A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 8)
Mariam dabbed at her eyes.
"That’s one thing I can’t stand," he said, scowling, "the sound of a woman crying. I’m sorry. I have no patience for it."
"I want to go home," Mariam said.
Rasheed sighed irritably. A puff of his smoky breath hit Mariam’s face. "I won’t take that personally. This time."
Again, he took her by the elbow, and led her upstairs.
There was a narrow, dimly lit hallway there and two bedrooms. The door to the bigger one was ajar. Through it Mariam could see that it, like the rest of the house, was sparsely furnished: bed in the corner, with a brown blanket and a pillow, a closet, a dresser. The walls were bare except for a small mirror. Rasheed closed the door.
"This is my room."
He said she could take the guest room. "I hope you don’t mind. I’m accustomed to sleeping alone."
Mariam didn’t tell him how relieved she was, at least about this.
The room that was to be Mariam’s was much smaller than the room she’d stayed in at Jalil’s house. It had a bed, an old, gray-brown dresser, a small closet. The window looked into the yard and, beyond that, the street below. Rasheed put her suitcase in a corner.
Mariam sat on the bed.
"You didn’t notice," he said. He was standing in the doorway, stooping a little to fit. "Look on the windowsill. You know what kind they are? I put them there before leaving for Herat."
Only now Mariam saw a basket on the sill. White tuberoses spilled from its sides.
"You like them? They please you?"
"You can thank me then."
"Thank you. I’m sorry. Tashakor – "
"You’re shaking. Maybe I scare you. Do I scare you? Are you frightened of me?"
Mariam was not looking at him, but she could hear something slyly playful in these questions, like a needling. She quickly shook her head in what she recognized as her first lie in their marriage.
"No? That’s good, then. Good for you. Well, this is your home now. You’re going to like it here. You’ll see. Did I tell you we have electricity? Most days and every night?"
He made as if to leave. At the door, he paused, took a long drag, crinkled his eyes against the smoke. Mariam thought he was going to say something. But he didn’t. He closed the door, left her alone with her suitcase and her flowers.
The first few days, Mariam hardly left her room. She was awakened every dawn for prayer by the distant cry of azan, after which she crawled back into bed. She was still in bed when she heard Rasheed in the bathroom, washing up, when he came into her room to check on her before he went to his shop. From her window, she watched him in the yard, securing his lunch in the rear carrier pack of his bicycle, then walking his bicycle across the yard and into the street. She watched him pedal away, saw his broad, thick-shouldered figure disappear around the turn at the end of the street.
For most of the days, Mariam stayed in bed, feeling adrift and forlorn. Sometimes she went downstairs to the kitchen, ran her hands over the sticky, grease-stained counter, the vinyl, flowered curtains that smelled like burned meals. She looked through the ill-fitting drawers, at the mismatched spoons and knives, the colander and chipped, wooden spatulas, these would-be instruments of her new daily life, all of it reminding her of the havoc that had struck her life, making her feel uprooted, displaced, like an intruder on someone else’s life.
At the kolba, her appetite had been predictable. Here, her stomach rarely growled for food. Sometimes she took a plate of leftover white rice and a scrap of bread to the living room, by the window. From there, she could see the roofs of the one-story houses on their street. She could see into their yards too, the women working laundry lines and shooing their children, chickens pecking at dirt, the shovels and spades, the cows tethered to trees.
She thought longingly of all the summer nights that she and Nana had slept on the flat roof of the kolba, looking at the moon glowing over Gul Daman, the night so hot their shirts would cling to their chests like a wet leaf to a window. She missed the winter afternoons of reading in the kolba with Mullah Faizullah, the clink of icicles falling on her roof from the trees, the crows cawing outside from snow-burdened branches.
Alone in the house, Mariam paced restlessly, from the kitchen to the living room, up the steps to her room and down again. She ended up back in her room, doing her prayers or sitting on the bed, missing her mother, feeling nauseated and homesick.
It was with the sun’s westward crawl that Mariam’s anxiety really ratcheted up. Her teeth rattled when she thought of the night, the time when Rasheed might at last decide to do to her what husbands did to their wives. She lay in bed, wracked with nerves, as he ate alone downstairs.
He always stopped by her room and poked his head in.
"You can’t be sleeping already. It’s only seven. Are you awake? Answer me. Come, now."
He pressed on until, from the dark, Mariam said, "I’m here."
He slid down and sat in her doorway. From her bed, she could see his large-framed body, his long legs, the smoke swirling around his hook-nosed profile, the amber tip of his cigarette brightening and dimming.
He told her about his day. A pair of loafers he had custom-made for the deputy foreign minister – who, Rasheed said, bought shoes only from him. An order for sandals from a Polish diplomat and his wife. He told her of the superstitions people had about shoes: that putting them on a bed invited death into the family, that a quarrel would follow if one put on the left shoe first.
"Unless it was done unintentionally on a Friday," he said. "And did you know it’s supposed to be a bad omen to tie shoes together and hang them from a nail?"
