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But where do I belong? What am I going to do now?
I'm all you have in this world, Mariam, and when I'm gone you'll have nothing. You'll have nothing. You are nothing!
Like the wind through the willows around the kolba, gusts of an inexpressible blackness kept passing through Mariam.
On Mariam's second full day at Jalil's house, a little girl came into the room.
"I have to get something," she said.
Mariam sat up on the bed and crossed her legs, pulled the blanket on her lap.
The girl hurried across the room and opened the closet door. She fetched a square-shaped gray box.
"You know what this is?" she said. She opened the box. "It's called a gramophone. Gramo. Phone. It plays records. You know, music. A gramophone."
"You're Niloufar. You're eight."
The little girl smiled. She had Jalil's smile and his dimpled chin. "How did you know?"
Mariam shrugged. She didn't say to this girl that she'd once named a pebble after her.
"Do you want to hear a song?"
Mariam shrugged again.
Niloufar plugged in the gramophone. She fished a small record from a pouch beneath the box's lid. She put it on, lowered the needle. Music began to play.
I will use a flower petal for paper,
And write you the sweetest letter,
You are the sultan of my heart,
the sultan of my heart
"Do you know it?"
"It's from an Iranian film. I saw it at my father's cinema. Hey, do you want to see something?"
Before Mariam could answer, Niloufar had put her palms and forehead to the ground. She pushed with her soles and then she was standing upside down, on her head, in a three-point stance.
"Can you do that?" she said thickly.
Niloufar dropped her legs and pulled her blouse back down. "I could teach you," she said, pushing hair from her flushed brow. "So how long will you stay here?"
"I don't know."
"My mother says you're not really my sister like you say you are."
"I never said I was," Mariam lied.
"She says you did. I don't care. What I mean is, I don't mind if you did say it, or if you are my sister. I don't mind."
Mariam lay down. "I'm tired now."
"My mother says a jinn made your mother hang herself."
"You can stop that now," Mariam said, turning to her side. "The music, I mean."
Bibi jo came to see her that day too. It was raining by the time she came. She lowered her large body onto the chair beside the bed, grimacing.
"This rain, Mariam jo, it's murder on my hips. Just murder, I tell you. I hopeЕ Oh, now, come here, child. Come here to Bibi jo. Don't cry. There, now. You poor thing. Tsk. You poor, poor thing."
That night, Mariam couldn't sleep for a long time. She lay in bed looking at the sky, listening to the footsteps below, the voices muffled by walls and the sheets of rain punishing the window. When she did doze off, she was startled awake by shouting. Voices downstairs, sharp and angry. Mariam couldn't make out the words. Someone slammed a door.
The next morning, Mullah Faizullah came to visit her. When she saw her friend at the door, his white beard and his amiable, toothless smile, Mariam felt tears stinging the corners of her eyes again. She swung her feet over the side of the bed and hurried over. She kissed his hand as always and he her brow. She pulled him up a chair.
He showed her the Koran he had brought with him and opened it. "I figured no sense in skipping our routine, eh?"
"You know I don't need lessons anymore, Mullah sahib. You taught me every surrah and ayat in the Koran years ago."
He smiled, and raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I confess, then. I've been found out. But I can think of worse excuses to visit you."
"You don't need excuses. Not you."
"You're kind to say that, Mariam jo."
He passed her his Koran. As he'd taught her, she kissed it three times Ц touching it to her brow between each kiss Ц and gave it back to him.
"How are you, my girl?"
"I keep," Mariam began. She had to stop, feeling like a rock had lodged itself in her throat. "I keep thinking of what she said to me before I left. She-"
"Nay, nay, nay. "Mullah Faizullah put his hand on her knee. "Your mother, may Allah forgive her, was a troubled and unhappy woman, Mariam jo. She did a terrible thing to herself. To herself, to you, and also to Allah. He will forgive her, for He is all-forgiving, but Allah is saddened by what she did. He does not approve of the taking of life, be it another's or one's own, for He says that life is sacred. You see-" He pulled his chair closer, took Mariam's hand in both of his own. "You see, I knew your mother before you were born, when she was a little girl, and I tell you that she was unhappy then. The seed for what she did was planted long ago, I'm afraid. What I mean to say is that this was not your fault. It wasn't your fault, my girl."
