surface smugness dropped away, and Mariam caught a glint of humility as yet uncorrupted.

Then one morning rockets slammed into the house. They were rumored later to have been fired by the Hazaras of Wahdat. For some time, neighbors kept finding bits and pieces of the boys.

"They had it coming," said Rasheed.

THE GIRL WAS extraordinarily lucky, Mariam thought, to escape with relatively minor injuries, considering the rocket had turned her house into smoking rubble. And so, slowly, the girl got better. She began to eat more, began to brush her own hair. She took baths on her own. She began taking her meals downstairs, with Mariam and Rasheed.

But then some memory would rise, unbidden, and there would be stony silences or spells of churlishness. Withdrawals and collapses. Wan looks. Nightmares and sudden attacks of grief. Retching.

And sometimes regrets.

"I shouldn't even be here," she said one day.

Mariam was changing the sheets. The girl watched from the floor, her bruised knees drawn up against her chest.

"My father wanted to take out the boxes. The books. He said they were too heavy for me. But I wouldn't let him. I was so eager. I should have been the one inside the house when it happened."

Mariam snapped the clean sheet and let it settle on the bed. She looked at the girl, at her blond curls, her slender neck and green eyes, her high cheekbones and plump lips. Mariam remembered seeing her on the streets when she was little, tottering after her mother on the way to the tandoor, riding on the shoulders of her brother, the younger one, with the patch of hair on his ear. Shooting marbles with the carpenter's boy.



The girl was looking back as if waiting for Mariam to pass on some morsel of wisdom, to say something encouraging. But what wisdom did Mariam have to offer? What encouragement? Mariam remembered the day they'd buried Nana and how little comfort she had found when Mullah Faizullah had quoted the Koran for her. Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He Who has power over all things, Who created death and life that He may try you. Or when he'd said of her own guilt, These thoughts are no good, Mariam jo. They will destroy you. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't your fault.

What could she say to this girl that would ease her burden?

As it turned out, Mariam didn't have to say anything. Because the girl's face twisted, and she was on all fours then saying she was going to be sick.

"Wait! Hold on. I'll get a pan. Not on the floor. I just cleaned… Oh. Oh. Khodaya. God."

THEN ONE DAY, about a month after the blast that killed the girl's parents, a man came knocking. Mariam opened the door. He stated his business.

"There is a man here to see you," Mariam said.

The girl raised her head from the pillow.

"He says his name is Abdul Sharif."

"I don't know any Abdul Sharif."

"Well, he's here asking for you. You need to come down and talk to him."

28.

Laila

Laila sat across from Abdul Sharif, who was a thin, small-headed man with a bulbous nose pocked with the same cratered scars that pitted his cheeks. His hair, short and brown, stood on his scalp like needles in a pincushion.

"You'll have to forgive me, hamshira," he said, adjusting his loose collar and dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief "I still haven't quite recovered, I fear. Five more days of these, what are they called… sulfa pills."

Laila positioned herself in her seat so that her right ear, the good one, was closest to him. "Were you a friend of my parents?"

"No, no," Abdul Sharif said quickly. "Forgive me." He raised a finger, took a long sip of the water that Mariam had placed in front of him.

"I should begin at the beginning, I suppose." He dabbed at his lips, again at his brow. "I am a businessman. I own clothing stores, mostly men's clothing. Chapans, hats, tumbans, suits, ties – you name it. Two stores here in Kabul, in Taimani and Shar-e-Nau, though I just sold those. And two in Pakistan, in Peshawar. That's where my warehouse is as well. So I travel a lot, back and forth. Which, these days" – he shook his head and chuckled tiredly – "let's just say that it's an adventure.

"I was in Peshawar recently, on business, taking orders, going over inventory, that sort of thing. Also to visit my family. We have three daughters, alhamdulellah. I moved them and my wife to Peshawar after the Mujahideen began going at each other's throats. I won't have their names added to the shaheed list. Nor mine, to be honest. I'll be joining them there very soon, inshallah.

