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He crossed his legs. It grew quiet again between them for a while.

"My father didn't survive that first winter," he said. "He died in his sleep. I don't think there was any pain."

That same winter, he said, his mother caught pneumonia and almost died, would have died, if not for a camp doctor who worked out of a station wagon made into a mobile clinic. She would wake up all night long, feverish, coughing out thick, rust-colored phlegm. The queues were long to see the doctor, Tariq said. Everyone was shivering in line, moaning, coughing, some with shit running down their legs, others too tired or hungry or sick to make words.

"But he was a decent man, the doctor. He treated my mother, gave her some pills, saved her life that winter."

That same winter, Tariq had cornered a kid.

"Twelve, maybe thirteen years old," he said evenly. "I held a shard of glass to his throat and took his blanket from him. I gave it to my mother."

He made a vow to himself, Tariq said, after his mother's illness, that they would not spend another winter in camp. He'd work, save, move them to an apartment in Peshawar with heating and clean water. When spring came, he looked for work. From time to time, a truck came to camp early in the morning and rounded up a couple of dozen boys, took them to a field to move stones or an orchard to pick apples in exchange for a little money, sometimes a blanket, a pair of shoes. But they never wanted him, Tariq said.

"One look at my leg and it was over."

There were other jobs. Ditches to dig, hovels to build, water to carry, feces to shovel from outhouses. But young men fought over these jobs, and Tariq never stood a chance.

Then he met a shopkeeper one day, that fall of 1993.

"He offered me money to take a leather coat to Lahore. Not a lot but enough, enough for one or maybe two months' apartment rent."

The shopkeeper gave him a bus ticket, Tariq said, and the address of a street corner near the Lahore Rail Station where he was to deliver the coat to a friend of the shopkeeper's.

"I knew already. Of course I knew," Tariq said. "He said that if I got caught, I was on my own, that I should remember that he knew where my mother lived. But the money was too good to pass up. And winter was coming again."

"How far did you get?" Laila asked.

"Not far," he said and laughed, sounding apologetic, ashamed. "Never even got on the bus. But I thought I was immune, you know, safe. As though there was some accountant up there somewhere, a guy with a pencil tucked behind his ear who kept track of these things, who tallied things up, and he'd look down and say, 'Yes, yes, he can have this, we'll let it go. He's paid some dues already, this one.'"

It was in the seams, the hashish, and it spilled all over the street when the police took a knife to the coat.

Tariq laughed again when he said this, a climbing, shaky kind of laugh, and Laila remembered how he used to laugh like this when they were little, to cloak embarrassment, to make light of things he'd done that were foolhardy or scandalous.


"HE HAS A LIMP," Zalmai said. "Is this who I think it is?"

"He was only visiting," Mariam said.

"Shut up, you," Rasheed snapped, raising a finger. He turned back to Laila. "Well, what do you know? Laili and Majnoon reunited. Just like old times." His face turned stony. "So you let him in. Here. In my house. You let him in. He was in here with my son."

"You duped me. You lied to me," Laila said, gritting her teeth. "You had that man sit across from me andЕ You knew I would leave if I thought he was alive."

"AND YOU DIDN'T LIE TO ME?" Rasheed roared. "You think I didn't figure it out? About your harami? You take me for a fool, you whore?"


THE MORE TARIQ TALKED, the more Laila dreaded the moment when he would stop. The silence that would follow, the signal that it was her turn to give account, to provide the why and how and when, to make official what he surely already knew. She felt a faint nausea whenever he paused. She averted his eyes. She looked down at his hands, at the coarse, dark hairs that had sprouted on the back of them in the intervening years.

Tariq wouldn't say much about his years in prison save that he'd learned to speak Urdu there. When Laila asked, he gave an impatient shake of his head. In this gesture, Laila saw rusty bars and unwashed bodies, violent men and crowded halls, and ceilings rotting with moldy deposits. She read in his face that it had been a place of abasement, of degradation and despair.

Tariq said his mother tried to visit him after his arrest.

"Three times she came. But I never got to see her," he said.