"I shouldn't have left her. I should have-"
"You stop that. These thoughts are no good, Mariam jo. You hear me, child? No good. They will destroy you. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't your fault. No."
Mariam nodded, but as desperately as she wanted to she could not bring herself to believe him.
ONE AFTERNOON, a week later, there was a knock on the door, and a tall woman walked in. She was fair-skinned, had reddish hair and long fingers.
"I'm Afsoon," she said. "Niloufar's mother. Why don't you wash up, Mariam, and come downstairs?"
Mariam said she would rather stay in her room.
"No, na fahmidi, you don't understand. You need to come down. We have to talk to you. It's important."
They sat across from her, Jalil and his wives, at a long, dark brown table. Between them, in the center of the table, was a crystal vase of fresh marigolds and a sweating pitcher of water. The red-haired woman who had introduced herself as Niloufar's mother, Afsoon, was sitting on Jalil's right. The other two, Khadija and Nargis, were on his left. The wives each had on a flimsy black scarf, which they wore not on their heads but tied loosely around the neck like an afterthought. Mariam, who could not imagine that they would wear black for Nana, pictured one of them suggesting it, or maybe Jalil, just before she'd been summoned.
Afsoon poured water from the pitcher and put the glass before Mariam on a checkered cloth coaster. "Only spring and it's warm already," she said. She made a fanning motion with her hand.
"Have you been comfortable?" Nargis, who had a small chin and curly black hair, asked. "We hope you've been comfortable. ThisЕ ordealЕ must be very hard for you. So difficult."
The other two nodded. Mariam took in their plucked eyebrows, the thin, tolerant smiles they were giving her. There was an unpleasant hum in Mariam's head. Her throat burned. She drank some of the water.
Through the wide window behind Jalil, Mariam could see a row of flowering apple trees. On the wall beside the window stood a dark wooden cabinet. In it was a clock, and a framed photograph of Jalil and three young boys holding a fish. The sun caught the sparkle in the fish's scales. Jalil and the boys were grinning.
"Well," Afsoon began. "I Ц that is, we Ц have brought you here because we have some very good news to give you."
Mariam looked up.
She caught a quick exchange of glances between the women over Jalil, who slouched in his chair looking unseeingly at the pitcher on the table. It was Khadija, the oldest-looking of the three, who turned her gaze to Mariam, and Mariam had the impression that this duty too had been discussed, agreed upon, before they had called for her.
"You have a suitor," Khadija said.
Mariam's stomach fell. "A what?" she said through suddenly numb lips.
"A khastegar. A suitor. His name is Rasheed," Khadija went on. "He is a friend of a business acquaintance of your father's. He's a Pashtun, from Kandahar originally, but he lives in Kabul, in the Deh-Mazang district, in a two-story house that he owns."
Afsoon was nodding. "And he does speak Farsi, like us, like you. So you won't have to learn Pashto."
Mariam's chest was tightening. The room was reeling up and down, the ground shifting beneath her feet.
"He's a shoemaker," Khadija was saying now. "But not some kind of ordinary street-side moochi, no, no. He has his own shop, and he is one of the most sought-after shoemakers in Kabul He makes them for diplomats, members of the presidential family Ц that class of people. So you see, he will have no trouble providing for you."
Mariam fixed her eyes on Jalil, her heart somersaulting in her chest. "Is this true? What she's saying, is it true?"
But Jalil wouldn't look at her. He went on chewing the corner of his lower lip and staring at the pitcher.
"Now he is a little older than you," Afsoon chimed in. "But he can't be more thanЕ forty. Forty-five at the most. Wouldn't you say, Nargis?"
