It was two full weeks before we brought Mr. Wahdati home. Chaos ensued. Family descended upon the house in hordes. I was brewing tea and cooking food almost around the clock to feed this uncle, that cousin, an elderly aunt. All day the front gates’ bell rang and heels clicked on the marble floor of the living room and murmurs rippled in the hallway as people spilled into the house. Most of them I had rarely seen at the house, and I understood that they were clocking in an appearance more to pay respect to Mr. Wahdati’s matronly mother than to see the reclusive sick man with whom they had but a tenuous connection. She came too, of course, the mother—minus the dogs, thank goodness. She burst into the house bearing a handkerchief in each hand to blot at her reddened eyes and dripping nose. She planted herself at his bedside and wept. Also, she wore black, which appalled me, as though her son were already dead.
And, in a way, he was. At least the old version of him. Half of his face was now a frozen mask. His legs were almost of no service. He had movement of the left arm, but the right was only bone and flaccid meat. He spoke with hoarse grunts and moans that no one could decipher.
The doctor told us that Mr. Wahdati felt emotions as he had before the stroke and he understood things well, but what he could not do, at least for the time being, was to act on what he felt and understood.
This was not entirely true, however. Indeed, after the first week or so he made his feelings quite clear about the visitors, his mother included. He was, even in such extreme sickness, a fundamentally solitary creature. And he had no use for their pity, their woebegone looks, all the forlorn headshaking at the wretched spectacle he had become. When they entered his room, he waved his functional left hand in an angry shooing motion. When they spoke to him, he turned his cheek. If they sat at his side, he clutched a handful of bedsheet and grunted and pounded the fist against his hip until they left. With Pari, his dismissal was no less insistent, if far gentler. She came to play with her dolls at his bedside, and he looked up at me pleadingly, his eyes watering, his chin quivering, until I led her out of the room—he did not try to speak with her for he knew his speech upset her.
The great visitor exodus came as a relief to Nila. When people were packing the house wall to wall, Nila retreated upstairs into Pari’s bedroom with her, much to the disgust of the mother-in-law, who doubtless expected—and, really, who could blame her?—Nila to remain at her son’s side, at least for the sake of appearances if nothing else. Of course Nila cared nothing about appearances or what might be said about her. And plenty was. “What sort of wife is this?” I heard the mother-in-law exclaim more than once. She complained to anyone who would listen that Nila was heartless, that she had a gaping hole in her soul. Where was she now that her husband needed her? What sort of wife abandoned her loyal, loving husband?
Some of what the old woman said, of course, was accurate. Indeed, it was I who could be found most reliably at Mr. Wahdati’s bedside, I who gave him his pills and greeted those who entered the room. It was me to whom the doctor spoke most often, and therefore it was me, and not Nila, whom people asked about Mr. Wahdati’s condition.
Mr. Wahdati’s dismissal of visitors relieved Nila of one discomfort but presented her with another. By holing up in Pari’s room and closing the door, she had kept herself at a remove not only from the disagreeable mother-in-law but also from the mess that her husband had become. Now the house was vacant, and she faced spousal duties for which she was uniquely ill suited.
She couldn’t do it.
And she didn’t.
I am not saying she was cruel or callous. I have lived a long time, Mr. Markos, and one thing I have come to see is that one is well served by a degree of both humility and charity when judging the inner workings of another person’s heart. What I am saying is that I walked into Mr. Wahdati’s room one day and found Nila sobbing into his belly, a spoon still in her hand, as pureed lentil daal dripped from his chin onto the bib tied around his neck.
“Let me, Bibi Sahib,” I said gently. I took the spoon from her, wiped his mouth clean, and went to feed him, but he moaned, squeezed his eyes shut, and turned his face.
It was not long after that I was lugging a pair of suitcases down the stairs and handing them to a driver, who stowed them in the trunk of his idling car. I helped Pari, who was wearing her favorite yellow coat, climb into the backseat.
“Nabi, will you bring Papa and visit us in Paris like Maman said?” she asked, giving me her gap-toothed smile.
I told her I certainly would when her father felt better. I kissed the back of each of her little hands. “Bibi Pari, I wish you luck and I wish you happiness,” I said.
I met Nila as she came down the front steps with puffy eyes and smudged eyeliner. She had been in Mr. Wahdati’s room saying her good-byes.
I asked her how he was.
“Relieved, I think,” she said, then added, “although that may be my wishful thinking.” She closed the zipper to her purse and slung the strap over her shoulder.
“Don’t tell anyone where I’m going. It would be for the best.”
I promised her I would not.
She told me she would write soon. She then looked me long in the eyes, and I believe I saw genuine affection there. She touched my face with the palm of her hand.
“I’m happy, Nabi, that you’re with him.”
Then she pulled close and embraced me, her cheek against mine. My nose filled with the scent of her hair, her perfume.
“It was you, Nabi,” she said in my ear. “It was always you. Didn’t you know?”
I didn’t understand. And she broke from me before I could ask. Head lowered, boot heels clicking against the asphalt, she hurried down the driveway. She slid into the backseat of the taxi next to Pari, looked my way once, and pressed her palm against the glass. Her palm, white against the window, was the last I saw of her as the car pulled away from the driveway.
I watched her go, and waited for the car to turn at the end of the street before I pulled the gates shut. Then I leaned against them and wept like a child.
