A Thousand Splendid Suns

Author: P Hana

Page 5

   


After a while, the road became bumpier and the nose of the car pointed up. They were on the uphill road between Herat and Gul Daman.

What would she say to Nana, Mariam wondered. How would she apologize? How could she even face Nana now?

The car stopped and the driver helped her out. "I'll walk you," he said.

She let him guide her across the road and up the track. There was honeysuckle growing along the path, and milkweed too. Bees were buzzing over twinkling wildflowers. The driver took her hand and helped her cross the stream. Then he let go, and he was talking about how Herat's famous one hundred and twenty days' winds would start blowing soon, from midmorning to dusk, and how the sand flies would go on a feeding frenzy, and then suddenly he was standing in front of her, trying to cover her eyes, pushing her back the way they had come and saying, "Go back! No. Don't look now. Turn around! Go back!"

But he wasn't fast enough. Mariam saw. A gust of wind blew and parted the drooping branches of the weeping willow like a curtain, and Mariam caught a glimpse of what was beneath the tree: the straight-backed chair, overturned. The rope dropping from a high branch. Nana dangling at the end of it.

Chapter 6

They buried Nana in a corner of the cemetery in Gul Daman. Mariam stood beside Bibi jo, with the women, as Mullah Faizullah recited prayers at the graveside and the men lowered Nana's shrouded body into the ground.

Afterward, Jalil walked Mariam to the kolba, where, in front of the villagers who accompanied them, he made a great show of tending to Mariam. He collected a few of her things, put them in a suitcase. He sat beside her cot, where she lay down, and fanned her face. He stroked her forehead, and, with a woebegone expression on his face, asked if she needed anything? anything? - he said it like that, twice.

"I want Mullah Faizullah," Mariam said.

"Of course. He's outside. I'll get him for you."

It was when Mullah Faizullah's slight, stooping figure appeared in the kolba's doorway that Mariam cried for the first time that day.

"Oh, Mariam jo."

He sat next to her and cupped her face in his hands. "You go on and cry, Mariam jo. Go on. There is no shame in it. But remember, my girl, what the Koran says, 'Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He Who has power over all things, Who created death and life that He may try you.' The Koran speaks the truth, my girl. Behind every trial and every sorrow that He makes us shoulder, God has a reason."

But Mariam could not hear comfort in God's words. Not that day. Not then. All she could hear was Nana saying, I'll die if you go. I'll just die. All she could do was cry and cry and let her tears fall on the spotted, paper-thin skin of Mullah Faizullah's hands.

ON THE RIDE to his house, Jalil sat in the backseat of his car with Mariam, his arm draped over her shoulder.

"You can stay with me, Mariam jo," he said. "I've asked them already to clean a room for you. It's upstairs. You'll like it, I think. You'll have a view of the garden."

For the first time, Mariam could hear him with Nana's ears. She could hear so clearly now the insincerity that had always lurked beneath, the hollow, false assurances. She could not bring herself to look at him.

When the car stopped before Jalil's house, the driver opened the door for them and carried Mariam's suitcase. Jalil guided her, one palm cupped around each of her shoulders, through the same gates outside of which, two days before, Mariam had slept on the sidewalk waiting for him. Two days before - when Mariam could think of nothing in the world she wanted more than to walk in this garden with Jalil - felt like another lifetime. How could her life have turned upside down so quickly, Mariam asked herself. She kept her gaze to the ground, on her feet, stepping on the gray stone path. She was aware of the presence of people in the garden, murmuring, stepping aside, as she and Jalil walked past. She sensed the weight of eyes on her, looking down from the windows upstairs.

Inside the house too, Mariam kept her head down. She walked on a maroon carpet with a repeating blue-and-yellow octagonal pattern, saw out of the corner of her eye the marble bases of statues, the lower halves of vases, the frayed ends of richly colored tapestries hanging from walls.

The stairs she and Jalil took were wide and covered with a similar carpet, nailed down at the base of each step. At the top of the stairs, Jalil led her to the left, down another long, carpeted hallway. He stopped by one of the doors, opened it, and let her in.

