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Laila murmured encouragingly. It would be an existence rife with difficulties, she saw, but of a pleasurable kind, difficulties they could take pride in, possess, value, as one would a family heirloom. Mariam's soft maternal voice went on, brought a degree of comfort to her. There is a way, she'd said, and, in the morning, Mariam would tell her what needed to be done and they would do it, and maybe by tomorrow this time they would be on their way to this new life, a life luxuriant with possibility and joy and welcomed difficulties. Laila was grateful that Mariam was in charge, unclouded and sober, able to think this through for both of them. Her own mind was a jittery, muddled mess.
Mariam got up. "You should tend to your son now." On her was the most stricken expression Laila had ever seen on a human face.
LAILA FOUND HIM in the dark, curled up on Rasheed's side of the mattress. She slipped beneath the covers beside him and pulled the blanket over them.
"Are you asleep?"
Without turning around to face her, he said, "Can't sleep yet. Baba jan hasn't said the Babaloo prayers with me."
"Maybe I can say them with you tonight."
"You can't say them like he can."
She squeezed his little shoulder. Kissed the nape of his neck. "I can try."
"Where is Baba jan?"
"Baba jan has gone away," Laila said, her throat closing up again.
And there it was, spoken for the first time, the great, damning lie. How many more times would this lie have to be told? Laila wondered miserably. How many more times would Zalmai have to be deceived? She pictured Zalmai, his jubilant, running welcomes when Rasheed came home and Rasheed picking him up by the elbows and swinging him round and round until Zalmai's legs flew straight out, the two of them giggling afterward when Zalmai stumbled around like a drunk. She thought of their disorderly games and their boisterous laughs, their secretive glances.
A pall of shame and grief for her son fell over Laila.
"Where did he go?"
"I don't know, my love."
When was he coming back? Would Baba jan bring a present with him when he returned?
She did the prayers with Zalmai. Twenty-one Bismallah-e-rahman-erahims – one for each knuckle of seven fingers. She watched him cup his hands before his face and blow into them, then place the back of both hands on his forehead and make a casting-away motion, whispering, Babaloo, be gone, do not come to Zalmai, he has no business with you. Babaloo, be gone. Then, to finish off, they said Allah-u-akbar three times. And later, much later that night, Laila was startled by a muted voice: Did Baba jan leave because of me? Because of what I said, about you and the man downstairs?
She leaned over him, meaning to reassure, meaning to say It had nothing to do with you, Zalmai. No. Nothing is your fault. But he was asleep, his small chest rising and sinking.
WHEN LAILA WENT to bed, her mind was muffled up, clouded, incapable of sustained rational thought. But when she woke up, to the muezzin's call for morning prayer, much of the dullness had lifted.
She sat up and watched Zalmai sleep for a while, the ball of his fist under his chin. Laila pictured Mariam sneaking into the room in the middle of the night as she and Zalmai had slept, watching them, making plans in her head.
Laila slipped out of bed. It took effort to stand. She ached everywhere. Her neck, her shoulders, her back, her arms, her thighs, all engraved with the cuts of Rasheed's belt buckle. Wincing, she quietly left the bedroom.
In Mariam's room, the light was a shade darker than gray, the kind of light Laila had always associated with crowing roosters and dew rolling off blades of grass. Mariam was sitting in a corner, on a prayer rug facing the window. Slowly, Laila lowered herself to the ground, sitting down across from her.
"You should go and visit Aziza this morning," Mariam said.
"I know what you mean to do."
"Don't walk. Take the bus, you'll blend in. Taxis are too conspicuous. You're sure to get stopped for riding alone."
"What you promised last night…"
Laila could not finish. The trees, the lake, the nameless village. A delusion, she saw. A lovely lie meant to soothe. Like cooing to a distressed child.
"I meant it," Mariam said. "I meant it for you, Laila jo."
"I don't want any of it without you," Laila croaked.
Mariam smiled wanly.
