Mariamwas five years oldthe first time she heard thewordharami.
Itmusthave,becauseMariamremembered that she hadbeenrestlessandpreoccupiedthat day, the way she wasonly on Thursdays, the daywhen Jalil visited her atthekolba. To pass the timeuntil the moment that shewould see him at last,crossing the knee-high grassin the clearing and waving,Mariam had climbed a chairand taken down hermother'sChinese tea set. The tea set
was the sole relic thatMariam's mother, Nana, hadof her ownmother,who haddied when Nana was two.Nana cherished each blue-and-whiteporcelainpiece,thegraceful curve of the pot'sspout, the hand-paintedfinchesandchrysanthemums,thedragononthesugarbowl,meanttowardoffevil.
It was this last piece thatslipped from Mariam's
fingers, that fell to thewooden floorboards ofthekolbaandshattered.
When Nana saw the bowl,her face flushed red and herupper lip shivered, and hereyes, both the lazy one andthe good, settled on Mariamin a flat, unblinking way.Nana looked so mad thatMariamfearedthejinnwouldenterhermother'sbodyagain.But the jinn didn't come, not
that time. Instead, Nanagrabbed Mariam by thewrists, pulled her close, and,through gritted teeth, said,"You are a clumsy littleharamiThisismyrewardforeverything I've endured Anheirloom-breaking, clumsylittleharami."
Atthetime,Mariamdidnotunderstand.Shedidnotknowwhat this word harami-bastard -meant Nor was she
old enough to appreciate theinjustice, to see that it is thecreatorsoftheharamiwhoareculpable, not theharami,whoseonlysinisbeingborn.Mariam did surmise, by thewayNanasaidtheword,thatit was an ugly, loath-something to be harami, like aninsect, like the scurryingcockroaches Nana wasalways cursing and sweepingoutofthekolba.
Later,when shewas older,Mariam did understand. ItwasthewayNanautteredtheword-notsomuchsayingitasspitting it at her-that madeMariam feel the full sting ofit. She understood then whatNanameant,thataharamiwasan unwanted thing; that she,Mariam, was an illegitimatepersonwhowouldneverhavelegitimateclaimto the thingsotherpeoplehad, thingssuchas love, family, home,
Jalil never called Mariamthis name. Jalil said shewashislittleflower.Hewasfondof sitting her on his lap andtelling her stories, like thetime he told her that Herat,the city where Mariam wasbom, in1959,hadoncebeenthe cradle of Persian culture,thehomeofwriters,painters,andSufis.
"You couldn't stretch a legherewithoutpokingapoetintheass,"helaughed.
Jalil told her the story ofQueenGauharShad,whohadraisedthefamousminaretsasher loving ode toHerat backin the fifteenth century. Hedescribed to her the greenwheat fields of Herat, theorchards, the vines pregnantwith plump grapes, the city'scrowded,vaultedbazaars.
"There is a pistachio tree,"Jalil said one day, "andbeneath it, Mariam jo, isburied none other than thegreatpoetJami."Heleanedinand whispered, "Jami livedover five hundred years ago.Hedid.Itookyouthereonce,to the tree. You were little.Youwouldn'tremember."
It was true. Mariam didn'tremember. And though shewould live the first fifteen
years of her life withinwalking distance of Herat,Mariamwouldnever see thisstoried tree.Shewouldneversee the famous minarets upclose, and she would neverpick fruit from Herat'sorchardsor stroll in its fieldsofwheat. Butwhenever Jaliltalked like this, Mariamwould listen withenchantment. She wouldadmire Jalil for his vast andworldly knowledge. She
would quiver with pride tohaveafatherwhoknewsuchthings.
"What rich lies!"Nanasaidafter Jalil left. "Rich mantelling rich lies. He nevertook you to any tree. Anddon't let him charm you. Hebetrayed us, your belovedfather.Hecastusout.Hecastusoutofhisbigfancyhouselikewewerenothing tohim.Hedidithappily."
Mariam would listendutifully to this. She neverdaredsaytoNanahowmuchshe disliked her talking thiswayaboutJalil.Thetruthwasthat aroundJalil,Mariamdidnot feel at all like aharami.For an hour or two everyThursday,whenJalilcametosee her, all smiles and giftsandendearments,Mariamfeltdeserving of all the beautyand bounty that life had togive. And, for this, Mariam
Even if she had to sharehim.
Jalil had three wives andninechildren,nine legitimatechildren, all of whom werestrangers toMariam.HewasoneofHerat'swealthiestmen.He owned a cinema, whichMariam had never seen, but
at her insistence Jalil haddescribedittoher,andsosheknew that the fa9ade wasmade of blue-and-tan terra-cotta tiles, that it had privatebalcony seats and a trellisedceiling. Double swingingdoors opened into a tiledlobby,wherepostersofHindifilms were encased in glassdisplays. On Tuesdays, Jalilsaidoneday,kidsgotfreeicecreamattheconcessionstand
Nanasmileddemurelywhenhe said this.Shewaiteduntilhe had left thekolba, beforesnickering and saying, "Thechildren of strangers get icecream. What do you get,Mariam? Stories of icecream."
In addition to the cinema,Jalil owned land in Karokh,land in Farah, three carpetstores,aclothingshop,andablack 1956 Buick
Roadmaster. He was one ofHerat's best-connected men,friend of the mayor and theprovincialgovernor.Hehadacook, a driver, and threehousekeepers.
Nana had been one of thehousekeepers.Untilherbellybegantoswell.
When that happened,Nanasaid, the collective gasp ofJalil's family sucked the air
out of Herat. His in-lawssworebloodwouldflow.Thewives demanded that hethrow her out. Nana's ownfather,whowasalowlystonecarverinthenearbyvillageofGul Daman, disowned her.Disgraced, he packed histhings and boarded a bus toBran, never to be seen orheardfromagain.
"Sometimes," Nana saidearlyonemorning,asshewas
feeding the chickens outsidethekolba, "I wish my fatherhad had the stomach tosharpenoneofhisknivesanddo the honorable thing. Itmight have been better forme." She tossed anotherhandful of seeds into thecoop, paused, and looked atMariam. "Better for you too,maybe. Itwould have sparedyouthegriefofknowingthatyouarewhatyouare.Buthewas a coward,my father.He
didn't have thedil, the heart,forit."
Jalildidn'thavethedileither,Nana said, to do thehonorable thing. To stand uptohisfamily,tohiswivesandinlaws, and acceptresponsibilityforwhathehaddone. Instead, behind closeddoors, a face-savingdealhadquicklybeenstruck.Thenextday, he hadmade her gatherher few things from the
servants' quarters, whereshe'dbeenliving,andsentheroff.
"Youknowwhathetoldhiswives by way of defense?That Iforced myself on him.That it was my fault.Didi?You see? This is what itmeans tobeawoman in thisworld."
Nanaputdownthebowlofchicken feed. She lifted
Nana said, "Learn thisnowand learn it well, mydaughter: Like a compassneedle that points north, aman's accusing finger alwaysfindsawoman.Always.Yourememberthat,Mariam."
ToJalilandhiswives,Iwasapokeroot.Amugwort.Youtoo. And you weren't evenbornyet."
"What's a mugwort?"Mariamasked
"A weed," Nana said."Something you rip out andtossaside."
Mariam frowned internally.Jalildidn'ttreatherasaweed.He never had. But Mariamthought it wise to suppressthisprotest.
"Unlikeweeds, I had to bereplanted,yousee,givenfoodandwater.Onaccountofyou.Thatwas the deal Jalilmadewithhisfamily."
"For what? To watch himdrive hiskinchini wivesaroundtownallday?"
Shesaidshewouldn'tliveinher father's empty houseeither, in the village of GulDaman,which sat on a steephill two kilometers north ofHerat.Shesaidshewantedtolive somewhere removed,detached, where neighborswouldn't stare at her belly,point at her, snicker, or,
worse yet, assault her withinsincerekindnesses.
"And, believe me," Nanasaid, "it was a relief to yourfatherhavingmeoutofsight.Itsuitedhimjustfine."
ItwasMuhsin,Jalil'seldestsonbyhisfirstwife,Khadija,whosuggestedtheclearing-Itwas on the outskirts of GulDaman.Togettoit,onetooka rutted, uphill dirt track that
branched off the main roadbetween Herat and GulDaman. The track wasflanked on either side byknee-high grass and specklesof white and bright yellowflowers. The track snakeduphill and led to a flat fieldwhere poplars andcottonwoods soared andwildbushesgrewinclusters.Fromupthere,onecouldmakeoutthetipsoftherustedbladesofGulDaman'swindmill,onthe
left, and, on the right, all ofHeratspreadbelow.Thepathended perpendicular to awide, trout-filled stream,which rolled down from theSafid-koh mountainssurroundingGulDaman.Twohundred yards upstream,toward the mountains, therewas a circular grove ofweeping willow trees. In thecenter, in the shade of thewillows,wastheclearing.
Jalil went there to have alook. When he came back,Nana said, he sounded like awarden bragging about theclean walls and shiny floorsofhisprison.
Nana had almost marriedonce, when she was fifteen.
The suitor had been a boyfrom Shindand, a youngparakeetseller.Mariamknewthe story from Nana herself,and, though Nana dismissedthe episode, Mariam couldtellbythewistfullightinhereyesthatshehadbeenhappy.Perhaps for the only time inher life, during those daysleading up to her wedding,Nana had been genuinelyhappy.
As Nana told the story,Mariam sat on her lap andpictured her mother beingfitted for a wedding dress.She imagined her onhorseback, smiling shylybehind a veiled green gown,her palms painted red withhenna, her hair parted withsilver dust, the braids heldtogetherbytreesap.Shesawmusiciansblowingtheshahnaiflute and banging ondoholdrums,streetchildrenhooting
Then, a week before thewedding date,ajinn hadentered Nana's body. Thisrequired no description toMariam.Shehadwitnesseditenough times with her owneyes: Nana collapsingsuddenly, her bodytightening, becoming rigid,her eyes rolling back, herarms and legs shaking as ifsomethingwerethrottlingher
from the inside, the froth atthe corners of her mouth,white, sometimes pink withblood. Then the drowsiness,thefrighteningdisorientation,theincoherentmumbling.
When the news reachedShindand, the parakeetseller's family called off thewedding.
"They got spooked" washowNanaputit.
The wedding dress wasstashed away. After that,therewerenomoresuitors.
Intheclearing,Jalilandtwoof his sons, Farhad andMuhsin, built the smallkolbawhereMariamwouldlivethefirst fifteen years of her life.They raised itwith sun-driedbricks and plastered it withmudandhandfulsofstraw.It
had two sleeping cots, awooden table, two straight-backedchairs,awindow,andshelves nailed to the wallswhereNana placed clay potsand her beloved Chinese teaset. Jalil put in a new cast-iron stove for thewinter andstacked logs of choppedwood behind thekolba Headded a tandoor outside formaking bread and a chickencoop with a fence around it.Hebroughtafewsheep,built
them a feeding trough. HehadFarhadandMuhsindigadeep hole a hundred yardsoutside the circle of willowsandbuiltanouthouseoverit.
Jalil could have hiredlaborers to build thekolba.Nanasaid,buthedidn't.
LstNana'S account of theday that she gave birth toMariam,noonecametohelp.It happened on a damp,overcast day in the spring of1959, she said, the twenty-sixth year of King ZahirShah's mostly uneventfulforty-yearreign.ShesaidthatJalil hadn't bothered tosummon a doctor, or even amidwife, even though heknew thatthejinn might enterher body and cause her to
haveoneofherfitsintheactof delivering. She lay allalone on thekolba's floor, aknife by her side, sweatdrenchingherbody.
"Whenthepaingotbad,I'dbite on a pillow and screamintoituntilIwashoarse.Andstillnoonecametowipemyface or give me a drink ofwater. And you, Mariam jo,youwere in no rush.Almosttwodaysyoumademelayon
that cold, hard floor. I didn'teat or sleep, all I did waspushandpraythatyouwouldcomeout."
"I cut the cord between usmyself. That's why I had aknife."
Nana always gave a slow,
burdened smile here, one oflingering recrimination orreluctantforgiveness,Mariamcould never tell It did notoccur to young Mariam toponder the unfairness ofapologizingforthemannerofherownbirth.
By the time itdid occur toher, around the time sheturnedten,Mariamnolongerbelieved this story of herbirth. She believed JaliPs
version,thatthoughhe'dbeenaway he'd arranged forNanato be taken to a hospital inHerat where she had beentended to by a doctor. Shehad lain on a clean, properbed in a well-lit room. Jalilshook his head with sadnesswhenMariamtoldhimabouttheknife.
"They told me it was allover within under an hour,"Jalil said. "Youwere a gooddaughter,Mariamjo.Eveninbirth you were a gooddaughter."
"He wasn't even there!"Nanaspat."HewasinTakht-e-Safar, horseback ridingwithhispreciousfriends."
When they informed himthat he had a new daughter,
Nanasaid,Jalilhadshrugged,kept brushing his horse'smane, and stayed inTakht-e-Safaranothertwoweeks.
"Thetruthis,hedidn'tevenhold you until you were amonth old.And then only tolookdownonce,commentonyour longish face, and handyoubacktome."
Mariam came to disbelievethispartof the storyaswell.
Yes, Jalil admitted, he hadbeen horseback riding inTakht-e-Safar,but,whentheygave him the news, he hadnotshrugged.HehadhoppedonthesaddleandriddenbacktoHerat.Hehadbouncedherin his arms, run his thumboverher flakyeyebrows,andhummed a lullaby. Mariamdid not picture Jalil sayingthatherfacewaslong,thoughitwastruethatitwaslong.
Nana said shewas the onewho'd picked the nameMariam because it had beenthenameofhermother. Jalilsaid he chose the namebecause Mariam, thetuberose,wasalovelyflower.
"Your favorite?" Mariamasked.
One of Mariam's earliestmemorieswasthesoundofawheelbarrow's squeaky ironwheels bouncing over rocks.The wheelbarrow came oncea month, filled with rice,flour, tea, sugar, cooking oil,soap, toothpaste. It waspushed by two of Mariam'shalfbrothers,usuallyMuhsinandRamin,sometimesRaminandFarhad.Upthedirttrack,
over rocks and pebbles,around holes and bushes, theboys took turnspushinguntilthey reached the stream.There, the wheelbarrow hadto be emptied and the itemshand-carriedacrossthewater.Thentheboyswouldtransferthe wheelbarrow across thestream and load it up again.Anothertwohundredyardsofpushing followed, this timethrough tall, dense grass andaround thickets of shrubs.
Frogsleapedoutoftheirway.The brothers wavedmosquitoesfromtheirsweatyfaces.
"He has servants,"Mariamsaid. "He could send aservant."
The sound of thewheelbarrow drew Mariam
and Nana outside. Mariamwould always rememberNana the way she looked onRation Day: a tall, bony,barefoot woman leaning inthe doorway, her lazy eyenarrowed to a slit, armscrossed in a defiant andmocking way. Her short-cropped,sunlithairwouldbeuncovered and uncombed.Shewouldwear an ill-fittinggray shirt buttoned to thethroat. The pockets were
filled with walnut-sizedrocks.
The boys sat by the streamand waited as Mariam andNana transferred the rationstothekolbaTheyknewbetterthan to get any closer thanthirty yards, even thoughNana's aim was poor andmostoftherockslandedwellshort of their targets. Nanayelled at the boys as shecarried bags of rice inside,
and called them namesMariam didn't understand.She cursed their mothers,made hateful faces at them.The boys never returned theinsults.
Mariam felt sorry for theboys. How tired their armsandlegsmustbe,shethoughtpityingly, pushing that heavyload. She wished she wereallowed to offer them water.But she said nothing, and if
they waved at her she didn'twave back. Once, to pleaseNana,Mariamevenyelled atMuhsin, told him he had amouth shaped like a lizard'sass-and was consumed laterwith guilt, shame, and fearthat they would tell Jalil.Nana, though, laughed sohard,herrottingfronttoothinfull display, that Mariamthought shewould lapse intooneofherfits.ShelookedatMariam when she was done
and said, "You're a gooddaughter."
When the barrow wasempty,theboysscuffledbackand pushed it away.Mariamwould wait and watch themdisappear into the tall grassandfloweringweeds.
"They laugh at you. Theydo.Ihearthem."
"You know I love you,Mariamjo."
Inthemornings,theyawoketo the distant bleating ofsheep and the high-pitchedtootofafluteasGulDaman'sshepherds led their flock tograze on the grassy hillside.MariamandNanamilkedthegoats, fed the hens, andcollected eggs. They madebread together.Nana showedherhowtokneaddough,howtokindlethetandoorandslapthe flattened dough onto itsinner walls. Nana taught her
to sew too, and to cook riceand all the differenttoppings:shalqam stew withturnip, spinachsabzi,cauliflowerwithginger.
Nanamadenosecretofherdislike for visitors-and, infact,peopleingeneral-butshemade exceptions for a selectfew. And so there was GulDaman's leader, thevillagearbab, Habib Khan, asmall-headed, bearded man
with a large belly who camebyonceamonthorso,tailedby a servant, who carried achicken, sometimes a potofkichiri rice, or a basket ofdyedeggs,forMariam.
Thentherewasarotund,oldwoman thatNanacalledBibijo, whose late husband hadbeen a stone carver andfriends with Nana's father.Bibi jo was invariablyaccompanied by one of her
sixbridesandagrandchildortwo. She limped and huffedher way across the clearingand made a great show ofrubbingherhipand loweringherself, with a pained sigh,onto the chair that Nanapulledupforher.Bibi jo tooalways brought Mariamsomething,aboxofdishlemehcandy, a basket of quinces.For Nana, she first broughtcomplaints about her failinghealth, and then gossip from
Herat and Gul Daman,delivered at length and withgusto, as her daughter-in-lawsatlistening quietly anddutifullybehindher.
ButMariam'sfavorite,otherthan Jalil of course, wasMullah Faizullah, the elderlyvillageKorantutor,itsakhundHe came by once or twice aweek from Gul Daman toteach Mariam the fivedailynamaz prayers and tutor
her in Koran recitation, justas he had taught Nana whenshe'd been a little girl ItwasMullah Faizullah who hadtaught Mariam to read, whohadpatientlylookedoverhershoulder as her lips workedthe words soundlessly, herindexfingerlingeringbeneatheachword, pressing until thenail bed went white, asthoughshecouldsqueezethemeaning out of the symbols.It wasMullah Faizullahwho
hadheldherhand,guidedthepencil in it along the rise ofeachalef, the curve ofeachbeh, the three dots ofeachseh.
He was a gaunt, stoopingold man with a toothlesssmile and a white beard thatdroppedtohisnavel.Usually,he came alone to thekolba,though sometimes with hisrusset-haired son Hamza,who was a few years older
than Mariam. When heshowed up at thekolba,Mariam kissed MullahFaizullah's hand-which feltlike kissing a set of twigscovered with a thin layer ofskin-andhekissed the topofher brow before they satinside for the day's lesson.After, the two of them satoutside thekolba, ate pinenuts and sipped green tea,watched the bulbul birdsdarting from tree to tree.
Sometimes they went forwalks among the bronzefallen leaves and alderbushes, along the stream andtowardthemountains.MullahFaizullahtwirledthebeadsofhistasbeh rosary as theystrolled,and, inhisquiveringvoice, toldMariam stories ofall thethingshe'dseeninhisyouth, like the two-headedsnake he'd found in Iran, onIsfahan's Thirty-three ArchBridge,or thewatermelonhe
had split once outside theBlue Mosque in Mazar, tofind the seeds forming thewordsAllah on onehalf,Akbarontheother.
Mullah Faizullah admittedto Mariam that, at times, hedid not understand themeaning of the Koran'swords. But he said he likedthe enchanting sounds theArabic words made as theyrolledoffhistongue.Hesaid
"They'll comfort you too,Mariam jo," he said. "Youcan summon them in yourtime of need, and theywon'tfail you. God's words willneverbetrayyou,mygirl"
MullahFaizullahlistenedtostories as well as he toldthem. When Mariam spoke,his attention never wavered
Henoddedslowlyandsmiledwithalookofgratitude,asifhehadbeengrantedacovetedprivilege. It was easy to tellMullah Faizullah things thatMariamdidn'tdaretellNana.
One day, as they werewalking, Mariam told himthatshewishedshewouldbeallowedtogotoschool.
"I mean a realschool,akhund sahib. Like in
The week before, Bibi johad brought news that Jalil'sdaughtersSaidehandNaheedwere going to the MehriSchool for girls in Herat.Since then, thoughts ofclassrooms and teachers hadrattledaroundMariam'shead,images of notebooks with
lined pages, columns ofnumbers, andpens thatmadedark, heavy marks. Shepictured herself in aclassroomwithothergirlsherage.Mariam longed to placea ruler on a page and drawimportant-lookinglines.
"Is that what you want?"Mullah Faizullah said,looking at her with his soft,wateryeyes,hishandsbehindhisstoopingback,theshadow
of his turban falling on apatchofbristlingbuttercups.
"And you want me to askyourmotherforpermission."
Mariam smiled.Other thanJalil, she thought there wasno one in the world whounderstoodherbetterthanheroldtutor.
"Thenwhat can Ido?God,in His wisdom, has given useach weaknesses, andforemost amongmymany isthat I ampowerless to refuseyou, Mariam jo," he said,tapping her cheek with onearthriticfinger.
Butlater,whenhebroachedNana, she dropped the knifewith which she was slicingonions."Whatfor?"
"Ifthegirlwantstolearn,lether, my dear. Let the girlhaveaneducation."
"Learn?Learnwhat,Mullahsahib?" Nana said sharply."Whatistheretolearn?"
She snapped her eyestowardMariam.
"What'sthesenseschoolinga girl like you? It's likeshiningaspittoon.Andyou'lllearn nothing of value inthose schools. There is onlyone, only one skill a womanlikeyouandmeneedsinlife,and they don't teach it inschool.Lookatme."
"You shouldnot speak likethistoher,mychild,"MullahFaizullahsaid.
"Only one skill And it'sthis:iahamuLEndure."
"Oh, don't you fretaboutthat,"Nanasaid."Therewon't be any shortage ofthings."
She went on to say howMil'swiveshadcalledheranugly, lowly stone carver'sdaughter. How they'd madeher wash laundry outside inthe cold until her face wentnumb and her fingertipsburned.
"It'sourlot inlife,Mariam.Women like us. We endure.It's all we have. Do youunderstand? Besides, they'lllaugh at you in school. They
will. They'll call youharamlThey'll say the most terriblethingsaboutyou.Iwon'thaveit."
"And no more talk aboutschool. You're all I have. Iwon'tloseyoutothem.Look
at me. Nomore talk aboutschool."
"Bereasonable-Comenow.If the girl wants-" MullahFaizullahbegan.
"And you,akhund sahib,with all due respect, youshould know better than toencourage these foolish ideasof hers. Ifyou really careabouther,thenyoumakehersee that she belongs here athome with her mother.Thereis nothing out there forher.Nothingbutrejectionand
heartache. I know,akhundsahib.Iknow."
Mariam loved havingvisitors at thekolba. Thevillagearbab and his gifts,Bibi jo and her aching hipandendlessgossiping,and,ofcourse,MullahFaizullah.Buttherewasnoone,noone,thatMariam longed to see morethanJalil.
The anxiety set in onTuesday nights. Mariamwould sleep poorly, frettingthat some businessentanglement would preventJalil from coming onThursday, that she wouldhave to wait a whole otherweek to see him. OnWednesdays, she pacedoutside, around thekolba,tossed chicken feedabsentmindedlyintothecoop.She went for aimless walks,
picking petals from flowersandbattingat themosquitoesnibblingonherarms.Finally,on Thursdays, all she coulddowassitagainstawall,eyesgluedtothestream,andwait.If Jalil was running late, aterribledreadfilledherbitbybit.Herkneeswouldweaken,and she would have to gosomewhereandliedown.
Mariam would leap to herfeet when she spotted himhopping stones across thestream, all smiles and heartywaves. Mariam knew thatNana was watching her,gauging her reaction, and italways took effort to stay inthe doorway, to wait, towatch him slowly make hiswaytoher,tonotruntohim.She restrained herself,
patiently watched him walkthroughthetallgrass,hissuitjacket slung over hisshoulder, the breeze liftinghisrednecktie.
When Jalil entered theclearing, he would throw hisjacket on the tandoor andopenhisarms.Mariamwouldwalk,thenfinallyrun,tohim,andhewouldcatchherunderthearmsandtossheruphigh.Mariamwouldsqueal.
Suspended in the air,Mariam would see Jalil'supturned face below her, hiswide, crooked smile, hiswidow'speak,hiscleftchin-aperfect pocket for the tip ofher pinkie-his teeth, thewhitest in a town of rottingmolars.Shelikedhistrimmedmustache, and she liked thatno matter the weather healways wore a suit on hisvisits-darkbrown,hisfavoritecolor,with thewhite triangle
of a handkerchief in thebreast pocket-and cuff linkstoo, and a tie, usually red,which he left loosenedMariamcouldseeherselftoo,reflected in the brown ofJalil's eyes: her hairbillowing, her face blazingwith excitement, the skybehindher.
Nana said thatoneof thesedayshewouldmiss,thatshe,Mariam, would slip through
his fingers, hit the ground,and break a bone. ButMariam did not believe thatJalil would drop her. Shebelieved that she wouldalways land safely into herfather'sclean,well-manicuredhands.
Theysatoutsidethekolba,inthe shade, and Nana servedthem tea. Jalil and sheacknowledged each otherwith an uneasy smile and a
nod. Jalil never brought upNana's rock throwing or hercursing.
Despite her rants againsthim when he wasn't around,Nana was subdued andmannerly when Jalil visited.Herhairwasalwayswashed.She brushed her teeth, woreherbesthijabforhim.Shesatquietlyonachairacrossfromhim,handsfoldedonherlap.She did not look at him
directly and never usedcoarse language around him.When she laughed, shecoveredhermouthwithafisttohidethebadtooth.
Nana asked about hisbusinesses. And his wivestoo. When she told him thatshe had heard, through Bibijo, that his youngest wife,Nargis, was expecting herthird child, Jalil smiledcourteouslyandnodded.
"Well.Youmustbehappy,"Nanasaid."Howmanyisthatfor you, now? Ten, isit,mashallah1?Ten?"
"Eleven, if you countMariam,ofcourse."
Later,afterJalilwenthome,MariamandNanahadasmallfight about this.Mariam saidshehadtrickedhim.
AfterteawithNana,MariamandJalil alwayswent fishinginthestream.Heshowedherhow to cast her line, how toreelinthetrout.Hetaughthertheproperwaytogutatrout,tocleanit,toliftthemeatoffthe bone in one motion. Hedrewpictures for her as theywaited for a strike, showedher how to draw an elephantin one stroke without everlifting the pen off the paper.He taught her rhymes.
LiliMibirdbath,Sittingonadirt path,Minnow sat on therim and drank, Slipped, andinthewatershesank
JalilbroughtclippingsfromHerat's newspaper,Iiiifaq-iIslam,andreadfromthemtoher. He was Mariam's link,herproof that there existed aworld at large, beyondthekolba,beyondGulDaman
and Herat too, a world ofpresidents withunpronounceable names, andtrains and museums andsoccer, and rockets thatorbited the earth and landedon the moon, and, everyThursday, Jalil brought apiece of thatworldwith himtothekolba.
Hewastheonewhotoldherinthesummerof1973,whenMariam was fourteen, that
King Zahir Shah, who hadruled from Kabul for fortyyears,hadbeenoverthrowninabloodlesscoup.
"HiscousinDaoudKhandiditwhile thekingwas in Italygetting medical treatment-You rememberDaoudKhan,right? I told you about him.He was prime minister inKabul when you were bom.Anyway, Afghanistan is nolonger a monarchy, Mariam.
You see, it's a republic now,and Daoud Khan is thepresident. There are rumorsthat the socialists in Kabulhelped him take power. Notthat he's a socialist himself,mind you, but that theyhelped him.That's the rumoranyway."
Mariam asked him what asocialist was and Jalilbeganto explain, but Mariambarelyheardhim.
He saw her looking at thebulge in his coat's sidepocket."Ah.Ofcourse.Well.Here, then. Without furtherado…"
Hefishedasmallboxfromhispocketandgaveit toher.Hedidthisfromtimetotime,bring her small presents. A
carnelian bracelet cuff onetime, a choker with lapislazuli beads another. Thatday,Mariam opened the boxand found a leaf-shapedpendant, tiny coins etchedwithmoonsandstarshangingfromit.
She did. "What do youthink?"
Jalil beamed "I think youlooklikeaqueen."
Afterhe left,Nana saw thependant around Mariam'sneck.
"Nomad jewelry," she said."I'veseenthemmakeit.Theymeltthecoinspeoplethrowatthemandmakejewelry.Let'ssee him bring you gold nexttime, your precious father.Let'sseehim."
WhenitwastimeforJaliltoleave, Mariam always stoodin the doorway and watchedhimexittheclearing,deflatedat the thought of the weekthat stood, like an immense,immovable object, betweenherandhisnextvisit.Mariamalwaysheldherbreathasshewatchedhimgo.Sheheldherbreath and, in her head,counted seconds. Shepretended that for eachsecondthatshedidn'tbreathe,
Godwould grant her anotherdaywithJalil.
Atnight,Mariamlayinhercot and wondered what hishouse inHeratwas like. Shewondered what it would belike to live with him, to seehim every day. She picturedherself handing him a towelas he shaved, telling himwhen he nicked himself. Shewould brew tea for him. Shewould sew on his missing
buttons. They would takewalks in Herat together, inthevaultedbazaarwhereJalilsaid you could find anythingyouwanted.Theywouldridein his car, and people wouldpoint and say, "There goesJalilKhanwithhisdaughter."Hewouldshowherthefamedtree that had a poet buriedbeneathit.
One day soon, Mariamdecided, she would tell Jalil
these things. And when heheard, when he saw howmuch she missed him whenhewasgone,hewouldsurelytake herwith him.Hewouldbring her toHerat, to live inhis house, just like his otherchildren.
I know what I want,"MariamsaidtoJalil.
It was the spring of 1974,the year Mariam turnedfifteen. The three of themweresittingoutside thekolba,inapatchofshadethrownbythewillows,onfoldingchairsarrangedinatriangle.
"For my birthday…I knowwhatIwant."
Two weeks before, atMariam's prodding, Jalil hadlet on that an American filmwas playing at his cinema. Itwasa special kind of film,what he'd called a cartoon.The entire film was a seriesof drawings, he said,thousands of them, so thatwhen they were made into afilm and projected onto ascreen you had the illusionthat the drawings weremoving. Jalil said the film
told the story of an old,childless toymaker who islonely and desperately wantsason.Sohecarvesapuppet,a boy, whomagically comestolife.Mariamhadaskedhimtotellhermore,andJalilsaidthat the old man and hispuppet had all sorts ofadventures, that there was aplace called Pleasure Island,andbadboyswhoturnedintodonkeys. They even gotswallowed by a whale at the
end,thepuppetandhisfather.Mariam had told MullahFaizullahallaboutthisfilm.
