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Next to Laila, Aziza snorted.
Zaman feigned a gasp. "Ah, there. I've made you laugh, little hamshira. That's usually the hard part. I was worried, there, for a while. I thought I'd have to cluck like a chicken or bray like a donkey. But, there you are. And so lovely you are."
He called in an attendant to look after Aziza for a few moments. Aziza leaped onto Mariam's lap and clung to her.
"We're just going to talk, my love, "Laila said. "I'll be right here. All right? Right here."
"Why don't we go outside for a minute, Aziza jo?" Mariam said. "Your mother needs to talk to Kaka Zaman here. Just for a minute. Now, come on."
When they were alone, Zaman asked for Aziza's date of birth, history of illnesses, allergies. He asked about Aziza's father, and Laila had the strange experience of telling a lie that was really the truth. Zaman listened, his expression revealing neither belief nor skepticism. He ran the orphanage on the honor system, he said. If a hamshira said her husband was dead and she couldn't care for her children, he didn't question it.
Laila began to cry.
Zaman put down his pen.
"I'm ashamed," Laila croaked, her palm pressed to her mouth.
"Look at me, hamshira. "
"What kind of mother abandons her own child?"
"Look at me."
Laila raised her gaze.
"It isn't your fault. Do you hear me? Not you. It's those savages, those wahshis, who are to blame. They bring shame on me as a Pashtun. They've disgraced the name of my people. And you're not alone, hamshira. We get mothers like you all the time Ц all the time Ц mothers who come here who can't feed their children because the Taliban won't let them go out and make a living. So you don't blame yourself. No one here blames you. I understand." He leaned forward. "Hamshira, I understand."
Laila wiped her eyes with the cloth of her burqa.
"As for this place," Zaman sighed, motioning with his hand, "you can see that it's in dire state. We're always underfunded, always scrambling, improvising. We get little or no support from the Taliban. But we manage. Like you, we do what we have to do. Allah is good and kind, and Allah provides, and, as long He provides, I will see to it that Aziza is fed and clothed. That much I promise you."
He was smiling companionably. "But don't cry, hamshira. Don't let her see you cry."
Laila wiped her eyes again. "God bless you," she said thickly. "God bless you, brother."
* * *
BUT WHEN THE time for good-byes came, the scene erupted precisely as Laila had dreaded.
All the way home, leaning on Mariam, Laila heard Aziza's shrill cries. In her head, she saw Zaman's thick, calloused hands close around Aziza's arms; she saw them pull, gently at first, then harder, then with force to pry Aziza loose from her. She saw Aziza kicking in Zaman's arms as he hurriedly turned the corner, heard Aziza screaming as though she were about to vanish from the face of the earth. And Laila saw herself running down the hallway, head down, a howl rising up her throat.
"I smell her," she told Mariam at home. Her eyes swam unseeingly past Mariam's shoulder, past the yard, the walls, to the mountains, brown as smoker's spit. "I smell her sleep smell. Do you? Do you smell it?"
"Oh, Laila jo," said Mariam. "Don't. What good is this? What good?"
AT FIRST, Rasheed humored Laila, and accompanied them Ц her, Mariam, and Zalmai Ц to the orphanage, though he made sure, as they walked, that she had an eyeful of his grievous looks, an earful of his rants over what a hardship she was putting him through, how badly his legs and back and feet ached walking to and from the orphanage. He made sure she knew how awfully put out he was.
"I'm not a young man anymore," he said. "Not that you care. You'd run me to the ground, if you had your way. But you don't, Laila. You don't have your way."
They parted ways two blocks from the orphanage, and he never spared them more than fifteen minutes. "A minute late," he said, "and I start walking. I mean it."
Laila had to pester him, plead with him, in order to spin out the allotted minutes with Aziza a bit longer. For herself, and for Mariam, who was disconsolate over Aziza's absence, though, as always, Mariam chose to cradle her own suffering privately and quietly. And for Zalmai too, who asked for his sister every day, and threw tantrums that sometimes dissolved into inconsolable fits of crying.
