A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 29)
Mariam would sneak back to her room.
"Can’t you help?" Rasheed said now. "There must be something you can do."
"What do I know about babies?" Mariam said.
"Rasheed! Can you bring the bottle? It’s sitting on the almari. She won’t feed. I want to try the bottle again."
The baby’s screeching rose and fell like a cleaver on meat.
Rasheed closed his eyes. "That thing is a warlord. Hekmatyar. I’m telling you, Laila’s given birth to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar."
* * *
MARIAM WATCHED AS the girl’s days became consumed with cycles of feeding, rocking, bouncing, walking. Even when the baby napped, there were soiled diapers to scrub and leave to soak in a pail of the disinfectant that the girl had insisted Rasheed buy for her. There were fingernails to trim with sandpaper, coveralls and pajamas to wash and hang to dry. These clothes, like other things about the baby, became a point of contention.
"What’s the matter with them?" Rasheed said.
"They’re boys’ clothes. For a bacha."
"You think she knows the difference? I paid good money for those clothes. And another thing, I don’t care for that tone. Consider that a warning."
Every week, without fail, the girl heated a black metal brazier over a flame, tossed a pinch of wild rue seeds in it, and wafted the espandi smoke in her baby’s direction to ward off evil.
Mariam found it exhausting to watch the girl’s lolloping enthusiasm – and had to admit, if only privately, to a degree of admiration. She marveled at how the girl’s eyes shone with worship, even in the mornings when her face drooped and her complexion was waxy from a night’s worth of walking the baby. The girl had fits of laughter when the baby passed gas. The tiniest changes in the baby enchanted her, and everything it did was declared spectacular.
"Look! She’s reaching for the rattle. How clever she is."
"I’ll call the newspapers," said Rasheed.
Every night, there were demonstrations. When the girl insisted he witness something, Rasheed tipped his chin upward and cast an impatient, sidelong glance down the blue-veined hook of his nose.
"Watch. Watch how she laughs when I snap my fingers. There. See? Did you see?"
Rasheed would grunt, and go back to his plate. Mariam remembered how the girl’s mere presence used to overwhelm him. Everything she said used to please him, intrigue him, make him look up from his plate and nod with approval.
The strange thing was, the girl’s fall from grace ought to have pleased Mariam, brought her a sense of vindication. But it didn’t. It didn’t. To her own surprise, Mariam found herself pitying the girl.
It was also over dinner that the girl let loose a steady stream of worries. Topping the list was pneumonia, which was suspected with every minor cough. Then there was dysentery, the specter of which was raised with every loose stool. Every rash was either chicken pox or measles.
"You should not get so attached," Rasheed said one night.
"What do you mean?"
"I was listening to the radio the other night. Voice of America. I heard an interesting statistic. They said that in Afghanistan one out of four children will die before the age of five. That’s what they said. Now, they – What? What? Where are you going? Come back here. Get back here this instant!"
He gave Mariam a bewildered look. "What’s the matter with her?"
That night, Mariam was lying in bed when the bickering started again. It was a hot, dry summer night, typical of the month of Saratan in Kabul. Mariam had opened her window, then shut it when no breeze came through to temper the heat, only mosquitoes. She could feel the heat rising from the ground outside, through the wheat brown, splintered planks of the outhouse in the yard, up through the walls and into her room.
Usually, the bickering ran its course after a few minutes, but half an hour passed and not only was it still going on, it was escalating. Mariam could hear Rasheed shouting now. The girl’s voice, underneath his, was tentative and shrill. Soon the baby was wailing.
Then Mariam heard their door open violently. In the morning, she would find the doorknob’s circular impression in the hallway wall. She was sitting up in bed when her own door slammed open and Rasheed came through.
He was wearing white underpants and a matching undershirt, stained yellow in the underarms with sweat. On his feet he wore flip-flops. He held a belt in his hand, the brown leather one he’d bought for his nikka with the girl, and was wrapping the perforated end around his fist.
"It’s your doing. I know it is," he snarled, advancing on her.
Mariam slid out of her bed and began backpedaling. Her arms instinctively crossed over her chest, where he often struck her first.
"What are you talking about?" she stammered.
"Her denying me. You’re teaching her to."
Over the years, Mariam had learned to harden herself against his scorn and reproach, his ridiculing and reprimanding. But this fear she had no control over.
All these years and still she shivered with fright when he was like this, sneering, tightening the belt around his fist, the creaking of the leather, the glint in his bloodshot eyes. It was the fear of the goat, released in the tiger’s cage, when the tiger first looks up from its paws, begins to growl.
Now the girl was in the room, her eyes wide, her face contorted.
"I should have known that you’d corrupt her," Rasheed spat at Mariam. He swung the belt, testing it against his own thigh. The buckle jingled loudly.
"Stop it, bas!" the girl said. "Rasheed, you can’t do this."
"Go back to the room."
Mariam backpedaled again.
"No! Don’t do this!"
Rasheed raised the belt again and this time came at Mariam.
Then an astonishing thing happened: The girl lunged at him. She grabbed his arm with both hands and tried to drag him down, but she could do no more than dangle from it. She did succeed in slowing Rasheed’s progress toward Mariam.