"I want you to take me toyour cinema," Mariam saidnow. "I want to see thecartoon. I want to see thepuppetboy."
With this,Mariamsensedashift in the atmosphere. Herparents stirred in their seats.Mariam could feel them
"That's not a good idea,"said Nana. Her voice wascalm, had the controlled,polite tone she used aroundJalil, but Mariam could feelherhard,accusingglare.
"You know," he said, "thepicturequalityisn'tthatgood.
Neitheristhesound.Andtheprojector's beenmalfunctioning recently.Maybe your mother is right.Maybe you can think ofanotherpresent,Mariamjo."
"Aneh,"Nana said. "Yousee?Yourfatheragrees."
But later, at the stream,Mariamsaid,"Takeme."
"I'll tell you what," Jalilsaid. "I'll send someone topickyouupandtakeyou.I'llmake sure they get you agood seat and all the candyyouwant."
"And I want you to invitemybrothersandsisters too.Iwanttomeetthem.Iwantus
all togo, together.It'swhatIwant."
Mariam remembered himtellingherthatonthescreenahumanfacelookedasbigasahouse, that when a carcrashed up there you felt themetal twisting inyourbones.Shepicturedherselfsittinginthe private balcony seats,
lapping at ice cream,alongside her siblings andJalil. "It's what I want," shesaid.
Jalil looked at her with aforlornexpression.
"Tomorrow. At noon. I'llmeetyouatthisveryspot.Allright?Tomorrow?"
"Come here," he said. Hehunkereddown,pulledherto
him,andheldher for a long,longtime.
Atfirst.Nanapacedaroundthekolba, clenching andunclenchingherfists.
"OfallthedaughtersIcouldhave had, why did God giveme an ungrateful one likeyou? Everything I enduredforyou!Howdareyou!How
dare you abandon me likethis, you treacherouslittleharamil"
"Whatastupidgirlyouare!Youthinkyoumattertohim,that you're wanted in hishouse? You think you're adaughter to him? That he'sgoing to takeyou in?Letmetell you something- A man'sheart isawretched,wretched
thing, Mariam. It isn't like amother's womb. It won'tbleed,itwon'tstretchtomakeroom for you. I'm the onlyone who loves you. I'm allyou have in this world,Mariam, and when I'm goneyou'll have nothing. You'llhave nothing. Youarenothing!"
"I'll die if you go.The jinn
will come, and I'll have oneof my fits. You'll see, I'llswallow my tongue and die.Don't leave me, Mariam jo.Pleasestay.I'lldieifyougo."
"You know I love you,Mariamjo."
She feared she might sayhurtful things if she stayed:that she knewthe jinn was alie,thatJalilhadtoldherthatwhatNanahadwasadiseasewith a name and that pillscould make it better. Shemight have asked Nana whyshe refused to see Jalil'sdoctors,ashehadinsistedshedo,whyshewouldn'ttakethepills he'd bought for her. Ifshe could articulate it, shemighthave said toNana that
she was tired of being aninstrument, of being lied to,laid claim to, used. That shewassickofNanatwistingthetruthsoftheirlifeandmakingher, Mariam, another of hergrievancesagainsttheworld.
You 're afraid, Nana,shemighthavesaid.You'reafraidthat 1 might find thehappinessyouneverhad.Andyou don 'i want me to behappy.Youdon'twantagood
life for me. You 're the onewiththewretchedheart
TherewasAlookout,ontheedge of the clearing, whereMariam liked to go. She satthere now, on dry, warmgrass.Heratwasvisible fromhere, spreadbelowher like achild's board game: theWomen'sGardentothenorthof the city, Char-suq Bazaar
and the ruins of Alexanderthe Great's old citadel to thesouth.Shecouldmakeouttheminarets in the distance, likethe dusty fingers of giants,and the streets that sheimagined were milling withpeople,carts,mules.Shesawswallows swooping andcircling overhead. She wasenvious of these birds. Theyhad been toHerat. They hadflown over its mosques, itsbazaars. Maybe they had
landed on thewalls of Jalil'shome, on the front steps ofhiscinema.
She picked up ten pebblesandarranged themvertically,in three columns.Thiswas agame that she playedprivately from time to timewhen Nana wasn't looking.She put four pebbles in thefirst column, for Khadija'schildren, three for Afsoon's,and three in the thirdcolumn
for Nargis's children. Thensheaddedafourthcolumn.Asolitary,eleventhpebble.
The nextmorning,Mariamwore a cream-colored dressthat fell to her knees, cottontrousers, and a greenhijaboverherhair.Sheagonizedabit over thehijab, its beinggreen and not matching thedress, but it would have to
She checked the clock. Itwasanoldhand-woundclockwithblacknumbersonamintgreen face, a present fromMullahFaizullah.Itwasnineo'clock.ShewonderedwhereNanawas.She thoughtaboutgoingoutsideandlookingforher, but she dreaded theconfrontation, the aggrievedlooks.Nanawouldaccuseher
of betrayal. Shewouldmockher for her mistakenambitions.
Mariamsatdown.Shetriedtomaketimepassbydrawinganelephantinonestroke,thewayJalilhadshownher,overand over. She became stifffrom all the sitting butwouldn't lie down for fearthatherdresswouldwrinkle.
When the hands finally
showedeleven-thirty,Mariampocketed the eleven pebblesandwentoutside.Onherwayto the stream, she saw Nanasitting on a chair, in theshade, beneath the domedroof of a weeping willow.Mariam couldn't tell whetherNanasawherornot.
At the stream, Mariamwaited by the spot they hadagreed on the day before. Inthe sky, a few gray,
cauliflower-shaped cloudsdriftedby.Jalilhadtaughtherthat gray clouds got theircolor by being so dense thattheir top parts absorbed thesunlight and cast their ownshadow along the base.That'swhat you see,Mariam jo, hehad said,the dark in theirunderbelly.
Mariam went back to
thekolba This time, shewalked around the west-facing periphery of theclearingsoshewouldn'thavetopassbyNana.Shecheckedthe clock. It was almost oneo'clock.
He'sabusinessman,Mariamthought.Something has comeup.
Shewentbacktothestreamand waited awhile longer.
Blackbirds circled overhead,dipped into the grasssomewhere. She watched acaterpillar inching along thefootofanimmaturethistle.
She waited until her legswere stiff.This time, shedidnot go back to thekolba Sherolled up the legs of hertrousers to theknees,crossedthe stream, and, for the firsttimeinherlife,headeddownthehillforHerat.
Nana was "wrong aboutHerat too. No one pointed.No one laughed. Mariamwalkedalongnoisy,crowded,cypress-lined boulevards,amid a steady stream ofpedestrians, bicycle riders,andmule-drawngaris, and noone threw a rock at her. Noone called her aharami.Hardlyanyoneevenlookedather. She was, unexpectedly,
marvelously, an ordinarypersonhere.
For a while,Mariam stoodbyanoval-shapedpoolinthecenter of a big park wherepebble paths crisscrossed.With wonder, she ran herfingers over the beautifulmarble horses that stoodalong the edge of the pooland gazed down at thewaterwith opaque eyes. She spiedonaclusterofboyswhowere
setting sail to paper ships.Mariam saw flowerseverywhere, tulips, lilies,petunias,theirpetalsawashinsunlight.Peoplewalkedalongthepaths,satonbenchesandsippedtea.
Mariamcouldhardlybelievethat she was here. Her heartwas battering withexcitement. She wishedMullah Faizullah could seeher now. How daring he
would find her. How brave!She gave herself over to thenew life that awaited her inthis city, a lifewith a father,with sisters and brothers, alife inwhich shewould loveand be loved back, withoutreservation or agenda,withoutshame.
Sprightly, shewalked backtothewidethoroughfarenearthe park. She passed oldvendors with leathery faces
sitting under the shade ofplane trees, gazing at herimpassively behind pyramidsof cherries and mounds ofgrapes. Barefoot boys gavechase to cars and buses,waving bags of quinces.Mariam stood at a streetcorner and watched thepassersby, unable tounderstandhowtheycouldbeso indifferent to the marvelsaroundthem.
After a while, she workedupthenervetoasktheelderlyownerofahorse-drawngariifhe knew where Jalil, thecinema's owner, lived. Theold man had plump cheeksand wore a rainbow-stripedchapan. "You're notfromHerat,areyou?"hesaidcompanionably. "Everyoneknows where Jalil Khanlives."
He opened a foil-wrappedtoffee and said, "Are youalone?"
He gave her the toffee.Hesaid he hadn't had a ride intwo hours and he was
planning on going homeanyway. Jalil's housewas ontheway.
Mariam climbed ontothegari.Theyrode insilence,side by side. On the waythere, Mariam saw herbshops, and open-frontedcubbyholes where shoppersbought oranges and pears,books, shawls, even falcons.Children played marbles incirclesdrawnindust.Outside
teahouses, on carpet-coveredwoodenplatforms,mendrankteaandsmokedtobaccofromhookahs.
The oldman turned onto awide, conifer-lined street.Hebroughthishorsetoastopatthemidwaypoint.
"There.Lookslikeyou'reinluck,dokhiarjo. That's hiscar."
Mariam hopped down. Hesmiledandrodeon.
Mariam had never beforetouched a car. She ran herfingers along the hood ofJalil's car, which was black,shiny, with glittering wheelsin which Mariam saw aflattened,widened version ofherself.The seatsweremadeof white leather. Behind the
steering wheel, Mariam sawround glass panels withneedlesbehindthem.
For a moment, Mariamheard Nana's voice in herhead, mocking, dousing thedeep-seated glow of herhopes. With shaky legs,Mariam approached the frontdoorofthehouse.Sheputherhands on the walls. Theywere so tall, so foreboding,Jalil'swalls.Shehadtocrane
hernecktoseewherethetopsof cypress trees protrudedover them from the otherside. The treetops swayed inthebreeze, and she imaginedthey were nodding theirwelcome to her. Mariamsteadied herself against thewaves of dismay passingthroughher.
A barefoot young womanopened the door. She had atattoounderherlowerlip.
Alookofconfusioncrossedthe girl's face. Then, a flashof recognition. There was afaint smile on her lips now,andanairofeagernessabouther, of anticipation. "Waithere,"thegirlsaidquickly.
a man opened the door. Hewas tall and square-shouldered, with sleepy-lookingeyesandacalmface.
"He's away on urgentbusiness."
Mariam said she wouldwait-He closed the gates.Mariam sat, and drew herknees to her chest. It wasearly evening already, andshe was getting hungry. Sheate thegaridriver's toffee. A
while later, the driver cameoutagain.
"You need to go homenow,"hesaid."It'llbedarkinlessthananhour."
"It'llgetcoldtoo.Whydon'tyou let me drive you home?I'lltellhimyouwerehere."
"I'lltakeyoutoahotel,then.You can sleep comfortablythere.We'll seewhatwe candointhemorning."
"I'vebeen instructednot to.Look, no one knows whenhe'scomingback.Itcouldbedays."
The driver sighed andlooked at her with gentlereproach.
Over the years, Mariamwould have ample occasionto think about how thingsmight have turned out if shehad let the driver take herback to thekolba But shedidn't. She spent the nightoutside Jalil's house. Shewatched the sky darken, theshadows engulf the
neighboring housefronts. Thetattooed girl brought hersome bread and a plate ofrice, which Mariam said shedidn't want. The girl left itnear Mariam. From time totime,Mariamheardfootstepsdown the street, doorsswinging open, muffledgreetings.Electriclightscameon, and windows gloweddimly. Dogs barked. Whenshecouldnolongerresistthehunger,Mariam ate the plate
of rice and the bread. Thenshe listened to the cricketschirping from gardens.Overhead, clouds slid past apalemoon.
In the morning, she wasshaken awake. Mariam sawthatduringthenightsomeonehad covered her with ablanket.
"This is enough. You'vemadeascene.Bos.It'stimetogo."
Mariam sat up and rubbedher eyes. Her back and neckweresore."I'mgoing towaitforhim."
"Lookatme,"hesaid."JalilKhansaysthatIneedto takeyoubacknow.Rightnow.Doyou understand? Jalil Khansaysso."
He opened the rearpassengerdoortothecar."BiaComeon,"hesaidsoftly.
"Iwanttoseehim,"Mariamsaid. Her eyes were tearingover.
The driver sighed. "Letmetake you home. Comeon,dokhtarjo."
Mariam stood up andwalkedtowardhim.Butthen,
at the last moment, shechanged direction and ran tothe front gates. She felt thedriver'sfingersfumblingforagripathershoulder.Sheshedhim and burst through theopengates.
In the handful of secondsthatshewasinJalil'sgarden,Mariam's eyes registeredseeing a gleaming glassstructurewithplantsinsideit,grape vines clinging to
wooden trellises, a fishpondbuilt with gray blocks ofstone,fruit
trees,andbushesofbrightlycolored flowers everywhere.Hergazeskimmedoverallofthese things before theyfound a face, across thegarden, in an upstairswindow. The face was therefor only an instant, a flash,but long enough. LongenoughforMariamtoseethe
eyes widen, themouth open.Then it snapped away fromview. A hand appeared andfrantically pulled at a cord.Thecurtainsfellshut.
Thenapairofhandsburiedinto her armpits and shewasliftedoff theground.Mariamkicked. The pebbles spilledfromherpocket.Mariamkeptkickingandcryingasshewascarriedtothecarandloweredonto the cold leather of the
The driver talked in amuted, consoling tone as hedrove. Mariam did not hearhim. All during the ride, asshe bounced in the backseat,shecried.Theywere tearsofgrief, of anger, ofdisillusionment. But mainlytearsofadeep,deepshameathow foolishly she had given
herself over to Jalil, howshehadfrettedoverwhatdresstowear, over themismatchinghijab, walkingall the way here, refusing toleave, sleeping on the streetlikeastraydog.And
shewasashamedofhowshehad dismissed her mother'sstrickenlooks,herpuffyeyes.Nana, who had warned her,whohadbeenrightallalong.
Mariamkeptthinkingofhisface in the upstairs window.He let her sleep on thestreet.On the street Mariamcried lying down. She didn'tsitup,didn'twanttobeseen.She imagined all of Heratknewthismorninghowshe'ddisgracedherself.ShewishedMullah Faizullah were hereso shecouldputherheadonhis lap and let him comforther.
After a while, the roadbecamebumpierandthenoseof the car pointed up. Theywere on the uphill roadbetween Herat and GulDaman.
What would she say toNana, Mariam wondered.How would she apologize?How could she even faceNananow?
The car stopped and the
driver helped her out. "I'llwalkyou,"hesaid.
Shelethimguideheracrossthe road and up the track.There was honeysucklegrowing along the path, andmilkweed too. Bees werebuzzing over twinklingwildflowers. The driver tookherhandandhelpedhercrossthe stream. Then he let go,andhewastalkingabouthowHerat's famous one hundred
andtwentydays'windswouldstart blowing soon, frommidmorningtodusk,andhowthe sand flieswould go on afeeding frenzy, and thensuddenly he was standing infront of her, trying to coverher eyes, pushing her backthe way they had come andsaying, "Go back! No. Don'tlook now. Turn around! Goback!"
But he wasn't fast enough.
Mariam saw.Agust ofwindblewandpartedthedroopingbranches of the weepingwillow like a curtain, andMariam caught a glimpse ofwhatwasbeneaththetree:thestraight-backed chair,overturned. The ropedroppingfromahighbranch.Nana dangling at the end ofit.
1 hey buried Nana in acornerofthecemeteryinGulDaman.MariamstoodbesideBibi jo, with the women, asMullah Faizullah recitedprayers at the graveside andthe men lowered Nana'sshrouded body into theground-Afterward, Jalilwalked Mariam to thekolba,where, in front of thevillagers who accompaniedthem, he made a great showof tending to Mariam. He
collectedafewofher things,puttheminasuitcase.Hesatbesidehercot,where she laydown, and fanned her face.Hestrokedherforehead,and,withawoebegoneexpressionon his face, asked if sheneededanything? anything? -hesaiditlikethat,twice.
"I wantMullah Faizullah,"Mariamsaid.
It was when MullahFaizullah's slight, stoopingfigure appeared in thekolba'sdoorway that Mariam criedforthefirsttimethatday.
He sat next to her andcuppedherfaceinhishands."Yougoonandcry,Mariamjo.Goon.Thereisnoshame
in it.But remember,mygirl,whattheKoransays,'Blessedis He in Whose hand is thekingdom, and He Who haspower over all things, WhocreateddeathandlifethatHemay try you.' The Koranspeaksthetruth,mygirl.
Behindeverytrialandeverysorrow that He makes usshoulder,Godhasareason."
comfort in God's words. Notthat day. Not then. All shecould hear was Nanasaying,I'll die if you go. I'lljustdie.Allshecoulddowascry and cry and let her tearsfallonthespotted,paper-thinskin of Mullah Faizullah'shands.
On the ride to his house,Jalilsatinthebackseatofhis
car with Mariam, his armdrapedoverhershoulder.
"You can stay with me,Mariam jo," he said. "I'veaskedthemalreadytocleanaroom for you. It's upstairs.You'll like it, I think. You'llhaveaviewofthegarden."
For the first time, Mariamcould hear him with Nana'sears. She could hear soclearly now the insincerity
that had always lurkedbeneath, the hollow, falseassurances. She could notbringherselftolookathim.
WhenthecarstoppedbeforeJalil's house, the driveropenedthedoorforthemandcarried Mariam's suitcase.Jalil guided her, one palmcupped around each of hershoulders, through the samegates outside of which, twodays before, Mariam had
slepton thesidewalkwaitingfor him. Two days before-whenMariam could think ofnothing in the world shewantedmore than towalk inthisgardenwithJalil-feltlikeanother lifetime. How couldher life have turned upsidedown so quickly, Mariamasked herself. She kept hergaze to the ground, on herfeet, stepping on the graystonepath.Shewasawareofthepresenceofpeople in the
garden, murmuring, steppingaside,assheandJalilwalkedpast.Shesensedtheweightofeyes on her, looking downfromthewindowsupstairs.
Inside the house too,Mariamkept her head down.She walked on a marooncarpet with a repeating blue-and-yellowoctagonalpattern,saw out of the corner of hereye the marble bases ofstatues, the lower halves of
vases, the frayed ends ofrichly colored tapestrieshanging from walls. Thestairs sheandJalil tookwerewide and covered withasimilar carpet, nailed downat the base of each step. Atthe top of the stairs, Jalil ledher to the left, down anotherlong, carpeted hallway. Hestopped by one of the doors,openedit,andletherin.
"Your sisters Niloufar and
Atieh play here sometimes,"Jalilsaid,"butmostlyweusethisasaguestroom.You'llbecomfortablehere, I think. It'snice,isn'tit?"
The roomhadabedwithagreen-flowered blanket knitin a tightly woven,honeycomb design. Thecurtains,pulledbacktorevealthe garden below, matchedthe blanket. Beside the bedwasathree-drawerchestwith
a flower vase on it. Therewereshelvesalong thewalls,with framed pictures ofpeople Mariam did notrecognize. On one of theshelves, Mariam saw acollection of identicalwooden dolls, arranged in aline in order of decreasingsize.
Jalil saw herlooking."Matryoshka dolls. Igot them in Moscow. You
can play with them, if youwant.Noonewillmind."
Mariam sat down on thebed.
"Is there anything youwant?"Jalilsaid.
Mariam lay down. Closedher eyes. After a while, sheheard him softly shut thedoor.
Exceptfor"whenshehadtouse the bathroom down thehall, Mariam stayed in theroom.Thegirlwiththetattoo,the one who had opened thegates to her, brought hermeals on a tray: lambkebab,sabzi, aush soup.Mostofitwentuneaten.Jalilcamebyseveraltimesaday,satonthebedbesideher, askedherifshewasallright.
"You could eat downstairswith the rest of us," he said,butwithoutmuchconviction.He understood a little tooreadilywhenMariamsaidshepreferredtoeatalone.
From the window,Mariamwatched impassively whatshe had wondered about andlonged toseeformostofherlife: the comings and goingsof Jalil's daily life. Servantsrushedinandoutofthefront
gates.Agardenerwasalwaystrimming bushes, wateringplantsinthegreenhouse.Carswithlong,sleekhoodspulledup on the street. From thememerged men in suits,inchapcms and caracul hats,women inhijabs, childrenwithneatlycombedhair.Andas Mariam watched Jalilshake these strangers' hands,as she saw him cross hispalmsonhischestandnodtotheir wives, she knew that
Nana had spoken the truth.Shedidnotbelonghere.
But where do I belong?WhatamIgoingtodonow?
I'm all you have in thisworld,Mariam,andwhenI'mgone you'll have nothing.You'll have nothing.Youarenothing!
Like the wind through thewillows around thekolba,
gusts of an inexpressibleblackness kept passingthroughMariam.
OnMariam'ssecondfulldayat Jalil's house, a little girlcameintotheroom.
"I have to get something,"shesaid.
Mariam sat up on the bedand crossed her legs, pulledtheblanketonherlap.
The girl hurried across theroom and opened the closetdoor. She fetched a square-shapedgraybox.
"You know what this is?"shesaid.Sheopenedthebox."It's called agramophone.Gramo. Phone.It plays records. You know,music.Agramophone."
"You're Niloufar. You'reeight."
The little girl smiled. Shehad Jalil's smile and hisdimpled chin. "How did youknow?"
"Do you want to hear asong?"
Niloufar plugged in thegramophone. She fished asmall record from a pouchbeneaththebox'slid.Sheputit on, lowered the needle.Musicbegantoplay.
1willuseaflowerpetalforpaper, And write you thesweetest letter, You are thesultanofmyheart, thesultanofmyheart
"It's froman Iranian film. Isaw it atmy father's cinema.Hey, do you want to seesomething?"
Before Mariam couldanswer,Niloufar had put herpalms and forehead to theground She pushed with hersoles and then she wasstandingupsidedown,onherhead,inathree-pointstance.
Niloufar dropped her legsand pulled her blouse backdown. "I could teach you,"she said, pushing hair fromher flushed brow. "So howlongwillyoustayhere?"
"Mymothersaysyou'renotreally my sister like you sayyouare."
"She says you did. I don'tcare.What Imean is, I don'tmind if you did say it, or ifyou are my sister. I don'tmind."
"You can stop that now,"Mariam said, turning to herside."Themusic,Imean."
Bibijocametoseeherthatdaytoo.Itwasrainingbythetime she came. She loweredher largebodyonto thechairbesidethebed,grimacing.
"This rain, Mariam jo, it'smurder on my hips. Justmurder, I tell you. I hope…Oh, now, come here, child.Come here to Bibi jo. Don'tcry. There, now. You poorthing.Ask You poor, poorthing."
Thatnight,Mariamcouldn'tsleepforalongtime.Shelayin bed looking at the sky,listening to the footstepsbelow, thevoicesmuffledby
walls and the sheets of rainpunishing thewindow.Whenshe did doze off, she wasstartled awake by shouting.Voicesdownstairs, sharpandangry.Mariamcouldn'tmakeout the words. Someoneslammedadoor.
The next morning, MullahFaizullah came to visit her.When she saw her friend atthedoor,hiswhitebeardandhis amiable, toothless smile,
Mariamfelttearsstingingthecornersofhereyesagain.Sheswung her feet over the sideof the bed and hurried over.Shekissedhishandasalwaysand he her brow. She pulledhimupachair-Heshowedherthe Koran he had broughtwith him and opened it. "Ifigured no sense in skippingourroutine,eh?"
"You know I don't needlessons anymore, Mullah
sahib. You taught meeverysurrah andayat in theKoranyearsago."
He smiled, and raised hishands in a gesture ofsurrender. "I confess, then.I'vebeenfoundout.ButIcanthink of worse excuses tovisityou."
"You don't need excuses.Notyou."
"You're kind to say that,Mariamjo."
HepassedherhisKoran.Ashe'd taught her, she kissed itthree times-touching it toherbrow between each kiss-andgaveitbacktohim.
"Ikeep,"Mariambegan.Shehad to stop, feeling like arock had lodged itself in her
throat. "I keep thinking ofwhat she said tome before Ileft.She-"
"Nay, nay, nay."MullahFaizullahputhishandonherknee. "Your mother, mayAllah forgive her, was atroubled and unhappywoman,Mariamjo.Shedidaterrible thing to herself. Toherself, to you, and also toAllah.Hewillforgiveher,forHe is all-forgiving,butAllah
is saddenedbywhat she did.He does not approve of thetaking of life, be it another'sorone'sown,forHesaysthatlife is sacred You see-" Hepulled his chair closer, tookMariam'shand inbothofhisown. "You see, I knew yourmotherbeforeyouwereborn,whenshewasalittlegirl,andI tell you that she wasunhappy then. The seed forwhatshedidwasplantedlongago, I'mafraid.What Imean
to say is that this was notyour fault. It wasn't yourfault,mygirl."
"I shouldn't have left her. Ishouldhave-"
"You stop that. Thesethoughtsarenogood,Mariamjo. You hear me, child? Nogood.Theywill destroyyou.Itwasn't your fault. Itwasn'tyourfault.No."
Mariam nodded, but asdesperately as she wanted toshecouldnotbringherselftobelievehim.
Oneapternoon,aweeklater,there was a knock on thedoor, and a tall womanwalked in. She was fair-skinned,hadreddishhairandlongfingers.
"I'm Afsoon," she said."Niloufar'smother.Whydon'tyou wash up, Mariam, andcomedownstairs?"
Mariam said she wouldratherstayinherroom.
"No,nafahmidi, you don'tunderstand. Youmedio comedown.Wehavetotalktoyou.It'simportant."
They sat across from her,Jalilandhiswives,ata long,dark brown table. Betweenthem, in the center of thetable, was a crystal vase offresh marigolds and asweating pitcher of water.The red-haired woman whohad introduced herself asNiloufar's mother, Afsoon,was sitting on Jalil's right.The other two, Khadija andNargis,were on his left.Thewives each had on a flimsy
black scarf,which theyworenot on their heads but tiedloosely around the neck likeanafterthought.Mariam,whocould not imagine that theywould wear black for Nana,pictured one of themsuggesting it, ormaybe Jalil,just before she'd beensummoned.
Afsoon poured water fromthe pitcher and put the glassbefore Mariam on a
checkered cloth coaster."Only spring and it's warmalready," she said. Shemadea fanning motion with herhand.
"Have you beencomfortable?" Nargis, whohad a small chin and curlyblack hair, asked. "We hopeyou've been comfortable.This…ordeal…must be veryhardforyou.Sodifficult."
The other two nodded.Mariamtookintheirpluckedeyebrows, the thin, tolerantsmiles they were giving her.TherewasanunpleasanthuminMariam's head.Her throatburned. She drank some ofthewater.
Through the wide windowbehind Jalil, Mariam couldsee a rowof flowering appletrees.On thewall beside thewindowstoodadarkwooden
cabinet.Initwasaclock,anda framed photograph of Jalilandthreeyoungboysholdinga fish. The sun caught thesparkle in the fish's scales.Jalil and the boys weregrinning.
"Well," Afsoon began. "I-that is, we-have brought youhere because we have someverygoodnewstogiveyou."
She caught a quickexchange of glances betweenthe women over Jalil, whoslouched in his chair lookingunseeingly at the pitcher onthe table. ItwasKhadija, theoldest-looking of the three,who turned her gaze toMariam,andMariamhad theimpression that this duty toohad been discussed, agreedupon, before they had calledforher.
Mariam's stomach fell. "Awhat?" she said throughsuddenlynumblips.
"Akhasiegar. A suitor. Hisname is Rasheed," Khadijawenton. "He is a friendof abusinessacquaintanceofyourfather's.He'saPashtun, fromKandahar originally, but helives in Kabul, in the Deh-
Mazang district, in a two-storyhousethatheowns."
Afsoonwas nodding. "Andhe does speak Farsi, like us,like you. So you won't havetolearnPashto."
Mariam's chest wastightening. The room wasreeling up and down, theground shifting beneath herfeet.
"He'sashoemaker,"Khadijawas saying now. "But notsomekindofordinary street-sidemoochi, no, no. He hashis own shop, and he is oneof the most sought-aftershoemakers in Kabul Hemakes them for diplomats,members of the presidentialfamily-that class of people.So you see, he will have notroubleprovidingforyou."
Mariam fixed her eyes on
Jalil, her heart somersaultingin her chest. "Is this true?Whatshe'ssaying,isittrue?"
But Jalil wouldn't look ather.Hewenton chewing thecorner of his lower lip andstaringatthepitcher.
"Nowheisalittleolderthanyou,"Afsoonchimedin."Buthecan'tbemore than…forty.Forty-five at the most.Wouldn'tyousay,Nargis?"
"Yes. But I've seen nine-year-old girls given to mentwenty years older than yoursuitor,Mariam.We all have.What are you, fifteen?That'sa good, solid marrying agefor a girl." There wasenthusiasticnoddingatthis.Itdid not escape Mariam thatnomentionwasmade of herhalfsistersSaidehorNaheed,both her own age, bothstudents in theMehri Schoolin Herat, both with plans to
enroll in Kabul University.Fifteen, evidently, was not agood, solidmarrying age forthem.
"What'smore,"Nargiswenton, "he too has had a greatloss in his life.Hiswife,wehear, died during childbirthtenyearsago.Andthen,threeyearsago,hissondrownedinalake."
looking for a bride the lastfew years but hasn't foundanyonesuitable."
"I don't want to," Mariamsaid. She looked at Jalil. "Idon't want this. Don't makeme." She hated the sniffling,pleadingtoneofhervoicebutcouldnothelpit.
"Now, be reasonable,Mariam," one of the wivessaid.
Mariam was no longerkeeping track of who wassaying what. She went onstaring at Jalil, waiting forhim to speak up, to say thatnoneofthiswastrue.
"Yes. A home, children of
"True that it would bepreferable that you marry alocal,aTajik,butRasheed ishealthy,andinterestedinyou.He has a home and a job.That's all that really matters,isn't it? And Kabul is abeautiful and exciting city.You may not get anotheropportunitythisgood."
"I'll live with MullahFaizullah," she said. "He'lltakemein.Iknowhewill."
"That's no good," Khadijasaid."He'soldandso…"Shesearched for the right word,and Mariam knew then thatwhatshereallywantedtosaywasHef s so close. Sheunderstood what they meant
to do.You may not getanotheropportunitythisgoodAndneitherwouldthey.Theyhad been disgraced by herbirth, and this was theirchancetoerase,onceandforall, the last trace of theirhusband's scandalousmistake. She was being sentaway because she was thewalking, breathingembodimentoftheirshame.
"He's so old and weak,"
Khadijaeventuallysaid."Andwhat will you do when he'sgone? You'd be a burden tohisfamily."
As you are now tous.Mariam almostsaw theunspoken words exitKhadija's mouth, like foggybreathonacoldday.
