"What happened to him I heard from one of the nurses,"
Abdul Sharif resumed, tapping his chest with a fist as if to ease the passage of the pill. "With all the time I've spent in Peshawar, I've become pretty proficient in Urdu. Anyway, what I gathered was that your friend was in a lorry full of refugees, twenty-three of them, all headed for Peshawar. Near the border, they were caught in cross fire. A rocket hit the lorry. Probably a stray, but you never know with these people, you never know. There were only six survivors, all of them admitted to the same unit. Three died within twenty-four hours. Two of them lived – sisters, as I understood it - and had been discharged. Your friend Mr. Walizai was the last. He'd been there for almost three weeks by the time I arrived."
So he was alive. But how badly had they hurt him? Laila wondered frantically. How badly? Badly enough to be put in a special unit, evidently. Laila was aware that she had started sweating, that her face felt hot. She tried to think of something else, something pleasant, like the trip to Bamiyan to see the Buddhas with Tariq and Babi. But instead an image of Tariq's parents presented itself: Tariq's mother trapped in the lorry, upside down, screaming for Tariq through the smoke, her arms and chest on fire, the wig melting into her scalp . . .
Laila had to take a series of rapid breaths.
"He was in the bed next to mine. There were no walls, only a curtain between us. So I could see him pretty well."
Abdul Sharif found a sudden need to toy with his wedding band. He spoke more slowly now.
"Your friend, he was badly – very badly – injured, you understand. He had rubber tubes coming out of him everywhere. At first – " He cleared his throat. "At first, I thought he'd lost both legs in the attack, but a nurse said no, only the right, the left one was on account of an old injury. There were internal injuries too. They'd operated three times already. Took out sections of intestines, I don't remember what else. And he was burned. Quite badly. That's all I'll say about that. I'm sure you have your fair share of nightmares, hamshira. No sense in me adding to them."
Tariq was legless now. He was a torso with two stumps. Legless. Laila thought she might collapse. With deliberate, desperate effort, she sent the tendrils of her mind out of this room, out the window, away from this man, over the street outside, over the city now, and its flat-topped houses and bazaars, its maze of narrow streets turned to sand castles.
"He was drugged up most of the time. For the pain, you understand. But he had moments when the drugs were wearing off when he was clear. In pain but clear of mind. I would talk to him from my bed. I told him who I was, where I was from. He was glad, I think, that there was a hamwatan next to him.
"I did most of the talking. It was hard for him to. His voice was hoarse, and I think it hurt him to move his lips. So I told him about my daughters, and about our house in Peshawar and the veranda my brother-in-law and I are building out in the back. I told him I had sold the stores in Kabul and that I was going back to finish up the paperwork. It wasn't much. But it occupied him. At least, I like to think it did.
"Sometimes he talked too. Half the time, I couldn't make out what he was saying, but I caught enough. He described where he'd lived. He talked about his uncle in Ghazni. And his mother's cooking and his father's carpentry, him playing the accordion.
"But, mostly, he talked about you, hamshira. He said you were – how did he put it – his earliest memory. I think that's right, yes. I could tell he cared a great deal about you. Balay, that much was plain to see. But he said he was glad you weren't there. He said he didn't want you seeing him like that."
Laila's feet felt heavy again, anchored to the floor, as if all her blood had suddenly pooled down there. But her mind was far away, free and fleet, hurtling like a speeding missile beyond Kabul, over craggy brown hills and over deserts ragged with clumps of sage, past canyons of jagged red rock and over snowcapped mountains . . .
"When I told him I was going back to Kabul, he asked me to find you. To tell you that he was thinking of you.
That he missed you. I promised him I would. I'd taken quite a liking to him, you see. He was a decent sort of boy, I could tell."
Abdul Sharif wiped his brow with the handkerchief.
"I woke up one night," he went on, his interest in the wedding band renewed, "I think it was night anyway, it's hard to tell in those places. There aren't any windows. Sunrise, sundown, you just don't know. But I woke up, and there was some sort of commotion around the bed next to mine. You have to understand that I was full of drugs myself, always slipping in and out, to the point where it was hard to tell what was real and what you'd dreamed up. All I remember is, doctors huddled around the bed, calling for this and that, alarms bleeping, syringes all over the ground.
"In the morning, the bed was empty. I asked a nurse. She said he fought valiantly."
Laila was dimly aware that she was nodding. She'd known. Of course she'd known. She'd known the moment she had sat across from this man why he was here, what news he was bringing.
"At first, you see, at first I didn't think you even existed," he was saying now. "I thought it was the mor**ine talking. Maybe I even hoped you didn't exist; I've always dreaded bearing bad news. But I promised him. And, like I said, I'd become rather fond of him. So I came by here a few days ago. I asked around for you, talked to some neighbors. They pointed to this house. They also told me what had happened to your parents. When I heard about that, well, I turned around and left. I wasn't going to tell you. I decided it would be too much for you. For anybody."
Abdul Sharif reached across the table and put a hand on her kneecap. "But I came back. Because, in the end, I think he would have wanted you to know. I believe that. I'm so sorry. I wish . . ."
