A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 28)
"Let’s see, then," he purred, "if I can’t help you feel better."
FIRST, the trees – those that hadn’t been cut down for firewood – shed their spotty yellow-and-copper leaves.
Then came the winds, cold and raw, ripping through the city. They tore off the last of the clinging leaves, and left the trees looking ghostly against the muted brown of the hills. The season’s first snowfall was light, the flakes no sooner fallen than melted. Then the roads froze, and snow gathered in heaps on the rooftops, piled halfway up frost-caked windows. With snow came the kites, once the rulers of Kabul’s winter skies, now timid trespassers in territory claimed by streaking rockets and fighter jets.
Rasheed kept bringing home news of the war, and Laila was baffled by the allegiances that Rasheed tried to explain to her. Sayyaf was fighting the Hazaras, he said. The Hazaras were fighting Massoud.
"And he’s fighting Hekmatyar, of course, who has the support of the Pakistanis. Mortal enemies, those two, Massoud and Hekmatyar. Sayyaf, he’s siding with Massoud. And Hekmatyar supports the Hazaras for now."
As for the unpredictable Uzbek commander Dostum, Rasheed said no one knew where he would stand. Dostum had fought the Soviets in the 1980s alongside the Mujahideen but had defected and joined Najibullah’s communist puppet regime after the Soviets had left. He had even earned a medal, presented by Najibullah himself, before defecting once again and returning to the Mujahideen’s side. For the time being, Rasheed said, Dostum was supporting Massoud.
In Kabul, particularly in western Kabul, fires raged, and black palls of smoke mushroomed over snow-clad buildings. Embassies closed down. Schools collapsed. In hospital waiting rooms, Rasheed said, the wounded were bleeding to death. In operating rooms, limbs were being amputated without anesthesia.
"But don’t worry," he said. "You’re safe with me, my flower, my gul. Anyone tries to harm you, I’ll rip out their liver and make them eat it."
That winter, everywhere Laila turned, walls blocked her way. She thought longingly of the wide-open skies of her childhood, of her days of going to buzkashi tournaments with Babi and shopping at Mandaii with Mammy, of her days of running free in the streets and gossiping about boys with Giti and Hasina. Her days of sitting with Tariq in a bed of clover on the banks of a stream somewhere, trading riddles and candy, watching the sun go down.
But thinking of Tariq was treacherous because, before she could stop, she saw him lying on a bed, far from home, tubes piercing his burned body. Like the bile that kept burning her throat these days, a deep, paralyzing grief would come rising up Laila’s chest. Her legs would turn to water. She would have to hold on to something.
Laila passed that winter of 1992 sweeping the house, scrubbing the pumpkin-colored walls of the bedroom she shared with Rasheed, washing clothes outside in a big copper lagaan. Sometimes she saw herself as if hovering above her own body, saw herself squatting over the rim of the lagaan, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, pink hands wringing soapy water from one of Rasheed’s undershirts. She felt lost then, casting about, like a shipwreck survivor, no shore in sight, only miles and miles of water.
When it was too cold to go outside, Laila ambled around the house. She walked, dragging a fingernail along the wall, down the hallway, then back, down the steps, then up, her face unwashed, hair uncombed. She walked until she ran into Mariam, who shot her a cheerless glance and went back to slicing the stem off a bell pepper and trimming strips of fat from meat. A hurtful silence would fill the room, and Laila could almost see the wordless hostility radiating from Mariam like waves of heat rising from asphalt. She would retreat back to her room, sit on the bed, and watch the snow falling.
RASHEED TOOK HER to his shoe shop one day.
When they were out together, he walked alongside her, one hand gripping her by the elbow. For Laila, being out in the streets had become an exercise in avoiding injury. Her eyes were still adjusting to the limited, gridlike visibility of the burqa, her feet still stumbling over the hem. She walked in perpetual fear of tripping and falling, of breaking an ankle stepping into a pothole. Still, she found some comfort in the anonymity that the burqa provided. She wouldn’t be recognized this way if she ran into an old acquaintance of hers. She wouldn’t have to watch the surprise in their eyes, or the pity or the glee, at how far she had fallen, at how her lofty aspirations had been dashed.
Rasheed’s shop was bigger and more brightly lit than Laila had imagined. He had her sit behind his crowded workbench, the top of which was littered with old soles and scraps of leftover leather. He showed her his hammers, demonstrated how the sandpaper wheel worked, his voice ringing high and proud.
He felt her belly, not through the shirt but under it, his fingertips cold and rough like bark on her distended skin. Laila remembered Tariq’s hands, soft but strong, the tortuous, full veins on the backs of them, which she had always found so appealingly masculine.
"Swelling so quickly," Rasheed said. "It’s going to be a big boy. My son will be a pahlawan! Like his father."
Laila pulled down her shirt. It filled her with fear when he spoke like this.
"How are things with Mariam?"
She said they were fine.
She didn’t tell him that they’d had their first true fight.
It had happened a few days earlier. Laila had gone to the kitchen and found Mariam yanking drawers and slamming them shut. She was looking, Mariam said, for the long wooden spoon she used to stir rice.
