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For what came next, Rasheed put down the ball of rice he'd made back on the plate. His hands dangled idly over his meal, as he looked down with a sober, thoughtful expression.
"One mustn't speak ill of the dead much less the, shaheed. And I intend no disrespect when I say this, I want you to know, but I have certainЕ reservationsЕ about the way your parents Ц Allah, forgive them and grant them a place in paradise Ц about their, well, their leniency with you. I'm sorry."
The cold, hateful look the girl flashed Rasheed at this did not escape Mariam, but he was looking down and did not notice.
"No matter. The point is, I am your husband now, and it falls on me to guard not only your honor but ours, yes, our nang and namoos. That is the husband's burden. You let me worry about that. Please. As for you, you are the queen, the malika, and this house is your palace. Anything you need done you ask Mariam and she will do it for you. Won't you, Mariam? And if you fancy something, I will get it for you. You see, that is the sort of husband I am.
"All I ask in return, well, it is a simple thing. I ask that you avoid leaving this house without my company. That's all. Simple, no? If I am away and you need something urgently, I mean absolutely need it and it cannot wait for me, then you can send Mariam and she will go out and get it for you. You've noticed a discrepancy, surely. Well, one does not drive a Volga and a Benz in the same manner. That would be foolish, wouldn't it? Oh, I also ask that when we are out together, that you wear a burqa. For your own protection, naturally. It is best. So many lewd men in this town now. Such vile intentions, so eager to dishonor even a married woman. So. That's all."
"I should say that Mariam will be my eyes and ears when I am away." Here, he shot Mariam a fleeting look that was as hard as a steel-toed kick to the temple. "Not that I am mistrusting. Quite the contrary. Frankly, you strike me as far wiser than your years. But you are still a young woman, Laila jan, a dokhtar e jawan, and young women can make unfortunate choices. They can be prone to mischief. Anyway, Mariam will be accountable. And if there is a slipupЕ"
On and on he went. Mariam sat watching the girl out of the corner of her eye as Rasheed's demands and judgments rained down on them like the rockets on Kabul.
ONE DAY, Mariam was in the living room folding some shirts of Rasheed's that she had plucked from the clothesline in the yard. She didn't know how long the girl had been standing there, but, when she picked up a shirt and turned around, she found her standing by the doorway, hands cupped around a glassful of tea.
"I didn't mean to startle you," the girl said. "I'm sorry."
Mariam only looked at her.
The sun fell on the girl's face, on her large green eyes and her smooth brow, on her high cheekbones and the appealing, thick eyebrows, which were nothing like Mariam's own, thin and featureless. Her yellow hair, uncombed this morning, was middle-parted.
Mariam could see in the stiff way the girl clutched the cup, the tightened shoulders, that she was nervous. She imagined her sitting on the bed working up the nerve.
"The leaves are turning," the girl said companionably. "Have you seen? Autumn is my favorite. I like the smell of it, when people burn leaves in their gardens. My mother, she liked springtime the best. You knew my mother?"
The girl cupped a hand behind her ear. "I'm sorry?"
Mariam raised her voice. "I said no. I didn't know your mother."
"Is there something you want?"
"Mariam jan, I want toЕAbout the things he said the other night-"
"I have been meaning to talk to you about it." Mariam broke in.
"Yes, please," the girl said earnestly, almost eagerly. She took a step forward. She looked relieved.
Outside, an oriole was warbling. Someone was pulling a cart; Mariam could hear the creaking of its hinges, the bouncing and rattling of its iron wheels. There was the sound of gunfire not so far away, a single shot followed by three more, then nothing.
"I won't be your servant," Mariam said. "I won't."
The girl flinched "No. Of course not!"
"You may be the palace malika and me a dehati, but I won't take orders from you. You can complain to him and he can slit my throat, but I won't do it. Do you hear me? I won't be your servant."
"No! I don't expect-"
"And if you think you can use your looks to get rid of me, you're wrong. I was here first. I won't be thrown out. I won't have you cast me out."
"It's not what I want," the girl said weakly.