"Yes. But I've seen nine-year-old girls given to men twenty years older than your suitor, Mariam. We all have. What are you, fifteen? That's a good, solid marrying age for a girl." There was enthusiastic nodding at this. It did not escape Mariam that no mention was made of her half sisters Saideh or Naheed, both her own age, both students in the Mehri School in Herat, both with plans to enroll in Kabul University. Fifteen, evidently, was not a good, solid marrying age for them.
"What's more," Nargis went on, "he too has had a great loss in his life. His wife, we hear, died during childbirth ten years ago. And then, three years ago, his son drowned in a lake."
"It's very sad, yes. He's been looking for a bride the last few years but hasn't found anyone suitable."
"I don't want to," Mariam said. She looked at Jalil. "I don't want this. Don't make me." She hated the sniffling, pleading tone of her voice but could not help it.
"Now, be reasonable, Mariam," one of the wives said.
Mariam was no longer keeping track of who was saying what. She went on staring at Jalil, waiting for him to speak up, to say that none of this was true.
"You can't spend the rest of your life here."
"Don't you want a family of your own?"
"Yes. A home, children of your own?"
"You have to move on."
"True that it would be preferable that you marry a local, a Tajik, but Rasheed is healthy, and interested in you. He has a home and a job. That's all that really matters, isn't it? And Kabul is a beautiful and exciting city. You may not get another opportunity this good."
Mariam turned her attention to the wives.
"I'll live with Mullah Faizullah," she said. "He'll take me in. I know he will."
"That's no good," Khadija said. "He's old and soЕ" She searched for the right word, and Mariam knew then that what she really wanted to say was He's so close. She understood what they meant to do. You may not get another opportunity this good. And neither would they. They had been disgraced by her birth, and this was their chance to erase, once and for all, the last trace of their husband's scandalous mistake. She was being sent away because she was the walking, breathing embodiment of their shame.
"He's so old and weak," Khadija eventually said. "And what will you do when he's gone? You'd be a burden to his family."
As you are now to us. Mariam almost saw the unspoken words exit Khadija's mouth, like foggy breath on a cold day.
Mariam pictured herself in Kabul, a big, strange, crowded city that, Jalil had once told her, was some six hundred and fifty kilometers to the east of Herat. Six hundred and fifty kilometers. The farthest she'd ever been from the kolba was the two-kilometer walk she'd made to Jalil's house. She pictured herself living there, in Kabul, at the other end of that unimaginable distance, living in a stranger's house where she would have to concede to his moods and his issued demands. She would have to clean after this man, Rasheed, cook for him, wash his clothes. And there would be other chores as well Ц Nana had told her what husbands did to their wives. It was the thought of these intimacies in particular, which she imagined as painful acts of perversity, that filled her with dread and made her break out in a sweat.
She turned to Jalil again. "Tell them. Tell them you won't let them do this."
"Actually, your father has already given Rasheed his answer," Afsoon said. "Rasheed is here, in Herat; he has come all the way from Kabul. The nikka will be tomorrow morning, and then there is a bus leaving for Kabul at noon."
"Tell them!" Mariam cried
The women grew quiet now. Mariam sensed that they were watching him too. Waiting. A silence fell over the room. Jalil kept twirling his wedding band, with a bruised, helpless look on his face. From inside the cabinet, the clock ticked on and on.
"Jalil jo?" one of the women said at last.
Jalil's eyes lifted slowly, met Mariam's, lingered for a moment, then dropped. He opened his mouth, but all that came forth was a single, pained groan.
"Say something," Mariam said.
Then Jalil did, in a thin, threadbare voice. "Goddamn it, Mariam, don't do this to me," he said as though he was the one to whom something was being done.
And, with that, Mariam felt the tension vanish from the room.
As Jalil's wives began a new Ц and more sprightly Ц round of reassuring, Mariam looked down at the table. Her eyes traced the sleek shape of the table's legs, the sinuous curves of its corners, the gleam of its reflective, dark brown surface. She noticed that every time she breathed out, the surface fogged, and she disappeared from her father's table.
Afsoon escorted her back to the room upstairs. When Afsoon closed the door, Mariam heard the rattling of a key as it turned in the lock.
