Laila lay there and listened, wishing Mammy would notice that she, Laila, hadn't become shaheed, that she was alive, here, in bed with her, that she had hopes and a future. But Laila knew that her future was no match for her brothers' past. They had overshadowed her in life. They would obliterate her in death. Mammy was now the curator of their lives' museum and she, Laila, a mere visitor. A receptacle for their myths. The parchment on which Mammy meant to ink their legends.
"The messenger who came with the news, he said that when they brought the boys back to camp, Ahmad Shah Massoud personally oversaw the burial. He said a prayer for them at the gravesite. That's the kind of brave young men your brothers were, Laila, that Commander Massoud himself, the Lion of Panjshir, God bless him, would oversee their burial."
Mammy rolled onto her back. Laila shifted, rested her head on Mammy's chest.
"Some days," Mammy said in a hoarse voice, "I listen to that clock ticking in the hallway. Then I think of all the ticks, all the minutes, all the hours and days and weeks and months and years waiting for me. All of it without them. And I can't breathe then, like someone's stepping on my heart, Laila. I get so weak. So weak I just want to collapse somewhere."
"I wish there was something I could do," Laila said, meaning it. But it came out sounding broad, perfunctory, like the token consolation of a kind stranger.
"You're a good daughter," Mammy said, after a deep sigh. "And I haven't been much of a mother to you."
"Don't say that."
"Oh, it's true. I know it and I'm sorry for it, my love."
Laila sat up, looking down at Mammy. There were gray strands in Mammy's hair now. And it startled Laila how much weight Mammy, who'd always been plump, had lost. Her cheeks had a sallow, drawn look. The blouse she was wearing drooped over her shoulders, and there was a gaping space between her neck and the collar. More than once Laila had seen the wedding band slide off Mammy's finger.
"I've been meaning to ask you something."
"What is it?"
"You wouldn't . . ." Laila began.
She'd talked about it to Hasina. At Hasina's suggestion, the two of them had emptied the bottle of aspirin in the gutter, hidden the kitchen knives and the sharp kebab skewers beneath the rug under the couch. Hasina had found a rope in the yard. When Babi couldn't find his razors, Laila had to tell him of her fears. He dropped on the edge of the couch, hands between his knees. Laila waited for some kind of reassurance from him. But all she got was a bewildered, hollow-eyed look.
"You wouldn't . . . Mammy I worry that - "
"I thought about it the night we got the news," Mammy said. "I won't lie to you, I've thought about it since too. But, no. Don't worry, Laila. I want to see my sons' dream come true. I want to see the day the Soviets go home disgraced, the day the Mujahideen come to Kabul in victory. I want to be there when it happens, when Afghanistan is free, so the boys see it too. They'll see it through my eyes."
Mammy was soon asleep, leaving Laila with dueling emotions: reassured that Mammy meant to live on, stung that she was not the reason. She would never leave her mark on Mammy's heart the way her brothers had, because Mammy's heart was like a pallid beach where Laila's footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed, swelled and crashed.
The driver pulled his taxi over to let pass another long convoy of Soviet jeeps and armored vehicles. Tariq leaned across the front seat, over the driver, and yelled, "Pajalusta! Pajalusta!"
A jeep honked and Tariq whistled back, beaming and waving cheerfully. "Lovely guns!" he yelled. "Fabulous jeeps! Fabulous army! Too bad you're losing to a bunch of peasants firing slingshots!"
The convoy passed. The driver merged back onto the road.
"How much farther?" Laila asked.
"An hour at the most," the driver said. "Barring any more convoys or checkpoints."
They were taking a day trip, Laila, Babi, and Tariq.
Hasina had wanted to come too, had begged her father, but he wouldn't allow it. The trip was Babi's idea. Though he could hardly afford it on his salary, he'd hired a driver for the day. He wouldn't disclose anything to Laila about their destination except to say that, with it, he was contributing to her education.
They had been on the road since five in the morning.
Through Laila's window, the landscape shifted from snowcapped peaks to deserts to canyons and sun-scorched outcroppings of rocks. Along the way, they passed mud houses with thatched roofs and fields dotted with bundles of wheat. Pitched out in the dusty fields, here and there, Laila recognized the black tents of Koochi nomads. And, frequently, the carcasses of burned-out Soviet tanks and wrecked helicopters. This, she thought, was Ahmad and Noor's Afghanistan. This, here in the provinces, was where the war was being fought, after all. Not in Kabul. Kabul was largely at peace. Back in Kabul, if not for the occasional bursts of gunfire, if not for the Soviet soldiers smoking on the sidewalks and the Soviet jeeps always bumping through the streets, war might as well have been a rumor.
It was late morning, after they'd passed two more checkpoints, when they entered a valley. Babi had Laila lean across the seat and pointed to a series of ancient-looking walls of sun-dried red in the distance.
"That's called Shahr-e-Zohak. The Red City. It used to be a fortress. It was built some nine hundred years ago to defend the valley from invaders. Genghis Khan's grandson attacked it in the thirteenth century, but he was killed. It was Genghis Khan himself who then destroyed it."
"And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another," the driver said, flicking cigarette ash out the window. "Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we're like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing. Isn't that the truth, badar?"
