He gave Mariam a bewildered look. "What's the matter with her?"
That night, Mariam was lying in bed when the bickering started again. It was a hot, dry summer night, typical of the month of Saratan in Kabul. Mariam had opened her window, then shut it when no breeze came through to temper the heat, only mosquitoes. She could feel the heat rising from the ground outside, through the wheat brown, splintered planks of the outhouse in the yard, up through the walls and into her room.
Usually, the bickering ran its course after a few minutes, but half an hour passed and not only was it still going on, it was escalating. Mariam could hear Rasheed shouting now. The girl's voice, underneath his, was tentative and shrill. Soon the baby was wailing.
Then Mariam heard their door open violently. In the morning, she would find the doorknob's circular impression in the hallway wall. She was sitting up in bed when her own door slammed open and Rasheed came through.
He was wearing white underpants and a matching undershirt, stained yellow in the underarms with sweat. On his feet he wore flip-flops. He held a belt in his hand, the brown leather one he'd bought for his nikka with the girl, and was wrapping the perforated end around his fist.
"It's your doing. I know it is," he snarled, advancing on her.
Mariam slid out of her bed and began backpedaling. Her arms instinctively crossed over her chest, where he often struck her first.
"What are you talking about?" she stammered.
"Her denying me. You're teaching her to."
Over the years, Mariam had learned to harden herself against his scorn and reproach, his ridiculing and reprimanding. But this fear she had no control over.
All these years and still she shivered with fright when he was like this, sneering, tightening the belt around his fist, the creaking of the leather, the glint in his bloodshot eyes. It was the fear of the goat, released in the tiger's cage, when the tiger first looks up from its paws, begins to growl.
Now the girl was in the room, her eyes wide, her face contorted.
"I should have known that you'd corrupt her," Rasheed spat at Mariam. He swung the belt, testing it against his own thigh. The buckle jingled loudly.
"Stop it, bas!" the girl said. "Rasheed, you can't do this."
"Go back to the room."
Mariam backpedaled again.
"No! Don't do this!"
Rasheed raised the belt again and this time came at Mariam.
Then an astonishing thing happened: The girl lunged at him. She grabbed his arm with both hands and tried to drag him down, but she could do no more than dangle from it. She did succeed in slowing Rasheed's progress toward Mariam.
"Let go!" Rasheed cried.
"You win. You win. Don't do this. Please, Rasheed, no beating! Please don't do this."
They struggled like this, the girl hanging on, pleading, Rasheed trying to shake her off, keeping his eyes on Mariam, who was too stunned to do anything.
In the end, Mariam knew that there would be no beating, not that night. He'd made his point. He stayed that way a few moments longer, arm raised, chest heaving, a fine sheen of sweat filming his brow. Slowly, Rasheed lowered his arm. The girl's feet touched ground and still she wouldn't let go, as if she didn't trust him. He had to yank his arm free of her grip.
"I'm on to you," he said, slinging the belt over his shoulder. "I'm on to you both. I won't be made an ahmaq, a fool, in my own house."
He threw Mariam one last, murderous stare, and gave the girl a shove in the back on the way out.
When she heard their door close, Mariam climbed back into bed, buried her head beneath the pillow, and waited for the shaking to stop.
* * *
THREE TIMES THAT NIGHT, Mariam was awakened from sleep. The first time, it was the rumble of rockets in the west, coming from the direction of Karteh-Char. The second time, it was the baby crying downstairs, the girl's shushing, the clatter of spoon against milk bottle. Finally, it was thirst that pulled her out of bed.
Downstairs, the living room was dark, save for a bar of moonlight spilling through the window. Mariam could hear the buzzing of a fly somewhere, could make out the outline of the cast-iron stove in the corner, its pipe jutting up, then making a sharp angle just below the ceiling.
On her way to the kitchen, Mariam nearly tripped over something. There was a shape at her feet. When her eyes adjusted, she made out the girl and her baby lying on the floor on top of a quilt.
The girl was sleeping on her side, snoring. The baby was awake. Mariam lit the kerosene lamp on the table and hunkered down. In the light, she had her first real close-up look at the baby, the tuft of dark hair, the thick-lashed hazel eyes, the pink cheeks, and lips the color of ripe pomegranate.
Mariam had the impression that the baby too was examining her. She was lying on her back, her head tilted sideways, looking at Mariam intently with a mixture of amusement, confusion, and suspicion. Mariam wondered if her face might frighten her, but then the baby squealed happily and Mariam knew that a favorable judgment had been passed on her behalf.
"Shh," Mariam whispered. "You'll wake up your mother, half deaf as she is."
The baby's hand balled into a fist. It rose, fell, found a spastic path to her mouth. Around a mouthful of her own hand, the baby gave Mariam a grin, little bubbles of spittle shining on her lips.
"Look at you. What a sorry sight you are, dressed like a damn boy. And all bundled up in this heat. No wonder you're still awake."
Mariam pulled the blanket off the baby, was horrified to find a second one beneath, clucked her tongue, and pulled that one off too. The baby giggled with relief.
She flapped her arms like a bird.
As Mariam was pulling back, the baby grabbed her pinkie. The tiny fingers curled themselves tightly around it. They felt warm and soft, moist with drool.
"Gunuh," the baby said.
"All right, bas, let go."
The baby hung on, kicked her legs again.
