A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 12)
A voice inside her head tried to soothe her with well-intended but misguided consolation.
You’ll have others, Inshallah. You’re young. Surely you’ll have many other chances.
But Mariam’s grief wasn’t aimless or unspecific. Mariam grieved for this baby, this particular child, who had made her so happy for a while.
Some days, she believed that the baby had been an undeserved blessing, that she was being punished for what she had done to Nana. Wasn’t it true that she might as well have slipped that noose around her mother’s neck herself? Treacherous daughters did not deserve to be mothers, and this was just punishment. She had fitful dreams, of Nana’s jinn sneaking into her room at night, burrowing its claws into her womb, and stealing her baby. In these dreams, Nana cackled with delight and vindication.
Other days, Mariam was besieged with anger. It was Rasheed’s fault for his premature celebration. For his foolhardy faith that she was carrying a boy. Naming the baby as he had. Taking God’s will for granted. His fault, for making her go to the bathhouse. Something there, the steam, the dirty water, the soap, something there had caused this to happen. No. Not Rasheed. She was to blame. She became furious with herself for sleeping in the wrong position, for eating meals that were too spicy, for not eating enough fruit, for drinking too much tea.
It was God’s fault, for taunting her as He had. For not granting her what He had granted so many other women. For dangling before her, tantalizingly, what He knew would give her the greatest happiness, then pulling it away.
But it did no good, all this fault laying, all these harangues of accusations bouncing in her head. It was kofr, sacrilege, to think these thoughts. Allah was not spiteful. He was not a petty God. Mullah Faizullah’s words whispered in her head: Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He Who has power over all things, Who created death and life that He may try you.
Ransacked with guilt, Mariam would kneel and pray for forgiveness for these thoughts.
MEANWHILE, a change had come over Rasheed ever since the day at the bathhouse. Most nights when he came home, he hardly talked anymore. He ate, smoked, went to bed, sometimes came back in the middle of the night for a brief and, of late, quite rough session of coupling. He was more apt to sulk these days, to fault her cooking, to complain about clutter around the yard or point out even minor uncleanliness in the house. Occasionally, he took her around town on Fridays, like he used to, but on the sidewalks he walked quickly and always a few steps ahead of her, without speaking, unmindful of Mariam who almost had to run to keep up with him. He wasn’t so ready with a laugh on these outings anymore. He didn’t buy her sweets or gifts, didn’t stop and name places to her as he used to. Her questions seemed to irritate him.
One night, they were sitting in the living room listening to the radio. Winter was passing. The stiff winds that plastered snow onto the face and made the eyes water had calmed. Silvery fluffs of snow were melting off the branches of tall elms and would be replaced in a few weeks with stubby, pale green buds. Rasheed was shaking his foot absently to the tabla beat of a Hamahang song, his eyes crinkled against cigarette smoke.
"Are you angry with me?" Mariam asked.
Rasheed said nothing. The song ended and the news came on. A woman’s voice reported that President Daoud Khan had sent yet another group of Soviet consultants back to Moscow, to the expected displeasure of the Kremlin.
"I worry that you are angry with me."
His eyes shifted to her. "Why would I be angry?"
"I don’t know, but ever since the baby – "
"Is that the kind of man you take me for, after everything I’ve done for you?"
"No. Of course not."
"Then stop pestering me!"
"I’m sorry. Bebakhsh, Rasheed. I’m sorry."
He crushed out his cigarette and lit another. He turned up the volume on the radio.
"I’ve been thinking, though," Mariam said, raising her voice so as to be heard over the music.
Rasheed sighed again, more irritably this time, turned down the volume once more. He rubbed his forehead wearily. "What now?"
"I’ve been thinking, that maybe we should have a proper burial. For the baby, I mean. Just us, a few prayers, nothing more."
Mariam had been thinking about it for a while. She didn’t want to forget this baby. It didn’t seem right, not to mark this loss in some way that was permanent.
"What for? It’s idiotic."
"It would make me feel better, I think."
"Then you do it," he said sharply. "I’ve already buried one son. I won’t bury another. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m trying to listen."
He turned up the volume again, leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
One sunny morning that week, Mariam picked a spot in the yard and dug a hole.
"In the name of Allah and with Allah, and in the name of the messenger of Allah upon whom be the blessings and peace of Allah," she said under her breath as her shovel bit into the ground. She placed the suede coat that Rasheed had bought for the baby in the hole and shoveled dirt over it.
"You make the night to pass into the day and You make the day to pass into the night, and You bring forth the living from the dead and You bring forth the dead from the living, and You give sustenance to whom You please without measure."
She patted the dirt with the back of the shovel. She squatted by the mound, closed her eyes.
Give sustenance, Allah.
Give sustenance to me.