In the morning, Mariam was given a long-sleeved, dark green dress to wear over white cotton trousers. Afsoon gave her a green hijab and a pair of matching sandals.
She was taken to the room with the long, brown table, except now there was a bowl of sugar-coated almond candy in the middle of the table, a Koran, a green veil, and a mirror. Two men Mariam had never seen before Ц witnesses, she presumed Ц and a mullah she did not recognize were already seated at the table.
Jalil showed her to a chair. He was wearing a light brown suit and a red tie. His hair was washed. When he pulled out the chair for her, he tried to smile encouragingly. Khadija and Afsoon sat on Mariam's side of the table this time.
The mullah motioned toward the veil, and Nargis arranged it on Mariam's head before taking a seat. Mariam looked down at her hands.
"You can call him in now," Jalil said to someone.
Mariam smelled him before she saw him. Cigarette smoke and thick, sweet cologne, not faint like Jalil's. The scent of it flooded Mariam's nostrils. Through the veil, from the corner of her eye, Mariam saw a tall man, thick-bellied and broad-shouldered, stooping in the doorway. The size of him almost made her gasp, and she had to drop her gaze, her heart hammering away. She sensed him lingering in the doorway. Then his slow, heavy-footed movement across the room. The candy bowl on the table clinked in tune with his steps. With a thick grunt, he dropped on a chair beside her. He breathed noisily.
The mullah welcomed them. He said this would not be a traditional nikka.
"I understand that Rasheed agha has tickets for the bus to Kabul that leaves shortly. So, in the interest of time, we will bypass some of the traditional steps to speed up the proceedings."
The mullah gave a few blessings, said a few words about the importance of marriage. He asked Jalil if he had any objections to this union, and Jalil shook his head. Then the mullah asked Rasheed if he indeed wished to enter into a marriage contract with Mariam. Rasheed said, "Yes." His harsh, raspy voice reminded Mariam of the sound of dry autumn leaves crushed underfoot.
"And do you, Mariam jan, accept this man as your husband?"
Mariam stayed quiet. Throats were cleared.
"She does," a female voice said from down the table.
"Actually," the mullah said, "she herself has to answer. And she should wait until I ask three times. The point is, he's seeking her, not the other way around."
He asked the question two more times. When Mariam didn't answer, he asked it once more, this time more forcefully Ц Mariam could feel Jalil beside her shifting on his seat, could sense feet crossing and uncrossing beneath the table. There was more throat clearing. A small, white hand reached out and flicked a bit of dust off the table.
"Mariam," Jalil whispered.
"Yes," she said shakily.
A mirror was passed beneath the veil. In it, Mariam saw her own face first, the archless, unshapely eyebrows, the flat hair, the eyes, mirthless green and set so closely together that one might mistake her for being cross-eyed. Her skin was coarse and had a dull, spotty appearance. She thought her brow too wide, the chin too narrow, the lips too thin. The overall impression was of a long face, a triangular face, a bit houndlike. And yet Mariam saw that, oddly enough, the whole of these unmemorable parts made for a face that was not pretty but, somehow, not unpleasant to look at either.
In the mirror, Mariam had her first glimpse of Rasheed: the big, square, ruddy face; the hooked nose; the flushed cheeks that gave the impression of sly cheerfulness; the watery, bloodshot eyes; the crowded teeth, the front two pushed together like a gabled roof; the impossibly low hairline, barely two finger widths above the bushy eyebrows; the wall of thick, coarse, salt-and-pepper hair.
Their gazes met briefly in the glass and slid away.
This is the face of my husband, Mariam thought.
They exchanged the thin gold bands that Rasheed fished from his coat pocket. His nails were yellow-brown, like the inside of a rotting apple, and some of the tips were curling, lifting. Mariam's hands shook when she tried to slip the band onto his finger, and Rasheed had to help her. Her own band was a little tight, but Rasheed had no trouble forcing it over her knuckles.
"There," he said.
"It's a pretty ring," one of the wives said. "It's lovely, Mariam."