Despite Mr. Wahdati’s wishes, a few visitors still trickled in, at least for a short while longer. Eventually, it was only his mother who turned up to see him. She came once a week or so. She would snap her fingers at me and I would pull up a chair for her, and no sooner had she plopped down next to her son’s bed than she would launch into a soliloquy of assaults on the character of his now departed wife. She was a harlot. A liar. A drunk. A coward who had run to God knows where when her husband needed her most. This, Mr. Wahdati would bear in silence, looking impassively past her shoulder at the window. Then came an interminable stream of news and updates, much of it almost physically painful in its banality. A cousin who had argued with her sister because her sister had had the gall to buy the same exact coffee table as she. Who had got a flat tire on the way home from Paghman last Friday. Who had got a new haircut. On and on. Sometimes Mr. Wahdati would grunt something, and his mother would turn to me.
“You. What did he say?” She always addressed me in this manner, her words sharp and angular.
Because I was at his side more or less all day, I had slowly come to unlock the enigma of his speech. I would lean in close, and what sounded to others like unintelligible groans and mumbles I would recognize as a request for water, for the bedpan, an appeal to be turned over. I had become his de facto interpreter.
“Your son says he would like to sleep.”
The old woman would sigh and say that it was just as well, she ought to be going anyway. She would lean down and kiss his brow and promise to come back soon. Once I had walked her out to the front gates, where her own chauffeur awaited her, I would return to Mr. Wahdati’s room and sit on a stool next to his bed and we would relish the silence together. Sometimes his eyes caught mine, and he would shake his head and grin crookedly.
Because the work I had been hired for was so limited now—I drove only to get groceries once or twice a week, and I had to cook for only two people—I saw little sense in paying the other servants for work that I could perform. I expressed this to Mr. Wahdati, and he motioned with his hand. I leaned in.
“You’ll wear yourself out.”
“No, Sahib. I’m happy to do it.”
He asked me if I was sure, and I told him I was.
His eyes watered and his fingers closed weakly around my wrist. He had been the most stoic man I had ever known, but since the stroke the most trivial things made him agitated, anxious, tearful.
“Nabi, listen to me.”
“Pay yourself any salary you like.”
I told him we had no need to talk about that.
“You know where I keep the money.”
“Get your rest, Sahib.”
“I don’t care how much.”
I said I was thinking of making shorwa soup for lunch. “How does that sound, shorwa? I would like some myself, come to think of it.”
I put an end to the evening gatherings with the other workers. I no longer cared what they thought of me; I would not have them come to Mr. Wahdati’s house and amuse themselves at his expense. I had the considerable pleasure of firing Zahid. I also let go of the Hazara woman who came in to wash clothes. Thereafter, I washed the laundry and hung it on a clothesline to dry. I tended to the trees, trimmed the shrubs, mowed the grass, planted new flowers and vegetables. I maintained the house, sweeping the rugs, polishing the floors, beating the dust from the curtains, washing the windows, fixing leaky faucets, replacing rusty pipes.
One day, I was up in Mr. Wahdati’s room dusting cobwebs from the moldings while he slept. It was summer, and the heat was fierce and dry. I had taken all the blankets and sheets off Mr. Wahdati and rolled up the legs of his pajama pants. I had opened the windows, the fan overhead wheeled creakily, but it was little use, the heat pushed in from every direction.
There was a rather large closet in the room I had been meaning to clean for some time and I decided to finally get to it that day. I slid the doors open and started in on the suits, dusting each one individually, though I recognized that, in all probability, Mr. Wahdati would never don any of them again. There were stacks of books on which dust had collected, and I wiped those as well. I cleaned his shoes with a cloth and lined them all up in a neat row. I found a large cardboard box, nearly shielded from view by the hems of several long winter coats draping over it. I pulled it toward me and opened it. It was full of Mr. Wahdati’s old sketchbooks, one stacked atop another, each a sad relic of his past life.
I lifted the top sketchbook from the box and randomly opened it to a page. My knees nearly buckled. I went through the whole book. I put it down and picked up another, then another, and another, and another after that. The pages flipped before my eyes, each fanning my face with a little sigh, each bearing the same subject drawn in charcoal. Here I was wiping the front fender of the car as seen from the perch of the upstairs bedroom. Here I was leaning on a shovel by the veranda. I could be found on these pages tying my shoelaces, chopping wood, watering bushes, pouring tea from kettles, praying, napping. Here was the car parked along the banks of Ghargha Lake, me behind the wheel, the window rolled down, my arm hanging over the side of the door, a dimly drawn figure in the backseat, birds circling overhead.
It was you, Nabi.
It was always you.
Didn’t you know?
I looked over to Mr. Wahdati. He was sleeping soundly on his side. I carefully placed the sketchbooks back in the cardboard box, closed the top, and pushed the box back in the corner beneath the winter coats. Then I left the room, shutting the door softly so as not to wake him. I walked down the dim hallway and down the stairs. I saw myself walk on. Step out into the heat of that summer day, make my way down the driveway, push out the front gates, stride down the street, turn the corner, and keep walking, without looking over my shoulder.
How was I to stay on now? I wondered. I was neither disgusted nor flattered by the discovery I had made, Mr. Markos, but I was discomfited. I tried to picture how I could stay, knowing what I knew now. It cast a pall over everything, what I had found in the box. A thing like this could not be escaped, pushed aside. Yet how could I leave while he was in such a helpless state? I could not, not without first finding someone suitable to take over my duties. I owed Mr. Wahdati at least that much because he had always been good to me, while I, on the other hand, had maneuvered behind his back to gain his wife’s favors.