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Laila could hardly move, as though cement had solidified in every one of her joints. There was a conversation going on, and Laila knew that she was at one end of it, but she felt removed from it, as though she were merely eavesdropping. As Tariq talked, Laila pictured her life as a rotted rope, snapping, unraveling, the fibers detaching, falling away.
It was a hot, muggy afternoon that August of 1992, and they were in the living room of Laila's house. Mammy had had a stomachache all day, and, minutes before, despite the rockets that Hekmatyar was launching from the south, Babi had taken her to see a doctor. And here was Tariq now, seated beside Laila on the couch, looking at the ground, hands between his knees.
Saying that he was leaving.
Not the neighborhood. Not Kabul. But Afghanistan altogether.
Laila was struck blind.
"Where? Where will you go?"
" Pakistan first. Peshawar. Then I don't know. Maybe Hindustan. Iran."
"I don't know."
"I mean, how long have you known?"
"A few days. I was going to tell you, Laila, I swear, but I couldn't bring myself to. I knew how upset you'd be."
"Laila, look at me."
"It's my father. His heart can't take it anymore, all this fighting and killing."
Laila buried her face in her hands, a bubble of dread filling her chest.
She should have seen this coming, she thought. Almost everyone she knew had packed their things and left. The neighborhood had been all but drained of familiar faces, and now, only four months after fighting had broken out between the Mujahideen factions, Laila hardly recognized anybody on the streets anymore. Hasina's family had fled in May, off to Tehran. Wajma and her clan had gone to Islamabad that same month. Giti's parents and her siblings left in June, shortly after Giti was killed. Laila didn't know where they had gone – she heard a rumor that they had headed for Mashad, in Iran. After people left, their homes sat unoccupied for a few days, then either militiamen took them or strangers moved in.
Everyone was leaving. And now Tariq too.
"And my mother is not a young woman anymore," he was saying. "They're so afraid all the time. Laila, look at me."
"You should have told me."
"Please look at me."
A groan came out of Laila. Then a wail. And then she was crying, and when he went to wipe her cheek with the pad of his thumb she swiped his hand away. It was selfish and irrational, but she was furious with him for abandoning her, Tariq, who was like an extension of her, whose shadow sprung beside hers in every memory. How could he leave her? She slapped him. Then she slapped him again and pulled at his hair, and he had to take her by the wrists, and he was saying something she couldn't make out, he was saying it softly, reasonably, and, somehow, they ended up brow to brow, nose to nose, and she could feel the heat of his breath on her lips again.
And when, suddenly, he leaned in, she did too.
IN THE COMING DAYS and weeks, Laila would scramble frantically to commit it all to memory, what happened next. Like an art lover running out of a burning museum, she would grab whatever she could – a look, a whisper, a moan – to salvage from perishing, to preserve. But time is the most unforgiving of fires, and she couldn't, in the end, save it all. Still, she had these: that first, tremendous pang of pain down below. The slant of sunlight on the rug. Her heel grazing the cold hardness of his leg, lying beside them, hastily unstrapped. Her hands cupping his elbows. The upside-down, mandolin-shaped birthmark beneath his collarbone, glowing red. His face hovering over hers. His black curls dangling, tickling her lips, her chin. The terror that they would be discovered. The disbelief at their own boldness, their courage. The strange and indescribable pleasure, interlaced with the pain. And the look, the myriad of looks, on Tariq: of apprehension, tenderness, apology, embarrassment, but mostly, mostly, of hunger.
THERE WAS FRENZY AFTER. Shirts hurriedly buttoned, belts buckled, hair finger-combed. They sat, then, they sat beside each other, smelling of each other, faces flushed pink, both of them stunned, both of them speechless before the enormity of what had just happened. What they had done.
Laila saw three drops of blood on the rug, her blood, and pictured her parents sitting on this couch later, oblivious to the sin that she had committed. And now the shame set in, and the guilt, and, upstairs, the clock ticked on, impossibly loud to Laila's ears. Like a judge's gavel pounding again and again, condemning her.