"I want it to be just like you said, Mariam, all of us going together, you, me, the children. Tariq has a place in Pakistan. We can hide out there for a while, wait for things to calm down-"
"That's not possible," Mariam said patiently, like a parent to a well-meaning but misguided child.
"We'll take care of each other," Laila said, choking on the words, her eyes wet with tears. "Like you said. No. I'll take care of you for a change."
"Oh, Laila jo."
Laila went on a stammering rant. She bargained. She promised. She would do all the cleaning, she said, and all the cooking. "You won't have to do a thing. Ever again. You rest, sleep in, plant a garden. Whatever you want, you ask and I'll get it for you. Don't do this, Mariam. Don't leave me. Don't break Aziza's heart."
"They chop off hands for stealing bread," Mariam said "What do you think they'll do when they find a dead husband and two missing wives?"
"No one will know," Laila breathed. "No one will find us."
"They will. Sooner or later. They're bloodhounds." Mariam's voice was low, cautioning; it made Laila's promises sound fantastical, trumped-up, foolish.
"When they do, they'll find you as guilty as me. Tariq too. I won't have the two of you living on the run, like fugitives. What will happen to your children if you're caught?"
Laila's eyes brimming, stinging.
"Who will take care of them then? The Taliban? Think like a mother, Laila jo. Think like a mother. I am."
"You have to."
"It isn't fair," Laila croaked.
"But it is. Come here. Come lie here."
Laila crawled to her and again put her head on Mariam's lap. She remembered all the afternoons they'd spent together, braiding each other's hair, Mariam listening patiently to her random thoughts and ordinary stories with an air of gratitude, with the expression of a person to whom a unique and coveted privilege had been extended "It is fair," Mariam said. "I've killed our husband. I've deprived your son of his father. It isn't right that I run. I can't. Even if they never catch us, I'll never…" Her lips trembled. "I'll never escape your son's grief How do I look at him? How do I ever bring myself to look at him, Laila jo?"
Mariam twiddled a strand of Laila's hair, untangled a stubborn curl.
"For me, it ends here. There's nothing more I want. Everything I'd ever wished for as a little girl you've already given me. You and your children have made me so very happy. It's all right, Laila jo. This is all right. Don't be sad."
Laila could find no reasonable answer for anything Mariam said. But she rambled on anyway, incoherently, childishly, about fruit trees that awaited planting and chickens that awaited raising. She went on about small houses in unnamed towns, and walks to trout-filled lakes. And, in the end, when the words dried up, the tears did not, and all Laila could do was surrender and sob like a child over-whelmed by an adult's unassailable logic. All she could do was roll herself up and bury her face one last time in the welcoming warmth of Mariam's lap.
LATER THAT MORNING, Mariam packed Zalmai a small lunch of bread and dried figs. For Aziza too she packed some figs, and a few cookies shaped like animals. She put it all in a paper bag and gave it to Laila.
"Kiss Aziza for me," she said. "Tell her she is the noor of my eyes and the sultan of my heart. Will you do that for me?"
Laila nodded, her lips pursed together.
"Take the bus, like I said, and keep your head low."
"When will I see you, Mariam? I want to see you before I testify. I'll tell them how it happened. I'll explain that it wasn't your fault. That you had to do it. They'll understand, won't they, Mariam? They'll understand."
Mariam gave her a soft look.
She hunkered down to eye level with Zalmai. He was wearing a red T-shirt, ragged khakis, and a used pair of cowboy boots Rasheed had bought him from Mandaii. He was holding his new basketball with both hands. Mariam planted a kiss on his cheek.
"You be a good, strong boy, now," she said. "You treat your mother well." She cupped his face. He pulled back but she held on. "I am so sorry, Zalmai jo. Believe me that I'm so very sorry for all your pain and sadness."
Laila held Zalmai's hand as they walked down the road together. Just before they turned the corner, Laila looked back and saw Mariam at the door. Mariam was wearing a white scarf over her head, a dark blue sweater buttoned in the front, and white cotton trousers. A crest of gray hair had fallen loose over her brow. Bars of sunlight slashed across her face and shoulders. Mariam waved amiably.
