“I didn’t find one I liked,” Nila said from the backseat as she applied a fresh coat of lipstick.
She caught my puzzled face in the rearview mirror. She lowered the lipstick and gazed at me from under her lashes. “You took me to two different stores but I couldn’t find a purse to my liking.”
Her eyes locked onto mine in the mirror and lingered there awhile, waiting, and I understood that I had been made privy to a secret. She was putting my allegiance to the test. She was asking me to choose.
“I think maybe you visited three stores,” I said weakly.
She grinned. “Parfois je pense que tu es mon seul ami, Nabi.”
“It means ‘Sometimes I think you are my only friend.’ ”
She smiled radiantly at me, but it could not lift my sagging spirits.
The rest of that day, I set about my chores at half my normal speed and with a fraction of my customary enthusiasm. When the men came over for tea that night, one of them sang for us, but his song failed to cheer me. I felt as though I had been the one cuckolded. And I was sure that the hold she had on me had loosened at last.
But in the morning I rose and there it was, filling my living quarters once more, from floor to ceiling, seeping into the walls, saturating the air I breathed, like vapor. It was no use, Mr. Markos.
I cannot tell you when, precisely, the idea took hold. Perhaps it was the windy autumn morning I was serving tea to Nila, when I had stooped and was cutting for her a slice of roat cake, that from the radio sitting on her windowsill came a report that the coming winter of 1952 might prove even more brutal than the previous one. Perhaps it was earlier, the day I took her to the house with the bright pink walls, or perhaps earlier still, the time I held her hand in the car as she sobbed.
Whatever the timing, once the idea entered my head there was no purging it.
Let me say, Mr. Markos, that I proceeded with a mostly clean conscience, and with the conviction that my proposal was born of goodwill and honest intentions. Something that, though painful in the short term, would lead to a greater long-term good for all involved. But I had less honorable, self-serving motives as well. Chief among them this: that I would give Nila something no other man—not her husband, not the owner of that big pink house—could.
I spoke to Saboor first. In my defense, I will say that if I had thought Saboor would accept money from me, I gladly would have given it to him in lieu of this proposal. I knew he needed the money for he had told me of his struggles finding work. I would have borrowed an advance against my salary from Mr. Wahdati for Saboor to see his family through the winter. But Saboor, like many of my countrymen, had the affliction of pride, an affliction both misbegotten and unshakable. He would never take money from me. When he married Parwana, he even put an end to the small remittances I had been giving her. He was a man and he would provide for his own family. And he died doing just that, when he was not yet forty, collapsing one day while he was out harvesting a field of sugar beets somewhere near Baghlan. I heard he died with the beet hook still in his blistered, bleeding hands.
I was not a father and thus will make no pretense at understanding the anguished deliberations that led to Saboor’s decision. Nor was I privy to the discussions between the Wahdatis. Once I revealed the idea to Nila, I only asked that in her discussions with Mr. Wahdati she put forth the idea as her own and not mine. I knew that Mr. Wahdati would resist. I had never glimpsed in him a sliver of paternal instinct. In fact, I had wondered if Nila’s inability to bear children may have swayed his decision to marry her. Regardless, I steered clear of the tense atmosphere between the two. When I lay down to sleep at night, I saw only the sudden tears that had leaked from Nila’s eyes when I told her and how she had taken both my hands and gazed into me with gratitude and—I was sure of it—something quite like love. I thought only of the fact that I was offering her a gift that men with far greater prospects could not. I thought only of how thoroughly I had given myself over to her, and how happily. And I thought, hoped—foolishly, of course—that she may begin to see me as something more than the loyal servant.
When Mr. Wahdati eventually buckled—which didn’t surprise me, Nila was a woman of formidable will—I informed Saboor and offered to drive him and Pari to Kabul. I will never fully understand why he chose to instead walk his daughter from Shadbagh. Or why he allowed Abdullah to come along. Perhaps he was clinging to what little time he had left with his daughter. Perhaps he sought a measure of penance in the hardship of the journey. Or perhaps it was Saboor’s pride, and he would not ride in the car of the man who was buying his daughter. But, in the end, there they were, the three of them, coated in dust, waiting, as agreed, near the mosque. As I drove them to the Wahdati home, I did my best to seem cheerful for the children’s benefit, the children who were oblivious to their fate—and to the terrible scene that would soon unfold.
There is little point in recounting it in detail, Mr. Markos, the scene that did unfold precisely as I had feared. But all these years later, I still feel my heart clench when the memory of it forces its way to the fore. How could it not? I took those two helpless children, in whom love of the simplest and purest kind had found expression, and I tore one from the other. I will never forget the sudden emotional mayhem. Pari slung over my shoulder, panic-stricken, kicking her legs, shrieking, Abollah! Abollah! as I whisked her away. Abdullah, screaming his sister’s name, trying to fight past his father. Nila, wide-eyed, her mouth covered with both hands, perhaps to silence her own scream. It weighs on me. All this time has passed, Mr. Markos, and it still weighs on me.
Pari was nearly four years old at the time, but, despite her young age, there were forces in her life that needed to be reshaped. She was instructed not to call me Kaka Nabi any longer, for instance, but simply Nabi. And her mistakes were gently corrected, by me included, over and over until she came to believe that we bore no relation to each other. I became for her Nabi the cook and Nabi the driver. Nila became “Maman,” and Mr. Wahdati “Papa.” Nila set about teaching her French, which had been her own mother’s tongue.
