And the Mountains Echoed

Page 37

And of the wildly conflicting truths that resided within a person. Not just in his father, or his mother, or Kabir.

But within himself too.

This last discovery was, in some ways, the most surprising to Adel. The revelations of what he now knew his father had done—first in the name of jihad, then for what he had called the just rewards of sacrifice—had left Adel reeling. At least for a while. For days after that evening the rocks had come crashing through the window, Adel’s stomach ached whenever his father walked into the room. He found his father barking into his mobile phone, or even heard him humming in the bath, and he felt his spine crumpling, his throat going painfully dry. His father kissed him good night, and Adel’s instinct was to recoil. He had nightmares. He dreamt he was standing at the edge of the orchards, watching a thrashing about among the trees, the glint of a metal rod rising and falling, the sound of metal striking meat and bone. He woke from these dreams with a howl locked in his chest. Bouts of weeping side-swiped him at random moments.

And yet.

And yet.

Something else was happening as well. The new awareness had not faded from his mind, but slowly it had found company. Another, opposing current of consciousness coursed through him now, one that did not displace the first but claimed space beside it. Adel felt an awakening to this other, more troubling part of himself. The part of him that over time would gradually, almost imperceptibly, accept this new identity that at present prickled like a wet wool sweater. Adel saw that, in the end, he would probably accept things as his mother had. Adel had been angry with her at first; he was more forgiving now. Perhaps she had accepted out of fear of her husband. Or as a bargain for the life of luxury she led. Mostly, Adel suspected, she had accepted for the same reason he would: because she had to. What choice was there? Adel could not run from his life any more than Gholam could from his. People learned to live with the most unimaginable things. As would he. This was his life. This was his mother. This was his father. And this was him, even if he hadn’t always known it.

Adel knew he would not love his father again as he had before, when he would sleep happily curled in the bay of his thick arms. That was inconceivable now. But he would learn to love him again even if now it was a different, more complicated, messier business. Adel could almost feel himself leapfrogging over childhood. Soon, he would land as an adult. And when he did, there would be no going back because adulthood was akin to what his father had once said about being a war hero: once you became one, you died one.

Lying in bed at night, Adel thought that one day—maybe the next day or the one after that, or maybe one day the following week—he would leave the house and walk over to the field by the windmill where Gholam had told him his family was squatting. He thought he would find the field empty. He would stand on the side of the road, picture Gholam and his mother and his brothers and his grandmother, the family a straggling line lugging roped-up belongings, padding along the dusty shoulders of country roads, looking for some place to land. Gholam was the head of the family now. He would have to work. He would now spend his youth clearing canals, digging ditches, making bricks, and harvesting fields. Gholam would gradually turn into one of those stooping leather-faced men Adel always saw behind plows.

Adel thought he would stand there a while in the field, watching the hills and the mountains looming over New Shadbagh. And then he thought he would reach into his pocket for what he had found one day walking through the orchards, the left half of a pair of spectacles, snapped at the bridge, the lens a spiderweb of cracks, the temple crusted with dried blood. He would toss the broken spectacles into a ditch. Adel suspected that as he turned back around and walked home, what he would feel mostly would be relief.


Fall 2010

This evening, I come home from the clinic and find a message from Thalia on the landline phone in my bedroom. I play it as I slip off my shoes and sit at my desk. She tells me she has a cold, one she is sure she picked up from Mamá, then she asks after me, asks how work is going in Kabul. At the end, just before she hangs up, she says, Odie goes on and on about how you don’t call. Of course she won’t tell you. So I will. Markos. For the love of Christ. Call your mother. You ass.

I smile.


I keep a picture of her on my desk, the one I took all those years ago at the beach on Tinos—Thalia sitting on a rock with her back to the camera. I have framed the photo, though if you look closely you can still see a patch of dark brown at the left lower corner courtesy of a crazed Italian girl who tried to set fire to it many years ago.

I turn on my laptop and start typing up the previous day’s op notes. My room is upstairs—one of three bedrooms on the second floor of this house where I have lived since my arrival in Kabul back in 2002—and my desk sits at the window overlooking the garden below. I have a view of the loquat trees my old landlord, Nabi, and I planted a few years ago. I can see Nabi’s onetime quarters along the back wall too, now repainted. After he passed away, I offered them to a young Dutch fellow who helps local high schools with their IT. And, off to the right, there is Suleiman Wahdati’s 1940s Chevrolet, unmoved for decades, shrouded in rust like a rock by moss, currently covered by a light film of yesterday’s surprisingly early snowfall, the first of the year thus far. After Nabi died, I thought briefly of having the car hauled to one of Kabul’s junkyards, but I didn’t have the heart. It seemed to me too essential a part of the house’s past, its history.

I finish the notes and check my watch. It’s already 9:30 P.M. Seven o’clock in the evening back in Greece.

Call your mother. You ass.

If I am going to call Mamá tonight, I can’t delay it any longer. I remember Thalia wrote in one of her e-mails that Mamá was going to bed earlier and earlier. I take a breath and steel myself. I pick up the receiver and dial.

I met Thalia in the summer of 1967, when I was twelve years old. She and her mother, Madaline, came to Tinos to visit Mamá and me. Mamá, whose name is Odelia, said it had been years—fifteen, to be exact—since she and her friend Madaline had last seen each other. Madaline had left the island at seventeen and gone off to Athens to become, for a brief time at least, an actress of some modest renown.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Mamá said, “when I heard of her acting. Because of her looks. Everyone was always taken with Madaline. You’ll see for yourself when you meet her.”