He wrote her a letter, and a few more after that, even though he doubted that she would receive them.

"And I wrote you."

"You did?"

"Oh, volumes," he said. "Your friend Rumi would have envied my production." Then he laughed again, uproariously this time, as though he was both startled at his own boldness and embarrassed by what he had let on.

Zalmai began bawling upstairs.


"JUST LIKE OLD TIMES, then," Rasheed said. "The two of you. I suppose you let him see your face."

"She did," said Zalmai. Then, to Laila, "You did, Mammy. I saw you."


"YOUR SON DOESN'T care for me much," Tariq said when Laila returned downstairs.

"I'm sorry," she said. "It's not that. He justЕDon't mind him." Then quickly she changed the subject because it made her feel perverse and guilty to feel that about Zalmai, who was a child, a little boy who loved his father, whose instinctive aversion to this stranger was understandable and legitimate.

And I wrote you.



"How long have you been in Murree?"

"Less than a year," Tariq said.

He befriended an older man in prison, he said, a fellow named Salim, a Pakistani, a former field hockey player who had been in and out of prison for years and who was serving ten years for stabbing an undercover policeman. Every prison has a man like Salim, Tariq said. There was always someone who was cunning and connected, who worked the system and found you things, someone around whom the air buzzed with both opportunity and danger. It was Salim who had sent out Tariq's queries about his mother, Salim who had sat him down and told him, in a soft, fatherly voice, that she had died of exposure.

Tariq spent seven years in the Pakistani prison. "I got off easy," he said. "I was lucky. The judge sitting on my case, it turned out, had a brother who'd married an Afghan woman. Maybe he showed mercy. I don't know."

When Tariq's sentence was up, early in the winter of 2000, Salim gave him his brother's address and phone number. The brother's name was Sayeed.

"He said Sayeed owned a small hotel in Murree," Tariq said. "Twenty rooms and a lounge, a little place to cater to tourists. He said tell him I sent you."

Tariq had liked Murree as soon as he'd stepped off the bus: the snow-laden pines; the cold, crisp air; the shuttered wooden cottages, smoke curling up from chimneys.

Here was a place, Tariq had thought, knocking on Sayeed's door, a place not only worlds removed from the wretchedness he'd known but one that made even the notion of hardship and sorrow somehow obscene, unimaginable.

"I said to myself, here is a place where a man can get on."

Tariq was hired as a janitor and handyman. He did well, he said, during the one-month trial period, at half pay, that Sayeed granted him. As Tariq spoke, Laila saw Sayeed, whom she imagined narrow-eyed and ruddy-faced, standing at the reception office window watching Tariq chop wood and shovel snow off the driveway. She saw him stooping over Tariq's legs, observing, as Tariq lay beneath the sink fixing a leaky pipe. She pictured him checking the register for missing cash.

Tariq's shack was beside the cook's little bungalow, he said. The cook was a matronly old widow named Adiba. Both shacks were detached from the hotel itself, separated from the main building by a scattering of almond trees, a park bench, and a pyramid-shaped stone fountain that, in the summer, gurgled water all day. Laila pictured Tariq in his shack, sitting up in bed, watching the leafy world outside his window.

At the end of the grace period, Sayeed raised Tariq's pay to full, told him his lunches were free, gave him a wool coat, and fitted him for a new leg. Tariq said he'd wept at the man's kindness.

With his first month's full salary in his pocket, Tariq had gone to town and bought Alyona.

"Her fur is perfectly white," Tariq said, smiling. "Some mornings, when it's snowed all night, you look out the window and all you see of her is two eyes and a muzzle."

Laila nodded Another silence ensued Upstairs, Zalmai had begun bouncing his ball again against the wall.

"I thought you were dead," Laila said.

"I know. You told me."

Laila's voice broke. She had to clear her throat, collect herself. "The man who came to give the news, he was so earnestЕI believed him, Tariq. I wish I hadn't, but I did. And then I felt so alone and scared. Otherwise, I wouldn't have agreed to marry Rasheed. I wouldn't haveЕ"

"You don't have to do this," he said softly, avoiding her eyes. There was no hidden reproach, no recrimination, in the way he had said this. No suggestion of blame.

