A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 11)
Mariam knew that she could never talk to him about this. It was unmentionable. But was it unforgivable? She only had to think of the other man in her life. Jalil, a husband of three and father of nine at the time, having relations with Nana out of wedlock. Which was worse, Rasheed’s magazine or what Jalil had done? And what entitled her anyway, a villager, a harami, to pass judgment?
Mariam tried the bottom drawer of the dresser.
It was there that she found a picture of the boy, Yunus. It was black-and-white. He looked four, maybe five. He was wearing a striped shirt and a bow tie. He was a handsome little boy, with a slender nose, brown hair, and dark, slightly sunken eyes. He looked distracted, as though something had caught his eye just as the camera had flashed.
Beneath that, Mariam found another photo, also black and-white, this one slightly more grainy. It was of a seated woman and, behind her, a thinner, younger Rasheed, with black hair. The woman was beautiful. Not as beautiful as the women in the magazine, perhaps, but beautiful. Certainly more beautiful than her, Mariam. She had a delicate chin and long, black hair parted in the center. High cheekbones and a gentle forehead. Mariam pictured her own face, her thin lips and long chin, and felt a flicker of jealousy.
She looked at this photo for a long time. There was something vaguely unsettling about the way Rasheed seemed to loom over the woman. His hands on her shoulders. His savoring, tight-lipped smile and her unsmiling, sullen face. The way her body tilted forward subtly, as though she were trying to wriggle free of his hands.
Mariam put everything back where she’d found it.
Later, as she was doing laundry, she regretted that she had sneaked around in his room. For what? What thing of substance had she learned about him? That he owned a gun, that he was a man with the needs of a man? And she shouldn’t have stared at the photo of him and his wife for as long as she had. Her eyes had read meaning into what was random body posture captured in a single moment of time.
What Mariam felt now, as the loaded clotheslines bounced heavily before her, was sorrow for Rasheed. He too had had a hard life, a life marked by loss and sad turns of fate. Her thoughts returned to his boy Yunus, who had once built snowmen in this yard, whose feet had pounded these same stairs. The lake had snatched him from Rasheed, swallowed him up, just as a whale had swallowed the boy’s namesake prophet in the Koran. It pained Mariam – it pained her considerably – to picture Rasheed panic-stricken and helpless, pacing the banks of the lake and pleading with it to spit his son back onto dry land.
And she felt for the first time a kinship with her husband. She told herself that they would make good companions after all.
On the bus ride home from the doctor, the strangest thing was happening to Mariam. Everywhere she looked, she saw bright colors: on the drab, gray concrete apartments, on the tin-roofed, open-fronted stores, in the muddy water flowing in the gutters. It was as though a rainbow had melted into her eyes.
Rasheed was drumming his gloved fingers and humming a song. Every time the bus bucked over a pothole and jerked forward, his hand shot protectively over her belly.
"What about Zalmai?" he said. "It’s a good Pashtun name."
"What if it’s a girl?" Mariam said.
"I think it’s a boy. Yes. A boy."
A murmur was passing through the bus. Some passengers were pointing at something and other passengers were leaning across seats to see.
"Look," said Rasheed, tapping a knuckle on the glass. He was smiling. "There. See?"
On the streets, Mariam saw people stopping in their tracks. At traffic lights, faces emerged from the windows of cars, turned upward toward the falling softness. What was it about a season’s first snowfall, Mariam wondered, that was so entrancing? Was it the chance to see something as yet unsoiled, untrodden? To catch the fleeting grace of a new season, a lovely beginning, before it was trampled and corrupted?
"If it’s a girl," Rasheed said, "and it isn’t, but, if it is a girl, then you can choose whatever name you want."
MARIAM AWOKE the next morning to the sound of sawing and hammering. She wrapped a shawl around her and went out into the snow-blown yard. The heavy snowfall of the previous night had stopped. Now only a scattering of light, swirling flakes tickled her cheeks. The air was windless and smelled like burning coal. Kabul was eerily silent, quilted in white, tendrils of smoke snaking up here and there.
She found Rasheed in the toolshed, pounding nails into a plank of wood. When he saw her, he removed a nail from the corner of his mouth.
"It was going to be a surprise. He’ll need a crib. You weren’t supposed to see until it was done."
Mariam wished he wouldn’t do that, hitch his hopes to its being a boy. As happy as she was about this pregnancy, his expectation weighed on her. Yesterday, Rasheed had gone out and come home with a suede winter coat for a boy, lined inside with soft sheepskin, the sleeves embroidered with fine red and yellow silk thread.
Rasheed lifted a long, narrow board. As he began to saw it in half, he said the stairs worried him. "Something will have to be done about them later, when he’s old enough to climb." The stove worried him too, he said. The knives and forks would have to be stowed somewhere out of reach.
"You can’t be too careful. Boys are reckless creatures." Mariam pulled the shawl around her against the chill.
THE NEXT MORNING, Rasheed said he wanted to invite his friends for dinner to celebrate. All morning, Mariam cleaned lentils and moistened rice. She sliced eggplants for borani, and cooked leeks and ground beef for aushak. She swept the floor, beat the curtains, aired the house, despite the snow that had started up again. She arranged mattresses and cushions along the walls of the living room, placed bowls of candy and roasted almonds on the table.
