They walked the last two blocks alone, Mariam, Laila, and Aziza. As they approached the building, Laila could see its splintered façade, the sagging roof, the planks of wood nailed across frames with missing windows, the top of a swing set over a decaying wall.
They stopped by the door, and Laila repeated to Aziza what she had told her earlier.
"And if they ask about your father, what do you say?"
"The Mujahideen killed him," Aziza said, her mouth set with wariness.
"That's good. Aziza, do you understand?"
"Because this is a special school," Aziza said. Now that they were here, and the building was a reality, she looked shaken. Her lower lip was quivering and her eyes threatened to well up, and Laila saw how hard she was struggling to be brave. "If we tell the truth," Aziza said in a thin, breathless voice, "they won't take me. It's a special school. I want to go home."
"I'll visit all the time," Laila managed to say. "I promise."
"Me too," said Mariam. "We'll come to see you, Aziza jo, and we'll play together, just like always. It's only for a while, until your father finds work."
"They have food here," Laila said shakily. She was glad for the burqa, glad that Aziza couldn't see how she was falling apart inside it. "Here, you won't go hungry. They have rice and bread and water, and maybe even fruit."
"But you won't be here. And Khala Mariam won't be with me."
"I'll come and see you," Laila said. "All the time. Look at me, Aziza. I'll come and see you. I'm your mother. If it kills me, I'll come and see you."
THE ORPHANAGE DIRECTOR was a stooping, narrow-chested man with a pleasantly lined face. He was balding, had a shaggy beard, eyes like peas. His name was Zaman. He wore a skullcap. The left lens of his eyeglasses was chipped.
As he led them to his office, he asked Laila and Mariam their names, asked for Aziza's name too, her age. They passed through poorly lit hallways where barefoot children stepped aside and watched. They had disheveled hair or shaved scalps. They wore sweaters with frayed sleeves, ragged jeans whose knees had worn down to strings, coats patched with duct tape. Laila smelled soap and talcum, ammonia and urine, and rising apprehension in Aziza, who had begun whimpering.
Laila had a glimpse of the yard: weedy lot, rickety swing set, old tires, a deflated basketball. The rooms they passed were bare, the windows covered with sheets of plastic. A boy darted from one of the rooms and grabbed Laila's elbow, and tried to climb up into her arms. An attendant, who was cleaning up what looked like a puddle of urine, put down his mop and pried the boy off.
Zaman seemed gently proprietary with the orphans. He patted the heads of some, as he passed by, said a cordial word or two to them, tousled their hair, without condescension. The children welcomed his touch. They all looked at him, Laila thought, in hope of approval.
He showed them into his office, a room with only three folding chairs, and a disorderly desk with piles of paper scattered atop it.
"You're from Herat," Zaman said to Mariam. "I can tell from your accent."
He leaned back in his chair and laced his hands over his belly, and said he had a brother-in-law who used to live there. Even in these ordinary gestures, Laila noted a laborious quality to his movements. And though he was smiling faintly, Laila sensed something troubled and wounded beneath, disappointment and defeat glossed over with a veneer of good humor.
"He was a glassmaker," Zaman said. "He made these beautiful, jade green swans. You held them up to sunlight and they glittered inside, like the glass was filled with tiny jewels. Have you been back?"
Mariam said she hadn't.
"I'm from Kandahar myself. Have you ever been to Kandahar, hamshira? No? It's lovely. What gardens! And the grapes! Oh, the grapes. They bewitch the palate."
A few children had gathered by the door and were peeking in. Zaman gently shooed them away, in Pashto.
"Of course I love Herat too. City of artists and writers,
Sufis and mystics. You know the old joke, that you can't stretch a leg in Herat without poking a poet in the rear."
Next to Laila, Aziza snorted.
Zaman feigned a gasp. "Ah, there. I've made you laugh, little hamshira. That's usually the hard part. I was worried, there, for a while. I thought I'd have to cluck like a chicken or bray like a donkey. But, there you are. And so lovely you are."
He called in an attendant to look after Aziza for a few moments. Aziza leaped onto Mariam's lap and clung to her.
"We're just going to talk, my love," Laila said. "I'll be right here. All right? Right here."
"Why don't we go outside for a minute, Aziza jo?" Mariam said. "Your mother needs to talk to Kaka Zaman here. Just for a minute. Now, come on."
When they were alone, Zaman asked for Aziza's date of birth, history of illnesses, allergies. He asked about Aziza's father, and Laila had the strange experience of telling a lie that was really the truth. Zaman listened, his expression revealing neither belief nor skepticism. He ran the orphanage on the honor system, he said. If a hamshira said her husband was dead and she couldn't care for her children, he didn't question it.
Laila began to cry.
Zaman put down his pen.
"I'm ashamed," Laila croaked, her palm pressed to her mouth.
"Look at me, hamshira."
"What kind of mother abandons her own child?"
"Look at me."
Laila raised her gaze.
"It isn't your fault. Do you hear me? Not you. It's those savages, those wahshis, who are to blame. They bring shame on me as a Pashtun. They've disgraced the name of my people. And you're not alone, hamshira. We get mothers like you all the time - all the time - mothers who come here who can't feed their children because the Taliban won't let them go out and make a living. So you don't blame yourself. No one here blames you. I understand." He leaned forward. "Hamshira. I understand."
Laila wiped her eyes with the cloth of her burqa.