"Anyway, I was supposed to be back in Kabul the Wednesday before last. But, as luck would have it, I came down with an illness. I won't bother you with it, hamshira, suffice it to say that when I went to do my private business, the simpler of the two, it felt like passing chunks of broken glass. I wouldn't wish it on Hekmatyar himself. My wife, Nadia jan, Allah bless her, she begged me to see a doctor. But I thought I'd beat it with aspirin and a lot of water. Nadia jan insisted and I said no, back and forth we went. You know the saying stubborn ass needs a stubborn driver. This time, I'm afraid, the ass won. That would be me."

He drank the rest of this water and extended the glass to Mariam. "If it's not too much zahmat."

Mariam took the glass and went to fill it.

"Needless to say, I should have listened to her. She's always been the more sensible one, God give her a long life. By the time I made it to the hospital, I was burning with a fever and shaking like a beid tree in the wind. I could barely stand. The doctor said I had blood poisoning. She said two or three more days and I would have made my wife a widow.

"They put me in a special unit, reserved for really sick people, I suppose. Oh, tashakor." He took the glass from Mariam and from his coat pocket produced a large white pill. "The size of these things."

Laila watched him swallow his pill. She was aware that her breathing had quickened. Her legs felt heavy, as though weights had been tethered to them. She told herself that he wasn't done, that he hadn't told her anything as yet. But he would go on in a second, and she resisted an urge to get up and leave, leave before he told her things she didn't want to hear.

Abdul Sharif set his glass on the table.

"That's where I met your friend, Mohammad Tariq Walizai."

Laila's heart sped up. Tariq in a hospital? A special unit? For really sick people?

She swallowed dry spit. Shifted on her chair. She had to steel herself. If she didn't, she feared she would come unhinged. She diverted her thoughts from hospitals and special units and thought instead about the fact that she hadn't heard Tariq called by his full name since the two of them had enrolled in a Farsi winter course years back. The teacher would call roll after the bell and say his name like that – Mohammad Tariq Walizai. It had struck her as comically officious then, hearing his full name uttered.

"What happened to him I heard from one of the nurses," Abdul Sharif resumed, tapping his chest with a fist as if to ease the passage of the pill. "With all the time I've spent in Peshawar, I've become pretty proficient in Urdu. Anyway, what I gathered was that your friend was in a lorry full of refugees, twenty-three of them, all headed for Peshawar. Near the border, they were caught in cross fire. A rocket hit the lorry. Probably a stray, but you never know with these people, you never know. There were only six survivors, all of them admitted to the same unit. Three died within twenty-four hours. Two of them lived – sisters, as I understood it – and had been discharged. Your friend Mr. Walizai was the last. He'd been there for almost three weeks by the time I arrived."

So he was alive. But how badly had they hurt him? Laila wondered frantically. How badly? Badly enough to be put in a special unit, evidently. Laila was aware that she had started sweating, that her face felt hot. She tried to think of something else, something pleasant, like the trip to Bamiyan to see the Buddhas with Tariq and Babi. But instead an image of Tariq's parents presented itself: Tariq's mother trapped in the lorry, upside down, screaming for Tariq through the smoke, her arms and chest on fire, the wig melting into her scalp…

Laila had to take a series of rapid breaths.

"He was in the bed next to mine. There were no walls, only a curtain between us. So I could see him pretty well."

Abdul Sharif found a sudden need to toy with his wedding band. He spoke more slowly now.

"Your friend, he was badly – very badly – injured, you understand. He had rubber tubes coming out of him everywhere. At first-" He cleared his throat. "At first, I thought he'd lost both legs in the attack, but a nurse said no, only the right, the left one was on account of an old injury. There were internal injuries too. They'd operated three times already. Took out sections of intestines, I don't remember what else. And he was burned. Quite badly. That's all I'll say about that. I'm sure you have your fair share of nightmares, hamshira. No sense in me adding to them."

Tariq was legless now. He was a torso with two stumps. Legless. Laila thought she might collapse. With deliberate, desperate effort, she sent the tendrils of her mind out of this room, out the window, away from this man, over the street outside, over the city now, and its flat-topped houses and bazaars, its maze of narrow streets turned to sand castles.

"He was drugged up most of the time. For the pain, you understand. But he had moments when the drugs were wearing off when he was clear. In pain but clear of mind I would talk to him from my bed. I told him who I was, where I was from. He was glad, I think, that there was a hamwatan next to him.

