A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 31)
Aziza shrieked at the thumping of mortars. To distract her, Mariam arranged grains of rice on the floor, in the shape of a house or a rooster or a star, and let Aziza scatter them. She drew elephants for Aziza the way Jalil had shown her, in one stroke, without ever lifting the tip of the pen.
Rasheed said civilians were getting killed daily, by the dozens. Hospitals and stores holding medical supplies were getting shelled. Vehicles carrying emergency food supplies were being barred from entering the city, he said, raided, shot at. Mariam wondered if there was fighting like this in Herat too, and, if so, how Mullah Faizullah was coping, if he was still alive, and Bibi jo too, with all her sons, brides, and grandchildren. And, of course, Jalil. Was he hiding out, Mariam wondered, as she was? Or had he taken his wives and children and fled the country? She hoped Jalil was somewhere safe, that he’d managed to get away from all of this killing.
For a week, the fighting forced even Rasheed to stay home. He locked the door to the yard, set booby traps, locked the front door too and barricaded it with the couch. He paced the house, smoking, peering out the window, cleaning his gun, loading and loading it again. Twice, he fired his weapon into the street claiming he’d seen someone trying to climb the wall.
"They’re forcing young boys to join," he said. "The Mujahideen are. In plain daylight, at gunpoint. They drag boys right off the streets. And when soldiers from a rival militia capture these boys, they torture them. I heard they electrocute them – it’s what I heard – that they crush their balls with pliers. They make the boys lead them to their homes. Then they break in, kill their fathers, rape their sisters and mothers."
He waved his gun over his head. "Let’s see them try to break into my house. I’ll crush their balls! I’ll blow their heads off! Do you know how lucky you two are to have a man who’s not afraid of Shaitan himself?"
He looked down at the ground, noticed Aziza at his feet. "Get off my heels!" he snapped, making a shooing motion with his gun. "Stop following me! And you can stop twirling your wrists like that. I’m not picking you up. Go on! Go on before you get stepped on."
Aziza flinched. She crawled back to Mariam, looking bruised and confused. In Mariam’s lap, she sucked her thumb cheerlessly and watched Rasheed in a sullen, pensive way. Occasionally, she looked up, Mariam imagined, with a look of wanting to be reassured.
But when it came to fathers, Mariam had no assurances to give.
MARIAM WAS RELIEVED when the fighting subsided again, mostly because they no longer had to be cooped up with Rasheed, with his sour temper infecting the household. And he’d frightened her badly waving that loaded gun near Aziza.
One day that winter, Laila asked to braid Mariam’s hair. Mariam sat still and watched Laila’s slim fingers in the mirror tighten her plaits, Laila’s face scrunched in concentration. Aziza was curled up asleep on the floor. Tucked under her arm was a doll Mariam had hand-stitched for her. Mariam had stuffed it with beans, made it a dress with tea-dyed fabric and a necklace with tiny empty thread spools through which she’d threaded a string.
Then Aziza passed gas in her sleep. Laila began to laugh, and Mariam joined in. They laughed like this, at each other’s reflection in the mirror, their eyes tearing, and the moment was so natural, so effortless, that suddenly Mariam started telling her about Jalil, and Nana, and the jinn. Laila stood with her hands idle on Mariam’s shoulders, eyes locked on Mariam’s face in the mirror. Out the words came, like blood gushing from an artery. Mariam told her about Bibi jo, Mullah Faizullah, the humiliating trek to Jalil’s house, Nana’s suicide. She told about Jalil’s wives, and the hurried nikka with Rasheed, the trip to Kabul, her pregnancies, the endless cycles of hope and disappointment, Rasheed’s turning on her.
After, Laila sat at the foot of Mariam’s chair. Absently, she removed a scrap of lint entangled in Aziza’s hair. A silence ensued.
"I have something to tell you too," Laila said.
MARIAM DID NOT SLEEP that night. She sat in bed, watched the snow falling soundlessly.
Seasons had come and gone; presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered; an empire had been defeated; old wars had ended and new ones had broken out. But Mariam had hardly noticed, hardly cared. She had passed these years in a distant corner of her mind. A dry, barren field, out beyond wish and lament, beyond dream and disillusionment. There, the future did not matter. And the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion. And whenever those twin poisonous flowers began to sprout in the parched land of that field, Mariam uprooted them. She uprooted them and ditched them before they took hold.
But somehow, over these last months, Laila and Aziza – a harami like herself, as it turned out – had become extensions of her, and now, without them, the life Mariam had tolerated for so long suddenly seemed intolerable.
We’re leaving this spring, Aziza and I. Come with us, Mariam.
The years had not been kind to Mariam. But perhaps, she thought, there were kinder years waiting still. A new life, a life in which she would find the blessings that Nana had said a harami like her would never see. Two new flowers had unexpectedly sprouted in her life, and, as Mariam watched the snow coming down, she pictured Mullah Faizullah twirling his tasbeh beads, leaning in and whispering to her in his soft, tremulous voice, But it is God Who has planted them, Mariam jo. And it is His will that you tend to them. It is His will, my girl.