"As for this place," Zaman sighed, motioning with his hand, "you can see that it's in dire state. We're always underfunded, always scrambling, improvising. We get little or no support from the Taliban. But we manage. Like you, we do what we have to do. Allah is good and kind, and Allah provides, and, as long He provides, I will see to it that Aziza is fed and clothed. That much I promise you."
He was smiling companionably. "But don't cry, hamshira. Don't let her see you cry."
Laila wiped her eyes again. "God bless you," she said thickly. "God bless you, brother."
BUT WHEN THE time for good-byes came, the scene erupted precisely as Laila had dreaded.
All the way home, leaning on Mariam, Laila heard Aziza's shrill cries. In her head, she saw Zaman's thick, calloused hands close around Aziza's arms; she saw them pull, gently at first, then harder, then with force to pry Aziza loose from her. She saw Aziza kicking in Zaman's arms as he hurriedly turned the corner, heard Aziza screaming as though she were about to vanish from the face of the earth. And Laila saw herself running down the hallway, head down, a howl rising up her throat.
"I smell her," she told Mariam at home. Her eyes swam unseeingly past Mariam's shoulder, past the yard, the walls, to the mountains, brown as smoker's spit. "I smell her sleep smell. Do you? Do you smell it?"
"Oh, Laila jo," said Mariam. "Don't. What good is this? What good?"
AT FIRST, Rasheed humored Laila, and accompanied them - her, Mariam, and Zalmai - to the orphanage, though he made sure, as they walked, that she had an eyeful of his grievous looks, an earful of his rants over what a hardship she was putting him through, how badly his legs and back and feet ached walking to and from the orphanage. He made sure she knew how awfully put out he was.
"I'm not a young man anymore," he said. "Not that you care. You'd run me to the ground, if you had your way. But you don't, Laila. You don't have your way."
They parted ways two blocks from the orphanage, and he never spared them more than fifteen minutes. "A minute late," he said, "and I start walking. I mean it."
Laila had to pester him, plead with him, in order to spin out the allotted minutes with Aziza a bit longer. For herself, and for Mariam, who was disconsolate over Aziza's absence, though, as always, Mariam chose to cradle her own suffering privately and quietly. And for Zalmai too, who asked for his sister every day, and threw tantrums that sometimes dissolved into inconsolable fits of crying.
Sometimes, on the way to the orphanage, Rasheed stopped and complained that his leg was sore. Then he turned around and started walking home in long, steady strides, without so much as a limp. Or he clucked his tongue and said, "It's my lungs, Laila. I'm short of breath. Maybe tomorrow I'll feel better, or the day after. We'll see." He never bothered to feign a single raspy breath. Often, as he turned back and marched home, he lit a cigarette. Laila would have to tail him home, helpless, trembling with resentment and impotent rage.
Then one day he told Laila he wouldn't take her anymore. "I'm too tired from walking the streets all day," he said, "looking for work."
"Then I'll go by myself," Laila said. "You can't stop me, Rasheed. Do you hear me? You can hit me all you want, but I'll keep going there."
"Do as you wish. But you won't get past the Taliban. Don't say I didn't warn you."
"I'm coming with you," Mariam said.
Laila wouldn't allow it. "You have to stay home with Zalmai. If we get stopped . . . I don't want him to see."
And so Laila's life suddenly revolved around finding ways to see Aziza. Half the time, she never made it to the orphanage. Crossing the street, she was spotted by the Taliban and riddled with questions - What is your name? Where are you going? Why are you alone? Where is your mahram? - before she was sent home. If she was lucky, she was given a tongue-lashing or a single kick to the rear, a shove in the back. Other times, she met with assortments of wooden clubs, fresh tree branches, short whips, slaps, often fists.
One day, a young Talib beat Laila with a radio antenna. When he was done, he gave a final whack to the back of her neck and said, "I see you again, I'll beat you until your mother's milk leaks out of your bones."
That time, Laila went home. She lay on her stomach, feeling like a stupid, pitiable animal, and hissed as Mariam arranged damp cloths across her bloodied back and thighs. But, usually, Laila refused to cave in. She made as if she were going home, then took a different route down side streets. Sometimes she was caught, questioned, scolded - two, three, even four times in a single day. Then the whips came down and the antennas sliced through the air, and she trudged home, bloodied, without so much as a glimpse of Aziza. Soon Laila took to wearing extra layers, even in the heat, two, three sweaters beneath the burqa, for padding against the beatings.
But for Laila, the reward, if she made it past the Taliban, was worth it. She could spend as much time as she liked then - hours, even - with Aziza. They sat in the courtyard, near the swing set, among other children and visiting mothers, and talked about what Aziza had learned that week.
Aziza said Kaka Zaman made it a point to teach them something every day, reading and writing most days, sometimes geography, a bit of history or science, something about plants, animals.
"But we have to pull the curtains," Aziza said, "so the Taliban don't see us." Kaka Zaman had knitting needles and balls of yarn ready, she said, in case of a Taliban inspection. "We put the books away and pretend to knit."
One day, during a visit with Aziza, Laila saw a middle-aged woman, her burqa pushed back, visiting with three boys and a girl. Laila recognized the sharp face, the heavy eyebrows, if not the sunken mouth and gray hair. She remembered the shawls, the black skirts, the curt voice, how she used to wear her jet-black hair tied in a bun so that you could see the dark bristles on the back of her neck. Laila remembered this woman once forbidding the female students from covering, saying women and men were equal, that there was no reason women should cover if men didn't.