Then Tariq said, "Come with me."
For a moment, Laila almost believed that it could be done. She, Tariq, and his parents, setting out together. Packing their bags, climbing aboard a bus, leaving behind all this violence, going to find blessings, or trouble, and whichever came they would face it together. The bleak isolation awaiting her, the murderous loneliness, it didn't have to be.
She could go. They could be together.
They would have more afternoons like this.
"I want to marry you, Laila."
For the first time since they were on the floor, she raised her eyes to meet his. She searched his face. There was no playfulness this time. His look was one of conviction, of guileless yet ironclad earnestness.
"Let me marry you, Laila. Today. We could get married today."
He began to say more, about going to a mosque, finding a mullah, a pair of witnesses, a quick nikka. …
But Laila was thinking of Mammy, as obstinate and uncompromising as the Mujahideen, the air around her choked with rancor and despair, and she was thinking of Babi, who had long surrendered, who made such a sad, pathetic opponent to Mammy.
Sometimes… I feel like you're all I have, Laila.
These were the circumstances of her life, the inescapable truths of it.
"I'll ask Kaka Hakim for your hand He'll give us his blessing, Laila, I know it."
He was right. Babi would. But it would shatter him.
Tariq was still speaking, his voice hushed, then high, beseeching, then reasoning; his face hopeful, then stricken.
"I can't," Laila said.
"Don't say that. I love you."
"I love you."
How long had she waited to hear those words from him? How many times had she dreamed them uttered? There they were, spoken at last, and the irony crushed her.
"It's my father I can't leave," Laila said "I'm all he has left. His heart couldn't take it either."
Tariq knew this. He knew she could not wipe away the obligations of her life any more than he could his, but it went on, his pleadings and her rebuttals, his proposals and her apologies, his tears and hers.
In the end, Laila had to make him leave.
At the door, she made him promise to go without good-byes. She closed the door on him. Laila leaned her back against it, shaking against his pounding fists, one arm gripping her belly and a hand across her mouth, as he spoke through the door and promised that he would come back, that he would come back for her. She stood there until he tired, until he gave up, and then she listened to his uneven footsteps until they faded, until all was quiet, save for the gunfire cracking in the hills and her own heart thudding in her belly, her eyes, her bones.
It was, by far, the hottest day of the year. The mountains trapped the bone-scorching heat, stifled the city like smoke. Power had been out for days. All over Kabul, electric fans sat idle, almost mockingly so.
Laila was lying still on the living-room couch, sweating through her blouse. Every exhaled breath burned the tip of her nose. She was aware of her parents talking in Mammy's room. Two nights ago, and again last night, she had awakened and thought she heard their voices downstairs. They were talking every day now, ever since the bullet, ever since the new hole in the gate.
Outside, the far-off boom of artillery, then, more closely, the stammering of a long string of gunfire, followed by another.
Inside Laila too a battle was being waged: guilt on one side, partnered with shame, and, on the other, the conviction that what she and Tariq had done was not sinful; that it had been natural, good, beautiful, even inevitable, spurred by the knowledge that they might never see each other again.
Laila rolled to her side on the couch now and tried to remember something: At one point, when they were on the floor, Tariq had lowered his forehead on hers. Then he had panted something, either Am I hurting you? or Is this hurting you?
Laila couldn't decide which he had said.
Am I hurting you?
Is this hurting you?
Only two weeks since he had left, and it was already happening. Time, blunting the edges of those sharp memories. Laila bore down mentally. What had he said? It seemed vital, suddenly, that she know.
Laila closed her eyes. Concentrated.
With the passing of time, she would slowly tire of this exercise. She would find it increasingly exhausting to conjure up, to dust off, to resuscitate once again what was long dead. There would come a day, in fact, years later, when Laila would no longer bewail his loss. Or not as relentlessly; not nearly. There would come a day when the details of his face would begin to slip from memory's grip, when overhearing a mother on the street call after her child by Tariq's name would no longer cut her adrift. She would not miss him as she did now, when the ache of his absence was her unremitting companion – like the phantom pain of an amputee.
