"Maybe I can say them with you tonight."
"You can't say them like he can."
She squeezed his little shoulder. Kissed the nape of his neck. "I can try."
"Where is Baba jan?"
"Baba jan has gone away," Laila said, her throat closing up again.
And there it was, spoken for the first time, the great, damning lie. How many more times would this lie have to be told? Laila wondered miserably. How many more times would Zalmai have to be deceived? She pictured Zalmai, his jubilant, running welcomes when Rasheed came home and Rasheed picking him up by the elbows and swinging him round and round until Zalmai's legs flew straight out, the two of them giggling afterward when Zalmai stumbled around like a drunk. She thought of their disorderly games and their boisterous laughs, their secretive glances.
A pall of shame and grief for her son fell over Laila.
"Where did he go?"
"I don't know, my love."
When was he coming back? Would Baba jan bring a present with him when he returned?
She did the prayers with Zalmai. Twenty-one Bismallah-e-rahman- e-rahims - one for each knuckle of seven fingers.
She watched him cup his hands before his face and blow into them, then place the back of both hands on his forehead and make a casting-away motion, whispering, Babaloo, be gone, do not come to Zalmai, he has no business with you. Babaloo, be gone. Then, to finish off, they said Allah-u-akbar three times. And later, much later that night, Laila was startled by a muted voice: Did Baba jan leave because of me? Because of what I said, about you and the man downstairs?
She leaned over him, meaning to reassure, meaning to say It had nothing to do with you, Zalmai. No. Nothing is your fault. But he was asleep, his small chest rising and sinking.
WHEN LAILA WENT to bed, her mind was muffled up, clouded, incapable of sustained rational thought. But when she woke up, to the muezzin's call for morning prayer, much of the dullness had lifted.
She sat up and watched Zalmai sleep for a while, the ball of his fist under his chin. Laila pictured Mariam sneaking into the room in the middle of the night as she and Zalmai had slept, watching them, making plans in her head.
Laila slipped out of bed. It took effort to stand. She ached everywhere. Her neck, her shoulders, her back, her arms, her thighs, all engraved with the cuts of Rasheed's belt buckle. Wincing, she quietly left the bedroom.
In Mariam's room, the light was a shade darker than gray, the kind of light Laila had always associated with crowing roosters and dew rolling off blades of grass. Mariam was sitting in a corner, on a prayer rug facing the window. Slowly, Laila lowered herself to the ground, sitting down across from her.
"You should go and visit Aziza this morning," Mariam said.
"I know what you mean to do."
"Don't walk. Take the bus, you'll blend in. Taxis are too conspicuous. You're sure to get stopped for riding alone."
"What you promised last night . . ."
Laila could not finish. The trees, the lake, the nameless village. A delusion, she saw. A lovely lie meant to soothe. Like cooing to a distressed child.
"I meant it," Mariam said. "I meant it for you, Laila jo."
"I don't want any of it without you," Laila croaked.
Mariam smiled wanly.
"I want it to be just like you said, Mariam, all of us going together, you, me, the children. Tariq has a place in Pakistan. We can hide out there for a while, wait for things to calm down - "
"That's not possible," Mariam said patiently, like a parent to a well-meaning but misguided child.
"We'll take care of each other," Laila said, choking on the words, her eyes wet with tears. "Like you said. No. I'll take care of you for a change."
"Oh, Laila jo."
Laila went on a stammering rant. She bargained. She promised. She would do all the cleaning, she said, and all the cooking. "You won't have to do a thing. Ever again.
You rest, sleep in, plant a garden. Whatever you want, you ask and I'll get it for you. Don't do this, Mariam. Don't leave me. Don't break Aziza's heart."
"They chop off hands for stealing bread," Mariam said.
"What do you think they'll do when they find a dead husband and two missing wives?"
"No one will know," Laila breathed. "No one will find us."
"They will. Sooner or later. They're bloodhounds."
Mariam's voice was low, cautioning; it made Laila's promises sound fantastical, trumped-up, foolish.
"Mariam, please - "
"When they do, they'll find you as guilty as me. Tariq too. I won't have the two of you living on the run, like fugitives. What will happen to your children if you're caught?"
Laila's eyes brimming, stinging.
"Who will take care of them then? The Taliban? Think like a mother, Laila jo. Think like a mother. I am."
"You have to."
"It isn't fair," Laila croaked.
"But it is. Come here. Come lie here."
Laila crawled to her and again put her head on Mariam's lap. She remembered all the afternoons they'd spent together, braiding each other's hair, Mariam listening patiently to her random thoughts and ordinary stories with an air of gratitude, with the expression of a person to whom a unique and coveted privilege had been extended.
"It is fair," Mariam said. "I've killed our husband. I've deprived your son of his father. It isn't right that I run. I can't. Even if they never catch us, I'll never . . ." Her lips trembled. "I'll never escape your son's grief. How do I look at him? How do I ever bring myself to look at him, Laila jo?"
Mariam twiddled a strand of Laila's hair, untangled a stubborn curl.
"For me, it ends here. There's nothing more I want.
Everything I'd ever wished for as a little girl you've already given me. You and your children have made me so very happy. It's all right, Laila jo. This is all right. Don't be sad."