"And I see your wounds are healed up now. So you can start doing your share of the work in this house-"
The girl was nodding quickly. Some of her tea spilled, but she didn't notice. "Yes, that's the other reason I came down, to thank you for taking care of me-"
"Well, I wouldn't have," Mariam snapped. "I wouldn't have fed you and washed you and nursed you if I'd known you were going to turn around and steal my husband."
"I will still cook and wash the dishes. You will do the laundry and the sweeping. The rest we will alternate daily. And one more thing. I have no use for your company. I don't want it. What I want is to be alone. You will leave me be, and I will return the favor. That's how we will get on. Those are the rules."
When she was done speaking, her heart was hammering and her mouth felt parched. Mariam had never before spoken in this manner, had never stated her will so forcefully. It ought to have felt exhilarating, but the girl's eyes had teared up and her face was drooping, and what satisfaction Mariam found from this outburst felt meager, somehow illicit.
She extended the shirts toward the girl.
"Put them in the almari, not the closet. He likes the whites in the top drawer, the rest in the middle, with the socks."
The girl set the cup on the floor and put her hands out for the shirts, palms up. "I'm sorry about all of this," she croaked.
"You should be," Mariam said. "You should be sorry."
Laila remembered a gathering once, years before at the house, on one of Mammy's good days. The women had been sitting in the garden, eating from a platter of fresh mulberries that Wajma had picked from the tree in her yard. The plump mulberries had been white and pink, and some the same dark purple as the bursts of tiny veins on Wajma's nose.
"You heard how his son died?" Wajma had said, energetically shoveling another handful of mulberries into her sunken mouth.
"But did you know, did you know that RasheedЕ" Wajma raised a finger, made a show of nodding and chewing and making them wait for her to swallow. "Did you know that he used to drink sharab back then, that he was crying drunk that day? It's true. Crying drunk, is what I heard. And that was midmorning. By noon, he had passed out on a lounge chair. You could have fired the noon cannon next to his ear and he wouldn't have batted an eyelash."
Laila remembered how Wajma had covered her mouth, burped; how her tongue had gone exploring between her few remaining teeth.
"You can imagine the rest. The boy went into the water unnoticed. They spotted him a while later, floating facedown. People rushed to help, half trying to wake up the boy, the other half the father. Someone bent over the boy, did theЕ the mouth-to-mouth thing you're supposed to do. It was pointless. They could all see that. The boy was gone."
Laila remembered Wajma raising a finger and her voice quivering with piety. "This is why the Holy Koran forbids sharab. Because it always falls on the sober to pay for the sins of the drunk. So it does."
It was this story that was circling in Laila's head after she gave Rasheed the news about the baby. He had immediately hopped on his bicycle, ridden to a mosque, and prayed for a boy.
That night, all during the meal, Laila watched Mariam push a cube of meat around her plate. Laila was there when Rasheed sprang the news on Mariam in a high, dramatic voice Ц Laila had never before witnessed such cheerful cruelty. Mariam's lashes fluttered when she heard. A flush spread across her face. She sat sulking, looking desolate.
After, Rasheed went upstairs to listen to his radio, and Laila helped Mariam clear the sofrah.
"I can't imagine what you are now," Mariam said, picking grains of rice and bread crumbs, "if you were a Benz before."
Laila tried a more lightheaded tactic. "A train? Maybe a big jumbo jet."
Mariam straightened up. "I hope you don't think this excuses you from chores."
Laila opened her mouth, thought better of it. She reminded herself that Mariam was the only innocent party in this arrangement. Mariam and the baby.
Later, in bed, Laila burst into tears.
What was the matter? Rasheed wanted to know, lifting her chin. Was she ill? Was it the baby, was something wrong with the baby? No?
Was Mariam mistreating her?
"That's it, isn't it?"
"Wallah o billah, I'll go down and teach her a lesson. Who does she think she is, that harami, treating you-"
He was getting up already, and she had to grab him by the forearm, pull him back down. "Don't! No! She's been decent to me. I need a minute, that's all. I'll be fine."
