"I'll start looking for some cartoon videos tomorrow," he said. "It won't be hard. You can buy anything in underground bazaars."
"Then maybe you'll buy us a new well," Laila said, and this won her a scornful gaze from him.
It was later, after another dinner of plain white rice had been consumed and tea forgone again on account of the drought, after Rasheed had smoked a cigarette, that he told Laila about his decision.
"No," Laila said.
He said he wasn't asking.
"I don't care if you are or not."
"You would if you knew the full story."
He said he had borrowed from more friends than he let on, that the money from the shop alone was no longer enough to sustain the five of them. "I didn't tell you earlier to spare you the worrying."
"Besides," he said, "you'd be surprised how much they can bring in."
Laila said no again. They were in the living room. Mariam and the children were in the kitchen. Laila could hear the clatter of dishes, Zalmai's high-pitched laugh, Aziza saying something to Mariam in her steady, reasonable voice.
"There will be others like her, younger even," Rasheed said. "Everyone in Kabul is doing the same."
Laila told him she didn't care what other people did with their children.
"I'll keep a close eye on her," Rasheed said, less patiently now. "It's a safe corner. There's a mosque across the street."
"I won't let you turn my daughter into a street beggar!" Laila snapped.
The slap made a loud smacking sound, the palm of his thick-fingered hand connecting squarely with the meat of Laila's cheek. It made her head whip around. It silenced the noises from the kitchen. For a moment, the house was perfectly quiet. Then a flurry of hurried footsteps in the hallway before Mariam and the children were in the living room, their eyes shifting from her to Rasheed and back.
Then Laila punched him.
It was the first time she'd struck anybody, discounting the playful punches she and Tariq used to trade. But those had been open-fisted, more pats than punches, self-consciously friendly, comfortable expressions of anxieties that were both perplexing and thrilling. They would aim for the muscle that Tariq, in a professorial voice, called the deltoid.
Laila watched the arch of her closed fist, slicing through the air, felt the crinkle of Rasheed's stubbly, coarse skin under her knuckles. It made a sound like dropping a rice bag to the floor. She hit him hard. The impact actually made him stagger two steps backward.
From the other side of the room, a gasp, a yelp, and a scream. Laila didn't know who had made which noise. At the moment, she was too astounded to notice or care, waiting for her mind to catch up with what her hand had done. When it did, she believed she might have smiled. She might have grinned when, to her astonishment, Rasheed calmly walked out of the room.
Suddenly, it seemed to Laila that the collective hardships of their lives - hers, Aziza's, Mariam's - simply dropped away, vaporized like Zalmai's palms from the TV screen. It seemed worthwhile, if absurdly so, to have endured all they'd endured for this one crowning moment, for this act of defiance that would end the suffering of all indignities.
Laila did not notice that Rasheed was back in the room. Until his hand was around her throat. Until she was lifted off her feet and slammed against the wall.
Up close, his sneering face seemed impossibly large. Laila noticed how much puffier it was getting with age, how many more broken vessels charted tiny paths on his nose. Rasheed didn't say anything. And, really, what could be said, what needed saying, when you'd shoved the barrel of your gun into your wife's mouth?
IT WAS THE RAIDS, the reason they were in the yard digging. Sometimes monthly raids, sometimes weekly. Of late, almost daily. Mostly, the Taliban confiscated stuff, gave a kick to someone's rear, whacked the back of a head or two. But sometimes there were public beatings, lashings of soles and palms.
"Gently," Mariam said now, her knees over the edge. They lowered the TV into the hole by each clutching one end of the plastic sheet in which it was wrapped.
"That should do it," Mariam said.
They patted the dirt when they were done, filling the hole up again. They tossed some of it around so it wouldn't look conspicuous.
"There," Mariam said, wiping her hands on her dress.
When it was safer, they'd agreed, when the Taliban cut down on their raids, in a month or two or six, or maybe longer, they would dig the TV up.
IN LAILA'S DREAM, she and Mariam are out behind the toolshed digging again. But, this time, it's Aziza they're lowering into the ground. Aziza's breath fogs the sheet of plastic in which they have wrapped her. Laila sees her panicked eyes, the whiteness of her palms as they slap and push against the sheet. Aziza pleads. Laila can't hear her screams. Only for a while, she calls down, it's only for a while. It's the raids, don't you know, my love? When the raids are over, Mammy and Khala Mariam will dig you out. I promise, my love. Then we can play. We can play all you want. She fills the shovel. Laila woke up, out of breath, with a taste of soil in her mouth, when the first granular lumps of dirt hit the plastic.
In the summer of 2000, the drought reached its third and worst year.
In Helmand, Zabol, Kandahar, villages turned into herds of nomadic communities, always moving, searching for water and green pastures for their livestock. When they found neither, when their goats and sheep and cows died off, they came to Kabul. They took to the Kareh-Ariana hillside, living in makeshift slums, packed in huts, fifteen or twenty at a time.
That was also the summer of Titanic, the summer that Mariam and Aziza were a tangle of limbs, rolling and giggling, Aziza insisting she get to be Jack.
"Quiet, Aziza jo."
"Jack! Say my name, Khala Mariam. Say it. Jack!"
"Your father will be angry if you wake him."
"Jack! And you're Rose."
It would end with Mariam on her back, surrendering, agreeing again to be Rose. "Fine, you be Jack," she relented. "You die young, and I get to live to a ripe old age."
