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They exchange salaam alaykums.
"Is this Mullah Faizullah's house?" Laila asks.
"Yes. I am his son, Hamza. Is there something I can do for you, hamshireh?"
"I've come here about an old friend of your father's, Mariam."
Hamza blinks. A puzzled look passes across his face. "Mariam…"
"Jalil Khan's daughter."
He blinks again. Then he puts a palm to his cheek and his face lights up with a smile that reveals missing and rotting teeth. "Oh!" he says. It comes out sounding like Ohhhhhh, like an expelled breath. "Oh! Mariam! Are you her daughter? Is she-" He is twisting his neck now, looking behind her eagerly, searching. "Is she here? It's been so long! Is Mariam here?"
"She has passed on, I'm afraid."
The smile fades from Hamza's face.
For a moment, they stand there, at the doorway, Hamza looking at the ground. A donkey brays somewhere.
"Come in," Hamza says. He swings the door open. "Please come in."
THEY SIT ON the floor in a sparsely furnished room. There is a Herati rug on the floor, beaded cushions to sit on, and a framed photo of Mecca on the wall. They sit by the open window, on either side of an oblong patch of sunlight. Laila hears women's voices whispering from another room. A little barefoot boy places before them a platter of green tea and pistachio gaaz nougats. Hamza nods at him.
The boy leaves soundlessly.
"So tell me," Hamza says tiredly.
Laila does. She tells him everything. It takes longer than she'd imagined. Toward the end, she struggles to maintain composure. It still isn't easy, one year later, talking about Mariam.
When she's done, Hamza doesn't say anything for a long time. He slowly turns his teacup on its saucer, one way, then the other.
"My father, may he rest in peace, was so very fond of her," he says at last. "He was the one who sang azan in her ear when she was born, you know. He visited her every week, never missed. Sometimes he took me with him. He was her tutor, yes, but he was a friend too. He was a charitable man, my father. It nearly broke him when Jalil Khan gave her away."
"I'm sorry to hear about your father. May God forgive him."
Hamza nods his thanks. "He lived to be a very old man. He outlived Jalil Khan, in fact. We buried him in the village cemetery, not far from where Mariam's mother is buried. My father was a dear, dear man, surely heaven-bound."
Laila lowers her cup.
"May I ask you something?"
"Can you show me?" she says. "Where Mariam lived. Can you take me there?"
THE DRIVER AGREES to wait awhile longer.
Hamza and Laila exit the village and walk downhill on the road that connects Gul Daman to Herat. After fifteen minutes or so, he points to a narrow gap in the tall grass that flanks the road on both sides.
"That's how you get there," he says. "There is a path there."
The path is rough, winding, and dim, beneath the vegetation and undergrowth. The wind makes the tall grass slam against Laila's calves as she and Hamza climb the path, take the turns. On either side of them is a kaleidoscope of wildflowers swaying in the wind, some tall with curved petals, others low, fan-leafed. Here and there a few ragged buttercups peep through the low bushes. Laila hears the twitter of swallows overhead and the busy chatter of grasshoppers underfoot.
They walk uphill this way for two hundred yards or more. Then the path levels, and opens into a flatter patch of land. They stop, catch their breath. Laila dabs at her brow with her sleeve and bats at a swarm of mosquitoes hovering in front of her face. Here she sees the low-slung mountains in the horizon, a few cottonwoods, some poplars, various wild bushes that she cannot name.
"There used to be a stream here," Hamza says, a little out of breath. "But it's long dried up now."
He says he will wait here. He tells her to cross the dry streambed, walk toward the mountains.
"I'll wait here," he says, sitting on a rock beneath a poplar. "You go on."
"Don't worry. Take your time. Go on, hamshireh. "
Laila thanks him. She crosses the streambed, stepping from one stone to another. She spots broken soda bottles amid the rocks, rusted cans, and a mold-coated metallic container with a zinc lid half buried in the ground.