He sat beside her, stroking her neck, murmuring. His hand slowly crept down to her back, then up again. He leaned in, flashed his crowded teeth.
"Let's see, then," he purred, "if I can't help you feel better."
FIRST, the trees Ц those that hadn't been cut down for firewood Ц shed their spotty yellow-and-copper leaves. Then came the winds, cold and raw, ripping through the city. They tore off the last of the clinging leaves, and left the trees looking ghostly against the muted brown of the hills. The season's first snowfall was light, the flakes no sooner fallen than melted. Then the roads froze, and snow gathered in heaps on the rooftops, piled halfway up frost-caked windows. With snow came the kites, once the rulers of Kabul 's winter skies, now timid trespassers in territory claimed by streaking rockets and fighter jets.
Rasheed kept bringing home news of the war, and Laila was baffled by the allegiances that Rasheed tried to explain to her. Sayyaf was fighting the Hazaras, he said. The Hazaras were fighting Massoud.
"And he's fighting Hekmatyar, of course, who has the support of the Pakistanis. Mortal enemies, those two, Massoud and Hekmatyar. Sayyaf, he's siding with Massoud. And Hekmatyar supports the Hazaras for now."
As for the unpredictable Uzbek commander Dostum, Rasheed said no one knew where he would stand. Dostum had fought the Soviets in the 1980s alongside the Mujahideen but had defected and joined Najibullah's communist puppet regime after the Soviets had left. He had even earned a medal, presented by Najibullah himself, before defecting once again and returning to the Mujahideen's side. For the time being, Rasheed said, Dostum was supporting Massoud.
In Kabul, particularly in western Kabul, fires raged, and black palls of smoke mushroomed over snow-clad buildings. Embassies closed down. Schools collapsed In hospital waiting rooms, Rasheed said, the wounded were bleeding to death. In operating rooms, limbs were being amputated without anesthesia.
"But don't worry," he said. "You're safe with me, my flower, my gul. Anyone tries to harm you, I'll rip out their liver and make them eat it."
That winter, everywhere Laila turned, walls blocked her way. She thought longingly of the wide-open skies of her childhood, of her days of going to buzkashi tournaments with Babi and shopping at Mandaii with Mammy, of her days of running free in the streets and gossiping about boys with Giti and Hasina. Her days of sitting with Tariq in a bed of clover on the banks of a stream somewhere, trading riddles and candy, watching the sun go down.
But thinking of Tariq was treacherous because, before she could stop, she saw him lying on a bed, far from home, tubes piercing his burned body. Like the bile that kept burning her throat these days, a deep, paralyzing grief would come rising up Laila's chest. Her legs would turn to water. She would have to hold on to something.
Laila passed that winter of 1992 sweeping the house, scrubbing the pumpkin-colored walls of the bedroom she shared with Rasheed, washing clothes outside in a big copper lagaan. Sometimes she saw herself as if hovering above her own body, saw herself squatting over the rim of the logaan, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, pink hands wringing soapy water from one of Rasheed's undershirts. She felt lost then, casting about, like a shipwreck survivor, no shore in sight, only miles and miles of water.
When it was too cold to go outside, Laila ambled around the house. She walked, dragging a fingernail along the wall, down the hallway, then back, down the steps, then up, her face unwashed, hair uncombed. She walked until she ran into Mariam, who shot her a cheerless glance and went back to slicing the stem off a bell pepper and trimming strips of fat from meat. A hurtful silence would fill the room, and Laila could almost see the wordless hostility radiating from Mariam like waves of heat rising from asphalt. She would retreat back to her room, sit on the bed, and watch the snow falling.
RASHEED TOOK HER to his shoe shop one day.
When they were out together, he walked alongside her, one hand gripping her by the elbow. For Laila, being out in the streets had become an exercise in avoiding injury. Her eyes were still adjusting to the limited, gridlike visibility of the burqa, her feet still stumbling over the hem. She walked in perpetual fear of tripping and falling, of breaking an ankle stepping into a pothole. Still, she found some comfort in the anonymity that the burqa provided. She wouldn't be recognized this way if she ran into an old acquaintance of hers. She wouldn't have to watch the surprise in their eyes, or the pity or the glee, at how far she had fallen, at how her lofty aspirations had been dashed.
