At one point, Khala Rangmaal looked up and caught her gaze, but Laila saw no lingering, no light of recognition, in her old teacher's eyes.
"THEY'RE FRACTURES along the earth's crust," said Aziza. "They're called faults."
It was a warm afternoon, a Friday, in June of 2001. They were sitting in the orphanage's back lot, the four of them, Laila, Zalmai, Mariam, and Aziza. Rasheed had relented this time - as he infrequently did - and accompanied the four of them. He was waiting down the street, by the bus stop.
Barefoot kids scampered about around them. A flat soccer ball was kicked around, chased after listlessly.
"And, on either side of the faults, there are these sheets of rock that make up the earth's crust," Aziza was saying.
Someone had pulled the hair back from Aziza's face, braided it, and pinned it neatly on top of her head. Laila begrudged whoever had gotten to sit behind her daughter, to flip sections of her hair one over the other, had asked her to sit still.
Aziza was demonstrating by opening her hands, palms up, and rubbing them against each other. Zalmai watched this with intense interest.
"Kectonic plates, they're called?"
"Tectonic," Laila said. It hurt to talk. Her jaw was still sore, her back and neck ached. Her lip was swollen, and her tongue kept poking the empty pocket of the lower incisor Rasheed had knocked loose two days before. Before Mammy and Babi had died and her life turned upside down, Laila never would have believed that a human body could withstand this much beating, this viciously, this regularly, and keep functioning.
"Right. And when they slide past each other, they catch and slip - see, Mammy? - and it releases energy, which travels to the earth's surface and makes it shake."
"You're getting so smart," Mariam said. "So much smarter than your dumb khala."
Aziza's face glowed, broadened. "You're not dumb, Khala Mariam. And Kaka Zaman says that, sometimes, the shifting of rocks is deep, deep below, and it's powerful and scary down there, but all we feel on the surface is a slight tremor. Only a slight tremor."
The visit before this one, it was oxygen atoms in the atmosphere scattering the blue light from the sun. If the earth had no atmosphere, Aziza had said a little breathlessly, the sky wouldn't be blue at all but a pitch-black sea and the sun a big bright star in the dark.
"Is Aziza coming home with us this time?" Zalmai said.
"Soon, my love," Laila said. "Soon."
Laila watched him wander away, walking like his father, stooping forward, toes turned in. He walked to the swing set, pushed an empty seat, ended up sitting on the concrete, ripping weeds from a crack.
Water evaporates from the leaves - Mammy, did you know? -
the way it does from laundry hanging from a line. And that drives the flow of water up the tree. From the ground and through the roots, then all the way up the tree trunk, through the branches and into the leaves. It's called transpiration.
More than once, Laila had wondered what the Taliban would do about Kaka Zaman's clandestine lessons if they found out.
During visits, Aziza didn't allow for much silence. She filled all the spaces with effusive speech, delivered in a high, ringing voice. She was tangential with her topics, and her hands gesticulated wildly, flying up with a nervousness that wasn't like her at all. She had a new laugh, Aziza did. Not so much a laugh, really, as nervous punctuation, meant, Laila suspected, to reassure.
And there were other changes. Laila would notice the dirt under Aziza's fingernails, and Aziza would notice her noticing and bury her hands under her thighs. Whenever a kid cried in their vicinity, snot oozing from his nose, or if a kid walked by bare-assed, hair clumped with dirt, Aziza's eyelids fluttered and she was quick to explain it away. She was like a hostess embarrassed in front of her guests by the squalor of her home, the untidiness of her children.
Questions of how she was coping were met with vague but cheerful replies.
Doing fine, Khala. I'm fine.
Do kids pick on you?
They don't, Mammy. Everyone is nice.
Are you eating? Sleeping all right?
Eating. Sleeping too. Yes. We had lamb last night. Maybe it was last week.
When Aziza spoke like this, Laila saw more than a little of Mariam in her.
Aziza stammered now. Mariam noticed it first. It was subtle but perceptible, and more pronounced with words that began with t. Laila asked Zaman about it. He frowned and said, "I thought she'd always done that."
They left the orphanage with Aziza that Friday afternoon for a short outing and met Rasheed, who was waiting for them by the bus stop. When Zalmai spotted his father, he uttered an excited squeak and impatiently wriggled from Laila's arms. Aziza's greeting to Rasheed was rigid but not hostile.
Rasheed said they should hurry, he had only two hours before he had to report back to work. This was his first week as a doorman for the Intercontinental. From noon to eight, six days a week, Rasheed opened car doors, carried luggage, mopped up the occasional spill. Sometimes, at day's end, the cook at the buffet-style restaurant let Rasheed bring home a few leftovers - as long as he was discreet about it - cold meatballs sloshing in oil; fried chicken wings, the crust gone hard and dry; stuffed pasta shells turned chewy; stiff, gravelly rice. Rasheed had promised Laila that once he had some money saved up, Aziza could move back home.
Rasheed was wearing his uniform, a burgundy red polyester suit, white shirt, clip-on tie, visor cap pressing down on his white hair. In this uniform, Rasheed was transformed. He looked vulnerable, pitiably bewildered, almost harmless. Like someone who had accepted without a sigh of protest the indignities life had doled out to him. Someone both pathetic and admirable in his docility.