Mariam pictured herself inKabul, a big, strange,crowded city that, Jalil had
once told her, was some sixhundred and fifty kilometersto the east of Herat.Sixhundred and fifty kilometers.The farthest she'd ever beenfrom thekolba was the two-kilometerwalkshe'dmadetoJalil's house. She picturedherselflivingthere,inKabul,at the other end of thatunimaginable distance, livingin a stranger's house whereshewouldhavetoconcedetohis moods and his issued
demands. Shewould have tocleanafterthisman,Rasheed,cook for him, wash hisclothes. And there would beother chores as well-Nanahad told her what husbandsdid to theirwives. Itwas thethoughtoftheseintimaciesinparticular, which sheimagined as painful acts ofperversity,thatfilledherwithdreadandmadeherbreakoutinasweat.
She turned to Jalil again."Tell them. Tell them youwon'tletthemdothis."
"Actually, your father hasalready given Rasheed hisanswer," Afsoon said."Rasheedishere,inHerat;hehas come all the way fromKabul. Thenikka will betomorrow morning, and thenthere is a bus leaving forKabulatnoon."
Thewomengrewquietnow.Mariamsensedthattheywerewatchinghimtoo.Waiting.Asilence fell over the room.Jalil kept twirling hisweddingband,withabruised,helpless look on his face.From inside the cabinet, theclocktickedonandon.
Mil'seyesliftedslowly,metMariam's, lingered for amoment, then dropped. Heopenedhismouth,butallthatcame forth was a single,painedgroan.
"Say something," Mariamsaid.
Then Jalil did, in a thin,threadbare voice. "Goddamnit, Mariam, don't do this tome,"hesaidasthoughhewas
the one to whom somethingwasbeingdone.
And,with that,Mariamfeltthe tension vanish from theroom.
As JaliPs wives began anew-and more sprightly-round of reassuring, Mariamlookeddownatthetable.Hereyestracedthesleekshapeofthe table's legs, the sinuouscurves of its corners, the
gleam of its reflective, darkbrown surface. She noticedthat every time she breathedout, the surface fogged, andshe disappeared from herfather'stable.
Afsoonescortedherbacktothe room upstairs. WhenAfsoon closed the door,Mariamheardtherattlingofakeyasitturnedinthelock.
Inthemorning,Mariamwasgiven a long-sleeved, darkgreen dress to wear overwhitecottontrousers.Afsoongave her a green hijab and apairofmatchingsandals.
Shewas taken to the roomwith the long, brown table,exceptnowtherewasabowlofsugar-coatedalmondcandyin the middle of the table, aKoran, a green veil, and amirror.TwomenMariamhad
never seenbefore-witnesses,she presumed-and a mullahshe did not recognize werealreadyseatedatthetable.
Jalil showedher to a chair.Hewaswearingalightbrownsuit and a red tie. His hairwaswashed.Whenhepulledout thechair forher,he triedto smile encouragingly.Khadija and Afsoon sat onMariam'ssideofthetablethistime.
The mullah motionedtoward the veil, and Nargisarranged itonMariam'sheadbefore taking a seat.Mariamlookeddownatherhands.
Mariamsmelledhimbeforeshesawhim.Cigarettesmokeand thick,sweetcologne,notfaint like Jalil's.Thescentofit flooded Mariam's nostrils.
Through the veil, from thecorner of her eye, Mariamsaw a tall man, thick-belliedand broad-shouldered,stoopinginthedoorway.Thesize of him almostmade hergasp,andshehadtodrophergaze, her heart hammeringaway. She sensed himlingering in the doorway.Then his slow, heavy-footedmovement across the room.The candy bowl on the tableclinkedintunewithhissteps.
With a thick grunt, hedroppedonachairbesideher.Hebreathednoisily.
Themullahwelcomedthem.He said this would not be atraditionalnikka
"I understand thatRasheedagha has tickets forthe bus to Kabul that leavesshortly. So, in the interest oftime,wewillbypasssomeofthe traditional steps to speed
The mullah gave a fewblessings, said a few wordsabout the importance ofmarriage.HeaskedJalilifhehad any objections to thisunion, and Jalil shook hishead. Then themullah askedRasheed if he indeed wishedto enter into a marriagecontract with Mariam.Rasheed said, "Yes." Hisharsh, raspy voice reminded
Mariam of the sound of dryautumn leaves crushedunderfoot.
"And do you,Mariam jan,accept this man as yourhusband?"
Mariam stayed quiet.Throatswerecleared.
"She does," a female voicesaidfromdownthetable.
"Actually," themullahsaid,"she herself has to answer.And she should wait until Iask three times.Thepoint is,he'sseekingher,nottheotherwayaround."
He asked the question twomore times. When Mariamdidn't answer, he asked itoncemore,thistimemore
forcefully- Mariam couldfeel Jalil beside her shifting
on his seat, could sense feetcrossing and uncrossingbeneath the table. There wasmorethroatclearing.Asmall,white hand reached out andflicked a bit of dust off thetable.
A mirror was passedbeneath the veil. In it,
Mariam saw her own facefirst, the archless, unshapelyeyebrows, the flat hair, theeyes,mirthless green and setso closely together that onemight mistake her for beingcross-eyed. Her skin wascoarse and had a dull, spottyappearance. She thought herbrow too wide, the chin toonarrow,thelipstoothin.Theoverall impression was of alongface,a triangularface,abit houndlike. And yet
Mariam saw that, oddlyenough, the whole of theseunmemorable parts made forafacethatwasnotprettybut,somehow, not unpleasant tolookateither.
In the mirror, Mariam hadher first glimpse ofRasheed:the big, square, ruddy face;the hooked nose; the flushedcheeks that gave theimpression of slycheerfulness; the watery,
bloodshot eyes; the crowdedteeth, the front two pushedtogether like a gabled roof;the impossibly low hairline,barely two finger widthsabove the bushy eyebrows;thewallofthick,coarse,salt-and-pepperhair.
Their gazes met briefly intheglassandslidaway.
This is the face of myhusband,Mariamthought.
They exchanged the thingold bands that Rasheedfished from his coat pocket.Hisnailswereyellow-brown,like the inside of a rottingapple, and some of the tipswere curling, lifting.Mariam's hands shook whenshetriedtoslipthebandontohis finger, and Rasheed hadto help her. Her own bandwasalittletight,butRasheedhadnotroubleforcingitoverherknuckles.
"It's a pretty ring," one ofthe wives said. "It's lovely,Mariam."
"Allthatremainsnowisthesigning of the contract," themullahsaid.
Mariam signed her name-themeem, thereh, the 3^ andthemeem again-conscious ofall theeyesonherhand.The
next timeMariam signed hername toadocument, twenty-seven years later, a mullahwouldagainbepresent.
"You are nowhusband andwife," the mullahsaid."Tabreek.Congratulations."
Rasheed waited in themulticolored bus. Mariam
couldnotseehimfromwhereshe stood with Jalil, by therear bumper, only the smokeof his cigarette curling upfrom the open window.Around them, hands shookand farewells were said.Korans were kissed, passedunder.Barefootboysbouncedbetween travelers, their facesinvisiblebehindtheirtraysofchewinggumandcigarettes.
Jalil was busy telling her
that Kabul was so beautiful,the Moghul emperor Baburhad asked that he be buriedthere. Next, Mariam knew,he'd go on about Kabul'sgardens, and its shops, itstrees, and its air, and, beforelong,shewouldbeonthebusandhewouldwalkalongsideit, waving cheerfully,unscathed,spared.
Mariam could not bringherselftoallowit.
Jalilstoppedinmidsentence.Hecrossedanduncrossedhisarms.AyoungHindicouple,the wife cradling a boy, thehusband dragging a suitcase,passed between them. Jalilseemed grateful for theinterruption. They excusedthemselves, and he smiledbackpolitely.
"On Thursdays, I sat forhours waiting for you. Iworriedmyself sick that youwouldn'tshowup."
"It'salongtrip.Youshouldeat something." He said hecouldbuyhersomebreadandgoatcheese.
"I thoughtaboutyouall thetime.Iusedtopraythatyou'dlivetobeahundredyearsold.I didn't know. I didn't know
that you were ashamed ofme."
Jalil lookeddown,and, likean overgrown child, dug atsomethingwiththetoeofhisshoe.
"I'll visit you," hemuttered"I'll come to Kabul and seeyou.We'll-"
"No. No," she said. "Don'tcome. Iwon't see you.Don'tyou come. I don't want tohearfromyou.Ever.Ever."
He gave her a woundedlook.
"It ends here for you andme.Sayyourgood-byes."
"Don't leave like this," hesaidinathinvoice.
"You didn't even have thedecency to give me the timeto say good-bye to MullahFaizullah."
She turned and walkedaroundtothesideofthebus.Shecouldhearhimfollowingher. When she reached thehydraulic doors, she heardhimbehindher.
She climbed the stairs, andthough she could spot Jalilout of the corner of her eyewalking parallel to her shedidnot lookout thewindow.Shemade her way down theaisle to the back, whereRasheedsatwithhersuitcasebetweenhis feet.Shedidnotturn to look when Jalil'spalms pressed on the glass,whenhisknucklesrappedandrapped on it. When the busjerked forward, she did not
turn to see him trottingalongside it. And when thebus pulled away, she did notlook back to see himreceding, to see himdisappear in the cloud ofexhaustanddust.
Rasheed, who took up thewindow andmiddle seat, puthisthickhandonhers.
"There now, girl There.There," he said. He was
squinting out the window ashe said this, as thoughsomething more interestinghadcaughthiseye.
It was early evening thefollowing day by the timethey arrived at Rasheed'shouse.
"We're inDeh-Mazang,"hesaid. They were outside, on
the sidewalk. He had hersuitcase inonehandandwasunlocking the wooden frontgate with the other. "In thesouth and west part of thecity. The zoo is nearby, andtheuniversitytoo."
Mariam nodded. Alreadyshe had learned that, thoughshecouldunderstandhim,shehad to pay close attentionwhen he spoke. She wasunaccustomed to the Kabuli
dialectofhisFarsi,andtotheunderlying layer of Pashtoaccent, the language of hisnative Kandahar. He, on theother hand, seemed to haveno trouble understanding herHeratiFarsi.
Mariam quickly surveyedthe narrow, unpaved roadalongwhichRasheed'shousewas situated. The houses onthis road were crowdedtogether and shared common
walls, with small, walledyards in frontbuffering themfrom the street. Most of thehomeshadflatroofsandweremade of burned brick, someofmud the same dusty coloras the mountains that ringedthecity.Guttersseparatedthesidewalk from the road onboth sides and flowed withmuddy water. Mariam sawsmall mounds of flyblowngarbage littering the streethere and there. Rasheed's
house had two stories.Mariam could see that it hadoncebeenblue.
When Rasheed opened thefront gate, Mariam foundherself in a small, unkemptyard where yellow grassstruggled up in thin patches.Mariam saw an outhouse onthe right, ina sideyard,and,ontheleft,awellwithahandpump, a row of dyingsaplings.Nearthewellwasa
toolshed, and a bicycleleaningagainstthewall.
"Your father told me youlike to fish,"Rasheedsaidastheywerecrossingtheyardtothe house. There was nobackyard, Mariam saw."There are valleys north ofhere. Rivers with lots offish.Maybe I'll take yousomeday."
Heunlocked the front door
Rasheed's housewasmuchsmaller than Jalil's, but,compared to Mariam andNana'skolba, it was amansion. There was ahallway, a living roomdownstairs, and a kitchen inwhichheshowedherpotsandpans and a pressure cookerand a keroseneLshiop. Theliving room had a pistachiogreen leather couch. It had a
rip down its side that hadbeen clumsily sewn together.The walls were bare. Therewas a table, two cane-seatchairs, two folding chairs,and, in the corner, a black,cast-ironstove.
Mariamstoodinthemiddleof the living room, lookingaround. At thekolba, shecould touch the ceiling withher fingertips. She could lieinhercotandtellthetimeof
day by the angle of sunlightpouring through thewindow.She knew how far her doorwould open before its hingescreaked. She knew everysplinter and crack in each ofthe thirty woodenfloorboards. Now all thosefamiliar things were gone.Nanawas dead, and shewashere, in a strange city,separated from the life she'dknownbyvalleys and chainsof snow-capped mountains
andentiredeserts.Shewasinastranger'shouse,withallitsdifferent rooms and its smellof cigarette smoke, with itsunfamiliar cupboards full ofunfamiliarutensils, itsheavy,dark green curtains, and aceiling she knew she couldnot reach. The space of itsuffocatedMariam. Pangs oflonging bore into her, forNana, for Mullah Faizullah,forheroldlife.
"What's this crying about?"Rasheed said crossly. Hereachedintothepocketofhispants, uncurled Mariam'sfingers, and pushed ahandkerchief into her palm.He lithimselfacigaretteandleaned against the wall. Hewatched as Mariam pressedthehandkerchieftohereyes.
He took her by the elbowthenandledhertotheliving-roomwindow.
"Thiswindowlooksnorth,"hesaid,tappingtheglasswiththe crookednail of his indexfinger. "That's the Asmai
mountain directly in front ofus-see?-and,totheleft,istheAli Abad mountain. Theuniversity is at the footof it.Behindus,east,youcan'tseefrom here, is the ShirDarwaza mountain. Everyday, at noon, they shoot acannon from it. Stop yourcrying,now.Imeanit."
"That's one thing I can't
stand,"hesaid,scowling,"thesoundofawomancrying.I'msorry. I have no patience forit."
"I want to go home,"Mariamsaid.
Rasheed sighed irritably.Apuff of his smoky breath hitMariam's face. "I won't takethatpersonally.Thistime."
Again, he took her by the
Therewas a narrow, dimlylit hallway there and twobedrooms. The door to thebiggeronewasajar.Throughit Mariam could see that it,liketherestofthehouse,wassparselyfurnished:bedinthecorner,with a brown blanketand a pillow, a closet, adresser. The walls were bareexcept for a small mirror.Rasheedclosedthedoor.
He said she could take theguestroom."Ihopeyoudon'tmind. I'm accustomed tosleepingalone."
Mariamdidn't tellhimhowrelieved she was, at leastaboutthis.
The room that was to beMariam's was much smallerthantheroomshe'dstayedin
at Jalil's house. It had a bed,anold,gray-browndresser,asmall closet. The windowlooked into the yard and,beyondthat,thestreetbelow.Rasheedputhersuitcase inacorner.
"Youdidn'tnotice,"hesaidHe was standing in thedoorway, stooping a little tofit.
"Look on the windowsill.You know what kind theyare? I put them there beforeleavingforHerat."
Only now Mariam saw abasket on the sill. Whitetuberoses spilled from itssides.
"You like them? Theypleaseyou?"
"Thank you. I'msorry.Tashakor-"
"You're shaking. Maybe Iscare you. Do I scare you?Areyoufrightenedofme?"
Mariamwas not looking athim, but she could hearsomething slyly playful inthese questions, like aneedling. She quickly shook
her head in what sherecognized as her first lie intheirmarriage.
"No? That's good, then.Good for you. Well, this isyourhomenow.You'regoingtolikeithere.You'llsee.DidItellyouwehaveelectricity?Mostdaysandeverynight?"
Hemade as if to leave.Atthe door, he paused, took along drag, crinkled his eyes
against the smoke. Mariamthought he was going to saysomething. But he didn't. Heclosedthedoor,leftheralonewith her suitcase and herflowers.
The first fewdays,Mariamhardlyleftherroom.Shewasawakened every dawn forprayer by the distant cryofazan, after which shecrawled back into bed. Shewas still in bed when sheheard Rasheed in the
bathroom, washing up, whenhe came into her room tocheck on her before hewentto his shop. From herwindow, shewatched him intheyard,securinghislunchinthe rear carrier pack of hisbicycle, then walking hisbicycle across the yard andinto the street. She watchedhim pedal away, saw hisbroad, thick-shoulderedfigure disappear around theturnattheendofthestreet.
For most of the days,Mariamstayedinbed,feelingadriftandforlorn.Sometimesshe went downstairs to thekitchen, ran her hands overthe sticky, grease-stainedcounter, the vinyl, floweredcurtains that smelled likeburned meals. She lookedthrough the ill-fittingdrawers, at the mismatchedspoons and knives, thecolander and chipped,wooden spatulas, these
would-be instruments of hernew daily life, all of itreminding her of the havocthat had struck her life,making her feel uprooted,displaced, likean intruderonsomeoneelse'slife.
Atthekolba,herappetitehadbeen predictable. Here, herstomach rarely growled forfood. Sometimes she took aplate of leftover white riceand a scrap of bread to the
living room, by the window.Fromthere,shecouldseetheroofsof theone-storyhouseson their street.She could seeinto their yards too, thewomenworkinglaundrylinesand shooing their children,chickens pecking at dirt, theshovelsand spades, thecowstetheredtotrees.
Shethoughtlonginglyofallthe summer nights that sheandNanahadsleptontheflat
roof of thekolba, looking atthe moon glowing over GulDaman,thenightsohottheirshirts would cling to theirchests like a wet leaf to awindow. She missed thewinter afternoons of readingin thekolba with MullahFaizullah, the clinkof iciclesfalling on her roof from thetrees, the crows cawingoutside from snow-burdenedbranches.
Aloneinthehouse,Mariampaced restlessly, from thekitchentothelivingroom,upthe steps to her room anddown again. She ended upback in her room, doing herprayers or sitting on the bed,missing her mother, feelingnauseatedandhomesick.
It was with the sun'swestwardcrawlthatMariam'sanxiety really ratcheted up.Her teeth rattled when she
thoughtofthenight,thetimewhen Rasheed might at lastdecide to do to her whathusbands did to their wives.Shelayinbed,wrackedwithnerves, as he ate alonedownstairs.
He always stopped by herroomandpokedhisheadin.
"You can't be sleepingalready. It's only seven. Areyou awake? Answer me.
He pressed on until, fromthe dark, Mariam said, "I'mhere."
Hesliddownandsatinherdoorway. From her bed, shecould see his large-framedbody, his long legs, thesmoke swirling around hishook-nosedprofile,theambertip of his cigarettebrighteninganddimming.
Hetoldherabouthisday.Apairofloafershehadcustom-made for the deputy foreignminister-who, Rasheed said,bought shoes only fromhim.An order for sandals from aPolishdiplomatandhiswife.He told her of thesuperstitions people hadaboutshoes:thatputtingthemon a bed invited death intothe family, that a quarrelwould follow if one put ontheleftshoefirst.
"Unless it was doneunintentionally on a Friday,"he said. "And did you knowit's supposed to be a badomen to tie shoes togetherandhangthemfromanail?"
Rasheed himself believednone of this. In his opinion,superstitions were largely afemalepreoccupation.
He passed on to her thingshe had heard on the streets,
like how the Americanpresident Richard Nixon hadresignedoverascandal.
Mariam, who had neverheard of Nixon, or thescandalthathadforcedhimtoresign, did not say anythingback. She waited anxiouslyforRasheed to finish talking,to crush his cigarette, andtake his leave. Only whenshe'd heard him cross thehallway, heardhis door open
and close, only then wouldthe metal fist gripping herbellyletgo-Thenonenighthecrushed his cigarette andinstead of saying good nightleanedagainstthedoorway.
"Are you ever going tounpack that thing?" he said,motioning with his headtoward her suitcase. Hecrossed his arms. "I figuredyou might need some time.But this is absurd. A week's
gone and…Well, then, as oftomorrow morning I expectyou to start behaving like awife.Fahmidi? Is thatunderstood?"
Mariam's teeth began tochatter.
you think? That this is ahotel?That I'msomekindofhotelkeeper? Well, it…Oh.Oh.
Laillahu ilillah.WhatdidIsay about the crying?Mariam. What did I say toyouaboutthecrying?"
The next morning, afterRasheed left for work,
Mariamunpackedherclothesand put them in the dresser.Shedrewapailofwaterfromthe well and, with a rag,washed the windows of herroomandthewindowstotheliving room downstairs- Sheswept the floors, beat thecobwebs fluttering in thecorners of the ceiling. Sheopenedthewindowstoairthehouse.
tosoakinapot,foundaknifeand cut some carrots and apairofpotatoes,leftthemtooto soak. She searched forflour, found it in the back ofone of the cabinets behind arow of dirty spice jars, andmade fresh dough, kneadingit the way Nana had shownher, pushing the dough withthe heel of her hand, foldingtheouteredge,turningit,andpushing it away again. Onceshe had floured the dough,
she wrapped it in a moistcloth, put on ahijab, and setout for the communaltandoor.
Rasheedhadtoldherwhereitwas,downthestreet,a leftthen a quick right, but allMariamhadtodowasfollowthe flock of women andchildrenwhowereheadedthesame way. The childrenMariam saw, chasing aftertheir mothers or running
ahead of them, wore shirtspatched and patched again.They wore trousers thatlookedtoobig
or too small, sandals withragged straps that flappedback and forth. They rolleddiscarded old bicycle tireswithsticks.
Their mothers walked ingroupsofthreeorfour,someinburqas,othersnot.Mariam
could hear their high-pitchedchatter,theirspiralinglaughs.Asshewalkedwithherheaddown,shecaughtbitsoftheirbanter, which seeminglyalways had to do with sickchildren or lazy, ungratefulhusbands.
As if the meals cookthemselves.
Wallah o billah,never amoment'srest!
Andhesays tome, Iswearit, it's true, he actually saystome…
This endless conversation,the tone plaintive but oddlycheerful, flew around andaroundinacircle.Onitwent,down the street, around thecorner, in lineat the tandoor.Husbands who gambled.Husbandswhodotedontheirmothersandwouldn'tspendarupiah on them, the wives.
Mariam wondered how somanywomencouldsufferthesamemiserable luck, to havemarried, all of them, suchdreadful men. Or was this awifely game that she did notknow about, a daily ritual,like soaking rice or makingdough? Would they expecthersoontojoinin?
In thetandoorline,Mariamcaught sidewaysglances shotat her, heard whispers. Her
hands began to sweat. Sheimagined they all knew thatshe'd been born aharami, asourceofshametoherfatherandhisfamily.Theyallknewthatshe'dbetrayedhermotheranddisgracedherself.
With a corner of herhijab,she dabbed at the moistureaboveherupper lipand triedto gather her nerves. For afewminutes,everythingwentwell-Then someone tapped
her on the shoulder.Mariamturned around and found alight-skinned, plump womanwearing ahijab, like her. Shehadshort,wiryblackhairanda good-humored, almostperfectlyroundface.Herlipswere much fuller thanMariam's, the lower oneslightly droopy, as thoughdragged down by the big,dark mole just below the lipline. She had big greenisheyes that shone at Mariam
"You're Rasheed jan's newwife,aren'tyou?"thewomansaid,smilingwidely.
"TheonefromHerat.You'reso young! Mariam jan, isn'tit?Myname isFariba. I liveonyour street, fivehouses toyour left, the one with thegreen door. This is mysonNoor."
The boy at her side had asmooth, happy face andwiryhair like his mother's. Therewasapatchofblackhairsonthe lobe of his left ear. Hiseyes had a mischievous,reckless light in them. Heraised his hand."Salaam,KhalaJan."
"Thirteen going on forty."The woman Fariba laughed."My husband's name isHakim," she said. "He's ateacher here inDeh-Mazang.You should come bysometime,we'llhaveacup-"
And then suddenly, as ifemboldened, the otherwomen pushed past Faribaand swarmed Mariam,forming a circle around herwithalarmingspeed
"So you're Rasheed jan'syoungbride-"
"The minarets! Oh, whatbeauty! What a gorgeouscity!"
"Boy isbetter,Mariam jan,theycarrythefamilyname-"
"We heard you werecoming."
"Have twins. One of each!Theneveryone'shappy."
Mariam backed away. Shewas hyperventilating. Herears buzzed, her pulsefluttered, her eyes dartedfromonefacetoanother.Shebackedawayagain,but therewasnowheretogoto-shewasin the center of a circle. Shespotted Fariba, who wasfrowning, who saw that shewasindistress.
"Let her be!" Fariba wassaying. "Move aside, let her
Mariamclutched thedoughclosetoherchestandpushedthrough the crowd aroundher.
"Where are yougoing,hamshira?”
She pushed until somehowshewas in theclearand thensheranupthestreet.Itwasn'tuntil she'd reached the
intersection that she realizedshe'drunthewrongway.Sheturnedaroundandranbackinthe other direction, headdown, tripping once andscrapingherkneebadly, thenupagainandrunning,boltingpastthewomen.
"What's the matter withyou?"
Mariam turned one corner,then theother.She found thecorrect street but suddenlycould not remember whichwasRasheed'shouse.Sheranup then down the street,panting, near tears now,began trying doors blindly.Some were locked, othersopened only to revealunfamiliar yards, barkingdogs, and startled chickens.ShepicturedRasheedcominghome to find her still
searching this way, her kneebleeding, lost on her ownstreet. Now she did startcrying.Shepushedondoors,muttering panicked prayers,her face moist with tears,until one opened, and shesaw,withrelief,theouthouse,the well, the toolshed. Sheslammedthedoorbehindherandturnedthebolt.Thenshewas on all fours, next to thewall,retching.Whenshewasdone, she crawled away, sat
againstthewall,withherlegssplayed before her. She hadneverinherlifefeltsoalone.
WhenRasheed came homethat night, he brought withhim a brown paper bag.Mariamwasdisappointedthathe did not notice the cleanwindows, the swept floors,themissing cobwebs. But hedid lookpleased thatshehad
already set his dinner plate,on a cleansofrah spread ontheliving-roomfloor.
She poured water for himfrom theafiawa to wash hishandswith.Ashedriedwithatowel,sheputbeforehimasteaming bowlof daal and aplateoffluffywhiterice.This
was the first meal she hadcooked for him, andMariamwished she had been in abetterstatewhenshemadeit.She'd still been shaken fromthe incidentat the tandoorasshe'dcooked,andalldayshehad fretted about thedaal'%consistency,itscolor,worriedthat he would think she'dstirred in toomuchgingerornotenoughturmeric.
Mariamswayedabit.Whatif he was disappointed orangry?Whatifhepushedhisplateawayindispleasure?
"Careful," she managed tosay."It'shot."
"It'sgood,"hesaid."Alittleundersalted but good.Maybebetterthangood,even."
Relieved,Mariamlookedonas he ate. A flare of pridecaughtheroffguard.Shehaddonewell -maybebetter thangood, even- and it surprisedher,thisthrillshefeltoverhissmall compliment- The day'searlier unpleasantnessrecededabit.
"Tomorrow is Friday,"Rasheed said. "What do yousayIshowyouaround?"
"It's a joke. Of courseKabul. Where else?" Hereached into thebrownpaperbag. "But first, something I
He fished a sky blue burqafrom the bag. The yards ofpleated cloth spilled over hisknees when he lifted it. Herolleduptheburqa,lookedatMariam.
"Ihavecustomers,Mariam,men,whobringtheirwivestomy shop. The women comeuncovered, they talk to medirectly, look me in the eye
without shame. They wearmakeup and skirts that showtheir knees. Sometimes theyevenput theirfeet infrontofme, the women do, formeasurements, and theirhusbands stand there andwatch. They allow it. Theythink nothing of a strangertouching their wives' barefeet!Theythinkthey'rebeingmodernmen,intellectuals,onaccount of their education, Isuppose. They don't see that
they're spoiling theirownnang andnamoos, theirhonorandpride."
"Mostly, they live in thericherpartsofKabul.I'lltakeyou there. You'll see. Butthey're here too, Mariam, inthisveryneighborhood,thesesoft men. There's a teacherlivingdownthestreet,Hakimishisname,andIseehiswife
Fariba all the time walkingthestreetsalonewithnothingon her head but a scarf. Itembarrasses me, frankly, tosee amanwho's lost controlofhiswife."
He fixed Mariam with ahardglare.
"ButI'madifferentbreedofman,Mariam.Where I comefrom, one wrong look, oneimproper word, and blood is
spilled.WhereIcomefrom,awoman'sfaceisherhusband'sbusiness only. I want you toremember that. Do youunderstand?"
Mariam nodded. When heextended the bag to her, shetookit.
Theearlierpleasureoverhisapproval of her cooking hadevaporated. In its stead, asensation of shrinking. This
man's will felt toMariam asimposing and immovable asthe Safid-koh mountainsloomingoverGulDaman.
Rasheed passed the paperbag to her. "We have anunderstanding,then.Now,letme have some more ofthatdaal."
Mariam had never beforewornaburqa.Rasheedhadtohelpherputiton.Thepaddedheadpiecefelttightandheavyon her skull, and it wasstrange seeing the worldthrough a mesh screen. Shepracticedwalking around her
room in it and kept steppingon the hem and stumbling.The loss of peripheral visionwas unnerving, and she didnot like the suffocating waythe pleated cloth keptpressingagainsthermouth.
"You'll get used to it,"Rasheed said. "With time, Ibetyou'llevenlikeit."
They took a bus to a placeRasheed called the Shar-e-
Nau Park, where childrenpushed each other on swingsand slapped volleyballs overragged nets tied to treetrunks.Theystrolledtogetherand watched boys fly kites,Mariam walking besideRasheed, tripping now andthen on the burqa's hem. Forlunch, Rasheed took her toeat in a small kebab housenear a mosque he called theHajiYaghoub.Thefloorwasstickyandtheairsmoky.The
walls smelled faintly of rawmeat and the music, whichRasheed described to heraslogari,wasloud.Thecookswere thin boys who fannedskewers with one hand andswatted gnatswith the other.Mariam,whohadneverbeeninside a restaurant, found itoddatfirsttositinacrowdedroomwithsomanystrangers,to lift her burqa to putmorsels of food into hermouth. A hint of the same
anxiety as the day at thetandoor stirred in herstomach, but Rasheed'spresence was of somecomfort, and, after a while,shedidnotmindsomuchthemusic, the smoke, even thepeople. And the burqa, shelearned to her surprise, wasalsocomforting.Itwaslikeaone-way window. Inside it,shewasanobserver,bufferedfrom the scrutinizing eyes ofstrangers. She no longer
worried that people knew,with a single glance, all theshamefulsecretsofherpast.
On the streets, Rasheednamedvariousbuildingswithauthority; this is theAmerican Embassy, he said,that theForeignMinistry.Hepointed to cars, said theirnames and where they weremade: Soviet Volgas,American Chevrolets,GermanOpels.
Mariamhesitated,pointedtoa Volga, and Rasheedlaughed
Kabul was far morecrowded than the little thatMariam had seen of Herat.There were fewer trees andfewergaris pulled by horses,but more cars, tallerbuildings, more traffic lights
and more paved roads. AndeverywhereMariamheardthecity'speculiardialect: "Dear"wasjon insteadof jo, "sister"becamehamshira insteadofhamshireh,andsoon.