"Indeed it is," said Babi.
* * *
HALF AN HOUR LATER, the driver pulled over.
"Come on, you two," Babi said. "Come outside and have a look."
They got out of the taxi. Babi pointed. "There they are. Look."
Tariq gasped. Laila did too. And she knew then that she could live to be a hundred and she would never again see a thing as magnificent.
The two Buddhas were enormous, soaring much higher than she had imagined from all the photos she'd seen of them. Chiseled into a sun-bleached rock cliff, they peered down at them, as they had nearly two thousand years before, Laila imagined, at caravans crossing the valley on the Silk Road. On either side of them, along the overhanging niche, the cliff was pocked with myriad caves.
"I feel so small," Tariq said.
"You want to climb up?" Babi said.
"Up the statues?" Laila asked. "We can do that?"
Babi smiled and held out his hand. "Come on."
THE CLIMB WAS HARD for Tariq, who had to hold on to both Laila and Babi as they inched up a winding, narrow, dimly lit staircase. They saw shadowy caves along the way, and tunnels honeycombing the cliff every which way.
"Careful where you step," Babi said. His voice made a loud echo. "The ground is treacherous."
In some parts, the staircase was open to the Buddha's cavity.
"Don't look down, children. Keep looking straight ahead."
As they climbed, Babi told them that Bamiyan had once been a thriving Buddhist center until it had fallen under Islamic Arab rule in the ninth century. The sandstone cliffs were home to Buddhist monks who carved caves in them to use as living quarters and as sanctuary for weary traveling pilgrims. The monks, Babi said, painted beautiful frescoes along the walls and roofs of their caves.
"At one point," he said, "there were five thousand monks living as hermits in these caves."
Tariq was badly out of breath when they reached the top. Babi was panting too. But his eyes shone with excitement.
"We're standing atop its head," he said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. "There's a niche over here where we can look out."
They inched over to the craggy overhang and, standing side by side, with Babi in the middle, gazed down on the valley.
"Look at this!" said Laila.
The Bamiyan Valley below was carpeted by lush farming fields. Babi said they were green winter wheat and alfalfa, potatoes too. The fields were bordered by poplars and crisscrossed by streams and irrigation ditches, on the banks of which tiny female figures squatted and washed clothes. Babi pointed to rice paddies and barley fields draping the slopes. It was autumn, and Laila could make out people in bright tunics on the roofs of mud brick dwellings laying out the harvest to dry. The main road going through the town was poplar-lined too. There were small shops and teahouses and street-side barbers on either side of it. Beyond the village, beyond the river and the streams, Laila saw foothills, bare and dusty brown, and, beyond those, as beyond everything else in Afghanistan, the snowcapped Hindu Kush.
The sky above all of this was an immaculate, spotless blue.
"It's so quiet," Laila breathed. She could see tiny sheep and horses but couldn't hear their bleating and whinnying.
"It's what I always remember about being up here,"
Babi said. "The silence. The peace of it. I wanted you to experience it. But I also wanted you to see your country's heritage, children, to learn of its rich past. You see, some things I can teach you. Some you learn from books. But there are things that, well, you just have to see and feel."
"Look," said Tariq.
They watched a hawk, gliding in circles above the village.
"Did you ever bring Mammy up here?" Laila asked.
"Oh, many times. Before the boys were born. After too. Your mother, she used to be adventurous then, and . . . so alive. She was just about the liveliest, happiest person I'd ever met." He smiled at the memory. "She had this laugh. I swear it's why I married her, Laila, for that laugh. It bulldozed you. You stood no chance against it."
A wave of affection overcame Laila. From then on, she would always remember Babi this way: reminiscing about Mammy, with his elbows on the rock, hands cupping his chin, his hair ruffled by the wind, eyes crinkled against the sun.
"I'm going to look at some of those caves," Tariq said.
"Be careful," said Babi.
"I will, Kaka jan," Tariq's voice echoed back.
Laila watched a trio of men far below, talking near a cow tethered to a fence. Around them, the trees had started to turn, ochre and orange, scarlet red.
"I miss the boys too, you know," Babi said. His eyes had welled up a tad. His chin was trembling. "I may not . . . With your mother, both her joy and sadness are extreme. She can't hide either. She never could. Me, I suppose I'm different. I tend to . . . But it broke me too, the boys dying. I miss them too. Not a day passes that I . . . It's very hard, Laila. So very hard." He squeezed the inner corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. When he tried to talk, his voice broke. He pulled his lips over his teeth and waited. He took a long, deep breath, looked at her. "But I'm glad I have you. Every day, I thank God for you. Every single day. Sometimes, when your mother's having one of her really dark days, I feel like you're all I have, Laila."
Laila drew closer to him and rested her cheek up against his chest. He seemed slightly startled - unlike Mammy, he rarely expressed his affection physically. He planted a brisk kiss on the top of her head and hugged her back awkwardly. They stood this way for a while, looking down on the Bamiyan Valley.
"As much as I love this land, some days I think about leaving it," Babi said.
"Anyplace where it's easy to forget. Pakistan first, I suppose. For a year, maybe two. Wait for our paperwork to get processed."