They turned the corner, and Laila never saw Mariam again.
Back in a kolba, it seemed, after all these years.
The Walayat women's prison was a drab, square-shaped building in Shar-e-Nau near Chicken Street. It sat in the center of a larger complex that housed male inmates. A padlocked door separated Mariam and the other women from the surrounding men. Mariam counted five working cells. They were unfurnished rooms, with dirty, peeling walls, and small windows that looked into the courtyard. The windows were barred, even though the doors to the cells were unlocked and the women were free to come and go to the courtyard as they pleased. The windows had no glass. There were no curtains either, which meant the Talib guards who roamed the courtyard had an eyeful of the interior of the cells. Some of the women complained that the guards smoked outside the window and leered in, with their inflamed eyes and wolfish smiles, that they muttered indecent jokes to each other about them. Because of this, most of the women wore burqas all day and lifted them only after sundown, after the main gate was locked and the guards had gone to their posts.
At night, the cell Mariam shared with five women and four children was dark. On those nights when there was electrical power, they hoisted Naghma, a short, flat-chested girl with black frizzy hair, up to the ceiling. There was a wire there from which the coating had been stripped. Naghma would hand-wrap the live wire around the base of the lightbulb then to make a circuit.
The toilets were closet-sized, the cement floor cracked. There was a small, rectangular hole in the ground, at the bottom of which was a heap of feces. Flies buzzed in and out of the hole.
In the middle of the prison was an open, rectangular courtyard, and, in the middle of that, a well. The well had no drainage, meaning the courtyard was often a swamp and the water tasted rotten. Laundry lines, loaded with handwashed socks and diapers, slashed across each other in the courtyard. This was where inmates met visitors, where they boiled the rice their families brought them – the prison provided no food. The courtyard was also the children's playground – Mariam had learned that many of the children had been born in Walayat, had never seen the world outside these walls. Mariam watched them chase each other around, watched their shoeless feet sling mud. All day, they ran around, making up lively games, unaware of the stench of feces and urine that permeated Walayat and their own bodies, unmindful of the Talib guards until one smacked them.
Mariam had no visitors. That was the first and only thing she had asked the Talib officials here. No visitors.
NONE OF THE women in Mariam's cell were serving time for violent crime – they were all there for the common offense of "running away from home." As a result, Mariam gained some notoriety among them, became a kind of celebrity. The women eyed her with a reverent, almost awestruck, expression. They offered her their blankets. They competed to share their food with her.
The most avid was Naghma, who was always hugging her elbows and following Mariam everywhere she went. Naghma was the sort of person who found it entertaining to dispense news of misfortune, whether others' or her own. She said her father had promised her to a tailor some thirty years older than her.
"He smells like goh, and has fewer teeth than fingers," Naghma said of the tailor.
She'd tried to elope to Gardez with a young man she'd fallen in love with, the son of a local mullah. They'd barely made it out of Kabul. When they were caught and sent back, the mullah's son was flogged before he repented and said that Naghma had seduced him with her feminine charms. She'd cast a spell on him, he said. He promised he would rededicate himself to the study of the Koran. The mullah's son was freed. Naghma was sentenced to five years.
It was just as well, she said, her being here in prison. Her father had sworn that the day she was released he would take a knife to her throat.
Listening to Naghma, Mariam remembered the dim glimmer of cold stars and the stringy pink clouds streaking over the Safid-koh mountains that long-ago morning when Nana had said to her, Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.
MARIAM'S TRIAL HAD taken place the week before. There was no legal council, no public hearing, no cross-examining of evidence, no appeals. Mariam declined her right to witnesses. The entire thing lasted less than fifteen minutes.
The middle judge, a brittle-looking Talib, was the leader. He was strikingly gaunt, with yellow, leathery skin and a curly red beard. He wore eyeglasses that magnified his eyes and revealed how yellow the whites were. His neck looked too thin to support the intricately wrapped turban on his head.