From a street vendor,Rasheed bought her icecream. It was the first timeshe'd eaten ice cream andMariam had never imaginedthat such tricks could beplayed on a palate. She
devoured theentirebowl, thecrushed-pistachiotopping,thetiny rice noodles at thebottom. She marveled at thebewitching texture, thelappingsweetnessofit.
Theywalked on to a placecalled Kocheh-Morgha,Chicken Street. It was anarrow, crowded bazaar in aneighborhood that Rasheedsaid was one of Kabul'swealthierones.
"Around here is whereforeign diplomats live, richbusinessmen,membersoftheroyal family-that sort ofpeople.Notlikeyouandme."
"I don't see any chickens,"Mariamsaid.
"That's the one thing youcan'tfindonChickenStreet."Rasheedlaughed
The street was lined with
shopsandlittlestallsthatsoldlambskin hats and rainbow-coloredchapans. Rasheedstopped to look at anengravedsilverdaggerinoneshop, and, in another, at anold rifle that the shopkeeperassured Rasheed was a relicfromthefirstwaragainst theBritish.
"And I'm Moshe Dayan,"Rasheed muttered. He halfsmiled, and it seemed to
Mariam that thiswasa smilemeantonlyforher.Aprivate,marriedsmile.
They strolled past carpetshops, handicraft shops,pastry shops, flower shops,and shops that sold suits formen and dresses for women,and, in them, behind lacecurtains, Mariam saw younggirls sewing buttons andironing collars. From time totime, Rasheed greeted a
shopkeeper he knew,sometimes in Farsi, othertimes in Pashto. As theyshook hands and kissed onthe cheek, Mariam stood afew feet away. Rasheed didnot wave her over, did notintroduceher.
Heaskedhertowaitoutsideanembroideryshop."Iknowthe owner," he said. "I'll justgo in for a minute, saymysalaam."
Mariam waited outside onthe crowded sidewalk. Shewatched thecarscrawlingupChicken Street, threadingthroughthehordeofhawkersand pedestrians, honking atchildren and donkeys whowouldn't move. She watchedthe bored-looking merchantsinside their tiny stalls,smoking, or spitting intobrass spittoons, their facesemerging from the shadowsnow and then to peddle
textiles and fur-collaredpoosiincoats topassersby.
But itwas thewomenwhodrewMariam'seyesthemost.
The women in this part ofKabulwere a different breedfromthewomeninthepoorerneighborhoods-like the onewheresheandRasheedlived,wheresomanyofthewomencovered fully. These women
were-what was the wordRasheedhadused?-"modern."Yes, modern Afghan womenmarried to modern Afghanmen who did not mind thattheir wives walked amongstrangers with makeup ontheir faces and nothing ontheir heads.Mariamwatchedthem cantering uninhibiteddown the street, sometimeswithaman,sometimesalone,sometimeswithrosy-cheekedchildren who wore shiny
shoes and watches withleather bands, who walkedbicycles with high-risehandlebars and gold-coloredspokes-unlike the children inDeh-Mazang,whoboresand-fly scars on their cheeks androlled old bicycle tires withsticks.
These women were allswinging handbags andrustling skirts. Mariam evenspotted one smoking behind
thewheelofacar.Theirnailswere long, polished pink ororange,theirlipsredastulips.They walked in high heels,and quickly, as if onperpetually urgent business.They wore dark sunglasses,and, when they breezed by,Mariam caught a whiff oftheir perfume. She imaginedthat they all had universitydegrees, that they worked inofficebuildings,behinddesksof their own, where they
typed and smoked and madeimportant telephone calls toimportant people. Thesewomen mystified Mariam.Theymade her aware of herown lowliness, her plainlooks,herlackofaspirations,her ignorance of so manythings.
Then Rasheed was tappingher on the shoulder andhandinghersomethinghere.
It was a dark maroon silkshawl with beaded fringesand edges embroidered withgoldthread
Mariam thought of Jalil, ofthe emphatic, jovial way inwhichhe'dpushedhisjewelry
at her, the overpoweringcheerfulness that left roomfor no response but meekgratitude. Nana had beenright about Mil's gifts. Theyhad been halfhearted tokensofpenance,insincere,corruptgestures meant more for hisown appeasement than hers.Thisshawl,Mariamsaw,wasatruegift.
That night,Rasheed visitedher room again. But insteadof smoking in the doorway,he crossed the room and satbeside her where she lay onthe bed. The springs creakedasthebedtiltedtohisside.
There was a moment ofhesitation, and then his handwas on her neck, his thickfingers slowly pressing the
knobs in the back of it. Histhumb slid down, and now itwas stroking the hollowabovehercollarbone,thentheflesh beneath it. Mariambegan shivering. His handcrept lower still, lower, hisfingernails catching in thecottonofherblouse.
"I can't," she croaked,lookingathismoonlitprofile,histhickshouldersandbroadchest, the tufts of gray hair
protruding from his opencollar.
His hand was on her rightbreastnow,squeezing ithardthrough the blouse, and shecould hear him breathingdeeplythroughthenose.
He slid under the blanketbesideher.Shecouldfeelhishand working at his belt, atthedrawstringofhertrousers.Her own hands clenched the
sheetsinfistfuls.Herolledontop of her, wriggled andshifted, and she let out awhimper. Mariam closed hereyes,grittedherteeth.
The pain was sudden andastonishing. Her eyes sprangopen.She suckedair throughher teeth and bit on theknuckle of her thumb. Sheslung her free arm overRasheed's back and herfingersdugathisshirt.
Rasheedburiedhisfaceintoher pillow, and Mariamstared, wide-eyed, at theceiling above his shoulder,shivering,lipspursed,feelingthe heat of his quick breathson her shoulder. The airbetween them smelled oftobacco, of the onions andgrilled lamb they had eatenearlier.Nowandthen,hisearrubbedagainsthercheek,andshe knew from the scratchyfeelthathehadshavedit.
Whenitwasdone,herolledoff her, panting. He droppedhisforearmoverhisbrow.Inthe dark, she could see thebluehandsofhiswatch.Theylay that way for a while, ontheir backs, not looking ateachother.
"There is no shame in this,Mariam," he said, slurring alittle. "It's what marriedpeople do. It's what theProphethimselfandhiswives
A few moments later, hepushed back the blanket andleft the room, leaving herwith the impression of hishead on her pillow, leavinghertowaitoutthepaindownbelow, to look at the frozenstars in the sky and a cloudthat draped the face of themoonlikeaweddingveil.
Jtvamadan came in the fallthat year, 1974. For the firsttime in her life,Mariam sawhow the sighting of the newcrescent moon couldtransformanentirecity, alterits rhythm and mood. Shenoticed a drowsy hush
overtaking Kabul Trafficbecame languid, scant, evenquiet. Shops emptied.Restaurants turned off theirlights, closed their doors.Mariam saw no smokers onthe streets, no cups of teasteaming from windowledges.And atifiar,when thesun dipped in the west andthecannonfiredfromtheShirDarwaza mountain, the citybroke its fast, and so didMariam, with bread and a
date, tastingfor thefirst timein her fifteen years thesweetness of sharing in acommunalexperience.
Except for a handful ofdays, Rasheed didn't observethe fast. The few times hedid, he came home in a sourmood.Hungermadehimcurt,irritable, impatient. Onenight, Mariam was a fewminutes latewithdinner, andhe started eating bread with
radishes. Even after Mariamputthericeandthelambandokraqurmainfrontofhim,hewouldn't touch it. He saidnothing,andwentonchewingthe bread, his templesworking, the vein on hisforehead, full and angry. Hewent on chewing and staringahead, and when Mariamspoketohimhelookedatherwithout seeing her face andput another piece of breadintohismouth.
Backatthekolba,onthefirstof three days of Eid-ul-Fitrcelebration that followedRamadan, Jalil would visitMariamandNana.Dressedinsuit and tie, he would comebearing Eid presents. Oneyear,hegaveMariamawoolscarf. The three of themwould sit for tea and thenJalil would excuse himself
"OfftocelebrateEidwithhisrealfamily,"Nanawouldsayas he crossed the stream andwaved-Mullah Faizullahwould come too. He wouldbring Mariam chocolatecandy wrapped in foil, abasketfulofdyedboiledeggs,cookies. After he was gone,Mariam would climb one ofthe willows with her treats.Perchedonahighbranch,shewould eatMullah Faizullah'schocolates and drop the foil
wrappers until they layscattered about the trunk ofthe tree like silver blossoms.When the chocolate wasgone, she would start in onthe cookies, and, with apencil, shewoulddraw faceson the eggs he had broughther now. But therewas littlepleasure in this for her.Mariam dreaded Eid, thistime of hospitality andceremony, when familiesdressed in their best and
visitedeachother.Shewouldimagine the air in Heratcracklingwithmerriness,andhigh-spirited, bright-eyedpeople showering each otherwith endearments andgoodwill. A forlornnesswould descend on her like ashroud then and would liftonlywhenEidhadpassed.
Thisyear,forthefirsttime,MariamsawwithhereyestheEid of her childhood
Rasheedandshetooktothestreets. Mariam had neverwalked amid such liveliness.Undaunted by the chillyweather,familieshadfloodedthe city on their freneticrounds to visit relatives. Ontheirownstreet,MariamsawFaribaandhersonNoor,whowasdressed ina suit.Fariba,wearingawhitescarf,walkedbeside a small-boned, shy-
lookingmanwitheyeglasses.Her older sonwas there too-Mariam somehowrememberedFaribasayinghisname,Ahmad,at the tandoorthat first time. He had deep-set, brooding eyes, and hisface was more thoughtful,more solemn, than hisyounger brother's, a face assuggestive of early maturityas his brother's was oflingeringboyishness.AroundAhmad'sneckwasaglittering
Faribamusthaverecognizedher, walking in burqa besideRasheed. She waved, andcalledout,"Eidmubarak!"
From inside the burqa,Mariamgaveheraghostofanod.
"Soyouknow thatwoman,the teacher's wife?" Rasheedsaid
"Bestyoustayaway.She'sanosy gossiper, that one. Andthe husband fancies himselfsome kind of educatedintellectualButhe'samouse.Lookathim.Doesn'thelooklikeamouse?"
They went to Shar-e-Nau,where kids romped about innew shirts and beaded,brightly colored vests and
compared Eid gifts. Womenbrandishedplattersofsweets.Mariam saw festive lanternshanging from shopwindows,heard music blaring fromloudspeakers. Strangerscalled out"Eidmubarak" toherastheypassed.
That night they wenttoChaman, and, standingbehind Rasheed, Mariamwatched fireworks light upthe sky, in flashes of green,
pink,andyellow.ShemissedsittingwithMullah Faizullahoutside thekolba, watchingthe fireworks explode overHerat in the distance, thesudden bursts of colorreflected in her tutor's soft,cataract-riddled eyes. But,mostly, she missed Nana.Mariam wished her motherwere alive to see this. Toseeher, amid all of it.To seeat last that contentment andbeauty were not unattainable
things. Even for the likes ofthem.
TheyhadEidvisitorsatthehouse. They were all men,friendsofRasheed's.Whenaknockcame,Mariamknewtogo upstairs to her room andclose the door. She stayedthere, as the men sipped teadownstairs with Rasheed,smoked,chatted.Rasheedhad
toldMariamthatshewasnotto come down until thevisitorshadleft
Mariam didn't mind. Intruth, shewas even flattered.Rasheedsawsanctityinwhattheyhadtogether.Herhonor,hernamoos, was somethingworth guarding to him. Shefelt prized by hisprotectiveness.Treasuredandsignificant.
OnthethirdandlastdayofEid, Rasheed went to visitsome friends.Mariam,who'dhad a queasy stomach allnight, boiled somewater andmade herself a cup of greentea sprinkled with crushedcardamom. In the livingroom, she took in theaftermath of the previousnight's Eid visits: theoverturned cups, the half-chewed pumpkin seedsstashed between mattresses,
the plates crusted with theoutline of last night's meal.Mariamsetaboutcleaningupthe mess, marveling at howenergetically lazy men couldbe.
She didn'tmean to go intoRasheed's room. But thecleaning took her from theliving room to the stairs, andthen to the hallway upstairsandtohisdoor,and,thenextthing she knew, she was in
his room for the first time,sittingonhisbed,feelinglikeatrespasser.
Shetookintheheavy,greendrapes, the pairs of polishedshoes lined up neatly alongthe wall, the closet door,where the gray paint hadchipped and showed thewood beneath. She spotted apack of cigarettes atop thedresser beside his bed. Sheputonebetweenher lips and
stood before the small ovalmirror on the wall. Shepuffedairintothemirrorandmade ash-tapping motions.She put it back. She couldnever manage the seamlessgrace with which Kabuliwomen smoked. On her, itlookedcoarse,ridiculous.
Guiltily, she slid open thetopdrawerofhisdresser.
black, with a wooden gripand a short muzzle. Mariammadesuretomemorizewhichway itwas facing before shepicked it up. She turned itover in her hands. It wasmuch heavier than it looked.The grip felt smooth in herhand, and the muzzle wascold.Itwasdisquietingtoherthat Rasheed ownedsomething whose solepurpose was to kill anotherperson. But surely he kept it
Beneath the gun wereseveral magazines withcurling corners. Mariamopenedone.Somethinginsideher dropped. Her mouthgapedofitsownwill.
Oneverypagewerewomen,beautiful women, who woreno shirts, no trousers, nosocks or underpants. Theyworenothingatall.They lay
in beds amid tumbled sheetsand gazed back at Mariamwithhalf-liddedeyes.Inmostof the pictures, their legswereapart,andMariamhadafull view of the dark placebetween.Insome,thewomenwere prostrated as if-Godforbidthisthought-insujdaforprayer. They looked backover their shoulders with alookofboredcontempt.
Mariam quickly put the
magazine back where she'dfound it. She felt drugged.Who were these women?How could they allowthemselves to bephotographed this way? Herstomach revolted withdistaste.Wasthiswhathedidthen, thosenights that hedidnot visit her room? Had shebeenadisappointmenttohiminthisparticularregard?Andwhat about all his talk ofhonor and propriety, his
disapproval of the femalecustomers, who, after all,were only showing him theirfeet to get fitted for shoes?Awoman'sface,he'dsaid,isherhusband's business only.Surely the women on thesepageshadhusbands, someofthemmust.At the least, theyhad brothers. If so, why didRasheed insist thatshe coverwhen he thought nothing oflookingattheprivateareasofothermen'swivesandsisters?
Mariam sat on his bed,embarrassed and confusedShecuppedherfacewithherhands and closed her eyes.She breathed and breatheduntilshefeltcalmer.
Slowly, an explanationpresented itself He was aman,afterall,livingaloneforyears before she had movedin. His needs differed fromhers.Forher,allthesemonthslater, their coupling was still
anexerciseintoleratingpain.His appetite, on the otherhand, was fierce, sometimesborderingon theviolent.Thewayhepinnedherdown,hishard squeezes at her breasts,how furiously his hipsworked. He was a man. Allthoseyearswithoutawoman.Couldshefaulthimforbeingthe way God had createdhim?
nevertalktohimaboutthis.Itwas unmentionable. But wasitunforgivable?Sheonlyhadto think of the other man inher life. Jalil, a husband ofthreeandfatherofnineatthetime, having relations withNana out ofwedlock.Whichwas worse, Rasheed'smagazine or what Jalil haddone? And what entitled heranyway, a villager, aharami,topassjudgment?
Mariam tried the bottomdrawerofthedresser.
Itwastherethatshefoundapicture of the boy, Yunus. Itwas black-and-white. Helooked four, maybe five. Hewas wearing a striped shirtand a bow tie. He was ahandsome little boy, with aslendernose,brownhair,anddark,slightlysunkeneyes.Helooked distracted, as thoughsomethinghadcaughthiseye
just as the camera hadflashed.
Beneaththat,Mariamfoundanother photo, also black-and-white, this one slightlymore grainy. It was of aseated woman and, behindher, a thinner, youngerRasheed,withblackhair.Thewomanwasbeautiful.Notasbeautifulasthewomeninthemagazine, perhaps, butbeautiful. Certainly more
beautiful than her, Mariam.She had a delicate chin andlong,blackhairparted in thecenter. High cheekbones anda gentle forehead. Mariampictured her own face, herthin lips and long chin, andfeltaflickerofjealousy.
Shelookedatthisphotofora long time. There wassomething vaguely unsettlingabout the way Rasheedseemed to loom over the
woman. His hands on hershoulders.Hissavoring,tight-lipped smile and herunsmiling, sullen face. Theway her body tilted forwardsubtly, as though she weretrying to wriggle free of hishands.
Later, as she was doinglaundry,sheregrettedthatshe
had sneaked around in hisroom. For what?What thingof substance had she learnedabout him?That he owned agun, that hewas amanwiththeneedsofaman?Andsheshouldn't have stared at thephotoofhimandhiswifeforas long as she had.Her eyeshad read meaning into whatwas random body posturecaptured in a single momentoftime.
What Mariam felt now, asthe loaded clotheslinesbounced heavily before her,was sorrow for Rasheed. Hetoohadhadahardlife,alifemarkedby lossandsad turnsoffate.Herthoughtsreturnedto his boy Yunus, who hadonce built snowmen in thisyard,whosefeethadpoundedthese same stairs. The lakehad snatched him fromRasheed, swallowed him up,justasawhalehadswallowed
theboy'snamesakeprophetintheKoran.ItpainedMariam-it pained her considerably-topicture Rasheed panic-stricken and helpless, pacingthe banks of the lake andpleadingwithittospithissonback onto dry land. And shefeltforthefirsttimeakinshipwith her husband. She toldherself that theywouldmakegoodcompanionsafterall.
On thebus ridehome fromthedoctor,thestrangestthingwas happening to Mariam.Everywhere she looked, shesaw bright colors: on thedrab, gray concreteapartments,onthetin-roofed,open-fronted stores, in the
muddy water flowing in thegutters. It was as though arainbow had melted into hereyes.
Rasheedwasdrumminghisgloved fingers and humminga song. Every time the busbucked over a pothole andjerkedforward,hishandshotprotectivelyoverherbelly.
"What about Zalmai?" hesaid. "It's a good Pashtun
"I think it's a boy. Yes. Aboy."
A murmur was passingthrough the bus. Somepassengers were pointing atsomething and otherpassengers were leaningacrossseatstosee.
"Look," said Rasheed,tapping a knuckle on theglass. He was smiling."There.See?"
On thestreets,Mariamsawpeople stopping in theirtracks.At traffic lights, facesemergedfromthewindowsofcars, turned upward towardthefallingsoftness.Whatwasit about a season's firstsnowfall, Mariam wondered,that was so entrancing?Was
itthechancetoseesomethingas yet unsoiled, untrodden?Tocatchthefleetinggraceofa new season, a lovelybeginning, before it wastrampledandcorrupted?
"Ifit'sagirl,"Rasheedsaid,"andit isn't,but, if itisagirl,thenyoucanchoosewhatevernameyouwant."
Mahiam awoke the nextmorning to the sound ofsawing and hammering- Shewrapped a shawl around herand went out into thesnowblown yard. The heavysnowfallofthepreviousnighthad stopped. Now only ascattering of light, swirlingflakestickledhercheeks.Theairwaswindlessandsmelledlike burning coal.Kabulwaseerilysilent,quiltedinwhite,tendrils of smoke snakingup
She found Rasheed in thetoolshed, pounding nails intoa plank of wood. When hesaw her, he removed a nailfromthecornerofhismouth.
"It was going to be asurprise. He'll need a crib.You weren't supposed to seeuntilitwasdone."
do that,hitchhishopes to itsbeingaboy.Ashappyasshewasaboutthispregnancy,hisexpectation weighed on her.Yesterday,Rasheedhadgoneout and come home with asuede winter coat for a boy,lined inside with softsheepskin, the sleevesembroidered with fine redandyellowsilkthread.
Rasheed lifted a long,narrowboard.Ashebeganto
saw it in half, he said thestairs worried him."Something will have to bedone about them later, whenhe's old enough to climb."Thestoveworriedhimtoo,hesaid. The knives and forkswould have to be stowedsomewhere out of reach."You can't be too carefulBoysarerecklesscreatures."
Mariam pulled the shawlaroundheragainstthechill.
Thenextmorning,Rasheedsaid he wanted to invite hisfriends for dinner tocelebrate. All morning,Mariam cleaned lentils andmoistened rice. She slicedeggplants forborani, andcookedleeksandgroundbeefforaushak. She swept thefloor, beat the curtains, airedthe house, despite the snowthathadstartedupagain.She
arranged mattresses andcushions along the walls ofthelivingroom,placedbowlsofcandyandroastedalmondsonthetable.
She was in her room byearly evening before the firstofthemenarrived.Shelayinbedasthehootsandlaughterand bantering voicesdownstairs began tomushroom.Shecouldn'tkeepherhandsfromdriftingtoher
belly. She thought of whatwas growing there, andhappiness rushed in like agust ofwind blowing a doorwideopen.Hereyeswatered.
Mariam thought of her six-hundred-and-fifty-kilometerbus trip with Rasheed, fromHerat in the west, near theborderwith Iran, toKabul inthe east. They had passedsmall towns and big towns,and knots of little villages
that kept springing up oneafter another. They had goneover mountains and acrossraw-burneddeserts, fromoneprovince to the next. Andhereshewasnow,overthoseboulders and parched hills,with a home of her own, ahusbandof her own, headingtoward one final, cherishedprovince: Motherhood. Howdelectableitwastothinkof
this baby,her baby,their
baby.Howglorious itwas toknow that her love for italreadydwarfedanythingshehad ever felt as a humanbeing,toknowthattherewasnoneedanylongerforpebblegames.
Downstairs, someone wastuning a harmonium. Thenthe clanging of a hammertuning a tabla. Someonecleared his throat. And thenthere was whistling and
clapping and yipping andsinging.
Mariamstrokedthesoftnessof her belly.No bigger thanafingernail, the doctor hadsaid.
"I'mgoing tobeamother,"she said. Then she waslaughing to herself, and
saying it over and over,relishingthewords.
When Mariam thought ofthis baby, her heart swelledinside of her. It swelled andswelled until all the loss, allthe grief, all the lonelinessandself-abasementofherlifewashed away. This was whyGodhadbroughtherhere,allthe way across the country.She knew this now. Sherememberedaversefromthe
Koran that Mullah Faizullahhad taught her:And Allah isthe East and the West,therefore wherever you turnthere is Allah's purpose …Shelaiddownherprayerruganddidnamaz.Whenshewasdone, she cupped her handsbefore her face and askedGod not to let all this goodfortuneslipawayfromher.
ItwasRasheed'Sideatogoto thehamam. Mariam hadnever been to a bathhouse,buthesaidtherewasnothingfiner than stepping out andtakingthatfirstbreathofcoldair, to feel the heat risingfromtheskin.
In the women'shamam,shapes moved about in thesteam around Mariam, aglimpse of a hip here, thecontour of a shoulder there.
The squeals of young girls,thegruntsofoldwomen,andthe trickling of bathwaterechoed between the walls asbackswerescrubbedandhairsoaped.Mariamsatinthefarcornerbyherself,workingonher heels with a pumicestone, insulated by a wall ofsteam from the passingshapes.
Then there was blood andshewasscreaming.
The sound of feet now,slapping against the wetcobblestones. Faces peeringat her through the steam.Tonguesclucking.
Later that night, in bed,Fariba told her husband thatwhenshe'dheard thecryandrushed over she'd foundRasheed'swife shriveled intoacorner,huggingherknees,apoolofbloodatherfeet.
"You could hear the poorgirl's teeth rattling, Hakim,shewasshiveringsohard."
WhenMariamhadseenher,Fariba said, shehad asked inahigh, supplicatingvoice,It'snormal,isn't it?Isn't it?Isn 'iitnormal?
Another bus ride withRasheed. Snowing again.
Fallingthickthistime.Itwaspiling in heapson sidewalks,onroofs,gatheringinpatcheson the bark of straggly trees.Mariam watched themerchants plowing snowfrom their storefronts- Agroup of boyswas chasing ablack dog. They wavedsportivelyat thebus.Mariamlooked over to Rasheed. Hiseyes were closed He wasn'thumming. Mariam reclinedherhead andclosedher eyes
too. She wanted out of hercold socks, out of the dampwoolsweaterthatwaspricklyagainst her skin. She wantedawayfromthisbus.
At the house, Rasheedcoveredherwithaquiltwhenshe lay on the couch, buttherewas a stiff, perfunctoryairaboutthisgesture.
"What kind of answer isthat?" he said again. "That's
whatamullah issupposed tosay.Youpayadoctorhisfee,youwantabetteranswerthan'God'swill.'"
Mariamcurledupherkneesbeneath the quilt and said heoughttogetsomerest.
Mariam lay on the couch,hands tucked between herknees,watched thewhirlpoolofsnowtwistingandspinningoutside the window. Sheremembered Nana sayingoncethateachsnowflakewasasighheavedbyanaggrievedwoman somewhere in theworld. That all the sighsdrifted up the sky, gatheredinto clouds, then broke intotinypiecesthatfellsilentlyonthepeoplebelow.
As a reminder of howwomen like us suffer,she'dsaid.How quietly we endureallthatfallsuponus.
The grief kept surprisingMariam. All it took tounleashitwasherthinkingofthe unfinished crib in thetoolshed or the suede coat inRasheed's closet. The babycame to life then and shecould hear it, could hear its
hungrygrunts,itsgurglesandjabbering-She felt it sniffingat her breasts. The griefwashed over her, swept herup, tossed her upside down.Mariam was dumbfoundedthat shecouldmiss in suchacripplingmannerabeing shehadneverevenseen.
Then thereweredayswhenthe dreariness didn't seemquite as unrelenting toMariam.Dayswhenthemere
thought of resuming the oldpatterns of her life did notseem so exhausting, when itdidnottakeenormouseffortsofwilltogetoutofbed,todoherprayers,todothewash,tomakemealsforRasheed.
Mariam dreaded goingoutside. She was envious,suddenly, of theneighborhood women andtheir wealth of children.Somehadsevenoreightand
didn't understand howfortunate they were, howblessedthattheirchildrenhadflourished in their wombs,lived to squirm in their armsand take the milk from theirbreasts. Children that theyhadnotbledawaywithsoapywater and the bodily filth ofstrangers down somebathhouse drain. Mariamresented them when sheoverheard them complainingabout misbehaving sons and
Avoiceinsideherheadtriedto soothe her with well-intended but misguidedconsolation.
You 'll haveothers,Inshallah.You 'reyoung. Surely you‘ll havemanyotherchances.
But Mariam's grief wasn'taimless or unspecific.
Mariamgrieved forthisbaby,thisparticularchild,whohadmade her so happy for awhile-Some days, shebelieved that the baby hadbeen an undeserved blessing,that she was being punishedfor what she had done toNana.Wasn't it true that shemight as well have slippedthat noose around hermother's neck herself?Treacherous daughters didnot deserve to be mothers,
andthiswasjustpunishment-She had fitful dreams,ofNma'sjinnsneakingintoherroom at night, burrowing itsclaws into her womb, andstealing her baby. In thesedreams, Nana cackled withdelightandvindication.
Other days, Mariam wasbesieged with anger. It wasRasheed's fault for hisprematurecelebration.Forhisfoolhardy faith that she was
carrying a boy. Naming thebabyashehad.TakingGod'swillforgranted.Hisfault,formaking her go to thebathhouse. Something there,thesteam,thedirtywater,thesoap, something there hadcaused this to happen. No.Not Rasheed.She was toblame. She became furiouswith herself for sleeping inthewrongposition,foreatingmealsthatweretoospicy,fornot eating enough fruit, for
It was God's fault, fortaunting her as He had. FornotgrantingherwhatHehadgranted so many otherwomen. For dangling beforeher, tantalizingly, what Heknew would give her thegreatest happiness, thenpullingitaway.
But it did no good, all thisfault laying, all these
harangues of accusationsbouncing in her head. Itwaskojr, sacrilege, to thinkthesethoughts.Allahwasnotspiteful. He was not a pettyGod. Mullah Faizullah'swordswhisperedinherhead:
Blessed is He in Whosehand is thekingdom, andHeWho has power over allthings, Who created deathandlifethatHemaytryyou.
Ransacked with guilt,Mariamwouldkneelandprayfor forgiveness for thesethoughts.
Meanwhile, a change hadcome over Rasheed eversince the day at thebathhouse.Mostnightswhenhe came home, he hardlytalked anymore. He ate,smoked, went to bed,
sometimes came back in themiddleofthenightforabriefand, of late, quite roughsession of coupling. He wasmore apt to sulk these days,to fault her cooking, tocomplainaboutclutteraroundthe yard or point out evenminor uncleanliness in thehouse. Occasionally, he tookher around town on Fridays,like he used to, but on thesidewalks he walked quicklyandalwaysafewstepsahead
of her, without speaking,unmindful of Mariam whoalmosthad to run tokeepupwithhim.Hewasn'tsoreadywithalaughontheseoutingsanymore. He didn't buy hersweets or gifts, didn't stopandnameplaces toherasheused to. Her questionsseemedtoirritatehim.
Onenight,theyweresittinginthelivingroomlisteningtothe radio. Winter was
passing. The stiff winds thatplastered snow onto the faceandmade theeyeswaterhadcalmed. Silvery fluffs ofsnow were melting off thebranches of tall elms andwould be replaced in a fewweekswithstubby,palegreenbuds. Rasheed was shakinghis foot absently to the tablabeatofaHamahangsong,hiseyescrinkledagainstcigarettesmoke.
"Are you angry with me?"Mariamasked.
Rasheed said nothing. Thesong ended and the newscame on. A woman's voicereportedthatPresidentDaoudKhan had sent yet anothergroup of Soviet consultantsback to Moscow, to theexpected displeasure of theKremlin.
His eyes shifted to her."WhywouldIbeangry?"
"Isthatthekindofmanyoutakeme for, after everything
Hecrushedouthiscigaretteand lit another.He turnedupthevolumeontheradio.
Mariamsaid,raisinghervoiceso as to be heard over themusic.
Rasheedsighed again,moreirritably this time, turneddown thevolumeoncemore.He rubbed hisforeheadwearily."Whatnow?"
"I've been thinking, thatmaybe we should have aproper burial For the baby, Imean.Justus,afewprayers,
Mariam had been thinkingaboutitforawhile.Shedidn'twant to forget this baby. Itdidn'tseemright,nottomarkthis loss in some way thatwaspermanent.
"It would make me feelbetter,Ithink."
"Thm youdo it," he saidsharply. "I've already buriedoneson.Iwon'tburyanother.
He turned up the volumeagain, leaned his head backandclosedhiseyes.
One sunny morning thatweek, Mariam picked a spotintheyardanddugahole.
"In the name of Allah andwith Allah, and in the nameof the messenger of Allahupon whom be the blessingsandpeaceofAllah,"shesaidunderherbreathashershovelbit into the ground. Sheplaced the suede coat thatRasheed had bought for thebabyintheholeandshoveleddirtoverit.