She heads toward the mountains, toward the weeping willows, which she can see now, the long drooping branches shaking with each gust of wind. In her chest, her heart is drumming. She sees that the willows are arranged as Mariam had said, in a circular grove with a clearing in the middle. Laila walks faster, almost running now. She looks back over her shoulder and sees that Hamza is a tiny figure, his chapan a burst of color against the brown of the trees' bark. She trips over a stone and almost falls, then regains her footing. She hurries the rest of the way with the legs of her trousers pulled up. She is panting by the time she reaches the willows.
Mariam's kolba is still here.
When she approaches it, Laila sees that the lone windowpane is empty and that the door is gone. Mariam had described a chicken coop and a tandoor, a wooden outhouse too, but Laila sees no sign of them. She pauses at the entrance to the kolba. She can hear flies buzzing inside.
To get in, she has to sidestep a large fluttering spiderweb. It's dim inside. Laila has to give her eyes a few moments to adjust. When they do, she sees that the interior is even smaller than she'd imagined. Only half of a single rotting, splintered board remains of the floorboards. The rest, she imagines, have been ripped up for burning as firewood. The floor is carpeted now with dry-edged leaves, broken bottles, discarded chewing gum wrappers, wild mushrooms, old yellowed cigarette butts. But mostly with weeds, some stunted, some springing impudently halfway up the walls.
Fifteen years, Laila thinks. Fifteen years in this place.
Laila sits down, her back to the wall. She listens to the wind filtering through the willows. There are more spiderwebs stretched across the ceiling. Someone has spray-painted something on one of the walls, but much of it has sloughed off, and Laila cannot decipher what it says. Then she realizes the letters are Russian. There is a deserted bird's nest in one corner and a bat hanging upside down in another corner, where the wall meets the low ceiling.
Laila closes her eyes and sits there awhile.
In Pakistan, it was difficult sometimes to remember the details of Mariam's face. There were times when, like a word on the tip of her tongue, Mariam's face eluded her. But now, here in this place, it's easy to summon Mariam behind the lids of her eyes: the soft radiance of her gaze, the long chin, the coarsened skin of her neck, the tight-lipped smile. Here, Laila can lay her cheek on the softness of Mariam's lap again, can feel Mariam swaying back and forth, reciting verses from the Koran, can feel the words vibrating down Mariam's body, to her knees, and into her own ears.
Then, suddenly, the weeds begin to recede, as if something is pulling them by the roots from beneath the ground. They sink lower and lower until the earth in the kolba has swallowed the last of their spiny leaves. The spiderwebs magically unspin themselves. The bird's nest self-disassembles, the twigs snapping loose one by one, flying out of the kolba end over end. An invisible eraser wipes the Russian graffiti off the wall.
The floorboards are back. Laila sees a pair of sleeping cots now, a wooden table, two chairs, a cast-iron stove in the corner, shelves along the walls, on which sit clay pots and pans, a blackened teakettle, cups and spoons. She hears chickens clucking outside, the distant gurgling of the stream.
A young Mariam is sitting at the table making a doll by the glow of an oil lamp. She's humming something. Her face is smooth and youthful, her hair washed, combed back. She has all her teeth.
Laila watches Mariam glue strands of yarn onto her doll's head. In a few years, this little girl will be a woman who will make small demands on life, who will never burden others, who will never let on that she too has had sorrows, disappointments, dreams that have been ridiculed. A woman who will be like a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her. Already Laila sees something behind this young girl's eyes, something deep in her core, that neither Rasheed nor the Taliban will be able to break. Something as hard and unyielding as a block of limestone. Something that, in the end, will be her undoing and Laila's salvation.
The little girl looks up. Puts down the doll. Smiles.
Laila's eyes snap open. She gasps, and her body pitches forward. She startles the bat, which zips from one end of the kolba to the other, its beating wings like the fluttering pages of a book, before it flies out the window.
Laila gets to her feet, beats the dead leaves from the seat of her trousers. She steps out of the kolba. Outside, the light has shifted slightly. A wind is blowing, making the grass ripple and the willow branches click.
Before she leaves the clearing, Laila takes one last look at the kolba where Mariam had slept, eaten, dreamed, held her breath for Jalil. On sagging walls, the willows cast crooked patterns that shift with each gust of wind. A crow has landed on the flat roof. It pecks at something, squawks, flies off.