"Yes, but I die a hero," said Aziza, "while you, Rose, you spend your entire, miserable life longing for me." Then, straddling Mariam's chest, she'd announce, "Now we must kiss!" Mariam whipped her head side to side, and Aziza, delighted with her own scandalous behavior, cackled through puckered lips.
Sometimes Zalmai would saunter in and watch this game. What did he get to be, he asked.
"You can be the iceberg," said Aziza.
That summer, Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggled pirated copies of the film from Pakistan - sometimes in their underwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turned out the lights, turned down the volume, and reaped tears for Jack and Rose and the passengers of the doomed ship. If there was electrical power, Mariam, Laila, and the children watched it too. A dozen times or more, they unearthed the TV from behind the toolshed, late at night, with the lights out and quilts pinned over the windows.
At the Kabul River, vendors moved into the parched riverbed. Soon, from the river's sunbaked hollows, it was possible to buy Titanic carpets, and Titanic cloth, from bolts arranged in wheelbarrows. There was Titanic deodorant, Titanic toothpaste, Titanic perfume, Titanic pakora, even Titanic burqas. A particularly persistent beggar began calling himself "Titanic Beggar."
"Titanic City" was born.
It's the song, they said.
No, the sea. The luxury. The ship.
It's the sex, they whispered.
Leo, said Aziza sheepishly. It's all about Leo.
"Everybody wants Jack," Laila said to Mariam. "That's what it is. Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. But there is no Jack. Jack is not coming back. Jack is dead."
THEN, late that summer, a fabric merchant fell asleep and forgot to put out his cigarette. He survived the fire, but his store did not. The fire took the adjacent fabric store as well, a secondhand clothing store, a small furniture shop, a bakery.
They told Rasheed later that if the winds had blown east instead of west, his shop, which was at the corner of the block, might have been spared.
THEY SOLD EVERYTHING.
First to go were Mariam's things, then Laila's. Aziza's baby clothes, the few toys Laila had fought Rasheed to buy her. Aziza watched the proceedings with a docile look. Rasheed's watch too was sold, his old transistor radio, his pair of neckties, his shoes, and his wedding ring. The couch, the table, the rug, and the chairs went too. Zalmai threw a wicked tantrum when Rasheed sold the TV.
After the fire, Rasheed was home almost every day. He slapped Aziza. He kicked Mariam. He threw things. He found fault with Laila, the way she smelled, the way she dressed, the way she combed her hair, her yellowing teeth.
"What's happened to you?" he said. "I married a pari, and now I'm saddled with a hag. You're turning into Mariam."
He got fired from the kebab house near Haji Yaghoub Square because he and a customer got into a scuffle. The customer complained that Rasheed had rudely tossed the bread on his table. Harsh words had passed. Rasheed had called the customer a monkey-faced Uzbek. A gun had been brandished. A skewer pointed in return. In Rasheed's version, he held the skewer. Mariam had her doubts.
Fired from the restaurant in Taimani because customers complained about the long waits, Rasheed said the cook was slow and lazy.
"You were probably out back napping," said Laila.
"Don't provoke him, Laila jo," Mariam said.
"I'm warning you, woman," he said.
"Either that or smoking."
"I swear to God."
"You can't help being what you are."
And then he was on Laila, pummeling her chest, her head, her belly with fists, tearing at her hair, throwing her to the wall. Aziza was shrieking, pulling at his shirt; Zalmai was screaming too, trying to get him off his mother. Rasheed shoved the children aside, pushed Laila to the ground, and began kicking her. Mariam threw herself on Laila. He went on kicking, kicking Mariam now, spittle flying from his mouth, his eyes glittering with murderous intent, kicking until he couldn't anymore.
"I swear you're going to make me kill you, Laila," he said, panting. Then he stormed out of the house.
WHEN THE MONEY ran out, hunger began to cast a pall over their lives. It was stunning to Mariam how quickly alleviating hunger became the crux of their existence.
Rice, boiled plain and white, with no meat or sauce, was a rare treat now. They skipped meals with increasing and alarming regularity. Sometimes Rasheed brought home sardines in a can and brittle, dried bread that tasted like sawdust. Sometimes a stolen bag of apples, at the risk of getting his hand sawed off. In grocery stores, he carefully pocketed canned ravioli, which they split five ways, Zalmai getting the lion's share. They ate raw turnips sprinkled with salt. Limp leaves of lettuce and blackened bananas for dinner.
Death from starvation suddenly became a distinct possibility. Some chose not to wait for it. Mariam heard of a neighborhood widow who had ground some dried bread, laced it with rat poison, and fed it to all seven of her children. She had saved the biggest portion for herself.
Aziza's ribs began to push through the skin, and the fat from her cheeks vanished. Her calves thinned, and her complexion turned the color of weak tea. When Mariam picked her up, she could feel her hip bone poking through the taut skin. Zalmai lay around the house, eyes dulled and half closed, or in his father's lap limp as a rag. He cried himself to sleep, when he could muster the energy, but his sleep was fitful and sporadic. White dots leaped before Mariam's eyes whenever she got up. Her head spun, and her ears rang all the time. She remembered something Mullah Faizullah used to say about hunger when Ramadan started: Even the snakebitten man finds sleep, but not the hungry.
"My children are going to die," Laila said. "Right before my eyes."