"Youmakethenighttopassinto the day and You make
thedaytopassintothenight,andYoubringforththelivingfromthedeadandYoubringforththedeadfromtheliving,and You give sustenance towhom You please withoutmeasure."
Shepatted thedirtwith theback of the shovel.Shesquatted by the mound,closedhereyes.
OnApril 17,1978, the yearMariam turned nineteen, aman named Mir AkbarKhyber was found murderedTwo days later, there was alargedemonstrationinKabul.
Everyone in theneighborhood was in thestreets talking about it.Throughthewindow,Mariamsaw neighborsmilling about,chatting excitedly, transistorradios pressed to their ears.She saw Fariba leaningagainstthewallofherhouse,talking with a woman whowas new to Deh-Mazang.Fariba was smiling, and herpalms were pressed againstthe swell of her pregnant
belly. The other woman,whosenameescapedMariam,lookedolderthanFariba,andher hair had an odd purpletint to it. She was holding alittle boy's hand. Mariamknew the boy's name wasTariq, because shehadheardthiswomanon the street callafterhimbythatname.
MariamandRasheeddidn'tjoin the neighbors. Theylistened in on the radio as
some ten thousand peoplepoured into the streets andmarched up and downKabul's government district.Rasheed said thatMirAkbarKhyberhadbeenaprominentcommunist, and that hissupporters were blaming themurder on President DaoudKhan'sgovernment.Hedidn'tlookatherwhenhesaidthis.These days, he never didanymore, andMariamwasn'tever sure if she was being
"What's a communist?" sheasked.
Rasheedsnorted,andraisedboth eyebrows. "You don'tknow what a communist is?Suchasimplething.
Everyone knows. It'scommon knowledge. Youdon't…Bah.Idon'tknowwhyI'm surprised." Then he
crossed his ankles on thetableandmumbledthatitwassomeone who believed inKarlMarxist.
On the radio, a woman'svoicewassaying thatTaraki,the leader of the Khalqbranch of the PDPA, theAfghancommunistparty,was
in the streets giving rousingspeechestodemonstrators.
"WhatImeantwas,whatdothey want?" Mariam asked."Thesecommunists,whatisitthattheybelieve?"
Rasheedchortledandshookhishead,butMariamthoughtshe saw uncertainty in thewayhe crossed his arms, theway his eyes shifted. "Youknow nothing, do you?
You're like a child. Yourbrain is empty. There is noinformationinit."
Itwasn'teasytoleratinghimtalking this way to her, tobear his scorn, his ridicule,his insults, his walking past
herlikeshewasnothingbutahousecat.Butafterfouryearsof marriage, Mariam sawclearly how much a womancould tolerate when she wasafraidAndMariamwasafraidShe lived in fear of hisshifting moods, his volatiletemperament, his insistenceon steering even mundaneexchanges down aconfrontational path that, onoccasion, he would resolvewith punches, slaps, kicks,
and sometimes try to makeamends for with pollutedapologiesandsometimesnot.
In the four years since theday at the bathhouse, therehad been six more cycles ofhopes raised then dashed,eachloss,eachcollapse,eachtrip to the doctor morecrushingforMariamthanthelast. With eachdisappointment, Rasheed hadgrown more remote and
resentful Now nothing shedidpleasedhim.Shecleanedthe house, made sure healwayshada supplyofcleanshirts, cooked him hisfavorite dishes. Once,disastrously,sheevenboughtmakeupandputitonforhim.Butwhen he came home, hetook one look at her andwincedwithsuchdistastethatshe rushed to the bathroomandwasheditalloff,tearsofshame mixing with soapy
Now Mariam dreaded thesoundofhimcominghomeintheevening.Thekeyrattling,the creak of the door- theseweresoundsthatsetherheartracing. From her bed, shelistened to theclick-clack ofhis heels, to the muffledshufflingofhisfeetafterhe'dshedhisshoes.Withherears,she took inventory of hisdoings: chair legs dragged
across the floor, theplaintivesqueakof thecaneseatwhenhe sat, the clinking of spoonagainst plate, the flutter ofnewspaper pages flipped, theslurpingofwater.Andasherheart pounded, her mindwondered what excuse hewould use that night topounce on her. There wasalways something, someminor thing that wouldinfuriate him, because nomatterwhatshedidtoplease
him, no matter howthoroughly she submitted tohis wants and demands, itwasn'tenough.Shecouldnotgivehimhissonback.Inthismost essential way, she hadfailed him-seven times shehad failed him-and now shewas nothing but a burden tohim. She could see it in thewayhelookedather,whenhelooked at her. She was aburdentohim.
"What's going to happen?"sheaskedhimnow.
Rasheedshotherasidelongglance. He made a soundbetween a sigh and a groan,dropped his legs from thetable, and turned off theradio. He took it upstairs tohisroom.Heclosedthedoor.
On April 27, Mariam's
question was answered withcracklingsoundsand intense,sudden roars. She ranbarefoot down to the livingroom and found Rasheedalreadybythewindow,inhisundershirt, his hairdisheveled, palms pressed tothe glass. Mariam made herway to the window next tohim.Overhead,shecouldseemilitaryplaneszoomingpast,headingnorthandeast.Theirdeafening shrieks hurt her
ears. In the distance, loudbooms resonated and suddenplumes of smoke rose to thesky.
"What's going on,Rasheed?"shesaid."What isallthis?"
"God knows," hemuttered.He tried the radio and gotonlystatic.
Impatiently, Rasheed said,"Wewait."
Later in the day, Rasheedwas still trying the radio asMariam made rice withspinach sauce in the kitchen.Mariam remembered a timewhen she had enjoyed, evenlooked forward to, cookingfor Rasheed. Now cookingwasanexerciseinheightened
anxiety. Thequrma% werealways toosaltyor tooblandfor his taste. The rice wasjudged either too greasy ortoo dry, the bread declaredtoo doughy or too crispy.Rasheed'sfaultfindingleftherstricken in the kitchen withself-doubt.
When she brought him hisplate, the national anthemwasplayingontheradio.
After the music faded, aman's voice came on theradio. He announced himselfas Air Force Colonel AbdulQader. He reported thatearlier in the day the rebelFourthArmoredDivisionhadseized the airport and keyintersections in the city.KabulRadio,theministriesof
Communication and theInterior, and the ForeignMinistry building had alsobeen captured. Kabul was inthehandsof thepeoplenow,he said proudly.RebelMiGshad attacked the PresidentialPalace.Tankshadbrokenintothe premises, and a fiercebattle was under way there.Daoud's loyalist forces wereallbutdefeated,AbdulQadersaidinareassuringtone.
Days later, when thecommunists began thesummary executions of thoseconnectedwithDaoudKhan'sregime, when rumors beganfloating about Kabul of eyesgouged and genitalselectrocuted in the Pol-e-Charkhi Prison, Mariamwould hear of the slaughterthat had taken place at thePresidential Palace. DaoudKhanhadbten killed, but notbefore the communist rebels
had killed some twentymembers of his family,including women andgrandchildren. There wouldbe rumors that he had takenhis own life, that he'd beengunned down in the heat ofbattle; rumors that he'd beensavedforlast,madetowatchthe massacre of his family,thenshot.
Rasheed turned up thevolumeandleanedincloser.
"A revolutionarycouncilofthe armed forces has beenestablished, and ourwatanwill now be known as theDemocratic Republic ofAfghanistan," Abdul Qadersaid. "The era of aristocracy,nepotism, and inequality isover, fellowhamwaians. Wehave ended decades oftyranny.Power isnow in thehands of the masses andfreedom-loving people. Aglorious new era in the
history of our country isafoot. A new Afghanistan isborn.Weassureyouthatyouhave nothing to fear, fellowAfghans. The new regimewill maintain the utmostrespect for principles, bothIslamic and democratic. Thisis a time of rejoicing andcelebration."
Rasheed turned off theradio.
"So is this good or bad?"Mariamasked.
"Bad for the rich, by thesound of it," Rasheed said."Maybenotsobadforus."
Mariam'sthoughtsdriftedtoJalil. She wondered if thecommunists would go afterhim, then. Would they jailhim? Jail his sons? Take hisbusinesses and propertiesfromhim?
"Is this warm?" Rasheedsaid,eyeingtherice.
"I just served it from thepot."
Hegrunted, and toldher tohandhimaplate.
Do"WN the street, as thenight litup in sudden flashesof red and yellow, an
exhaustedFaribahadproppedherselfuponherelbows.Herhair was matted with sweat,and droplets of moistureteetered on the edge of herupperlip.Atherbedside, theelderly midwife, Wajma,watched as Fariba's husbandand sons passed around theinfant. They were marvelingatthebaby'slighthair,atherpink cheeks and puckered,rosebud lips, at the slits ofjade green eyes moving
behind her puffy lids. Theysmiled at each other whenthey heard her voice for thefirst time, a cry that startedlike the mewl of a cat andexploded into a healthy, full-throated yowl.Noor said hereyes were like gemstones.Ahmad, who was the mostreligious member of thefamily, sang theazan in hisbaby sister's ear and blew inherfacethreetimes.
"Laila it is, then?" Hakimasked,bouncinghisdaughter.
"Laila it is," Fariba said,smiling tiredly. "NightBeauty.It'sperfect."
Rasheedmadeaballofricewith his fingers.He put it inhismouth,chewedonce,thentwice, before grimacing andspittingitoutonthesofrah.
"What's the matter?"Mariam asked, hating theapologetic tone of her voice.She could feel her pulsequickening, her skinshrinking.
"What's the matter?" hemewled, mimicking her."What's the matter is thatyou'vedoneitagain."
He shook the rice angrilyfrom his fingers and pushedtheplateaway,spillingsauceandriceonthesojrah.Mariamwatchedashestormedoutofthe living room, then out ofthehouse,slammingthedooronhiswayout.
Mariam kneeled to the
ground and tried to pick upthe grains of rice and putthem back on the plate, buther hands were shakingbadly,andshehadtowaitforthem to stop. Dread presseddown on her chest. She triedtaking a few deep breaths.Shecaughtherpalereflectionin the darkened living-roomwindowandlookedaway.
Then she heard the frontdoor opening, and Rasheed
"Get up," he said. "Comehere.Getup."
He snatched her hand,opened it, and dropped ahandfulofpebblesintoit.
"Put these in yourmouth.""What?"
Hispowerfulhandsclaspedher jaw. He shoved twofingers into her mouth andpried itopen, then forced thecold, hard pebbles into it.Mariam struggled againsthim, mumbling, but he keptpushing the pebbles in, hisupperlipcurledinasneer.
Throughthemouthfulofgritand pebbles, Mariammumbled a plea. Tears wereleaking out of the corners ofhereyes.
"CHEW!" he bellowed. Agust of his smoky breathslammedagainstherface.
Mariamchewed.Somethingin the back of her mouthcracked.
"Good," Rasheed said. Hischeekswerequivering."Nowyou know what your ricetastes like. Now you knowwhatyou'vegivenme in thismarriage. Bad food, andnothingelse."
Then hewas gone, leavingMariam to spit out pebbles,blood, and the fragments oftwobrokenmolars.
JN ine-year-old Laila rosefrom bed, as she did mostmornings, hungry for thesightofherfriendTariq.Thismorning, however, she knewthere would be no Tariqsighting.
"How long will you begone?" she'd asked whenTariq had told her that hisparents were taking himsouth, to the city of Ghazni,tovisithispaternaluncle.
"It's not so long. You'remakingaface,Laila."
"Iamnotgoingtocry!Notover you. Not in a thousandyears."
She'dkickedathisshin,nothis artificial but his real one,and he'd playfully whackedthebackofherhead.
Thirteen days. Almost twoweeks.And,justfivedaysin,Laila had learned afundamentaltruthabouttime:Like the accordion on whichTariq's father sometimesplayedoldPashtosongs,timestretched and contracteddependingonTariq'sabsenceor presence-Downstairs, herparentswere fighting.Again.Laila knew the routine:Mammy, ferocious,indomitable, pacing and
ranting;Babi,sitting, lookingsheepish and dazed, noddingobediently, waiting for thestorm to pass. Laila closedher door and changed. Butshecouldstillhearthem.Shecould still hearher Finally, adoor slammed. Poundingfootsteps. Mammy's bedcreaked loudly. Babi, itseemed,wouldsurvivetoseeanotherday.
Laila put on her shoes andquicklybrushedhershoulder-length, blond curls in themirror. Mammy always toldLaila that she had inheritedher hair color-as well as herthick-lashed, turquoise greeneyes,herdimpledcheeks,herhigh cheekbones, and thepout of her lower lip, which
Mammy shared-from hergreat-grandmother, Mammy'sgrandmother.Shewasapari,astunner, Mammy said.Herbeauty was the talk of thevalley. It skipped twogenerations ofwomen in ourfamily, but it sure didn'tbypass you,LailaThe valleyMammy referred to was thePanjshir, the Farsi-speakingTajik region one hundredkilometers northeast ofKabul. Both Mammy and
Babi,whowerefirstcousins,had been born and raised inPanjshir; they had moved toKabul back in 1960 ashopeful, bright-eyednewlyweds when Babi hadbeen admitted to KabulUniversity.
Lailascrambleddownstairs,hoping Mammy wouldn'tcome out of her room foranother round. She foundBabi kneeling by the screen
The rip in the screen hadbeen there for weeks. Lailahunkered down beside him."No.Mustbenew."
"That'swhat I toldFariba."He looked shaken, reduced,as he always did afterMammy was through withhim. "She says it's been
Laila's heart went out tohim. Babi was a small man,with narrow shoulders andslim, delicate hands, almostlike a woman's. At night,when Laila walked intoBabi's room, she alwaysfound the downward profileof his face burrowing into abook, his glasses perched onthetipofhisnose.Sometimeshedidn'tevennotice thatshe
was there. When he did, hemarked his page, smiled aclose-lipped, companionablesmile. Babi knew most ofRumi'sandHafez'sghazalsbyheart. He could speak atlength about the strugglebetween Britain and czaristRussia over Afghanistan. Heknew the difference betweena stalactite and a stalagmite,and could tell you that thedistance between the earthand the sunwas the same as
going from Kabul to Ghaznione and a halfmillion times.But ifLailaneededthelidofa candy jar forced open, shehad to go toMammy,whichfelt like a betrayal. Ordinarytools befuddledBabi.On hiswatch, squeaky door hingesnevergotoiled.Ceilingswenton leaking after he pluggedthem.Mold thrived defiantlyin kitchen cabinets. Mammysaid that before he left withNoortojointhejihadagainst
the Soviets, back in 1980, itwas Ahmad who haddutifully and competentlymindedthesethings.
"Butifyouhaveabookthatneeds urgent reading," shesaid, "then Hakim is yourman."
Still, Laila could not shakethe feeling that at one time,before Ahmad andNoor hadgone to war against the
Soviets-before Babi hadletthem go to war-Mammy toohad thought Babi'sbookishness endearing, that,onceuponatime,shetoohadfound his forgetfulness andineptitudecharming.
"Sowhat is today?"hesaidnow, smiling coyly. "Dayfive?Orisitsix?"
"What do I care? I don'tkeep count," Laila lied,
shrugging, loving him forremembering- Mammy hadnoideathatTariqhadleft.
"Well,hisflashlightwillbegoing off before you knowit," Babi said, referring toLaila and Tariq's nightlysignaling game. They hadplayed it for so long it hadbecomeabedtime ritual, likebrushingteeth.
Babi ranhis finger through
therip."I'llpatchthisassoonasIgetachance.We'dbettergo." He raised his voice andcalled over his shoulder,"We're going now, Fariba!I'm taking Laila to school.Don'tforgettopickherup!"
Outside, as she wasclimbing on the carrier packof Babi's bicycle, Lailaspotted a car parked up thestreet, across from the housewhere the shoemaker,
Rasheed, lived with hisreclusivewife.ItwasaBenz,an unusual car in thisneighborhood, blue with athick white stripe bisectingthe hood, the roof, and thetrunk. Laila could make outtwo men sitting inside, onebehindthewheel,theotherintheback.
Laila remembered anotherfight,and, that time,MammyhadstoodoverBabiandsaidinamincingway,That'syourbusiness, isn't it, cousin? Tomake nothing your business.Evenyourownsonsgoingtowar.Howlpleadedwithyou.Bui you buried your nose inthose cursed books and letour sons go like theywere a
Babi pedaled up the street,Laila on the back, her armswrappedaroundhisbelly.Asthey passed the blue Benz,Laila caught a fleetingglimpse of the man in thebackseat: thin, white-haired,dressed in adarkbrown suit,with a white handkerchieftriangle in the breast pocket.Theonlyother thing shehadtimetonoticewasthatthecar
They rode the rest of theway in silence, except at theturns, where Babi brakedcautiouslyandsaid,"Holdon,Laila. Slowing down.Slowingdown.There."
In class that day, Lailafoundithardtopayattention,between Tariq's absence and
her parents' fight. So whenthe teacher called on her tonamethecapitalsofRomaniaand Cuba, Laila was caughtoffguard.
The teacher's name wasShanzai,but,behindherback,the students called herKhalaRangmaal, Auntie Painter,referring to the motion shefavored when she slappedstudents-palm, then back ofthehand,backandforth,like
a painter working a brush.KhalaRangmaalwasasharp-faced young woman withheavy eyebrows.On the firstday of school, she hadproudlytoldtheclassthatshewas the daughter of a poorpeasant from Khost. Shestood straight, and wore herjet-black hair pulled tightlybackandtiedinabunsothat,whenKhalaRangmaalturnedaround, Laila could see thedark bristles on her neck.
KhalaRangmaaldidnotwearmakeup or jewelry. She didnot cover and forbade thefemalestudentsfromdoingit.She said women and menwere equal in everywayandthere was no reason womenshouldcoverifmendidn't.
She said that the SovietUnionwas the best nation inthe world, along withAfghanistan.Itwaskindtoitsworkers, and its peoplewere
all equal. Everyone in theSovietUnionwas happy andfriendly, unlike America,where crime made peopleafraid to leave their homes.Andeveryone inAfghanistanwouldbehappytoo,shesaid,oncetheantiprogressives,thebackward bandits, weredefeated.
"That's why our Sovietcomradescamehere in1979.To lend their neighbor a
hand.Tohelpusdefeatthesebruteswhowant our countryto be a backward, primitivenation. And you must lendyourownhand,children.Youmust report anyone whomight know about theserebels. It's your duty. Youmustlisten,thenreport.Evenif it's your parents, yourunclesoraunts.Becausenoneofthemlovesyouasmuchasyour country does. Yourcountry comes first,
remember!Iwillbeproudofyou, and so will yourcountry."
On the wall behind KhalaRangmaal's desk was a mapoftheSovietUnion,amapofAfghanistan, and a framedphotoofthelatestcommunistpresident, Najibullah, who,Babi said, had once been thehead of the dreaded KHAD,the Afghan secret police.Therewere other photos too,
mainly of young Sovietsoldiers shaking hands withpeasants, planting applesaplings, building homes,alwayssmilinggenially.
"Well," Khala Rangmaalsaid now, "have I disturbedyour daydreaming,InqilabiGirl?"
Thiswas her nickname forLaila, Revolutionary Girl,because she'd been born the
night of the April coup of1978-exceptKhalaRangmaalbecame angry if anyone inher class used thewordcoup.What had happened, sheinsisted, was aninqilab, arevolution, anuprisingof theworking people againstinequality.Jihad was anotherforbiddenword.Accordingtoher, there wasn't even a warout there in the provinces,just skirmishes againsttroublemakers stirred by
people she called foreignprovocateurs. And certainlynoone,noone,daredrepeatinher presence the risingrumors that, after eight yearsof fighting, the Soviets werelosing this war. Particularlynow that the Americanpresident,Reagan,hadstartedshipping the MujahideenStingerMissiles to down theSoviet helicopters, now thatMuslims from all over theworldwerejoiningthecause:
Egyptians, Pakistanis, evenwealthySaudis,wholefttheirmillions behind and came toAfghanistantofightthejihad.
"Bucharest. Havana," Lailamanaged.
"They are,moolim sahib.Theyarefriendlycountries."
When school let out.Mammyagaindidn'tshowuplike she was supposed to.Lailaendedupwalkinghomewith two of her classmates,GitiandHasina.
Giti was a tightly wound,bony littlegirlwhoworeher
hairintwinponytailsheldbyelasticbands.Shewasalwaysscowling, and walking withher books pressed to herchest, like a shield. Hasinawas twelve, threeyearsolderthan Laila and Giti, but hadfailed third grade once andfourthgrade twice.What shelackedinsmartsHasinamadeup for in mischief and amouththat,Gitisaid,ranlikea sewing machine. It wasHasina who had come up
with the Khala Rangmaalnickname-Today,Hasinawasdispensing advice on how tofend off unattractive suitors."Foolproof method,guaranteed to work. I giveyoumyword."
"This is stupid. I'm tooyoung to have a suitor!"Gitisaid.
"That's becauseyouhave abeard,mydear."
Giti's hand shot up to herchin, and she looked withalarm to Laila, who smiledpityingly-Giti was the mosthumorless person Laila hadevermet-and shook her headwithreassurance.
"Beans. No less than fourcans. On the evening thetoothless lizard comes to askforyourhand.Butthetiming,ladies, the timing iseverything- You have tosuppress the fireworks 'til it'stimetoservehimhistea."
"I'll remember that," Lailasaid.
Laila could have said thenthat she didn't need thisadvice because Babi had nointention of giving her awayanytime soon. Though Babiworked at Silo, Kabul'sgiganticbread factory,wherehe laboredamid theheatandthe humming machinery
stoking the massive ovensand mill grains all day, hewas a university-educatedman.He'dbeenahighschoolteacher before thecommunists fired him-thiswas shortly after the coup of1978,aboutayearandahalfbefore the Soviets hadinvaded. Babi had made itclear to Laila from ayoungage that the most importantthing in his life, after hersafety,washerschooling.
I know you're still young,bull waniyou to understandand learn this now,hesaid.Marriage can wait,education cannot You're avery, very bright girl. Truly,youare.Youcanbeanythingyou want, Laila I know thisabout you. And I also knowthat when this war is over,Afghanistan is going to needyou as much as its men,maybeevenmore.Becauseasociety has no chance of
success if its women areuneducated,LailaNochance.
ButLaila didn't tellHasinathat Babi had said thesethings, or how glad she wasto have a father like him, orhow proud she was of hisregard for her, or howdeterminedshewastopursueher education just as he hadhis. For the last two years,Laila had received theawalnumra certificate, given
yearly to the top-rankedstudentineachgrade.
She said nothing of thesethings to Hasina, though,whoseown fatherwasan ill-tempered taxi driver who intwo or three years wouldalmost certainly give heraway. Hasina had told Laila,in one of her infrequentserious moments, that it hadalreadybeendecidedthatshewould marry a first cousin
who was twenty years olderthan her and owned an autoshop inLahore.I've seen himtwice, Hasina had said.Bothtimes he ate with his mouthopen.
"Beans, girls,"Hasina said."You remember that.Unless,ofcourse"-heresheflashedanimpishgrinandnudgedLailawith an elbow-"it's youryoung handsome, one-leggedprince who comes knocking-
Laila slapped the elbowaway. She would have takenoffense if anyone else hadsaidthataboutTariq.Butsheknew that Hasina wasn'tmalicious.Shemocked-itwaswhat she did-and hermockingsparednoone, leastofallherself.
"Peoplewho'vebeeninjuredbecause of war," Giti saidearnestly, oblivious toHasina'stoying.
"IthinkMullahGitiherehasa crush on Tariq. I knew it!Ha! But he's already spokenfor,don'tyouknow?Isn'the,Laila?"
"I do not have a crush.On
They broke off fromLaila,and, still arguing this way,turnedintotheirstreet.
Lailawalked alone the lastthree blocks. When she wasonherstreet,shenoticedthattheblueBenzwasstillparkedthere, outside Rasheed andMariam's house. The elderlyman in the brown suit wasstanding by the hood now,
That was when a voicebehind Laila said, "Hey.YellowHair.Lookhere."
Thegunwasred,thetriggerguard bright green. Behindthe gun loomed Khadim'sgrinning face. Khadim waseleven, like Tariq. He wasthick, tall, and had a severeunderbite. His father was abutcher inDeh-Mazang, and,
from time to time, Khadimwas known to fling bits ofcalf intestine at passersby.Sometimes, if Tariq wasn'tnearby, Khadim shadowedLaila in the schoolyard atrecess, leering, making littlewhining noises. One time,he'd tapped her on theshoulder and said,You 're sovery pretty, Yellow Hair. Iwanttomarryyou.
Now he waved the gun.
"Don'tworry,"he said. "Thiswon'tshow.Notonyourhair."
"Don't you do it! I'mwarningyou."
"Whatareyougoingtodo?"he said. "Sic your cripple onme?'Oh,Tariqjan.Oh,won'tyoucomehomeandsavemefromthebadmashl'"
Laila began to backpedal,but Khadim was already
pumping the trigger. Oneafter another, thin jets ofwarm water struck Laila'shair, thenherpalmwhensheraisedittoshieldherface.
Now the other boys cameout of their hiding, laughing,cackling.
AninsultLailahadheardonthestreetrosetoherlips.Shedidn't really understand it-couldn't quite picture the
logistics of it-but the wordspacked a fierce potency, andsheunleashedthemnow.
"At least she's not a loonylike yours," Khadim shotback, unruffled "At least myfather's not a sissy! And, bytheway,whydon'tyousmellyourhands?"
Theotherboys tookup the
chant. "Smell your hands!Smellyourhands!"
Lailadid,butsheknewevenbefore she did, what he'dmeantaboutitnotshowinginher hair. She let out a high-pitchedyelp.Atthis,theboyshootedevenharder.
Laila turned around and,howling,ranhome.
She drew water from thewell, and, in the bathroom,filled a basin, tore off herclothes. She soaped her hair,frantically digging fingersinto her scalp, whimperingwithdisgust. She rinsedwitha bowl and soaped her hairagain. Several times, shethought she might throw up.She kept mewling andshivering, as she rubbed andrubbed the soapy washclothagainst her face and neck
This would have neverhappened if Tariq had beenwith her, she thought as sheputonacleanshirtandfreshtrousers. Khadim wouldn'thave dared. Of course, itwouldn't have happened ifMammy had shown up likeshe was supposed to either.Sometimes Laila wonderedwhy Mammy had evenbothered having her. People,
she believed now, shouldn'tbe allowed to have newchildren if they'd alreadygiven away all their love totheir old ones. It wasn't fair.A fit of anger claimed her.Laila went to her room,collapsedonherbed.
When the worst of it hadpassed, she went across thehallway to Mammy's doorand knocked.When she wasyounger,Lailaused to sit for
hours outside this door. Shewould tap on it and whisperMammy's name over andover, like a magic chantmeant to break aspell:Mammy, Mammy,Mammy, Mammy… ButMammy never opened thedoor.Shedidn'topen itnow.Laila turned the knob andwalkedin.
Sometimes Mammy hadgooddays.Shesprangoutofbed bright-eyed and playful.The droopy lower lipstretched upward in a smile.She bathed. She put on freshclothes and wore mascara.She let Laila brush her hair,whichLaila loveddoing,andpin earrings through herearlobes.Theywentshoppingtogether to Mandaii Bazaar.Laila got her to play snakesand ladders, and they ate
shavingsfromblocksofdarkchocolate, one of the fewthingstheysharedacommontaste for. Laila's favorite partof Mammy's good days waswhenBabicamehome,whenshe and Mammy looked upfromtheboardandgrinnedathimwithbrownteeth.Agustof contentment puffedthrough the room then, andLaila caught a momentaryglimpseofthetenderness,theromance,thathadoncebound
her parents back when thishouse had been crowded andnoisyandcheerful.
Mammy sometimes bakedonhergooddaysand invitedneighborhood women overforteaandpastries.Lailagotto lick the bowls clean, asMammy set the table withcups and napkins and thegood plates. Later, Lailawould take her place at theliving-room table and try to
break into the conversation,as the women talkedboisterously and drank teaand complimented Mammyon her baking. Though therewas never much for her tosay, Laila liked to sit andlisten in because at thesegatherings shewas treated toa rare pleasure: She got tohear Mammy speakingaffectionatelyaboutBabi.
was," Mammy said. "Hisstudents loved him. And notonlybecausehewouldn'tbeatthem with rulers, like otherteachers did. They respectedhim, you see, because herespectedthem. He wasmarvelous."
Mammy loved to tell thestory of how she'd proposedtohim.
"I was sixteen, he was
nineteen. Our families livednext door to each other inPanjshir.Oh, I had the crushon him,hamshirasl I used toclimb the wall between ourhouses, and we'd play in hisfather's orchard. Hakim wasalways scared that we'd getcaught and that my fatherwould give him a slapping.'Your father's going to giveme a slapping,' he'd alwayssay. He was so cautious, soserious, even then. And then
onedayIsaid tohim, Isaid,'Cousin,whatwill it be?Areyougoingtoaskformyhandorareyougoing tomakemecomekhasiegari to you?' Isaid it just like that. Youshouldhave seen the faceonhim!"
Mammy would slap herpalmstogetherasthewomen,andLaila,laughed.
Listening to Mammy tell
these stories,Lailaknew thatthere had been a time whenMammy always spoke thiswayaboutBabi.Atimewhenher parents did not sleep inseparate rooms.Lailawishedshe hadn't missed out onthosetimes.
Inevitably, Mammy'sproposal story led tomatchmakingschemes.WhenAfghanistan was free fromthe Soviets and the boys
returned home, they wouldneed brides, and so, one byone, the women paraded theneighborhood girls whomightormightnotbesuitablefor Ahmad and Noon Lailaalways felt excluded whenthe talk turned to herbrothers, as though thewomen were discussing abeloved film that only shehadn't seen. She'd been twoyears old when Ahmad andNoor had left Kabul for
Panjshir up north, to joinCommander Ahmad ShahMassoud's forces and fightthe jihad Laila hardlyremembered anything at allabout them. A shiny allahpendant around Ahmad'sneck. A patch of black hairson one of Noor's ears. Andthatwasit.
Mammy said, slapping hercheekwithmockoutrage.
"There's Anahita. We hearshe's top in her class atZarghoona."
"Haveyouseentheteethonthat girl? Tombstones. She'shiding a graveyard behindthoselips."
"How about the Wahidisisters?"
"Thosetwodwarfs?No,no,no.Oh,no.Not formysons.Not for my sultans. Theydeservebetter."
Asthechatterwenton,Lailalet her mind drift, and, asalways,itfoundTariq.
Mammy had pulled theyellowish curtains. In thedarkness, the room had alayered smell about it: sleep,unwashed linen, sweat, dirtysocks, perfume, the previousnight's leftoverqurma. Lailawaited for her eyes to adjustbefore she crossed the room.Even so, her feet becameentangled with items ofclothingthatlitteredthefloor.
Laila pulled the curtains
open. At the foot of the bedwas an old metallic foldingchair. Laila sat on it andwatched the unmovingblanketedmoundthatwashermother.
