"Oh, volumes," he said. "Your friend Rumi would have envied my production." Then he laughed again, uproariously this time, as though he was both startled at his own boldness and embarrassed by what he had let on.
Zalmai began bawling upstairs.
* * *
"JUST LIKE OLD TIMES, then," Rasheed said. "The two of you. I suppose you let him see your face."
"She did," said Zalmai. Then, to Laila, "You did, Mammy. I saw you."
"YOUR SON DOESN'T care for me much," Tariq said when Laila returned downstairs.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's not that. He just . . . Don't mind him." Then quickly she changed the subject because it made her feel perverse and guilty to feel that about Zalmai, who was a child, a little boy who loved his father, whose instinctive aversion to this stranger was understandable and legitimate.
And I wrote you.
"How long have you been in Murree?"
"Less than a year," Tariq said.
He befriended an older man in prison, he said, a fellow named Salim, a Pakistani, a former field hockey player who had been in and out of prison for years and who was serving ten years for stabbing an undercover policeman. Every prison has a man like Salim, Tariq said. There was always someone who was cunning and connected, who worked the system and found you things, someone around whom the air buzzed with both opportunity and danger. It was Salim who had sent out Tariq's queries about his mother, Salim who had sat him down and told him, in a soft, fatherly voice, that she had died of exposure.
Tariq spent seven years in the Pakistani prison. "I got off easy," he said. "I was lucky. The judge sitting on my case, it turned out, had a brother who'd married an Afghan woman. Maybe he showed mercy. I don't know."
When Tariq's sentence was up, early in the winter of 2000, Salim gave him his brother's address and phone number. The brother's name was Sayeed.
"He said Sayeed owned a small hotel in Murree," Tariq said. "Twenty rooms and a lounge, a little place to cater to tourists. He said tell him I sent you."
Tariq had liked Murree as soon as he'd stepped off the bus: the snow-laden pines; the cold, crisp air; the shuttered wooden cottages, smoke curling up from chimneys.
Here was a place, Tariq had thought, knocking on Sayeed's door, a place not only worlds removed from the wretchedness he'd known but one that made even the notion of hardship and sorrow somehow obscene, unimaginable.
"I said to myself, here is a place where a man can get on."
Tariq was hired as a janitor and handyman. He did well, he said, during the one-month trial period, at half pay, that Sayeed granted him. As Tariq spoke, Laila saw Sayeed, whom she imagined narrow-eyed and ruddy-faced, standing at the reception office window watching Tariq chop wood and shovel snow off the driveway. She saw him stooping over Tariq's legs, observing, as Tariq lay beneath the sink fixing a leaky pipe. She pictured him checking the register for missing cash.
Tariq's shack was beside the cook's little bungalow, he said. The cook was a matronly old widow named Adiba. Both shacks were detached from the hotel itself, separated from the main building by a scattering of almond trees, a park bench, and a pyramid-shaped stone fountain that, in the summer, gurgled water all day. Laila pictured Tariq in his shack, sitting up in bed, watching the leafy world outside his window.
At the end of the grace period, Sayeed raised Tariq's pay to full, told him his lunches were free, gave him a wool coat, and fitted him for a new leg. Tariq said he'd wept at the man's kindness.
With his first month's full salary in his pocket, Tariq had gone to town and bought Alyona.
"Her fur is perfectly white," Tariq said, smiling. "Some mornings, when it's snowed all night, you look out the window and all you see of her is two eyes and a muzzle."
Laila nodded. Another silence ensued. Upstairs, Zalmai had begun bouncing his ball again against the wall.
"I thought you were dead," Laila said.
"I know. You told me."
Laila's voice broke. She had to clear her throat, collect herself. "The man who came to give the news, he was so earnest . . . I believed him, Tariq. I wish I hadn't, but I did. And then I felt so alone and scared. Otherwise, I wouldn't have agreed to marry Rasheed. I wouldn't have . . ."
"You don't have to do this," he said softly, avoiding her eyes. There was no hidden reproach, no recrimination, in the way he had said this. No suggestion of blame.
"But I do. Because there was a bigger reason why I married him. There's something you don't know, Tariq. Someone. I have to tell you."
"DID YOU SIT and talk with him too?" Rasheed asked Zalmai.
Zalmai said nothing. Laila saw hesitation and uncertainty in his eyes now, as if he had just realized that what he'd disclosed had turned out to be far bigger than he'd thought.
"I asked you a question, boy."
Zalmai swallowed. His gaze kept shifting. "I was upstairs, playing with Mariam."
"And your mother?"
Zalmai looked at Laila apologetically, on the verge of tears.
"It's all right, Zalmai," Laila said. "Tell the truth."
"She was . . . She was downstairs, talking to that man,"
he said in a thin voice hardly louder than a whisper.
"I see," said Rasheed. "Teamwork."
AS HE WAS LEAVING, Tariq said, "I want to meet her. I want to see her."
"I'll arrange it," Laila said.
"Aziza. Aziza." He smiled, tasting the word. Whenever Rasheed uttered her daughter's name, it came out sounding unwholesome to Laila, almost vulgar. "Aziza. It's lovely."
"So is she. You'll see."
"I'll count the minutes."