On April 17, 1978, the year Mariam turned nineteen, a man named Mir Akbar Khyber was found murdered. Two days later, there was a large demonstration in Kabul. Everyone in the neighborhood was in the streets talking about it. Through the window, Mariam saw neighbors milling about, chatting excitedly, transistor radios pressed to their ears. She saw Fariba leaning against the wall of her house, talking with a woman who was new to Deh-Mazang. Fariba was smiling, and her palms were pressed against the swell of her pregnant belly. The other woman, whose name escaped Mariam, looked older than Fariba, and her hair had an odd purple tint to it. She was holding a little boy’s hand. Mariam knew the boy’s name was Tariq, because she had heard this woman on the street call after him by that name.
Mariam and Rasheed didn’t join the neighbors. They listened in on the radio as some ten thousand people poured into the streets and marched up and down Kabul’s government district. Rasheed said that Mir Akbar Khyber had been a prominent communist, and that his supporters were blaming the murder on President Daoud Khan’s government. He didn’t look at her when he said this. These days, he never did anymore, and Mariam wasn’t ever sure if she was being spoken to.
"What’s a communist?" she asked.
Rasheed snorted, and raised both eyebrows. "You don’t know what a communist is? Such a simple thing. Everyone knows. It’s common knowledge. You don’t . . . Bah. I don’t know why I’m surprised." Then he crossed his ankles on the table and mumbled that it was someone who believed in Karl Marxist.
"Who’s Karl Marxist?"
On the radio, a woman’s voice was saying that Taraki, the leader of the Khalq branch of the PDPA, the Afghan communist party, was in the streets giving rousing speeches to demonstrators.
"What I meant was, what do they want?" Mariam asked. "These communists, what is it that they believe?"
Rasheed chortled and shook his head, but Mariam thought she saw uncertainty in the way he crossed his arms, the way his eyes shifted. "You know nothing, do you? You’re like a child. Your brain is empty. There is no information in it."
"I ask because – "
"Chup ko. Shut up."
It wasn’t easy tolerating him talking this way to her, to bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. But after four years of marriage, Mariam saw clearly how much a woman could tolerate when she was afraid. And Mariam was afraid. She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not.
In the four years since the day at the bathhouse, there had been six more cycles of hopes raised then dashed, each loss, each collapse, each trip to the doctor more crushing for Mariam than the last. With each disappointment, Rasheed had grown more remote and resentful.
Now nothing she did pleased him. She cleaned the house, made sure he always had a supply of clean shirts, cooked him his favorite dishes. Once, disastrously, she even bought makeup and put it on for him. But when he came home, he took one look at her and winced with such distaste that she rushed to the bathroom and washed it all off, tears of shame mixing with soapy water, rouge, and mascara.
Now Mariam dreaded the sound of him coming home in the evening. The key rattling, the creak of the door – these were sounds that set her heart racing. From her bed, she listened to the click-clack of his heels, to the muffled shuffling of his feet after he’d shed his shoes. With her ears, she took inventory of his doings: chair legs dragged across the floor, the plaintive squeak of the cane seat when he sat, the clinking of spoon against plate, the flutter of newspaper pages flipped, the slurping of water. And as her heart pounded, her mind wondered what excuse he would use that night to pounce on her. There was always something, some minor thing that would infuriate him, because no matter what she did to please him, no matter how thoroughly she submitted to his wants and demands, it wasn’t enough. She could not give him his son back. In this most essential way, she had failed him – seven times she had failed him – and now she was nothing but a burden to him. She could see it in the way he looked at her, when he looked at her. She was a burden to him.
"What’s going to happen?" she asked him now.
Rasheed shot her a sidelong glance. He made a sound between a sigh and a groan, dropped his legs from the table, and turned off the radio. He took it upstairs to his room. He closed the door.
ON APRIL 27, Mariam’s question was answered with crackling sounds and intense, sudden roars. She ran barefoot down to the living room and found Rasheed already by the window, in his undershirt, his hair disheveled, palms pressed to the glass. Mariam made her way to the window next to him. Overhead, she could see military planes zooming past, heading north and east. Their deafening shrieks hurt her ears. In the distance, loud booms resonated and sudden plumes of smoke rose to the sky.
"What’s going on, Rasheed?" she said. "What is all this?"
"God knows," he muttered. He tried the radio and got only static.
"What do we do?"
Impatiently, Rasheed said, "We wait."
LATER IN THE DAY, Rasheed was still trying the radio as Mariam made rice with spinach sauce in the kitchen. Mariam remembered a time when she had enjoyed, even looked forward to, cooking for Rasheed. Now cooking was an exercise in heightened anxiety. The qurmas were always too salty or too bland for his taste. The rice was judged either too greasy or too dry, the bread declared too doughy or too crispy. Rasheed’s faultfinding left her stricken in the kitchen with self-doubt.
When she brought him his plate, the national anthem was playing on the radio.