"But I do. Because there was a bigger reason why I married him. There's something you don't know, Tariq. Someone. I have to tell you."



* * *

"DID YOU SIT and talk with him too?" Rasheed asked Zalmai.

Zalmai said nothing. Laila saw hesitation and uncertainty in his eyes now, as if he had just realized that what he'd disclosed had turned out to be far bigger than he'd thought.

"I asked you a question, boy."

Zalmai swallowed. His gaze kept shifting. "I was upstairs, playing with Mariam."

"And your mother?"

Zalmai looked at Laila apologetically, on the verge of tears.

"It's all right, Zalmai," Laila said. "Tell the truth."

"She wasЕ She was downstairs, talking to that man," he said in a thin voice hardly louder than a whisper.

"I see," said Rasheed. "Teamwork."


AS HE WAS LEAVING, Tariq said, "I want to meet her. I want to see her."

"I'll arrange it," Laila said.

"Aziza. Aziza." He smiled, tasting the word. Whenever Rasheed uttered her daughter's name, it came out sounding unwholesome to Laila, almost vulgar.

"Aziza. It's lovely."

"So is she. You'll see."

"I'll count the minutes."

Almost ten years had passed since they had last seen each other. Laila's mind flashed to all the times they'd met in the alley, kissing in secret. She wondered how she must seem to him now. Did he still find her pretty? Or did she seem withered to him, reduced, pitiable, like a fearful, shuffling old woman? Almost ten years. But, for a moment, standing there with Tariq in the sunlight, it was as though those years had never happened. Her parents' deaths, her marriage to Rasheed, the killings, the rockets, the Taliban, the beatings, the hunger, even her children, all of it seemed like a dream, a bizarre detour, a mere interlude between that last afternoon together and this moment.

Then Tariq's face changed, turned grave. She knew this expression. It was the same look he'd had on his face that day, all those years ago when they'd both been children, when he'd unstrapped his leg and gone after Khadim. He reached with one hand now and touched the corner of her lower lip.

"He did this to you," he said coldly.

At his touch, Laila remembered the frenzy of that afternoon again when they'd conceived Aziza. His breath on her neck, the muscles of his hips flexing, his chest pressing against her breasts, their hands interlocked.

"I wish I'd taken you with me," Tariq nearly whispered.

Laila had to lower her gaze, try not to cry.

"I know you're a married woman and a mother now. And here I am, after all these years, after all that's happened, showing up at your doorstep. Probably, it isn't proper, or fair, but I've come such a long way to see you, andЕ Oh, Laila, I wish I'd never left you."

"Don't," she croaked.

"I should have tried harder. I should have married you when I had the chance. Everything would have been different, then."

"Don't talk this way. Please. It hurts."

He nodded, started to take a step toward her, then stopped himself. "I don't want to assume anything. And I don't mean to turn your life upside down, appearing like this out of nowhere. If you want me to leave, if you want me to go back to Pakistan, say the word, Laila. I mean it. Say it and I'll go. I'll never trouble you again. I'll-"

"No!" Laila said more sharply than she'd intended to. She saw that she'd reached for his arm, that she was clutching it. She dropped her hand. "No. Don't leave, Tariq. No. Please stay."

Tariq nodded.

"He works from noon to eight. Come back tomorrow afternoon. I'll take you to Aziza."

"I'm not afraid of him, you know."

"I know. Come back tomorrow afternoon."

"And then?"

"And thenЕI don't know. I have to think. This isЕ"

"I know it is," he said. "I understand. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for a lot of things."

"Don't be. You promised you'd come back. And you did."

His eyes watered. "It's good to see you, Laila."

She watched him walk away, shivering where she stood. She thought, Volumes, and another shudder passed through her, a current of something sad and forlorn, but also something eager and recklessly hopeful.






I was upstairs, playing with Mariam," Zalmai said.

"And your mother?"

"She wasЕ She was downstairs, talking to that man."

"I see," said Rasheed. "Teamwork."

