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* * *
Three times that night, Mariam was awakened from sleep. The first
time, it was the rumble of rockets in the west, coming from the direction
of Karteh-Char. The second time, it was the baby crying downstairs, the
girl's shushing, the clatter of spoon against milk bottle. Finally, it was
thirst that pulled her out of bed.
Downstairs, the living room was dark, save for a bar of moonlight
spilling through the window. Mariam could hear the buzzing of a fly
somewhere, could make out the outline of the cast-iron stove in the
corner, its pipe jutting up, then making a sharp angle just below the
On her way to the kitchen, Mariam nearly tripped over something.
There was a shape at her feet. When her eyes adjusted, she made out
the girl and her baby lying on the floor on top of a quilt.
The girl was sleeping on her side, snoring. The baby was awake.
Mariam lit the kerosene lamp on the table and hunkered down. In the
light, she had her first real close-up look at the baby, the tuft of dark
hair, the thick-lashed hazel eyes, the pink cheeks, and lips the color of
Mariam had the impression that the baby too was examining her. She
was lying on her back, her head tilted sideways, looking at Mariam
intently with a mixture of amusement, confusion, and suspicion. Mariam
wondered if her face might frighten her, but then the baby squealed
happily and Mariam knew that a favorable judgment had been passed on
"Shh, "Mariam whispered "You'll wake up your mother, half deaf as she
The baby's hand balled into a fist. It rose, fell, found a spastic path to
her mouth. Around a mouthful of her own hand, the baby gave Mariam a
grin, little bubbles of spittle shining on her lips.
"Look at you. What a sorry sight you are, dressed like a damn boy. And
all bundled up in this heat. No wonder you're still awake."
Mariam pulled the blanket off the baby, was horrified to find a second
one beneath, clucked her tongue, and pulled that one off too. The baby
giggled with relief. She flapped her arms like a bird.
As Mariam was pulling back, the baby grabbed her pinkie. The tiny
fingers curled themselves tightly around it. They felt warm and soft,
moist with drool.
"Gunuh," the baby said.
"All right, Ms; let go."
The baby hung on, kicked her legs again.
Mariam pulled her finger free. The baby smiled and made a series of
gurgling sounds. The knuckles went back to the mouth.
"What are you so happy about? Huh? What are you smiling at? You're
not so clever as your mother says. You have a brute for a father and a
fool for a mother. You wouldn't smile so much if you knew. No you
wouldn't. Go to sleep, now. Go on."
Mariam rose to her feet and walked a few steps before the baby started
making the eh, eh, eh sounds that Mariam knew signaled the onset of a
hearty cry. She retraced her steps.
"What is it? What do you want fromme?"
The baby grinned toothlessly.
Mariam sighed. She sat down and let her finger be grabbed, looked on
as the baby squeaked, as she flexed her plump legs at the hips and
kicked air. Mariam sat there, watching, until the baby stopped moving
and began snoring softly.
Outside, mockingbirds were singing blithely, and, once in a while, when
the songsters took flight, Mariam could see their wings catching the
phosphorescent blue of moonlight beaming through the clouds. And
though her throat was parched with thirst and her feet burned with pins
and needles, it was a long time before Mariam gently freed her finger
from the baby's grip and got up.
Of all earthly pleasures, Laila's favorite was lying next to Aziza, her
baby's face so close that she could watch her big pupils dilate and shrink.
Laila loved running her finger over Aziza's pleasing, soft skin, over the
dimpled knuckles, the folds of fat at her elbows. Sometimes she lay
Aziza down on her chest and whispered into the soft crown of her head
things about Tariq, the father who would always be a stranger to Aziza,
whose face Aziza would never know. Laila told her of his aptitude for
solving riddles, his trickery and mischief, his easy laugh.
"He had the prettiest lashes, thick like yours. A good chin, a fine nose,
and a round forehead. Oh, your father was handsome, Aziza. He was
perfect. Perfect, like you are."
But she was careful never to mention him by name.
Sometimes she caught Rasheed looking at Aziza in the most peculiar
way. The other night, sitting on the bedroom floor, where he was shaving
a corn from his foot, he said quite casually, "So what was it like between
Laila had given him a puzzled look, as though she didn't understand.
"Laili and Majnoon. You and theyakknga, the cripple. What was it you
had, he and you?"
"He was my friend," she said, careful that her voice not shift too much
in key. She busied herself making a bottle. "You know that."