ThewallsofMammy'sroomwerecoveredwithpicturesofAhmad and Noor.Everywhere Laila looked,two strangers smiled back.Here was Noor mounting atricycle. Here was Ahmad
doing his prayers, posingbeside a sundialBabi and hehad built when he wastwelve.And there theywere,her brothers, sitting back tobackbeneaththeoldpeartreeintheyard.
Beneath Mammy's bed,Laila could see the corner ofAhmad'sshoeboxprotruding.From time to time, Mammyshowedhertheold,crumplednewspaperclippingsinit,and
pamphlets that Ahmad hadmanaged to collect frominsurgent groups andresistance organizationsheadquartered in Pakistan.One photo, Lailaremembered, showed a maninalongwhitecoathandingalollipoptoaleglesslittleboy.The caption below the photoread:Children are theintended victims of Sovietland mine campaign. Thearticlewentontosaythatthe
Soviets also liked to hideexplosives inside brightlycoloredtoys.Ifachildpickedit up, the toy exploded, toreoff fingers or an entire hand.The father could not join thejihad then; he'd have to stayhome and care for his child.Inanotherarticle inAhmad'sbox, a young Mujahid wassaying that the Soviets haddropped gas on his villagethatburnedpeople's skinandblindedthem.Hesaidhehad
seen his mother and sisterrunning for the stream,coughingupblood.
Themound stirred slightly.Itemittedagroan.
"Getup,Mammy. It's threeo'clock."
Another groan. A handemerged, like a submarine
periscope breaking surface,and dropped. The moundmoved more discernibly thistime. Then the rustle ofblankets as layers of themshifted over each other.Slowly, in stages, Mammymaterialized: first theslovenlyhair, then thewhite,grimacing face, eyes pinchedshut against the light, a handgroping for the headboard,thesheetsslidingdownasshepulled herself up, grunting.
Mammy made an effort tolook up, flinched against thelight, and her head droopedoverherchest.
"How was school?" shemuttered.
So it would begin. Theobligatory questions, theperfunctory answers. Bothpretending. Unenthusiasticpartners, the two of them, inthistiredolddance.
"School was fine," Lailasaid.
Mammy raised her head
again, toward the window.She winced and her eyelidsflutteredTherightsideofherfacewasred,and thehaironthatsidehadflattened.
"Should I fetch you someaspirin?"
Mammy massaged hertemples. "Maybe later. Isyourfatherhome?"
"Oh. Right. You said thatalready."Mammyyawned."Iwas dreaming just now," shesaid, her voice only a bitlouder than the rustle of hernightgownagainst thesheets."Just now, before you camein. But I can't remember itnow. Does that happen toyou?"
"It happens to everybody,
"Ishouldtellyouthatwhileyou were dreaming, a boyshot piss out of a water gunonmyhair."
"That's…that's terrible.GodI'm sorry. Poor you. I'll havea talkwith him first thing inthe morning. Or maybe withhis mother. Yes, that wouldbebetter,Ithink."
"I haven't told you who itwas."
"I was," Mammy croaked.Laila could not tell whetherthiswas a question.Mammybegan picking at her hair.This was one of life's greatmysteries to Laila, thatMammy's picking had notmade her bald as an egg."What about…What's his
name, your friend, Tariq?Yes,whatabouthim?"
"Oh." Mammy sighedthrough her nose. "Did youwash?"
"So you're clean, then."Mammyturnedhertiredgazetothewindow."You'reclean,
Laila stood up. "I havehomeworknow."
"Ofcourseyoudo.Shutthecurtains before you go, mylove,"Mammysaid,hervoicefading. She was alreadysinkingbeneaththesheets.
As Laila reached for thecurtains, she saw a car passby on the street tailed by a
cloudofdust.ItwastheblueBenz with the Herat licenseplate finally leaving. Shefolloweditwithhereyesuntilit vanished around a turn, itsbackwindowtwinklinginthesun.
"I won't forget tomorrow,"Mammy was saying behindher."Ipromise."
"Know what?" Lailawheeled around to face hermother."Whatdon'tIknow?"
Mammy'shandfloateduptoher chest, tapped there."Inhere. What's inhere. "Thenitfellflaccid."Youjustdon'tknow."
A week passed, but therewas still no sign of Tariq.Thenanotherweekcameandwent.
Tofill the time,Laila fixedthescreendoorthatBabistillhadn'tgotaroundto.Shetook
down Babi's books, dustedand alphabetized them. Shewent to Chicken Street withHasina,Giti, and Giti'smother, Nila, who was aseamstress and sometimesewing partner of Mammy's.In that week, Laila came tobelieve that of all thehardshipsapersonhadtofacenone was more punishingthan the simple act ofwaiting.
Hewouldnevercomeback.His parents hadmoved awayfor good; the trip to Ghaznihad been a ruse. An adultscheme to spare the two ofthemanupsettingfarewell.
A land minehad gotten tohim again.Theway it did in
1981, when he was five, thelasttimehisparentstookhimsouth to Ghazni. That wasshortly after Laila's thirdbirthday.He'dbeenluckythattime,losingonlyaleg;luckythathe'dsurvivedatall.
ThenonenightLailasawatinyflashinglightfromdownthe street. A sound,
something between a squeakand a gasp, escaped herlips.She quickly fished her ownflashlightfromunderthebed,but it wouldn't work. Lailabanged it against her palm,cursedthedeadbatteries.Butitdidn'tmatter.Hewasback.Laila sat on the edge of herbed, giddy with relief, andwatched that beautiful,yellow eye winking on andoff.
OnherwaytoTariq'shousethe next day, Laila sawKhadim and a group of hisfriends across the street.Khadim was squatting,drawingsomethinginthedirtwith a stick. When he sawher,hedropped the stickandwiggled his fingers. He saidsomething and there was around of chuckles. Lailadroppedherheadandhurried
"What did youdo1?" sheexclaimedwhenTariqopenedthe door. Only then did sheremember that his uncle wasabarber.
Tariq ranhis handoverhisnewly shaved scalp andsmiled, showing white,slightlyuneventeeth.
"You look like you'reenlistinginthearmy."
"You want to feel?" Heloweredhishead.
The tiny bristles scratchedLaila'spalmpleasantly.Tariqwasn't like someof theotherboys,whosehairconcealed
cone-shaped skulls andunsightly lumps.Tariq'sheadwas perfectly curved and
When he looked up, Lailasawthathischeeksandbrowhadsunburned
"What took you so long?"shesaid
Heledherdownthehallwayto the family room. Laila
loved everything about thishouse.Theshabbyoldruginthe family room, thepatchworkquiltonthecouch,theordinaryclutterofTariq'slife: his mother's bolts offabric, her sewing needlesembedded in spools, the oldmagazines, the accordioncase in the corner waiting tobecrackedopen.
It was his mother callingfromthekitchen.
He pulled her a chair. Thefamily room was brightly litandhaddoublewindowsthatopened into the yard.On thesillwereempty jars inwhichTariq's mother pickledeggplant and made carrotmarmalade.
"You mean ouraroos,ourdaughter-in-law,"his fatherannounced, entering theroom. He was a carpenter, alean,white-hairedman inhisearly sixties. He had gapsbetween his front teeth, andthe squinty eyes of someonewhohadspentmostofhislifeoutdoors.Heopenedhisarmsand Laila went into them,greeted by his pleasant andfamiliar smell of sawdust.They kissed on the cheek
"You keep calling her thatand she'll stop cominghere,"Tariq's mother said, passingby them. Shewas carrying atray with a large bowl, aserving spoon, and foursmaller bowls on it. She setthe tray on the table. "Don'tmind the old man." ShecuppedLaila'sface."It'sgoodto see you, my dear. Come,sit down. I brought back
The table was bulky andmade of a light, unfinishedwood-Tariq's father had builtit,aswellasthechairs.Itwascovered with a moss greenvinyl tablecloth with littlemagenta crescents and starsonit.Mostoftheliving-roomwall was taken up withpictures of Tariq at variousages. In some of the very
"I heard your brother wassick," Laila said to Tariq'sfather, dipping a spoon intoher bowl of soaked raisins,pistachios,andapricots.
"Heart attack.His second,"Tariq's mother said, giving
her husband an admonishinglook.
Tariq's father blew smokeandwinkedatLaila.Itstruckher again thatTariq's parentscould easily pass for hisgrandparents. His motherhadn't had him until she'dbeenwellintoherforties.
"How is your father, mydear?" Tariq's mother said,lookingonover her bowl-As
longasLailahadknownher,Tariq's mother had worn awig. It was turning a dullpurplewithage.Itwaspulledlow on her brow today, andLailacouldseethegrayhairsofhersideburns.Somedays,itrode high on her forehead.But, to Laila, Tariq's mothernever looked pitiable in it-WhatLailasawwasthecalm,self-assured face beneath thewig, the clever eyes, thepleasant,unhurriedmanners.
"Good days. Bad ones too.Thesame-"
"Yes," Tariq's mother saidthoughtfully, lowering herspoon into the bowl "Howhard itmust be, how terriblyhard,foramothertobeawayfromhersons."
"You're staying for lunch?"Tariqsaid-
"You have to," said hismother."I'mmakingshorwa"
"I don't want to beamozahem."
"Imposing?"Tariq'smothersaid. "We leave for a coupleofweeks and you turn politeonus?"
"All right, I'll stay," Lailasaid,blushingandsmiling.
The truth was, Laila lovedeatingmeals atTariq's houseasmuchasshedislikedeatingthemathers.AtTariq's,therewas no eating alone; theyalways ate as a family. Lailaliked the violet plasticdrinking glasses they usedand the quarter lemon that
always floated in the waterpitcher. She liked how theystartedeachmealwithabowlof fresh yogurt, how theysqueezed sour oranges oneverything,eventheiryogurt,and how they made small,harmlessjokesateachother'sexpense.
Over meals, conversationalwaysflowed.ThoughTariqand his parents were ethnicPashtuns, they spoke Farsi
when Laila was around forherbenefit,eventhoughLailamoreor lessunderstood theirnativePashto,having learnedit in school. Babi said thatthere were tensions betweentheir people-the Tajiks, whowere a minority, and Tariq'speople, the Pashtuns, whowere the largest ethnicgroupin Afghanistan.Tajiks havealwaysfeltslighted,Babihadsaid.Pashiun kings ruled thiscountry for almost two
hundredand'fiftyyears,Laila,and Tajiks for all of ninemonths,backin1929.
Babi had wiped hiseyeglassescleanwiththehemof his shirt.To me, it'snonsense-andverydangerousnonsense at that-all this talkof I'm Tajik and you 'rePashiun and he's Hazara and
she's Uzbek. We 're allAfghans, and that's all thatshouldmatter.Butwhen onegroup rules over the othersfor so long…Theref scontempt. Rivalry. There is.Therealwayshasbeen.
Maybe so. But Laila neverfeltitinTariq'shouse,wherethese matters never evencame up. Her time withTariq's family always feltnatural to Laila, effortless,
uncomplicatedbydifferencesintribeorlanguage,orbythepersonal spites and grudgesthat infected the air at herownhome.
"How about a game ofcards?"Tariqsaid.
"Yes, go upstairs," hismother said, swipingdisapprovingly at herhusband's cloud of smoke."I'llgettheshorwagoing."
They layon their stomachsinthemiddleofTariq'sroomand took turns dealingforpanjpar. Pedaling air withhis foot,Tariq toldher abouthis trip. The peach saplingshehadhelpedhisuncleplant.A garden snake he hadcaptured.
This roomwaswhereLailaand Tariq did theirhomework, where they builtplaying-cardtowersanddrew
ridiculous portraits of eachother. If it was raining, theyleaned on the windowsill,drinking warm, fizzy orangeFanta, and watched theswollen rain droplets trickledowntheglass.
"Allright,here'sone,"Lailasaid, shuffling. "What goesaroundtheworldbutstaysinacorner?"
"Wait." Tariq pushed
himself up and swung hisartificial left leg around.Wincing, he lay on his side,leaning on his elbow. "Handme thatpillow."Heplaced itunder his leg. "There. That'sbetter."
Laila remembered the firsttime he'd shown her hisstump. She'd been six. Withonefinger,shehadpokedthetaut.
shinyskinjustbelowhisleftknee. Her finger had foundlittle hard lumps there, andTariq had told her theywerespursofbone thatsometimesgrew after an amputation.She'd askedhim if his stumphurt,andhesaiditgotsoreatthe end of the day, when itswelled and didn't fit theprosthesis like it wassupposedto,likeafingerinathimble.And sometimes itgets rubbed Especially when
it'shot.ThenIgetrashesandblisters, but my mother hascreams that help. It's not sobad.
What are you crying for?He'd strapped his leg backon.You asked to see it, yougiryanok,you crybaby! If I'dknown you were going tobawl,Iwouldn'ihaveshownyou.
"Theriddle.Theanswerisastamp. We should go to thezoo after lunch." "You knewthat one. Did you?""Absolutelynot."
"And you're envious." "Ofwhat?"
"Iletyouwin."Helaughed.They both knew that wasn'ttrue.
"Andwhofailedmath?Whodoyoucometoforhelpwithyour math homework eventhoughyou'reagradeahead?"
"I'd be twogrades ahead ifmathdidn'tboreme."
"Howdidyouknow?Now,shut up. So are we going tothezooornot?"
There was a pause. ThenTariq turned to her with ahalf-grinning, half-grimacinglook of distaste. "What'sthematterwithyou?"
How many times had she,Hasina, and Giti said thosesame three words to eachother,Lailawondered,saiditwithout hesitation, after onlytwo or three days of not
seeing each other? /missedyou,HasinaOh,Imissedyoutoo. InTariq'sgrimace,Lailalearned that boys differedfromgirlsinthisregard.Theydidn't make a show offriendship.Theyfeltnourge,noneed, for this sort of talk.Laila imagined it had beenthiswayforherbrothers too.Boys, Laila came to see,treated friendship the waythey treated the sun: itsexistence undisputed; its
radiance best enjoyed, notbehelddirectly.
He gave her a sidelongglance."Itworked."
Butshethoughthisgrimacesoftened. And she thoughtthatmaybethesunburnonhischeeks deepenedmomentarily.
Lailadidn'tmeantotellhim.She'd, in fact, decided thattelling him would be a verybadidea.Someonewouldgethurt, because Tariq wouldn'tbe able to let it pass. Butwhen theywereon the streetlater,headingdowntothebusstop, she sawKhadim again,leaningagainstawallHewassurrounded by his friends,thumbs hooked in his belt
loops. He grinned at herdefiantly.
And so she toldTariq.Thestoryspilledoutofhermouthbeforeshecouldstopit.
He pointed to Khadim."Him? He's the one? You'resure?"
Tariqclenchedhisteethandmuttered something tohimself in Pashto that Lailadidn'tcatch."Youwaithere,"hesaid,inFarsinow.
him. His grin faded, and hepushed himself off the wall.He unhooked his thumbsfromthebeltloopsandmadehimself more upright, takingon a self-conscious air ofmenace. The others followedhisgaze.
Lailawishedshehadn'tsaidanything. What if theybanded together? How manyof them were there-ten?eleven? twelve?What if they
Then Tariq stopped a fewfeet from Khadim and hisband.Therewasamomentofconsideration, Laila thought,maybeachangeofheart,and,when he bent down, sheimagined he would pretendhis shoelace had comeundoneandwalkbacktoher.Thenhishandswenttowork,andsheunderstood.
The others understood toowhen Tariq straightened up,standingononeleg.Whenhebegan hopping towardKhadim, then charging him,hisunstrappedlegraisedhighover his shoulder like asword.
Khadim never botheredLailaagain.
That night, asmost nights,Laila set the dinner table fortwo only. Mammy said shewasn't hungry. On thosenightsthatshewas,shemadeapointoftakingaplatetoherroombeforeBabi even came
home.Shewasusuallyasleepor lyingawake inbedby thetimeLailaandBabisatdowntoeat.
Babi came out of thebathroom, his hair-pepperedwhite with flour when he'dcome home-washed cleannowandcombedback.
"What are we having,Laila?"
"Sounds good," he said,folding the towelwithwhichhe'd dried his hair. "Sowhatare we working on tonight?Addingfractions?"
Every night after dinner,
Babi helped Laila with herhomeworkandgavehersomeofhisown.Thiswasonly tokeep Laila a step or twoahead of her class, notbecausehedisapprovedoftheworkassignedby theschool-the propaganda teachingnotwithstanding.Infact,Babithoughtthattheonethingthecommunistshaddoneright-oratleastintendedto-ironically,wasinthefieldofeducation,thevocationfromwhichthey
had fired him. Morespecifically, the education ofwomen.Thegovernmenthadsponsored literacyclasses forallwomen.Almosttwo-thirdsof the students at KabulUniversitywerewomennow,Babi said, women who werestudying law, medicine,engineering.
Womenhave alwayshad ithard in this country, Laila,but they're probably more
free now, under thecommunists, and have morerights than they've ever hadbefore,Babi said, alwayslowering his voice, aware ofhow intolerant Mammy wasofevenremotelypositivetalkof the communists.But it'strue, Babi said,it'sagood timeto be a woman inAfghanistan. And you cantake advantage of that, LailaOfcourse,women'sfreedom-here, he shook his head
ruefully-is also one of thereasonspeopleouttheretookuparmsinthefirstplace.
By "out there," he didn'tmean Kabul, which hadalwaysbeen relatively liberaland progressive. Here inKabul, women taught at theuniversity, ran schools, heldofficeinthegovernment-No,Babi meant the tribal areas,especiallythePashtunregionsinthesouthorintheeastnear
the Pakistani border, wherewomen were rarely seen onthe streets and only then inburqa and accompanied bymen.Hemeant those regionswhere men who lived byancient tribal laws hadrebelled against thecommunistsandtheirdecreesto liberatewomen, toabolishforced marriage, to raise theminimum marriage age tosixteen for girls. There, mensaw it as an insult to their
centuries-old tradition, Babisaid, to be told by thegovernment-and a godlessone at that-that theirdaughtershad to leavehome,attend school, and workalongsidemen.
God forbid that shouldhappen!Babi liked to saysarcastically. Then he wouldsigh, and say,Laila,my love,the only enemy an Afghancannotdefeatishimself
Babi took his seat at thetable, dipped bread into hisbowlofaush.
LailadecidedthatshewouldtellhimaboutwhatTariqhaddone to Khadim, over themeal, before they started inon fractions. But she nevergotthechance.Because,rightthen,therewasaknockatthedoor,and,ontheothersideofthe door, a stranger withnews.
I need to speak to yourparents,dokhiarjan" he saidwhen Laila opened the door.Hewasastockyman,withasharp, weather-roughenedface. He wore a potato-colored coat, and a brownwoolpakolonhishead
"Can I tell them who'shere?"
Then Babi's hand was onLaila's shoulder, and hegently pulled her from thedoor.
As she moved toward thesteps, Laila heard the visitorsay toBabi thathehadnews
from Panjshir. Mammy wasintheroomnowtoo.Shehadone hand clamped over hermouth, and her eyes wereskipping from Babi to themaninthepakol
Lailapeekedfromthetopofthe stairs. She watched thestranger sit down with herparents. He leaned towardthem. Said a few mutedwords. Then Babi's face waswhite,andgettingwhiter,and
hewas looking at his hands,and Mammy was screaming,screaming, and tearing at herhair.
The next morning, the dayofthefaiiha, a flock ofneighborhood womendescended on the house andtook charge of preparationsfor thekhatm dinner thatwould take place after the
funeral Mammy sat on thecouchthewholemorning,herfingers working ahandkerchief, her facebloated.Shewastendedtobya pair of sniffling womenwho took turns pattingMammy'shandgingerly, likeshe was the rarest and mostfragile doll in the world.Mammy did not seem awareoftheirpresence.
Laila kneeled before her
mother and took her hands."Mammy."
Mammy's eyes drifteddown.Sheblinked.
"We'lltakecareofher,Lailajan," one of the women saidwith an air of self-importance.Lailahadbeentofuneralsbeforewhereshehadseenwomenlikethis,womenwho relished all things thathad todowithdeath,official
consolers who let no onetrespass on their self-appointedduties.
"It's under control. You goon now, girl, and dosomething else. Leave yourmotherbe."
Shooed away, Laila feltuseless. She bounced fromone room to the next. Sheputtered around the kitchenfor a while. An
uncharacteristically subduedHasinaandhermothercame.So did Giti and her mother.When Giti saw Laila, shehurried over, threw her bonyarms around her, and gaveLaila a very long, andsurprisingly strong, embrace.When she pulled back, tearshadpooledinhereyes."Iamso sorry, Laila," she said.Laila thanked her. The threegirls sat outside in the yarduntil one of the women
assigned them the task ofwashing glasses and stackingplatesonthetable.
Babitookeptwalkinginandout of the house aimlessly,looking, it seemed, forsomethingtodo.
"Keephimawayfromme."That was the only timeMammy said anything allmorning.
Babiendedupsittingaloneon a folding chair in thehallway,lookingdesolateandsmallThenoneofthewomentold him he was in the waythere. He apologized anddisappearedintohisstudy.
That apternoon, the menwent to a hall in Karteh-Sehthat Babi had rented forthefatiha. The women came
to the house. Laila took herspot besideMammy, next tothe living-room entrancewhere it was customary forthe familyof thedeceased tosit. Mourners removed theirshoes at the door, nodded atacquaintancesastheycrossedthe room, and sat on foldingchairs arranged along thewalls. Laila sawWajma, theelderly midwife who haddeliveredher.ShesawTariq'smother too, wearing a black
scarf over thewig. She gaveLaila a nod and a slow, sad,close-lippedsmile.
From a cassette player, aman's nasal voice chantedverses from the Koran. Inbetween, the women sighedand shifted and sniffled.There were muted coughs,murmurs, and, periodically,someone let out a theatrical,sorrow-drenchedsob.
Rasheed's wife, Mariam,came in. She was wearing ablackhijab.Strandsofherhairstrayedfromitontoherbrow.ShetookaseatalongthewallacrossfromLaila.
NexttoLaila,Mammykeptrockingbackand forth.LailadrewMammy'shandintoherlapandcradleditwithbothofhers, but Mammy did notseemtonotice.
"Do youwant somewater,Mammy?" Laila said in herear."Areyouthirsty?"
But Mammy said nothing.She did nothing but swaybackandforthandstareattherug with a remote, spiritlesslook.
Now and then, sitting nextto Mammy, seeing thedrooping, woebegone looksaround the room, the
magnitudeofthedisasterthathad struck her family wouldregister with Laila. Thepossibilities denied. Thehopesdashed.
Butthefeelingdidn'tlast.Itwas hard to feel,really feel,Mammy's loss. Hard tosummonsorrow,togrievethedeaths of people Laila hadnever really thought of asalive in the first place.AhmadandNoorhadalways
been like lore to her. Likecharactersinafable.Kingsinahistorybook.
ItwasTariqwhowas real,flesh and blood. Tariq, whotaught her cusswords inPashto, who liked saltedclover leaves, who frownedand made a low, moaningsoundwhen he chewed,whohad a light pink birthmarkjust beneath his leftcollarbone shaped like an
So she sat beside Mammyand dutifully mournedAhmad and Noor, but, inLaila's heart, her truebrotherwasaliveandwell.
The ailments that wouldhoundMammyfortherestofher days began. Chest painsand headaches, joint achesand night sweats, paralyzingpains in her ears, lumps nooneelsecouldfeel.Babitookher to a doctor, who took
blood and urine, shot X-raysofMammy'sbody,but foundnophysicalillness.
Mammy lay in bed mostdays. She wore black. Shepickedatherhairandgnawedon the mole below her lip.When Mammy was awake,Laila found her staggeringthrough the house. Shealways ended up in Laila'sroom, as though she wouldrun into the boys sooner or
later if she just keptwalkingintotheroomwheretheyhadonce slept and farted andfought with pillows. But allshe ran into was theirabsence. And Laila. Which,Laila believed, had becomeoneandthesametoMammy.
TheonlytaskMammyneverneglected was her fivedailynamaz prayers. Sheended eachnamaz with herhead hung low, hands held
before her face, palms up,mutteringaprayerforGodtobring victory to theMujahideen. Laila had toshoulder more and more ofthe chores. If she didn't tendto the house, she was apt tofindclothes, shoes,open ricebags,cansofbeans,anddirtydishes strewn abouteverywhere. Laila washedMammy's dresses andchanged her sheets. Shecoaxed her out of bed for
bathsandmeals.Shewastheone who ironed Babi's shirtsand folded his pants.Increasingly, she was thecook.
Sometimes, after she wasdone with her chores, Lailacrawled into bed next toMammy. She wrapped herarms around her, laced herfingers with her mother's,buried her face in her hair.Mammy would stir, murmur
something. Inevitably, shewould start in on a storyabouttheboys.
Oneday,astheywerelyingthis way, Mammy said,"Ahmad was going to be aleader. He had the charismafor it-People three times hisage listened to him withrespect, Laila. It wassomething to see. AndNoonOh,myNoor.Hewasalwaysmaking sketches of
buildingsandbridges.Hewasgoing to be an architect, youknow. He was going totransform Kabul with hisdesigns. And now they'rebothshaheed, my boys, bothmartyrs."
Lailalaythereandlistened,wishing Mammy wouldnotice thatshe, Laila, hadn'tbecomeshaheed, that shewasalive, here, in bed with her,that she had hopes and a
future. But Laila knew thather future was no match forher brothers' past. They hadovershadowed her in life.They would obliterate her indeath. Mammy was now thecuratoroftheirlives'museumandshe,Laila,amerevisitor.A receptacle for theirmyths.Theparchment on whichMammy meant to ink theirlegends.
"Themessenger who came
with the news, he said thatwhen they brought the boysback to camp, Ahmad ShahMassoud personally oversawthe burial. He said a prayerfor them at the gravesite.That's the kind of braveyoung men your brotherswere,Laila, thatCommanderMassoudhimself,theLionofPanjshir, God bless him,wouldoverseetheirburial."
Mammy rolled onto her
"Somedays,"Mammy saidinahoarsevoice, "I listen tothat clock ticking in thehallway. Then I think of allthe ticks, all the minutes, allthehoursanddaysandweeksandmonthsandyearswaitingfor me. All of it withoutthem. And I can't breathethen, like someone's steppingon my heart, Laila. I get so
weak.SoweakI justwant tocollapsesomewhere."
"IwishtherewassomethingI could do," Laila said,meaning it. But it came outsounding broad, perfunctory,likethetokenconsolationofakindstranger.
"You're a good daughter,"Mammy said, after a deepsigh. "And I haven't beenmuchofamothertoyou."
Laila sat up, looking downatMammy. There were graystrandsinMammy'shairnow.And it startled Lailahowmuch weight Mammy,
who'd always been plump,had lost. Her cheeks had asallow, drawn look. Theblouseshe was wearingdrooped over her shoulders,andtherewasagapingspacebetween her neck and thecollar.More than once Lailahad seen the weddingbandslide off Mammy'sfinger.
"I've been meaning to askyousomething."
"You wouldn't…" Lailabegan.
She'd talked about it toHasina. At Hasina'ssuggestion, the two of themhad emptied the bottle ofaspirin in the gutter, hiddenthe kitchen knives and thesharp kebab skewers beneaththe rug under the couch.Hasina had found a rope in
theyard.WhenBabicouldn'tfind his razors, Laila had totell him of her fears. Hedropped on the edge of thecouch, hands between hisknees. Lailawaited for somekindofreassurancefromhim.But all she got was abewildered, hollow-eyedlook.
"You wouldn't…Mammy Iworrythat-"
"Ithoughtaboutitthenightwe got the news," Mammysaid. "Iwon't lie to you, I'vethought about it since too.But,no.Don'tworry,Laila.Iwant to see my sons' dreamcome true. I want to see theday the Soviets go homedisgraced, the day theMujahideencometoKabulinvictory. I want to be therewhen it happens, whenAfghanistan is free, so theboys see it too.They'll see it
Mammy was soon asleep,leaving Laila with duelingemotions: reassured thatMammy meant to live on,stung thatshe was not thereason.Shewouldneverleaveher mark on Mammy's heartthe way her brothers had,because Mammy's heart waslike a pallid beach whereLaila's footprints wouldforever wash away beneath
the waves of sorrow thatswelled and crashed, swelledandcrashed.
The driver pulled his taxiover to let pass another longconvoy of Soviet jeeps andarmored vehicles. Tariqleaned across the front seat,over the driver, andyelled,"Pajalmia!Pajalmta!"
A jeep honked and Tariqwhistled back, beaming andwaving cheerfully. "Lovelyguns!" he yelled "Fabulousjeeps! Fabulous army! Toobad you're losing to a bunchofpeasantsfiringslingshots!"
The convoy passed. Thedriver merged back onto theroad
"Howmuch farther?" Lailaasked
"An hour at themost," thedriver said. "Barring anymore convoys orcheckpoints."
Theyweretakingadaytrip,Laila,Babi,andTariq.Hasinahadwanted to come too,hadbegged her father, but hewouldn't allow it. The tripwas Babi's idea. Though hecould hardly afford it on hissalary,he'dhiredadriver fortheday.Hewouldn'tdisclose
anything to Laila about theirdestinationexcepttosaythat,withit,hewascontributingtohereducation.
They had been on the roadsince five in the morning.Through Laila's window, thelandscape shifted fromsnowcapped peaks to desertsto canyons and sun-scorchedoutcroppingsof rocks.Alongthe way, they passed mudhouses with thatched roofs
andfieldsdottedwithbundlesof wheat. Pitched out in thedusty fields, here and there,Laila recognized the blacktentsofKoochinomads.And,frequently, the carcasses ofburned-out Soviet tanks andwrecked helicopters. This,she thought,wasAhmad andNoor's Afghanistan. This,here in the provinces, waswhere the war was beingfought, after all. Not inKabul. Kabul was largely at
peace. Back in Kabul, if notfor the occasional bursts ofgunfire, if not for the Sovietsoldiers smoking on thesidewalks and the Sovietjeeps always bumpingthroughthestreets,warmightaswellhavebeenarumor.
It was late morning, afterthey'd passed two morecheckpoints, when theyentered a valley. Babi hadLailaleanacrosstheseatand
"That's called Shahr-e-Zohak.TheRedCity.Itusedto be a fortress. It was builtsomeninehundredyearsagoto defend the valley frominvaders. Genghis Khan'sgrandson attacked it in thethirteenthcentury,buthewaskilled. It was Genghis Khanhimself who then destroyed
"And that, my youngfriends, is the story of ourcountry, one invader afteranother," the driver said,flicking cigarette ash out thewindow. "Macedonians.Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols.Now the Soviets. But we'relike those walls up there.Battered, and nothing prettyto look at, but still standing.Isn'tthatthetruth,badar?'
"Come on, you two," Babisaid."Comeoutsideandhavealook."
They got out of the taxi.Babipointed"Theretheyare.Look."
