A Thousand Splendid Suns

Page 44

One last time, Mariam did as she was told.


Chapter 48

Tariq has headaches now.

Some nights, Laila awakens and finds him on the edge of their bed, rocking, his undershirt pulled over his head. The headaches began in Nasir Bagh, he says, then worsened in prison. Sometimes they make him vomit, blind him in one eye. He says it feels like a butcher's knife burrowing in one temple, twisting slowly through his brain, then poking out the other side.

"I can taste the metal, even, when they begin."

Sometimes Laila wets a cloth and lays it on his forehead and that helps a little. The little round white pills Sayeed's doctor gave Tariq help too. But some nights, all Tariq can do is hold his head and moan, his eyes bloodshot, his nose dripping. Laila sits with him when he's in the grip of it like that, rubs the back of his neck, takes his hand in hers, the metal of his wedding band cold against her palm.

They married the day that they arrived in Murree. Sayeed looked relieved when Tariq told him they would.

He would not have to broach with Tariq the delicate matter of an unmarried couple living in his hotel. Sayeed is not at all as Laila had pictured him, ruddy-faced and pea-eyed. He has a salt-and-pepper mustache whose ends he rolls to a sharp tip, and a shock of long gray hair combed back from the brow. He is a soft-spoken, mannerly man, with measured speech and graceful movements.

It was Sayeed who summoned a friend and a mullah for the nikka that day, Sayeed who pulled Tariq aside and gave him money. Tariq wouldn't take it, but Sayeed insisted. Tariq went to the Mall then and came back with two simple, thin wedding bands. They married later that night, after the children had gone to bed.

In the mirror, beneath the green veil that the mullah draped over their heads, Laila's eyes met Tariq's. There were no tears, no wedding-day smiles, no whispered oaths of long-lasting love. In silence, Laila looked at their reflection, at faces that had aged beyond their years, at the pouches and lines and sags that now marked their once-scrubbed, youthful faces. Tariq opened his mouth and began to say something, but, just as he did, someone pulled the veil, and Laila missed what it was that he was going to say.

That night, they lay in bed as husband and wife, as the children snored below them on sleeping cots. Laila remembered the ease with which they would crowd the air between them with words, she and Tariq, when they were younger, the haywire, brisk flow of their speech, always interrupting each other, tugging each other's collar to emphasize a point, the quickness to laugh, the eagerness to delight. So much had happened since those childhood days, so much that needed to be said. But that first night the enormity of it all stole the words from her. That night, it was blessing enough to be beside him. It was blessing enough to know that he was here, to feel the warmth of him next to her, to lie with him, their heads touching, his right hand laced in her left.

In the middle of the night, when Laila woke up thirsty, she found their hands still clamped together, in the white-knuckle, anxious way of children clutching balloon strings.

LAILA LIKES MURREE'S cool, foggy mornings and its dazzling twilights, the dark brilliance of the sky at night; the green of the pines and the soft brown of the squirrels darting up and down the sturdy tree trunks; the sudden downpours that send shoppers in the Mall scrambling for awning cover. She likes the souvenir shops, and the various hotels that house tourists, even as the locals bemoan the constant construction, the expansion of infrastructure that they say is eating away at Murree's natural beauty. Laila finds it odd that people should lament the building of buildings. In Kabul, they would celebrate it.

She likes that they have a bathroom, not an outhouse but an actual bathroom, with a toilet that flushes, a shower, and a sink too, with twin faucets from which she can draw, with a flick of her wrist, water, either hot or cold. She likes waking up to the sound of Alyona bleating in the morning, and the harmlessly cantankerous cook, Adiba, who works marvels in the kitchen.

Sometimes, as Laila watches Tariq sleep, as her children mutter and stir in their own sleep, a great big lump of gratitude catches in her throat, makes her eyes water.

In the mornings, Laila follows Tariq from room to room. Keys jingle from a ring clipped to his waist and a spray bottle of window cleaner dangles from the belt loops of his jeans. Laila brings a pail filled with rags, disinfectant, a toilet brush, and spray wax for the dressers. Aziza tags along, a mop in one hand, the bean-stuffed doll Mariam had made for her in the other. Zalmai trails them reluctantly, sulkily, always a few steps behind.

Laila vacuums, makes the bed, and dusts. Tariq washes the bathroom sink and tub, scrubs the toilet and mops the linoleum floor. He stocks the shelves with clean towels, miniature shampoo bottles, and bars of almond-scented soap. Aziza has laid claim to the task of spraying and wiping the windows. The doll is never far from where she works.

Laila told Aziza about Tariq a few days after the nikka.

It is strange, Laila thinks, almost unsettling, the thing between Aziza and Tariq. Already, Aziza is finishing his sentences and he hers. She hands him things before he asks for them. Private smiles shoot between them across the dinner table as if they are not strangers at all but companions reunited after a lengthy separation.

Aziza looked down thoughtfully at her hands when Laila told her.

"I like him," she said, after a long pause.

"He loves you."

"He said that?"

"He doesn't have to, Aziza."

"Tell me the rest, Mammy. Tell me so I know."

And Laila did.

"Your father is a good man. He is the best man I've ever known."

"What if he leaves?" Aziza said.

"He will never leave. Look at me, Aziza. Your father will never hurt you, and he will never leave."

The relief on Aziza's face broke Laila's heart.

TARIQ HAS BOUGHT Zalmai a rocking horse, built him a wagon. From a prison inmate, he learned to make paper animals, and so he has folded, cut, and tucked countless sheets of paper into lions and kangaroos for Zalmai, into horses and brightly plumed birds. But these overtures are dismissed by Zalmai unceremoniously, sometimes venomously.

