A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 7)
She was taken to the room with the long, brown table, except now there was a bowl of sugar-coated almond candy in the middle of the table, a Koran, a green veil, and a mirror. Two men Mariam had never seen before – witnesses, she presumed – and a mullah she did not recognize were already seated at the table.
Jalil showed her to a chair. He was wearing a light brown suit and a red tie. His hair was washed. When he pulled out the chair for her, he tried to smile encouragingly. Khadija and Afsoon sat on Mariam’s side of the table this time.
The mullah motioned toward the veil, and Nargis arranged it on Mariam’s head before taking a seat.
Mariam looked down at her hands.
"You can call him in now," Jalil said to someone.
Mariam smelled him before she saw him. Cigarette smoke and thick, sweet cologne, not faint like Jalil’s. The scent of it flooded Mariam’s nostrils. Through the veil, from the corner of her eye, Mariam saw a tall man, thick-bellied and broad-shouldered, stooping in the doorway. The size of him almost made her gasp, and she had to drop her gaze, her heart hammering away. She sensed him lingering in the doorway. Then his slow, heavy-footed movement across the room. The candy bowl on the table clinked in tune with his steps. With a thick grunt, he dropped on a chair beside her. He breathed noisily.
The mullah welcomed them. He said this would not be a traditional nikka.
"I understand that Rasheed agha has tickets for the bus to Kabul that leaves shortly. So, in the interest of time, we will bypass some of the traditional steps to speed up the proceedings."
The mullah gave a few blessings, said a few words about the importance of marriage. He asked Jalil if he had any objections to this union, and Jalil shook his head. Then the mullah asked Rasheed if he indeed wished to enter into a marriage contract with Mariam. Rasheed said, "Yes." His harsh, raspy voice reminded Mariam of the sound of dry autumn leaves crushed underfoot.
"And do you, Mariam jan, accept this man as your husband?"
Mariam stayed quiet. Throats were cleared.
"She does," a female voice said from down the table.
"Actually," the mullah said, "she herself has to answer.
And she should wait until I ask three times. The point is, he’s seeking her, not the other way around."
He asked the question two more times. When Mariam didn’t answer, he asked it once more, this time more forcefully. Mariam could feel Jalil beside her shifting on his seat, could sense feet crossing and uncrossing beneath the table. There was more throat clearing. A small, white hand reached out and flicked a bit of dust off the table.
"Mariam," Jalil whispered.
"Yes," she said shakily.
A mirror was passed beneath the veil. In it, Mariam saw her own face first, the archless, unshapely eyebrows, the flat hair, the eyes, mirthless green and set so closely together that one might mistake her for being cross-eyed. Her skin was coarse and had a dull, spotty appearance. She thought her brow too wide, the chin too narrow, the lips too thin. The overall impression was of a long face, a triangular face, a bit houndlike. And yet Mariam saw that, oddly enough, the whole of these unmemorable parts made for a face that was not pretty but, somehow, not unpleasant to look at either.
In the mirror, Mariam had her first glimpse of Rasheed: the big, square, ruddy face; the hooked nose; the flushed cheeks that gave the impression of sly cheerfulness; the watery, bloodshot eyes; the crowded teeth, the front two pushed together like a gabled roof; the impossibly low hairline, barely two finger widths above the bushy eyebrows; the wall of thick, coarse, salt-and-pepper hair.
Their gazes met briefly in the glass and slid away.
This is the face of my husband, Mariam thought.
They exchanged the thin gold bands that Rasheed fished from his coat pocket. His nails were yellow-brown, like the inside of a rotting apple, and some of the tips were curling, lifting. Mariam’s hands shook when she tried to slip the band onto his finger, and Rasheed had to help her. Her own band was a little tight, but Rasheed had no trouble forcing it over her knuckles.
"There," he said.
"It’s a pretty ring," one of the wives said. "It’s lovely, Mariam."
"All that remains now is the signing of the contract," the mullah said.
Mariam signed her name – the meem, the reh, the ya, and the meem again – conscious of all the eyes on her hand. The next time Mariam signed her name to a document, twenty-seven years later, a mullah would again be present.
"You are now husband and wife," the mullah said. "Tabreek. Congratulations."
RASHEED WAITED in the multicolored bus. Mariam could not see him from where she stood with Jalil, by the rear bumper, only the smoke of his cigarette curling up from the open window. Around them, hands shook and farewells were said. Korans were kissed, passed under. Barefoot boys bounced between travelers, their faces invisible behind their trays of chewing gum and cigarettes.
Jalil was busy telling her that Kabul was so beautiful, the Moghul emperor Babur had asked that he be buried there. Next, Mariam knew, he’d go on about Kabul’s gardens, and its shops, its trees, and its air, and, before long, she would be on the bus and he would walk alongside it, waving cheerfully, unscathed, spared.
Mariam could not bring herself to allow it.
"I used to worship you," she said.
Jalil stopped in midsentence. He crossed and uncrossed his arms. A young Hindi couple, the wife cradling a boy, the husband dragging a suitcase, passed between them.
Jalil seemed grateful for the interruption. They excused themselves, and he smiled back politely.