"You admit to this, hamshira?" he asked again in a tired voice.
"I do," Mariam said.
The man nodded. Or maybe he didn't. It was hard to tell; he had a pronounced shaking of his hands and head that reminded Mariam of Mullah Faizullah's tremor. When he sipped tea, he did not reach for his cup. He motioned to the square-shouldered man to his left, who respectfully brought it to his lips. After, the Talib closed his eyes gently, a muted and elegant gesture of gratitude.
Mariam found a disarming quality about him. When he spoke, it was with a tinge of guile and tenderness. His smile was patient. He did not look at Mariam despisingly. He did not address her with spite or accusation but with a soft tone of apology.
"Do you fully understand what you're saying?" the bony-faced Talib to the judge's right, not the tea giver, said. This one was the youngest of the three. He spoke quickly and with emphatic, arrogant confidence. He'd been irritated that Mariam could not speak Pashto. He struck Mariam as the sort of quarrelsome young man who relished his authority, who saw offenses everywhere, thought it his birthright to pass judgment.
"I do understand," Mariam said.
"I wonder," the young Talib said. "God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proven this. This is why we require only one male witness but two female ones."
"I admit to what I did, brother," Mariam said. "But, if I hadn't, he would have killed her. He was strangling her."
"So you say. But, then, women swear to all sorts of things all the time."
"It's the truth."
"Do you have witnesses? Other than your ambagh?"
"I do not," said Mariam.
"Well, then." He threw up his hands and snickered.
It was the sickly Talib who spoke next.
"I have a doctor in Peshawar," he said. "A fine, young Pakistani fellow. I saw him a month ago, and then again last week. I said, tell me the truth, friend, and he said to me, three months, Mullah sahib, maybe six at most – all God's will, of course."
He nodded discreetly at the square-shouldered man on his left and took another sip of the tea he was offered. He wiped his mouth with the back of his tremulous hand. "It does not frighten me to leave this life that my only son left five years ago, this life that insists we bear sorrow upon sorrow long after we can bear no more. No, I believe I shall gladly take my leave when the time comes.
"What frightens me, hamshira, is the day God summons me before Him and asks, Why did you not do as I said, Mullah? Why did you not obey my laws? How shall I explain myself to Him, hamshira? What will be my defense for not heeding His commands? All I can do, all any of us can do, in the time we are granted, is to go on abiding by the laws He has set for us. The clearer I see my end, hamshira, the nearer I am to my day of reckoning, the more determined I grow to carry out His word. However painful it may prove."
He shifted on his cushion and winced.
"I believe you when you say that your husband was a man of disagreeable temperament," he resumed, fixing Mariam with his bespectacled eyes, his gaze both stern and compassionate. "But I cannot help but be disturbed by the brutality of your action, hamshira. I am troubled by what you have done; I am troubled that his little boy was crying for him upstairs when you did it.
"I am tired and dying, and I want to be merciful. I want to forgive you. But when God summons me and says, But it wasn't for you to forgive, Mullah, what shall I say?"
His companions nodded and looked at him with admiration.
"Something tells me you are not a wicked woman, hamshira. But you have done a wicked thing. And you must pay for this thing you have done. Shari'a is not vague on this matter. It says I must send you where I will soon join you myself.
"Do you understand, hamshira?"
Mariam looked down at her hands. She said she did.
"May Allah forgive you."
Before they led her out, Mariam was given a document, told to sign beneath her statement and the mullah's sentence. As the three Taliban watched, Mariam wrote it out, her name – the meem, the reh, the yah, and the meem – remembering the last time she'd signed her name to a document, twenty-seven years before, at Jalil's table, beneath the watchful gaze of another mullah.
