The cold, hateful look the girl flashed Rasheed at this did not escape Mariam, but he was looking down and did not notice.
"No matter. The point is, I am your husband now, and it falls on me to guard not only your honor but ours, yes, our nang and namoos. That is the husband's burden. You let me worry about that. Please. As for you, you are the queen, the malika, and this house is your palace. Anything you need done you ask Mariam and she will do it for you. Won't you, Mariam? And if you fancy something, I will get it for you. You see, that is the sort of husband I am.
"All I ask in return, well, it is a simple thing. I ask that you avoid leaving this house without my company. That's all. Simple, no? If I am away and you need something urgently, I mean absolutely need it and it cannot wait for me, then you can send Mariam and she will go out and get it for you. You've noticed a discrepancy, surely. Well, one does not drive a Volga and a Benz in the same manner. That would be foolish, wouldn't it? Oh, I also ask that when we are out together, that you wear a burqa. For your own protection, naturally. It is best. So many lewd men in this town now. Such vile intentions, so eager to dishonor even a married woman. So. That's all."
"I should say that Mariam will be my eyes and ears when I am away." Here, he shot Mariam a fleeting look that was as hard as a steel-toed kick to the temple. "Not that I am mistrusting. Quite the contrary. Frankly, you strike me as far wiser than your years. But you are still a young woman, Laila jan, a dokhtar e jawan, and young women can make unfortunate choices. They can be prone to mischief. Anyway, Mariam will be accountable. And if there is a slipup . . ."
On and on he went. Mariam sat watching the girl out of the corner of her eye as Rasheed's demands and judgments rained down on them like the rockets on Kabul.
ONE DAY, Mariam was in the living room folding some shirts of Rasheed's that she had plucked from the clothesline in the yard. She didn't know how long the girl had been standing there, but, when she picked up a shirt and turned around, she found her standing by the doorway, hands cupped around a glassful of tea.
"I didn't mean to startle you," the girl said. "I'm sorry."
Mariam only looked at her.
The sun fell on the girl's face, on her large green eyes and her smooth brow, on her high cheekbones and the appealing, thick eyebrows, which were nothing like Mariam's own, thin and featureless. Her yellow hair, uncombed this morning, was middle-parted.
Mariam could see in the stiff way the girl clutched the cup, the tightened shoulders, that she was nervous. She imagined her sitting on the bed working up the nerve.
"The leaves are turning," the girl said companionably. "Have you seen? Autumn is my favorite. I like the smell of it, when people burn leaves in their gardens. My mother, she liked springtime the best. You knew my mother?"
The girl cupped a hand behind her ear. "I'm sorry?"
Mariam raised her voice. "I said no. I didn't know your mother."
"Is there something you want?"
"Mariam jan, I want to . . . About the things he said the other night - "
"I have been meaning to talk to you about it." Mariam broke in.
"Yes, please," the girl said earnestly, almost eagerly. She took a step forward. She looked relieved.
Outside, an oriole was warbling. Someone was pulling a cart; Mariam could hear the creaking of its hinges, the bouncing and rattling of its iron wheels. There was the sound of gunfire not so far away, a single shot followed by three more, then nothing.
"I won't be your servant," Mariam said. "I won't."
The girl flinched. "No. Of course not!"
"You may be the palace malika and me a dehati, but I won't take orders from you. You can complain to him and he can slit my throat, but I won't do it. Do you hear me? I won't be your servant."
"No! I don't expect - "
"And if you think you can use your looks to get rid of me, you're wrong. I was here first. I won't be thrown out. I won't have you cast me out."
"It's not what I want," the girl said weakly.
"And I see your wounds are healed up now. So you can start doing your share of the work in this house - "
The girl was nodding quickly. Some of her tea spilled, but she didn't notice. "Yes, that's the other reason I came down, to thank you for taking care of me - "
"Well, I wouldn't have," Mariam snapped. "I wouldn't have fed you and washed you and nursed you if I'd known you were going to turn around and steal my husband."
"Steal - "
"I will still cook and wash the dishes. You will do the laundry and the sweeping. The rest we will alternate daily. And one more thing. I have no use for your company. I don't want it. What I want is to be alone. You will leave me be, and I will return the favor. That's how we will get on. Those are the rules."
When she was done speaking, her heart was hammering and her mouth felt parched. Mariam had never before spoken in this manner, had never stated her will so forcefully. It ought to have felt exhilarating, but the girl's eyes had teared up and her face was drooping, and what satisfaction Mariam found from this outburst felt meager, somehow illicit.
She extended the shirts toward the girl.
"Put them in the almari, not the closet. He likes the whites in the top drawer, the rest in the middle, with the socks."
The girl set the cup on the floor and put her hands out for the shirts, palms up. "I'm sorry about all of this," she croaked.
"You should be," Mariam said. "You should be sorry."
Laila remembered a gathering once, years before at the house, on one of Mammy's good days. The women had been sitting in the garden, eating from a platter of fresh mulberries that Wajma had picked from the tree in her yard. The plump mulberries had been white and pink, and some the same dark purple as the bursts of tiny veins on Wajma's nose.
"You heard how his son died?" Wajma had said, energetically shoveling another handful of mulberries into her sunken mouth.
