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"What about Azita?"
"The rugmaker's daughter?" Mammy said, slapping her cheek with mock outrage.
"She has a thicker mustache than Hakim!"
"There's Anahita. We hear she's top in her class at Zarghoona."
"Have you seen the teeth on that girl? Tombstones. She's hiding a graveyard behind those lips."
"How about the Wahidi sisters?"
"Those two dwarfs? No, no, no. Oh, no. Not for my sons. Not for my sultans. They deserve better."
As the chatter went on, Laila let her mind drift, and, as always, it found Tariq.
MAMMY HAD PULLED the yellowish curtains. In the darkness, the room had a layered smell about it: sleep, unwashed linen, sweat, dirty socks, perfume, the previous night's leftover qurma. Laila waited for her eyes to adjust before she crossed the room. Even so, her feet became entangled with items of clothing that littered the floor.
Laila pulled the curtains open. At the foot of the bed was an old metallic folding chair. Laila sat on it and watched the unmoving blanketed mound that was her mother.
The walls of Mammy's room were covered with pictures of Ahmad and Noor. Everywhere Laila looked, two strangers smiled back. Here was Noor mounting a tricycle. Here was Ahmad doing his prayers, posing beside a sundial Babi and he had built when he was twelve. And there they were, her brothers, sitting back to back beneath the old pear tree in the yard.
Beneath Mammy's bed, Laila could see the corner of Ahmad's shoe box protruding. From time to time, Mammy showed her the old, crumpled newspaper clippings in it, and pamphlets that Ahmad had managed to collect from insurgent groups and resistance organizations headquartered in Pakistan. One photo, Laila remembered, showed a man in a long white coat handing a lollipop to a legless little boy. The caption below the photo read: Children are the intended victims of Soviet land mine campaign. The article went on to say that the Soviets also liked to hide explosives inside brightly colored toys. If a child picked it up, the toy exploded, tore off fingers or an entire hand. The father could not join the jihad then; he'd have to stay home and care for his child. In another article in Ahmad's box, a young Mujahid was saying that the Soviets had dropped gas on his village that burned people's skin and blinded them. He said he had seen his mother and sister running for the stream, coughing up blood.
The mound stirred slightly. It emitted a groan.
"Get up, Mammy. It's three o'clock."
Another groan. A hand emerged, like a submarine periscope breaking surface, and dropped. The mound moved more discernibly this time. Then the rustle of blankets as layers of them shifted over each other. Slowly, in stages, Mammy materialized: first the slovenly hair, then the white, grimacing face, eyes pinched shut against the light, a hand groping for the headboard, the sheets sliding down as she pulled herself up, grunting. Mammy made an effort to look up, flinched against the light, and her head drooped over her chest.
"How was school?" she muttered.
So it would begin. The obligatory questions, the perfunctory answers. Both pretending. Unenthusiastic partners, the two of them, in this tired old dance.
"School was fine," Laila said.
"Did you learn anything?"
"Did you eat?"
Mammy raised her head again, toward the window. She winced and her eyelids fluttered The right side of her face was red, and the hair on that side had flattened.
"I have a headache."
"Should I fetch you some aspirin?"
Mammy massaged her temples. "Maybe later. Is your father home?"
"It's only three."
"Oh. Right. You said that already." Mammy yawned. "I was dreaming just now," she said, her voice only a bit louder than the rustle of her nightgown against the sheets. "Just now, before you came in. But I can't remember it now. Does that happen to you?"
"It happens to everybody, Mammy."
"I should tell you that while you were dreaming, a boy shot piss out of a water gun on my hair."
"Shot what? What was that? I'm sorry."
"That'sЕ that's terrible. God I'm sorry. Poor you. I'll have a talk with him first thing in the morning. Or maybe with his mother. Yes, that would be better, I think."
"I haven't told you who it was."
"Oh. Well, who was it?"
"You were supposed to pick me up."
