A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 32)
She told him the story that she and Mariam had agreed on. She was a biwa, she said, a widow. She and her mother and daughter had no one left in Kabul. They were going to Peshawar to stay with her uncle.
"You want to come with my family," the young man said.
"I know it’s zahmat for you. But you look like a decent brother, and I – "
"Don’t worry, hamshira. I understand. It’s no trouble. Let me go and buy your tickets."
"Thank you, brother. This is sawab, a good deed. God will remember."
She fished the envelope from her pocket beneath the burqa and passed it to him. In it was eleven hundred afghanis, or about half of the money she’d stashed over the past year plus the sale of the ring. He slipped the envelope in his trouser pocket.
She watched him enter the station. He returned half an hour later.
"It’s best I hold on to your tickets," he said. The bus leaves in one hour, at eleven. We’ll all board together. My name is Wakil. If they ask – and they shouldn’t – I’ll tell them you’re my cousin."
Laila gave him their names, and he said he would remember.
"Stay close," he said.
They sat on the bench adjacent to Wakil and his family’s. It was a sunny, warm morning, the sky streaked only by a few wispy clouds hovering in the distance over the hills. Mariam began feeding Aziza a few of the crackers she’d remembered to bring in their rush to pack. She offered one to Laila.
"I’ll throw up," Laila laughed. "I’m too excited."
"Thank you, Mariam."
"For this. For coming with us," Laila said. "I don’t think I could do this alone."
"You won’t have to."
"We’re going to be all right, aren’t we, Mariam, where we’re going?"
Mariam’s hand slid across the bench and closed over hers. "The Koran says Allah is the East and the West, therefore wherever you turn there is Allah’s purpose."
"Bov!" Aziza cried, pointing to a bus. "Mayam, bov!"
"I see it, Aziza jo," Mariam said. "That’s right, bov. Soon we’re all going to ride on a bov. Oh, the things you’re going to see."
Laila smiled. She watched a carpenter in his shop across the street sawing wood, sending chips flying. She watched the cars bolting past, their windows coated with soot and grime. She watched the buses growling idly at the curb, with peacocks, lions, rising suns, and glittery swords painted on their sides.
In the warmth of the morning sun, Laila felt giddy and bold. She had another of those little sparks of euphoria, and when a stray dog with yellow eyes limped by, Laila leaned forward and pet its back.
A few minutes before eleven, a man with a bullhorn called for all passengers to Peshawar to begin boarding. The bus doors opened with a violent hydraulic hiss. A parade of travelers rushed toward it, scampering past each other to squeeze through.
Wakil motioned toward Laila as he picked up his son.
"We’re going," Laila said.
Wakil led the way. As they approached the bus, Laila saw faces appear in the windows, noses and palms pressed to the glass. All around them, farewells were yelled.
A young militia soldier was checking tickets at the bus door.
"Bov!" Aziza cried.
Wakil handed tickets to the soldier, who tore them in half and handed them back. Wakil let his wife board first. Laila saw a look pass between Wakil and the militiaman. Wakil, perched on the first step of the bus, leaned down and said something in his ear. The militiaman nodded.
Laila’s heart plummeted.
"You two, with the child, step aside," the soldier said.
Laila pretended not to hear. She went to climb the steps, but he grabbed her by the shoulder and roughly pulled her out of the line. "You too," he called to Mariam. "Hurry up! You’re holding up the line."
"What’s the problem, brother?" Laila said through numb lips. "We have tickets. Didn’t my cousin hand them to you?"
He made a Shh motion with his finger and spoke in a low voice to another guard. The second guard, a rotund fellow with a scar down his right cheek, nodded.
"Follow me," this one said to Laila.
"We have to board this bus," Laila cried, aware that her voice was shaking. "We have tickets. Why are you doing this?"
"You’re not going to get on this bus. You might as well accept that. You will follow me. Unless you want your little girl to see you dragged."
As they were led to a truck, Laila looked over her shoulder and spotted Wakil’s boy at the rear of the bus. The boy saw her too and waved happily.
AT THE POLICE STATION at Torabaz Khan Intersection, they were made to sit apart, on opposite ends of a long, crowded corridor, between them a desk, behind which a man smoked one cigarette after another and clacked occasionally on a typewriter. Three hours passed this way. Aziza tottered from Laila to Mariam, then back. She played with a paper clip that the man at the desk gave her. She finished the crackers. Eventually, she fell asleep in Mariam’s lap.
At around three o’clock, Laila was taken to an interview room. Mariam was made to wait with Aziza in the corridor.
The man sitting on the other side of the desk in the interview room was in his thirties and wore civilian clothes – black suit, tie, black loafers. He had a neatly trimmed beard, short hair, and eyebrows that met. He stared at Laila, bouncing a pencil by the eraser end on the desk.
"We know," he began, clearing his throat and politely covering his mouth with a fist, "that you have already told one lie today, hamshira. The young man at the station was not your cousin. He told us as much himself. The question is whether you will tell more lies today. Personally, I advise you against it."
