Laila gave a grimacing nod, and her head drooped to one side.
"There is something I have to tell you," the doctor said. She moved closer to Mariam, leaned in, and spoke in a lower, more confidential tone. There was a hint of embarrassment in her voice now.
"What is she saying?" Laila groaned. "Is something wrong with the baby?"
"But how will she stand it?" Mariam said.
The doctor must have heard accusation in this question, judging by the defensive shift in her tone.
"You think I want it this way?" she said. "What do you want me to do? They won't give me what I need. I have no X-ray either, no suction, no oxygen, not even simple antibiotics. When NGOs offer money, the Taliban turn them away. Or they funnel the money to the places that cater to men."
"But, Doctor sahib, isn't there something you can give her?" Mariam asked.
"What's going on?" Laila moaned.
"You can buy the medicine yourself, but - "
"Write the name," Mariam said. "You write it down and I'll get it."
Beneath the burqa, the doctor shook her head curtly. "There is no time," she said. "For one thing, none of the nearby pharmacies have it. So you'd have to fight through traffic from one place to the next, maybe all the way across town, with little likelihood that you'd ever find it. It's almost eight-thirty now, so you'll probably get arrested for breaking curfew. Even if you find the medicine, chances are you can't afford it. Or you'll find yourself in a bidding war with someone just as desperate. There is no time. This baby needs to come out now."
"Tell me what's going on!" Laila said. She had propped herself up on her elbows.
The doctor took a breath, then told Laila that the hospital had no anesthetic.
"But if we delay, you will lose your baby."
"Then cut me open," Laila said. She dropped back on the bed and drew up her knees. "Cut me open and give me my baby."
* * *
INSIDE THE OLD, DINGY operating room, Laila lay on a gurney bed as the doctor scrubbed her hands in a basin. Laila was shivering. She drew in air through her teeth every time the nurse wiped her belly with a cloth soaked in a yellow-brown liquid. Another nurse stood at the door. She kept cracking it open to take a peek outside.
The doctor was out of her burqa now, and Mariam saw that she had a crest of silvery hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and little pouches of fatigue at the corners of her mouth.
"They want us to operate in burqa," the doctor explained, motioning with her head to the nurse at the door. "She keeps watch. She sees them coming; I cover."
She said this in a pragmatic, almost indifferent, tone, and Mariam understood that this was a woman far past outrage. Here was a woman, she thought, who had understood that she was lucky to even be working, that there was always something, something else, that they could take away.
There were two vertical, metallic rods on either side of Laila's shoulders. With clothespins, the nurse who'd cleansed Laila's belly pinned a sheet to them. It formed a curtain between Laila and the doctor.
Mariam positioned herself behind the crown of Laila's head and lowered her face so their cheeks touched. She could feel Laila's teeth rattling. Their hands locked together.
Through the curtain, Mariam saw the doctor's shadow move to Laila's left, the nurse to the right. Laila's lips had stretched all the way back. Spit bubbles formed and popped on the surface of her clenched teeth. She made quick, little hissing sounds.
The doctor said, "Take heart, little sister."
She bent over Laila.
Laila's eyes snapped open. Then her mouth opened. She held like this, held, held, shivering, the cords in her neck stretched, sweat dripping from her face, her fingers crushing Mariam's.
Mariam would always admire Laila for how much time passed before she screamed.
It was Mariam's idea to dig the hole. One morning, she pointed to a patch of soil behind the toolshed. "We can do it here," she said. "This is a good spot."
They took turns striking the ground with a spade, then shoveling the loose dirt aside. They hadn't planned on a big hole, or a deep one, so the work of digging shouldn't have been as demanding as it turned out. It was the drought, started in 1998, in its second year now, that was wreaking havoc everywhere. It had hardly snowed that past winter and didn't rain at all that spring. All over the country, farmers were leaving behind their parched lands, selling off their goods, roaming from village to village looking for water. They moved to Pakistan or Iran. They settled in Kabul. But water tables were low in the city too, and the shallow wells had dried up. The lines at the deep wells were so long, Laila and Mariam would spend hours waiting their turn. The Kabul River, without its yearly spring floods, had turned bone-dry. It was a public toilet now, nothing in it but human waste and rubble.
So they kept swinging the spade and striking, but the sun-blistered ground had hardened like a rock, the dirt unyielding, compressed, almost petrified.
Mariam was forty now. Her hair, rolled up above her face, had a few stripes of gray in it. Pouches sagged beneath her eyes, brown and crescent-shaped. She'd lost two front teeth. One fell out, the other Rasheed knocked out when she'd accidentally dropped Zalmai. Her skin had coarsened, tanned from all the time they were spending in the yard sitting beneath the brazen sun. They would sit and watch Zalmai chase Aziza.
When it was done, when the hole was dug, they stood over it and looked down.
"It should do," Mariam said.
ZALMAI WAS TWO now. He was a plump little boy with curly hair. He had small brownish eyes, and a rosy tint to his cheeks, like Rasheed, no matter the weather. He had his father's hairline too, thick and half-moon-shaped, set low on his brow.
When Laila was alone with him, Zalmai was sweet, good-humored, and playful. He liked to climb Laila's shoulders, play hide-and-seek in the yard with her and Aziza. Sometimes, in his calmer moments, he liked to sit on Laila's lap and have her sing to him. His favorite song was "Mullah Mohammad Jan." He swung his meaty little feet as she sang into his curly hair and joined in when she got to the chorus, singing what words he could make with his raspy voice:
Come and let's go to Mazar, Mullah Mohammad jan, To see the fields of tulips, o beloved companion.