I asked Mamá why she’d never mentioned her.

“Haven’t I? Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“I could have sworn.” Then she said, “The daughter. Thalia. You must be considerate with her because she had an accident. A dog bit her. She has a scar.”

Mamá wouldn’t say more, and I knew better than to lean on her about it. But this revelation intrigued me far more than Madaline’s past in film and stage had, my curiosity fueled by the suspicion that the scar must be both significant and visible for the girl to deserve special consideration. With morbid eagerness, I looked forward to seeing this scar for myself.

“Madaline and I met at mass, when we were little,” Mamá said. Right off, she said, they had become inseparable friends. They had held hands under their desks in class, or at recess, at church, or strolling past the barley fields. They had sworn to remain sisters for life. They promised they would live close to each other, even after they’d married. They would live as neighbors, and if one or the other’s husband insisted on moving away, then they would demand a divorce. I remember that Mamá grinned a little when she told me all this self-mockingly, as if to distance herself from this youthful exuberance and foolishness, all those headlong, breathless vows. But I saw on her face a tinge of unspoken hurt as well, a shade of disappointment that Mamá was far too proud to admit to.

Madaline was married now to a wealthy and much older man, a Mr. Andreas Gianakos, who years before had produced her second and, as it turned out, last film. He was in the construction business now and owned a big firm in Athens. They had had a falling-out recently, a row, Madaline and Mr. Gianakos. Mamá didn’t tell me any of this information; I knew it from a clandestine, hasty, partial read of the letter Madaline had sent Mamá informing her of her intent to visit.

It grows so tiresome, I tell you, to be around Andreas and his right-wing friends and their martial music. I keep tight-lipped all the time. I say nothing when they exalt these military thugs who have made a mockery of our democracy. Should I utter so much as a word of dissent, I am confident they would label me a communist anarchist, and then even Andreas’s influence would not save me from the dungeons. Perhaps he would not bother exerting it, meaning his influence. Sometimes I believe it is precisely his intent to provoke me into impugning myself. Ah, how I miss you, my dear Odie. How I miss your company …

The day our guests were due to arrive, Mamá awoke early to tidy up. We lived in a small house built into a hillside. Like many houses on Tinos, it was made of whitewashed stone, and the roof was flat, with diamond-shaped red tiles. The small upstairs bedroom Mamá and I shared didn’t have a door—the narrow stairwell led right into it—but it did have a fanlight window and a narrow terrace with a waist-high wrought-iron balustrade from which you could look out on the roofs of other houses, on the olive trees and the goats and winding stone alleys and arches below, and, of course, the Aegean, blue and calm in the summer morning, white-capped in the afternoon when the meltemi winds blew in from the north.

When she was done cleaning up, Mamá put on what passed for her one fancy outfit, the one she wore every August fifteenth, the Feast of the Dormition at the Panagia Evangelistria Church, when pilgrims descended on Tinos from everywhere in the Mediterranean to pray before the church’s famed icon. There is a photo of my mother in that outfit—the long, drab rusty gold dress with a rounded neckline, the shrunken white sweater, the stockings, the clunky black shoes. Mamá looking every bit the forbidding widow, with her severe face, her tufted eyebrows, and her snub nose, standing stiffly, looking sullenly pious, like she’s a pilgrim herself. I’m in the picture too, standing rigidly at my mother’s hip. I am wearing a white shirt, white shorts, and white kneesocks rolled up. You can tell by my scowl that I’ve been ordered to stand straight, to not smile, that my face has been scrubbed and my hair combed down with water, against my will and with a great deal of fuss. You can sense a current of dissatisfaction between us. You see it in how rigidly we stand, how our bodies barely make contact.

Or maybe you can’t. But I do every time I see that picture, the last time being two years ago. I can’t help but see the wariness, the effort, the impatience. I can’t help but see two people together out of a sense of genetic duty, doomed already to bewilder and disappoint each other, each honor-bound to defy the other.

From the bedroom window upstairs, I watched Mamá leave for the ferry port in the town of Tinos. A scarf tied under the chin, Mamá rammed into the sunny blue day headfirst. She was a slight, small-boned woman with the body of a child, but when you saw her coming you did well to let her pass. I remember her walking me to school every morning—my mother is retired now, but she was a schoolteacher. As we walked, Mamá never held my hand. The other mothers did with their own kids, but not Mamá. She said she had to treat me like any other student. She marched ahead, a fist closed at the neck of her sweater, and I tried to keep up, lunch box in hand, tottering along behind in her footsteps. In the classroom, I always sat at the back. I remember my mother at the blackboard and how she could nail a misbehaving pupil with a single, scalding glance, like a rock from a slingshot, the aim surgically true. And she could cleave you in half with nothing but a dark look or a sudden beat of silence.

Mamá believed in loyalty above all, even at the cost of self-denial. Especially at the cost of self-denial. She also believed it was always best to tell the truth, to tell it plainly, without fanfare, and the more disagreeable the truth, the sooner you had to tell it. She had no patience for soft spines. She was—is—a woman of enormous will, a woman without apology, and not a woman with whom you want to have a dispute—though I have never really understood, even now, whether her temperament was God-given or one she adopted out of necessity, what with her husband dying barely a year into their marriage and leaving her to raise me all on her own.

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