"We were going to stay with my uncle," Laila said.
"That’s the truth."
The policeman nodded. "The hamshira in the corridor, she’s your mother?"
"She has a Herati accent. You don’t."
"She was raised in Herat, I was born here in Kabul."
"Of course. And you are widowed? You said you were. My condolences. And this uncle, this kaka, where does he live?"
"Yes, you said that." He licked the point of his pencil and poised it over a blank sheet of paper. "But where in Peshawar? Which neighborhood, please? Street name, sector number."
Laila tried to push back the bubble of panic that was coming up her chest. She gave him the name of the only street she knew in Peshawar – she’d heard it mentioned once, at the party Mammy had thrown when the Mujahideen had first come to Kabul – "Jamrud Road."
"Oh, yes. Same street as the Pearl Continental Hotel. He might have mentioned it."
Laila seized this opportunity and said he had. "That very same street, yes."
"Except the hotel is on Khyber Road."
Laila could hear Aziza crying in the corridor. "My daughter’s frightened. May I get her, brother?"
"I prefer ‘Officer.’ And you’ll be with her shortly. Do you have a telephone number for this uncle?"
"I do. I did. I . . ." Even with the burqa between them, Laila was not buffered from his penetrating eyes. "I’m so upset, I seem to have forgotten it."
He sighed through his nose. He asked for the uncle’s name, his wife’s name. How many children did he have? What were their names? Where did he work? How old was he? His questions left Laila flustered.
He put down his pencil, laced his fingers together, and leaned forward the way parents do when they want to convey something to a toddler. "You do realize, hamshira, that it is a crime for a woman to run away. We see a lot of it. Women traveling alone, claiming their husbands have died. Sometimes they’re telling the truth, most times not. You can be imprisoned for running away, I assume you understand that, nay?"
"Let us go, Officer . . ." She read the name on his lapel tag. "Officer Rahman. Honor the meaning of your name and show compassion. What does it matter to you to let a mere two women go? What’s the harm in releasing us? We are not criminals."
"I beg you, please."
"It’s a matter of qanoon, hamshira, a matter of law,"
Rahman said, injecting his voice with a grave, self-important tone. "It is my responsibility, you see, to maintain order."
In spite of her distraught state, Laila almost laughed.
She was stunned that he’d used that word in the face of all that the Mujahideen factions had done – the murders, the lootings, the rapes, the tortures, the executions, the bombings, the tens of thousands of rockets they had fired at each other, heedless of all the innocent people who would die in the cross fire. Order. But she bit her tongue.
"If you send us back," she said instead, slowly, "there is no saying what he will do to us."
She could see the effort it took him to keep his eyes from shifting. "What a man does in his home is his business."
"What about the law, then, Officer Rahman?" Tears of rage stung her eyes. "Will you be there to maintain order?"
"As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with private family matters, hamshira."
"Of course you don’t. When it benefits the man. And isn’t this a ‘private family matter,’ as you say? Isn’t it?"
He pushed back from his desk and stood up, straightened his jacket. "I believe this interview is finished. I must say, hamshira, that you have made a very poor case for yourself. Very poor indeed. Now, if you would wait outside I will have a few words with your . . . whoever she is."
Laila began to protest, then to yell, and he had to summon the help of two more men to have her dragged out of his office.
Mariam’s interview lasted only a few minutes. When she came out, she looked shaken.
"He asked so many questions," she said. "I’m sorry, Laila jo. I am not smart like you. He asked so many questions, I didn’t know the answers. I’m sorry."
"It’s not your fault, Mariam," Laila said weakly. "It’s mine. It’s all my fault. Everything is my fault."
* * *
IT WAS PAST six o’clock when the police car pulled up in front of the house. Laila and Mariam were made to wait in the backseat, guarded by a Mujahid soldier in the passenger seat. The driver was the one who got out of the car, who knocked on the door, who spoke to Rasheed. It was he who motioned for them to come.
"Welcome home," the man in the front seat said, lighting a cigarette.
"YOU," he said to Mariam. "You wait here."
Mariam quietly took a seat on the couch.
"You two, upstairs."
Rasheed grabbed Laila by the elbow and pushed her up the steps. He was still wearing the shoes he wore to work, hadn’t yet changed to his flip-flops, taken off his watch, hadn’t even shed his coat yet. Laila pictured him as he must have been an hour, or maybe minutes, earlier, rushing from one room to another, slamming doors, furious and incredulous, cursing under his breath.
At the top of the stairs, Laila turned to him.
"She didn’t want to do it," she said. "I made her do it. She didn’t want to go – "
Laila didn’t see the punch coming. One moment she was talking and the next she was on all fours, wide-eyed and red-faced, trying to draw a breath. It was as if a car had hit her at full speed, in the tender place between the lower tip of the breastbone and the belly button. She realized she had dropped Aziza, that Aziza was screaming. She tried to breathe again and could only make a husky, choking sound. Dribble hung from her mouth.