Laila loved the moist kisses Zalmai planted on her cheeks, loved his dimpled elbows and stout little toes. She loved tickling him, building tunnels with cushions and pillows for him to crawl through, watching him fall asleep in her arms with one of his hands always clutching her ear. Her stomach turned when she thought of that afternoon, lying on the floor with the spoke of a bicycle wheel between her legs. How close she'd come. It was unthinkable to her now that she could have even entertained the idea. Her son was a blessing, and Laila was relieved to discover that her fears had proved baseless, that she loved Zalmai with the marrow of her bones, just as she did Aziza.
But Zalmai worshipped his father, and, because he did, he was transformed when his father was around to dote on him. Zalmai was quick then with a defiant cackle or an impudent grin. In his father's presence, he was easily offended. He held grudges. He persisted in mischief in spite of Laila's scolding, which he never did when Rasheed was away.
Rasheed approved of all of it. "A sign of intelligence," he said. He said the same of Zalmai's recklessness - when he swallowed, then pooped, marbles; when he lit matches; when he chewed on Rasheed's cigarettes.
When Zalmai was born, Rasheed had moved him into the bed he shared with Laila. He had bought him a new crib and had lions and crouching leopards painted on the side panels. He'd paid for new clothes, new rattles, new bottles, new diapers, even though they could not afford them and Aziza's old ones were still serviceable. One day, he came home with a battery-run mobile, which he hung over Zalmai's crib. Little yellow-and-black bumblebees dangled from a sunflower, and they crinkled and squeaked when squeezed. A tune played when it was turned on.
"I thought you said business was slow," Laila said.
"I have friends I can borrow from," he said dismissively.
"How will you pay them back?"
"Things will turn around. They always do. Look, he likes it. See?"
Most days, Laila was deprived of her son. Rasheed took him to the shop, let him crawl around under his crowded workbench, play with old rubber soles and spare scraps of leather. Rasheed drove in his iron nails and turned the sandpaper wheel, and kept a watchful eye on him. If Zalmai toppled a rack of shoes, Rasheed scolded him gently, in a calm, half-smiling way. If he did it again, Rasheed put down his hammer, sat him up on his desk, and talked to him softly.
His patience with Zalmai was a well that ran deep and never dried.
They came home together in the evening, Zalmai's head bouncing on Rasheed's shoulder, both of them smelling of glue and leather. They grinned the way people who share a secret do, slyly, like they'd sat in that dim shoe shop all day not making shoes at all but devising secret plots. Zalmai liked to sit beside his father at dinner, where they played private games, as Mariam, Laila, and Aziza set plates on the sofrah. They took turns poking each other on the chest, giggling, pelting each other with bread crumbs, whispering things the others couldn't hear. If Laila spoke to them, Rasheed looked up with displeasure at the unwelcome intrusion. If she asked to hold Zalmai - or, worse, if Zalmai reached for her - Rasheed glowered at her.
Laila walked away feeling stung.
THEN ONE NIGHT, a few weeks after Zalmai turned two, Rasheed came home with a television and a VCR. The day had been warm, almost balmy, but the evening was cooler and already thickening into a starless, chilly night.
He set it down on the living-room table. He said he'd bought it on the black market.
"Another loan?" Laila asked.
"It's a Magnavox."
Aziza came into the room. When she saw the TV, she ran to it.
"Careful, Aziza jo," said Mariam. "Don't touch."
Aziza's hair had become as light as Laila's. Laila could see her own dimples on her cheeks. Aziza had turned into a calm, pensive little girl, with a demeanor that to Laila seemed beyond her six years. Laila marveled at her daughter's manner of speech, her cadence and rhythm, her thoughtful pauses and intonations, so adult, so at odds with the immature body that housed the voice. It was Aziza who with lighthearted authority had taken it upon herself to wake Zalmai every day, to dress him, feed him his breakfast, comb his hair. She was the one who put him down to nap, who played even-tempered peacemaker to her volatile sibling. Around him, Aziza had taken to giving an exasperated, queerly adult headshake.
Aziza pushed the TV's POWER button. Rasheed scowled, snatched her wrist and set it on the table, not gently at all.
"This is Zalmai's TV," he said.
Aziza went over to Mariam and climbed in her lap. The two of them were inseparable now. Of late, with Laila's blessing, Mariam had started teaching Aziza verses from the Koran. Aziza could already recite by heart the surah of ikhlas, the surah of fatiha, and already knew how to perform the four ruqats of morning prayer.
It's all I have to give her, Mariam had said to Laila, this knowledge, these prayers. They're the only true possession I've ever had.
Zalmai came into the room now. As Rasheed watched with anticipation, the way people wait the simple tricks of street magicians, Zalmai pulled on the TV's wire, pushed the buttons, pressed his palms to the blank screen. When he lifted them, the condensed little palms faded from the glass. Rasheed smiled with pride, watched as Zalmai kept pressing his palms and lifting them, over and over.
The Taliban had banned television. Videotapes had been gouged publicly, the tapes ripped out and strung on fence posts. Satellite dishes had been hung from lampposts. But Rasheed said just because things were banned didn't mean you couldn't find them.