Except every once in a long while, when Laila was a grown woman, ironing a shirt or pushing her children on a swing set, something trivial, maybe the warmth of a carpet beneath her feet on a hot day or the curve of a stranger's forehead, would set off a memory of that afternoon together. And it would all come rushing back. The spontaneity of it. Their astonishing imprudence. Their clumsiness. The pain of the act, the pleasure of it, the sadness of it. The heat of their entangled bodies.
It would flood her, steal her breath.
But then it would pass. The moment would pass. Leave her deflated, feeling nothing but a vague restlessness.
She decided that he had said Am I hurting you? Yes. That was it. Laila was happy that she'd remembered.
Then Babi was in the hallway, calling her name from the top of the stairs, asking her to come up quickly.
"She's agreed!" he said, his voice tremulous with suppressed excitement. "We're leaving, Laila. All three of us. We're leaving Kabul."
IN MAMMY'S ROOM, the three of them sat on the bed. Outside, rockets were zipping across the sky as Hekmatyar's and Massoud's forces fought and fought. Laila knew that somewhere in the city someone had just died, and that a pall of black smoke was hovering over some building that had collapsed in a puffing mass of dust. There would be bodies to step around in the morning. Some would be collected. Others not. Then Kabul 's dogs, who had developed a taste for human meat, would feast.
All the same, Laila had an urge to run through those streets. She could barely contain her own happiness. It took effort to sit, to not shriek with joy. Babi said they would go to Pakistan first, to apply for visas. Pakistan, where Tariq was! Tariq was only gone seventeen days, Laila calculated excitedly. If only Mammy had made up her mind seventeen days earlier, they could have left together. She would have been with Tariq right now! But that didn't matter now. They were going to Peshawar – she, Mammy, and Babi – and they would find Tariq and his parents there. Surely they would. They would process their paperwork together. Then, who knew? Who knew? Europe?
America? Maybe, as Babi was always saying, somewhere near the sea…
Mammy was half lying, half sitting against the headboard. Her eyes were puffy. She was picking at her hair.
Three days before, Laila had gone outside for a breath of air. She'd stood by the front gates, leaning against them, when she'd heard a loud crack and something had zipped by her right ear, sending tiny splinters of wood flying before her eyes. After Giti's death, and the thousands of rounds fired and myriad rockets that had fallen on Kabul, it was the sight of that single round hole in the gate, less than three fingers away from where Laila's head had been, that shook Mammy awake. Made her see that one war had cost her two children already; this latest could cost her her remaining one.
From the walls of the room, Ahmad and Noor smiled down. Laila watched Mammy's eyes bouncing now, guiltily, from one photo to the other. As if looking for their consent. Their blessing. As if asking for forgiveness.
"There's nothing left for us here," Babi said. "Our sons are gone, but we still have Laila. We still have each other, Fariba. We can make a new life."
Babi reached across the bed. When he leaned to take her hands, Mammy let him. On her face, a look of concession. Of resignation. They held each other's hands, lightly, and then they were swaying quietly in an embrace. Mammy buried her face in his neck. She grabbed a handful of his shirt.
For hours that night, the excitement robbed Laila of sleep. She lay in bed and watched the horizon light up in garish shades of orange and yellow. At some point, though, despite the exhilaration inside and the crack of artillery fire outside, she fell asleep.
They are on a ribbon of beach, sitting on a quilt. It's a chilly, overcast day, but it's warm next to Tariq under the blanket draped over their shoulders. She can see cars parked behind a low fence of chipped white paint beneath a row of windswept palm trees. The wind makes her eyes water and buries their shoes in sand, hurls knots of dead grass from the curved ridges of one dune to another. They're watching sailboats bob in the distance. Around them, seagulls squawk and shiver in the wind. The wind whips up another spray of sand off the shallow, windward slopes. There is a noise then like a chant, and she tells him something Babi had taught her years before about singing sand.