Rasheed's shop was bigger and more brightly lit than Laila had imagined. He had her sit behind his crowded workbench, the top of which was littered with old soles and scraps of leftover leather. He showed her his hammers, demonstrated how the sandpaper wheel worked, hisvoice ringing high and proud.
He felt her belly, not through the shirt but under it, his fingertips cold and rough like bark on her distended skin. Laila remembered Tariq's hands, soft but strong, the tortuous, full veins on the backs of them, which she had always found so appealingly masculine.
"Swelling so quickly," Rasheed said. "It's going to be a big boy. My son will be a pahlawan! Like his father."
Laila pulled down her shirt. It filled her with fear when he spoke like this.
"How are things with Mariam?"
She said they were fine.
She didn't tell him that they'd had their first true fight.
It had happened a few days earlier. Laila had gone to the kitchen and found Mariam yanking drawers and slamming them shut. She was looking, Mariam said, for the long wooden spoon she used to stir rice.
"Where did you put it?" she said, wheeling around to face Laila.
"Me?" Laila said "I didn't take it. I hardly come in here."
"Is that an accusation? It's how you wanted it, remember. You said you would make the meals. But if you want to switch-"
"So you're saying it grew little legs and walked out. Teep, teep, teep, teep. Is that what happened, degeh?"
"I'm sayingЕ" Laila said, trying to maintain control. Usually, she could will herself to absorb Mariam's derision and finger-pointing. But her ankles had swollen, her head hurt, and the heartburn was vicious that day. "I am saying that maybe you've misplaced it."
"Misplaced it?" Mariam pulled a drawer. The spatulas and knives inside it clanked. "How long have you been here, a few months? I've lived in this house for nineteen years, dokhtar jo. I have kept that spoon in this drawer since you were shitting your diapers."
"Still," Laila said, on the brink now, teeth clenched, "it's possible you put it somewhere and forgot."
"And it's possible you hid it somewhere, to aggravate me."
"You're a sad, miserable woman," Laila said.
Mariam flinched, then recovered, pursed her lips. "And you're a whore. A whore and a dozd. A thieving whore, that's what you are!"
Then there was shouting. Pots raised though not hurled. They'd called each other names, names that made Laila blush now. They hadn't spoken since. Laila was still shocked at how easily she'd come unhinged, but, the truth was, part of her had liked it, had liked how it felt to scream at Mariam, to curse at her, to have a target at which to focus all her simmering anger, her grief.
Laila wondered, with something like insight, if it wasn't the same for Mariam.
After, she had run upstairs and thrown herself on Rasheed's bed. Downstairs, Mariam was still yelling, "Dirt on your head! Dirt on your head!" Laila had lain on the bed, groaning into the pillow, missing her parents suddenly and with an overpowering intensity she hadn't felt since those terrible days just after the attack. She lay there, clutching handfuls of the bedsheet, until, suddenly, her breath caught. She sat up, hands shooting down to her belly.
The baby had just kicked for the first time.
Early one morning the next spring, of 1993, Mariam stood by the living-room window and watched Rasheed escort the girl out of the house. The girl was tottering forward, bent at the waist, one arm draped protectively across the taut drum of her belly, the shape of which was visible through her burqa. Rasheed, anxious and overly attentive, was holding her elbow, directing her across the yard like a traffic policeman. He made a Wait here gesture, rushed to the front gate, then motioned for the girl to come forward, one foot propping the gate open. When she reached him, he took her by the hand, helped her through the gate. Mariam could almost hear him say, "Watch your step, now, my flower, my gul."
They came back early the next evening.
