Laila passed that winter of 1992 sweeping the house, scrubbing the pumpkin-colored walls of the bedroom she shared with Rasheed, washing clothes outside in a big copper lagaan. Sometimes she saw herself as if hovering above her own body, saw herself squatting over the rim of the lagaan, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, pink hands wringing soapy water from one of Rasheed's undershirts. She felt lost then, casting about, like a shipwreck survivor, no shore in sight, only miles and miles of water.
When it was too cold to go outside, Laila ambled around the house. She walked, dragging a fingernail along the wall, down the hallway, then back, down the steps, then up, her face unwashed, hair uncombed. She walked until she ran into Mariam, who shot her a cheerless glance and went back to slicing the stem off a bell pepper and trimming strips of fat from meat. A hurtful silence would fill the room, and Laila could almost see the wordless hostility radiating from Mariam like waves of heat rising from asphalt. She would retreat back to her room, sit on the bed, and watch the snow falling.
RASHEED TOOK HER to his shoe shop one day.
When they were out together, he walked alongside her, one hand gripping her by the elbow. For Laila, being out in the streets had become an exercise in avoiding injury. Her eyes were still adjusting to the limited, gridlike visibility of the burqa, her feet still stumbling over the hem. She walked in perpetual fear of tripping and falling, of breaking an ankle stepping into a pothole. Still, she found some comfort in the anonymity that the burqa provided. She wouldn't be recognized this way if she ran into an old acquaintance of hers. She wouldn't have to watch the surprise in their eyes, or the pity or the glee, at how far she had fallen, at how her lofty aspirations had been dashed.
Rasheed's shop was bigger and more brightly lit than Laila had imagined. He had her sit behind his crowded workbench, the top of which was littered with old soles and scraps of leftover leather. He showed her his hammers, demonstrated how the sandpaper wheel worked, his voice ringing high and proud.
He felt her belly, not through the shirt but under it, his fingertips cold and rough like bark on her distended skin. Laila remembered Tariq's hands, soft but strong, the tortuous, full veins on the backs of them, which she had always found so appealingly masculine.
"Swelling so quickly," Rasheed said. "It's going to be a big boy. My son will be a pahlawan! Like his father."
Laila pulled down her shirt. It filled her with fear when he spoke like this.
"How are things with Mariam?"
She said they were fine.
She didn't tell him that they'd had their first true fight.
It had happened a few days earlier. Laila had gone to the kitchen and found Mariam yanking drawers and slamming them shut. She was looking, Mariam said, for the long wooden spoon she used to stir rice.
"Where did you put it?" she said, wheeling around to face Laila.
"Me?" Laila said. "I didn't take it. I hardly come in here."
"Is that an accusation? It's how you wanted it, remember. You said you would make the meals. But if you want to switch - "
"So you're saying it grew little legs and walked out. Teep, teep, teep, teep. Is that what happened, degeh?"
"I'm saying . . ." Laila said, trying to maintain control. Usually, she could will herself to absorb Mariam's derision and finger-pointing. But her ankles had swollen, her head hurt, and the heartburn was vicious that day. "I am saying that maybe you've misplaced it."
"Misplaced it?" Mariam pulled a drawer. The spatulas and knives inside it clanked. "How long have you been here, a few months? I've lived in this house for nineteen years, dokhtar jo. I have kept that spoon in this drawer since you were shitting your diapers."
"Still," Laila said, on the brink now, teeth clenched, "it's possible you put it somewhere and forgot."
"And it's possible you hid it somewhere, to aggravate me."
"You're a sad, miserable woman," Laila said.
Mariam flinched, then recovered, pursed her lips. "And you're a whore. A whore and a dozd. A thieving whore, that's what you are!"
Then there was shouting. Pots raised though not hurled. They'd called each other names, names that made Laila blush now. They hadn't spoken since. Laila was still shocked at how easily she'd come unhinged, but, the truth was, part of her had liked it, had liked how it felt to scream at Mariam, to curse at her, to have a target at which to focus all her simmering anger, her grief.
Laila wondered, with something like insight, if it wasn't the same for Mariam.
After, she had run upstairs and thrown herself on Rasheed's bed. Downstairs, Mariam was still yelling, "Dirt on your head! Dirt on your head!" Laila had lain on the bed, groaning into the pillow, missing her parents suddenly and with an overpowering intensity she hadn't felt since those terrible days just after the attack. She lay there, clutching handfuls of the bedsheet, until, suddenly, her breath caught. She sat up, hands shooting down to her belly.
The baby had just kicked for the first time.
Early one morning the next spring, of 1993, Mariam stood by the living-room window and watched Rasheed escort the girl out of the house. The girl was tottering forward, bent at the waist, one arm draped protectively across the taut drum of her belly, the shape of which was visible through her burqa. Rasheed, anxious and overly attentive, was holding her elbow, directing her across the yard like a traffic policeman. He made a Wait here gesture, rushed to the front gate, then motioned for the girl to come forward, one foot propping the gate open. When she reached him, he took her by the hand, helped her through the gate. Mariam could almost hear him say, "Watch your step, now, my flower, my gul."
They came back early the next evening.
