A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 39)
"He was a glassmaker," Zaman said. "He made these beautiful, jade green swans. You held them up to sunlight and they glittered inside, like the glass was filled with tiny jewels. Have you been back?"
Mariam said she hadn’t.
"I’m from Kandahar myself. Have you ever been to Kandahar, hamshira? No? It’s lovely. What gardens! And the grapes! Oh, the grapes. They bewitch the palate."
A few children had gathered by the door and were peeking in. Zaman gently shooed them away, in Pashto.
"Of course I love Herat too. City of artists and writers,
Sufis and mystics. You know the old joke, that you can’t stretch a leg in Herat without poking a poet in the rear."
Next to Laila, Aziza snorted.
Zaman feigned a gasp. "Ah, there. I’ve made you laugh, little hamshira. That’s usually the hard part. I was worried, there, for a while. I thought I’d have to cluck like a chicken or bray like a donkey. But, there you are. And so lovely you are."
He called in an attendant to look after Aziza for a few moments. Aziza leaped onto Mariam’s lap and clung to her.
"We’re just going to talk, my love," Laila said. "I’ll be right here. All right? Right here."
"Why don’t we go outside for a minute, Aziza jo?" Mariam said. "Your mother needs to talk to Kaka Zaman here. Just for a minute. Now, come on."
When they were alone, Zaman asked for Aziza’s date of birth, history of illnesses, allergies. He asked about Aziza’s father, and Laila had the strange experience of telling a lie that was really the truth. Zaman listened, his expression revealing neither belief nor skepticism. He ran the orphanage on the honor system, he said. If a hamshira said her husband was dead and she couldn’t care for her children, he didn’t question it.
Laila began to cry.
Zaman put down his pen.
"I’m ashamed," Laila croaked, her palm pressed to her mouth.
"Look at me, hamshira."
"What kind of mother abandons her own child?"
"Look at me."
Laila raised her gaze.
"It isn’t your fault. Do you hear me? Not you. It’s those savages, those wahshis, who are to blame. They bring shame on me as a Pashtun. They’ve disgraced the name of my people. And you’re not alone, hamshira. We get mothers like you all the time – all the time – mothers who come here who can’t feed their children because the Taliban won’t let them go out and make a living. So you don’t blame yourself. No one here blames you. I understand." He leaned forward. "Hamshira. I understand."
Laila wiped her eyes with the cloth of her burqa.
"As for this place," Zaman sighed, motioning with his hand, "you can see that it’s in dire state. We’re always underfunded, always scrambling, improvising. We get little or no support from the Taliban. But we manage. Like you, we do what we have to do. Allah is good and kind, and Allah provides, and, as long He provides, I will see to it that Aziza is fed and clothed. That much I promise you."
He was smiling companionably. "But don’t cry, hamshira. Don’t let her see you cry."
Laila wiped her eyes again. "God bless you," she said thickly. "God bless you, brother."
BUT WHEN THE time for good-byes came, the scene erupted precisely as Laila had dreaded.
All the way home, leaning on Mariam, Laila heard Aziza’s shrill cries. In her head, she saw Zaman’s thick, calloused hands close around Aziza’s arms; she saw them pull, gently at first, then harder, then with force to pry Aziza loose from her. She saw Aziza kicking in Zaman’s arms as he hurriedly turned the corner, heard Aziza screaming as though she were about to vanish from the face of the earth. And Laila saw herself running down the hallway, head down, a howl rising up her throat.
"I smell her," she told Mariam at home. Her eyes swam unseeingly past Mariam’s shoulder, past the yard, the walls, to the mountains, brown as smoker’s spit. "I smell her sleep smell. Do you? Do you smell it?"
"Oh, Laila jo," said Mariam. "Don’t. What good is this? What good?"
AT FIRST, Rasheed humored Laila, and accompanied them – her, Mariam, and Zalmai – to the orphanage, though he made sure, as they walked, that she had an eyeful of his grievous looks, an earful of his rants over what a hardship she was putting him through, how badly his legs and back and feet ached walking to and from the orphanage. He made sure she knew how awfully put out he was.
"I’m not a young man anymore," he said. "Not that you care. You’d run me to the ground, if you had your way. But you don’t, Laila. You don’t have your way."
They parted ways two blocks from the orphanage, and he never spared them more than fifteen minutes. "A minute late," he said, "and I start walking. I mean it."
Laila had to pester him, plead with him, in order to spin out the allotted minutes with Aziza a bit longer. For herself, and for Mariam, who was disconsolate over Aziza’s absence, though, as always, Mariam chose to cradle her own suffering privately and quietly. And for Zalmai too, who asked for his sister every day, and threw tantrums that sometimes dissolved into inconsolable fits of crying.
Sometimes, on the way to the orphanage, Rasheed stopped and complained that his leg was sore. Then he turned around and started walking home in long, steady strides, without so much as a limp. Or he clucked his tongue and said, "It’s my lungs, Laila. I’m short of breath. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel better, or the day after. We’ll see." He never bothered to feign a single raspy breath. Often, as he turned back and marched home, he lit a cigarette. Laila would have to tail him home, helpless, trembling with resentment and impotent rage.