They rode the bus to Titanic City. They walked into the riverbed, flanked on either side by makeshift stalls clinging to the dry banks. Near the bridge, as they were descending the steps, a barefoot man dangled dead from a crane, his ears cut off, his neck bent at the end of a rope. In the river, they melted into the horde of shoppers milling about, the money changers and bored-looking NGO workers, the cigarette vendors, the covered women who thrust fake antibiotic prescriptions at people and begged for money to fill them. Whip-toting, naswar-chewing Talibs patrolled Titanic City on the lookout for the indiscreet laugh, the unveiled face.
From a toy kiosk, between a poosteen coat vendor and a fake-flower stand, Zalmai picked out a rubber basketball with yellow and blue swirls.
"Pick something," Rasheed said to Aziza.
Aziza hedged, stiffened with embarrassment.
"Hurry. I have to be at work in an hour."
Aziza chose a gum-ball machine - the same coin could be inserted to get candy, then retrieved from the flap-door coin return below.
Rasheed's eyebrows shot up when the seller quoted him the price. A round of haggling ensued, at the end of which Rasheed said to Aziza contentiously, as if it were she who'd haggled him, "Give it back. I can't afford both."
On the way back, Aziza's high-spirited façade waned the closer they got to the orphanage. The hands stopped flying up. Her face turned heavy. It happened every time. It was Laila's turn now, with Mariam pitching in, to take up the chattering, to laugh nervously, to fill the melancholy quiet with breathless, aimless banter.
Later, after Rasheed had dropped them off and taken a bus to work, Laila watched Aziza wave good-bye and scuff along the wall in the orphanage back lot. She thought of Aziza's stutter, and of what Aziza had said earlier about fractures and powerful collisions deep down and how sometimes all we see on the surface is a slight tremor.
"GET AWAY, YOU!" Zalmai cried.
"Hush," Mariam said. "Who are you yelling at?"
He pointed. "There. That man."
Laila followed his finger. There was a man at the front door of the house, leaning against it. His head turned when he saw them approaching. He uncrossed his arms. Limped a few steps toward them.
A choking noise came up her throat. Her knees weakened. Laila suddenly wanted, needed, to grope for Mariam's arm, her shoulder, her wrist, something, anything, to lean on. But she didn't. She didn't dare. She didn't dare move a muscle. She didn't dare breathe, or blink even, for fear that he was nothing but a mirage shimmering in the distance, a brittle illusion that would vanish at the slightest provocation. Laila stood perfectly still and looked at Tariq until her chest screamed for air and her eyes burned to blink. And, somehow, miraculously, after she took a breath, closed and opened her eyes, he was still standing there. Tariq was still standing there.
Laila allowed herself to take a step toward him. Then another. And another. And then she was running.
Upstairs, in Mariam's room, Zalmai was wound up. He bounced his new rubber basketball around for a while, on the floor, against the walls. Mariam asked him not to, but he knew that she had no authority to exert over him and so he went on bouncing his ball, his eyes holding hers defiantly. For a while, they pushed his toy car, an ambulance with bold red lettering on the sides, sending it back and forth between them across the room.
Earlier, when they had met Tariq at the door, Zalmai had clutched the basketball close to his chest and stuck a thumb in his mouth - something he didn't do anymore except when he was apprehensive. He had eyed Tariq with suspicion.
"Who is that man?" he said now. "I don't like him."
Mariam was going to explain, say something about him and Laila growing up together, but Zalmai cut her off and said to turn the ambulance around, so the front grille faced him, and, when she did, he said he wanted his basketball again.
"Where is it?" he said. "Where is the ball Baba jan got me? Where is it? I want it! I want it!" his voice rising and becoming more shrill with each word.
"It was just here," Mariam said, and he cried, "No, it's lost, I know it. I just know it's lost! Where is it? Where is it?"
"Here," she said, fetching the ball from the closet where it had rolled to. But Zalmai was bawling now and pounding his fists, crying that it wasn't the same ball, it couldn't be, because his ball was lost, and this was a fake one, where had his real ball gone? Where? Where where where?
He screamed until Laila had to come upstairs to hold him, to rock him and run her fingers through his tight, dark curls, to dry his moist cheeks and cluck her tongue in his ear.
Mariam waited outside the room. From atop the staircase, all she could see of Tariq were his long legs, the real one and the artificial one, in khaki pants, stretched out on the uncarpeted living-room floor. It was then that she realized why the doorman at the Continental had looked familiar the day she and Rasheed had gone there to place the call to Jalil. He'd been wearing a cap and sunglasses, that was why it hadn't come to her earlier. But Mariam remembered now, from nine years before, remembered him sitting downstairs, patting his brow with a handkerchief and asking for water. Now all manner of questions raced through her mind: Had the sulfa pills too been part of the ruse? Which one of them had plotted the lie, provided the convincing details? And how much had Rasheed paid Abdul Sharif - if that was even his name - to come and crush Laila with the story of Tariq's death?
Tariq said that one of the men who shared his cell had a cousin who'd been publicly flogged once for painting flamingos. He, the cousin, had a seemingly incurable thing for them.
"Entire sketchbooks," Tariq said. "Dozens of oil paintings of them, wading in lagoons, sunbathing in marshlands. Flying into sunsets too, I'm afraid."
"Flamingos," Laila said. She looked at him sitting against the wall, his good leg bent at the knee. She had an urge to touch him again, as she had earlier by the front gate when she'd run to him. It embarrassed her now to think of how she'd thrown her arms around his neck and wept into his chest, how she'd said his name over and over in a slurring, thick voice. Had she acted too eagerly, she wondered, too desperately? Maybe so. But she hadn't been able to help it. And now she longed to touch him again, to prove to herself again that he was really here, that he was not a dream, an apparition.