He rubs at her eyebrow, wipes grains of sand from it. She catches a flicker of the band on his finger. It's identical to hers – gold with a sort of maze pattern etched all the way around.
It's true, she tells him. It's the friction, of grain against grain. Listen. He does. He frowns. They wait. They hear it again. A groaning sound, when the wind is soft, when it blows hard, a mewling, high-pitched chorus.
BABI SAID THEY should take only what was absolutely necessary. They would sell the rest.
"That should hold us in Peshawar until I find work."
For the next two days, they gathered items to be sold. They put them in big piles.
In her room, Laila set aside old blouses, old shoes, books, toys. Looking under her bed, she found a tiny yellow glass cow Hasina had passed to her during recess in fifth grade. A miniature-soccer-ball key chain, a gift from Giti. A little wooden zebra on wheels. A ceramic astronaut she and Tariq had found one day in a gutter. She'd been six and he eight. They'd had a minor row, Laila remembered, over which one of them had found it.
Mammy too gathered her things. There was a reluctance in her movements, and her eyes had a lethargic, faraway look in them. She did away with her good plates, her napkins, all her jewelry – save for her wedding band – and most of her old clothes.
"You're not selling this, are you?" Laila said, lifting Mammy's wedding dress. It cascaded open onto her lap. She touched the lace and ribbon along the neckline, the hand-sewn seed pearls on the sleeves.
Mammy shrugged and took it from her. She tossed it brusquely on a pile of clothes. Like ripping off a Band-Aid in one stroke, Laila thought.
It was Babi who had the most painful task.
Laila found him standing in his study, a rueful expression on his face as he surveyed his shelves. He was wearing a secondhand T-shirt with a picture of San Francisco 's red bridge on it. Thick fog rose from the whitecapped waters and engulfed the bridge's towers.
"You know the old bit," he said. "You're on a deserted island. You can have five books. Which do you choose? I never thought I'd actually have to."
"We'll have to start you a new collection, Babi."
"Mm." He smiled sadly. "I can't believe I'm leaving Kabul. I went to school here, got my first job here, became a father in this town. It's strange to think that I'll be sleeping beneath another city's skies soon."
"It's strange for me too."
"All day, this poem about Kabul has been bouncing around in my head. Saib-e-Tabrizi wrote it back in the seventeenth century, I think. I used to know the whole poem, but all I can remember now is two lines:
"One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls."
Laila looked up, saw he was weeping. She put an arm around his waist. "Oh, Babi. We'll come back. When this war is over. We'll come back to Kabul, inshallah. You'll see."
ON THE THIRD MORNING, Laila began moving the piles of things to the yard and depositing them by the front door. They would fetch a taxi then and take it all to a pawnshop.
Laila kept shuffling between the house and the yard, back and forth, carrying stacks of clothes and dishes and box after box of Babi's books. She should have been exhausted by noon, when the mound of belongings by the front door had grown waist high. But, with each trip, she knew that she was that much closer to seeing Tariq again, and, with each trip, her legs became more sprightly, her arms more tireless.
"We're going to need a big taxi."
Laila looked up. It was Mammy calling down from her bedroom upstairs. She was leaning out the window, resting her elbows on the sill. The sun, bright and warm, caught in her graying hair, shone on her drawn, thin face. Mammy was wearing the same cobalt blue dress she had worn the day of the lunch party four months earlier, a youthful dress meant for a young woman, but, for a moment, Mammy looked to Laila like an old woman. An old woman with stringy arms and sunken temples and slow eyes rimmed by darkened circles of weariness, an altogether different creature from the plump, round-faced woman beaming radiantly from those grainy wedding photos.
"Two big taxis," Laila said.
She could see Babi too, in the living room stacking boxes of books atop each other.
"Come up when you're done with those," Mammy said. "We'll sit down for lunch. Boiled eggs and leftover beans."
"My favorite," Laila said.
