And the Mountains Echoed

Page 31

Later, when they return from the beach to the rental house, they find that the men have already returned.

“Papa’s getting old,” Alain says.

From behind the bar, Eric, who is mixing a carafe of sangria, rolls his eyes and shrugs genially.

“I thought I’d have to carry you, Papa.”

“Give me one year. We’ll come back next year, and I’ll race you around the island, mon pote.”

They never do come back to Majorca. A week after they return to Paris, Eric has a heart attack. It happens while he is at work, speaking to a lighting stagehand. He survives it, but he will suffer two more over the course of the next three years, the last of which will prove fatal. And so at the age of forty-eight Pari finds herself, like Maman had, a widow.

One day, early in the spring of 2010, Pari receives a long-distance phone call. The call is not unexpected. Pari, in fact, has been preparing for it all morning. Prior to the call, Pari makes sure she has the apartment to herself. This means asking Isabelle to leave earlier than she customarily does. Isabelle and her husband, Albert, live just north of Île Saint-Denis, only a few blocks from Pari’s one-bedroom apartment. Isabelle comes to see Pari in the morning every other day, after she drops off her kids at school. She brings Pari a baguette, some fresh fruit. Pari is not yet bound to the wheelchair, an eventuality for which she has been preparing herself. Though her disease forced her into early retirement the year before, she is still fully capable of going to the market on her own, of taking a daily walk. It’s the hands—the ugly, twisted hands—that fail her most, hands that on bad days feel like they have shards of crystal rattling around the joints. Pari wears gloves, whenever she is out, to keep her hands warm, but mostly because she is ashamed of them, the knobby knuckles, the unsightly fingers with what her doctor calls swan neck deformity, the permanently flexed left pinkie.

Ah, vanity, she tells Collette.

This morning, Isabelle has brought her some figs, a few bars of soap, toothpaste, and a Tupperware containerful of chestnut soup. Albert is thinking of suggesting it as a new menu entry to the owners of the restaurant where he is the sous-chef. As she unloads the bags, Isabelle tells Pari of the new assignment she has landed. She writes musical scores for television shows now, commercials, and is hoping to write for film one day soon. She says she will begin scoring a miniseries that is shooting at the moment in Madrid.

“Will you be going there?” Pari asks. “To Madrid?”

“Non. The budget is too small. They won’t cover my travel cost.”

“That’s a pity. You could have stayed with Alain.”

“Oh, can you imagine, Maman? Poor Alain. He hardly has room to stretch his legs.”

Alain is a financial consultant. He lives in a tiny Madrid apartment with his wife, Ana, and their four children. He regularly e-mails Pari pictures and short video clips of the children.

Pari asks if Isabelle has heard from Thierry, and Isabelle says she has not. Thierry is in Africa, in the eastern part of Chad, where he works at a camp with refugees from Darfur. Pari knows this because Thierry is in sporadic touch with Isabelle. She is the only one he speaks to. This is how Pari knows the general outlines of her son’s life—for instance, that he spent some time in Vietnam. Or that he was married to a Vietnamese woman once, briefly, when he was twenty.

Isabelle sets a pot of water on to boil and fetches two cups from the cabinet.

“Not this morning, Isabelle. Actually, I need to ask you to leave.”

Isabelle gives her a wounded look, and Pari chides herself for not wording it better. Isabelle has always had a delicate nature.

“What I mean to say is, I’m expecting a call and I need some privacy.”

“A call? From who?”

“I’ll tell you later,” Pari says.

Isabelle crosses her arms and grins. “Have you found a lover, Maman?”

“A lover. Are you blind? Have you even looked at me recently?”

“There is not a thing wrong with you.”

“You need to go. I’ll explain later, I promise.”

“D’accord, d’accord.” Isabelle slings her purse over her shoulder, grabs her coat and keys. “But I’ll have you know I’m duly intrigued.”

The man who calls at 9:30 A.M. is named Markos Varvaris. He had contacted Pari through her Facebook account with this message, written in English: Are you the daughter of the poet Nila Wahdati? If so, I would like very much to speak with you about something that will be of interest to you. Pari had searched the web for his name and found that he was a plastic surgeon who worked for a nonprofit organization in Kabul. Now, on the phone, he greets her in Farsi, and continues to speak in Farsi until Pari has to interrupt him.

“Monsieur Varvaris, I’m sorry, but maybe we speak in English?”

“Ah, of course. My apologies. I assumed … Although, of course, it does make sense, you left when you were very young, didn’t you?”

“Yes, that is true.”

“I learned Farsi here myself. I would say I am more or less functional in it. I have lived here since 2002, since shortly after the Taliban left. Quite optimistic days, those. Yes, everybody ready for rebuilding and democracy and the like. Now it is a different story. Naturally, we are preparing for presidential elections, but it is a different story. I’m afraid it is.”

Pari listens patiently as Markos Varvaris makes protracted detours into the logistical challenge that are the elections in Afghanistan, which he says Karzai will win, and then on to the Taliban’s troubling forays into the north, the increasing Islamist infringement on news media, a side note or two on the overpopulation in Kabul, then on the cost of housing, lastly, before he circles back and says, “I have lived in this house now for a number of years. I understand you lived in this house too.”

“I’m sorry?”