Mariam watched his face relax, loosen. She watched the folds clear from his brow. Suspicion and misgiving winked out of his eyes. He sat up straight, and, for a few brief moments, he appeared merely thoughtful, like a captain informed of imminent mutiny taking his time to ponder his next move.

He looked up.

Mariam began to say something, but he raised a hand, and, without looking at her, said, "It's too late, Mariam."

To Zalmai he said coldly, "You're going upstairs, boy."

On Zalmai's face, Mariam saw alarm. Nervously, he looked around at the three of them. He sensed now that his tattletale game had let something serious Ц adult serious Ц into the room. He cast a despondent, contrite glance toward Mariam, then his mother.

In a challenging voice, Rasheed said, "Now!"

He took Zalmai by the elbow. Zalmai meekly let himself be led upstairs.

They stood frozen, Mariam and Laila, eyes to the ground, as though looking at each other would give credence to the way Rasheed saw things, that while he was opening doors and lugging baggage for people who wouldn't spare him a glance a lewd conspiracy was shaping behind his back, in his home, in his beloved son's presence. Neither one of them said a word. They listened to the footsteps in the hallway above, one heavy and foreboding, the other the pattering of a skittish little animal. They listened to muted words passed, a squeaky plea, a curt retort, a door shut, the rattle of a key as it turned. Then one set of footsteps returning, more impatiently now.

Mariam saw his feet pounding the steps as he came down. She saw him pocketing the key, saw his belt, the perforated end wrapped tightly around his knuckles. The fake brass buckle dragged behind him, bouncing on the steps.

She went to stop him, but he shoved her back and blew by her. Without saying a word, he swung the belt at Laila. He did it with such speed that she had no time to retreat or duck, or even raise a protective arm. Laila touched her fingers to her temple, looked at the blood, looked at Rasheed, with astonishment. It lasted only a moment or two, this look of disbelief, before it was replaced by something hateful.

Rasheed swung the belt again.

This time, Laila shielded herself with a forearm and made a grab at the belt. She missed, and Rasheed brought the belt down again. Laila caught it briefly before Rasheed yanked it free and lashed at her again. Then Laila was dashing around the room, and Mariam was screaming words that ran together and imploring Rasheed, as he chased Laila, as he blocked her way and cracked his belt at her. At one point, Laila ducked and managed to land a punch across his ear, which made him spit a curse and pursue her even more relentlessly. He caught her, threw her up against the wall, and struck her with the belt again and again, the buckle slamming against her chest, her shoulder, her raised arms, her fingers, drawing blood wherever it struck.

Mariam lost count of how many times the belt cracked, how many pleading words she cried out to Rasheed, how many times she circled around the incoherent tangle of teeth and fists and belt, before she saw fingers clawing at Rasheed's face, chipped nails digging into his jowls and pulling at his hair and scratching his forehead. How long before she realized, with both shock and relish, that the fingers were hers.

He let go of Laila and turned on her. At first, he looked at her without seeing her, then his eyes narrowed, appraised Mariam with interest. The look in them shifted from puzzlement to shock, then disapproval, disappointment even, lingering there a moment.

Mariam remembered the first time she had seen his eyes, under the wedding veil, in the mirror, with Jalil looking on, how their gazes had slid across the glass and met, his indifferent, hers docile, conceding, almost apologetic.


Mariam saw now in those same eyes what a fool she had been.

Had she been a deceitful wife? she asked herself. A complacent wife? A dishonorable woman? Discreditable? Vulgar? What harmful thing had she willfully done to this man to warrant his malice, his continual assaults, the relish with which he tormented her? Had she not looked after him when he was ill? Fed him, and his friends, cleaned up after him dutifully?

Had she not given this man her youth?

Had she ever justly deserved his meanness?

The belt made a thump when Rasheed dropped it to the ground and came for her. Some jobs, that thump said, were meant to be done with bare hands.

But just as he was bearing down on her, Mariam saw Laila behind him pick something up from the ground. She watched Laila's hand rise overhead, hold, then come swooping down against the side of his face. Glass shattered. The jagged remains of the drinking glass rained down to the ground. There was blood on Laila's hands, blood flowing from the open gash on Rasheed's cheek, blood down his neck, on his shirt. He turned around, all snarling teeth and blazing eyes.