MARIAM SPENT TEN DAYS in prison. She sat by the window of the cell, watched the prison life in the courtyard. When the summer winds blew, she watched bits of scrap paper ride the currents in a frenzied, corkscrew motion, as they were hurled this way and that, high above the prison walls. She watched the winds stir mutiny in the dust, whipping it into violent spirals that ripped through the courtyard. Everyone – the guards, the inmates, the children, Mariam – burrowed their faces in the hook of their elbows, but the dust would not be denied. It made homes of ear canals and nostrils, of eyelashes and skin folds, of the space between molars. Only at dusk did the winds die down. And then if a night breeze blew, it did so timidly, as if to atone for the excesses of its daytime sibling.
On Mariam's last day at Walayat, Naghma gave her a tangerine. She put it in Mariam's palm and closed her fingers around it. Then she burst into tears.
"You're the best friend I ever had," she said.
Mariam spent the rest of the day by the barred window watching the inmates below. Someone was cooking a meal, and a stream of cumin-scented smoke and warm air wafted through the window. Mariam could see the children playing a blindfolded game. Two little girls were singing a rhyme, and Mariam remembered it from her childhood, remembered Jalil singing it to her as they'd sat on a rock, fishing in the stream:
Lili lili birdbath,
Sitting on a dirt path,
Minnow sat on the rim and drank,
Slipped, and in the water she sank.
Mariam had disjointed dreams that last night. She dreamed of pebbles, eleven of them, arranged vertically. Jalil, young again, all winning smiles and dimpled chins and sweat patches, coat flung over his shoulder, come at last to take his daughter away for a ride in his shiny black Buick Roadmaster. Mullah Faizullah twirling his rosary beads, walking with her along the stream, their twin shadows gliding on the water and on the grassy banks sprinkled with a blue-lavender wild iris that, in this dream, smelled like cloves. She dreamed of Nana in the doorway of the kolba, her voice dim and distant, calling her to dinner, as Mariam played in cool, tangled grass where ants crawled and beetles scurried and grasshoppers skipped amid all the different shades of green. The squeak of a wheelbarrow laboring up a dusty path. Cowbells clanging. Sheep baaing on a hill.
ON THE WAY to Ghazi Stadium, Mariam bounced in the bed of the truck as it skidded around potholes and its wheels spat pebbles. The bouncing hurt her tailbone. A young, armed Talib sat across from her looking at her.
Mariam wondered if he would be the one, this amiable-looking young man with the deep-set bright eyes and slightly pointed face, with the black-nailed index finger drumming the side of the truck.
"Are you hungry, mother?" he said.
Mariam shook her head.
"I have a biscuit. It's good. You can have it if you're hungry. I don't mind."
"No. Tashakor, brother."
He nodded, looked at her benignly. "Are you afraid, mother?"
A lump closed off her throat. In a quivering voice, Mariam told him the truth.
"Yes. I'm very afraid."
"I have a picture of my father," he said. "I don't remember him. He was a bicycle repairman once, I know that much. But I don't remember how he moved, you know, how he laughed or the sound of his voice." He looked away, then back at Mariam. "My mother used to say that he was the bravest man she knew. Like a lion, she'd say.
But she told me he was crying like a child the morning the communists took him. I'm telling you so you know that it's normal to be scared. It's nothing to be ashamed of, mother."
For the first time that day, Mariam cried a little.
THOUSANDS OF EYES bore down on her. In the crowded bleachers, necks were craned for the benefit of a better view. Tongues clucked. A murmuring sound rippled through the stadium when Mariam was helped down from the truck. Mariam imagined heads shaking when the loudspeaker announced her crime. But she did not look up to see whether they were shaking with disapproval or charity, with reproach or pity. Mariam blinded herself to them all.
Earlier that morning, she had been afraid that she would make a fool of herself, that she would turn into a pleading, weeping spectacle. She had feared that she might scream or vomit or even wet herself, that, in her last moments, she would be betrayed by animal instinct or bodily disgrace. But when she was made to descend from the truck, Mariam's legs did not buckle. Her arms did not flail. She did not have to be dragged. And when she did feel herself faltering, she thought of Zalmai, from whom she had taken the love of his life, whose days now would be shaped by the sorrow of his father's disappearance. And then Mariam's stride steadied and she could walk without protest.