Sometimes, on the way to the orphanage, Rasheed stopped and complained that his leg was sore. Then he turned around and started walking home in long, steady strides, without so much as a limp. Or he clucked his tongue and said, "It's my lungs, Laila. I'm short of breath. Maybe tomorrow I'll feel better, or the day after. We'll see." He never bothered to feign a single raspy breath. Often, as he turned back and marched home, he lit a cigarette. Laila would have to tail him home, helpless, trembling with resentment and impotent rage.
Then one day he told Laila he wouldn't take her anymore. "I'm too tired from walking the streets all day," he said, "looking for work."
"Then I'll go by myself," Laila said. "You can't stop me, Rasheed. Do you hear me? You can hit me all you want, but I'll keep going there."
"Do as you wish. But you won't get past the Taliban. Don't say I didn't warn you."
"I'm coming with you," Mariam said.
Laila wouldn't allow it. "You have to stay home with Zalmai. If we get stoppedЕI don't want him to see."
And so Laila's life suddenly revolved around finding ways to see Aziza. Half the time, she never made it to the orphanage. Crossing the street, she was spotted by the Taliban and riddled with questions Ц What is your name? Where are you going? Why are you alone? Where is your mahram? Ц before she was sent home. If she was lucky, she was given a tongue-lashing or a single kick to the rear, a shove in the back. Other times, she met with assortments of wooden clubs, fresh tree branches, short whips, slaps, often fists.
One day, a young Talib beat Laila with a radio antenna. When he was done, he gave a final whack to the back of her neck and said, "I see you again, I'll beat you until your mother's milk leaks out of your bones."
That time, Laila went home. She lay on her stomach, feeling like a stupid, pitiable animal, and hissed as Mariam arranged damp cloths across her bloodied back and thighs. But, usually, Laila refused to cave in. She made as if she were going home, then took a different route down side streets. Sometimes she was caught, questioned, scolded Ц two, three, even four times in a single day. Then the whips came down and the antennas sliced through the air, and she trudged home, bloodied, without so much as a glimpse of Aziza. Soon Laila took to wearing extra layers, even in the heat, two, three sweaters beneath the burqa, for padding against the beatings.
But for Laila, the reward, if she made it past the Taliban, was worth it. She could spend as much time as she liked then Ц hours, even Ц with Aziza. They sat in the courtyard, near the swing set, among other children and visiting mothers, and talked about what Aziza had learned that week.
Aziza said Kaka Zaman made it a point to teach them something every day, reading and writing most days, sometimes geography, a bit of history or science, something about plants, animals.
"But we have to pull the curtains," Aziza said, "so the Taliban don't see us." Kaka Zaman had knitting needles and balls of yarn ready, she said, in case of a Taliban inspection. "We put the books away and pretend to knit."
One day, during a visit with Aziza, Laila saw a middle-aged woman, her burqa pushed back, visiting with three boys and a girl. Laila recognized the sharp face, the heavy eyebrows, if not the sunken mouth and gray hair. She remembered the shawls, the black skirts, the curt voice, how she used to wear her jet-black hair tied in a bun so that you could see the dark bristles on the back of her neck. Laila remembered this woman once forbidding the female students from covering, saying women and men were equal, that there was no reason women should cover if men didn't.
At one point, Khala Rangmaal looked up and caught her gaze, but Laila saw no lingering, no light of recognition, in her old teacher's eyes.
"THEY'RE FRACTURES along the earth's crust," said Aziza. "They're called faults."
It was a warm afternoon, a Friday, in June of 2001. They were sitting in the orphanage's back lot, the four of them, Laila, Zalmai, Mariam, and Aziza. Rasheed had relented this time Ц as he infrequently did Ц and accompanied the four of them. He was waiting down the street, by the bus stop.
Barefoot kids scampered about around them. A flat soccer ball was kicked around, chased after listlessly.
"And, on either side of the faults, there are these sheets of rock that make up the earth's crust," Aziza was saying.
Someone had pulled the hair back from Aziza's face, braided it, and pinned it neatly on top of her head. Laila begrudged whoever had gotten to sit behind her daughter, to flip sections of her hair one over the other, had asked her to sit still.