They crashed to the ground, Rasheed and Laila, thrashing about. He ended up on top, his hands already wrapped around Laila's neck.

Mariam clawed at him. She beat at his chest. She hurled herself against him. She struggled to uncurl his fingers from Laila's neck. She bit them. But they remained tightly clamped around Laila's wind-pipe, and Mariam saw that he meant to carry this through.

He meant to suffocate her, and there was nothing either of them could do about it.

Mariam backed away and left the room. She was aware of a thumping sound from upstairs, aware that tiny palms were slapping against a locked door. She ran down the hallway. She burst through the front door. Crossed the yard.

In the toolshed, Mariam grabbed the shovel.

Rasheed didn't notice her coming back into the room. He was still on top of Laila, his eyes wide and crazy, his hands wrapped around her neck. Laila's face was turning blue now, and her eyes had rolled back. Mariam saw that she was no longer struggling. He's going to kill her, she thought. He really means to. And Mariam could not, would not, allow that to happen. He'd taken so much from her in twenty-seven years of marriage. She would not watch him take Laila too.

Mariam steadied her feet and tightened her grip around the shovel's handle. She raised it. She said his name. She wanted him to see.


He looked up.

Mariam swung.

She hit him across the temple. The blow knocked him off Laila.

Rasheed touched his head with the palm of his hand. He looked at the blood on his fingertips, then at Mariam. She thought she saw his face soften. She imagined that something had passed between them, that maybe she had quite literally knocked some understanding into his head. Maybe he saw something in her face too, Mariam thought, something that made him hedge. Maybe he saw some trace of all the self-denial, all the sacrifice, all the sheer exertion it had taken her to live with him for all these years, live with his continual condescension and violence, his faultfinding and meanness. Was that respect she saw in his eyes? Regret?

But then his upper lip curled back into a spiteful sneer, and Mariam knew then the futility, maybe even the irresponsibility, of not finishing this. If she let him walk now, how long before he fetched the key from his pocket and went for that gun of his upstairs in the room where he'd locked Zalmai? Had Mariam been certain that he would be satisfied with shooting only her, that there was a chance he would spare Laila, she might have dropped the shovel. But in Rasheed's eyes she saw murder for them both.

And so Mariam raised the shovel high, raised it as high as she could, arching it so it touched the small of her back. She turned it so the sharp edge was vertical, and, as she did, it occurred to her that this was the first time that she was deciding the course of her own life.

And, with that, Mariam brought down the shovel. This time, she gave it everything she had.






Laila was aware of the face over her, all teeth and tobacco and foreboding eyes. She was dimly aware, too, of Mariam, a presence beyond the face, of her fists raining down. Above them was the ceiling, and it was the ceiling Laila was drawn to, the dark markings of mold spreading across it like ink on a dress, the crack in the plaster that was a stolid smile or a frown, depending on which end of the room you looked at it from. Laila thought of all the times she had tied a rag around the end of a broom and cleaned cobwebs from this ceiling. The three times she and Mariam had put coats of white paint on it. The crack wasn't a smile any longer now but a mocking leer. And it was receding. The ceiling was shrinking, lifting, rising away from her and toward some hazy dimness beyond. It rose until it shrank to the size of a postage stamp, white and bright, everything around it blotted out by the shuttered darkness. In the dark, Rasheed's face was like a sunspot.

Brief little bursts of blinding light before her eyes now, like silver stars exploding. Bizarre geometric forms in the light, worms, egg-shaped things, moving up and down, sideways, melting into each other, breaking apart, morphing into something else, then fading, giving way to blackness.

Voices muffled and distant.

Behind the lids of her eyes, her children's faces flared and fizzled. Aziza, alert and burdened, knowing, secretive. Zalmai, looking up at his father with quivering eagerness.

It would end like this, then, Laila thought. What a pitiable end.