Almost ten years had passed since they had last seen each other. Laila's mind flashed to all the times they'd met in the alley, kissing in secret. She wondered how she must seem to him now. Did he still find her pretty? Or did she seem withered to him, reduced, pitiable, like a fearful, shuffling old woman? Almost ten years. But, for a moment, standing there with Tariq in the sunlight, it was as though those years had never happened. Her parents' deaths, her marriage to Rasheed, the killings, the rockets, the Taliban, the beatings, the hunger, even her children, all of it seemed like a dream, a bizarre detour, a mere interlude between that last afternoon together and this moment.
Then Tariq's face changed, turned grave. She knew this expression. It was the same look he'd had on his face that day, all those years ago when they'd both been children, when he'd unstrapped his leg and gone after Khadim. He reached with one hand now and touched the corner of her lower lip.
"He did this to you," he said coldly.
At his touch, Laila remembered the frenzy of that afternoon again when they'd conceived Aziza. His breath on her neck, the muscles of his h*ps flexing, his chest pressing against her br**sts, their hands interlocked.
"I wish I'd taken you with me," Tariq nearly whispered. Laila had to lower her gaze, try not to cry.
"I know you're a married woman and a mother now. And here I am, after all these years, after all that's happened, showing up at your doorstep. Probably, it isn't proper, or fair, but I've come such a long way to see you, and . . . Oh, Laila, I wish I'd never left you."
"Don't," she croaked.
"I should have tried harder. I should have married you when I had the chance. Everything would have been different, then."
"Don't talk this way. Please. It hurts."
He nodded, started to take a step toward her, then stopped himself. "I don't want to assume anything. And I don't mean to turn your life upside down, appearing like this out of nowhere. If you want me to leave, if you want me to go back to Pakistan, say the word, Laila. I mean it. Say it and I'll go. I'll never trouble you again. I'll - "
"No!" Laila said more sharply than she'd intended to. She saw that she'd reached for his arm, that she was clutching it. She dropped her hand. "No. Don't leave, Tariq. No. Please stay."
"He works from noon to eight. Come back tomorrow afternoon. I'll take you to Aziza."
"I'm not afraid of him, you know."
"I know. Come back tomorrow afternoon."
"And then . . . I don't know. I have to think. This is . . ."
"I know it is," he said. "I understand. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for a lot of things."
"Don't be. You promised you'd come back. And you did."
His eyes watered. "It's good to see you, Laila."
She watched him walk away, shivering where she stood. She thought, Volumes, and another shudder passed through her, a current of something sad and forlorn, but also something eager and recklessly hopeful.
I was upstairs, playing with Mariam," Zalmai said.
"And your mother?"
"She was . . . She was downstairs, talking to that man."
"I see," said Rasheed. "Teamwork."
Mariam watched his face relax, loosen. She watched the folds clear from his brow. Suspicion and misgiving winked out of his eyes. He sat up straight, and, for a few brief moments, he appeared merely thoughtful, like a ship captain informed of imminent mutiny taking his time to ponder his next move.
He looked up.
Mariam began to say something, but he raised a hand, and, without looking at her, said, "It's too late, Mariam."
To Zalmai he said coldly, "You're going upstairs, boy."
On Zalmai's face, Mariam saw alarm. Nervously, he looked around at the three of them. He sensed now that his tattletale game had let something serious - adult serious - into the room. He cast a despondent, contrite glance toward Mariam, then his mother.
In a challenging voice, Rasheed said, "Now!"
He took Zalmai by the elbow. Zalmai meekly let himself be led upstairs.
They stood frozen, Mariam and Laila, eyes to the ground, as though looking at each other would give credence to the way Rasheed saw things, that while he was opening doors and lugging baggage for people who wouldn't spare him a glance a lewd conspiracy was shaping behind his back, in his home, in his beloved son's presence. Neither one of them said a word. They listened to the footsteps in the hallway above, one heavy and foreboding, the other the pattering of a skittish little animal. They listened to muted words passed, a squeaky plea, a curt retort, a door shut, the rattle of a key as it turned. Then one set of footsteps returning, more impatiently now.
Mariam saw his feet pounding the steps as he came down. She saw him pocketing the key, saw his belt, the perforated end wrapped tightly around his knuckles. The fake brass buckle dragged behind him, bouncing on the steps.
She went to stop him, but he shoved her back and blew by her. Without saying a word, he swung the belt at Laila. He did it with such speed that she had no time to retreat or duck, or even raise a protective arm. Laila touched her fingers to her temple, looked at the blood, looked at Rasheed, with astonishment. It lasted only a moment or two, this look of disbelief, before it was replaced by something hateful.
Rasheed swung the belt again.
This time, Laila shielded herself with a forearm and made a grab at the belt. She missed, and Rasheed brought the belt down again. Laila caught it briefly before Rasheed yanked it free and lashed at her again. Then Laila was dashing around the room, and Mariam was screaming words that ran together and imploring Rasheed, as he chased Laila, as he blocked her way and cracked his belt at her. At one point, Laila ducked and managed to land a punch across his ear, which made him spit a curse and pursue her even more relentlessly. He caught her, threw her up against the wall, and struck her with the belt again and again, the buckle slamming against her chest, her shoulder, her raised arms, her fingers, drawing blood wherever it struck.