A Thousand Splendid Suns

Author: P Hana

Page 39

   


"Indeed," he said. "Flamingos."

When the Taliban had found the paintings, Tariq said, they'd taken offense at the birds' long, bare legs. After they'd tied the cousin's feet and flogged his soles bloody, they had presented him with a choice: Either destroy the paintings or make the flamingos decent. So the cousin had picked up his brush and painted trousers on every last bird.

"And there you have it. Islamic flamingos," Tariq said.

Laughter came up, but Laila pushed it back down. She was ashamed of her yellowing teeth, the missing incisor. Ashamed of her withered looks and swollen lip. She wished she'd had the chance to wash her face, at least comb her hair.

"But he'll have the last laugh, the cousin," Tariq said. "He painted those trousers with watercolor. When the Taliban are gone, he'll just wash them off." He smiled - Laila noticed that he had a missing tooth of his own - and looked down at his hands. "Indeed."

He was wearing a pakol on his head, hiking boots, and a black wool sweater tucked into the waist of khaki pants. He was half smiling, nodding slowly. Laila didn't remember him saying this before, this word indeed, and this pensive gesture, the fingers making a tent in his lap, the nodding, it was new too. Such an adult word, such an adult gesture, and why should it be so startling? He was an adult now, Tariq, a twenty-five-year-old man with slow movements and a tiredness to his smile. Tall, bearded, slimmer than in her dreams of him, but with strong-looking hands, workman's hands, with tortuous, full veins. His face was still lean and handsome but not fair-skinned any longer; his brow had a weathered look to it, sunburned, like his neck, the brow of a traveler at the end of a long and wearying journey. His pakol was pushed back on his head, and she could see that he'd started to lose his hair. The hazel of his eyes was duller than she remembered, paler, or perhaps it was merely the light in the room.

Laila thought of Tariq's mother, her unhurried manners, the clever smiles, the dull purple wig. And his father, with his squinty gaze, his wry humor. Earlier, at the door, with a voice full of tears, tripping over her own words, she'd told Tariq what she thought had happened to him and his parents, and he had shaken his head. So now she asked him how they were doing, his parents. But she regretted the question when Tariq looked down and said, a bit distractedly, "Passed on."

"I'm so sorry."

"Well. Yes. Me too. Here." He fished a small paper bag from his pocket and passed it to her. "Compliments of Alyona." Inside was a block of cheese in plastic wrap.

"Alyona. It's a pretty name." Laila tried to say this next without wavering. "Your wife?"

"My goat." He was smiling at her expectantly, as though waiting for her to retrieve a memory.

Then Laila remembered. The Soviet film. Alyona had been the captain's daughter, the girl in love with the first mate. That was the day that she, Tariq, and Hasina had watched Soviet tanks and jeeps leave Kabul, the day Tariq had worn that ridiculous Russian fur hat.

"I had to tie her to a stake in the ground," Tariq was saying. "And build a fence. Because of the wolves. In the foothills where I live, there's a wooded area nearby, maybe a quarter of a mile away, pine trees mostly, some fir, deodars. They mostly stick to the woods, the wolves do, but a bleating goat, one that likes to go wandering, that can draw them out. So the fence. The stake."

Laila asked him which foothills.

"Pir Panjal. Pakistan," he said. "Where I live is called Murree; it's a summer retreat, an hour from Islamabad. It's hilly and green, lots of trees, high above sea level. So it's cool in the summer. Perfect for tourists."

The British had built it as a hill station near their military headquarters in Rawalpindi, he said, for the Victorians to escape the heat. You could still spot a few relics of the colonial times, Tariq said, the occasional tearoom, tin-roofed bungalows, called cottages, that sort of thing. The town itself was small and pleasant. The main street was called the Mall, where there was a post office, a bazaar, a few restaurants, shops that overcharged tourists for painted glass and hand-knotted carpets. Curiously, the Mall's one-way traffic flowed in one direction one week, the opposite direction the next week.

"The locals say that Ireland's traffic is like that too in places," Tariq said. "I wouldn't know. Anyway, it's nice. It's a plain life, but I like it. I like living there."

"With your goat. With Alyona."

Laila meant this less as a joke than as a surreptitious entry into another line of talk, such as who else was there with him worrying about wolves eating goats. But Tariq only went on nodding.

"I'm sorry about your parents too," he said.

"You heard."

"I spoke to some neighbors earlier," he said. A pause, during which Laila wondered what else the neighbors had told him. "I don't recognize anybody. From the old days, I mean."

"They're all gone. There's no one left you'd know."

"I don't recognize Kabul."

"Neither do I," Laila said. "And I never left."

"MAMMY HAS A new friend," Zalmai said after dinner later that same night, after Tariq had left. "A man."

Rasheed looked up. "Does she, now?"

* * *

TARIQ ASKED IF he could smoke.

They had stayed awhile at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Tariq said, tapping ash into a saucer. There were sixty thousand Afghans living there already when he and his parents arrived.

"It wasn't as bad as some of the other camps like, God forbid, Jalozai," he said. "I guess at one point it was even some kind of model camp, back during the Cold War, a place the West could point to and prove to the world they weren't just funneling arms into Afghanistan."

But that had been during the Soviet war, Tariq said, the days of jihad and worldwide interest and generous funding and visits from Margaret Thatcher.

