"I wonder what they've done to my father's cinema," Mariam said to her one day. "If it's still there, that is. Or if he still owns it."
Kharabat, Kabul's ancient music ghetto, was silenced. Musicians were beaten and imprisoned, their rubabs, tam-bouras, and harmoniums trampled upon. The Taliban went to the grave of Tariq's favorite singer, Ahmad Zahir, and fired bullets into it.
"He's been dead for almost twenty years," Laila said to Mariam. "Isn't dying once enough?"
RASHEED WASN'T BOTHERED much by the Taliban. All he had to do was grow a beard, which he did, and visit the mosque, which he also did. Rasheed regarded the Taliban with a forgiving, affectionate kind of bemusement, as one might regard an erratic cousin prone to unpredictable acts of hilarity and scandal.
Every Wednesday night, Rasheed listened to the Voice of Shari'a when the Taliban would announce the names of those scheduled for punishment. Then, on Fridays, he went to Ghazi Stadium, bought a Pepsi, and watched the spectacle. In bed, he made Laila listen as he described with a queer sort of exhilaration the hands he'd seen severed, the lashings, the hangings, the beheadings.
"I saw a man today slit the throat of his brother's murderer," he said one night, blowing halos of smoke.
"They're savages," Laila said.
"You think?" he said. "Compared to what? The Soviets killed a million people. Do you know how many people the Mujahideen killed in Kabul alone these last four years? Fifty thousand. Fifty thousand! Is it so insensible, by comparison, to chop the hands off a few thieves? Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. It's in the Koran. Besides, tell me this: If someone killed Aziza, wouldn't you want the chance to avenge her?"
Laila shot him a disgusted look.
"I'm making a point," he said.
"You're just like them."
"It's an interesting eye color she has, Aziza. Don't you think? It's neither yours nor mine."
Rasheed rolled over to face her, gently scratched her thigh with the crooked nail of his index finger.
"Let me explain," he said. "If the fancy should strike me - and I'm not saying it will, but it could - it could - I would be within my rights to give Aziza away. How would you like that? Or I could go to the Taliban one day, just walk in and say that I have my suspicions about you. That's all it would take. Whose word do you think they would believe? What do you think they'd do to you?"
Laila pulled her thigh from him.
"Not that I would," he said. "I wouldn't. Nay. Probably not. You know me."
"You're despicable," Laila said.
"That's a big word," Rasheed said. "I've always disliked that about you. Even when you were little, when you were running around with that cripple, you thought you were so clever, with your books and poems. What good are all your smarts to you now? What's keeping you off the streets, your smarts or me? I'm despicable? Half the women in this city would kill to have a husband like me. They would kill for it."
He rolled back and blew smoke toward the ceiling.
"You like big words? I'll give you one: perspective.
That's what I'm doing here, Laila. Making sure you don't lose perspective."
What turned Laila's stomach the rest of the night was that every word Rasheed had uttered, every last one, was true.
But, in the morning, and for several mornings after that, the queasiness in her gut persisted, then worsened, became something dismayingly familiar.
ONE COLD, overcast afternoon soon after, Laila lay on her back on the bedroom floor. Mariam was napping with Aziza in her room.
In Laila's hands was a metal spoke she had snapped with a pair of pliers from an abandoned bicycle wheel.
She'd found it in the same alley where she had kissed Tariq years back. For a long time, Laila lay on the floor, sucking air through her teeth, legs parted.
She'd adored Aziza from the moment when she'd first suspected her existence. There had been none of this self-doubt, this uncertainty. What a terrible thing it was, Laila thought now, for a mother to fear that she could not summon love for her own child. What an unnatural thing. And yet she had to wonder, as she lay on the floor, her sweaty hands poised to guide the spoke, if indeed she could ever love Rasheed's child as she had Tariq's.
In the end, Laila couldn't do it.
It wasn't the fear of bleeding to death that made her drop the spoke, or even the idea that the act was damnable - which she suspected it was. Laila dropped the spoke because she could not accept what the Mujahideen readily had: that sometimes in war innocent life had to be taken. Her war was against Rasheed. The baby was blameless. And there had been enough killing already. Laila had seen enough killing of innocents caught in the cross fire of enemies.
This hospital no longer treats women," the guard barked. He was standing at the top of the stairs, looking down icily on the crowd gathered in front of Malalai Hospital.
A loud groan rose from the crowd.
"But this is a women's hospital!" a woman shouted behind Mariam. Cries of approval followed this.
Mariam shifted Aziza from one arm to the other. With her free arm, she supported Laila, who was moaning, and had her own arm flung around Rasheed's neck.
"Not anymore," the Talib said.
"My wife is having a baby!" a heavyset man yelled.
"Would you have her give birth here on the street, brother?"
Mariam had heard the announcement, in January of that year, that men and women would be seen in different hospitals, that all female staff would be discharged from Kabul's hospitals and sent to work in one central facility.
No one had believed it, and the Taliban hadn't enforced the policy. Until now.
"What about Ali Abad Hospital?" another man cried.
The guard shook his head.
"Wazir Akbar Khan?"