"I was," Mammy croaked. Laila could not tell whether this was a question. Mammy began picking at her hair. This was one of life's great mysteries to Laila, that Mammy's picking had not made her bald as an egg. "What aboutЕ What's his name, your friend, Tariq? Yes, what about him?"
"He's been gone for a week."
"Oh." Mammy sighed through her nose. "Did you wash?"
"So you're clean, then." Mammy turned her tired gaze to the window. "You're clean, and everything is fine."
Laila stood up. "I have homework now."
"Of course you do. Shut the curtains before you go, my love," Mammy said, her voice fading. She was already sinking beneath the sheets.
As Laila reached for the curtains, she saw a car pass by on the street tailed by a cloud of dust. It was the blue Benz with the Herat license plate finally leaving. She followed it with her eyes until it vanished around a turn, its back window twinkling in the sun.
"I won't forget tomorrow," Mammy was saying behind her. "I promise."
"You said that yesterday."
"You don't know, Laila."
"Know what?" Laila wheeled around to face her mother. "What don't I know?"
Mammy's hand floated up to her chest, tapped there. "In here. What's in here. " Then it fell flaccid. "You just don't know."
A week passed, but there was still no sign of Tariq. Then another week came and went.
To fill the time, Laila fixed the screen door that Babi still hadn't got around to. She took down Babi's books, dusted and alphabetized them. She went to Chicken Street with Hasina, Giti, and Giti's mother, Nila, who was a seamstress and sometime sewing partner of Mammy's. In that week, Laila came to believe that of all the hardships a person had to face none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.
Another week passed.
Laila found herself caught in a net of terrible thoughts.
He would never come back. His parents had moved away for good; the trip to Ghazni had been a ruse. An adult scheme to spare the two of them an upsetting farewell.
A land mine had gotten to him again. The way it did in 1981, when he was five, the last time his parents took him south to Ghazni. That was shortly after Laila's third birthday. He'd been lucky that time, losing only a leg; lucky that he'd survived at all.
Her head rang and rang with these thoughts.
Then one night Laila saw a tiny flashing light from down the street. A sound, something between a squeak and a gasp, escaped her lips. She quickly fished her own flashlight from under the bed, but it wouldn't work. Laila banged it against her palm, cursed the dead batteries. But it didn't matter. He was back. Laila sat on the edge of her bed, giddy with relief, and watched that beautiful, yellow eye winking on and off.
ON HER WAY to Tariq's house the next day, Laila saw Khadim and a group of his friends across the street. Khadim was squatting, drawing something in the dirt with a stick. When he saw her, he dropped the stick and wiggled his fingers. He said something and there was a round of chuckles. Laila dropped her head and hurried past.
"What did you do?" she exclaimed when Tariq opened the door. Only then did she remember that his uncle was a barber.
Tariq ran his hand over his newly shaved scalp and smiled, showing white, slightly uneven teeth.
"You look like you're enlisting in the army."
"You want to feel?" He lowered his head.
The tiny bristles scratched Laila's palm pleasantly. Tariq wasn't like some of the other boys, whose hair concealed cone-shaped skulls and unsightly lumps. Tariq's head was perfectly curved and lump-free.
When he looked up, Laila saw that his cheeks and brow had sunburned
"What took you so long?" she said
"My uncle was sick. Come on. Come inside."
He led her down the hallway to the family room. Laila loved everything about this house. The shabby old rug in the family room, the patchwork quilt on the couch, the ordinary clutter of Tariq's life: his mother's bolts of fabric, her sewing needles embedded in spools, the old magazines, the accordion case in the corner waiting to be cracked open.
"Who is it?"
It was his mother calling from the kitchen.
"Laila," he answered
He pulled her a chair. The family room was brightly lit and had double windows that opened into the yard. On the sill were empty jars in which Tariq's mother pickled eggplant and made carrot marmalade.