"On Thursdays, I sat for hours waiting for you. I worried myself sick that you wouldn’t show up."
"It’s a long trip. You should eat something." He said he could buy her some bread and goat cheese.
"I thought about you all the time. I used to pray that you’d live to be a hundred years old. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that you were ashamed of me."
Jalil looked down, and, like an overgrown child, dug at something with the toe of his shoe.
"You were ashamed of me."
"I’ll visit you," he muttered. "I’ll come to Kabul and see you. We’ll – "
"No. No," she said. "Don’t come. I won’t see you. Don’t you come. I don’t want to hear from you. Ever. Ever. "
He gave her a wounded look.
"It ends here for you and me. Say your good-byes."
"Don’t leave like this," he said in a thin voice.
"You didn’t even have the decency to give me the time to say good-bye to Mullah Faizullah."
She turned and walked around to the side of the bus. She could hear him following her. When she reached the hydraulic doors, she heard him behind her.
She climbed the stairs, and though she could spot Jalil out of the corner of her eye walking parallel to her she did not look out the window. She made her way down the aisle to the back, where Rasheed sat with her suitcase between his feet. She did not turn to look when Jalil’s palms pressed on the glass, when his knuckles rapped and rapped on it. When the bus jerked forward, she did not turn to see him trotting alongside it. And when the bus pulled away, she did not look back to see him receding, to see him disappear in the cloud of exhaust and dust.
Rasheed, who took up the window and middle seat, put his thick hand on hers.
"There now, girl. There. There," he said. He was squinting out the window as he said this, as though something more interesting had caught his eye.
It was early evening the following day by the time they arrived at Rasheed’s house.
I"We’re in Deh-Mazang," he said. They were outside, on the sidewalk. He had her suitcase in one hand and was unlocking the wooden front gate with the other. "In the south and west part of the city. The zoo is nearby, and the university too."
Mariam nodded. Already she had learned that, though she could understand him, she had to pay close attention when he spoke. She was unaccustomed to the Kabuli dialect of his Farsi, and to the underlying layer of Pashto accent, the language of his native Kandahar. He, on the other hand, seemed to have no trouble understanding her Herati Farsi.
Mariam quickly surveyed the narrow, unpaved road along which Rasheed’s house was situated. The houses on this road were crowded together and shared common walls, with small, walled yards in front buffering them from the street. Most of the homes had flat roofs and were made of burned brick, some of mud the same dusty color as the mountains that ringed the city. Gutters separated the sidewalk from the road on both sides and flowed with muddy water. Mariam saw small mounds of flyblown garbage littering the street here and there. Rasheed’s house had two stories. Mariam could see that it had once been blue.
When Rasheed opened the front gate, Mariam found herself in a small, unkempt yard where yellow grass struggled up in thin patches. Mariam saw an outhouse on the right, in a side yard, and, on the left, a well with a hand pump, a row of dying saplings. Near the well was a tool-shed, and a bicycle leaning against the wall.
"Your father told me you like to fish," Rasheed said as they were crossing the yard to the house. There was no backyard, Mariam saw. "There are valleys north of here. Rivers with lots of fish. Maybe I’ll take you someday."
He unlocked the front door and let her into the house.
Rasheed’s house was much smaller than Jalil’s, but, compared to Mariam and Nana’s kolba, it was a mansion.
There was a hallway, a living room downstairs, and a kitchen in which he showed her pots and pans and a pressure cooker and a kerosene ishtop. The living room had a pistachio green leather couch. It had a rip down its side that had been clumsily sewn together. The walls were bare. There was a table, two cane-seat chairs, two folding chairs, and, in the corner, a black, cast-iron stove.
Mariam stood in the middle of the living room, looking around. At the kolba, she could touch the ceiling with her fingertips. She could lie in her cot and tell the time of day by the angle of sunlight pouring through the window. She knew how far her door would open before its hinges creaked. She knew every splinter and crack in each of the thirty wooden floorboards. Now all those familiar things were gone. Nana was dead, and she was here, in a strange city, separated from the life she’d known by valleys and chains of snow-capped mountains and entire deserts. She was in a stranger’s house, with all its different rooms and its smell of cigarette smoke, with its unfamiliar cupboards full of unfamiliar utensils, its heavy, dark green curtains, and a ceiling she knew she could not reach. The space of it suffocated Mariam. Pangs of longing bore into her, for Nana, for Mullah Faizullah, for her old life.
Then she was crying.
"What’s this crying about?" Rasheed said crossly. He reached into the pocket of his pants, uncurled Mariam’s fingers, and pushed a handkerchief into her palm. He lit himself a cigarette and leaned against the wall. He watched as Mariam pressed the handkerchief to her eyes.
He took her by the elbow then and led her to the living-room window.
"This window looks north," he said, tapping the glass with the crooked nail of his index finger. "That’s the Asmai mountain directly in front of us – see? – and, to the left, is the Ali Abad mountain. The university is at the foot of it. Behind us, east, you can’t see from here, is the Shir Darwaza mountain. Every day, at noon, they shoot a cannon from it. Stop your crying, now. I mean it."