Mariam saw Rasheed enter the yard first. He let the gate go prematurely, and it almost hit the girl on the face. He crossed the yard in a few, quick steps. Mariam detected a shadow on his face, a darkness underlying the coppery light of dusk. In the house, he took off his coat, threw it on the couch. Brushing past Mariam, he said in a brusque voice, "I'm hungry. Get supper ready."
The front door to the house opened. From the hallway, Mariam saw the girl, a swaddled bundle in the hook of her left arm. She had one foot outside, the other inside, against the door, to prevent it from springing shut. She was stooped over and was grunting, trying to reach for the paper bag of belongings that she had put down in order to open the door. Her face was grimacing with effort. She looked up and saw Mariam.
Mariam turned around and went to the kitchen to warm Rasheed's meal.
"IT'S LIKE SOMEONE is ramming a screwdriver into my ear," Rasheed said, rubbing his eyes. He was standing in Mariam's door, puffy-eyed, wearing only a tumban tied with a floppy knot. His white hair was straggly, pointing every which way. "This crying. I can't stand it."
Downstairs, the girl was walking the baby across the floor, trying to sing to her.
"I haven't had a decent night's sleep in two months," Rasheed said. "And the room smells like a sewer. There's shit cloths lying all over the place. I stepped on one just the other night."
Mariam smirked inwardly with perverse pleasure.
"Take her outside!" Rasheed yelled over his shoulder.
"Can't you take her outside?"
The singing was suspended briefly. "She'll catch pneumonia!"
Rasheed clenched his teeth and raised his voice. "I said, It's warm out!"
"I'm not taking her outside!"
The singing resumed.
"Sometimes, I swear, sometimes I want to put that thing in a box and let her float down Kabul River. Like baby Moses."
Mariam never heard him call his daughter by the name the girl had given her, Aziza, the Cherished One. It was always the baby, or, when he was really exasperated, that thing.
Some nights, Mariam overheard them arguing. She tiptoed to their door, listened to him complain about the baby - always the baby - the insistent crying, the smells, the toys that made him trip, the way the baby had hijacked Laila's attentions from him with constant demands to be fed, burped, changed, walked, held. The girl, in turn, scolded him for smoking in the room, for not letting the baby sleep with them.
There were other arguments waged in voices pitched low.
"The doctor said six weeks."
"Not yet, Rasheed. No. Let go. Come on. Don't do that."
"It's been two months."
"Ssht. There. You woke up the baby." Then more sharply, "Khosh shodi? Happy now?"
Mariam would sneak back to her room.
"Can't you help?" Rasheed said now. "There must be something you can do."
"What do I know about babies?" Mariam said.
"Rasheed! Can you bring the bottle? It's sitting on the almari. She won't feed. I want to try the bottle again."
The baby's screeching rose and fell like a cleaver on meat.
Rasheed closed his eyes. "That thing is a warlord. Hekmatyar. I'm telling you, Laila's given birth to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar."
* * *
MARIAM WATCHED AS the girl's days became consumed with cycles of feeding, rocking, bouncing, walking. Even when the baby napped, there were soiled diapers to scrub and leave to soak in a pail of the disinfectant that the girl had insisted Rasheed buy for her. There were fingernails to trim with sandpaper, coveralls and pajamas to wash and hang to dry. These clothes, like other things about the baby, became a point of contention.
"What's the matter with them?" Rasheed said.
"They're boys' clothes. For a bacha."
"You think she knows the difference? I paid good money for those clothes. And another thing, I don't care for that tone. Consider that a warning."
Every week, without fail, the girl heated a black metal brazier over a flame, tossed a pinch of wild rue seeds in it, and wafted the espandi smoke in her baby's direction to ward off evil.
Mariam found it exhausting to watch the girl's lolloping enthusiasm - and had to admit, if only privately, to a degree of admiration. She marveled at how the girl's eyes shone with worship, even in the mornings when her face drooped and her complexion was waxy from a night's worth of walking the baby. The girl had fits of laughter when the baby passed gas. The tiniest changes in the baby enchanted her, and everything it did was declared spectacular.
"Look! She's reaching for the rattle. How clever she is."
"I'll call the newspapers," said Rasheed.
Every night, there were demonstrations. When the girl insisted he witness something, Rasheed tipped his chin upward and cast an impatient, sidelong glance down the blue-veined hook of his nose.
"Watch. Watch how she laughs when I snap my fingers. There. See? Did you see?"
Rasheed would grunt, and go back to his plate. Mariam remembered how the girl's mere presence used to overwhelm him. Everything she said used to please him, intrigue him, make him look up from his plate and nod with approval.
The strange thing was, the girl's fall from grace ought to have pleased Mariam, brought her a sense of vindication. But it didn't. It didn't. To her own surprise, Mariam found herself pitying the girl.
It was also over dinner that the girl let loose a steady stream of worries. Topping the list was pneumonia, which was suspected with every minor cough. Then there was dysentery, the specter of which was raised with every loose stool. Every rash was either chicken pox or measles.
"You should not get so attached," Rasheed said one night.
"What do you mean?"
"I was listening to the radio the other night. Voice of America. I heard an interesting statistic. They said that in Afghanistan one out of four children will die before the age of five. That's what they said. Now, they - What? What? Where are you going? Come back here. Get back here this instant!"