"I did most of the talking. It was hard for him to. His voice was hoarse, and I think it hurt him to move his lips. So I told him about my daughters, and about our house in Peshawar and the veranda my brother-in-law and I are building out in the back. I told him I had sold the stores in Kabul and that I was going back to finish up the paperwork. It wasn't much. But it occupied him. At least, I like to think it did.

"Sometimes he talked too. Half the time, I couldn't make out what he was saying, but I caught enough. He described where he'd lived.

He talked about his uncle in Ghazni. And his mother's cooking and his father's carpentry, him playing the accordion.

"But, mostly, he talked about you, hamshira. He said you were – how did he put it – his earliest memory. I think that's right, yes. I could tell he cared a great deal about you. Balay, that much was plain to see. But he said he was glad you weren't there. He said he didn't want you seeing him like that."

Laila's feet felt heavy again, anchored to the floor, as if all her blood had suddenly pooled down there. But her mind was far away, free and fleet, hurtling like a speeding missile beyond Kabul, over craggy brown hills and over deserts ragged with clumps of sage, past canyons of jagged red rock and over snowcapped mountains…

"When I told him I was going back to Kabul, he asked me to find you. To tell you that he was thinking of you. That he missed you. I promised him I would I'd taken quite a liking to him, you see. He was a decent sort of boy, I could tell."

Abdul Sharif wiped his brow with the handkerchief.

"I woke up one night," he went on, his interest in the wedding band renewed, "I think it was night anyway, it's hard to tell in those places. There aren't any windows. Sunrise, sundown, you just don't know. But I woke up, and there was some sort of commotion around the bed next to mine. You have to understand that I was full of drugs myself, always slipping in and out, to the point where it was hard to tell what was real and what you'd dreamed up. All I remember is, doctors huddled around the bed, calling for this and that, alarms bleeping, syringes all over the ground.

"In the morning, the bed was empty. I asked a nurse. She said he fought valiantly."

Laila was dimly aware that she was nodding. She'd known. Of course she'd known. She'd known the moment she had sat across from this man why he was here, what news he was bringing.

"At first, you see, at first I didn't think you even existed," he was saying now. "I thought it was the morphine talking. Maybe I even hoped you didn't exist; I've always dreaded bearing bad news. But I promised him. And, like I said, I'd become rather fond of him. So I came by here a few days ago. I asked around for you, talked to some neighbors. They pointed to this house. They also told me what had happened to your parents. When I heard about that, well, I turned around and left. I wasn't going to tell you. I decided it would be too much for you. For anybody."

Abdul Sharif reached across the table and put a hand on her kneecap. "But I came back. Because, in the end, I think he would have wanted you to know. I believe that. I'm so sorry. I wish…"

Laila wasn't listening anymore. She was remembering the day the man from Panjshir had come to deliver the news of Ahmad's and Noor's deaths. She remembered Babi, white-faced, slumping on the couch, and Mammy, her hand flying to her mouth when she heard. Laila had watched Mammy come undone that day and it had scared her, but she hadn't felt any true sorrow. She hadn't understood the awfulness of her mother's loss. Now another stranger bringing news of another death. Now she was the one sitting on the chair. Was this her penalty, then, her punishment for being aloof to her own mother's suffering?

Laila remembered how Mammy had dropped to the ground, how she'd screamed, torn at her hair. But Laila couldn't even manage that. She could hardly move. She could hardly move a muscle.

She sat on the chair instead, hands limp in her lap, eyes staring at nothing, and let her mind fly on. She let it fly on until it found the place, the good and safe place, where the barley fields were green, where the water ran clear and the cottonwood seeds danced by the thousands in the air; where Babi was reading a book beneath an acacia and Tariq was napping with his hands laced across his chest, and where she could dip her feet in the stream and dream good dreams beneath the watchful gaze of gods of ancient, sun-bleached rock.

29.

Mariam

I'm so sorry," Rasheed said to the girl, taking his bowl of mastawa and meatballs from Mariam without looking at her. "I know you were very close… friends … the two of you. Always together, since you were kids. It's a terrible thing, what's happened. Too many young Afghan men are dying this way."