"I don't know what I know." Rasheed deposited the shavings on the
windowsill and dropped onto the bed. The springs protested with a loud
creak. He splayed his legs, picked at his crotch. "And as… .friends, did
the two of you ever do anything out of order?"
"Out of order?"
Rasheed smiled lightheartedly, but Laila could feel his gaze, cold and
watchful. "Let me see, now. Well, did he ever give you a kiss? Maybe
hand where it didn't belong?"
Laila winced with, she hoped, an indignant air. She could feel her heart
drumming in her throat. "He was like a brother to me."
"So he was a friend or a brother?"
"Which was it?"
"He was like both."
"But brothers and sisters are creatures of curiosity. Yes. Sometimes a
brother lets his sister see his pecker, and a sister will-"
"You sicken me," Laila said.
"So there was nothing."
"I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Rasheed tilted his head, pursed his lips, nodded. "People gossiped, you
know. I remember. They said all sorts of things about you two. But
you're saying there was nothing."
She willed herself to glare at him.
He held her eyes for an excruciatingly long time in an unblinking way
that made her knuckles go pale around the milk bottle, and it took all
that Laila could muster to not falter.
She shuddered at what he would do if he found out that she had been
stealing from him. Every week, since Aziza's birth, she pried his wallet
open when he was asleep or in the outhouse and took a single bill.
Some weeks, if the wallet was light, she took only a five-afghani bill, or
nothing at all, for fear that he would notice. When the wallet was plump,
she helped herself to a ten or a twenty, once even risking two twenties.
She hid the money in a pouch she'd sewn in the lining of her checkered
She wondered what he would do if he knew that she was planning to
run away next spring. Next summer at the latest. Laila hoped to have a
thousand afghanis or more stowed away, half of which would go to the
bus fare from Kabul to Peshawar. She would pawn her wedding ring
when the time drew close, as well as the other jewelry that Rasheed had
given her the year before when she was still the malika of his palace.
"Anyway," he said at last, fingers drumming his belly, "I can't be
blamed. I am a husband. These are the things a husband wonders. But
he's lucky he died the way he did. Because if he was here now, if I got
my hands on him…" He sucked through his teeth and shook his head.
"What happened to not speaking ill of the dead?"
"I guess some people can't be dead enough," he said.
* * *
Two days later, Laila woke up in the morning and found a stack of baby
clothes, neatly folded, outside her bedroom door. There was a twirl dress
with little pink fishes sewn around the bodice, a blue floral wool dress
with matching socks and mittens, yellow pajamas with carrot-colored
polka dots, and green cotton pants with a dotted ruffle on the cuff.
"There is a rumor," Rasheed said over dinner that night, smacking his
lips, taking no notice of Aziza or the pajamas Laila had put on her, "that
Dostum is going to change sides and join Hekmatyar. Massoud will have
his hands full then, fighting those two. And we mustn't forget the
Hazaras." He took a pinch of the pickled eggplant Mariam had made that
summer. "Let's hope it's just that, a rumor. Because if that happens, this
war," he waved one greasy hand, "will seem like a Friday picnic at
Later, he mounted her and relieved himself with wordless haste, fully
dressed save for his tumban, not removed but pulled down to the ankles.
When the frantic rocking was over, he rolled off her and was asleep in
Laila slipped out of the bedroom and found Mariam in the kitchen
squatting, cleaning a pair of trout. A pot of rice was already soaking
beside her. The kitchen smelled like cumin and smoke, browned onions
Laila sat in a comer and draped her knees with the hem of her dress.
"Thank you," she said.
Mariam took no notice of her. She finished cutting up the first trout and
picked up the second. With a serrated knife, she clipped the fins, then
turned the fish over, its underbelly facing her, and sliced it expertly from
the tail to the gills. Laila watched her put her thumb into its mouth, just
over the lower jaw, push it in, and, in one downward stroke, remove the
gills and the entrails.
"The clothes are lovely."
"I had no use for them," Mariam muttered. She dropped the fish on a
newspaper smudged with slimy, gray juice and sliced off its head. "It was
either your daughter or the moths."
"Where did you learn to clean fish like that?"
"When I was a little girl, I lived by a stream. I used to catch my own
"I've never fished"
"Not much to it. It's mostly waiting."
Laila watched her cut the gutted trout into thirds. "Did you sew the
Mariam rinsed sections offish in a bowl of water. "When I was
pregnant the first time. Or maybe the second time. Eighteen, nineteen
years ago. Long time, anyhow. Like I said, I never had any use for
"You're a really good khayai. Maybe you can teach me."