Aziza was demonstrating by opening her hands, palms up, and rubbing them against each other. Zalmai watched this with intense interest.
"Kectonic plates, they're called?"
"Tectonic," Laila said. It hurt to talk. Her jaw was still sore, her back and neck ached. Her lip was swollen, and her tongue kept poking the empty pocket of the lower incisor Rasheed had knocked loose two days before. Before Mammy and Babi had died and her life turned upside down, Laila never would have believed that a human body could withstand this much beating, this viciously, this regularly, and keep functioning.
"Right. And when they slide past each other, they catch and slip Ц see, Mammy? Ц and it releases energy, which travels to the earth's surface and makes it shake."
"You're getting so smart," Mariam said "So much smarter than your dumb khala."
Aziza's face glowed, broadened. "You're not dumb, Khala Mariam. And Kaka Zaman says that, sometimes, the shifting of rocks is deep, deep below, and it's powerful and scary down there, but all we feel on the surface is a slight tremor. Only a slight tremor."
The visit before this one, it was oxygen atoms in the atmosphere scattering the blue light from the sun. If the earth had no atmosphere, Aziza had said a little breathlessly, the sky wouldn't be blue at all but a pitch-black sea and the sun a big bright star in the dark.
"Is Aziza coming home with us this time?" Zalmai said.
"Soon, my love," Laila said. "Soon."
Laila watched him wander away, walking like his father, stooping forward, toes turned in. He walked to the swing set, pushed an empty seat, ended up sitting on the concrete, ripping weeds from a crack.
Water evaporates from the leaves Ц Mammy, did you know? Ц the way it does from laundry hanging from a line. And that drives the flow of water up the tree. From the ground and through the roots, then all the way up the tree trunk, through the branches and into the leaves. It's called transpiration.
More than once, Laila had wondered what the Taliban would do about Kaka Zaman's clandestine lessons if they found out.
During visits, Aziza didn't allow for much silence. She filled all the spaces with effusive speech, delivered in a high, ringing voice. She was tangential with her topics, and her hands gesticulated wildly, flying up with a nervousness that wasn't like her at all. She had a new laugh, Aziza did. Not so much a laugh, really, as nervous punctuation, meant, Laila suspected, to reassure.
And there were other changes. Laila would notice the dirt under Aziza's fingernails, and Aziza would notice her noticing and bury her hands under her thighs. Whenever a kid cried in their vicinity, snot oozing from his nose, or if a kid walked by bare-assed, hair clumped with dirt, Aziza's eyelids fluttered and she was quick to explain it away. She was like a hostess embarrassed in front of her guests by the squalor of her home, the untidiness of her children.
Questions of how she was coping were met with vague but cheerful replies.
Doing fine, Khala I'm fine.
Do kids pick on you?
They don't Mammy. Everyone is nice.
Are you eating? Sleeping all right?
Eating. Sleeping too. Yes. We had lamb last night. Maybe it was last week.
When Aziza spoke like this, Laila saw more than a little of Mariam in her.
Aziza stammered now. Mariam noticed it first. It was subtle but perceptible, and more pronounced with words that began with t . Laila asked Zaman about it. He frowned and said, "I thought she'd always done that."
They left the orphanage with Aziza that Friday afternoon for a short outing and met Rasheed, who was waiting for them by the bus stop. When Zalmai spotted his father, he uttered an excited squeak and impatiently wriggled from Laila's arms. Aziza's greeting to Rasheed was rigid but not hostile.
Rasheed said they should hurry, he had only two hours before he had to report back to work. This was his first week as a doorman for the Intercontinental. From noon to eight, six days a week, Rasheed opened car doors, carried luggage, mopped up the occasional spill. Sometimes, at day's end, the cook at the buffet-style restaurant let Rasheed bring home a few leftovers Ц as long as he was discreet about it Ц cold meatballs sloshing in oil; fried chicken wings, the crust gone hard and dry; stuffed pasta shells turned chewy; stiff, gravelly rice. Rasheed had promised Laila that once he had some money saved up, Aziza could move back home.