She thought suddenly of her dream. She and Tariq on a quilt. The ocean. The wind. The dunes.
What had it sounded like, she wondered now, the singing sands?
Laila stopped. She saw a gray lizard crawl out of a crack in the ground. Its head shot side to side. It blinked. Darted under a rock.
Laila pictured the beach again. Except now the singing was all around. And growing. Louder and louder by the moment, higher and higher. It flooded her ears. Drowned everything else out. The gulls were feathered mimes now, opening and closing their beaks noiselessly, and the waves were crashing with foam and spray but no roar. The sands sang on. Screaming now. A sound like… a tinkling?
Not a tinkling. No. A whistling.
Laila dropped the books at her feet. She looked up to the sky. Shielded her eyes with one hand.
Then a giant roar.
Behind her, a flash of white.
The ground lurched beneath her feet.
Something hot and powerful slammed into her from behind. It knocked her out of her sandals. Lifted her up. And now she was flying, twisting and rotating in the air, seeing sky, then earth, then sky, then earth. A big burning chunk of wood whipped by. So did a thousand shards of glass, and it seemed to Laila that she could see each individual one flying all around her, flipping slowly end over end, the sunlight catching in each. Tiny, beautiful rainbows.
Then Laila struck the wall. Crashed to the ground. On her face and arms, a shower of dirt and pebbles and glass. The last thing she was aware of was seeing something thud to the ground nearby. A bloody chunk of something. On it, the tip of a red bridge poking through thick fog.
SHAPES MOVING ABOUT. A fluorescent light shines from the ceiling above. A woman's face appears, hovers over hers.
Laila fades back to the dark.
ANOTHER FACE. This time a man's. His features seem broad and droopy. His lips move but make no sound. All Laila hears is ringing.
The man waves his hand at her. Frowns. His lips move again.
It hurts. It hurts to breathe. It hurts everywhere.
A glass of water. A pink pill.
Back to the darkness.
THE WOMAN AGAIN. Long face, narrow-set eyes. She says something. Laila can't hear anything but the ringing. But she can see the words, like thick black syrup, spilling out of the woman's mouth.
Her chest hurts. Her arms and legs hurt.
All around, shapes moving.
Where is Tariq?
Why isn't he here?
Darkness. A flock of stars.
* * *
BABI AND SHE, perched somewhere high up. He is pointing to a field of barley. A generator comes to life.
The long-faced woman is standing over her looking down.
It hurts to breathe.
Somewhere, an accordion playing.
Mercifully, the pink pill again. Then a deep hush. A deep hush falls over everything.
Do you know who I am?"
The girl's eyes fluttered.
"Do you know what has happened?"
The girl's mouth quivered. She closed her eyes. Swallowed. Her hand grazed her left cheek. She mouthed something.
Mariam leaned in closer.
"This ear," the girl breathed. "I can't hear."
FOR THE FIRST WEEK, the girl did little but sleep, with help from the pink pills Rasheed paid for at the hospital. She murmured in her sleep. Sometimes she spoke gibberish, cried out, called out names Mariam did not recognize. She wept in her sleep, grew agitated, kicked the blankets off, and then Mariam had to hold her down. Sometimes she retched and retched, threw up everything Mariam fed her.
When she wasn't agitated, the girl was a sullen pair of eyes staring from under the blanket, breathing out short little answers to Mariam and Rasheed's questions. Some days she was childlike, whipped her head side to side, when Mariam, then Rasheed, tried to feed her. She went rigid when Mariam came at her with a spoon. But she tired easily and submitted eventually to their persistent badgering. Long bouts of weeping followed surrender.
Rasheed had Mariam rub antibiotic ointment on the cuts on the girl's face and neck, and on the sutured gashes on her shoulder, across her forearms and lower legs. Mariam dressed them with bandages, which she washed and recycled. She held the girl's hair back, out of her face, when she had to retch.
"How long is she staying?" she asked Rasheed.
"Until she's better. Look at her. She's in no shape to go. Poor thing."