She was in her room by early evening before the first of the men arrived. She lay in bed as the hoots and laughter and bantering voices downstairs began to mushroom. She couldn’t keep her hands from drifting to her belly. She thought of what was growing there, and happiness rushed in like a gust of wind blowing a door wide open. Her eyes watered.
Mariam thought of her six-hundred-and-fifty-kilometer bus trip with Rasheed, from Herat in the west, near the border with Iran, to Kabul in the east. They had passed small towns and big towns, and knots of little villages that kept springing up one after another. They had gone over mountains and across raw-burned deserts, from one province to the next. And here she was now, over those boulders and parched hills, with a home of her own, a husband of her own, heading toward one final, cherished province: Motherhood. How delectable it was to think of this baby, her baby, their baby. How glorious it was to know that her love for it already dwarfed anything she had ever felt as a human being, to know that there was no need any longer for pebble games.
Downstairs, someone was tuning a harmonium. Then the clanging of a hammer tuning a tabla. Someone cleared his throat. And then there was whistling and clapping and yipping and singing.
Mariam stroked the softness of her belly. No bigger than a fingernail, the doctor had said.
I’m going to be a mother, she thought.
"I’m going to be a mother," she said. Then she was laughing to herself, and saying it over and over, relishing the words.
When Mariam thought of this baby, her heart swelled inside of her. It swelled and swelled until all the loss, all the grief, all the loneliness and self-abasement of her life washed away. This was why God had brought her here, all the way across the country. She knew this now. She remembered a verse from the Koran that Mullah Faizullah had taught her: And Allah is the East and the West, therefore wherever you turn there is Allah’s purpose . . . She laid down her prayer rug and did namaz. When she was done, she cupped her hands before her face and asked God not to let all this good fortune slip away from her.
IT WAS RASHEED’S idea to go to the hamam. Mariam had never been to a bathhouse, but he said there was nothing finer than stepping out and taking that first breath of cold air, to feel the heat rising from the skin.
In the women’s hamam, shapes moved about in the steam around Mariam, a glimpse of a hip here, the contour of a shoulder there. The squeals of young girls, the grunts of old women, and the trickling of bathwater echoed between the walls as backs were scrubbed and hair soaped. Mariam sat in the far corner by herself, working on her heels with a pumice stone, insulated by a wall of steam from the passing shapes.
Then there was blood and she was screaming.
The sound of feet now, slapping against the wet cobblestones. Faces peering at her through the steam. Tongues clucking.
Later that night, in bed, Fariba told her husband that when she’d heard the cry and rushed over she’d found Rasheed’s wife shriveled into a corner, hugging her knees, a pool of blood at her feet.
"You could hear the poor girl’s teeth rattling, Hakim, she was shivering so hard."
When Mariam had seen her, Fariba said, she had asked in a high, supplicating voice, It’s normal, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Isn’t it normal?
ANOTHER BUS RIDE with Rasheed. Snowing again. Falling thick this time. It was piling in heaps on sidewalks, on roofs, gathering in patches on the bark of straggly trees. Mariam watched the merchants plowing snow from their storefronts. A group of boys was chasing a black dog. They waved sportively at the bus. Mariam looked over to Rasheed. His eyes were closed. He wasn’t humming. Mariam reclined her head and closed her eyes too. She wanted out of her cold socks, out of the damp wool sweater that was prickly against her skin. She wanted away from this bus.
At the house, Rasheed covered her with a quilt when she lay on the couch, but there was a stiff, perfunctory air about this gesture.
"What kind of answer is that?" he said again. "That’s what a mullah is supposed to say. You pay a doctor his fee, you want a better answer than ‘God’s will.’ "
Mariam curled up her knees beneath the quilt and said he ought to get some rest.
"God’s will," he simmered.
He sat in his room smoking cigarettes all day.
Mariam lay on the couch, hands tucked between her knees, watched the whirlpool of snow twisting and spinning outside the window. She remembered Nana saying once that each snowflake was a sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. That all the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below.
As a reminder of how women like us suffer, she’d said. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.
The grief kept surprising Mariam. All it took to unleash it was her thinking of the unfinished crib in the toolshed or the suede coat in Rasheed’s closet. The baby came to life then and she could hear it, could hear its hungry grunts, its gurgles and jabbering. She felt it sniffing at her breasts. The grief washed over her, swept her up, tossed her upside down. Mariam was dumbfounded that she could miss in such a crippling manner a being she had never even seen.
Then there were days when the dreariness didn’t seem quite as unrelenting to Mariam. Days when the mere thought of resuming the old patterns of her life did not seem so exhausting, when it did not take enormous efforts of will to get out of bed, to do her prayers, to do the wash, to make meals for Rasheed.
Mariam dreaded going outside. She was envious, suddenly, of the neighborhood women and their wealth of children. Some had seven or eight and didn’t understand how fortunate they were, how blessed that their children had flourished in their wombs, lived to squirm in their arms and take the milk from their breasts. Children that they had not bled away with soapy water and the bodily filth of strangers down some bathhouse drain. Mariam resented them when she overheard them complaining about misbehaving sons and lazy daughters.