Rasheed was wearing his uniform, a burgundy red polyester suit, white shirt, clip-on tie, visor cap pressing down on his white hair. In this uniform, Rasheed was transformed. He looked vulnerable, pitiably bewildered, almost harmless. Like someone who had accepted without a sigh of protest the indignities life had doled out to him. Someone both pathetic and admirable in his docility.
They rode the bus to Titanic City. They walked into the riverbed, flanked on either side by makeshift stalls clinging to the dry banks. Near the bridge, as they were descending the steps, a barefoot man dangled dead from a crane, his ears cut off, his neck bent at the end of a rope. In the river, they melted into the horde of shoppers milling about, the money changers and bored-looking NGO workers, the cigarette vendors, the covered women who thrust fake antibiotic prescriptions at people and begged for money to fill them. Whip-toting, naswar -chewing Talibs patrolled Titanic City on the lookout for the indiscreet laugh, the unveiled face.
From a toy kiosk, between a poosteen coat vendor and a fake-flower stand, Zalmai picked out a rubber basketball with yellow and blue swirls.
"Pick something," Rasheed said to Aziza.
Aziza hedged, stiffened with embarrassment.
"Hurry. I have to be at work in an hour."
Aziza chose a gum-ball machine Ц the same coin could be inserted to get candy, then retrieved from the flap-door coin return below.
Rasheed's eyebrows shot up when the seller quoted him the price. A round of haggling ensued, at the end of which Rasheed said to Aziza contentiously, as if it were she who'd haggled him, "Give it back. I can't afford both."
On the way back, Aziza's high-spirited façade waned the closer they got to the orphanage. The hands stopped flying up. Her face turned heavy. It happened every time. It was Laila's turn now, with Mariam pitching in, to take up the chattering, to laugh nervously, to fill the melancholy quiet with breathless, aimless banter.
Later, after Rasheed had dropped them off and taken a bus to work, Laila watched Aziza wave good-bye and scuff along the wall in the orphanage back lot. She thought of Aziza's stutter, and of what Aziza had said earlier about fractures and powerful collisions deep down and how sometimes all we see on the surface is a slight tremor.
"GET AWAY, YOU!" Zalmai cried.
"Hush," Mariam said "Who are you yelling at?"
He pointed. "There. That man."
Laila followed his finger. There was a man at the front door of the house, leaning against it. His head turned when he saw them approaching. He uncrossed his arms. Limped a few steps toward them.
A choking noise came up her throat. Her knees weakened. Laila suddenly wanted, needed, to grope for Mariam's arm, her shoulder, her wrist, something, anything, to lean on. But she didn't. She didn't dare. She didn't dare move a muscle. She didn't dare breathe, or blink even, for fear that he was nothing but a mirage shimmering in the distance, a brittle illusion that would vanish at the slightest provocation. Laila stood perfectly still and looked at Tariq until her chest screamed for air and her eyes burned to blink. And, somehow, miraculously, after she took a breath, closed and opened her eyes, he was still standing there. Tariq was still standing there.
Laila allowed herself to take a step toward him. Then another. And another. And then she was running.
Upstairs, in Mariam's room, Zalmai was wound up. He bounced his new rubber basketball around for a while, on the floor, against the walls. Mariam asked him not to, but he knew that she had no authority to exert over him and so he went on bouncing his ball, his eyes holding hers defiantly. For a while, they pushed his toy car, an ambulance with bold red lettering on the sides, sending it back and forth between them across the room.
Earlier, when they had met Tariq at the door, Zalmai had clutched the basketball close to his chest and stuck a thumb in his mouth Ц something he didn't do anymore except when he was apprehensive. He had eyed Tariq with suspicion.
"Who is that man?" he said now. "I don't like him."
Mariam was going to explain, say something about him and Laila growing up together, but Zalmai cut her off and said to turn the ambulance around, so the front grille faced him, and, when she did, he said he wanted his basketball again.
"Where is it?" he said. "Where is the ball Baba jan got me? Where is it? I want it! I want it!" his voice rising and becoming more shrill with each word.
"It was just here," Mariam said, and he cried, "No, it's lost, I know it. I just know it's lost! Where is it? Where is it?"