IT WAS RASHEED who found the girl, who dug her out from beneath the rubble.
"Lucky I was home," he said to the girl. He was sitting on a folding chair beside Mariam's bed, where the girl lay. "Lucky for you, I mean. I dug you out with my own hands. There was a scrap of metal this big-" Here, he spread his thumb and index finger apart to show her, at least doubling, in Mariam's estimation, the actual size of it. "This big. Sticking right out of your shoulder. It was really embedded in there. I thought I'd have to use a pair of pliers. But you're all right. In no time, you'll be nau socha. Good as new."
It was Rasheed who salvaged a handful of Hakim's books.
"Most of them were ash. The rest were looted, I'm afraid."
He helped Mariam watch over the girl that first week. One day, he came home from work with a new blanket and pillow. Another day, a bottle of pills.
"Vitamins," he said.
It was Rasheed who gave Laila the news that her friend Tariq's house was occupied now.
"A gift," he said. "From one of Sayyaf s commanders to three of his men. A gift. Ha!"
The three men were actually boys with suntanned, youthful faces. Mariam would see them when she passed by, always dressed in their fatigues, squatting by the front door of Tariq's house, playing cards and smoking, their Kalashnikovs leaning against the wall. The brawny one, the one with the self-satisfied, scornful demeanor, was the leader. The youngest was also the quietest, the one who seemed reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace his friends' air of impunity. He had taken to smiling and tipping his head salaam when Mariam passed by. When he did, some of his surface smugness dropped away, and Mariam caught a glint of humility as yet uncorrupted.
Then one morning rockets slammed into the house. They were rumored later to have been fired by the Hazaras of Wahdat. For some time, neighbors kept finding bits and pieces of the boys.
"They had it coming," said Rasheed.
THE GIRL WAS extraordinarily lucky, Mariam thought, to escape with relatively minor injuries, considering the rocket had turned her house into smoking rubble. And so, slowly, the girl got better. She began to eat more, began to brush her own hair. She took baths on her own. She began taking her meals downstairs, with Mariam and Rasheed.
But then some memory would rise, unbidden, and there would be stony silences or spells of churlishness. Withdrawals and collapses. Wan looks. Nightmares and sudden attacks of grief. Retching.
And sometimes regrets.
"I shouldn't even be here," she said one day.
Mariam was changing the sheets. The girl watched from the floor, her bruised knees drawn up against her chest.
"My father wanted to take out the boxes. The books. He said they were too heavy for me. But I wouldn't let him. I was so eager. I should have been the one inside the house when it happened."
Mariam snapped the clean sheet and let it settle on the bed. She looked at the girl, at her blond curls, her slender neck and green eyes, her high cheekbones and plump lips. Mariam remembered seeing her on the streets when she was little, tottering after her mother on the way to the tandoor, riding on the shoulders of her brother, the younger one, with the patch of hair on his ear. Shooting marbles with the carpenter's boy.
The girl was looking back as if waiting for Mariam to pass on some morsel of wisdom, to say something encouraging. But what wisdom did Mariam have to offer? What encouragement? Mariam remembered the day they'd buried Nana and how little comfort she had found when Mullah Faizullah had quoted the Koran for her. Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He Who has power over all things, Who created death and life that He may try you. Or when he'd said of her own guilt, These thoughts are no good, Mariam jo. They will destroy you. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't your fault.
What could she say to this girl that would ease her burden?
As it turned out, Mariam didn't have to say anything. Because the girl's face twisted, and she was on all fours then saying she was going to be sick.
"Wait! Hold on. I'll get a pan. Not on the floor. I just cleaned… Oh. Oh. Khodaya. God."
THEN ONE DAY, about a month after the blast that killed the girl's parents, a man came knocking. Mariam opened the door. He stated his business.
"There is a man here to see you," Mariam said.
The girl raised her head from the pillow.
"He says his name is Abdul Sharif."
"I don't know any Abdul Sharif."
"Well, he's here asking for you. You need to come down and talk to him."