The man sitting on the other side of the desk in the interview room was in his thirties and wore civilian clothes - black suit, tie, black loafers. He had a neatly trimmed beard, short hair, and eyebrows that met. He stared at Laila, bouncing a pencil by the eraser end on the desk.
"We know," he began, clearing his throat and politely covering his mouth with a fist, "that you have already told one lie today, hamshira. The young man at the station was not your cousin. He told us as much himself. The question is whether you will tell more lies today. Personally, I advise you against it."
"We were going to stay with my uncle," Laila said.
"That's the truth."
The policeman nodded. "The hamshira in the corridor, she's your mother?"
"She has a Herati accent. You don't."
"She was raised in Herat, I was born here in Kabul."
"Of course. And you are widowed? You said you were. My condolences. And this uncle, this kaka, where does he live?"
"Yes, you said that." He licked the point of his pencil and poised it over a blank sheet of paper. "But where in Peshawar? Which neighborhood, please? Street name, sector number."
Laila tried to push back the bubble of panic that was coming up her chest. She gave him the name of the only street she knew in Peshawar - she'd heard it mentioned once, at the party Mammy had thrown when the Mujahideen had first come to Kabul - "Jamrud Road."
"Oh, yes. Same street as the Pearl Continental Hotel. He might have mentioned it."
Laila seized this opportunity and said he had. "That very same street, yes."
"Except the hotel is on Khyber Road."
Laila could hear Aziza crying in the corridor. "My daughter's frightened. May I get her, brother?"
"I prefer 'Officer.' And you'll be with her shortly. Do you have a telephone number for this uncle?"
"I do. I did. I . . ." Even with the burqa between them, Laila was not buffered from his penetrating eyes. "I'm so upset, I seem to have forgotten it."
He sighed through his nose. He asked for the uncle's name, his wife's name. How many children did he have? What were their names? Where did he work? How old was he? His questions left Laila flustered.
He put down his pencil, laced his fingers together, and leaned forward the way parents do when they want to convey something to a toddler. "You do realize, hamshira, that it is a crime for a woman to run away. We see a lot of it. Women traveling alone, claiming their husbands have died. Sometimes they're telling the truth, most times not. You can be imprisoned for running away, I assume you understand that, nay?"
"Let us go, Officer . . ." She read the name on his lapel tag. "Officer Rahman. Honor the meaning of your name and show compassion. What does it matter to you to let a mere two women go? What's the harm in releasing us? We are not criminals."
"I beg you, please."
"It's a matter of qanoon, hamshira, a matter of law,"
Rahman said, injecting his voice with a grave, self-important tone. "It is my responsibility, you see, to maintain order."
In spite of her distraught state, Laila almost laughed.
She was stunned that he'd used that word in the face of all that the Mujahideen factions had done - the murders, the lootings, the rapes, the tortures, the executions, the bombings, the tens of thousands of rockets they had fired at each other, heedless of all the innocent people who would die in the cross fire. Order. But she bit her tongue.
"If you send us back," she said instead, slowly, "there is no saying what he will do to us."
She could see the effort it took him to keep his eyes from shifting. "What a man does in his home is his business."
"What about the law, then, Officer Rahman?" Tears of rage stung her eyes. "Will you be there to maintain order?"
"As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with private family matters, hamshira."
"Of course you don't. When it benefits the man. And isn't this a 'private family matter,' as you say? Isn't it?"
He pushed back from his desk and stood up, straightened his jacket. "I believe this interview is finished. I must say, hamshira, that you have made a very poor case for yourself. Very poor indeed. Now, if you would wait outside I will have a few words with your . . . whoever she is."
Laila began to protest, then to yell, and he had to summon the help of two more men to have her dragged out of his office.
Mariam's interview lasted only a few minutes. When she came out, she looked shaken.
"He asked so many questions," she said. "I'm sorry, Laila jo. I am not smart like you. He asked so many questions, I didn't know the answers. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault, Mariam," Laila said weakly. "It's mine. It's all my fault. Everything is my fault."
* * *
IT WAS PAST six o'clock when the police car pulled up in front of the house. Laila and Mariam were made to wait in the backseat, guarded by a Mujahid soldier in the passenger seat. The driver was the one who got out of the car, who knocked on the door, who spoke to Rasheed. It was he who motioned for them to come.
"Welcome home," the man in the front seat said, lighting a cigarette.
"YOU," he said to Mariam. "You wait here."
Mariam quietly took a seat on the couch.
"You two, upstairs."
Rasheed grabbed Laila by the elbow and pushed her up the steps. He was still wearing the shoes he wore to work, hadn't yet changed to his flip-flops, taken off his watch, hadn't even shed his coat yet. Laila pictured him as he must have been an hour, or maybe minutes, earlier, rushing from one room to another, slamming doors, furious and incredulous, cursing under his breath.
At the top of the stairs, Laila turned to him.
"She didn't want to do it," she said. "I made her do it. She didn't want to go - "
Laila didn't see the punch coming. One moment she was talking and the next she was on all fours, wide-eyed and red-faced, trying to draw a breath. It was as if a car had hit her at full speed, in the tender place between the lower tip of the breastbone and the belly button. She realized she had dropped Aziza, that Aziza was screaming. She tried to breathe again and could only make a husky, choking sound. Dribble hung from her mouth.