Laila wasn't listening anymore. She was remembering the day the man from Panjshir had come to deliver the news of Ahmad's and Noor's deaths. She remembered Babi, white-faced, slumping on the couch, and Mammy, her hand flying to her mouth when she heard. Laila had watched Mammy come undone that day and it had scared her, but she hadn't felt any true sorrow. She hadn't understood the awfulness of her mother's loss. Now another stranger bringing news of another death. Now she was the one sitting on the chair. Was this her penalty, then, her punishment for being aloof to her own mother's suffering?
Laila remembered how Mammy had dropped to the ground, how she'd screamed, torn at her hair. But Laila couldn't even manage that. She could hardly move. She could hardly move a muscle.
She sat on the chair instead, hands limp in her lap, eyes staring at nothing, and let her mind fly on. She let it fly on until it found the place, the good and safe place, where the barley fields were green, where the water ran clear and the cottonwood seeds danced by the thousands in the air; where Babi was reading a book beneath an acacia and Tariq was napping with his hands laced across his chest, and where she could dip her feet in the stream and dream good dreams beneath the watchful gaze of gods of ancient, sun-bleached rock.
I'm so sorry," Rasheed said to the girl, taking his bowl of mastawa and meatballs from Mariam without looking at her. "I know you were very close . . . friends . . . the two of you. Always together, since you were kids. It's a terrible thing, what's happened. Too many young Afghan men are dying this way."
He motioned impatiently with his hand, still looking at the girl, and Mariam passed him a napkin.
For years, Mariam had looked on as he ate, the muscles of his temples churning, one hand making compact little rice balls, the back of the other wiping grease, swiping stray grains, from the corners of his mouth. For years, he had eaten without looking up, without speaking, his silence condemning, as though some judgment were being passed, then broken only by an accusatory grunt, a disapproving cluck of his tongue, a one-word command for more bread, more water.
Now he ate with a spoon. Used a napkin. Said lotfan when asking for water. And talked. Spiritedly and incessantly.
"If you ask me, the Americans armed the wrong man in Hekmatyar. All the guns the CIA handed him in the eighties to fight the Soviets. The Soviets are gone, but he still has the guns, and now he's turning them on innocent people like your parents. And he calls this jihad. What a farce! What does jihad have to do with killing women and children? Better the CIA had armed Commander Massoud."
Mariam's eyebrows shot up of their own will. Commander Massoud? In her head, she could hear Rasheed's rants against Massoud, how he was a traitor and a communist. But, then, Massoud was a Tajik, of course. Like Laila.
"Now, there is a reasonable fellow. An honorable Afghan. A man genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution."
Rasheed shrugged and sighed.
"Not that they give a damn in America, mind you. What do they care that Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other? How many Americans can even tell one from the other? Don't expect help from them, I say. Now that the Soviets have collapsed, we're no use to them. We served our purpose. To them, Afghanistan is a kenarab, a shit hole. Excuse my language, but it's true. What do you think, Laila jan?"
The girl mumbled something unintelligible and pushed a meatball around in her bowl.
Rasheed nodded thoughtfully, as though she'd said the most clever thing he'd ever heard. Mariam had to look away.
"You know, your father, God give him peace, your father and I used to have discussions like this. This was before you were born, of course. On and on we'd go about politics. About books too. Didn't we, Mariam? You remember."
Mariam busied herself taking a sip of water.
"Anyway, I hope I am not boring you with all this talk of politics."
Later, Mariam was in the kitchen, soaking dishes in soapy water, a tightly wound knot in her belly.
It wasn't so much what he said, the blatant lies, the contrived empathy, or even the fact that he had not raised a hand to her, Mariam, since he had dug the girl out from under those bricks.
It was the staged delivery. Like a performance. An attempt on his part, both sly and pathetic, to impress. To charm.
And suddenly Mariam knew that her suspicions were right. She understood with a dread that was like a blinding whack to the side of her head that what she was witnessing was nothing less than a courtship.
WHEN SHE'D at last worked up the nerve, Mariam went to his room.
Rasheed lit a cigarette, and said, "Why not?"
Mariam knew right then that she was defeated. She'd half expected, half hoped, that he would deny everything, feign surprise, maybe even outrage, at what she was implying. She might have had the upper hand then. She might have succeeded in shaming him. But it stole her grit, his calm acknowledgment, his matter-of-fact tone.
"Sit down," he said. He was lying on his bed, back to the wall, his thick, long legs splayed on the mattress. "Sit down before you faint and cut your head open."
Mariam felt herself drop onto the folding chair beside his bed.
"Hand me that ashtray, would you?" he said.
Obediently, she did.
Rasheed had to be sixty or more now – though Mariam, and in fact Rasheed himself did not know his exact age. His hair had gone white, but it was as thick and coarse as ever. There was a sag now to his eyelids and the skin of his neck, which was wrinkled and leathery. His cheeks hung a bit more than they used to. In the mornings, he stooped just a tad. But he still had the stout shoulders, the thick torso, the strong hands, the swollen belly that entered the room before any other part of him did.
On the whole, Mariam thought that he had weathered the years considerably better than she.
"We need to legitimize this situation," he said now, balancing the ashtray on his belly. His lips scrunched up in a playful pucker. "People will talk. It looks dishonorable, an unmarried young woman living here. It's bad for my reputation. And hers. And yours, I might add."