As daylight steadily bleached darkness from the sky that spring morning of 1994, Laila became certain that Rasheed knew. That, any moment now, he would drag her out of bed and ask whether she’d really taken him for such a khar, such a donkey, that he wouldn’t find out. But azan rang out, and then the morning sun was falling flat on the rooftops and the roosters were crowing and nothing out of the ordinary happened.
She could hear him now in the bathroom, the tapping of his razor against the edge of the basin. Then downstairs, moving about, heating tea. The keys jingled. Now he was crossing the yard, walking his bicycle.
Laila peered through a crack in the living-room curtains. She watched him pedal away, a big man on a small bicycle, the morning sun glaring off the handlebars.
Mariam was in the doorway. Laila could tell that she hadn’t slept either. She wondered if Mariam too had been seized all night by bouts of euphoria and attacks of mouth-drying anxiety.
"We’ll leave in half an hour," Laila said.
IN THE BACKSEAT of the taxi, they did not speak. Aziza sat on Mariam’s lap, clutching her doll, looking with wide-eyed puzzlement at the city speeding by.
"Ona!" she cried, pointing to a group of little girls skipping rope. "Mayam! Ona."
Everywhere she looked, Laila saw Rasheed. She spotted him coming out of barbershops with windows the color of coal dust, from tiny booths that sold partridges, from battered, open-fronted stores packed with old tires piled from floor to ceiling.
She sank lower in her seat.
Beside her, Mariam was muttering a prayer. Laila wished she could see her face, but Mariam was in burqa – they both were – and all she could see was the glitter of her eyes through the grid.
This was Laila’s first time out of the house in weeks, discounting the short trip to the pawnshop the day before – where she had pushed her wedding ring across a glass counter, where she’d walked out thrilled by the finality of it, knowing there was no going back.
All around her now, Laila saw the consequences of the recent fighting whose sounds she’d heard from the house. Homes that lay in roofless ruins of brick and jagged stone, gouged buildings with fallen beams poking through the holes, the charred, mangled husks of cars, upended, sometimes stacked on top of each other, walls pocked by holes of every conceivable caliber, shattered glass everywhere. She saw a funeral procession marching toward a mosque, a black-clad old woman at the rear tearing at her hair. They passed a cemetery littered with rock-piled graves and ragged shaheed flags fluttering in the breeze.
Laila reached across the suitcase, wrapped her fingers around the softness of her daughter’s arm.
AT THE Lahore Gate bus station, near Pol Mahmood Khan in East Kabul, a row of buses sat idling along the curbside. Men in turbans were busy heaving bundles and crates onto bus tops, securing suitcases down with ropes. Inside the station, men stood in a long line at the ticket booth. Burqa-clad women stood in groups and chatted, their belongings piled at their feet. Babies were bounced, children scolded for straying too far.
Mujahideen militiamen patrolled the station and the curbside, barking curt orders here and there. They wore boots, pakols, dusty green fatigues. They all carried Kalashnikovs.
Laila felt watched. She looked no one in the face, but she felt as though every person in this place knew, that they were looking on with disapproval at what she and Mariam were doing.
"Do you see anybody?" Laila asked.
Mariam shifted Aziza in her arms. "I’m looking."
This, Laila had known, would be the first risky part, finding a man suitable to pose with them as a family member. The freedoms and opportunities that women had enjoyed between 1978 and 1992 were a thing of the past now – Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule, It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila. Since the Mujahideen takeover in April 1992, Afghanistan’s name had been changed to the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The Supreme Court under Rabbani was filled now with hardliner mullahs who did away with the communist-era decrees that empowered women and instead passed rulings based on Shari’a, strict Islamic laws that ordered women to cover, forbade their travel without a male relative, punished adultery with stoning. Even if the actual enforcement of these laws was sporadic at best. But they’d enforce them on us more, Laila had said to Mariam, if they weren’t so busy killing each other. And us.
The second risky part of this trip would come when they actually arrived in Pakistan. Already burdened with nearly two million Afghan refugees, Pakistan had closed its borders to Afghans in January of that year. Laila had heard that only those with visas would be admitted. But the border was porous – always had been – and Laila knew that thousands of Afghans were still crossing into Pakistan either with bribes or by proving humanitarian grounds – and there were always smugglers who could be hired. We’ll find a way when we get there, she’d told Mariam.
"How about him?" Mariam said, motioning with her chin.
"He doesn’t look trustworthy."
"Too old. And he’s traveling with two other men."
Eventually, Laila found him sitting outside on a park bench, with a veiled woman at his side and a little boy in a skullcap, roughly Aziza’s age, bouncing on his knees. He was tall and slender, bearded, wearing an open-collared shirt and a modest gray coat with missing buttons.
"Wait here," she said to Mariam. Walking away, she again heard Mariam muttering a prayer.
When Laila approached the young man, he looked up, shielded the sun from his eyes with a hand.
"Forgive me, brother, but are you going to Peshawar?"
"Yes," he said, squinting.
"I wonder if you can help us. Can you do us a favor?" He passed the boy to his wife. He and Laila stepped away.
"What is it, hamshira?"
She was encouraged to see that he had soft eyes, a kind face.