"You're a donkey!" he cries. "I don't want your toys!"

"Zalmai!" Laila gasps.

"It's all right," Tariq says. "Laila, it's all right. Let him."

"You're not my Baba jan! My real Baba jan is away on a trip, and when he gets back he's going to beat you up! And you won't be able to run away, because he has two legs and you only have one!"

At night, Laila holds Zalmai against her chest and recites the Babaloo prayers with him. When he asks, she tells him the lie again, tells him his Baba jan has gone away and she doesn't know when he would come back. She abhors this task, abhors herself for lying like this to a child.

Laila knows that this shameful lie will have to be told again and again. It will have to because Zalmai will ask, hopping down from a swing, waking from an afternoon nap, and, later, when he's old enough to tie his own shoes, to walk to school by himself, the lie will have to be delivered again.

At some point, Laila knows, the questions will dry up. Slowly, Zalmai will cease wondering why his father has abandoned him. He will not spot his father any longer at traffic lights, in stooping old men shuffling down the street or sipping tea in open-fronted samovar houses. And one day it will hit him, walking along some meandering river, or gazing out at an untracked snowfield, that his father's disappearance is no longer an open, raw wound. That it has become something else altogether, something more soft-edged and indolent. Like a lore. Something to be revered, mystified by.

Laila is happy here in Murree. But it is not an easy happiness. It is not a happiness without cost.

ON HIS DAYS OFF, Tariq takes Laila and the children to the Mall, along which are shops that sell trinkets and next to which is an Anglican church built in the mid nineteenth century. Tariq buys them spicy chapli kebabs from street vendors. They stroll amid the crowds of locals, the Europeans and their cellular phones and digital cameras, the Punjabis who come here to escape the heat of the plains.

Occasionally, they board a bus to Kashmir Point. From there, Tariq shows them the valley of the Jhelum River, the pine-carpeted slopes, and the lush, densely wooded hills, where he says monkeys can still be spotted hopping from branch to branch. They go to the maple-clad Nathia Gali too, some thirty kilometers from Murree, where Tariq holds Laila's hand as they walk the tree-shaded road to the Governor's House. They stop by the old British cemetery, or take a taxi up a mountain peak for a view of the verdant, fog-shrouded valley below.

Sometimes on these outings, when they pass by a store window, Laila catches their reflections in it. Man, wife, daughter, son. To strangers, she knows, they must appear like the most ordinary of families, free of secrets, lies, and regrets.

AZIZA HAS NIGHTMARES from which she wakes up shrieking. Laila has to lie beside her on the cot, dry her cheeks with her sleeve, soothe her back to sleep.

Laila has her own dreams. In them, she's always back at the house in Kabul, walking the hall, climbing the stairs. She is alone, but behind the doors she hears the rhythmic hiss of an iron, bedsheets snapped, then folded. Sometimes she hears a woman's low-pitched humming of an old Herati song. But when she walks in, the room is empty. There is no one there.

The dreams leave Laila shaken. She wakes from them coated in sweat, her eyes prickling with tears. It is devastating. Every time, it is devastating.

Chapter 49

One Sunday that September, Laila is putting Zalmai, who has a cold, down for a nap when Tariq bursts into their bungalow.

"Did you hear?" he says, panting a little. "They killed him. Ahmad Shah Massoud. He's dead."


From the doorway, Tariq tells her what he knows.

"They say he gave an interview to a pair of journalists who claimed they were Belgians originally from Morocco. As they're talking, a bomb hidden in the video camera goes off. Kills Massoud and one of the journalists. They shoot the other one as he tries to run. They're saying now the journalists were probably Al-Qaeda men."

Laila remembers the poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud that Mammy had nailed to the wall of her bedroom. Massoud leaning forward, one eyebrow cocked, his face furrowed in concentration, as though he was respectfully listening to someone. Laila remembers how grateful Mammy was that Massoud had said a graveside prayer at her sons' burial, how she told everyone about it. Even after war broke out between his faction and the others, Mammy had refused to blame him. He's a good man, she used to say. He wants peace. He wants to rebuild Afghanistan. But they won't let him. They just won't let him. For Mammy, even in the end, even after everything went so terribly wrong and Kabul lay in ruins, Massoud was still the Lion of Panjshir.

Laila is not as forgiving. Massoud's violent end brings her no joy, but she remembers too well the neighborhoods razed under his watch, the bodies dragged from the rubble, the hands and feet of children discovered on rooftops or the high branch of some tree days after their funeral. She remembers too clearly the look on Mammy's own face moments before the rocket slammed in and, much as she has tried to forget, Babi's headless torso landing nearby, the bridge tower printed on his T-shirt poking through thick fog and blood.

"There is going to be a funeral," Tariq is saying. "I'm sure of it. Probably in Rawalpindi. It'll be huge."

Zalmai, who was almost asleep, is sitting up now, rubbing his eyes with balled fists.

Two days later, they are cleaning a room when they hear a commotion. Tariq drops the mop and hurries out. Laila tails him.

The noise is coming from the hotel lobby. There is a lounge area to the right of the reception desk, with several chairs and two couches upholstered in beige suede. In the corner, facing the couches, is a television, and Sayeed, the concierge, and several guests are gathered in front of.

Laila and Tariq work their way in.

The TV is tuned to BBC. On the screen is a building, a tower, black smoke billowing from its top floors. Tariq says something to Sayeed and Sayeed is in midreply when a plane appears from the corner of the screen. It crashes into the adjacent tower, exploding into a fireball that dwarfs any ball of fire that Laila has ever seen. A collective yelp rises from everyone in the lobby.

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