Mr. Wahdati’s chilly reception of Pari lasted only a brief time before, perhaps to his own surprise, little Pari’s tearful anxiety and homesickness disarmed him. Soon, Pari joined us on our morning strolls. Mr. Wahdati lowered her into a stroller and pushed her around the neighborhood as we walked. Or else he sat her up on his lap behind the wheel of the car and smiled patiently while she pushed the horn. He hired a carpenter and had him build a three-drawer trundle bed for Pari, a maple chest for toys, and a small, short armoire. He had all the furniture in Pari’s room painted yellow since he had discovered this was her favorite color. And I found him one day sitting cross-legged before the armoire, Pari at his side, as he painted, with rather remarkable skill, giraffes and long-tailed monkeys over its doors. It should speak volumes about his private nature, Mr. Markos, when I tell you that in all the years I had watched him sketch, this was the first time I had actually laid eyes on his artwork.
One of the effects of Pari’s entrance was that for the first time the Wahdati household resembled a proper family. Bound now by their affection for Pari, Nila and her husband took all their meals together. They walked Pari to a nearby park and sat contentedly beside each other on a bench to watch her play. When I served them tea at night after I had cleared the table, I often found one or the other reading a children’s book to Pari as she reclined on their laps, she, with each passing day, more forgetful of her past life in Shadbagh and of the people in it.
The other consequence of Pari’s arrival was one I had not anticipated: I receded into the background. Judge me charitably, Mr. Markos, and remember that I was a young man, but I admit I had hopes, foolish as they might have been. I was the instrument of Nila’s becoming a mother, after all. I had uncovered the source of her unhappiness and delivered an antidote. Did I think we would become lovers now? I want to say I was not so foolish as that, Mr. Markos, but that wouldn’t be entirely truthful. I suspect the truth is that we are waiting, all of us, against insurmountable odds, for something extraordinary to happen to us.
What I did not foresee was that I would fade away. Pari consumed Nila’s time now. Lessons, games, naps, walks, more games. Our daily chats went by the wayside. If the two of them were playing with building blocks or working on a puzzle, Nila would hardly notice that I had brought her coffee, that I was still in the room standing back on my heels. When we did speak, she seemed distracted, always eager to cut the conversation short. In the car, her expression was distant. For this, though it shames me, I will admit to feeling a shade of resentment toward my niece.
As part of the agreement with the Wahdatis, Pari’s family was not allowed to visit. They were not allowed any contact at all with her. I drove to Shadbagh one day soon after Pari moved in with the Wahdatis. I went there bearing a small present each for Abdullah and for my sister’s little boy, Iqbal, who was a toddler by then.
Saboor said pointedly, “You’ve given your gifts. Now it’s time to go.”
I told him I didn’t understand the reason for his cold reception, his gruff manner with me.
“You do understand,” he said. “And don’t feel like you have to come out and see us anymore.”
He was right, I did understand. A chill had grown between us. My visit had been awkward, tense, even contentious. It felt unnatural to sit together now, to sip tea and chat about the weather or that year’s grape harvest. We were feigning a normalcy, Saboor and I, that no longer was. Whatever the reason, I was, in the end, the instrument of his family’s rupture. Saboor did not want to set eyes on me again and I understood. I stopped my monthly visits. I never saw any of them again.
It was one day early in the spring of 1955, Mr. Markos, that the lives of all of us in the household changed forever. I remember it was raining. Not the galling kind that draws frogs out to croak, but an indecisive drizzle that had come and gone all morning. I remember because the gardener, Zahid, was there, being his habitual lazy self, leaning on a rake and saying how he might call it a day on account of the nasty weather. I was about to retreat to my shack, if only to get away from his drivel, when I heard Nila screaming my name from inside the main house.
I rushed across the yard to the house. Her voice was coming from upstairs, from the direction of the master bedroom.
I found Nila in a corner, back to the wall, palm clasped over her mouth. “Something’s wrong with him,” she said, not removing her hand.
Mr. Wahdati was sitting up in bed, dressed in a white undershirt. He was making strange guttural sounds. His face was pale and drawn, his hair disheveled. He was repeatedly trying, and failing, to perform some task with his right arm, and I noticed with horror that a line of spittle was streaking down from the corner of his mouth.
“Nabi! Do something!”
Pari, who was six by then, had come into the room, and now she scampered over to Mr. Wahdati’s bedside and pulled on his undershirt. “Papa? Papa?” He looked down at her, wide-eyed, his mouth opening and closing. She screamed.
I picked her up quickly and took her to Nila. I told Nila to take the child to another room because she must not see her father in this condition. Nila blinked, as if breaking a trance, looked from me to Pari before she reached for her. She kept asking me what was wrong with her husband. She kept saying that I must do something.
I summoned Zahid from the window and for once the good-for-nothing fool proved of some use. He helped me put a pair of pajama pants on Mr. Wahdati. We lifted him off the bed, carried him down the stairs, and lowered him into the backseat of the car. Nila climbed in next to him. I told Zahid to stay at the house and look after Pari. He started to protest, and I struck him, open-palmed, across the temple as hard as I could. I told him he was a donkey and that he must do as he was told.
And, with that, I backed out of the driveway and peeled out.