"You mean our aroos, our daughter-in-law," his father announced, entering the room. He was a carpenter, a lean, white-haired man in his early sixties. He had gaps between his front teeth, and the squinty eyes of someone who had spent most of his life outdoors. He opened his arms and Laila went into them, greeted by his pleasant and familiar smell of sawdust. They kissed on the cheek three times.
"You keep calling her that and she'll stop coming here," Tariq's mother said, passing by them. She was carrying a tray with a large bowl, a serving spoon, and four smaller bowls on it. She set the tray on the table. "Don't mind the old man." She cupped Laila's face. "It's good to see you, my dear. Come, sit down. I brought back some water-soaked fruit with me."
The table was bulky and made of a light, unfinished wood Ц Tariq's father had built it, as well as the chairs. It was covered with a moss green vinyl tablecloth with little magenta crescents and stars on it. Most of the living-room wall was taken up with pictures of Tariq at various ages. In some of the very early ones, he had two legs.
"I heard your brother was sick," Laila said to Tariq's father, dipping a spoon into her bowl of soaked raisins, pistachios, and apricots.
He was lighting a cigarette. "Yes, but he's fine now, shokr e Khoda, thanks to God."
"Heart attack. His second," Tariq's mother said, giving her husband an admonishing look.
Tariq's father blew smoke and winked at Laila. It struck her again that Tariq's parents could easily pass for his grandparents. His mother hadn't had him until she'd been well into her forties.
"How is your father, my dear?" Tariq's mother said, looking on over her bowl. As long as Laila had known her, Tariq's mother had worn a wig. It was turning a dull purple with age. It was pulled low on her brow today, and Laila could see the gray hairs of her sideburns. Some days, it rode high on her forehead. But, to Laila, Tariq's mother never looked pitiable in it. What Laila saw was the calm, self-assured face beneath the wig, the clever eyes, the pleasant, unhurried manners.
"He's fine," Laila said. "Still at Silo, of course. He's fine."
"And your mother?"
"Good days. Bad ones too. The same."
"Yes," Tariq's mother said thoughtfully, lowering her spoon into the bowl. "How hard it must be, how terribly hard, for a mother to be away from her sons."
"You're staying for lunch?" Tariq said.
"You have to," said his mother. "I'm making shorwa."
"I don't want to be a mozahem. "
"Imposing?" Tariq's mother said. "We leave for a couple of weeks and you turn polite on us?"
"All right, I'll stay," Laila said, blushing and smiling.
"It's settled, then."
The truth was, Laila loved eating meals at Tariq's house as much as she disliked eating them at hers. At Tariq's, there was no eating alone; they always ate as a family. Laila liked the violet plastic drinking glasses they used and the quarter lemon that always floated in the water pitcher. She liked how they started each meal with a bowl of fresh yogurt, how they squeezed sour oranges on everything, even their yogurt, and how they made small, harmless jokes at each other's expense.
Over meals, conversation always flowed. Though Tariq and his parents were ethnic Pashtuns, they spoke Farsi when Laila was around for her benefit, even though Laila more or less understood their native Pashto, having learned it in school. Babi said that there were tensions between their people Ц the Tajiks, who were a minority, and Tariq's people, the Pashtuns, who were the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Tajiks have always felt slighted, Babi had said. Pashtun kings ruled this country for almost two hundred and fifty years, Laila, and Tajiks for all of nine months, back in 1929.
And you, Laila had asked, do you feel slighted, Babi?
Babi had wiped his eyeglasses clean with the hem of his shirt. To me, it's nonsense Ц and very dangerous nonsense at that Ц all this talk of I'm Tajik and you're Pashtun and he's Hazara and she's Uzbek. We're all Afghans, and that's all that should matter. But when one group rules over the others for so long Е There is contempt. Rivalry. There is. There always has been.
Maybe so. But Laila never felt it in Tariq's house, where these matters never even came up. Her time with Tariq's family always felt natural to Laila, effortless, uncomplicated by differences in tribe or language, or by the personal spites and grudges that infected the air at her own home.
"How about a game of cards?" Tariq said.