Then one day he told Laila he wouldn’t take her anymore. "I’m too tired from walking the streets all day," he said, "looking for work."
"Then I’ll go by myself," Laila said. "You can’t stop me, Rasheed. Do you hear me? You can hit me all you want, but I’ll keep going there."
"Do as you wish. But you won’t get past the Taliban. Don’t say I didn’t warn you."
"I’m coming with you," Mariam said.
Laila wouldn’t allow it. "You have to stay home with Zalmai. If we get stopped . . . I don’t want him to see."
And so Laila’s life suddenly revolved around finding ways to see Aziza. Half the time, she never made it to the orphanage. Crossing the street, she was spotted by the Taliban and riddled with questions – What is your name? Where are you going? Why are you alone? Where is your mahram? – before she was sent home. If she was lucky, she was given a tongue-lashing or a single kick to the rear, a shove in the back. Other times, she met with assortments of wooden clubs, fresh tree branches, short whips, slaps, often fists.
One day, a young Talib beat Laila with a radio antenna. When he was done, he gave a final whack to the back of her neck and said, "I see you again, I’ll beat you until your mother’s milk leaks out of your bones."
That time, Laila went home. She lay on her stomach, feeling like a stupid, pitiable animal, and hissed as Mariam arranged damp cloths across her bloodied back and thighs. But, usually, Laila refused to cave in. She made as if she were going home, then took a different route down side streets. Sometimes she was caught, questioned, scolded – two, three, even four times in a single day. Then the whips came down and the antennas sliced through the air, and she trudged home, bloodied, without so much as a glimpse of Aziza. Soon Laila took to wearing extra layers, even in the heat, two, three sweaters beneath the burqa, for padding against the beatings.
But for Laila, the reward, if she made it past the Taliban, was worth it. She could spend as much time as she liked then – hours, even – with Aziza. They sat in the courtyard, near the swing set, among other children and visiting mothers, and talked about what Aziza had learned that week.
Aziza said Kaka Zaman made it a point to teach them something every day, reading and writing most days, sometimes geography, a bit of history or science, something about plants, animals.
"But we have to pull the curtains," Aziza said, "so the Taliban don’t see us." Kaka Zaman had knitting needles and balls of yarn ready, she said, in case of a Taliban inspection. "We put the books away and pretend to knit."
One day, during a visit with Aziza, Laila saw a middle-aged woman, her burqa pushed back, visiting with three boys and a girl. Laila recognized the sharp face, the heavy eyebrows, if not the sunken mouth and gray hair. She remembered the shawls, the black skirts, the curt voice, how she used to wear her jet-black hair tied in a bun so that you could see the dark bristles on the back of her neck. Laila remembered this woman once forbidding the female students from covering, saying women and men were equal, that there was no reason women should cover if men didn’t.
At one point, Khala Rangmaal looked up and caught her gaze, but Laila saw no lingering, no light of recognition, in her old teacher’s eyes.
"THEY’RE FRACTURES along the earth’s crust," said Aziza. "They’re called faults."
It was a warm afternoon, a Friday, in June of 2001. They were sitting in the orphanage’s back lot, the four of them, Laila, Zalmai, Mariam, and Aziza. Rasheed had relented this time – as he infrequently did – and accompanied the four of them. He was waiting down the street, by the bus stop.
Barefoot kids scampered about around them. A flat soccer ball was kicked around, chased after listlessly.
"And, on either side of the faults, there are these sheets of rock that make up the earth’s crust," Aziza was saying.
Someone had pulled the hair back from Aziza’s face, braided it, and pinned it neatly on top of her head. Laila begrudged whoever had gotten to sit behind her daughter, to flip sections of her hair one over the other, had asked her to sit still.
Aziza was demonstrating by opening her hands, palms up, and rubbing them against each other. Zalmai watched this with intense interest.
"Kectonic plates, they’re called?"
"Tectonic," Laila said. It hurt to talk. Her jaw was still sore, her back and neck ached. Her lip was swollen, and her tongue kept poking the empty pocket of the lower incisor Rasheed had knocked loose two days before. Before Mammy and Babi had died and her life turned upside down, Laila never would have believed that a human body could withstand this much beating, this viciously, this regularly, and keep functioning.
"Right. And when they slide past each other, they catch and slip – see, Mammy? – and it releases energy, which travels to the earth’s surface and makes it shake."
"You’re getting so smart," Mariam said. "So much smarter than your dumb khala."
Aziza’s face glowed, broadened. "You’re not dumb, Khala Mariam. And Kaka Zaman says that, sometimes, the shifting of rocks is deep, deep below, and it’s powerful and scary down there, but all we feel on the surface is a slight tremor. Only a slight tremor."
The visit before this one, it was oxygen atoms in the atmosphere scattering the blue light from the sun. If the earth had no atmosphere, Aziza had said a little breathlessly, the sky wouldn’t be blue at all but a pitch-black sea and the sun a big bright star in the dark.
"Is Aziza coming home with us this time?" Zalmai said.
"Soon, my love," Laila said. "Soon."
Laila watched him wander away, walking like his father, stooping forward, toes turned in. He walked to the swing set, pushed an empty seat, ended up sitting on the concrete, ripping weeds from a crack.