Rasheed himself believed none of this. In his opinion, superstitions were largely a female preoccupation.
He passed on to her things he had heard on the streets, like how the American president Richard Nixon had resigned over a scandal.
Mariam, who had never heard of Nixon, or the scandal that had forced him to resign, did not say anything back. She waited anxiously for Rasheed to finish talking, to crush his cigarette, and take his leave. Only when she’d heard him cross the hallway, heard his door open and close, only then would the metal fist gripping her belly let go.
Then one night he crushed his cigarette and instead of saying good night leaned against the doorway.
"Are you ever going to unpack that thing?" he said, motioning with his head toward her suitcase. He crossed his arms. "I figured you might need some time. But this is absurd. A week’s gone and . . . Well, then, as of tomorrow morning I expect you to start behaving like a wife. Fahmidi? Is that understood?"
Mariam’s teeth began to chatter.
"I need an answer."
"Good," he said. "What did you think? That this is a hotel? That I’m some kind of hotelkeeper? Well, it . . . Oh. Oh. La illah u ilillah. What did I say about the crying, Mariam? What did I say to you about the crying?"
THE NEXT MORNING, after Rasheed left for work, Mariam unpacked her clothes and put them in the dresser. She drew a pail of water from the well and, with a rag, washed the windows of her room and the windows to the living room downstairs. She swept the floors, beat the cobwebs fluttering in the corners of the ceiling. She opened the windows to air the house.
She set three cups of lentils to soak in a pot, found a knife and cut some carrots and a pair of potatoes, left them too to soak. She searched for flour, found it in the back of one of the cabinets behind a row of dirty spice jars, and made fresh dough, kneading it the way Nana had shown her, pushing the dough with the heel of her hand, folding the outer edge, turning it, and pushing it away again. Once she had floured the dough, she wrapped it in a moist cloth, put on a hijab, and set out for the communal tandoor.
Rasheed had told her where it was, down the street, a left then a quick right, but all Mariam had to do was follow the flock of women and children who were headed the same way. The children Mariam saw, chasing after their mothers or running ahead of them, wore shirts patched and patched again. They wore trousers that looked too big or too small, sandals with ragged straps that flapped back and forth. They rolled discarded old bicycle tires with sticks.
Their mothers walked in groups of three or four, some in burqas, others not. Mariam could hear their high pitched chatter, their spiraling laughs. As she walked with her head down, she caught bits of their banter, which seemingly always had to do with sick children or lazy, ungrateful husbands.
As if the meals cook themselves.
Wallah o billah, never a moment’s rest!
And he says to me, I swear it, it’s true, he actually says to me . . .
This endless conversation, the tone plaintive but oddly cheerful, flew around and around in a circle. On it went, down the street, around the corner, in line at the tandoor. Husbands who gambled. Husbands who doted on their mothers and wouldn’t spend a rupiah on them, the wives. Mariam wondered how so many women could suffer the same miserable luck, to have married, all of them, such dreadful men. Or was this a wifely game that she did not know about, a daily ritual, like soaking rice or making dough? Would they expect her soon to join in?
In the tandoor line, Mariam caught sideways glances shot at her, heard whispers. Her hands began to sweat. She imagined they all knew that she’d been born a harami, a source of shame to her father and his family. They all knew that she’d betrayed her mother and disgraced herself.
With a corner of her hijab, she dabbed at the moisture above her upper lip and tried to gather her nerves.
For a few minutes, everything went well.
Then someone tapped her on the shoulder. Mariam turned around and found a light-skinned, plump woman wearing a hijab, like her. She had short, wiry black hair and a good-humored, almost perfectly round face. Her lips were much fuller than Mariam’s, the lower one slightly droopy, as though dragged down by the big, dark mole just below the lip line. She had big greenish eyes that shone at Mariam with an inviting glint.
"You’re Rasheed jan’s new wife, aren’t you?" the woman said, smiling widely. "The one from Herat. You’re so young! Mariam jan, isn’t it? My name is Fariba. I live on your street, five houses to your left, the one with the green door. This is my son Noor."
The boy at her side had a smooth, happy face and wiry hair like his mother’s. There was a patch of black hairs on the lobe of his left ear. His eyes had a mischievous, reckless light in them. He raised his hand. "Salaam, Khala jan."
"Noor is ten. I have an older boy too, Ahmad."
"He’s thirteen," Noor said.
"Thirteen going on forty." The woman Fariba laughed. "My husband’s name is Hakim," she said. "He’s a teacher here in Deh-Mazang. You should come by sometime, we’ll have a cup – "
And then suddenly, as if emboldened, the other women pushed past Fariba and swarmed Mariam, forming a circle around her with alarming speed.
"So you’re Rasheed jan’s young bride – "
"How do you like Kabul?"
"I’ve been to Herat. I have a cousin there."
"Do you want a boy or a girl first?"
"The minarets! Oh, what beauty! What a gorgeous city!"
"Boy is better, Mariam jan, they carry the family name – "
"Bah! Boys get married and run off. Girls stay behind and take care of you when you’re old."