Tariqgasped.Lailadidtoo.And she knew then that shecould live to be a hundredand she would never againseeathingasmagnificent.
The two Buddhas wereenormous, soaring muchhigherthanshehadimaginedfromallthephotosshe'dseenof them.Chiseled intoa sun-bleached rock cliff, theypeereddownatthem,astheyhad nearly two thousand
years before,Laila imagined,at caravans crossing thevalley on the Silk Road. Oneithersideofthem,alongtheoverhanging niche, the cliffwas pocked with myriadcaves.
"You want to climb up?"Babisaid.
"Up the statues?" Laila
TheclimbwashardforTariq,who had to hold on to bothLailaandBabiastheyinchedup a winding, narrow, dimlylit staircase. They sawshadowy caves along theway, and tunnels
"Careful where you step,"Babi said His voice made aloud echo. "The ground istreacherous."
In someparts, the staircasewas open to the Buddha'scavity.
As they climbed,Babi toldthem that Bamiyan had oncebeen a thriving BuddhistcenteruntilithadfallenunderIslamicArabruleintheninthcentury. The sandstone cliffswere home to Buddhistmonks who carved caves inthemtouseaslivingquartersand as sanctuary for wearytraveling pilgrims. Themonks, Babi said, paintedbeautiful frescoes along thewallsandroofsoftheircaves.
"At one point," he said,"there were five thousandmonks living as hermits inthesecaves."
Tariq was badly out ofbreathwhentheyreachedthetop. Babi was panting too.But his eyes shone withexcitement.
"We're standing atop itshead," he said, wiping hisbrow with a handkerchief
"There's a niche over herewherewecanlookout."
They inched over to thecraggy overhang and,standing side by side, withBabi in the middle, gazeddownonthevalley.
wascarpetedbylushfarmingfields. Babi said they weregreen winter wheat andalfalfa, potatoes too. Thefields were bordered bypoplars and crisscrossed bystreamsandirrigationditches,on the banks of which tinyfemale figures squatted andwashedclothes.Babipointedto rice paddies and barleyfields draping the slopes. Itwas autumn, andLaila couldmake out people in bright
tunics on the roofs of mudbrickdwellingslayingouttheharvesttodry.Themainroadgoing through the town waspoplar-lined too. There weresmall shops and teahousesand street-side barbers oneither side of it. Beyond thevillage, beyond the river andthe streams, Laila sawfoothills, bare and dustybrown,and,beyond those, asbeyond everything else inAfghanistan, the snowcapped
The sky above all of thiswas an immaculate, spotlessblue.
"It's so quiet," Lailabreathed. She could see tinysheepandhorsesbutcouldn'thear their bleating andwhinnying.
"It's what I alwaysremember about being up
here," Babi said. "Thesilence. The peace of it. Iwanted you to experience it.But I alsowantedyou to seeyour country's heritage,children, to learn of its richpast. You see, some things Ican teach you. Some youlearn from books. But thereare things that,well,you justhavetoseeandfeel."
They watched a hawk,gliding in circles above thevillage.
"Did you ever bringMammy up here?" Lailaasked
"Oh,manytimes.Beforetheboys were born. After too.Yourmother, she used to beadventurous then, and…soalive. She was just aboutthe liveliest, happiest person
I'd ever met." He smiled atthe memory. "She had thislaugh. I swear it's why Imarried her, Laila, for thatlaugh. It bulldozed you.Youstoodnochanceagainstit."
A wave of affectionovercame Laila. From thenon, she would alwaysremember Babi this way:reminiscing about Mammy,with his elbows on the rock,hands cupping his chin, his
"I'm going to look at someofthosecaves,"Tariqsaid.
"I will,Kakajan," Tariq'svoiceechoedback.
Lailawatchedatrioofmenfarbelow,talkingnearacowtethered to a fence. Around
them, the treeshad started toturn, ochre and orange,scarletred.
"I miss the boys too, youknow," Babi said. His eyeshadwelledupatad.Hischinwas trembling. "I may not…With your mother, both herjoy and sadness are extreme.She can't hide either. Shenever could. Me, I supposeI'mdifferent.Itendto…Butitbrokemetoo,theboysdying.
I miss them too. Not a daypasses that I…It's very hard,Laila. So very hard." Hesqueezedtheinnercornersofhis eyes with his thumb andforefinger. When he tried totalk, his voice broke. Hepulled his lips over his teethand waited. He took a long,deep breath, looked at her."But I'm glad I have you.Every day, I thank God foryou. Every single day.Sometimes, when your
mother's having one of herreally dark days, I feel likeyou'reallIhave,Laila."
Lailadrewclosertohimandrested her cheek up againsthischest.He seemedslightlystartled-unlike Mammy, herarelyexpressedhis affectionphysically.Heplantedabriskkiss on the top of her headand hugged her backawkwardly. They stood thisway for a while, looking
"AsmuchasIlovethisland,some days I think aboutleavingit,"Babisaid.
"Anyplacewhereit'seasytoforget. Pakistan first, Isuppose. For a year, maybetwo.Wait for our paperworktogetprocessed."
"And then, well, itis a bigworld. Maybe America.Somewherenearthesea.LikeCalifornia."
Babi said the Americanswereagenerouspeople.Theywouldhelpthemwithmoneyand food for a while, untiltheycouldgetontheirfeet.
few years, when we hadenoughsavedup,we'dopenalittle Afghan restaurant-Nothingfancy,mindyou,justa modest little place, a fewtables, some rugs. MaybehangsomepicturesofKabul.We'd give the Americans ataste of Afghan food. Andwith your mother's cooking,they'd line up and down thestreet.
"And you, you would
continue going to school, ofcourse.YouknowhowIfeelaboutthat.Thatwouldbeourabsolute top priority, to getyou a good education, highschool then college. But inyour free time,if youwantedto, you could help out, takeorders,fillwaterpitchers,thatsortofthing."
Babi said they would holdbirthday parties at therestaurant, engagement
ceremonies, New Year's get-togethers.Itwouldturnintoagathering place for otherAfghanswho, like them, hadfled the war. And, late atnight, after everyonehad leftandtheplacewascleanedup,they would sit for tea amidtheemptytables, thethreeofthem, tired but thankful fortheirgoodfortune.
When Babi was donespeaking,hegrewquiet.They
both did. They knew thatMammy wasn't goinganywhere. LeavingAfghanistan had beenunthinkable to her whileAhmad and Noor were stillalive. Now that theywereshaheed,packingupandrunning was an even worseaffront, a betrayal, adisavowalofthesacrificehersonshadmade.
How can you think of it?
Laila could hear hersaying.Doestheirdyingmeannothing to you, cousin? Theonly solace I find is inknowingthatIwalkthesameground that soaked up theirblood.No.Never.
AndBabiwouldneverleavewithouther,Lailaknew,eventhoughMammywasnomorea wife to him now than shewas a mother to Laila. ForMammy, he would brush
asidethisdaydreamofhisthewayheflickedspecksofflourfrom his coat when he gothomefromwork.Andsotheywould stay. Theywould stayuntil thewarendedAndtheywouldstayforwhatevercameafterwar.
Laila rememberedMammytellingBabioncethatshehadmarried a man who had noconvictions. Mammy didn'tunderstand. She didn't
understand that if she lookedinto amirror, shewould findthe one unfailing convictionof his life looking right backather.
Later, after they'd eaten alunch of boiled eggs andpotatoes with bread, Tariqnappedbeneath a tree on thebanks of a gurgling stream.He sleptwith his coat neatly
folded into a pillow, hishands crossed on his chest.Thedriverwenttothevillageto buy almonds. Babi sat atthe foot of a thick-trunkedacacia tree reading apaperback. Laila knew thebook;he'dreadittoheronce.It told the story of an oldfisherman named Santiagowho catches an enormousfish.Butby the timehesailshis boat to safety, there isnothing left of his prize fish;
the sharks have torn it topieces.
Lailasatontheedgeof thestream, dipping her feet intothe cool water. Overhead,mosquitoes hummed andcottonwood seeds danced. Adragonfly whirred nearby.Lailawatcheditswingscatchglintsofsunlightasitbuzzedfrom one blade of grass toanother.They flashedpurple,then green, orange. Across
the stream, a group of localHazara boys were pickingpatties of dried cow dungfrom thegroundandstowingthem into burlap sackstethered to their backs.Somewhere,adonkeybrayed.Ageneratorsputteredtolife.
Laila thought again aboutBabi's littledream.Somewhere near thesea
There was something shehadn'ttoldBabiupthereatopthe Buddha: that, in oneimportant way, she was gladthey couldn't go. She wouldmissGitiandherpinch-facedearnestness, yes, and Hasinatoo, with her wicked laughandrecklessclowningaroundBut, mostly, Lailaremembered all too well theinescapabledrudgeryofthosefour weeks without TariqwhenhehadgonetoGhazni.
She remembered all toowellhow time had draggedwithout him, how she hadshuffled about feelingwaylaid,outofbalance.Howcould she ever copewith hispermanentabsence?
Maybe it was senseless towant to be near a person sobadlyhereinacountrywherebulletshadshreddedherownbrothers to pieces. But allLaila had to do was picture
Tariq going at Khadim withhis leg and then nothing inthe world seemed moresensibletoher.
Six months later, in April1988, Babi came home withbignews.
"They signed a treaty!" hesaid."InGeneva.It'sofficial!They're leaving. Within nine
months, there won't be anymore Soviets inAfghanistan!"
Mammy was sitting up inbed.Sheshrugged.
"But thecommunist regimeis staying," she said."Najibullah is the Soviets'puppet president. He's notgoinganywhere.No, thewarwill go on. This is not theend"
"They're leaving, Mammy!They'reactuallyleaving!"
"You two celebrate if youwantto.ButIwon'trestuntiltheMujahideenholdavictoryparaderighthereinKabul"
And,withthat,shelaydownagain and pulled up theblanket.
One cold, overcast day inJanuary 1989, three monthsbefore Laila turned eleven,she, her parents, and Hasinawent towatchoneof the lastSoviet convoys exit the city.
Spectators had gathered onbothsidesofthethoroughfareoutsidetheMilitaryClubnearWazir Akbar Khan. Theystood in muddy snow andwatched the line of tanks,armored trucks, and jeeps aslight snow flew across theglare of the passingheadlights. There wereheckles and jeers. Afghansoldiers kept people off thestreet. Every now and then,they had to fire a warning
Mammyhoisted a photoofAhmad and Noor high overher head. It was the one ofthem sitting back-to-backunder the pear tree. Therewere others like her, womenwith pictures of theirshaheedhusbands, sons,brothersheldhigh.
Someone tapped Laila andHasina on the shoulder. It
"Where did you get thatthing?"Hasinaexclaimed.
"I thought I'dcomedressedfor the occasion."Tariq said.HewaswearinganenormousRussian fur hat, completewith earflaps, which he hadpulleddown.
"Your parents came herewithyoudressedlikethis?"
The previous fall, Tariq'suncleinGhaznihaddiedofaheartattack,and,afewweekslater, Tariq's father had
suffered a heart attack of hisown, leaving him frail andtired, prone to anxiety andbouts of depression thatovertook him for weeks at atime. Laila was glad to seeTariq like this, like his oldselfagain.Forweeksafterhisfather's illness, Laila hadwatchedhimmopingaround,heavy-facedandsullen.
The three of them stoleawaywhileMammyandBabi
stood watching the Soviets.From a street vendor, Tariqbought them each a plate ofboiled beans topped withthick cilantro chutney. Theyate beneath the awning of aclosed rug shop, thenHasinawenttofindherfamily.
Onthebusridehome,Tariqand Laila sat behind herparents. Mammy was by thewindow, staring out,clutching the picture against
her chest. Beside her, BabiwasimpassivelylisteningtoamanwhowasarguingthattheSovietsmight be leaving butthattheywouldsendweaponstoNajibullahinKabul.
"He's their puppet. They'llkeep the war going throughhim,youcanbetonthat."
Someone in the next aislevoicedhisagreement.
Mammy was muttering toherself, long-winded prayersthatrolledonandonuntilshehadnobreath leftandhad toekeout the last fewwords inatiny,high-pitchedsqueak.
They"wenttoCinemaParklater that day, Laila andTariq, and had to settle for aSoviet film thatwas dubbed,to unintentionally comic
effect, in Farsi. There was amerchant ship, and a firstmate in love with thecaptain's daughter.Her namewas Alyona. Then came afierce storm, lightning, rain,the heaving sea tossing theship. One of the franticsailors yelled something. Anabsurdly calm Afghan voicetranslated: "My dear sir,would you kindly pass therope?"
At this, Tariq burst outcackling. And, soon, theyboth were in the grips of ahopeless attack of laughter.Just when one becamefatigued, the other wouldsnort, and off theywould goon another round. A mansitting two rows up turnedaroundandshushedthem.
thefirstmate.Thenewlywedswere smiling at each other.Everyone was drinkingvodka.
"Meneither,"saidLaila,butnot before a moment ofnervous hesitation. Sheworried that her voice hadbetrayed her disappointmentatwhathehadsaid.Herheart
galloping, she added, moreforcefullythistime,"Never."
"For clothes you'll neverwearagain."
"If I everdo get married,"Tariq said, "they'll have tomake room for three on theweddingstage.Me,thebride,and the guy holding the guntomyhead."
The man in the front rowgave them anotheradmonishinglook.
On the screen, Alyona andhernewhusbandlockedlips.
Watchingthekiss,Lailafeltstrangely conspicuous all atonce. She became intenselyawareof her heart thumping,of the blood thudding in herears, of the shape of Tariqbeside her, tightening up,becoming still. The kissdragged on. It seemed ofutmost urgency to Laila,suddenly, that she not stir ormakeanoise.ShesensedthatTariq was observing her-oneeye on the kiss, the other on
her-asshewasobservinghim.Was he listening to the airwhooshing in and out of hernose, she wondered, waitingfor a subtle faltering, arevealing irregularity, thatwouldbetrayherthoughts?
Andwhatwoulditbeliketokiss him, to feel the fuzzyhairabovehislipticklingherownlips?
Then Tariq shifted
uncomfortably in his seat. Inastrainedvoice,hesaid,"Didyou know that if you flingsnot in Siberia, it's a greenicicle before it hits theground?"
They both laughed, butbriefly, nervously, this time.Andwhenthefilmendedandthey stepped outside, Lailawas relieved to see that thesky had dimmed, that shewouldn'thavetomeetTariq's
In that time, Tariq's fatherhad a series of strokes. Theyleft him with a clumsy lefthand and a slight slur to his
speech. When he wasagitated, which happenedfrequently, the slurring gotworse.
Tariqoutgrewhis legagainandwas issued a new legbytheRedCross,thoughhehadtowaitsixmonthsforit.
As Hasina had feared, herfamily took her to Lahore,whereshewasmadetomarrythe cousin who owned the
auto shop. The morning thatthey took her, Laila andGitiwenttoHasina'shousetosaygood-bye. Hasina told themthat the cousin, her husband-to-be, had already started theprocess to move them toGermany,where his brotherslived. Within the year, shethought, they would be inFrankfurt.They cried then ina three-way embrace. Gitiwas inconsolable. The lasttime Laila ever saw Hasina,
shewas being helped by herfather into the crowdedbackseatofataxi.
TheSovietUnioncrumbledwith astonishing swiftness.Every few weeks, it seemedto Laila, Babi was cominghomewithnewsof the latestrepublic to declareindependence. Lithuania.Estonia. Ukraine. The Sovietflag was lowered over theKremlin. The Republic of
In Kabul, Najibullahchanged tactics and tried toportray himself as a devoutMuslim. "Too little and fartoo late," said Babi. "Youcan't be the chief of KHADonedayandthenextdayprayin a mosque with peoplewhose relatives you torturedandkilled"Feeling thenoosetightening around Kabul,Najibullah tried to reach a
settlement with theMujahideen but theMujahideenbalked.
Fromherbed,Mammysaid,"Good for them." She kepthervigils for theMujahideenand waited for her parade.Waited for her sons' enemiestofall.
April 1992, the year Lailaturnedfourteen.
Najibullah surrendered atlast and was given sanctuaryin the UN compound nearDarulaman Palace, south ofthecity.
The jihad was over. Thevarious communist regimesthathadheldpowersincethenightLailawasbornwerealldefeated. Mammy's heroes,
Ahmad'sandNoor'sbrothers-in-war, had won. And now,after more than a decade ofsacrificing everything, ofleaving behind their familiestoliveinmountainsandfightforAfghanistan'ssovereignty,theMujahideenwere comingtoKabul,inflesh,blood,andbattle-wearybone.
Mammy knew all of theirnames.
There was Dostum, theflamboyant Uzbekcommander, leader of theJunbish-i-Milli faction, whohad a reputation for shiftingallegiances.Theintense,surlyGulbuddinHekmatyar,leaderof the Hezb-e-Islami faction,a Pashtun who had studiedengineeringandoncekilledaMaoist student. Rabbani,Tajik leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami faction, who hadtaught Islam at Kabul
University in the days of themonarchy. Sayyaf, a Pashtunfrom Paghman with Arabconnections, a stout Muslimand leader of the Ittehad-i-Islami faction. Abdul AliMazari, leaderof theHizb-e-Wahdat faction, known asBaba Mazari among hisfellow Hazaras, with strongShi'atiestoIran.
And, of course, there wasMammy's hero, Rabbani's
ally, the brooding,charismaticTajikcommanderAhmad Shah Massoud, theLionofPanjshir.Mammyhadnailed up a poster of him inher room. Massoud'shandsome, thoughtful face,eyebrow cocked andtrademarkpakoltilted, wouldbecome ubiquitous in Kabul.His soulfulblackeyeswouldgaze back from billboards,walls, storefront windows,from little flags mounted on
For Mammy, this was theday she had longed for. Thisbrought to fruition all thoseyearsofwaiting.
At last, she could end hervigils,andhersonscouldrestinpeace.
The day after Najibullah
surrendered, Mammy rosefrom bed a newwoman. Forthefirsttimeinthefiveyearssince Ahmad and Noor hadbecomeshaheed,she didn'twear black. She put on acobalt blue linen dress withwhitepolkadots.Shewashedthewindows,sweptthefloor,aired the house, took a longbath. Her voice was shrillwithmerriment.
"A party is in order," she
declared-She sent Laila toinvite neighbors. "Tell themwe're having a big lunchtomorrow!"
In the kitchen, Mammystood looking around, handson her hips, and said, withfriendly reproach, "Whathaveyoudonetomykitchen,Laila?Wboy.Everythingisinadifferentplace."
pans around, theatrically, asthoughshewerelayingclaimto them anew, restaking herterritory, now that she wasback. Laila stayed out of herway. It was best. Mammycouldbeasindomitableinherfits of euphoria as in herattacks of rage. Withunsettling energy, Mammyset about cooking:aush soupwith kidney beans and drieddill,kofia, steaming hotmaniudrenched with fresh yogurt
"You're plucking youreyebrows," Mammy said, asshe was opening a largeburlap sack of rice by thekitchencounter.
Mammy poured rice fromthesackintoalargeblackpotof water. She rolled up hersleevesandbeganstirring.
"Hisfather'sbeenill,"Lailasaid "How old is he nowanyway?"
"I don't know. Sixties, Iguess."
"Not really aboyanymore,though, is he? Sixteen.Almost a man. Don't youthink?"
"What are you getting at,Mammy?"
"Nothing," Mammy said,smilinginnocently."Nothing.
It's just that you…Ah,nothing. I'd better not sayanyway."
"I see you want to," Lailasaid, irritated by thiscircuitous,playfulaccusation.
"Well."Mammy foldedherhands on the rim of the pot.Laila spotted an unnatural,almost rehearsed, quality totheway she said "Well" andto this folding of hands. She
"Itwasonethingwhenyouwere little kids runningaround. No harm in that. Itwas charming- But now.Now. Inoticeyou'rewearingabra,Laila."
"And you could have toldme,bytheway,aboutthebra.I didn't know. I'm
disappointed you didn't tellme." Sensing her advantage,Mammypressedon.
"Anyway,thisisn'taboutmeor thebra. It'saboutyouandTariq. He's a boy, you see,and, as such, what does hecare about reputation? Butyou?Thereputationofagirl,especially one as pretty asyou,isadelicatething,Laila.Like a mynah bird in yourhands.Slackenyourgripand
"And what about all yourwall climbing, the sneakingaround with Babi in theorchards?"Lailasaid,pleasedwithherquickrecovery.
"Wewerecousins.Andwemarried. Has this boy askedforyourhand?"
"He's a friend. Arqfiq. It'snot like that between us,"
Laila said, soundingdefensive, and not veryconvincing. "He's like abrother to me," she added,misguidedly. And she knew,even before a cloud passedover Mammy's face and herfeatures darkened, that she'dmadeamistake.
"Thathe is not," Mammysaid flatly. "You will notliken that one-leggedcarpenter's boy to your
brothers. There isno one likeyourbrothers."
Mammysighed through thenoseandclenchedherteeth.
"Anyway,"sheresumed,butwithout the coylightheadedness of a fewmoments ago, "what I'mtrying to say is that if you're
Laila opened her mouth tosay something. It wasn't thatMammy didn't have a point.Laila knew that the days ofinnocent, unhinderedfrolicking in the streets withTariq had passed. For sometimenow,Lailahadbeguntosenseanewstrangenesswhenthe two of them were out inpublic. An awareness ofbeing looked at, scrutinized,
whispered about, that Lailahad never felt before.Andwouldn't have felt evennowbut forone fundamentalfact:ShehadfallenforTariq.Hopelessly and desperately.When he was near, shecouldn't help but beconsumed with the mostscandalous thoughts, of hislean, bare body entangledwith hers. Lying in bed atnight, she pictured himkissingherbelly,wonderedat
thesoftnessofhislips,atthefeelofhishandsonherneck,herchest,herback,andlowerstill. When she thought ofhim this way, she wasovertakenwithguilt,butalsowith a peculiar, warmsensation that spread upwardfromher belly until it felt asifherfacewereglowingpink.
No. Mammy had a point.More than she knew, in fact.Laila suspected that some, if
not most, of the neighborswere already gossiping abouther and Tariq. Laila hadnoticed the sly grins, wasaware of the whispers in theneighborhood that the twoofthem were a couple. Theother day, for instance, sheand Tariq were walking upthe street together whenthey'd passed Rasheed, theshoemaker, with his burqa-cladwife,Mariam,intow.Ashe'dpassedbythem,Rasheed
hadplayfully said, "If it isn'tLailiandMajnoon,"referringto the star-crossed lovers ofNezami's popular twelfth-century romantic poem-aFarsi version ofRomeo andJuliet,Babi said, though headdedthatNezamihadwrittenhistaleofill-fatedloversfourcenturiesbeforeShakespeare.
Mammy hadn't earned theright to make it. It wouldhave been one thing if Babihad raised this issue. ButMammy? All those years ofaloofness, of cooping herselfupandnotcaringwhereLailawent andwhomshe sawandwhat she thought…It wasunfair.Lailafeltlikeshewasnobetter than these pots andpans,somethingthatcouldgoneglected, then laid claim to,at will, whenever the mood
But this was a big day, animportantday,forallofthem.It would be petty to spoil itover this. In the spirit ofthings,Lailaletitpass.
"Good!" Mammy said."That's resolved, then. Now,where is Hakim? Where, ohwhere, is that sweet little
Itwasadazzling,cloudlessday, perfect for a party. Themen sat on rickety foldingchairsintheyard.Theydrankteaandsmokedandtalkedinloud bantering voices aboutthe Mujahideen's plan. FromBabi, Laila had learned theoutlineofit:Afghanistanwasnow called the Islamic State
of Afghanistan. An IslamicJihad Council, formed inPeshawar by several of theMujahideen factions, wouldoversee things for twomonths, led by SibghatullahMojadidi. This would befollowedthenbyaleadershipcouncil led byRabbani,whowould take over for fourmonths. During those sixmonths, aloyajirga would beheld, a grand council ofleaders and elders, who
would form an interimgovernmenttoholdpowerfortwo years, leading up todemocraticelections.
Oneofthemenwasfanningskewersoflambsizzlingovera makeshift grill Babi andTariq's father were playing agameofchessintheshadeofthe old pear tree.Their faceswere scrunched up inconcentration. Tariq wassitting at the board too, in
turns watching the match,then listening in on thepolitical chat at the adjacenttable.
Thewomengathered in thelivingroom,thehallway,andthe kitchen. They chatted asthey hoisted their babies andexpertlydodged,withminuteshifts of their hips, thechildren tearing after eachother around the house. AnUstad Sarahangghazal blared
Laila was in the kitchen,making carafes ofdogh withGiti. Giti was no longer asshy, or as serious, as before.For several months now, theperpetual severe scowl hadcleared from her brow. Shelaughed openly these days,morefrequently,and-itstruckLaila-a bit flirtatiously. Shehaddoneawaywith thedrabponytails, let her hair grow,
and streaked it with redhighlights. Laila learnedeventually that the impetusforthistransformationwasaneighteen-year-old boy whoseattentionGitihadcaught.HisnamewasSabir,andhewasagoalkeeper on Giti's olderbrother'ssoccerteam.
"Oh, he has the mosthandsome smile, and thisthick, thick black hair!" Gitihad toldLaila.No one knew
about their attraction, ofcourse.Giti had secretlymethim twice for tea, fifteenminuteseachtime,atasmallteahouseon theother sideoftown,inTaimani.
"He's going to ask for myhand, Laila! Maybe as earlyas this summer. Can youbelieveit?IswearIcan'tstopthinkingabouthim."
By the time we'retwenty,Hasina used tosay,Giti and I, we'll havepushed out four, five kidseach Bui you, Laila, you'1Imake m two dummiesproud. You 're going to besomebody. I know one dayI'll pick up a newspaper andfind your picture on the
Gitiwas beside Laila now,chopping cucumbers, with adreamy, far-off look on herface.
Mammywasnearby, inherbrilliant summer dress,peeling boiled eggs withWajma, the midwife, andTariq'smother.
"I'm going to present
CommanderMassoud with apictureofAhmadandNoor,"Mammy was saying toWajmaasWajmanoddedandtried to look interested andsincere.
"Hepersonallyoversaw theburial. He said a prayer attheirgrave.It'llbeatokenofthanks for his decency."Mammy cracked anotherboiled egg. "I hear he's areflective, honorable man. I
All around them, womenbolted in and out of thekitchen, carried out bowlsofqurma, platters ofmasiawa,loavesofbread,andarrangedit all onthesofrah spread ontheliving-roomfloor.
Everyonceinawhile,Tariqsauntered in. He picked atthis,nibbledonthat.
"Out, out, out," criedWajma.
Tariqsmiledatthewomen'sgood-humored shooing. Heseemedtotakepleasureinnotbeing welcome here, ininfecting this femaleatmosphere with his half-grinning, masculineirreverence.
Lailadidherbestnottolookat him, not to give thesewomen any more gossipfodder than they already hadSo she kept her eyes downand said nothing to him, butshe remembered a dreamshe'dhadafewnightsbefore,ofhis faceandhers, togetherin a mirror, beneath a soft,greenveil.Andgrainsofrice,dropping from his hair,bouncing off the glass withalink.
Tariq reached to sample amorsel of veal cooked withpotatoes.
"Hobacha!"Gitislappedtheback of his hand. Tariq stoleitanywayandlaughed.
Hestoodalmostafoottallerthan Laila now. He shaved.His face was leaner, moreangular. His shoulders hadbroadened. Tariq liked towear pleated trousers, black
shiny loafers, and short-sleeve shirts that showed offhis newly muscular arms-compliments of an old, rustyset of barbells that he lifteddailyinhisyard.Hisfacehadlately adopted an expressionof playful contentiousness.He had taken to a self-consciouscockingofhisheadwhenhespoke,slightlytotheside, and to arching oneeyebrow when he laughed.He let his hair growandhad
fallenintothehabitoftossingthe floppy locks often andunnecessarily. The corrupthalfgrinwasanewthingtoo.
The last time Tariq wasshooedoutofthekitchen,hismother caught Laila stealinga glance at him.Laila's heartjumped, and her eyesflutteredguiltily.Shequicklyoccupied herselfwith tossingthe chopped cucumber intothepitcherofsalted,watered-
down yogurt. But she couldsense Tariq's motherwatching, her knowing,approvinghalfsmile.
The men filled their platesand glasses and took theirmeals to the yard.Once theyhad taken their share, thewomen and children settledon theflooraround thesofrahandate.
It was afterfat sofrah was
cleared and the plates werestacked in the kitchen, whenthe frenzyof teamaking andrememberingwho tookgreenand who black started, thatTariqmotionedwithhisheadandslippedoutthedoor.
Laila waited five minutes,thenfollowed.
Shefoundhimthreehousesdown the street, leaningagainst the wall at the
entranceofanarrow-mouthedalley between two adjacenthouses.Hewas humming anold Pashto song, by UstadAwalMir:
Dazemazibawaian,dazema dada waian. This is ourbeautiful land, this is ourbelovedland.
And he was smoking,anothernewhabit,whichhe'dpickedupfromtheguysLaila
spotted him hanging aroundwith these days. Lailacouldn't stand them, thesenew friends of Tariq's. Theyall dressed the same way,pleated trousers, and tightshirts that accentuated theirarmsandchest.Theyallworetoo much cologne, and theyall smoked. They struttedaround the neighborhood ingroups, joking, laughingloudly, sometimes evencalling after girls, with
identical stupid, self-satisfiedgrins on their faces. One ofTariq'sfriends,onthebasisofthe most passing ofresemblances to SylvesterStallone,insistedhebecalledRambo.
"Your mother would killyou if she knew about yoursmoking,"Lailasaid,lookingone way, then the other,beforeslippingintothealley.
"But she doesn't," he said.He moved aside to makeroom.
"Who is going to tell?You?"
Laila tappedher foot. "Tellyour secret to the wind, butdon't blame it for telling thetrees."
Tariq smiled, the oneeyebrow arched. "Who saidthat?"
He shook his head no andcrossed his arms. Thiswas anewentryinhisrepertoireofposes:back to thewall, arms
crossed, cigarette danglingfromthecornerofhismouth,hisgoodlegcasuallybent.
"You lookkhila, likeahalf-wit."
"Youcan'tbeboth."Hetookanother drag and squintedthrough the smoke. "I'll betthey'retalkingaboutusnow."
In Laila's head, Mammy's
voice rang out.Like amynahbird in your hands. Slackenyour grip and away it flies.Guilt bore its teeth into her.ThenLailashutoffMammy'svoice. Instead, she savoredthe way Tariq had saidus.How thrilling, howconspiratorial, it soundedcoming from him. And howreassuring to hear him say itlike that-casually,naturally.Us.Itacknowledgedtheir connection, crystallized
"Thatwe're canoeing downthe River of Sin," he said."Eating a slice of ImpietyCake."
"Riding the Rickshaw ofWickedness?" Laila chimedin.