Mariam placed the rinsed chunks of trout into a clean bowl. Drops of
water dripping from her fingertips, she raised her head and looked at
Laila, looked at her as if for the first time.
"The other night, when he…Nobody's ever stood up for me before," she
Laila examined Mariam's drooping cheeks, the eyelids that sagged in
tired folds, the deep lines that framed her mouth-she saw these things as
though she too were looking at someone for the first time. And, for the
first time, it was not an adversary's face Laila saw but a face of
grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to
and endured. If she stayed, would this be her own face, Laila wondered,
twenty years from now?
"I couldn't let him," Laila said "I wasn't raised in a household where
people did things like that."
"This is your household now. You ought to get used to it."
"Not to/to I won't."
"He'll turn on you too, you know," Mariam said, wiping her hands dry
with a rag. "Soon enough. And you gave him a daughter. So, you see,
your sin is even less forgivable than mine."
Laila rose to her feet. "I know it's chilly outside, but what do you say
we sinners have us a cup of chai in the yard?"
Mariam looked surprised "I can't. I still have to cut and wash the
"I'll help you do it in the morning."
"And I have to clean up here."
"We'll do it together. If I'm not mistaken, there's some halwa left over.
Awfully good with chat."
Mariam put the rag on the counter. Laila sensed anxiety in the way she
tugged at her sleeves, adjusted her hijab, pushed back a curl of hair.
"The Chinese say it's better to be deprived of food for three days than
tea for one."
Mariam gave a half smile. "It's a good saying."
"But I can't stay long."
They sat on folding chairs outside and ate halwa with their fingers from
a common bowl. They had a second cup, and when Laila asked her if she
wanted a third Mariam said she did. As gunfire cracked in the hills, they
watched the clouds slide over the moon and the last of the season's
fireflies charting bright yellow arcs in the dark. And when Aziza woke up
crying and Rasheed yelled for Laila to come up and shut her up, a look
passed between Laila and Mariam. An unguarded, knowing look. And in
this fleeting, wordless exchange with Mariam, Laila knew that they were
not enemies any longer.
Jr rom that night on, Mariam and Laila did their chores together. They
sat in the kitchen and rolled dough, chopped green onions, minced garlic,
offered bits of cucumber to Aziza, who banged spoons nearby and played
with carrots. In the yard, Aziza lay in a wicker bassinet, dressed in layers
of clothing, a winter muffler wrapped snugly around her neck. Mariam
and Laila kept a watchful eye on her as they did the wash, Mariam's
knuckles bumping Laila's as they scrubbed shirts and trousers and
Mariam slowly grew accustomed to this tentative but pleasant
companionship. She was eager for the three cups of chai she and Laila
would share in the yard, a nightly ritual now. In the mornings, Mariam
found herself looking forward to the sound of Laila's cracked slippers
slapping the steps as she came down for breakfast and to the tinkle of
Aziza's shrill laugh, to the sight of her eight little teeth, the milky scent of
her skin. If Laila and Aziza slept in, Mariam became anxious waiting. She
washed dishes that didn't need washing. She rearranged cushions in the
living room. She dusted clean windowsills. She kept herself occupied
until Laila entered the kitchen, Aziza hoisted on her hip.
When Aziza first spotted Mariam in the morning, her eyes always
sprang open, and she began mewling and squirming in her mother's grip.
She thrust her arms toward Mariam, demanding to be held, her tiny
hands opening and closing urgently, on her face a look of both adoration
and quivering anxiety.
"What a scene you're making," Laila would say, releasing her to crawl
toward Mariam. "What a scene! Calm down. Khala Mariam isn't going
anywhere. There she is, your aunt. See? Go on, now."
As soon as she was in Mariam's arms, Aziza's thumb shot into her mouth
and she buried her face in Mariam's neck.
Mariam bounced her stiffly, a half-bewildered, half-grateful smile on
her lips. Mariam had never before been wanted like this. Love had never
been declared to her so guilelessly, so unreservedly.
Aziza made Mariam want to weep.
"Why have you pinned your little heart to an old, ugly hag like me?"
Mariam would murmur into Aziza's hair. "Huh? I am nobody, don't you
see? A dehatl What have I got to give you?"
But Aziza only muttered contentedly and dug her face in deeper. And
when she did that, Mariam swooned. Her eyes watered. Her heart took
flight. And she marveled at how, after all these years of rattling loose,
she had found in this little creature the first true connection in her life of
false, failed connections.