“This was your parents’ house. That is what I am led to believe, in any case.”

“If I can ask, who is telling you this?”

“The landlord. His name is Nabi. It was Nabi, I should say. He is deceased now, sadly, as of recently. Do you remember him?”

The name conjures for Pari a handsome young face, sideburns, a wall of full dark hair combed back.

“Yes. Mostly, his name. He was a cook at our house. And a chauffeur as well.”

“He was both, yes. He had lived here, in this house, since 1947. Sixty-three years. It is a little unbelievable, no? But, as I said, he passed on. Last month. I was quite fond of him. Everyone was.”

“I see.”

“Nabi gave me a note,” Markos Varvaris says. “I was to read it only after his death. When he died, I had an Afghan colleague translate it into English. This note, it is more than a note. A letter, more accurately, and a remarkable one at that. Nabi says some things in it. I searched for you because some of it concerns you, and also because he directly asks in it that I find you and give you this letter. It took some searching, but we were able to locate you. Thanks to the web.” He lets out a short laugh.

There is a part of Pari that wants to hang up. Intuitively, she does not doubt that whatever revelation this old man—this person from her distant past—has scribbled on paper, halfway across the world, is true. She has known for a long time that she was lied to by Maman about her childhood. But even if the ground of her life was broken with a lie, what Pari has since planted in that ground stands as true and sturdy and unshakable as a giant oak. Eric, her children, her grandchildren, her career, Collette. So what is the use? After all this time, what is the use? Perhaps best to hang up.

But she doesn’t. Her pulse fluttering and her palms sweating, she says, “What … what does he say in his note, in this letter?”

“Well, for one thing, he claims he was your uncle.”

“My uncle.”

“Your stepuncle, to be precise. And there is more. He says many other things as well.”

“Monsieur Varvaris, do you have it? This note, this letter, or the translation? Do you have it with you?”

“I do.”

“Maybe you read it for me? Can you read it?”

“You mean now?”

“If you have the time. I can call you, to collect the charge.”

“No need, no. But are you sure?”

“Oui,” she says into the phone. “I’m sure, Monsieur Varvaris.”

He reads it to her. He reads her the whole thing. It takes a while. When he finishes, she thanks him and tells him she will be in touch soon.

After she hangs up, she sets the coffeemaker to brew a cup and moves to her window. From it, the familiar view presents itself to her—the narrow cobblestone path below, the pharmacy up the block, the falafel joint at the corner, the brasserie run by the Basque family.

Pari’s hands shake. A startling thing is happening to her. Something truly remarkable. The picture of it in her mind is of an ax striking soil and suddenly rich black oil bubbling up to the surface. This is what is happening to her, memories struck upon, rising up from the depths. She gazes out the window in the direction of the brasserie, but what she sees is not the skinny waiter beneath the awning, black apron tied at the waist and shaking a cloth over a table, but a little red wagon with a squeaky wheel bouncing along beneath a sky of unfurling clouds, rolling over ridges and down dried-up gullies, up and down ocher hills that loom and then fall away. She sees tangles of fruit trees standing in groves, the breeze catching their leaves, and rows of grapevines connecting little flat-roofed houses. She sees washing lines and women squatting by a stream, and the creaking ropes of a swing beneath a big tree, and a big dog, cowering from the taunts of village boys, and a hawk-nosed man digging a ditch, shirt plastered to his back with sweat, and a veiled woman bent over a cooking fire.

But something else too at the edge of it all, at the rim of her vision—and this is what draws her most—an elusive shadow. A figure. At once soft and hard. The softness of a hand holding hers. The hardness of knees where she’d once rested her cheek. She searches for his face, but it evades her, slips from her, each time she turns to it. Pari feels a hole opening up in her. There has been in her life, all her life, a great absence. Somehow, she has always known.

“Brother,” she says, unaware she is speaking. Unaware she is weeping.

A verse from a Farsi song suddenly tumbles to her tongue:

I know a sad little fairy

Who was blown away by the wind one night.

There is another, perhaps earlier, verse, she is sure of it, but that eludes her as well.

Pari sits. She has to. She doesn’t think she can stand at the moment. She waits for the coffee to brew and thinks that when it’s ready she is going to have a cup, and then perhaps a cigarette, and then she is going to go to the living room to call Collette in Lyon, see if her old friend can arrange her a trip to Kabul.

But for the moment Pari sits. She shuts her eyes, as the coffeemaker begins to gurgle, and she finds behind her eyelids hills that stand soft and a sky that stands high and blue, and the sun setting behind a windmill, and always, always, hazy strings of mountains that fall and fall away on the horizon.


Summer 2009

“Your father is a great man.”

Adel looked up. It was the teacher Malalai who had leaned in and whispered this in his ear. A plump, middle-aged woman wearing a violet beaded shawl around her shoulders, she smiled at him now with her eyes shut.

“And you are a lucky boy.”

“I know,” he whispered back.

Good, she mouthed.

They were standing on the front steps of the town’s new school for girls, a rectangular light green building with a flat roof and wide windows, as Adel’s father, his Baba jan, delivered a brief prayer followed by an animated speech. Gathered before them in the blazing midday heat was a large crowd of squinting children, parents, and elders, roughly a hundred or so locals from the small town of Shadbagh-e-Nau, “New Shadbagh.”

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