"Men only," he said.
"What are we supposed to do?"
"Go to Rabia Balkhi," the guard said.
A young woman pushed forward, said she had already been there. They had no clean water, she said, no oxygen, no medications, no electricity. "There is nothing there."
"That's where you go," the guard said.
There were more groans and cries, an insult or two.
Someone threw a rock.
The Talib lifted his Kalashnikov and fired rounds into the air. Another Talib behind him brandished a whip.
The crowd dispersed quickly.
THE WAITING ROOM at Rabia Balkhi was teeming with women in burqas and their children. The air stank of sweat and unwashed bodies, of feet, urine, cigarette smoke, and antiseptic. Beneath the idle ceiling fan, children chased each other, hopping over the stretched-out legs of dozing fathers.
Mariam helped Laila sit against a wall from which patches of plaster shaped like foreign countries had slid off. Laila rocked back and forth, hands pressing against her belly.
"I'll get you seen, Laila jo. I promise."
"Be quick," said Rasheed.
Before the registration window was a horde of women, shoving and pushing against each other. Some were still holding their babies. Some broke from the mass and charged the double doors that led to the treatment rooms. An armed Talib guard blocked their way, sent them back.
Mariam waded in. She dug in her heels and burrowed against the elbows, hips, and shoulder blades of strangers. Someone elbowed her in the ribs, and she elbowed back. A hand made a desperate grab at her face. She swatted it away. To propel herself forward, Mariam clawed at necks, at arms and elbows, at hair, and, when a woman nearby hissed, Mariam hissed back.
Mariam saw now the sacrifices a mother made. Decency was but one. She thought ruefully of Nana, of the sacrifices that she too had made. Nana, who could have given her away, or tossed her in a ditch somewhere and run. But she hadn't. Instead, Nana had endured the shame of bearing a harami, had shaped her life around the thankless task of raising Mariam and, in her own way, of loving her. And, in the end, Mariam had chosen Jalil over her. As she fought her way with impudent resolve to the front of the melee, Mariam wished she had been a better daughter to Nana. She wished she'd understood then what she understood now about motherhood.
She found herself face-to-face with a nurse, who was covered head to toe in a dirty gray burqa. The nurse was talking to a young woman, whose burqa headpiece had soaked through with a patch of matted blood.
"My daughter's water broke and the baby won't come," Mariam called.
"I'm talking to her!" the bloodied young woman cried. "Wait your turn!"
The whole mass of them swayed side to side, like the tall grass around the kolba when the breeze swept across the clearing. A woman behind Mariam was yelling that her girl had broken her elbow falling from a tree. Another woman cried that she was passing bloody stools.
"Does she have a fever?" the nurse asked. It took Mariam a moment to realize she was being spoken to.
"No," Mariam said.
"Where is she?"
Over the covered heads, Mariam pointed to where Laila was sitting with Rasheed.
"We'll get to her," the nurse said.
"How long?" Mariam cried. Someone had grabbed her by the shoulders and was pulling her back.
"I don't know," the nurse said. She said they had only two doctors and both were operating at the moment.
"She's in pain," Mariam said.
"Me too!" the woman with the bloodied scalp cried.
"Wait your turn!"
Mariam was being dragged back. Her view of the nurse was blocked now by shoulders and the backs of heads. She smelled a baby's milky burp.
"Take her for a walk," the nurse yelled. "And wait."
IT WAS DARK outside when a nurse finally called them in. The delivery room had eight beds, on which women moaned and twisted tended to by fully covered nurses. Two of the women were in the act of delivering. There were no curtains between the beds. Laila was given a bed at the far end, beneath a window that someone had painted black. There was a sink nearby, cracked and dry, and a string over the sink from which hung stained surgical gloves. In the middle of the room Mariam saw an aluminum table. The top shelf had a soot-colored blanket on it; the bottom shelf was empty.
One of the women saw Mariam looking.
"They put the live ones on the top," she said tiredly.
The doctor, in a dark blue burqa, was a small, harried woman with birdlike movements. Everything she said came out sounding impatient, urgent.
"First baby." She said it like that, not as a question but as a statement.
"Second," Mariam said.
Laila let out a cry and rolled on her side. Her fingers closed against Mariam's.
"Any problems with the first delivery?"
"You're the mother?"
"Yes," Mariam said.
The doctor lifted the lower half of her burqa and produced a metallic, cone-shaped instrument. She raised Laila's burqa and placed the wide end of the instrument on her belly, the narrow end to her own ear. She listened for almost a minute, switched spots, listened again, switched spots again.
"I have to feel the baby now, hamshira."
She put on one of the gloves hung by a clothespin over the sink. She pushed on Laila's belly with one hand and slid the other inside. Laila whimpered. When the doctor was done, she gave the glove to a nurse, who rinsed it and pinned it back on the string.
"Your daughter needs a caesarian. Do you know what that is? We have to open her womb and take the baby out, because it is in the breech position."
"I don't understand," Mariam said.
The doctor said the baby was positioned so it wouldn't come out on its own. "And too much time has passed as is. We need to go to the operating room now."