But then the darkness began to lift. She had a sensation of rising up, of being hoisted up. The ceiling slowly came back, expanded, and now Laila could make out the crack again, and it was the same old dull smile.

She was being shaken. Are you all right? Answer me, are you all right? Mariam's face, engraved with scratches, heavy with worry, hovered over Laila.

Laila tried a breath. It burned her throat. She tried another. It burned even more this time, and not just her throat but her chest too. And then she was coughing, and wheezing. Gasping. But breathing. Her good ear rang.


THE FIRST THING she saw when she sat up was Rasheed. He was lying on his back, staring at nothing with an unblinking, fish-mouthed expression. A bit of foam, lightly pink, had dribbled from his mouth down his cheek. The front of his pants was wet. She saw his forehead.

Then she saw the shovel.

A groan came out of her. "Oh," she said, tremulously, barely able to make a voice, "Oh, Mariam."


LAILA PACED, moaning and banging her hands together, as Mariam sat near Rasheed, her hands in her lap, calm and motionless. Mariam didn't say anything for a long time.

Laila's mouth was dry, and she was stammering her words, trembling all over. She willed herself not to look at Rasheed, at the rictus of his mouth, his open eyes, at the blood congealing in the hollow of his collarbone.

Outside, the light was fading, the shadows deepening. Mariam's face looked thin and drawn in this light, but she did not appear agitated or frightened, merely preoccupied, thoughtful, so self-possessed that when a fly landed on her chin she paid it no attention. She just sat there with her bottom lip stuck out, the way she did when she was absorbed in thought.

At last, she said, "Sit down, Laila jo."

Laila did, obediently.

"We have to move him. Zalmai can't see this."


MARIAM FISHED THE bedroom key from Rasheed's pocket before they wrapped him in a bedsheet. Laila took him by the legs, behind the knees, and Mariam grabbed him under the arms. They tried lifting him, but he was too heavy, and they ended up dragging him. As they were passing through the front door and into the yard, Rasheed's foot caught against the doorframe and his leg bent sideways. They had to back up and try again, and then something thumped upstairs and Laila's legs gave out. She dropped Rasheed. She slumped to the ground, sobbing and shaking, and Mariam had to stand over her, hands on hips, and say that she had to get herself together. That what was done was done.

After a time, Laila got up and wiped her face, and they carried Rasheed to the yard without further incident. They took him into the toolshed. They left him behind the workbench, on which sat his saw, some nails, a chisel, a hammer, and a cylindrical block of wood that Rasheed had been meaning to carve into something for Zalmai but had never gotten around to doing.

Then they went back inside. Mariam washed her hands, ran them through her hair, took a deep breath and let it out. "Let me tend to your wounds now. You're all cut up, Laila jo."


MARIAM SAID SHE needed the night to think things over. To get her thoughts together and devise a plan.

"There is a way," she said, "and I just have to find it."

"We have to leave! We can't stay here," Laila said in a broken, husky voice. She thought suddenly of the sound the shovel must have made striking Rasheed's head, and her body pitched forward. Bile surged up her chest.

Mariam waited patiently until Laila felt better. Then she had Laila lie down, and, as she stroked Laila's hair in her lap, Mariam said not to worry, that everything would be fine. She said that they would leave Ц she, Laila, the children, and Tariq too. They would leave this house, and this unforgiving city. They would leave this despondent country altogether, Mariam said, running her hands through Laila's hair, and go someplace remote and safe where no one would find them, where they could disown their past and find shelter.

"Somewhere with trees," she said. "Yes. Lots of trees."

They would live in a small house on the edge of some town they'd never heard of, Mariam said, or in a remote village where the road was narrow and unpaved but lined with all manner of plants and shrubs. Maybe there would be a path to take, a path that led to a grass field where the children could play, or maybe a graveled road that would take them to a clear blue lake where trout swam and reeds poked through the surface. They would raise sheep and chickens, and they would make bread together and teach the children to read. They would make new lives for themselves Ц peaceful, solitary lives Ц and there the weight of all that they'd endured would lift from them, and they would be deserving of all the happiness and simple prosperity they would find.

Date: 2015-12-24; view: 706

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