"Yes, go upstairs," his mother said, swiping disapprovingly at her husband's cloud of smoke. "I'll get the shorwa going."
They lay on their stomachs in the middle of Tariq's room and took turns dealing for panjpar. Pedaling air with his foot, Tariq told her about his trip. The peach saplings he had helped his uncle plant. A garden snake he had captured.
This room was where Laila and Tariq did their homework, where they built playing-card towers and drew ridiculous portraits of each other. If it was raining, they leaned on the windowsill, drinking warm, fizzy orange Fanta, and watched the swollen rain droplets trickle down the glass.
"All right, here's one," Laila said, shuffling. "What goes around the world but stays in a corner?"
"Wait." Tariq pushed himself up and swung his artificial left leg around. Wincing, he lay on his side, leaning on his elbow. "Hand me that pillow." He placed it under his leg. "There. That's better."
Laila remembered the first time he'd shown her his stump. She'd been six. With one finger, she had poked the taut, shiny skin just below his left knee. Her finger had found little hard lumps there, and Tariq had told her they were spurs of bone that sometimes grew after an amputation. She'd asked him if his stump hurt, and he said it got sore at the end of the day, when it swelled and didn't fit the prosthesis like it was supposed to, like a finger in a thimble. And sometimes it gets rubbed. Especially when it's hot. Then I get rashes and blisters, but my mother has creams that help. It's not so bad.
Laila had burst into tears.
What are you crying for? He'd strapped his leg back on. You asked to see it, you giryanok, you crybaby! If I'd known you were going to bawl, I wouldn't have shown you.
"A stamp," he said.
"The riddle. The answer is a stamp. We should go to the zoo after lunch."
"You knew that one. Did you?"
"You're a cheat."
"And you're envious."
"My masculine smarts."
"Your masculine smarts? Really? Tell me, who always wins at chess?"
"I let you win." He laughed. They both knew that wasn't true.
"And who failed math? Who do you come to for help with your math homework even though you're a grade ahead?"
"I'd be two grades ahead if math didn't bore me."
"I suppose geography bores you too."
"How did you know? Now, shut up. So are we going to the zoo or not?"
Laila smiled. "We're going."
"I missed you."
There was a pause. Then Tariq turned to her with a half-grinning, half-grimacing look of distaste. "What's the matter with you?"
How many times had she, Hasina, and Giti said those same three words to each other, Laila wondered, said it without hesitation, after only two or three days of not seeing each other? I missed you, Hasina. Oh, I missed you too. In Tariq's grimace, Laila learned that boys differed from girls in this regard. They didn't make a show of friendship. They felt no urge, no need, for this sort of talk. Laila imagined it had been this way for her brothers too. Boys, Laila came to see, treated friendship the way they treated the sun: its existence undisputed; its radiance best enjoyed, not beheld directly.
"I was trying to annoy you," she said.
He gave her a sidelong glance. "It worked."
But she thought his grimace softened. And she thought that maybe the sunburn on his cheeks deepened momentarily.
LAILA DIDN'T MEAN to tell him. She'd, in fact, decided that telling him would be a very bad idea. Someone would get hurt, because Tariq wouldn't be able to let it pass. But when they were on the street later, heading down to the bus stop, she saw Khadim again, leaning against a wall. He was surrounded by his friends, thumbs hooked in his belt loops. He grinned at her defiantly.
And so she told Tariq. The story spilled out of her mouth before she could stop it.
"He did what?"
She told him again.
He pointed to Khadim. "Him? He's the one? You're sure?"
Tariq clenched his teeth and muttered something to himself in Pashto that Laila didn't catch. "You wait here," he said, in Farsi now.
He was already crossing the street.
Khadim was the first to see him. His grin faded, and he pushed himself off the wall. He unhooked his thumbs from the belt loops and made himself more upright, taking on a self-conscious air of menace. The others followed his gaze.
Laila wished she hadn't said anything. What if they banded together? How many of them were there Ц ten? eleven? twelve? What if they hurt him?
