A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 13)
"I made sabzi," she said.
"Put it down and be quiet."
After the music faded, a man’s voice came on the radio.
He announced himself as Air Force Colonel Abdul Qader. He reported that earlier in the day the rebel Fourth Armored Division had seized the airport and key intersections in the city. Kabul Radio, the ministries of Communication and the Interior, and the Foreign Ministry building had also been captured. Kabul was in the hands of the people now, he said proudly. Rebel MiGs had attacked the Presidential Palace. Tanks had broken into the premises, and a fierce battle was under way there. Daoud’s loyalist forces were all but defeated, Abdul Qader said in a reassuring tone.
Days later, when the communists began the summary executions of those connected with Daoud Khan’s regime, when rumors began floating about Kabul of eyes gouged and genitals electrocuted in the Pol-e-Charkhi Prison, Mariam would hear of the slaughter that had taken place at the Presidential Palace. Daoud Khan had been killed, but not before the communist rebels had killed some twenty members of his family, including women and grandchildren. There would be rumors that he had taken his own life, that he’d been gunned down in the heat of battle; rumors that he’d been saved for last, made to watch the massacre of his family, then shot.
Rasheed turned up the volume and leaned in closer.
"A revolutionary council of the armed forces has been established, and our watan will now be known as the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan," Abdul Qader said. "The era of aristocracy, nepotism, and inequality is over, fellow hamwatans. We have ended decades of tyranny. Power is now in the hands of the masses and freedom-loving people. A glorious new era in the history of our country is afoot. A new Afghanistan is born. We assure you that you have nothing to fear, fellow Afghans. The new regime will maintain the utmost respect for principles, both Islamic and democratic. This is a time of rejoicing and celebration."
Rasheed turned off the radio.
"So is this good or bad?" Mariam asked.
"Bad for the rich, by the sound of it," Rasheed said.
"Maybe not so bad for us."
Mariam’s thoughts drifted to Jalil. She wondered if the communists would go after him, then. Would they jail him?
Jail his sons? Take his businesses and properties from him?
"Is this warm?" Rasheed said, eyeing the rice.
"I just served it from the pot."
He grunted, and told her to hand him a plate.
DOWN THE STREET, as the night lit up in sudden flashes of red and yellow, an exhausted Fariba had propped herself up on her elbows. Her hair was matted with sweat, and droplets of moisture teetered on the edge of her upper lip. At her bedside, the elderly midwife, Wajma, watched as Fariba’s husband and sons passed around the infant. They were marveling at the baby’s light hair, at her pink cheeks and puckered, rosebud lips, at the slits of jade green eyes moving behind her puffy lids. They smiled at each other when they heard her voice for the first time, a cry that started like the mewl of a cat and exploded into a healthy, full-throated yowl. Noor said her eyes were like gemstones. Ahmad, who was the most religious member of the family, sang the azan in his baby sister’s ear and blew in her face three times.
"Laila it is, then?" Hakim asked, bouncing his daughter.
"Laila it is," Fariba said, smiling tiredly. "Night Beauty. It’s perfect."
RASHEED MADE a ball of rice with his fingers. He put it in his mouth, chewed once, then twice, before grimacing and spitting it out on the sofrah.
"What’s the matter?" Mariam asked, hating the apologetic tone of her voice. She could feel her pulse quickening, her skin shrinking.
"What’s the matter?" he mewled, mimicking her. "What’s the matter is that you’ve done it again."
"But I boiled it five minutes more than usual."
"That’s a bold lie."
"I swear – "
He shook the rice angrily from his fingers and pushed the plate away, spilling sauce and rice on the sofrah. Mariam watched as he stormed out of the living room, then out of the house, slamming the door on his way out.
Mariam kneeled to the ground and tried to pick up the grains of rice and put them back on the plate, but her hands were shaking badly, and she had to wait for them to stop. Dread pressed down on her chest. She tried taking a few deep breaths. She caught her pale reflection in the darkened living-room window and looked away.
Then she heard the front door opening, and Rasheed was back in the living room.
"Get up," he said. "Come here. Get up."
He snatched her hand, opened it, and dropped a handful of pebbles into it.
"Put these in your mouth."
"Put. These. In your mouth."
"Stop it, Rasheed, I’m – "
His powerful hands clasped her jaw. He shoved two fingers into her mouth and pried it open, then forced the cold, hard pebbles into it. Mariam struggled against him, mumbling, but he kept pushing the pebbles in, his upper lip curled in a sneer.
"Now chew," he said.
Through the mouthful of grit and pebbles, Mariam mumbled a plea. Tears were leaking out of the corners of her eyes.
"CHEW!" he bellowed. A gust of his smoky breath slammed against her face.
Mariam chewed. Something in the back of her mouth cracked.
"Good," Rasheed said. His cheeks were quivering. "Now you know what your rice tastes like. Now you know what you’ve given me in this marriage. Bad food, and nothing else."
Then he was gone, leaving Mariam to spit out pebbles, blood, and the fragments of two broken molars.