And, with that, unaware that she is weeping, Laila begins to run through the grass.
She finds Hamza still sitting on the rock. When he spots her, he stands up.
"Let's go back," he says. Then, "I have something to give you."
LAILA WAITS FOR Hamza in the garden by the front door. The boy who had served them tea earlier is standing beneath one of the fig trees holding a chicken, watching her impassively. Laila spies two faces, an old woman and a young girl in hijab observing her demurely from a window.
The door to the house opens and Hamza emerges. He is carrying a box.
He gives it to Laila.
"Jalil Khan gave this to my father a month or so before he died," Hamza says. "He asked my father to safeguard it for Mariam until she came to claim it. My father kept it for two years. Then, just before he passed away, he gave it to me, and asked me to save it for Mariam. But she… you know, she never came."
Laila looks down at the oval-shaped tin box. It looks like an old chocolate box. It's olive green, with fading gilt scrolls all around the hinged lid. There is a little rust on the sides, and two tiny dents on the front rim of the lid. Laila tries to open the box, but the latch is locked.
"What's in it?" she asks.
Hamza puts a key in her palm. "My father never unlocked it. Neither did I. I suppose it was God's will that it be you."
BACK AT THE HOTEL, Tariq and the children are not back yet.
Laila sits on the bed, the box on her lap. Part of her wants to leave it unopened, let whatever Jalil had intended remain a secret. But, in the end, the curiosity proves too strong. She slides in the key. It takes some rattling and shaking, but she opens the box.
In it, she finds three things: an envelope, a burlap sack, and a videocassette.
Laila takes the tape and goes down to the reception desk. She learns from the elderly clerk who had greeted them the day before that the hotel has only one VCR, in its biggest suite. The suite is vacant at the moment, and he agrees to take her. He leaves the desk to a mustachioed young man in a suit who is talking on a cellular phone.
The old clerk leads Laila to the second floor, to a door at the end of a long hallway. He works the lock, lets her in. Laila's eyes find the TV in the corner. They register nothing else about the suite.
She turns on the TV, turns on the VCR. Puts the tape in and pushes the play button. The screen is blank for a few moments, and Laila begins to wonder why Jalil had gone to the trouble of passing a blank tape to Mariam. But then there is music, and images begin to play on the screen.
Laila frowns. She keeps watching for a minute or two. Then she pushes stop, fast-forwards the tape, and pushes play again. It's the same film.
The old man is looking at her quizzically.
The film playing on the screen is Walt Disney's Pinocchio. Laila does not understand.
* * *
TARIQ AND THE children come back to the hotel just after six o'clock. Aziza runs to Laila and shows her the earrings Tariq has bought for her, silver with an enamel butterfly on each. Zalmai is clutching an inflatable dolphin that squeaks when its snout is squeezed.
"How are you?" Tariq asks, putting his arm around her shoulder.
"I'm fine," Laila says. "I'll tell you later."
They walk to a nearby kebab house to eat. It's a small place, with sticky, vinyl tablecloths, smoky and loud. But the lamb is tender and moist and the bread hot. They walk the streets for a while after. Tariq buys the children rosewater ice cream from a street-side kiosk. They eat, sitting on a bench, the mountains behind them silhouetted against the scarlet red of dusk. The air is warm, rich with the fragrance of cedar.
Laila had opened the envelope earlier when she'd come back to the room after viewing the videotape. In it was a letter, handwritten in blue ink on a yellow, lined sheet of paper.