"Where did you put it?" she said, wheeling around to face Laila.
"Me?" Laila said. "I didn’t take it. I hardly come in here."
"Is that an accusation? It’s how you wanted it, remember. You said you would make the meals. But if you want to switch – "
"So you’re saying it grew little legs and walked out. Teep, teep, teep, teep. Is that what happened, degeh?"
"I’m saying . . ." Laila said, trying to maintain control. Usually, she could will herself to absorb Mariam’s derision and finger-pointing. But her ankles had swollen, her head hurt, and the heartburn was vicious that day. "I am saying that maybe you’ve misplaced it."
"Misplaced it?" Mariam pulled a drawer. The spatulas and knives inside it clanked. "How long have you been here, a few months? I’ve lived in this house for nineteen years, dokhtar jo. I have kept that spoon in this drawer since you were s******g your diapers."
"Still," Laila said, on the brink now, teeth clenched, "it’s possible you put it somewhere and forgot."
"And it’s possible you hid it somewhere, to aggravate me."
"You’re a sad, miserable woman," Laila said.
Mariam flinched, then recovered, pursed her lips. "And you’re a w***e. A w***e and a dozd. A thieving w***e, that’s what you are!"
Then there was shouting. Pots raised though not hurled. They’d called each other names, names that made Laila blush now. They hadn’t spoken since. Laila was still shocked at how easily she’d come unhinged, but, the truth was, part of her had liked it, had liked how it felt to scream at Mariam, to curse at her, to have a target at which to focus all her simmering anger, her grief.
Laila wondered, with something like insight, if it wasn’t the same for Mariam.
After, she had run upstairs and thrown herself on Rasheed’s bed. Downstairs, Mariam was still yelling, "Dirt on your head! Dirt on your head!" Laila had lain on the bed, groaning into the pillow, missing her parents suddenly and with an overpowering intensity she hadn’t felt since those terrible days just after the attack. She lay there, clutching handfuls of the bedsheet, until, suddenly, her breath caught. She sat up, hands shooting down to her belly.
The baby had just kicked for the first time.
Early one morning the next spring, of 1993, Mariam stood by the living-room window and watched Rasheed escort the girl out of the house. The girl was tottering forward, bent at the waist, one arm draped protectively across the taut drum of her belly, the shape of which was visible through her burqa. Rasheed, anxious and overly attentive, was holding her elbow, directing her across the yard like a traffic policeman. He made a Wait here gesture, rushed to the front gate, then motioned for the girl to come forward, one foot propping the gate open. When she reached him, he took her by the hand, helped her through the gate. Mariam could almost hear him say, "Watch your step, now, my flower, my gul."
They came back early the next evening.
Mariam saw Rasheed enter the yard first. He let the gate go prematurely, and it almost hit the girl on the face. He crossed the yard in a few, quick steps. Mariam detected a shadow on his face, a darkness underlying the coppery light of dusk. In the house, he took off his coat, threw it on the couch. Brushing past Mariam, he said in a brusque voice, "I’m hungry. Get supper ready."
The front door to the house opened. From the hallway, Mariam saw the girl, a swaddled bundle in the hook of her left arm. She had one foot outside, the other inside, against the door, to prevent it from springing shut. She was stooped over and was grunting, trying to reach for the paper bag of belongings that she had put down in order to open the door. Her face was grimacing with effort. She looked up and saw Mariam.
Mariam turned around and went to the kitchen to warm Rasheed’s meal.
"IT’S LIKE SOMEONE is ramming a screwdriver into my ear," Rasheed said, rubbing his eyes. He was standing in Mariam’s door, puffy-eyed, wearing only a tumban tied with a floppy knot. His white hair was straggly, pointing every which way. "This crying. I can’t stand it."
Downstairs, the girl was walking the baby across the floor, trying to sing to her.
"I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in two months," Rasheed said. "And the room smells like a sewer. There’s s**t cloths lying all over the place. I stepped on one just the other night."
Mariam smirked inwardly with perverse pleasure.
"Take her outside!" Rasheed yelled over his shoulder.
"Can’t you take her outside?"
The singing was suspended briefly. "She’ll catch pneumonia!"
Rasheed clenched his teeth and raised his voice. "I said, It’s warm out!"
"I’m not taking her outside!"
The singing resumed.
"Sometimes, I swear, sometimes I want to put that thing in a box and let her float down Kabul River. Like baby Moses."
Mariam never heard him call his daughter by the name the girl had given her, Aziza, the Cherished One. It was always the baby, or, when he was really exasperated, that thing.
Some nights, Mariam overheard them arguing. She tiptoed to their door, listened to him complain about the baby – always the baby – the insistent crying, the smells, the toys that made him trip, the way the baby had hijacked Laila’s attentions from him with constant demands to be fed, burped, changed, walked, held. The girl, in turn, scolded him for smoking in the room, for not letting the baby sleep with them.
There were other arguments waged in voices pitched low.
"The doctor said six weeks."
"Not yet, Rasheed. No. Let go. Come on. Don’t do that."
"It’s been two months."
"Ssht. There. You woke up the baby." Then more sharply, "Khosh shodi? Happy now?"