"Here," she said, fetching the ball from the closet where it had rolled to. But Zalmai was bawling now and pounding his fists, crying that it wasn't the same ball, it couldn't be, because his ball was lost, and this was a fake one, where had his real ball gone? Where? Where where where?
He screamed until Laila had to come upstairs to hold him, to rock him and run her fingers through his tight, dark curls, to dry his moist cheeks and cluck her tongue in his ear.
Mariam waited outside the room. From atop the staircase, all she could see of Tariq were his long legs, the real one and the artificial one, in khaki pants, stretched out on the uncarpeted living-room floor. It was then that she realized why the doorman at the Continental had looked familiar the day she and Rasheed had gone there to place the call to Jalil. He'd been wearing a cap and sunglasses, that was why it hadn't come to her earlier. But Mariam remembered now, from nine years before, remembered him sitting downstairs, patting his brow with a handkerchief and asking for water. Now all manner of questions raced through her mind: Had the sulfa pills too been part of the ruse? Which one of them had plotted the lie, provided the convincing details? And how much had Rasheed paid Abdul Sharif Ц if that was even his name Ц to come and crush Laila with the story of Tariq's death?
Tariq said that one of the men who shared his cell had a cousin who'd been publicly flogged once for painting flamingos. He, the cousin, had a seemingly incurable thing for them.
"Entire sketchbooks," Tariq said. "Dozens of oil paintings of them, wading in lagoons, sunbathing in marshlands. Flying into sunsets too, I'm afraid."
"Flamingos," Laila said. She looked at him sitting against the wall, his good leg bent at the knee. She had an urge to touch him again, as she had earlier by the front gate when she'd run to him. It embarrassed her now to think of how she'd thrown her arms around his neck and wept into his chest, how she'd said his name over and over in a slurring, thick voice. Had she acted too eagerly, she wondered, too desperately? Maybe so. But she hadn't been able to help it. And now she longed to touch him again, to prove to herself again that he was really here, that he was not a dream, an apparition.
"Indeed," he said. "Flamingos."
When the Taliban had found the paintings, Tariq said, they'd taken offense at the birds' long, bare legs. After they'd tied the cousin's feet and flogged his soles bloody, they had presented him with a choice: Either destroy the paintings or make the flamingos decent. So the cousin had picked up his brush and painted trousers on every last bird
"And there you have it. Islamic flamingos," Tariq said.
Laughter came up, but Laila pushed it back down. She was ashamed of her yellowing teeth, the missing incisor.
Ashamed of her withered looks and swollen lip. She wished she'd had the chance to wash her face, at least comb her hair.
"But he'll have the last laugh, the cousin," Tariq said. "He painted those trousers with watercolor. When the Taliban are gone, he'll just wash them off." He smiled Ц Laila noticed that he had a missing tooth of his own Ц and looked down at his hands. "Indeed."
He was wearing a pakol on his head, hiking boots, and a black wool sweater tucked into the waist of khaki pants. He was half smiling, nodding slowly. Laila didn't remember him saying this before, this word indeed, and this pensive gesture, the fingers making a tent in his lap, the nodding, it was new too. Such an adult word, such an adult gesture, and why should it be so startling? He was an adult now, Tariq, a twenty-five-year-old man with slow movements and a tiredness to his smile. Tall, bearded, slimmer than in her dreams of him, but with strong-looking hands, workman's hands, with tortuous, full veins. His face was still lean and handsome but not fair-skinned any longer; his brow had a weathered look to it, sunburned, like his neck, the brow of a traveler at the end of a long and wearying journey. His pakol was pushed back on his head, and she could see that he'd started to lose his hair. The hazel of his eyes was duller than she remembered, paler, or perhaps it was merely the light in the room.
Laila thought of Tariq's mother, her unhurried manners, the clever smiles, the dull purple wig. And his father, with his squinty gaze, his wry humor. Earlier, at the door, with a voice full of tears, tripping over her own words, she'd told Tariq what she thought had happened to him and his parents, and he had shaken his head. So now she asked him how they were doing, his parents. But she regretted the question when Tariq looked down and said, a bit distractedly, "Passed on."
"I'm so sorry."