"Let go!" Rasheed cried.
"You win. You win. Don’t do this. Please, Rasheed, no beating! Please don’t do this."
They struggled like this, the girl hanging on, pleading, Rasheed trying to shake her off, keeping his eyes on Mariam, who was too stunned to do anything.
In the end, Mariam knew that there would be no beating, not that night. He’d made his point. He stayed that way a few moments longer, arm raised, chest heaving, a fine sheen of sweat filming his brow. Slowly, Rasheed lowered his arm. The girl’s feet touched ground and still she wouldn’t let go, as if she didn’t trust him. He had to yank his arm free of her grip.
"I’m on to you," he said, slinging the belt over his shoulder. "I’m on to you both. I won’t be made an ahmaq, a fool, in my own house."
He threw Mariam one last, murderous stare, and gave the girl a shove in the back on the way out.
When she heard their door close, Mariam climbed back into bed, buried her head beneath the pillow, and waited for the shaking to stop.
* * *
THREE TIMES THAT NIGHT, Mariam was awakened from sleep. The first time, it was the rumble of rockets in the west, coming from the direction of Karteh-Char. The second time, it was the baby crying downstairs, the girl’s shushing, the clatter of spoon against milk bottle. Finally, it was thirst that pulled her out of bed.
Downstairs, the living room was dark, save for a bar of moonlight spilling through the window. Mariam could hear the buzzing of a fly somewhere, could make out the outline of the cast-iron stove in the corner, its pipe jutting up, then making a sharp angle just below the ceiling.
On her way to the kitchen, Mariam nearly tripped over something. There was a shape at her feet. When her eyes adjusted, she made out the girl and her baby lying on the floor on top of a quilt.
The girl was sleeping on her side, snoring. The baby was awake. Mariam lit the kerosene lamp on the table and hunkered down. In the light, she had her first real close-up look at the baby, the tuft of dark hair, the thick-lashed hazel eyes, the pink cheeks, and lips the color of ripe pomegranate.
Mariam had the impression that the baby too was examining her. She was lying on her back, her head tilted sideways, looking at Mariam intently with a mixture of amusement, confusion, and suspicion. Mariam wondered if her face might frighten her, but then the baby squealed happily and Mariam knew that a favorable judgment had been passed on her behalf.
"Shh," Mariam whispered. "You’ll wake up your mother, half deaf as she is."
The baby’s hand balled into a fist. It rose, fell, found a spastic path to her mouth. Around a mouthful of her own hand, the baby gave Mariam a grin, little bubbles of spittle shining on her lips.
"Look at you. What a sorry sight you are, dressed like a damn boy. And all bundled up in this heat. No wonder you’re still awake."
Mariam pulled the blanket off the baby, was horrified to find a second one beneath, clucked her tongue, and pulled that one off too. The baby giggled with relief.
She flapped her arms like a bird.
As Mariam was pulling back, the baby grabbed her pinkie. The tiny fingers curled themselves tightly around it. They felt warm and soft, moist with drool.
"Gunuh," the baby said.
"All right, bas, let go."
The baby hung on, kicked her legs again.
Mariam pulled her finger free. The baby smiled and made a series of gurgling sounds. The knuckles went back to the mouth.
"What are you so happy about? Huh? What are you smiling at? You’re not so clever as your mother says. You have a brute for a father and a fool for a mother. You wouldn’t smile so much if you knew. No you wouldn’t. Go to sleep, now. Go on."
Mariam rose to her feet and walked a few steps before the baby started making the eh, eh, eh sounds that Mariam knew signaled the onset of a hearty cry. She retraced her steps.
"What is it? What do you want from me?"
The baby grinned toothlessly.
Mariam sighed. She sat down and let her finger be grabbed, looked on as the baby squeaked, as she flexed her plump legs at the hips and kicked air. Mariam sat there, watching, until the baby stopped moving and began snoring softly.
Outside, mockingbirds were singing blithely, and, once in a while, when the songsters took flight, Mariam could see their wings catching the phosphorescent blue of moonlight beaming through the clouds. And though her throat was parched with thirst and her feet burned with pins and needles, it was a long time before Mariam gently freed her finger from the baby’s grip and got up.
Of all earthly pleasures, Laila’s favorite was lying next to Aziza, her baby’s face so close that she could watch her big pupils dilate and shrink. Laila loved running her finger over Aziza’s pleasing, soft skin, over the dimpled knuckles, the folds of fat at her elbows. Sometimes she lay Aziza down on her chest and whispered into the soft crown of her head things about Tariq, the father who would always be a stranger to Aziza, whose face Aziza would never know. Laila told her of his aptitude for solving riddles, his trickery and mischief, his easy laugh.
"He had the prettiest lashes, thick like yours. A good chin, a fine nose, and a round forehead. Oh, your father was handsome, Aziza. He was perfect. Perfect, like you are."
But she was careful never to mention him by name.
Sometimes she caught Rasheed looking at Aziza in the most peculiar way. The other night, sitting on the bedroom floor, where he was shaving a corn from his foot, he said quite casually, "So what was it like between you two?"