May 13, 1987 My dear Mariam: I pray that this letter finds you in good health. As you know, I came to Kabul a month ago to speak with you. But you would not see me. I was disappointed but could not blame you. In your place, I might have done the same. I lost the privilege of your good graces a long time ago and for that I only have myself to blame. But if you are reading this letter, then you have read the letter that I left at your door. You have read it and you have come to see Mullah Faizullah, as I had asked that you do. I am grateful that you did, Mariam jo. I am grateful for this chance to say a few words to you. Where do I begin? Your father has known so much sorrow since we last spoke, Mariam jo. Your stepmother Afsoon was killed on the first day of the 1979 uprising. A stray bullet killed your sister Niloufar that same day. I can still see her, my little Niloufar, doing headstands to impress guests. Your brother Farhad joined the jihad in 1980. The Soviets killed him in 1982, just outside of Helmand. I never got to see his body. I don't know if you have children of your own, Mariam jo, but if you do I pray that God look after them and spare you the grief that I have known. I still dream of them. I still dream of my dead children. I have dreams of you too, Mariam jo. I miss you. I miss the sound of your voice, your laughter. I miss reading to you, and all those times we fished together. Do you remember all those times we fished together? You were a good daughter, Mariam jo, and I cannot ever think of you without feeling shame and regret. Regret… When it comes to you, Mariam jo, I have oceans of it. I regret that I did not see you the day you came to Herat. I regret that I did not open the door and take you in. I regret that I did not make you a daughter to me, that I let you live in that place for all those years. And for what? Fear of losing face? Of staining my so-called good name? How little those things matter to me now after all the loss, all the terrible things I have seen in this cursed war. But now, of course, it is too late. Perhaps this is just punishment for those who have been heartless, to understand only when nothing can be undone. Now all I can do is say that you were a good daughter, Mariam jo, and that I never deserved you. Now all I can do is ask for your forgiveness. So forgive me, Mariam jo. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me. I am not the wealthy man you once knew. The communists confiscated so much of my land, and all of my stores as well. But it is petty to complain, for God – for reasons that I do not understand – has still blessed me with far more than most people. Since my return from Kabul, I have managed to sell what little remained of my land. I have enclosed for you your share of the inheritance. You can see that it is far from a fortune, but it is something. It is something. (You will also notice that I have taken the liberty of exchanging the money into dollars. I think it is for the best. God alone knows the fate of our own beleaguered currency.) I hope you do not think that I am trying to buy your forgiveness. I hope you will credit me with knowing that your forgiveness is not for sale. It never was. I am merely giving you, if belatedly, what was rightfully yours all along. I was not a dutiful father to you in life. Perhaps in death I can be. Ah, death. I won't burden you with details, but death is within sight for me now. Weak heart, the doctors say. It is a fitting manner of death, I think, for a weak man. Mariam jo, I dare, I dare allow myself the hope that, after you read this, you will be more charitable to me than I ever was to you. That you might find it in your heart to come and see your father. That you will knock on my door one more time and give me the chance to open it this time, to welcome you, to take you in my arms, my daughter, as I should have all those years ago. It is a hope as weak as my heart. This I know. But I will be waiting. I will be listening for your knock. I will be hoping. May God grant you a long and prosperous life, my daughter. May God give you many healthy and beautiful children. May you find the happiness, peace, and acceptance that I did not give you. Be well. I leave you in the loving hands of God. Your undeserving father,
That night, after they return to the hotel, after the children have played and gone to bed, Laila tells Tariq about the letter. She shows him the money in the burlap sack. When she begins to cry, he kisses her face and holds her in his arms.
The drought has ended. It snowed at last this past winter, knee-deep, and now it has been raining for days. The Kabul River is flowing once again. Its spring floods have washed away Titanic City.
There is mud on the streets now. Shoes squish. Cars get trapped. Donkeys loaded with apples slog heavily, their hooves splattering muck from rain puddles. But no one is complaining about the mud, no one is mourning Titanic City. We need Kabul to be green again, people say.
Yesterday, Laila watched her children play in the downpour, hopping from one puddle to another in their backyard beneath a lead-colored sky. She was watching from the kitchen window of the small two-bedroom house that they are renting in Deh-Mazang. There is a pomegranate tree in the yard and a thicket of sweetbriar bushes. Tariq has patched the walls and built the children a slide, a swing set, a little fenced area for Zalmai's new goat. Laila watched the rain slide off Zalmai's scalp – he has asked that he be shaved, like Tariq, who is in charge now of saying the Babaloo prayers. The rain flattened Aziza's long hair, turned it into sodden tendrils that sprayed Zalmai when she snapped her head.