They both laughed. ThenTariq remarked that her hairwasgettinglonger."It'snice,"he said Laila hoped shewasn't blushing- "Youchangedthesubject."
"The empty-headed girlswhothinkyou'resexy."
"That I only have eyes foryou."
Laila swooned inside. Shetried to readhis facebutwasmet by a look that wasindecipherable: the cheerful,cretinous grin at odds withthe narrow, half-desperatelook in his eyes. A cleverlook, calculated to fallprecisely at the midpoint
between mockery andsincerity.
Tariq crushed his cigarettewiththeheelofhisgoodfoot."Sowhat do you think aboutallthis?"
"Who's the half-wit now?Imeant theMujahideen,Laila.TheircomingtoKabul."
She started to tell himsomething Babi had said,about the troublesomemarriage of guns and ego,whensheheardacommotioncomingfromthehouse.Loudvoices.Screaming.
There was a melee in the
yard.Inthemiddleofitweretwo snarling men, rolling onthe ground, a knife betweenthem.Lailarecognizedoneofthemasamanfromthetablewho had been discussingpoliticsearlier.Theotherwasthe man who had beenfanning the kebab skewers.Several men were trying topull them apart. Babi wasn'tamongthem.Hestoodbythewall, at a safe distance fromthe fight, with Tariq's father,
From the excited voicesaround her, Laila caughtsnippetsthatsheputtogether:The fellow at the politicstable, a Pashtun, had calledAhmad Shah Massoud atraitor for "making a deal"withtheSovietsinthe1980s.The kebabman, aTajik, hadtaken offense and demandedaretraction.ThePashtunhadrefused. The Tajik had said
that if not for Massoud, theotherman's sisterwould stillbe "giving it" to Sovietsoldiers. They had come toblows.Oneof themhad thenbrandishedaknife; therewasdisagreementastowho.
Withhorror,Laila saw thatTariqhadthrownhimselfintothescuffle.Shealsosawthatsome of the peacemakerswere now throwing punchesoftheirown.Shethoughtshe
Later that evening, Lailathoughtofhowthemeleehadtoppled over, with menfallingontopofoneanother,amid yelps and cries andshouts and flying punches,and, in the middle of it, agrimacing Tariq, his hairdisheveled, his leg comeundone,tryingtocrawlout.
The leadership councilwasformed prematurely. Itelected Rabbani president.The other factionscriednepotism. Massoudcalledforpeaceandpatience.
Hekmatyar, who had beenexcluded, was incensed. TheHazaras, with their longhistory of being oppressed
Insultswerehurled.Fingerspointed. Accusations flew.Meetingswere angrily calledoff and doors slammed. Thecity held its breath. In themountains, loadedmagazinessnappedintoKalashnikovs.
The Mujahideen, armed tothe teeth but now lacking acommon enemy, had foundtheenemyineachother.
Kabul's day of reckoninghadcomeatlast.
Andwhentherocketsbeganto rain down on Kabul,peopleranforcover.Mammydidtoo,literally.Shechangedinto black again,went to herroom, shut the curtains, andpulled the blanket over herhead.
It'sthewhistling,"LailasaidtoTariq,"thedamnwhistling,I hate more than anything"Tariqnoddedknowingly.
It wasn't so much thewhistlingitself,Lailathoughtlater,butthesecondsbetween
thestartofitandimpact.Thebriefandinterminabletimeoffeeling suspended. The notknowing.Thewaiting.Likeadefendant about to hear theverdict.
Oftenithappenedatdinner,when she and Babi were atthe table. When it started,theirheadssnappedup.Theylistened to the whistling,forks in midair, unchewedfood in their mouths. Laila
saw the reflection of theirhalf-lit faces in the pitch-blackwindow, their shadowsunmoving on the wall. Thewhistling. Then the blast,blissfullyelsewhere,followedbyanexpulsionofbreathandthe knowledge that they hadbeen spared for now whilesomewhere else, amid criesandchokingcloudsofsmoke,there was a scrambling, abarehandedfrenzyofdigging,of pulling from the debris,
what remained of a sister, abrother,agrandchild.
But the flip side of beingspared was the agony ofwondering who hadn't. Aftereveryrocketblast,Lailaracedto the street, stammering aprayer,certainthat, thistime,surely this time, itwasTariqthey would find buriedbeneath the rubble andsmoke.
At night, Laila lay in bedandwatchedthesuddenwhiteflashes reflected in herwindow. She listened to therattling of automatic gunfireand counted the rocketswhining overhead as thehouse shook and flakes ofplaster rained down on herfrom the ceiling. Somenights, when the light ofrocket fire was so bright aperson could read a book byit,sleepnevercame.And,ifit
did, Laila's dreams weresuffused with fire anddetached limbs and themoaningofthewounded.
Morning brought no relief.The muezzin's call fornamazrangout,andtheMujahideenset down their guns, facedwest, and prayed. Then therugs were folded, the gunsloaded, and the mountainsfired on Kabul, and Kabulfired back at the mountains,
as Laila and the rest of thecity watched as helpless asold Santiago watching thesharks take bites out of hisprizefish.
EverywhereLaila"went,shesawMassoud'smen.Shesawthem roam the streets andeveryfewhundredyardsstopcarsforquestioning.Theysatand smoked atop tanks,
dressed in their fatigues andubiquitouspakols.Theypeeked at passersby frombehind stacked sandbags atintersections.
Not that Laila went outmuch anymore. And, whenshe did, she was alwaysaccompanied by Tariq, whoseemedtorelishthischivalricduty.
"I bought a gun," he said
one day. They were sittingoutside, on the groundbeneath the pear tree inLaila's yard. He showed her.He said it was asemiautomatic, a Beretta. ToLaila, itmerely looked blackanddeadly.
"I don't like it," she said."Gunsscareme."
Tariq turned the magazineoverinhishand
"Theyfoundthreebodiesina house in Karteh-Seh lastweek," he said. "Did youhear?Sisters.All three rapedTheir throats slashed.Someonehadbitten theringsoff their fingers. You couldtell,theyhadteethmarks-"
"Idon'tmeantoupsetyou,"Tariq said "But I just…Ifeelbettercarryingthis."
He was her lifeline to thestreets now. He heard theword ofmouth and passed iton to her. Tariqwas the onewho told her, for instance,that militiamen stationed inthemountainssharpenedtheirmarksmanship-and settledwagers over saidmarksmanship-by shootingcivilians down below, men,women, children, chosen atrandom.Hetoldherthattheyfired rockets at cars but, for
somereason, left taxisalone-which explained to Laila therecentrashofpeoplesprayingtheircarsyellow.
Tariq explained to her thetreacherous, shiftingboundaries within Kabul.Laila learned from him, forinstance, that this road,up tothe secondacacia treeon theleft,belongedtoonewarlord;that the next four blocks,ending with the bakery shop
next to the demolishedpharmacy, was anotherwarlord's sector; and that ifshe crossed that street andwalked half amilewest, shewould find herself in theterritory of yet anotherwarlord and, therefore, fairgameforsniperfire.Andthiswas what Mammy's heroeswere called now. Warlords.Laila heard themcallediofangdar too.Riflemen. Others still called
them Mujahideen, but, whenthey did, theymade a face-asneering, distasteful face-theword reeking of deepaversionanddeepscorn.Likeaninsult.
Tariqsnappedthemagazineback into his handgun."Doyouhaveitinyou?"Lailasaid."Towhat?"
"To use this thing. To killwithit."
Tariqtuckedthegunintothewaist ofhisdenims.Thenhesaid a thing both lovely andterrible. "For you," he said."I'd kill with it for you,Laila."
He slid closer to her andtheir hands brushed, once,then again. When Tariq'sfingers tentatively began toslip intohers,Laila let them.Andwhensuddenlyheleanedover and pressed his lips to
At that moment, all ofMammy's talk of reputationsand mynah birds soundedimmaterial to Laila. Absurd,even. In themidst of all thiskilling and looting, all thisugliness, it was a harmlessthingtositherebeneathatreeandkissTariq.Asmallthing.An easily forgivableindulgence. So she let himkiss her, andwhen he pulled
back she leaned in andkissedhim, heart pounding inherthroat,herfacetingling,afire burning in the pit of herbelly.
In June of that yeah, 1992,there was heavy fighting inWest Kabul between thePashtunforcesofthewarlordSayyafandtheHazarasoftheWahdat faction. The shelling
knocked down power lines,pulverized entire blocks ofshopsandhomes.Lailaheardthat Pashtunmilitiamenwereattacking Hazara households,breaking in and shootingentire families, executionstyle, and that Hazaras wereretaliating by abductingPashtun civilians, rapingPashtun girls, shellingPashtun neighborhoods, andkilling indiscriminately.Everyday,bodieswerefound
tied to trees, sometimesburned beyond recognition.Often,they'dbeenshotinthehead, had had their eyesgougedout, their tonguescutout.
"They'll work it out,"Mammy said. "This fightingistemporary.They'llsitdownandfiguresomethingout."
"Fariba, all thesepeopleknow is war," saidBabi. "They learned to walkwithamilkbottleinonehandandagunintheother."
"Whozrtyou to say?"Mammy shot back. "Didyoufightjihad?Didyouabandoneverything you had and riskyour life? If not for theMujahideen,we'd still be theSoviets' servants, remember.And now you'd have us
"We aren't the ones doingthebetraying,Fariba."
"You go, then. Take yourdaughterand runaway.Sendme a postcard. But peace iscoming, and I, for one, amgoingtowaitforit."
The streets became sounsafe that Babi did anunthinkable thing: He had
He took over the teachingduties himself. Laila wentintohisstudyeverydayaftersundown, and, as Hekmatyarlaunched his rockets atMassoud from the southernoutskirtsofthecity,Babiandshe discussedtheghazals ofHafez and the works of thebeloved Afghan poet UstadKhalilullah Khalili. Babitaught her to derive the
quadratic equation, showedherhowtofactorpolynomialsand plot parametric curves.When he was teaching, Babiwas transformed. In hiselement, amid his books, helooked taller to Laila. Hisvoice seemed to rise from acalmer, deeper place, and hedidn't blink nearly as much.Lailapicturedhimashemusthave been once, erasing hisblackboard with gracefulswipes, looking over a
student's shoulder, fatherlyandattentive.
But it wasn't easy to payattention. Laila kept gettingdistracted.
"What is the area of apyramid?" Babi would ask,and all Laila could think ofwas the fullness of Tariq'slips,theheatofhisbreathonhermouth,herownreflectioninhishazeleyes.She'dkissed
himtwicemoresincethetimebeneaththetree,longer,morepassionately, and, shethought, less clumsily. Bothtimes, she'dmet him secretlyin the dim alley where he'dsmokedacigarettethedayofMammy's lunch party. Thesecond time, she'd let himtouchherbreast.
"Sorry, Babi. I was, uh…Let's see. Pyramid. Pyramid.One-thirdtheareaofthebasetimestheheight."
Babinoddeduncertainly,hisgaze lingering on her, andLaila thought of Tariq'shands, squeezing her breast,slidingdownthesmallofherback, as the two of them
OnedaYthatsamemonthofJune,Gitiwaswalkinghomefrom school with twoclassmates.Onlythreeblocksfrom Giti's house, a strayrocket struck the girls. Laterthatterribleday,Lailalearnedthat Nila, Giti's mother, hadrun up and down the streetwhere Giti was killed,
collecting pieces of herdaughter's flesh in an apron,screechinghysterically.Giti'sdecomposing right foot, stillin its nylon sock and purplesneaker,wouldbefoundonarooftoptwoweekslater.
AtGiti'sfaiiha, the day afterthekillings,Lailasatstunnedin a roomful of weepingwomen. This was the firsttime that someone whomLaila had known, been close
to, loved, had died. Shecouldn't get around theunfathomablerealitythatGitiwasn't alive anymore. Giti,with whom Laila hadexchanged secret notes inclass, whose fingernails shehadpolished,whosechinhairshe had plucked withtweezers. Giti, who wasgoing to marry Sabir thegoalkeeper. Giti wasdead.Dead. Blown to pieces.At last, Laila began to weep
for her friend. And all thetearsthatshehadn'tbeenableto shed at her brothers'funeralcamepouringdown.
JLailacouldhardlymove,asthough cement had solidifiedin every one of her joints.There was a conversationgoingon,andLailaknewthatshewas at one endof it, butshe felt removed from it, asthough she were merely
eavesdropping. As Tariqtalked,Lailapicturedher lifeas a rotted rope, snapping,unraveling, the fibersdetaching,fallingaway.
It was a hot, muggyafternoon that August of1992, and they were in theliving room of Laila's house.Mammy had had astomachache all day, and,minutes before, despite therockets that Hekmatyar was
launching from the south,Babi had taken her to see adoctor. And here was Tariqnow, seated beside Laila onthe couch, looking at theground, hands between hisknees.
Not the neighborhood. NotKabul. But Afghanistanaltogether.
"Where? Where will yougo?"
"Pakistan first. Peshawar.Then I don't know. MaybeHindustan.Iran."
"Afewdays.Iwasgoingtotellyou,Laila, I swear,but Icouldn't bring myself to. Iknewhowupsetyou'dbe."
"It'smyfather.Hisheartcan'ttake it anymore, all thisfightingandkilling."
Lailaburiedher face inherhands, a bubble of dreadfillingherchest.
She should have seen thiscoming, she thought. Almost
everyone she knew hadpacked their things and left.The neighborhood had beenall but drained of familiarfaces, and now, only fourmonths after fighting hadbroken out between theMujahideen factions, Lailahardly recognized anybodyon the streets anymore.Hasina's family had fled inMay, off to Tehran. Wajmaand her clan had gone toIslamabad that same month.
Giti'sparentsandhersiblingsleft inJune,shortlyafterGitiwaskilled.Laila didn't knowwhere they had gone-sheheard a rumor that they hadheaded for Mashad, in Iran.Afterpeopleleft,theirhomessat unoccupied for a fewdays, then either militiamentookthemorstrangersmovedin.
"And my mother is not ayoung woman anymore," hewassaying."They'resoafraidall the time. Laila, look atme."
AgroancameoutofLaila.Then a wail. And then shewas crying, and when hewent to wipe her cheekwith
the pad of his thumb sheswipedhishandaway.Itwasselfish and irrational, but shewas furious with him forabandoning her, Tariq, whowas like an extension of her,whose shadow sprung besidehers in every memory. Howcould he leave her? Sheslapped him. Then sheslappedhimagainandpulledathishair,andhehadtotakeherbythewrists,andhewassayingsomethingshecouldn't
make out, he was saying itsoftly, reasonably, and,somehow, they ended upbrow to brow, nose to nose,andshecouldfeeltheheatofhisbreathonherlipsagain.
And when, suddenly, heleanedin,shedidtoo.
In the coming days andweeks,Lailawould scramble
frantically tocommit it all tomemory, what happenednext-Likeanartloverrunningoutofaburningmuseum,shewould grab whatever shecould-a look, a whisper, amoan-to salvage fromperishing, to preserve. Buttime is the most unforgivingof fires, and she couldn't, inthe end, save it all Still, shehad these: that first,tremendous pang of paindown below. The slant of
sunlight on the rug.Her heelgrazing the cold hardness ofhis leg, lying beside them,hastilyunstrapped.Herhandscupping his elbows. Theupside-down, mandolin-shapedbirthmarkbeneathhiscollarbone, glowing red. Hisface hovering over hers. Hisblack curls dangling, ticklingher lips, her chin. The terrorthat they would bediscovered. The disbelief attheir own boldness, their
courage. The strange andindescribable pleasure,interlacedwith thepain.Andthe look, themyriad oflooks,on Tariq: of apprehension,tenderness, apology,embarrassment, but mostly,mostly,ofhunger.
There was frenzy after.Shirts hurriedly buttoned,belts buckled, hair finger-
combed.They sat, then, theysat beside each other,smelling of each other, facesflushed pink, both of themstunned, both of themspeechless before theenormity of what had justhappened. What they haddone.
Laila saw three drops ofblood on the rug,her blood,and pictured her parentssitting on this couch later,
oblivious to the sin that shehadcommitted.Andnow theshame set in, and the guilt,and,upstairs,theclocktickedon,impossiblyloudtoLaila'sears. Like a judge's gavelpounding again and again,condemningher.
Then Tariq said, "Comewithme."
She, Tariq, and his parents,setting out together-Packingtheirbags, climbingaboardabus, leaving behind all thisviolence, going to findblessings, or trouble, andwhichever came they wouldface it together. The bleakisolation awaiting her, themurderousloneliness,itdidn'thavetobe.
They would have moreafternoonslikethis.
Forthefirsttimesincetheywere on the floor, she raisedher eyes to meet his. Shesearched his face. Therewasno playfulness this time. Hislook was one of conviction,of guileless yet ironcladearnestness.
"Let me marry you, Laila.Today.Wecouldgetmarriedtoday."
Hebegantosaymore,aboutgoing to amosque, finding amullah,apairofwitnesses,aquicknikka.…
But Laila was thinking ofMammy, as obstinate anduncompromising as the
Mujahideen, the air aroundher choked with rancor anddespair,andshewasthinkingof Babi, who had longsurrendered, who made sucha sad, pathetic opponent toMammy.
Sometimes…I feel likeyou'reallIhave,Laila.
These were thecircumstancesof her life, theinescapabletruthsofit.
"I'll ask Kaka Hakim foryour hand He'll give us hisblessing,Laila,Iknowit."
He was right. Babi would.Butitwouldshatterhim.
Tariqwasstillspeaking,hisvoice hushed, then high,beseeching, then reasoning;his face hopeful, thenstricken.
Howlonghadshewaitedtohear those words from him?How many times had shedreamedthemuttered?There
they were, spoken at last,andtheironycrushedher.
"It'smyfatherIcan'tleave,"Lailasaid"I'mallhehasleft.His heart couldn't take iteither."
Tariq knew this. He knewshe could notwipe away theobligations of her life anymorethanhecouldhis,butitwent on, his pleadings andher rebuttals, his proposalsand her apologies, his tearsandhers.
In the end, Laila had tomakehimleave.
At the door, shemade himpromise to go without good-byes. She closed the door onhim. Laila leaned her backagainst it,shakingagainsthispounding fists, one armgrippingherbellyandahandacrosshermouth,ashespokethrough the door andpromisedthathewouldcomeback, that he would come
back forher.She stood thereuntil he tired, until he gaveup, and then she listened tohis uneven footsteps untiltheyfaded,untilallwasquiet,save for the gunfire crackinginthehillsandherownheartthudding in her belly, hereyes,herbones.
It was, by far, the hottestday of the year. Themountains trapped the bone-scorchingheat,stifledthecitylike smoke. Power had beenout fordays.AlloverKabul,electric fans sat idle, almostmockinglyso.
Lailawas lying still on theliving-room couch, sweatingthrough her blouse. Everyexhaledbreathburned the tipofhernose.Shewasawareofher parents talking inMammy's room. Two nightsago,andagain lastnight,shehad awakened and thoughtshe heard their voicesdownstairs. They weretalking every day now, eversincethebullet,eversincethenewholeinthegate.
Outside, the far-offboomofartillery, then, more closely,the stammering of a longstringofgunfire,followedbyanother.
InsideLailatooabattlewasbeing waged: guilt on oneside, partnered with shame,and, on the other, theconviction that what she andTariq had done was notsinful; that it had beennatural, good,beautiful, even
inevitable, spurred by theknowledge that they mightneverseeeachotheragain.
Laila rolled to her side onthe couch now and tried toremember something:At onepoint,whentheywereonthefloor, Tariq had lowered hisforehead on hers. Then hehad panted something,eitherAm I hurting you? orIsthishurtingyou?
Only two weeks since hehad left, and it was alreadyhappening- Time, bluntingthe edges of those sharpmemories. Laila bore downmentally.What had he said?Itseemedvital,suddenly,that
Laila closed hereyes.Concentrated.
With the passing of time,shewould slowly tire of thisexercise. She would find itincreasingly exhausting toconjure up, to dust off, toresuscitate once again whatwas long dead. There wouldcome a day, in fact, yearslater, when Laila would no
longerbewailhisloss.Ornotas relentlessly; not nearly.There would come a daywhen the details of his facewould begin to slip frommemory's grip, whenoverhearing a mother on thestreet call after her child byTariq'snamewouldnolongercut her adrift. Shewould notmiss him as she did now,whentheacheofhisabsencewas her unremittingcompanion-like the phantom
Excepteveryonceinalongwhile, when Laila was agrownwoman,ironingashirtor pushing her children on aswing set, something trivial,maybethewarmthofacarpetbeneathherfeetonahotdayor the curve of a stranger'sforehead, would set off amemory of that afternoontogether. And it would allcome rushing back. The
spontaneity of it. Theirastonishing imprudence.Theirclumsiness.Thepainoftheact, thepleasureof it, thesadnessofit.Theheatoftheirentangledbodies.
Butthenitwouldpass.Themoment would pass. Leaveher deflated, feeling nothingbutavaguerestlessness.
She decided that he hadsaidAmi hurting you? Yes.That wasit. Laila was happythatshe'dremembered
Then Babi was in thehallway, calling her namefrom the top of the stairs,asking her to come upquickly.
"She's agreed!"he said, hisvoice tremulous withsuppressed excitement-
"We're leaving, Laila. Allthree of us. We'releavingKabul."
InMammy'sroom,thethreeof them sat on thebed.Outside, rockets werezipping acrossthe sky asHekmatyar's andMassoud'sforces fought andfought. Laila knew thatsomewhere in the city
someone had justdied, andthat a pall of black smokewas hovering over somebuildingthathadcollapsedinapuffingmassofdust.Therewould be bodies to steparound in themorning.Somewould be collected. Othersnot. ThenKabul's dogs,whohad developed a taste forhumanmeat,wouldfeast.
All the same, Laila had anurge to run through those
streets.She could barelycontainherownhappiness.Ittookefforttosit,tonotshriekwithjoy.Babisaidtheywouldgo to Pakistan first, to applyforvisas. Pakistan, whereTariq was! Tariq was onlygone seventeen days, Lailacalculated excitedly. If onlyMammy had made up hermindseventeen days earlier,theycouldhave left together.She would have been withTariq right now! But that
didn'tmatter now. They weregoingto Peshawar-she,Mammy, and Babi-andtheywouldfindTariqandhisparents there. Surely theywould. They would processtheir paperwork together.Then, who knew? Whoknew?Europe?
America? Maybe, as Babiwas always saying,somewherenearthesea…
Threedaysbefore,Lailahadgone outside for a breath ofair. She'd stood by the frontgates, leaning against them,whenshe'dheardaloudcrackandsomethinghadzippedbyher right ear, sending tinysplinters of wood flyingbefore her eyes. After Giti's
death, and the thousands ofrounds fired and myriadrockets that had fallen onKabul,itwasthesightofthatsingleroundholeinthegate,less than three fingers awayfrom where Laila's head hadbeen, that shook Mammyawake.Madeherseethatonewarhadcosthertwochildrenalready; this latest couldcostherherremainingone.
Ahmad and Noor smileddown. Laila watchedMammy's eyes bouncingnow,guiltily,fromonephotototheother.Asiflookingfortheir consent. Their blessing.Asifaskingforforgiveness.
"There's nothing left for ushere," Babi said. "Our sonsare gone, but we still haveLaila. We still have eachother,Fariba.Wecanmakeanewlife."
Babireachedacrossthebed.When he leaned to take herhands, Mammy let him. Onher face, a look ofconcession. Of resignation.Theyheldeachother'shands,lightly, and then they wereswaying quietly in anembrace.Mammy buried herfaceinhisneck.Shegrabbedahandfulofhisshirt.
For hours that night, theexcitement robbed Laila of
sleep. She lay in bed andwatched the horizon light upin garish shades of orangeand yellow. At some point,though, despite theexhilaration inside and thecrackof
They are on a ribbon of
beach, sittingon aquilt. It's achilly, overcast day,but it'swarmnexttoTariqundertheblanket draped over theirshoulders. She can see carsparkedbehindalowfenceofchippedwhitepaintbeneatharowofwindsweptpalmtrees.The wind makes her eyeswater and buries their shoesin sand, hurls knots of deadgrass from the curvedridgesofonedune toanother.They're watching sailboats
bob in the distance. Aroundthem, seagulls squawk andshiver in thewind.Thewindwhips up another spray ofsand off the shallow,windwardslopes. There is anoise then likea chant, andshe tellshimsomethingBabihad taught her years beforeaboutsingingsand.
He rubs at her eyebrow,wipesgrains of sand from it.She catches a flicker of the
band on his finger. It'sidenticalto hers -gold with asortofmazepatternetchedallthewayaround.
It's true,she tellshim.It's thefriction, of grain againstgrain. Listen. Hedoes. Hefrowns.Theywait.Theyhearit again. A groaning sound,whenthewindissoft,whenitblowshard,amewling,high-pitchedchorus.
* * *Babi said theyshouldtakeonlywhatwasabsolutelynecessary. They would selltherest.
"That should hold us inPeshawaruntilIfindwork."
For thenext twodays, theygathered items to be sold.Theyputtheminbigpiles.
toys.Lookingunder her bed,shefoundatinyyellowglasscowHasinahadpassedtoherduringrecessinfifthgrade.Aminiature-soccer-ball keychain,agiftfromGiti.Alittlewooden zebra on wheels. Aceramic astronaut she andTariqhadfoundonedayinagutter.She'dbeen six andheeight. They'd had a minorrow, Laila remembered, overwhichoneofthemhadfoundit.
Mammy too gathered herthings. There was areluctance inhermovements,and her eyes had a lethargic,farawaylookinthem.Shedidaway with her good plates,her napkins, all her jewelry-save for her wedding band-andmostofheroldclothes.
"You'renot selling this, areyou?" Laila said, liftingMammy's wedding dress. Itcascaded open onto her lap.
She touched the lace andribbonalongtheneckline,thehand-sewnseedpearlsonthesleeves.
Mammyshruggedand tookit from her. She tossed itbrusquelyonapileofclothes.Like ripping off a Band-Aidinonestroke,Lailathought.
It was Babi who had themostpainfultask.
Lailafoundhimstandinginhisstudy,a ruefulexpressiononhisfaceashesurveyedhisshelves. He was wearing asecondhand T-shirt with apictureofSanFrancisco'sredbridge on it. Thick fog rosefrom the whitecapped watersand engulfed the bridge'stowers.
"Youknow theoldbit,"hesaid. "You're on a desertedisland. You can have five
books.Whichdoyouchoose?I never thought I'd actuallyhaveto."
"We'll have to start you anewcollection,Babi."
"Mm."He smiled sadly. "Ican't believe I'm leavingKabul. Iwent toschoolhere,gotmyfirstjobhere,becamea father in this town. It'sstrange to think that I'll besleeping beneath another
"All day, this poem aboutKabul has been bouncingaround in my head. Saib-e-Tabrizi wrote it back in theseventeenthcentury,Ithink.Iused to know the wholepoem,butallIcanremembernowistwolines:
"One could not count the
moons that shimmer on herroofs, Or the thousandsplendid suns that hidebehindher-walls."
Lailalookedup,sawhewasweeping. She put an armaround his waist. "Oh, Babi.We'll come back. When thiswarisover.We'llcomebackto Kabul,inshallah. You'llsee."
Onthethirdmorning,Lailabegan moving the piles ofthings to the yard anddepositing them by the frontdoor.Theywouldfetchataxithen and take it all to apawnshop.
Lailakeptshufflingbetweenthe house and the yard, backand forth, carrying stacks ofclothes and dishes and boxafterboxofBabi'sbooks.Sheshould have been exhausted
bynoon,when themoundofbelongings by the front doorhad grown waist high. But,with each trip, sheknew thatshe was that much closer toseeingTariqagain, and,witheach trip, her legs becamemore sprightly, her armsmoretireless.
"We're going to need a bigtaxi."
Laila looked up. It was
Mammy calling down fromher bedroom upstairs. Shewas leaning out thewindow,restingherelbowsonthesill.The sun, bright and warm,caught in her graying hair,shoneonherdrawn,thinface.Mammy was wearing thesame cobalt blue dress shehadwornthedayofthelunchparty four months earlier, ayouthful dress meant for ayoung woman, but, for amoment, Mammy looked to
Laila like an oldwoman.Anoldwomanwithstringyarmsandsunkentemplesandsloweyes rimmed by darkenedcircles of weariness, analtogether different creaturefrom the plump, round-facedwoman beaming radiantlyfrom those grainy weddingphotos.
She could see Babi too, in
the living room stackingboxes of books atop eachother.
"Comeupwhenyou'redonewith those," Mammy said."We'll sit down for lunch.Boiled eggs and leftoverbeans."
Shethoughtsuddenlyofherdream. She and Tariq on a
quilt. The ocean. The wind.Thedunes.
What had it sounded like,she wondered now, thesingingsands?
Laila stopped. She saw agray lizard crawl out of acrack in the ground. Its headshot side to side. It blinked.Dartedunderarock.
Laila pictured the beach
again.Exceptnowthesingingwasallaround.Andgrowing.Louder and louder by themoment,higherandhigher.Itflooded her ears. Drownedeverythingelseout.Thegullswere feathered mimes now,opening and closing theirbeaks noiselessly, and thewaves were crashing withfoam and spray but no roar.The sands sang on.Screaming now. A soundlike…atinkling?
Not a tinkling. No. Awhistling.
Laila dropped the books atherfeet.Shelookeduptothesky. Shielded her eyes withonehand.
Somethinghotandpowerfulslammed into her frombehind.Itknockedheroutofher sandals. Lifted her up.And now she was flying,twisting and rotating in theair, seeing sky, then earth,then sky, then earth. A bigburning chunk of woodwhipped by. So did athousandshardsofglass,andit seemed to Laila that shecouldseeeachindividualoneflyingallaroundher,flipping
slowly end over end, thesunlight catching in each.Tiny,beautifulrainbows.
ThenLaila struck thewall.Crashed to the ground. Onher face and arms, a showerofdirtandpebblesandglass.The last thingshewasawareofwasseeingsomethingthudto the ground nearby. Abloody chunk of something.On it, the tip of a red bridgepokingthroughthickfog.
Shapes moving about. Afluorescent light shines fromtheceilingabove.Awoman'sface appears, hovers overhers.
Another face. This time aman's. His features seem
broad and droopy. His lipsmovebutmakenosound.AllLailahearsisringing.
Themanwaveshishandather. Frowns. His lips moveagain.
A glass of water. A pinkpill.
The woman again. Longface, narrow-set eyes. Shesays something. Laila can'thearanythingbuttheringing.But she can see the words,like thick black syrup,spilling out of the woman'smouth.
Her chest hurts. Her arms
Babi and she, perchedsomewhere high up. He ispointing to a field of barley.Ageneratorcomestolife.
The long-faced woman isstanding over her lookingdown.
Somewhere, an accordionplaying.
Mercifully, the pink pillagain. Then a deep hush. Adeephush falls overeverything.
"Do you know what hashappened?"