An armed man approached her and told her to walk toward the southern goalpost. Mariam could sense the crowd tightening up with anticipation. She did not look up. She kept her eyes to the ground, on her shadow, on her executioner's shadow trailing hers.
Though there had been moments of beauty in it, Mariam knew that life for the most part had been unkind to her. But as she walked the final twenty paces, she could not help but wish for more of it. She wished she could see Laila again, wished to hear the clangor of her laugh, to sit with her once more for a pot of chai and leftover halwa under a starlit sky. She mourned that she would never see Aziza grow up, would not see the beautiful young woman that she would one day become, would not get to paint her hands with henna and toss noqul candy at her wedding. She would never play with Aziza's children. She would have liked that very much, to be old and play with Aziza's children.
Near the goalpost, the man behind her asked her to stop. Mariam did. Through the crisscrossing grid of the burqa, she saw his shadow arms lift his shadow Kalashnikov.
Mariam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last. No. It was not so bad, Mariam thought, that she should die this way. Not so bad. This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate beginnings.
Mariam's final thoughts were a few words from the Koran, which she muttered under her breath.
He has created the heavens and the earth with the truth; He makes the night cover the day and makes the day overtake the night, and He has made the sun and the moon subservient; each one runs on to an assigned term; now surely He is the Mighty, the Great Forgiver.
"Kneel," the Talib said
O my Lord! Forgive and have mercy, for you are the best of the merciful ones.
"Kneel here, hamshira. And look down."
One last time, Mariam did as she was told.
Tariq has headaches now.
Some nights, Laila awakens and finds him on the edge of their bed, rocking, his undershirt pulled over his head. The headaches began in Nasir Bagh, he says, then worsened in prison. Sometimes they make him vomit, blind him in one eye. He says it feels like a butcher's knife burrowing in one temple, twisting slowly through his brain, then poking out the other side.
"I can taste the metal, even, when they begin."
Sometimes Laila wets a cloth and lays it on his forehead and that helps a little. The little round white pills Sayeed's doctor gave Tariq help too. But some nights, all Tariq can do is hold his head and moan, his eyes bloodshot, his nose dripping. Laila sits with him when he's in the grip of it like that, rubs the back of his neck, takes his hand in hers, the metal of his wedding band cold against her palm.
They married the day that they arrived in Murree. Sayeed looked relieved when Tariq told him they would. He would not have to broach with Tariq the delicate matter of an unmarried couple living in his hotel. Sayeed is not at all as Laila had pictured him, ruddy-faced and pea-eyed. He has a salt-and-pepper mustache whose ends he rolls to a sharp tip, and a shock of long gray hair combed back from the brow. He is a soft-spoken, mannerly man, with measured speech and graceful movements.
It was Sayeed who summoned a friend and a mullah for the nikka that day, Sayeed who pulled Tariq aside and gave him money. Tariq wouldn't take it, but Sayeed insisted. Tariq went to the Mall then and came back with two simple, thin wedding bands. They married later that night, after the children had gone to bed.
In the mirror, beneath the green veil that the mullah draped over their heads, Laila's eyes met Tariq's. There were no tears, no wedding-day smiles, no whispered oaths of long-lasting love. In silence, Laila looked at their reflection, at faces that had aged beyond their years, at the pouches and lines and sags that now marked their once-scrubbed, youthful faces. Tariq opened his mouth and began to say something, but, just as he did, someone pulled the veil, and Laila missed what it was that he was going to say.
That night, they lay in bed as husband and wife, as the children snored below them on sleeping cots. Laila remembered the ease with which they would crowd the air between them with words, she and Tariq, when they were younger, the haywire, brisk flow of their speech, always interrupting each other, tugging each other's collar to emphasize a point, the quickness to laugh, the eagerness to delight. So much had happened since those childhood days, so much that needed to be said. But that first night the enormity of it all stole the words from her. That night, it was blessing enough to be beside him. It was blessing enough to know that he was here, to feel the warmth of him next to her, to lie with him, their heads touching, his right hand laced in her left.