"Well. Yes. Me too. Here." He fished a small paper bag from his pocket and passed it to her. "Compliments of Alyona." Inside was a block of cheese in plastic wrap.
"Alyona. It's a pretty name." Laila tried to say this next without wavering. "Your wife?"
"My goat." He was smiling at her expectantly, as though waiting for her to retrieve a memory.
Then Laila remembered. The Soviet film. Alyona had been the captain's daughter, the girl in love with the first mate. That was the day that she, Tariq, and Hasina had watched Soviet tanks and jeeps leave Kabul, the day Tariq had worn that ridiculous Russian fur hat.
"I had to tie her to a stake in the ground," Tariq was saying. "And build a fence. Because of the wolves. In the foothills where I live, there's a wooded area nearby, maybe a quarter of a mile away, pine trees mostly, some fir, deodars. They mostly stick to the woods, the wolves do, but a bleating goat, one that likes to go wandering, that can draw them out. So the fence. The stake."
Laila asked him which foothills.
"Pir Panjal Pakistan," he said "Where I live is called Murree; it's a summer retreat, an hour from Islamabad. It's hilly and green, lots of trees, high above sea level So it's cool in the summer. Perfect for tourists."
The British had built it as a hill station near their military headquarters in Rawalpindi, he said, for the Victorians to escape the heat. You could still spot a few relics of the colonial times, Tariq said, the occasional tearoom, tin-roofed bungalows, called cottages, that sort of thing. The town itself was small and pleasant. The main street was called the Mall, where there was a post office, a bazaar, a few restaurants, shops that overcharged tourists for painted glass and handknotted carpets. Curiously, the Mall's one-way traffic flowed in one direction one week, the opposite direction the next week.
"The locals say that Ireland's traffic is like that too in places," Tariq said. "I wouldn't know. Anyway, it's nice. It's a plain life, but I like it. I like living there."
"With your goat. With Alyona."
Laila meant this less as a joke than as a surreptitious entry into another line of talk, such as who else was there with him worrying about wolves eating goats. But Tariq only went on nodding.
"I'm sorry about your parents too," he said.
"I spoke to some neighbors earlier," he said. A pause, during which Laila wondered what else the neighbors had told him. "I don't recognize anybody. From the old days, I mean."
"They're all gone. There's no one left you'd know."
"I don't recognize Kabul."
"Neither do I," Laila said. "And I never left."
"MAMMY HAS a new friend," Zalmai said after dinner later that same night, after Tariq had left. "A man."
Rasheed looked up. "Does she, now?"
TARIQ ASKED IF he could smoke.
They had stayed awhile at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Tariq said, tapping ash into a saucer. There were sixty thousand Afghans living there already when he and his parents arrived.
"It wasn't as bad as some of the other camps like, God forbid, Jalozai," he said. "I guess at one point it was even some kind of model camp, back during the Cold War, a place the West could point to and prove to the world they weren't just funneling arms into Afghanistan."
But that had been during the Soviet war, Tariq said, the days of jihad and worldwide interest and generous funding and visits from Margaret Thatcher.
"You know the rest, Laila. After the war, the Soviets fell apart, and the West moved on. There was nothing at stake for them in Afghanistan anymore and the money dried up. Now Nasir Bagh is tents, dust, and open sewers. When we got there, they handed us a stick and a sheet of canvas and told us to build ourselves a tent."
Tariq said what he remembered most about Nasir Bagh, where they had stayed for a year, was the color brown. "Brown tents. Brown people. Brown dogs. Brown porridge."
There was a leafless tree he climbed every day, where he straddled a branch and watched the refugees lying about in the sun, their sores and stumps in plain view. He watched little emaciated boys carrying water in their jerry cans, gathering dog droppings to make fire, carving toy AK-47s out of wood with dull knives, lugging the sacks of wheat flour that no one could make bread from that held together. All around the refugee town, the wind made the tents flap. It hurled stubbles of weed everywhere, lifted kites flown from the roofs of mud hovels.
"A lot of kids died. Dysentery, TB, hunger Ц you name it. Mostly, that damn dysentery. God, Laila. I saw so many kids buried. There's nothing worse a person can see."