A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 33)
Then she was being dragged by the hair. She saw Aziza lifted, saw her sandals slip off, her tiny feet kicking. Hair was ripped from Laila’s scalp, and her eyes watered with pain. She saw his foot kick open the door to Mariam’s room, saw Aziza flung onto the bed. He let go of Laila’s hair, and she felt the toe of his shoe connect with her left buttock. She howled with pain as he slammed the door shut. A key rattled in the lock.
Aziza was still screaming. Laila lay curled up on the floor, gasping. She pushed herself up on her hands, crawled to where Aziza lay on the bed. She reached for her daughter.
Downstairs, the beating began. To Laila, the sounds she heard were those of a methodical, familiar proceeding. There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten, the thump, thump of something solid repeatedly striking flesh, something, someone, hitting a wall with a thud, cloth ripping. Now and then, Laila heard running footsteps, a wordless chase, furniture turning over, glass shattering, then the thumping once more.
Laila took Aziza in her arms. A warmth spread down the front of her dress when Aziza’s bladder let go.
Downstairs, the running and chasing finally stopped.
There was a sound now like a wooden club repeatedly slapping a side of beef.
Laila rocked Aziza until the sounds stopped, and, when she heard the screen door creak open and slam shut, she lowered Aziza to the ground and peeked out the window. She saw Rasheed leading Mariam across the yard by the nape of her neck. Mariam was barefoot and doubled over. There was blood on his hands, blood on Mariam’s face, her hair, down her neck and back. Her shirt had been ripped down the front.
"I’m so sorry, Mariam," Laila cried into the glass.
She watched him shove Mariam into the toolshed. He went in, came out with a hammer and several long planks of wood. He shut the double doors to the shed, took a key from his pocket, worked the padlock. He tested the doors, then went around the back of the shed and fetched a ladder.
A few minutes later, his face was in Laila’s window, nails tucked in the corner of his mouth. His hair was disheveled. There was a swath of blood on his brow. At the sight of him, Aziza shrieked and buried her face in Laila’s armpit.
Rasheed began nailing boards across the window.
THE DARK WAS TOTAL, impenetrable and constant, without layer or texture. Rasheed had filled the cracks between the boards with something, put a large and immovable object at the foot of the door so no light came from under it. Something had been stuffed in the keyhole.
Laila found it impossible to tell the passage of time with her eyes, so she did it with her good ear. Azan and crowing roosters signaled morning. The sounds of plates clanking in the kitchen downstairs, the radio playing, meant evening.
The first day, they groped and fumbled for each other in the dark. Laila couldn’t see Aziza when she cried, when she went crawling.
"Aishee," Aziza mewled. "Aishee."
"Soon." Laila kissed her daughter, aiming for the forehead, finding the crown of her head instead. "We’ll have milk soon. You just be patient. Be a good, patient little girl for Mammy, and I’ll get you some aishee."
Laila sang her a few songs.
Azan rang out a second time and still Rasheed had not given them any food, and, worse, no water. That day, a thick, suffocating heat fell on them. The room turned into a pressure cooker. Laila dragged a dry tongue over her lips, thinking of the well outside, the water cold and fresh. Aziza kept crying, and Laila noticed with alarm that when she wiped her cheeks her hands came back dry. She stripped the clothes off Aziza, tried to find something to fan her with, settled for blowing on her until she became light-headed. Soon, Aziza stopped crawling around. She slipped in and out of sleep.
Several times that day, Laila banged her fists against the walls, used up her energy screaming for help, hoping that a neighbor would hear. But no one came, and her shrieking only frightened Aziza, who began to cry again, a weak, croaking sound. Laila slid to the ground. She thought guiltily of Mariam, beaten and bloodied, locked in this heat in the toolshed.
Laila fell asleep at some point, her body baking in the heat. She had a dream that she and Aziza had run into Tariq. He was across a crowded street from them, beneath the awning of a tailor’s shop. He was sitting on his haunches and sampling from a crate of figs. That’s your father, Laila said. That man there, you see him? He’s your real baba. She called his name, but the street noise drowned her voice, and Tariq didn’t hear.
She woke up to the whistling of rockets streaking overhead. Somewhere, the sky she couldn’t see erupted with blasts and the long, frantic hammering of machine-gun fire. Laila closed her eyes. She woke again to Rasheed’s heavy footsteps in the hallway. She dragged herself to the door, slapped her palms against it.
"Just one glass, Rasheed. Not for me. Do it for her. You don’t want her blood on your hands."
He walked past.
She began to plead with him. She begged for forgiveness, made promises. She cursed him.
His door closed. The radio came on.
The muezzin called azan a third time. Again the heat. Aziza became even more listless. She stopped crying, stopped moving altogether.
Laila put her ear over Aziza’s mouth, dreading each time that she would not hear the shallow whooshing of breath. Even this simple act of lifting herself made her head swim. She fell asleep, had dreams she could not remember. When she woke up, she checked on Aziza, felt the parched cracks of her lips, the faint pulse at her neck, lay down again. They would die here, of that Laila was sure now, but what she really dreaded was that she would outlast Aziza, who was young and brittle. How much more could Aziza take? Aziza would die in this heat, and Laila would have to lie beside her stiffening little body and wait for her own death. Again she fell asleep. Woke up. Fell asleep. The line between dream and wakefulness blurred.