Mariam pulled her finger free. The baby smiled and made a series of gurgling sounds. The knuckles went back to the mouth.
"What are you so happy about? Huh? What are you smiling at? You're not so clever as your mother says. You have a brute for a father and a fool for a mother. You wouldn't smile so much if you knew. No you wouldn't. Go to sleep, now. Go on."
Mariam rose to her feet and walked a few steps before the baby started making the eh, eh, eh sounds that Mariam knew signaled the onset of a hearty cry. She retraced her steps.
"What is it? What do you want from me?"
The baby grinned toothlessly.
Mariam sighed. She sat down and let her finger be grabbed, looked on as the baby squeaked, as she flexed her plump legs at the h*ps and kicked air. Mariam sat there, watching, until the baby stopped moving and began snoring softly.
Outside, mockingbirds were singing blithely, and, once in a while, when the songsters took flight, Mariam could see their wings catching the phosphorescent blue of moonlight beaming through the clouds. And though her throat was parched with thirst and her feet burned with pins and needles, it was a long time before Mariam gently freed her finger from the baby's grip and got up.
Of all earthly pleasures, Laila's favorite was lying next to Aziza, her baby's face so close that she could watch her big pupils dilate and shrink. Laila loved running her finger over Aziza's pleasing, soft skin, over the dimpled knuckles, the folds of fat at her elbows. Sometimes she lay Aziza down on her chest and whispered into the soft crown of her head things about Tariq, the father who would always be a stranger to Aziza, whose face Aziza would never know. Laila told her of his aptitude for solving riddles, his trickery and mischief, his easy laugh.
"He had the prettiest lashes, thick like yours. A good chin, a fine nose, and a round forehead. Oh, your father was handsome, Aziza. He was perfect. Perfect, like you are."
But she was careful never to mention him by name.
Sometimes she caught Rasheed looking at Aziza in the most peculiar way. The other night, sitting on the bedroom floor, where he was shaving a corn from his foot, he said quite casually, "So what was it like between you two?"
Laila had given him a puzzled look, as though she didn't understand.
"Laili and Majnoon. You and the yaklenga, the cripple. What was it you had, he and you?"
"He was my friend," she said, careful that her voice not shift too much in key. She busied herself making a bottle.
"You know that."
"I don't know what I know." Rasheed deposited the shavings on the windowsill and dropped onto the bed. The springs protested with a loud creak. He splayed his legs, picked at his crotch. "And as . . . friends, did the two of you ever do anything out of order?"
"Out of order?"
Rasheed smiled lightheartedly, but Laila could feel his gaze, cold and watchful. "Let me see, now. Well, did he ever give you a kiss? Maybe put his hand where it didn't belong?"
Laila winced with, she hoped, an indignant air. She could feel her heart drumming in her throat. "He was like a brother to me."
"So he was a friend or a brother?"
"Both. He - "
"Which was it?"
"He was like both."
"But brothers and sisters are creatures of curiosity. Yes.
Sometimes a brother lets his sister see his pecker, and a sister will - "
"You sicken me," Laila said.
"So there was nothing."
"I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Rasheed tilted his head, pursed his lips, nodded. "People gossiped, you know. I remember. They said all sorts of things about you two. But you're saying there was nothing."
She willed herself to glare at him.
He held her eyes for an excruciatingly long time in an unblinking way that made her knuckles go pale around the milk bottle, and it took all that Laila could muster to not falter.
She shuddered at what he would do if he found out that she had been stealing from him. Every week, since Aziza's birth, she pried his wallet open when he was asleep or in the outhouse and took a single bill. Some weeks, if the wallet was light, she took only a five-afghani bill, or nothing at all, for fear that he would notice. When the wallet was plump, she helped herself to a ten or a twenty, once even risking two twenties. She hid the money in a pouch she'd sewn in the lining of her checkered winter coat.
She wondered what he would do if he knew that she was planning to run away next spring. Next summer at the latest. Laila hoped to have a thousand afghanis or more stowed away, half of which would go to the bus fare from Kabul to Peshawar. She would pawn her wedding ring when the time drew close, as well as the other jewelry that Rasheed had given her the year before when she was still the malika of his palace.
"Anyway," he said at last, fingers drumming his belly, "I can't be blamed. I am a husband. These are the things a husband wonders. But he's lucky he died the way he did. Because if he was here now, if I got my hands on him . . ." He sucked through his teeth and shook his head.
"What happened to not speaking ill of the dead?"
"I guess some people can't be dead enough," he said.
TWO DAYS LATER, Laila woke up in the morning and found a stack of baby clothes, neatly folded, outside her bedroom door. There was a twirl dress with little pink fishes sewn around the bodice, a blue floral wool dress with matching socks and mittens, yellow pajamas with carrot-colored polka dots, and green cotton pants with a dotted ruffle on the cuff.
"There is a rumor," Rasheed said over dinner that night, smacking his lips, taking no notice of Aziza or the pajamas Laila had put on her, "that Dostum is going to change sides and join Hekmatyar. Massoud will have his hands full then, fighting those two. And we mustn't forget the Hazaras." He took a pinch of the pickled eggplant Mariam had made that summer. "Let's hope it's just that, a rumor. Because if that happens, this war," he waved one greasy hand, "will seem like a Friday picnic at Paghman."