"All that remains now is the signing of the contract," the mullah said.
Mariam signed her name Ц the meem, the reh, the ya and the meem again Ц conscious of all the eyes on her hand. The next time Mariam signed her name to a document, twenty-seven years later, a mullah would again be present.
"You are now husband and wife," the mullah said. "Tabreek. Congratulations."
RASHEED WAITED in the multicolored bus. Mariam could not see him from where she stood with Jalil, by the rear bumper, only the smoke of his cigarette curling up from the open window. Around them, hands shook and farewells were said. Korans were kissed, passed under. Barefoot boys bounced between travelers, their faces invisible behind their trays of chewing gum and cigarettes.
Jalil was busy telling her that Kabul was so beautiful, the Moghul emperor Babur had asked that he be buried there. Next, Mariam knew, he'd go on about Kabul 's gardens, and its shops, its trees, and its air, and, before long, she would be on the bus and he would walk alongside it, waving cheerfully, unscathed, spared.
Mariam could not bring herself to allow it.
"I used to worship you," she said.
Jalil stopped in midsentence. He crossed and uncrossed his arms. A young Hindi couple, the wife cradling a boy, the husband dragging a suitcase, passed between them. Jalil seemed grateful for the interruption. They excused themselves, and he smiled back politely.
"On Thursdays, I sat for hours waiting for you. I worried myself sick that you wouldn't show up."
"It's a long trip. You should eat something." He said he could buy her some bread and goat cheese.
"I thought about you all the time. I used to pray that you'd live to be a hundred years old. I didn't know. I didn't know that you were ashamed of me."
Jalil looked down, and, like an overgrown child, dug at something with the toe of his shoe.
"You were ashamed of me."
"I'll visit you," he muttered "I'll come to Kabul and see you. We'll-"
"No. No," she said. "Don't come. I won't see you. Don't you come. I don't want to hear from you. Ever. Ever. "
He gave her a wounded look.
"It ends here for you and me. Say your good-byes."
"Don't leave like this," he said in a thin voice.
"You didn't even have the decency to give me the time to say good-bye to Mullah Faizullah."
She turned and walked around to the side of the bus. She could hear him following her. When she reached the hydraulic doors, she heard him behind her.
She climbed the stairs, and though she could spot Jalil out of the corner of her eye walking parallel to her she did not look out the window. She made her way down the aisle to the back, where Rasheed sat with her suitcase between his feet. She did not turn to look when Jalil's palms pressed on the glass, when his knuckles rapped and rapped on it. When the bus jerked forward, she did not turn to see him trotting alongside it. And when the bus pulled away, she did not look back to see him receding, to see him disappear in the cloud of exhaust and dust.
Rasheed, who took up the window and middle seat, put his thick hand on hers.
"There now, girl. There. There," he said. He was squinting out the window as he said this, as though something more interesting had caught his eye.
It was early evening the following day by the time they arrived at Rasheed's house.
"We're in Deh-Mazang," he said. They were outside, on the sidewalk. He had her suitcase in one hand and was unlocking the wooden front gate with the other. "In the south and west part of the city. The zoo is nearby, and the university too."
Mariam nodded. Already she had learned that, though she could understand him, she had to pay close attention when he spoke. She was unaccustomed to the Kabuli dialect of his Farsi, and to the underlying layer of Pashto accent, the language of his native Kandahar. He, on the other hand, seemed to have no trouble understanding her Herati Farsi.
Mariam quickly surveyed the narrow, unpaved road along which Rasheed's house was situated. The houses on this road were crowded together and shared common walls, with small, walled yards in front buffering them from the street. Most of the homes had flat roofs and were made of burned brick, some of mud the same dusty color as the mountains that ringed the city. Gutters separated the sidewalk from the road on both sides and flowed with muddy water. Mariam saw small mounds of flyblown garbage littering the street here and there. Rasheed's house had two stories. Mariam could see that it had once been blue.