He motioned impatiently with his hand, still looking at the girl, and Mariam passed him a napkin.

For years, Mariam had looked on as he ate, the muscles of his temples churning, one hand making compact little rice balls, the back of the other wiping grease, swiping stray grains, from the corners of his mouth. For years, he had eaten without looking up, without speaking, his silence condemning, as though some judgment were being passed, then broken only by an accusatory grunt, a disapproving cluck of his tongue, a one-word command for more bread, more water.

Now he ate with a spoon. Used a napkin. Said lotfan when asking for water. And talked. Spiritedly and incessantly.

"If you ask me, the Americans armed the wrong man in Hekmatyar. All the guns the CIA handed him in the eighties to fight the Soviets. The Soviets are gone, but he still has the guns, and now he's turning them on innocent people like your parents. And he calls this jihad. What a farce! What does jihad have to do with killing women and children? Better the CIA had armed Commander Massoud."

Mariam's eyebrows shot up of their own will. Commander Massoud? In her head, she could hear Rasheed's rants against Massoud, how he was a traitor and a communist. But, then, Massoud was a Tajik, of course. Like Laila.

"Now, there is a reasonable fellow. An honorable Afghan. A man genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution."

Rasheed shrugged and sighed.

"Not that they give a damn in America, mind you. What do they care that Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other? How many Americans can even tell one from the other? Don't expect help from them, I say. Now that the Soviets have collapsed, we're no use to them. We served our purpose. To them, Afghanistan is a kenarab, a shit hole. Excuse my language, but it's true. What do you think, Laila jan?"

The girl mumbled something unintelligible and pushed a meatball around in her bowl.

Rasheed nodded thoughtfully, as though she'd said the most clever thing he'd ever heard. Mariam had to look away.

"You know, your father, God give him peace, your father and I used to have discussions like this. This was before you were born, of course. On and on we'd go about politics. About books too. Didn't we, Mariam? You remember."

Mariam busied herself taking a sip of water.

"Anyway, I hope I am not boring you with all this talk of politics."

Later, Mariam was in the kitchen, soaking dishes in soapy water, a tightly wound knot in her belly. It wasn't so much what he said, the blatant lies, the contrived empathy, or even the fact that he had not raised a hand to her, Mariam, since he had dug the girl out from under those bricks.

It was the staged delivery. Like a performance. An attempt on his part, both sly and pathetic, to impress. To charm.

And suddenly Mariam knew that her suspicions were right. She understood with a dread that was like a blinding whack to the side of her head that what she was witnessing was nothing less than a courtship.

WHEN SHE'D at last worked up the nerve, Mariam went to his room.

Rasheed lit a cigarette, and said, "Why not?"

Mariam knew right then that she was defeated. She'd half expected, half hoped, that he would deny everything, feign surprise, maybe even outrage, at what she was implying. She might have had the upper hand then. She might have succeeded in shaming him. But it stole her grit, his calm acknowledgment, his matter-of-fact tone.

"Sit down," he said. He was lying on his bed, back to the wall, his thick, long legs splayed on the mattress. "Sit down before you faint and cut your head open."

Mariam felt herself drop onto the folding chair beside his bed.

"Hand me that ashtray, would you?" he said.

Obediently, she did.

Rasheed had to be sixty or more now – though Mariam, and in fact Rasheed himself did not know his exact age. His hair had gone white, but it was as thick and coarse as ever. There was a sag now to his eyelids and the skin of his neck, which was wrinkled and leathery. His cheeks hung a bit more than they used to. In the mornings, he stooped just a tad. But he still had the stout shoulders, the thick torso, the strong hands, the swollen belly that entered the room before any other part of him did.

On the whole, Mariam thought that he had weathered the years considerably better than she.

"We need to legitimize this situation," he said now, balancing the ashtray on his belly. His lips scrunched up in a playful pucker. "People will talk. It looks dishonorable, an unmarried young woman living here. It's bad for my reputation. And hers. And yours, I might add."

"Eighteen years," Mariam said. "And I never asked you for a thing. Not one thing. I'm asking now."

He inhaled smoke and let it out slowly. "She can't just stay here, if that's what you're suggesting. I can't go on feeding her and clothing her and giving her a place to sleep. I'm not the Red Cross, Mariam."