KABUL, SPRING 1987
Nine-year-old Laila rose from bed, as she did most mornings, hungry for the sight of her friend Tariq. This morning, however, she knew there would be no Tariq sighting.
"How long will you be gone?" she’d asked when Tariq had told her that his parents were taking him south, to the city of Ghazni, to visit his paternal uncle.
"It’s not so long. You’re making a face, Laila."
"I am not."
"You’re not going to cry, are you?"
"I am not going to cry! Not over you. Not in a thousand years."
She’d kicked at his shin, not his artificial but his real one, and he’d playfully whacked the back of her head.
Thirteen days. Almost two weeks. And, just five days in, Laila had learned a fundamental truth about time: Like the accordion on which Tariq’s father sometimes played old Pashto songs, time stretched and contracted depending on Tariq’s absence or presence.
Downstairs, her parents were fighting. Again. Laila knew the routine: Mammy, ferocious, indomitable, pacing and ranting; Babi, sitting, looking sheepish and dazed, nodding obediently, waiting for the storm to pass. Laila closed her door and changed. But she could still hear them. She could still hear her. Finally, a door slammed. Pounding footsteps. Mammy’s bed creaked loudly. Babi, it seemed, would survive to see another day.
"Laila!" he called now. "I’m going to be late for work!"
Laila put on her shoes and quickly brushed her shoulder-length, blond curls in the mirror. Mammy always told Laila that she had inherited her hair color – as well as her thick-lashed, turquoise green eyes, her dimpled cheeks, her high cheekbones, and the pout of her lower lip, which Mammy shared – from her great-grandmother, Mammy’s grandmother. She was a pari, a stunner, Mammy said. Her beauty was the talk of the valley. It skipped two generations of women in our family, but it sure didn’t bypass you, Laila. The valley Mammy referred to was the Panjshir, the Farsi-speaking Tajik region one hundred kilometers northeast of Kabul. Both Mammy and Babi, who were first cousins, had been born and raised in Panjshir; they had moved to Kabul back in 1960 as hopeful, bright-eyed newlyweds when Babi had been admitted to Kabul University.
Laila scrambled downstairs, hoping Mammy wouldn’t come out of her room for another round. She found Babi kneeling by the screen door.
"Did you see this, Laila?"
The rip in the screen had been there for weeks. Laila hunkered down beside him. "No. Must be new."
"That’s what I told Fariba." He looked shaken, reduced, as he always did after Mammy was through with him. "She says it’s been letting in bees."
Laila’s heart went out to him. Babi was a small man, with narrow shoulders and slim, delicate hands, almost like a woman’s. At night, when Laila walked into Babi’s room, she always found the downward profile of his face burrowing into a book, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Sometimes he didn’t even notice that she was there. When he did, he marked his page, smiled a close-lipped, companionable smile. Babi knew most of Rumi’s and Hafez’s ghazals by heart. He could speak at length about the struggle between Britain and czarist Russia over Afghanistan. He knew the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, and could tell you that the distance between the earth and the sun was the same as going from Kabul to Ghazni one and a half million times. But if Laila needed the lid of a candy jar forced open, she had to go to Mammy, which felt like a betrayal. Ordinary tools befuddled Babi. On his watch, squeaky door hinges never got oiled. Ceilings went on leaking after he plugged them. Mold thrived defiantly in kitchen cabinets. Mammy said that before he left with Noor to join the jihad against the Soviets, back in 1980, it was Ahmad who had dutifully and competently minded these things.
"But if you have a book that needs urgent reading," she said, "then Hakim is your man."
Still, Laila could not shake the feeling that at one time, before Ahmad and Noor had gone to war against the Soviets – before Babi had let them go to war – Mammy too had thought Babi’s bookishness endearing, that, once upon a time, she too had found his forgetfulness and ineptitude charming.
"So what is today?" he said now, smiling coyly. "Day five? Or is it six?"
"What do I care? I don’t keep count," Laila lied, shrugging, loving him for remembering. Mammy had no idea that Tariq had left.
"Well, his flashlight will be going off before you know it," Babi said, referring to Laila and Tariq’s nightly signaling game. They had played it for so long it had become a bedtime ritual, like brushing teeth.
Babi ran his finger through the rip. "I’ll patch this as soon as I get a chance. We’d better go." He raised his voice and called over his shoulder, "We’re going now, Fariba! I’m taking Laila to school. Don’t forget to pick her up!"
Outside, as she was climbing on the carrier pack of Babi’s bicycle, Laila spotted a car parked up the street, across from the house where the shoemaker, Rasheed, lived with his reclusive wife. It was a Benz, an unusual car in this neighborhood, blue with a thick white stripe bisecting the hood, the roof, and the trunk. Laila could make out two men sitting inside, one behind the wheel, the other in the back.
"Who are they?" she said.
"It’s not our business," Babi said. "Climb on, you’ll be late for class."
Laila remembered another fight, and, that time, Mammy had stood over Babi and said in a mincing way, That’s your business, isn’t it, cousin? To make nothing your business. Even your own sons going to war. How I pleaded with you. But you buried your nose in those cursed books and let our sons go like they were a pair of haramis.