Laila could find no reasonable answer for anything Mariam said. But she rambled on anyway, incoherently, childishly, about fruit trees that awaited planting and chickens that awaited raising. She went on about small houses in unnamed towns, and walks to trout-filled lakes. And, in the end, when the words dried up, the tears did not, and all Laila could do was surrender and sob like a child overwhelmed by an adult's unassailable logic. All she could do was roll herself up and bury her face one last time in the welcoming warmth of Mariam's lap.
LATER THAT MORNING, Mariam packed Zalmai a small lunch of bread and dried figs. For Aziza too she packed some figs, and a few cookies shaped like animals. She put it all in a paper bag and gave it to Laila.
"Kiss Aziza for me," she said. "Tell her she is the noor of my eyes and the sultan of my heart. Will you do that for me?"
Laila nodded, her lips pursed together.
"Take the bus, like I said, and keep your head low."
"When will I see you, Mariam? I want to see you before I testify. I'll tell them how it happened. I'll explain that it wasn't your fault. That you had to do it. They'll understand, won't they, Mariam? They'll understand."
Mariam gave her a soft look.
She hunkered down to eye level with Zalmai. He was wearing a red T-shirt, ragged khakis, and a used pair of cowboy boots Rasheed had bought him from Mandaii. He was holding his new basketball with both hands. Mariam planted a kiss on his cheek.
"You be a good, strong boy, now," she said. "You treat your mother well." She cupped his face. He pulled back but she held on. "I am so sorry, Zalmai jo. Believe me that I'm so very sorry for all your pain and sadness."
Laila held Zalmai's hand as they walked down the road together. Just before they turned the corner, Laila looked back and saw Mariam at the door. Mariam was wearing a white scarf over her head, a dark blue sweater buttoned in the front, and white cotton trousers. A crest of gray hair had fallen loose over her brow. Bars of sunlight slashed across her face and shoulders. Mariam waved amiably.
They turned the corner, and Laila never saw Mariam again.
Back in a kolba, it seemed, after all these years.
The Walayat women's prison was a drab, square-shaped building in Shar-e-Nau near Chicken Street. It sat in the center of a larger complex that housed male inmates. A padlocked door separated Mariam and the other women from the surrounding men. Mariam counted five working cells. They were unfurnished rooms, with dirty, peeling walls, and small windows that looked into the courtyard. The windows were barred, even though the doors to the cells were unlocked and the women were free to come and go to the courtyard as they pleased. The windows had no glass. There were no curtains either, which meant the Talib guards who roamed the courtyard had an eyeful of the interior of the cells. Some of the women complained that the guards smoked outside the window and leered in, with their inflamed eyes and wolfish smiles, that they muttered indecent jokes to each other about them. Because of this, most of the women wore burqas all day and lifted them only after sundown, after the main gate was locked and the guards had gone to their posts.
At night, the cell Mariam shared with five women and four children was dark. On those nights when there was electrical power, they hoisted Naghma, a short, flat-chested girl with black frizzy hair, up to the ceiling. There was a wire there from which the coating had been stripped. Naghma would hand-wrap the live wire around the base of the lightbulb then to make a circuit.
The toilets were closet-sized, the cement floor cracked. There was a small, rectangular hole in the ground, at the bottom of which was a heap of feces. Flies buzzed in and out of the hole.
In the middle of the prison was an open, rectangular courtyard, and, in the middle of that, a well. The well had no drainage, meaning the courtyard was often a swamp and the water tasted rotten. Laundry lines, loaded with hand-washed socks and diapers, slashed across each other in the courtyard. This was where inmates met visitors, where they boiled the rice their families brought them - the prison provided no food. The courtyard was also the children's playground - Mariam had learned that many of the children had been born in Walayat, had never seen the world outside these walls. Mariam watched them chase each other around, watched their shoeless feet sling mud. All day, they ran around, making up lively games, unaware of the stench of feces and urine that permeated Walayat and their own bodies, unmindful of the Talib guards until one smacked them.
Mariam had no visitors. That was the first and only thing she had asked the Talib officials here. No visitors.
NONE OF THE women in Mariam's cell were serving time for violent crime - they were all there for the common offense of "running away from home." As a result, Mariam gained some notoriety among them, became a kind of celebrity. The women eyed her with a reverent, almost awestruck, expression. They offered her their blankets. They competed to share their food with her.
The most avid was Naghma, who was always hugging her elbows and following Mariam everywhere she went. Naghma was the sort of person who found it entertaining to dispense news of misfortune, whether others' or her own. She said her father had promised her to a tailor some thirty years older than her.
"He smells like goh, and has fewer teeth than fingers," Naghma said of the tailor.
She'd tried to elope to Gardez with a young man she'd fallen in love with, the son of a local mullah. They'd barely made it out of Kabul. When they were caught and sent back, the mullah's son was flogged before he repented and said that Naghma had seduced him with her feminine charms. She'd cast a spell on him, he said. He promised he would rededicate himself to the study of the Koran. The mullah's son was freed. Naghma was sentenced to five years.
It was just as well, she said, her being here in prison. Her father had sworn that the day she was released he would take a knife to her throat.