It wasn’t roosters or azan that woke her up again but the sound of something heavy being dragged. She heard a rattling. Suddenly, the room was flooded with light. Her eyes screamed in protest. Laila raised her head, winced, and shielded her eyes. Through the cracks between her fingers, she saw a big, blurry silhouette standing in a rectangle of light. The silhouette moved. Now there was a shape crouching beside her, looming over her, and a voice by her ear.
"You try this again and I will find you. I swear on the Prophet’s name that I will find you. And, when I do, there isn’t a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me accountable for what I will do. To Mariam first, then to her, and you last. I’ll make you watch. You understand me? I’ll make you watch."
And, with that, he left the room. But not before delivering a kick to the flank that would have Laila pissing blood for days.
Two and a half years later, Mariam awoke on the morning of September 27 to the sounds of shouting and whistling, firecrackers and music. She ran to the living room, found Laila already at the window, Aziza mounted on her shoulders. Laila turned and smiled.
"The Taliban are here," she said.
MARIAM HAD FIRST heard of the Taliban two years before, in October 1994, when Rasheed had brought home news that they had overthrown the warlords in Kandahar and taken the city. They were a guerrilla force, he said, made up of young Pashtun men whose families had fled to Pakistan during the war against the Soviets. Most of them had been raised – some even born – in refugee camps along the Pakistani border, and in Pakistani madrasas, where they were schooled in Shari’a by mullahs. Their leader was a mysterious, illiterate, one-eyed recluse named Mullah Omar, who, Rasheed said with some amusement, called himself Ameer-ul-Mumineen, Leader of the Faithful.
"It’s true that these boys have no risha, no roots,"
Rasheed said, addressing neither Mariam nor Laila. Ever since the failed escape, two and a half years ago, Mariam knew that she and Laila had become one and the same being to him, equally wretched, equally deserving of his distrust, his disdain and disregard. When he spoke, Mariam had the sense that he was having a conversation with himself, or with some invisible presence in the room, who, unlike her and Laila, was worthy of his opinions.
"They may have no past," he said, smoking and looking up at the ceiling. "They may know nothing of the world or this country’s history. Yes. And, compared to them, Mariam here might as well be a university professor. Ha! All true. But look around you. What do you see? Corrupt, greedy Mujahideen commanders, armed to the teeth, rich off heroin, declaring jihad on one another and killing everyone in between – that’s what. At least the Taliban are pure and incorruptible. At least they’re decent Muslim boys. Wallah, when they come, they will clean up this place. They’ll bring peace and order. People won’t get shot anymore going out for milk. No more rockets! Think of it."
For two years now, the Taliban had been making their way toward Kabul, taking cities from the Mujahideen, ending factional war wherever they’d settled. They had captured the Hazara commander Abdul Ali Mazari and executed him. For months, they’d settled in the southern outskirts of Kabul, firing on the city, exchanging rockets with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Earlier in that September of 1996, they had captured the cities of Jalalabad and Sarobi.
The Taliban had one thing the Mujahideen did not, Rasheed said. They were united.
"Let them come," he said. "I, for one, will shower them with rose petals."
* * *
THEY WENT OUT that day, the four of them, Rasheed leading them from one bus to the next, to greet their new world, their new leaders. In every battered neighborhood, Mariam found people materializing from the rubble and moving into the streets. She saw an old woman wasting handfuls of rice, tossing it at passersby, a drooping, toothless smile on her face. Two men were hugging by the remains of a gutted building, in the sky above them the whistle, hiss, and pop of a few firecrackers set off by boys perched on rooftops. The national anthem played on cassette decks, competing with the honking of cars.
"Look, Mayam!" Aziza pointed to a group of boys running down Jadeh Maywand. They were pounding their fists into the air and dragging rusty cans tied to strings. They were yelling that Massoud and Rabbani had withdrawn from Kabul.
Everywhere, there were shouts: Allah-u-akbar!
Mariam saw a bedsheet hanging from a window on Jadeh Maywand. On it, someone had painted three words in big, black letters: ZENDA BAAD TALIBAN! Long live the Taliban!
As they walked the streets, Mariam spotted more signs – painted on windows, nailed to doors, billowing from car antennas – that proclaimed the same.
MARIAM SAW HER first of the Taliban later that day, at Pashtunistan Square, with Rasheed, Laila, and Aziza. A melee of people had gathered there. Mariam saw people craning their necks, people crowded around the blue fountain in the center of the square, people perched on its dry bed. They were trying to get a view of the end of the square, near the old Khyber Restaurant.
Rasheed used his size to push and shove past the onlookers, and led them to where someone was speaking through a loudspeaker.
When Aziza saw, she let out a shriek and buried her face in Mariam’s burqa.
The loudspeaker voice belonged to a slender, bearded young man who wore a black turban. He was standing on some sort of makeshift scaffolding. In his free hand, he held a rocket launcher. Beside him, two bloodied men hung from ropes tied to traffic-light posts. Their clothes had been shredded. Their bloated faces had turned purple-blue.