Mariam saw Rasheed enter the yard first. He let the gate go prematurely, and it almost hit the girl on the face. He crossed the yard in a few, quick steps. Mariam detected a shadow on his face, a darkness underlying the coppery light of dusk. In the house, he took off his coat, threw it on the couch. Brushing past Mariam, he said in a brusque voice, "I'm hungry. Get supper ready."
The front door to the house opened. From the hallway, Mariam saw the girl, a swaddled bundle in the hook of her left arm. She had one foot outside, the other inside, against the door, to prevent it from springing shut. She was stooped over and was grunting, trying to reach for the paper bag of belongings that she had put down in order to open the door. Her face was grimacing with effort. She looked up and saw Mariam.
Mariam turned around and went to the kitchen to warm Rasheed's meal.
"IT'S LIKE SOMEONE is ramming a screwdriver into my ear," Rasheed said, rubbing his eyes. He was standing in Mariam's door, puffy-eyed, wearing only a tumban tied with a floppy knot. His white hair was straggly, pointing every which way. "This crying. I can't stand it."
Downstairs, the girl was walking the baby across the floor, trying to sing to her.
"I haven't had a decent night's sleep in two months," Rasheed said. "And the room smells like a sewer. There's shit cloths lying all over the place. I stepped on one just the other night."
Mariam smirked inwardly with perverse pleasure.
"Take her outside!" Rasheed yelled over his shoulder. "Can't you take her outside?"
The singing was suspended briefly. "She'll catch pneumonia!"
Rasheed clenched his teeth and raised his voice. "I said, It's warm out!"
"I'm not taking her outside!"
The singing resumed.
"Sometimes, I swear, sometimes I want to put that thing in a box and let her float down Kabul River. Like baby Moses."
Mariam never heard him call his daughter by the name the girl had given her, Aziza, the Cherished One. It was always the baby, or, when he was really exasperated, that thing.
Some nights, Mariam overheard them arguing. She tiptoed to their door, listened to him complain about the baby Ц always the baby Ц the insistent crying, the smells, the toys that made him trip, the way the baby had hijacked Laila's attentions from him with constant demands to be fed, burped, changed, walked, held. The girl, in turn, scolded him for smoking in the room, for not letting the baby sleep with them.
There were other arguments waged in voices pitched low.
"The doctor said six weeks."
"Not yet, Rasheed. No. Let go. Come on. Don't do that."
"It's been two months."
"Ssht. There. You woke up the baby." Then more sharply, "Khosh shodi? Happy now?"
Mariam would sneak back to her room.
"Can't you help?" Rasheed said now. "There must be something you can do."
"What do I know about babies?" Mariam said.
"Rasheed! Can you bring the bottle? It's sitting on the almari. She won't feed. I want to try the bottle again."
The baby's screeching rose and fell like a cleaver on meat.
Rasheed closed his eyes. "That thing is a warlord. Hekmatyar. I'm telling you, Laila's given birth to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar."
MARIAM WATCHED as the girl's days became consumed with cycles of feeding, rocking, bouncing, walking. Even when the baby napped, there were soiled diapers to scrub and leave to soak in a pail of the disinfectant that the girl had insisted Rasheed buy for her. There were fingernails to trim with sandpaper, coveralls and pajamas to wash and hang to dry. These clothes, like other things about the baby, became a point of contention.
"What's the matter with them?" Rasheed said
"They're boys' clothes. For a bacha."
"You think she knows the difference? I paid good money for those clothes. And another thing, I don't care for that tone. Consider that a warning."
Every week, without fail, the girl heated a black metal brazier over a flame, tossed a pinch of wild rue seeds in it, and wafted the espandi smoke in her baby's direction to ward off evil.
Mariam found it exhausting to watch the girl's lolloping enthusiasm Ц and had to admit, if only privately, to a degree of admiration. She marveled at how the girl's eyes shone with worship, even in the mornings when her face drooped and her complexion was waxy from a night's worth of walking the baby. The girl had fits of laughter when the baby passed gas. The tiniest changes in the baby enchanted her, and everything it did was declared spectacular.
"Look! She's reaching for the rattle. How clever she is."
"I'll call the newspapers," said Rasheed.