Then she was being dragged by the hair. She saw Aziza lifted, saw her sandals slip off, her tiny feet kicking. Hair was ripped from Laila's scalp, and her eyes watered with pain. She saw his foot kick open the door to Mariam's room, saw Aziza flung onto the bed. He let go of Laila's hair, and she felt the toe of his shoe connect with her left buttock. She howled with pain as he slammed the door shut. A key rattled in the lock.
Aziza was still screaming. Laila lay curled up on the floor, gasping. She pushed herself up on her hands, crawled to where Aziza lay on the bed. She reached for her daughter.
Downstairs, the beating began. To Laila, the sounds she heard were those of a methodical, familiar proceeding. There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten, the thump, thump of something solid repeatedly striking flesh, something, someone, hitting a wall with a thud, cloth ripping. Now and then, Laila heard running footsteps, a wordless chase, furniture turning over, glass shattering, then the thumping once more.
Laila took Aziza in her arms. A warmth spread down the front of her dress when Aziza's bladder let go.
Downstairs, the running and chasing finally stopped.
There was a sound now like a wooden club repeatedly slapping a side of beef.
Laila rocked Aziza until the sounds stopped, and, when she heard the screen door creak open and slam shut, she lowered Aziza to the ground and peeked out the window. She saw Rasheed leading Mariam across the yard by the nape of her neck. Mariam was barefoot and doubled over. There was blood on his hands, blood on Mariam's face, her hair, down her neck and back. Her shirt had been ripped down the front.
"I'm so sorry, Mariam," Laila cried into the glass.
She watched him shove Mariam into the toolshed. He went in, came out with a hammer and several long planks of wood. He shut the double doors to the shed, took a key from his pocket, worked the padlock. He tested the doors, then went around the back of the shed and fetched a ladder.
A few minutes later, his face was in Laila's window, nails tucked in the corner of his mouth. His hair was disheveled. There was a swath of blood on his brow. At the sight of him, Aziza shrieked and buried her face in Laila's armpit.
Rasheed began nailing boards across the window.
THE DARK WAS TOTAL, impenetrable and constant, without layer or texture. Rasheed had filled the cracks between the boards with something, put a large and immovable object at the foot of the door so no light came from under it. Something had been stuffed in the keyhole.
Laila found it impossible to tell the passage of time with her eyes, so she did it with her good ear. Azan and crowing roosters signaled morning. The sounds of plates clanking in the kitchen downstairs, the radio playing, meant evening.
The first day, they groped and fumbled for each other in the dark. Laila couldn't see Aziza when she cried, when she went crawling.
"Aishee," Aziza mewled. "Aishee."
"Soon." Laila kissed her daughter, aiming for the forehead, finding the crown of her head instead. "We'll have milk soon. You just be patient. Be a good, patient little girl for Mammy, and I'll get you some aishee."
Laila sang her a few songs.
Azan rang out a second time and still Rasheed had not given them any food, and, worse, no water. That day, a thick, suffocating heat fell on them. The room turned into a pressure cooker. Laila dragged a dry tongue over her lips, thinking of the well outside, the water cold and fresh. Aziza kept crying, and Laila noticed with alarm that when she wiped her cheeks her hands came back dry. She stripped the clothes off Aziza, tried to find something to fan her with, settled for blowing on her until she became light-headed. Soon, Aziza stopped crawling around. She slipped in and out of sleep.
Several times that day, Laila banged her fists against the walls, used up her energy screaming for help, hoping that a neighbor would hear. But no one came, and her shrieking only frightened Aziza, who began to cry again, a weak, croaking sound. Laila slid to the ground. She thought guiltily of Mariam, beaten and bloodied, locked in this heat in the toolshed.
Laila fell asleep at some point, her body baking in the heat. She had a dream that she and Aziza had run into Tariq. He was across a crowded street from them, beneath the awning of a tailor's shop. He was sitting on his haunches and sampling from a crate of figs. That's your father, Laila said. That man there, you see him? He's your real baba. She called his name, but the street noise drowned her voice, and Tariq didn't hear.
She woke up to the whistling of rockets streaking overhead. Somewhere, the sky she couldn't see erupted with blasts and the long, frantic hammering of machine-gun fire. Laila closed her eyes. She woke again to Rasheed's heavy footsteps in the hallway. She dragged herself to the door, slapped her palms against it.
"Just one glass, Rasheed. Not for me. Do it for her. You don't want her blood on your hands."
He walked past.
She began to plead with him. She begged for forgiveness, made promises. She cursed him.
His door closed. The radio came on.
The muezzin called azan a third time. Again the heat. Aziza became even more listless. She stopped crying, stopped moving altogether.
Laila put her ear over Aziza's mouth, dreading each time that she would not hear the shallow whooshing of breath. Even this simple act of lifting herself made her head swim. She fell asleep, had dreams she could not remember. When she woke up, she checked on Aziza, felt the parched cracks of her lips, the faint pulse at her neck, lay down again. They would die here, of that Laila was sure now, but what she really dreaded was that she would outlast Aziza, who was young and brittle. How much more could Aziza take? Aziza would die in this heat, and Laila would have to lie beside her stiffening little body and wait for her own death. Again she fell asleep. Woke up. Fell asleep. The line between dream and wakefulness blurred.