"You know the rest, Laila. After the war, the Soviets fell apart, and the West moved on. There was nothing at stake for them in Afghanistan anymore and the money dried up. Now Nasir Bagh is tents, dust, and open sewers. When we got there, they handed us a stick and a sheet of canvas and told us to build ourselves a tent."

Tariq said what he remembered most about Nasir Bagh, where they had stayed for a year, was the color brown. "Brown tents. Brown people. Brown dogs. Brown porridge."

There was a leafless tree he climbed every day, where he straddled a branch and watched the refugees lying about in the sun, their sores and stumps in plain view. He watched little emaciated boys carrying water in their jerry cans, gathering dog droppings to make fire, carving toy AK-47s out of wood with dull knives, lugging the sacks of wheat flour that no one could make bread from that held together. All around the refugee town, the wind made the tents flap. It hurled stubbles of weed everywhere, lifted kites flown from the roofs of mud hovels.

"A lot of kids died. Dysentery, TB, hunger - you name it. Mostly, that damn dysentery. God, Laila. I saw so many kids buried. There's nothing worse a person can see."

He crossed his legs. It grew quiet again between them for a while.

"My father didn't survive that first winter," he said. "He died in his sleep. I don't think there was any pain."

That same winter, he said, his mother caught pneumonia and almost died, would have died, if not for a camp doctor who worked out of a station wagon made into a mobile clinic. She would wake up all night long, feverish, coughing out thick, rust-colored phlegm. The queues were long to see the doctor, Tariq said. Everyone was shivering in line, moaning, coughing, some with shit running down their legs, others too tired or hungry or sick to make words.

"But he was a decent man, the doctor. He treated my mother, gave her some pills, saved her life that winter."

That same winter, Tariq had cornered a kid.

"Twelve, maybe thirteen years old," he said evenly. "I held a shard of glass to his throat and took his blanket from him. I gave it to my mother."

He made a vow to himself, Tariq said, after his mother's illness, that they would not spend another winter in camp. He'd work, save, move them to an apartment in Peshawar with heating and clean water. When spring came, he looked for work. From time to time, a truck came to camp early in the morning and rounded up a couple of dozen boys, took them to a field to move stones or an orchard to pick apples in exchange for a little money, sometimes a blanket, a pair of shoes. But they never wanted him, Tariq said.

"One look at my leg and it was over."

There were other jobs. Ditches to dig, hovels to build, water to carry, feces to shovel from outhouses. But young men fought over these jobs, and Tariq never stood a chance.

Then he met a shopkeeper one day, that fall of 1993.

"He offered me money to take a leather coat to Lahore. Not a lot but enough, enough for one or maybe two months' apartment rent."

The shopkeeper gave him a bus ticket, Tariq said, and the address of a street corner near the Lahore Rail Station where he was to deliver the coat to a friend of the shopkeeper's.

"I knew already. Of course I knew," Tariq said. "He said that if I got caught, I was on my own, that I should remember that he knew where my mother lived. But the money was too good to pass up. And winter was coming again."

"How far did you get?" Laila asked.

"Not far," he said and laughed, sounding apologetic, ashamed. "Never even got on the bus. But I thought I was immune, you know, safe. As though there was some accountant up there somewhere, a guy with a pencil tucked behind his ear who kept track of these things, who tallied things up, and he'd look down and say, 'Yes, yes, he can have this, we'll let it go. He's paid some dues already, this one.' "

It was in the seams, the hashish, and it spilled all over the street when the police took a knife to the coat.

Tariq laughed again when he said this, a climbing, shaky kind of laugh, and Laila remembered how he used to laugh like this when they were little, to cloak embarrassment, to make light of things he'd done that were foolhardy or scandalous.

"HE HAS A LIMP," Zalmai said.

"Is this who I think it is?"

"He was only visiting," Mariam said.

"Shut up, you," Rasheed snapped, raising a finger. He turned back to Laila. "Well, what do you know? Laili and Majnoon reunited. Just like old times." His face turned stony. "So you let him in. Here. In my house. You let him in. He was in here with my son."

"You duped me. You lied to me," Laila said, gritting her teeth. "You had that man sit across from me and . . . You knew I would leave if I thought he was alive."

"AND YOU DIDN'T LIE TO ME?" Rasheed roared.

"You think I didn't figure it out? About your harami? You take me for a fool, you whore?"

THE MORE TARIQ TALKED, the more Laila dreaded the moment when he would stop. The silence that would follow, the signal that it was her turn to give account, to provide the why and how and when, to make official what he surely already knew. She felt a faint nausea whenever he paused. She averted his eyes. She looked down at his hands, at the coarse, dark hairs that had sprouted on the back of them in the intervening years.

Tariq wouldn't say much about his years in prison save that he'd learned to speak Urdu there. When Laila asked, he gave an impatient shake of his head. In this gesture, Laila saw rusty bars and unwashed bodies, violent men and crowded halls, and ceilings rotting with moldy deposits. She read in his face that it had been a place of abasement, of degradation and despair.

Tariq said his mother tried to visit him after his arrest.

"Three times she came. But I never got to see her," he said.

He wrote her a letter, and a few more after that, even though he doubted that she would receive them.

"And I wrote you."

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