A Thousand Splendid Suns

Page 46

Mashad is a crowded, bustling city. Laila watches as parks, mosques, and chelo kebab restaurants pass by. When the bus passes the shrine to Imam Reza, the eighth Shi'a imam, Laila cranes her neck to get a better view of its glistening tiles, the minarets, the magnificent golden dome, all of it immaculately and lovingly preserved. She thinks of the Buddhas in her own country. They are grains of dust now, blowing about the Bamiyan Valley in the wind.

The bus ride to the Iranian-Afghan border takes almost ten hours. The terrain grows more desolate, more barren, as they near Afghanistan. Shortly before they cross the border into Herat, they pass an Afghan refugee camp. To Laila, it is a blur of yellow dust and black tents and scanty structures made of corrugated-steel sheets. She reaches across the seat and takes Tariq's hand.

IN HERAT, most of the streets are paved, lined with fragrant pines. There are municipal parks and libraries in midconstruction, manicured courtyards, freshly painted buildings. The traffic lights work, and, most surprisingly to Laila, electricity is steady. Laila has heard that Herat's feudal-style warlord, Ismail Khan, has helped rebuild the city with the considerable customs revenue that he collects at the Afghan-Iranian border, money that Kabul says belongs not to him but to the central government. There is both a reverential and fearful tone when the taxi driver who takes them to Muwaffaq Hotel mentions Ismail Khan's name.

The two-night stay at the Muwaffaq will cost them nearly a fifth of their savings, but the trip from Mashad has been long and wearying, and the children are exhausted. The elderly clerk at the desk tells Tariq, as he fetches the room key, that the Muwaffaq is popular with journalists and NGO workers.

"Bin Laden slept here once," he boasts.

The room has two beds, and a bathroom with running cold water. There is a painting of the poet Khaja Abdullah Ansary on the wall between the beds. From the window, Laila has a view of the busy street below, and of a park across the street with pastel-colored-brick paths cutting through thick clusters of flowers. The children, who have grown accustomed to television, are disappointed that there isn't one in the room. Soon enough, though, they are asleep. Soon enough, Tariq and Laila too have collapsed. Laila sleeps soundly in Tariq's arms, except for once in the middle of the night when she wakes from a dream she cannot remember.

THE NEXT MORNING, after a breakfast of tea with fresh bread, quince marmalade, and boiled eggs, Tariq finds her a taxi.

"Are you sure you don't want me to come along?" Tariq says. Aziza is holding his hand. Zalmai isn't, but he is standing close to Tariq, leaning one shoulder on Tariq's hip.

"I'm sure."

"I worry."

"I'll be fine," Laila says. "I promise. Take the children to a market. Buy them something."

Zalmai begins to cry when the taxi pulls away, and, when Laila looks back, she sees that he is reaching for Tariq. That he is beginning to accept Tariq both eases and breaks Laila's heart.

"YOU'RE NOT FROM HERAT," the driver says.

He has dark, shoulder-length hair - a common thumbing of the nose at the departed Taliban, Laila has discovered - and some kind of scar interrupting his mustache on the left side. There is a photo taped to the windshield, on his side. It's of a young girl with pink cheeks and hair parted down the middle into twin braids.

Laila tells him that she has been in Pakistan for the last year, that she is returning to Kabul. "Deh-Mazang."

Through the windshield, she sees coppersmiths welding brass handles to jugs, saddlemakers laying out cuts of rawhide to dry in the sun.

"Have you lived here long, brother?" she asks.

"Oh, my whole life. I was born here. I've seen everything. You remember the uprising?"

Laila says she does, but he goes on.

"This was back in March 1979, about nine months before the Soviets invaded. Some angry Heratis killed a few Soviet advisers, so the Soviets sent in tanks and helicopters and pounded this place. For three days, hamshira, they fired on the city. They collapsed buildings, destroyed one of the minarets, killed thousands of people.

Thousands. I lost two sisters in those three days. One of them was twelve years old." He taps the photo on his windshield. "That's her."

"I'm sorry," Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on. Laila thinks of her own life and all that has happened to her, and she is astonished that she too has survived, that she is alive and sitting in this taxi listening to this man's story.

GUL DAMAN IS a village of a few walled houses rising among flat kolbas built with mud and straw. Outside the kol-bas, Laila sees sunburned women cooking, their faces sweating in steam rising from big blackened pots set on makeshift firewood grills. Mules eat from troughs. Children giving chase to chickens begin chasing the taxi. Laila sees men pushing wheelbarrows filled with stones. They stop and watch the car pass by. The driver takes a turn, and they pass a cemetery with a weather-worn mausoleum in the center of it. The driver tells her that a village Sufi is buried there.

There is a windmill too. In the shadow of its idle, rust-colored vanes, three little boys are squatting, playing with mud. The driver pulls over and leans out of the window. The oldest-looking of the three boys is the one to answer. He points to a house farther up the road. The driver thanks him, puts the car back in gear.

He parks outside the walled, one-story house. Laila sees the tops of fig trees above the walls, some of the branches spilling over the side.

"I won't be long," she says to the driver.

THE MIDDLE-AGED man who opens the door is short, thin, russet-haired. His beard is streaked with parallel stripes of gray. He is wearing a chapan over his pirhan-tumban.

They exchange salaam alaykums.

"Is this Mullah Faizullah's house?" Laila asks.

"Yes. I am his son, Hamza. Is there something I can do for you, hamshireh?"

"I've come here about an old friend of your father's, Mariam."