* * *
Early the following yeah, in January 1994, Dostum did switch sides. He
joined Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and took up position near Bala Hissar, the
old citadel walls that loomed over the city from the Koh-e-Shirdawaza
mountains. Together, they fired on Massoud and Rabbani forces at the
Ministry of Defense and the Presidential Palace. From either side of the
Kabul River, they released rounds of artillery at each other. The streets
became littered with bodies, glass, and crumpled chunks of metal. There
was looting, murder, and, increasingly, rape, which was used to
intimidate civilians and reward militiamen. Mariam heard of women who
were killing themselves out of fear of being raped, and of men who, in
the name of honor, would kill their wives or daughters if they'd been
raped by the militia.
Aziza shrieked at the thumping of mortars. To distract her, Mariam
arranged grains of rice on the floor, in the shape of a house or a rooster
or a star, and let Aziza scatter them. She drew elephants for Aziza the
way Jalil had shown her, in one stroke, without ever lifting the tip of the
Rasheed said civilians were getting killed daily, by the dozens.
Hospitals and stores holding medical supplies were getting shelled.
Vehicles carrying emergency food supplies were being barred from
entering the city, he said, raided, shot at. Mariam wondered if there was
fighting like this in Herat too, and, if so, how Mullah Faizullah was
coping, if he was still alive, and Bibijo too, with all her sons, brides, and
grandchildren. And, of course, Jalil. Was
he hiding out, Mariam wondered, as she was? Or had he taken his wives
and children and fled the country? She hoped Jalil was somewhere safe,
that he'd managed to get away from all of this killing.
For a week, the fighting forced even Rasheed to stay home. He locked
the door to the yard, set booby traps, locked the front door too and
barricaded it with the couch. He paced the house, smoking, peering out
the window, cleaning his gun, loading and loading it again. Twice, he
fired his weapon into the street claiming he'd seen someone trying to
climb the wall.
"They're forcing young boys to join," he said. "TheMujahideenare. In
plain daylight, at gunpoint. They drag boys right off the streets. And
when soldiers from a rival militia capture these boys, they torture them.
I heard they electrocute them-it's what I heard-that they crush their balls
with pliers. They make the boys lead them to their homes. Then they
break in, kill their fathers, rape their sisters and mothers."
He waved his gun over his head. "Let's see them try to break into my
house. I'll crush their balls! I'll blow their heads off! Do you know how
lucky you two are to have a man who's not afraid of Shaitan himself?"
He looked down at the ground, noticed Aziza at his feet. "Get off my
heels!" he snapped, making a shooing motion with his gun. "Stop
following me! And you can stop twirling your wrists like that. I'm not
picking you up. Go on! Go on before you get stepped on."
Aziza flinched. She crawled back to Mariam, looking bruised and
confused. In Mariam's lap, she sucked her thumb cheerlessly and
watched Rasheed in a sullen, pensive way. Occasionally, she looked up,
Mariam imagined, with a look of wanting to be reassured.
But when it came to fathers, Mariam had no assurances to give.
* * *
Maeiam was relieved when the fighting subsided again, mostly because
they no longer had to be cooped up with Rasheed, with his sour temper
infecting the household. And he'd frightened her badly waving that
loaded gun near Aziza.
One day that winter, Laila asked to braid Mariam's hair.
Mariam sat still and watched Laila's slim fingers in the mirror tighten
her plaits, Laila's face scrunched in concentration. Aziza was curled up
asleep on the floor. Tucked under her arm was a doll Mariam had
hand-stitched for her. Mariam had stuffed it with beans, made it a dress
with tea-dyed fabric and a necklace with tiny empty thread spools
through which she'd threaded a string.
Then Aziza passed gas in her sleep. Laila began to laugh, and Mariam
joined in. They laughed like this, at each other's reflection in the mirror,
their eyes tearing, and the moment was so natural, so effortless, that
suddenly Mariam started telling her about Jalil, and Nana, and the jinn.
Laila stood with her hands idle on Mariam's shoulders, eyes locked on
Mariam's face in the mirror. Out the words came, like blood gushing from
an artery. Mariam told her about Bibi jo, Mullah Faizullah, the humiliating
trek to Jalil's house, Nana's suicide. She told about Jalil's wives, and the
hurried nikka with Rasheed, the trip to Kabul, her pregnancies, the
endless cycles of hope and disappointment, Rasheed's turning on her.
After, Laila sat at the foot of Mariam's chair. Absently, she removed a
scrap of lint entangled in Aziza's hair. A silence ensued.
"I have something to tell you too," Laila said.
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