Then Tariq stopped a few feet from Khadim and his band. There was a moment of consideration, Laila thought, maybe a change of heart, and, when he bent down, she imagined he would pretend his shoelace had come undone and walk back to her. Then his hands went to work, and she understood.
The others understood too when Tariq straightened up, standing on one leg. When he began hopping toward Khadim, then charging him, his unstrapped leg raised high over his shoulder like a sword.
The boys stepped aside in a hurry. They gave him a clear path to Khadim.
Then it was all dust and fists and kicks and yelps.
Khadim never bothered Laila again.
THAT NIGHT, as most nights, Laila set the dinner table for two only. Mammy said she wasn't hungry. On those nights that she was, she made a point of taking a plate to her room before Babi even came home. She was usually asleep or lying awake in bed by the time Laila and Babi sat down to eat.
Babi came out of the bathroom, his hair Ц peppered white with flour when he'd come home Ц washed clean now and combed back.
"What are we having, Laila?"
"Leftover aush soup."
"Sounds good," he said, folding the towel with which he'd dried his hair. "So what are we working on tonight? Adding fractions?"
"Actually, converting fractions to mixed numbers."
Every night after dinner, Babi helped Laila with her homework and gave her some of his own. This was only to keep Laila a step or two ahead of her class, not because he disapproved of the work assigned by the school Ц the propaganda teaching notwithstanding. In fact, Babi thought that the one thing the communists had done right Ц or at least intended to Ц ironically, was in the field of education, the vocation from which they had fired him. More specifically, the education of women. The government had sponsored literacy classes for all women. Almost two-thirds of the students at Kabul University were women now, Babi said, women who were studying law, medicine, engineering.
Women have always had it hard in this country, Laila, but they're probably more free now, under the communists, and have more rights than they've ever had before, Babi said, always lowering his voice, aware of how intolerant Mammy was of even remotely positive talk of the communists. But it's true, Babi said, it's a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan. And you can take advantage of that, Laila. Of course, women's freedom Ц here, he shook his head ruefully Ц is also one of the reasons people out there took up arms in the first place.
By "out there," he didn't mean Kabul, which had always been relatively liberal and progressive. Here in Kabul, women taught at the university, ran schools, held office in the government. No, Babi meant the tribal areas, especially the Pashtun regions in the south or in the east near the Pakistani border, where women were rarely seen on the streets and only then in burqa and accompanied by men. He meant those regions where men who lived by ancient tribal laws had rebelled against the communists and their decrees to liberate women, to abolish forced marriage, to raise the minimum marriage age to sixteen for girls. There, men saw it as an insult to their centuries-old tradition, Babi said, to be told by the government Ц and a godless one at that Ц that their daughters had to leave home, attend school, and work alongside men.
God forbid that should happen! Babi liked to say sarcastically. Then he would sigh, and say, Laila, my love, the only enemy an Afghan cannot defeat is himself.
Babi took his seat at the table, dipped bread into his bowl of aush.
Laila decided that she would tell him about what Tariq had done to Khadim, over the meal, before they started in on fractions. But she never got the chance. Because, right then, there was a knock at the door, and, on the other side of the door, a stranger with news.
I need to speak to your parents, dokhtar jan" he said when Laila opened the door. He was a stocky man, with a sharp, weather-roughened face. He wore a potato-colored coat, and a brown wool pakol on his head
"Can I tell them who's here?"
Then Babi's hand was on Laila's shoulder, and he gently pulled her from the door.
"Why don't you go upstairs, Laila. Go on."
As she moved toward the steps, Laila heard the visitor say to Babi that he had news from Panjshir. Mammy was in the room now too. She had one hand clamped over her mouth, and her eyes were skipping from Babi to the man in the pakol.
Laila peeked from the top of the stairs. She watched the stranger sit down with her parents. He leaned toward them. Said a few muted words. Then Babi's face was white, and getting whiter, and he was looking at his hands, and Mammy was screaming, screaming, and tearing at her hair.