"But this?"

"What of it? What? She's too young, you think? She's fourteen. Hardly a child. You were fifteen, remember? My mother was fourteen when she had me. Thirteen when she married."

"I… I don't want this," Mariam said, numb with contempt and helplessness.

"It's not your decision. It's hers and mine."

"I'm too old."

"She's too young, you're too old. This is nonsense."

"I am too old. Too old for you to do this to me," Mariam said, balling up fistfuls of her dress so tightly her hands shook. "For you, after all these years, to make me an ambagh."

"Don't be so dramatic. It's a common thing and you know it. I have friends who have two, three, four wives. Your own father had three. Besides, what I'm doing now most men I know would have done long ago. You know it's true."

"I won't allow it."

At this, Rasheed smiled sadly.

"There is another option," he said, scratching the sole of one foot with the calloused heel of the other. "She can leave. I won't stand in her way. But I suspect she won't get far. No food, no water, not a rupiah in her pockets, bullets and rockets flying everywhere. How many days do you suppose she'll last before she's abducted, raped, or tossed into some roadside ditch with her throat slit? Or all three?"

He coughed and adjusted the pillow behind his back.

"The roads out there are unforgiving, Mariam, believe me. Bloodhounds and bandits at every turn. I wouldn't like her chances, not at all. But let's say that by some miracle she gets to Peshawar. What then? Do you have any idea what those camps are like?"

He gazed at her from behind a column of smoke.

"People living under scraps of cardboard. TB, dysentery, famine, crime. And that's before winter. Then it's frostbite season. Pneumonia. People turning to icicles. Those camps become frozen graveyards.

"Of course," he made a playful, twirling motion with his hand, "she could keep warm in one of those Peshawar brothels. Business is booming there, I hear. A beauty like her ought to bring in a small fortune, don't you think?"

He set the ashtray on the nightstand and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

"Look," he said, sounding more conciliatory now, as a victor could afford to. "I knew you wouldn't take this well. I don't really blame you. But this is for the best. You'll see. Think of it this way, Mariam. I'm giving you help around the house and her a sanctuary. A home and a husband. These days, times being what they are, a woman needs a husband. Haven't you noticed all the widows sleeping on the streets? They would kill for this chance. In fact,this is… Well, I'd say this is downright charitable of me."

He smiled.

"The way I see it, I deserve a medal."

LATER, in the dark, Mariam told the girl.

For a long time, the girl said nothing.

"He wants an answer by this morning," Mariam said.

"He can have it now," the girl said. "My answer is yes."

30.

Laila

The next day, Laila stayed in bed. She was under the blanket in the morning when Rasheed poked his head in and said he was going to the barber. She was still in bed when he came home late in the afternoon, when he showed her his new haircut, his new used suit, blue with cream pinstripes, and the wedding band he'd bought her.

Rasheed sat on the bed beside her, made a great show of slowly undoing the ribbon, of opening the box and plucking out the ring delicately. He let on that he'd traded in Mariam's old wedding ring for it.

"She doesn't care. Believe me. She won't even notice."

Laila pulled away to the far end of the bed. She could hear Mariam downstairs, the hissing of her iron.

"She never wore it anyway," Rasheed said.

"I don't want it," Laila said, weakly. "Not like this. You have to take it back."

"Take it back?" An impatient look flashed across his face and was gone. He smiled. "I had to add some cash too – quite a lot, in fact. This is a better ring, twenty-two-karat gold. Feel how heavy? Go on, feel it. No?" He closed the box. "How about flowers? That would be nice. You like flowers? Do you have a favorite? Daisies?

Tulips? Lilacs? No flowers? Good! I don't see the point myself. I just thought… Now, I know a tailor here in Deh-Mazang. I was thinking we could take you there tomorrow, get you fitted for a proper dress."

Laila shook her head.

Rasheed raised his eyebrows.

"I'd just as soon-" Laila began.

He put a hand on her neck. Laila couldn't help wincing and recoiling. His touch felt like wearing a prickly old wet wool sweater with no undershirt.

"Yes?"

"I'd just as soon we get it done."

Rasheed's mouth opened, then spread in a yellow, toothy grin. "Eager," he said.


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