When Rasheed opened the front gate, Mariam found herself in a small, unkempt yard where yellow grass struggled up in thin patches. Mariam saw an outhouse on the right, in a side yard, and, on the left, a well with a hand pump, a row of dying saplings. Near the well was a toolshed, and a bicycle leaning against the wall.
"Your father told me you like to fish," Rasheed said as they were crossing the yard to the house. There was no backyard, Mariam saw. "There are valleys north of here. Rivers with lots of fish. Maybe I'll take you someday."
He unlocked the front door and let her into the house.
Rasheed's house was much smaller than Jalil's, but, compared to Mariam and Nana's kolba, it was a mansion. There was a hallway, a living room downstairs, and a kitchen in which he showed her pots and pans and a pressure cooker and a kerosene ishtop. The living room had a pistachio green leather couch. It had a rip down its side that had been clumsily sewn together. The walls were bare. There was a table, two cane-seat chairs, two folding chairs, and, in the corner, a black, cast-iron stove.
Mariam stood in the middle of the living room, looking around. At the kolba, she could touch the ceiling with her fingertips. She could lie in her cot and tell the time of day by the angle of sunlight pouring through the window. She knew how far her door would open before its hinges creaked. She knew every splinter and crack in each of the thirty wooden floorboards. Now all those familiar things were gone. Nana was dead, and she was here, in a strange city, separated from the life she'd known by valleys and chains of snow-capped mountains and entire deserts. She was in a stranger's house, with all its different rooms and its smell of cigarette smoke, with its unfamiliar cupboards full of unfamiliar utensils, its heavy, dark green curtains, and a ceiling she knew she could not reach. The space of it suffocated Mariam. Pangs of longing bore into her, for Nana, for Mullah Faizullah, for her old life.
Then she was crying.
"What's this crying about?" Rasheed said crossly. He reached into the pocket of his pants, uncurled Mariam's fingers, and pushed a handkerchief into her palm. He lit himself a cigarette and leaned against the wall. He watched as Mariam pressed the handkerchief to her eyes.
He took her by the elbow then and led her to the living-room window.
"This window looks north," he said, tapping the glass with the crooked nail of his index finger. "That's the Asmai mountain directly in front of us Ц see? Ц and, to the left, is the Ali Abad mountain. The university is at the foot of it. Behind us, east, you can't see from here, is the Shir Darwaza mountain. Every day, at noon, they shoot a cannon from it. Stop your crying, now. I mean it."
Mariam dabbed at her eyes.
"That's one thing I can't stand," he said, scowling, "the sound of a woman crying. I'm sorry. I have no patience for it."
"I want to go home," Mariam said.
Rasheed sighed irritably. A puff of his smoky breath hit Mariam's face. "I won't take that personally. This time."
Again, he took her by the elbow, and led her upstairs.
There was a narrow, dimly lit hallway there and two bedrooms. The door to the bigger one was ajar. Through it Mariam could see that it, like the rest of the house, was sparsely furnished: bed in the corner, with a brown blanket and a pillow, a closet, a dresser. The walls were bare except for a small mirror. Rasheed closed the door.
"This is my room."
He said she could take the guest room. "I hope you don't mind. I'm accustomed to sleeping alone."
Mariam didn't tell him how relieved she was, at least about this.
The room that was to be Mariam's was much smaller than the room she'd stayed in at Jalil's house. It had a bed, an old, gray-brown dresser, a small closet. The window looked into the yard and, beyond that, the street below. Rasheed put her suitcase in a corner.
Mariam sat on the bed.
"You didn't notice," he said. He was standing in the doorway, stooping a little to fit.
"Look on the windowsill. You know what kind they are? I put them there before leaving for Herat."
Only now Mariam saw a basket on the sill. White tuberoses spilled from its sides.
"You like them? They please you?"
"You can thank me then."
"Thank you. I'm sorry. Tashakor -"
"You're shaking. Maybe I scare you. Do I scare you? Are you frightened of me?"
Mariam was not looking at him, but she could hear something slyly playful in these questions, like a needling. She quickly shook her head in what she recognized as her first lie in their marriage.