"He drowned, didn't he?" Nila, Giti's mother, said. "At Ghargha Lake, wasn't it?"
"But did you know, did you know that Rasheed . . ."
Wajma raised a finger, made a show of nodding and chewing and making them wait for her to swallow. "Did you know that he used to drink sharab back then, that he was crying drunk that day? It's true. Crying drunk, is what I heard. And that was midmorning. By noon, he had passed out on a lounge chair. You could have fired the noon cannon next to his ear and he wouldn't have batted an eyelash."
Laila remembered how Wajma had covered her mouth, burped; how her tongue had gone exploring between her few remaining teeth.
"You can imagine the rest. The boy went into the water unnoticed. They spotted him a while later, floating face-down. People rushed to help, half trying to wake up the boy, the other half the father. Someone bent over the boy, did the . . . the mouth-to-mouth thing you're supposed to do. It was pointless. They could all see that. The boy was gone."
Laila remembered Wajma raising a finger and her voice quivering with piety. "This is why the Holy Koran forbids sharab. Because it always falls on the sober to pay for the sins of the drunk. So it does."
It was this story that was circling in Laila's head after she gave Rasheed the news about the baby. He had immediately hopped on his bicycle, ridden to a mosque, and prayed for a boy.
That night, all during the meal, Laila watched Mariam push a cube of meat around her plate. Laila was there when Rasheed sprang the news on Mariam in a high, dramatic voice - Laila had never before witnessed such cheerful cruelty. Mariam's lashes fluttered when she heard. A flush spread across her face. She sat sulking, looking desolate.
After, Rasheed went upstairs to listen to his radio, and Laila helped Mariam clear the sofrah.
"I can't imagine what you are now," Mariam said, picking grains of rice and bread crumbs, "if you were a Benz before."
Laila tried a more lighthearted tactic. "A train? Maybe a big jumbo jet."
Mariam straightened up. "I hope you don't think this excuses you from chores."
Laila opened her mouth, thought better of it. She reminded herself that Mariam was the only innocent party in this arrangement. Mariam and the baby.
Later, in bed, Laila burst into tears.
What was the matter? Rasheed wanted to know, lifting her chin. Was she ill? Was it the baby, was something wrong with the baby? No?
Was Mariam mistreating her?
"That's it, isn't it?"
"Wallah o billah, I'll go down and teach her a lesson.
Who does she think she is, that harami, treating you - "
He was getting up already, and she had to grab him by the forearm, pull him back down. "Don't! No! She's been decent to me. I need a minute, that's all. I'll be fine."
He sat beside her, stroking her neck, murmuring. His hand slowly crept down to her back, then up again. He leaned in, flashed his crowded teeth.
"Let's see, then," he purred, "if I can't help you feel better."
FIRST, the trees - those that hadn't been cut down for firewood - shed their spotty yellow-and-copper leaves.
Then came the winds, cold and raw, ripping through the city. They tore off the last of the clinging leaves, and left the trees looking ghostly against the muted brown of the hills. The season's first snowfall was light, the flakes no sooner fallen than melted. Then the roads froze, and snow gathered in heaps on the rooftops, piled halfway up frost-caked windows. With snow came the kites, once the rulers of Kabul's winter skies, now timid trespassers in territory claimed by streaking rockets and fighter jets.
Rasheed kept bringing home news of the war, and Laila was baffled by the allegiances that Rasheed tried to explain to her. Sayyaf was fighting the Hazaras, he said. The Hazaras were fighting Massoud.
"And he's fighting Hekmatyar, of course, who has the support of the Pakistanis. Mortal enemies, those two, Massoud and Hekmatyar. Sayyaf, he's siding with Massoud. And Hekmatyar supports the Hazaras for now."
As for the unpredictable Uzbek commander Dostum, Rasheed said no one knew where he would stand. Dostum had fought the Soviets in the 1980s alongside the Mujahideen but had defected and joined Najibullah's communist puppet regime after the Soviets had left. He had even earned a medal, presented by Najibullah himself, before defecting once again and returning to the Mujahideen's side. For the time being, Rasheed said, Dostum was supporting Massoud.
In Kabul, particularly in western Kabul, fires raged, and black palls of smoke mushroomed over snow-clad buildings. Embassies closed down. Schools collapsed. In hospital waiting rooms, Rasheed said, the wounded were bleeding to death. In operating rooms, limbs were being amputated without anesthesia.
"But don't worry," he said. "You're safe with me, my flower, my gul. Anyone tries to harm you, I'll rip out their liver and make them eat it."
That winter, everywhere Laila turned, walls blocked her way. She thought longingly of the wide-open skies of her childhood, of her days of going to buzkashi tournaments with Babi and shopping at Mandaii with Mammy, of her days of running free in the streets and gossiping about boys with Giti and Hasina. Her days of sitting with Tariq in a bed of clover on the banks of a stream somewhere, trading riddles and candy, watching the sun go down.
But thinking of Tariq was treacherous because, before she could stop, she saw him lying on a bed, far from home, tubes piercing his burned body. Like the bile that kept burning her throat these days, a deep, paralyzing grief would come rising up Laila's chest. Her legs would turn to water. She would have to hold on to something.