Every night, there were demonstrations. When the girl insisted he witness something, Rasheed tipped his chin upward and cast an impatient, sidelong glance down the blue-veined hook of his nose.
"Watch. Watch how she laughs when I snap my fingers. There. See? Did you see?"
Rasheed would grunt, and go back to his plate. Mariam remembered how the girl's mere presence used to overwhelm him. Everything she said used to please him, intrigue him, make him look up from his plate and nod with approval.
The strange thing was, the girl's fall from grace ought to have pleased Mariam, brought her a sense of vindication. But it didn't. It didn't. To her own surprise, Mariam found herself pitying the girl.
It was also over dinner that the girl let loose a steady stream of worries. Topping the list was pneumonia, which was suspected with every minor cough. Then there was dysentery, the specter of which was raised with every loose stool. Every rash was either chicken pox or measles.
"You should not get so attached," Rasheed said one night.
"What do you mean?"
"I was listening to the radio the other night. Voice of America. I heard an interesting statistic. They said that in Afghanistan one out of four children will die before the age of five. That's what they said. Now, they Ц What? What? Where are you going? Come back here. Get back here this instant!"
He gave Mariam a bewildered look. "What's the matter with her?"
That night, Mariam was lying in bed when the bickering started again. It was a hot, dry summer night, typical of the month of Saratan in Kabul. Mariam had opened her window, then shut it when no breeze came through to temper the heat, only mosquitoes. She could feel the heat rising from the ground outside, through the wheat brown, splintered planks of the outhouse in the yard, up through the walls and into her room.
Usually, the bickering ran its course after a few minutes, but half an hour passed and not only was it still going on, it was escalating. Mariam could hear Rasheed shouting now. The girl's voice, underneath his, was tentative and shrill. Soon the baby was wailing.
Then Mariam heard their door open violently. In the morning, she would find the doorknob's circular impression in the hallway wall. She was sitting up in bed when her own door slammed open and Rasheed came through.
He was wearing white underpants and a matching undershirt, stained yellow in the underarms with sweat. On his feet he wore flip-flops. He held a belt in his hand, the brown leather one he'd bought for his nikka with the girl, and was wrapping the perforated end around his fist.
"It's your doing. I know it is," he snarled, advancing on her.
Mariam slid out of her bed and began backpedaling. Her arms instinctively crossed over her chest, where he often struck her first.
"What are you talking about?" she stammered.
"Her denying me. You're teaching her to."
Over the years, Mariam had learned to harden herself against his scorn and reproach, his ridiculing and reprimanding. But this fear she had no control over. All these years and still she shivered with fright when he was like this, sneering, tightening the belt around his fist, the creaking of the leather, the glint in his bloodshot eyes. It was the fear of the goat, released in the tiger's cage, when the tiger first looks up from its paws, begins to growl.
Now the girl was in the room, her eyes wide, her face contorted
"I should have known that you'd corrupt her," Rasheed spat at Mariam. He swung the belt, testing it against his own thigh. The buckle jingled loudly.
"Stop it, bas!" the girl said. "Rasheed, you can't do this."
"Go back to the room."
Mariam backpedaled again.
"No! Don't do this!"
Rasheed raised the belt again and this time came at Mariam.
Then an astonishing thing happened: The girl lunged at him. She grabbed his arm with both hands and tried to drag him down, but she could do no more than dangle from it. She did succeed in slowing Rasheed's progress toward Mariam.
"Let go!" Rasheed cried.
"You win. You win. Don't do this. Please, Rasheed, no beating! Please don't do this."
They struggled like this, the girl hanging on, pleading, Rasheed trying to shake her off, keeping his eyes on Mariam, who was too stunned to do anything.
In the end, Mariam knew that there would be no beating, not that night. He'd made his point. He stayed that way a few moments longer, arm raised, chest heaving, a fine sheen of sweat filming his brow. Slowly, Rasheed lowered his arm. The girl's feet touched ground and still she wouldn't let go, as if she didn't trust him. He had to yank his arm free of her grip.