Hamza blinks. A puzzled look passes across his face.

"Mariam . . ."

"Jalil Khan's daughter."

He blinks again. Then he puts a palm to his cheek and his face lights up with a smile that reveals missing and rotting teeth. "Oh!" he says. It comes out sounding like Ohhhhhh, like an expelled breath. "Oh! Mariam! Are you her daughter? Is she - " He is twisting his neck now, looking behind her eagerly, searching. "Is she here? It's been so long! Is Mariam here?"

"She has passed on, I'm afraid."

The smile fades from Hamza's face.

For a moment, they stand there, at the doorway, Hamza looking at the ground. A donkey brays somewhere.

"Come in," Hamza says. He swings the door open.

"Please come in."

THEY SIT ON the floor in a sparsely furnished room. There is a Herati rug on the floor, beaded cushions to sit on, and a framed photo of Mecca on the wall. They sit by the open window, on either side of an oblong patch of sunlight. Laila hears women's voices whispering from another room. A little barefoot boy places before them a platter of green tea and pistachio gaaz nougats. Hamza nods at him.

"My son."

The boy leaves soundlessly.

"So tell me," Hamza says tiredly.

Laila does. She tells him everything. It takes longer than she'd imagined. Toward the end, she struggles to maintain composure. It still isn't easy, one year later, talking about Mariam.

When she's done, Hamza doesn't say anything for a long time. He slowly turns his teacup on its saucer, one way, then the other.

"My father, may he rest in peace, was so very fond of her," he says at last. "He was the one who sang azan in her ear when she was born, you know. He visited her every week, never missed. Sometimes he took me with him. He was her tutor, yes, but he was a friend too. He was a charitable man, my father. It nearly broke him when Jalil Khan gave her away."

"I'm sorry to hear about your father. May God forgive him."

Hamza nods his thanks. "He lived to be a very old man.

He outlived Jalil Khan, in fact. We buried him in the village cemetery, not far from where Mariam's mother is buried. My father was a dear, dear man, surely heaven-bound."

Laila lowers her cup.

"May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Can you show me?" she says. "Where Mariam lived.

Can you take me there?"

THE DRIVER AGREES to wait awhile longer.

Hamza and Laila exit the village and walk downhill on the road that connects Gul Daman to Herat. After fifteen minutes or so, he points to a narrow gap in the tall grass that flanks the road on both sides.

"That's how you get there," he says. "There is a path there."

The path is rough, winding, and dim, beneath the vegetation and undergrowth. The wind makes the tall grass slam against Laila's calves as she and Hamza climb the path, take the turns. On either side of them is a kaleidoscope of wildflowers swaying in the wind, some tall with curved petals, others low, fan-leafed. Here and there a few ragged buttercups peep through the low bushes. Laila hears the twitter of swallows overhead and the busy chatter of grasshoppers underfoot.

They walk uphill this way for two hundred yards or more. Then the path levels, and opens into a flatter patch of land. They stop, catch their breath. Laila dabs at her brow with her sleeve and bats at a swarm of mosquitoes hovering in front of her face. Here she sees the low-slung mountains in the horizon, a few cottonwoods, some poplars, various wild bushes that she cannot name.

"There used to be a stream here," Hamza says, a little out of breath. "But it's long dried up now."

He says he will wait here. He tells her to cross the dry streambed, walk toward the mountains.

"I'll wait here," he says, sitting on a rock beneath a poplar. "You go on."

"I won't - "

"Don't worry. Take your time. Go on, hamshireh."

Laila thanks him. She crosses the streambed, stepping from one stone to another. She spots broken soda bottles amid the rocks, rusted cans, and a mold-coated metallic container with a zinc lid half buried in the ground.

She heads toward the mountains, toward the weeping willows, which she can see now, the long drooping branches shaking with each gust of wind. In her chest, her heart is drumming. She sees that the willows are arranged as Mariam had said, in a circular grove with a clearing in the middle. Laila walks faster, almost running now. She looks back over her shoulder and sees that Hamza is a tiny figure, his chapan a burst of color against the brown of the trees' bark. She trips over a stone and almost falls, then regains her footing. She hurries the rest of the way with the legs of her trousers pulled up. She is panting by the time she reaches the willows.

Mariam's kolba is still here.

When she approaches it, Laila sees that the lone windowpane is empty and that the door is gone. Mariam had described a chicken coop and a tandoor, a wooden outhouse too, but Laila sees no sign of them. She pauses at the entrance to the kolba. She can hear flies buzzing inside.

To get in, she has to sidestep a large fluttering spider-web. It's dim inside. Laila has to give her eyes a few moments to adjust. When they do, she sees that the interior is even smaller than she'd imagined. Only half of a single rotting, splintered board remains of the floorboards. The rest, she imagines, have been ripped up for burning as firewood. The floor is carpeted now with dry-edged leaves, broken bottles, discarded chewing gum wrappers, wild mushrooms, old yellowed cigarette butts. But mostly with weeds, some stunted, some springing impudently halfway up the walls.

Fifteen years, Laila thinks. Fifteen years in this place.

Laila sits down, her back to the wall. She listens to the wind filtering through the willows. There are more spider-webs stretched across the ceiling. Someone has spray-painted something on one of the walls, but much of it has sloughed off, and Laila cannot decipher what it says. Then she realizes the letters are Russian. There is a deserted bird's nest in one corner and a bat hanging upside down in another corner, where the wall meets the low ceiling.

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