Zalmai is almost six. Aziza is ten. They celebrated her birthday last week, took her to Cinema Park, where, at last, Titanic was openly screened for the people of Kabul.
"COME ON, CHILDREN, we're going to be late," Laila calls, putting their lunches in a paper bag. It's eight o'clock in the morning. Laila was up at five. As always, it was Aziza who shook her awake for morning namaz. The prayers, Laila knows, are Aziza's way of clinging to Mariam, her way of keeping Mariam close awhile yet before time has its way, before it snatches Mariam from the garden of her memory like a weed pulled by its roots.
After namaz, Laila had gone back to bed, and was still asleep when Tariq left the house. She vaguely remembers him kissing her cheek. Tariq has found work with a French NGO that fits land mine survivors and amputees with prosthetic limbs.
Zalmai comes chasing Aziza into the kitchen.
"You have your notebooks, you two? Pencils? Textbooks?"
"Right here," Aziza says, lifting her backpack. Again, Laila notices how her stutter is lessening.
"Let's go, then."
Laila lets the children out of the house, locks the door. They step out into the cool morning. It isn't raining today. The sky is blue, and Laila sees no clumps of clouds in the horizon. Holding hands, the three of them make their way to the bus stop. The streets are busy already, teeming with a steady stream of rickshaws, taxicabs, UN trucks, buses, ISAF jeeps. Sleepy-eyed merchants are unlocking store gates that had been rolled down for the night. Vendors sit behind towers of chewing gum and cigarette packs. Already the widows have claimed their spots at street corners, asking the passersby for coins.
Laila finds it strange to be back in Kabul. The city has changed. Every day now she sees people planting saplings, painting old houses, carrying bricks for new ones. They dig gutters and wells. On windowsills, Laila spots flowers potted in the empty shells of old Mujahideen rockets – rocket flowers, Kabulis call them. Recently, Tariq took Laila and the children to the Gardens of Babur, which are being renovated. For the first time in years, Laila hears music at Kabul's street corners, rubab and tabla, dootar, harmonium and tamboura, old Ahmad Zahir songs.
Laila wishes Mammy and Babi were alive to see these changes. But, like Jalil's letter, Kabul's penance has arrived too late.
Laila and the children are about to cross the street to the bus stop when suddenly a black Land Cruiser with tinted windows blows by. It swerves at the last instant and misses Laila by less than an arm's length. It splatters tea-colored rainwater all over the children's shirts.
Laila yanks her children back onto the sidewalk, heart somersaulting in her throat.
The Land Cruiser speeds down the street, honks twice, and makes a sharp left.
Laila stands there, trying to catch her breath, her fingers gripped tightly around her children's wrists.
It slays Laila. It slays her that the warlords have been allowed back to Kabul. That her parents' murderers live in posh homes with walled gardens, that they have been appointed minister of this and deputy minister of that, that they ride with impunity in shiny, bulletproof SUVs through neighborhoods that they demolished. It slays her.
But Laila has decided that she will not be crippled by resentment. Mariam wouldn't want it that way. What's the sense? she would say with a smile both innocent and wise. What good is it, Laila jo? And so Laila has resigned herself to moving on. For her own sake, for Tariq's, for her children's. And for Mariam, who still visits Laila in her dreams, who is never more than a breath or two below her consciousness. Laila has moved on. Because in the end she knows that's all she can do. That and hope.
* * *
ZAMAN IS STANDING at the free throw line, his knees bent, bouncing a basketball. He is instructing a group of boys in matching jerseys sitting in a semicircle on the court. Zaman spots Laila, tucks the ball under his arm, and waves. He says something to the boys, who then wave and cry out, "Salaam, moalim sahib!"
Laila waves back.
The orphanage playground has a row of apple saplings now along the east-facing wall. Laila is planning to plant some on the south wall as well as soon as it is rebuilt. There is a new swing set, new monkey bars, and a jungle gym.
Laila walks back inside through the screen door.