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING, the day of the fatiha, a flock of neighborhood women descended on the house and took charge of preparations for the khatm dinner that would take place after the funeral. Mammy sat on the couch the whole morning, her fingers working a handkerchief, her face bloated. She was tended to by a pair of sniffling women who took turns patting Mammy's hand gingerly, like she was the rarest and most fragile doll in the world. Mammy did not seem aware of their presence.
Laila kneeled before her mother and took her hands. "Mammy."
Mammy's eyes drifted down. She blinked.
"We'll take care of her, Laila jan," one of the women said with an air of self-importance. Laila had been to funerals before where she had seen women like this, women who relished all things that had to do with death, official consolers who let no one trespass on their self-appointed duties.
"It's under control. You go on now, girl, and do something else. Leave your mother be."
Shooed away, Laila felt useless. She bounced from one room to the next. She puttered around the kitchen for a while. An uncharacteristically subdued Hasina and her mother came. So did Giti and her mother. When Giti saw Laila, she hurried over, threw her bony arms around her, and gave Laila a very long, and surprisingly strong, embrace. When she pulled back, tears had pooled in her eyes. "I am so sorry, Laila," she said. Laila thanked her. The three girls sat outside in the yard until one of the women assigned them the task of washing glasses and stacking plates on the table.
Babi too kept walking in and out of the house aimlessly, looking, it seemed, for something to do.
"Keep him away from me." That was the only time Mammy said anything all morning.
Babi ended up sitting alone on a folding chair in the hallway, looking desolate and small. Then one of the women told him he was in the way there. He apologized and disappeared into his study.
THAT AFTERNOON, the men went to a hall in Karteh-Seh that Babi had rented for the fatiha. The women came to the house. Laila took her spot beside Mammy, next to the living-room entrance where it was customary for the family of the deceased to sit. Mourners removed their shoes at the door, nodded at acquaintances as they crossed the room, and sat on folding chairs arranged along the walls. Laila saw Wajma, the elderly midwife who had delivered her. She saw Tariq's mother too, wearing a black scarf over the wig. She gave Laila a nod and a slow, sad, close-lipped smile.
From a cassette player, a man's nasal voice chanted verses from the Koran. In between, the women sighed and shifted and sniffled. There were muted coughs, murmurs, and, periodically, someone let out a theatrical, sorrow-drenched sob.
Rasheed's wife, Mariam, came in. She was wearing a black hijab. Strands of her hair strayed from it onto her brow. She took a seat along the wall across from Laila.
Next to Laila, Mammy kept rocking back and forth. Laila drew Mammy's hand into her lap and cradled it with both of hers, but Mammy did not seem to notice.
"Do you want some water, Mammy?" Laila said in her ear. "Are you thirsty?"
But Mammy said nothing. She did nothing but sway back and forth and stare at the rug with a remote, spiritless look.
Now and then, sitting next to Mammy, seeing the drooping, woebegone looks around the room, the magnitude of the disaster that had struck her family would register with Laila. The possibilities denied. The hopes dashed.
But the feeling didn't last. It was hard to feel, really feel, Mammy's loss. Hard to summon sorrow, to grieve the deaths of people Laila had never really thought of as alive in the first place. Ahmad and Noor had always been like lore to her. Like characters in a fable. Kings in a history book.
It was Tariq who was real, flesh and blood. Tariq, who taught her cusswords in Pashto, who liked salted clover leaves, who frowned and made a low, moaning sound when he chewed, who had a light pink birthmark just beneath his left collarbone shaped like an upside-down mandolin.
So she sat beside Mammy and dutifully mourned Ahmad and Noor, but, in Laila's heart, her true brother was alive and well.
The ailments that would hound Mammy for the rest of her days began. Chest pains and headaches, joint aches and night sweats, paralyzing pains in her ears, lumps no one else could feel. Babi took her to a doctor, who took blood and urine, shot X-rays of Mammy's body, but found no physical illness.