They have repainted both the exterior and the interior of the orphanage. Tariq and Zaman have repaired all the roof leaks, patched the walls, replaced the windows, carpeted the rooms where the children sleep and play. This past winter, Laila bought a few beds for the children's sleeping quarters, pillows too, and proper wool blankets. She had cast-iron stoves installed for the winter.
Anis, one of Kabul's newspapers, had run a story the month before on the renovation of the orphanage. They'd taken a photo too, of Zaman, Tariq, Laila, and one of the attendants, standing in a row behind the children. When Laila saw the article, she'd thought of her childhood friends Giti and Hasina, and Hasina saying, By the time we're twenty, Giti and I, we'll have pushed out four, five kids each. But you, Laila, you'll make us two dummies proud. You're going to be somebody. I know one day I'll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the frontpage. The photo hadn't made the front page, but there it was nevertheless, as Hasina had predicted.
Laila takes a turn and makes her way down the same hallway where, two years before, she and Mariam had delivered Aziza to Zaman. Laila still remembers how they had to pry Aziza's fingers from her wrist. She remembers running down this hallway, holding back a howl, Mariam calling after her, Aziza screaming with panic. The hallway's walls are covered now with posters, of dinosaurs, cartoon characters, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and displays of artwork by the orphans. Many of the drawings depict tanks running over huts, men brandishing AK-47s, refugee camp tents, scenes of jihad.
Laila turns a corner in the hallway and sees the children now, waiting outside the classroom. She is greeted by their scarves, their shaved scalps covered by skullcaps, their small, lean figures, the beauty of their drabness.
When the children spot Laila, they come running. They come running at full tilt. Laila is swarmed. There is a flurry of high-pitched greetings, of shrill voices, of patting, clutching, tugging, groping, of jostling with one another to climb into her arms. There are outstretched little hands and appeals for attention. Some of them call her Mother. Laila does not correct them.
It takes Laila some work this morning to calm the children down, to get them to form a proper queue, to usher them into the classroom.
It was Tariq and Zaman who built the classroom by knocking down the wall between two adjacent rooms. The floor is still badly cracked and has missing tiles. For the time being, it is covered with tarpaulin, but Tariq has promised to cement some new tiles and lay down carpeting soon.
Nailed above the classroom doorway is a rectangular board, which Zaman has sanded and painted in gleaming white. On it, with a brush, Zaman has written four lines of poetry, his answer, Laila knows, to those who grumble that the promised aid money to Afghanistan isn't coming, that the rebuilding is going too slowly, that there is corruption, that the Taliban are regrouping already and will come back with a vengeance, that the world will forget once again about Afghanistan. The lines are from his favorite of Hafez's ghazals:
Joseph shall return to Canaan, grieve not,
Hovels shall turn to rose gardens, grieve not.
If a flood should arrive, to drown all that's alive,
Noah is your guide in the typhoon's eye, grieve not.
Laila passes beneath the sign and enters the classroom. The children are taking their seats, flipping notebooks open, chattering. Aziza is talking to a girl in the adjacent row. A paper airplane floats across the room in a high arc. Someone tosses it back.
"Open your Farsi books, children," Laila says, dropping her own books on her desk.
To a chorus of flipping pages, Laila makes her way to the curtainless window. Through the glass, she can see the boys in the playground lining up to practice their free throws. Above them, over the mountains, the morning sun is rising. It catches the metallic rim of the basketball hoop, the chain link of the tire swings, the whistle hanging around Zaman's neck, his new, unchipped spectacles. Laila flattens her palms against the warm glass panes. Closes her eyes. She lets the sunlight fall on her cheeks, her eyelids, her brow.
When they first came back to Kabul, it distressed Laila that she didn't know where the Taliban had buried Mariam. She wished she could visit Mariam's grave, to sit with her awhile, leave a flower or two. But Laila sees now that it doesn't matter. Mariam is never very far. She is here, in these walls they've repainted, in the trees they've planted, in the blankets that keep the children warm, in these pillows and books and pencils. She is in the children's laughter. She is in the verses Aziza recites and in the prayers she mutters when she bows westward. But, mostly, Mariam is in Laila's own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.