"Your sisters Niloufar and Atieh play here sometimes," Jalil said, "but mostly we use this as a guest room. You'll be comfortable here, I think. It's nice, isn't it?"

The room had a bed with a green-flowered blanket knit in a tightly woven, honeycomb design. The curtains, pulled back to reveal the garden below, matched the blanket. Beside the bed was a three-drawer chest with a flower vase on it. There were shelves along the walls, with framed pictures of people Mariam did not recognize. On one of the shelves, Mariam saw a collection of identical wooden dolls, arranged in a line in order of decreasing size.

Jalil saw her looking. "Matryoshka dolls. I got them in Moscow. You can play with them, if you want. No one will mind."

Mariam sat down on the bed.

"Is there anything you want?" Jalil said.

Mariam lay down. Closed her eyes. After a while, she heard him softly shut the door.

EXCEPT FOR WHEN she had to use the bathroom down the hall, Mariam stayed in the room. The girl with the tattoo, the one who had opened the gates to her, brought her meals on a tray: lamb kebab, sabzi, aush soup. Most of it went uneaten. Jalil came by several times a day, sat on the bed beside her, asked her if she was all right.

"You could eat downstairs with the rest of us," he said, but without much conviction. He understood a little too readily when Mariam said she preferred to eat alone.

From the window, Mariam watched impassively what she had wondered about and longed to see for most of her life: the comings and goings of Jalil's daily life. Servants rushed in and out of the front gates. A gardener was always trimming bushes, watering plants in the greenhouse. Cars with long, sleek hoods pulled up on the street.

From them emerged men in suits, in chapans and caracul hats, women in hijabs, children with neatly combed hair.

And as Mariam watched Jalil shake these strangers' hands, as she saw him cross his palms on his chest and nod to their wives, she knew that Nana had spoken the truth. She did not belong here.

But where do I belong? What am I going to do now?

I'm all you have in this world, Mariam, and when I'm gone you'll have nothing. You'll have nothing. You are nothing!

Like the wind through the willows around the kolba, gusts of an inexpressible blackness kept passing through Mariam.

On Mariam's second full day at Jalil's house, a little girl came into the room.

"I have to get something," she said.

Mariam sat up on the bed and crossed her legs, pulled the blanket on her lap.

The girl hurried across the room and opened the closet door. She fetched a square-shaped gray box.

"You know what this is?" she said. She opened the box.

"It's called a gramophone. Gramo. Phone. It plays records.

You know, music. A gramophone."

"You're Niloufar. You're eight."

The little girl smiled. She had Jalil's smile and his dimpled chin. "How did you know?"

Mariam shrugged. She didn't say to this girl that she'd once named a pebble after her.

"Do you want to hear a song?"

Mariam shrugged again.

Niloufar plugged in the gramophone. She fished a small record from a pouch beneath the box's lid. She put it on, lowered the needle. Music began to play.

I will use a flower petal for paper,

And write you the sweetest letter,

You are the sultan of my heart,

the sultan of my heart.

"Do you know it?"

"No."

"It's from an Iranian film. I saw it at my father's cinema.

Hey, do you want to see something?"

Before Mariam could answer, Niloufar had put her palms and forehead to the ground. She pushed with her soles and then she was standing upside down, on her head, in a three-point stance.

"Can you do that?" she said thickly.

"No."

Niloufar dropped her legs and pulled her blouse back down. "I could teach you," she said, pushing hair from her flushed brow. "So how long will you stay here?"

"I don't know."

"My mother says you're not really my sister like you say you are."

"I never said I was," Mariam lied.

"She says you did. I don't care. What I mean is, I don't mind if you did say it, or if you are my sister. I don't mind."

Mariam lay down. "I'm tired now."

"My mother says a jinn made your mother hang herself."

"You can stop that now," Mariam said, turning to her side. "The music, I mean."

Bibi jo came to see her that day too. It was raining by the time she came. She lowered her large body onto the chair beside the bed, grimacing.

"This rain, Mariam jo, it's murder on my hips. Just murder, I tell you. I hope . . . Oh, now, come here, child.

Come here to Bibi jo. Don't cry. There, now. You poor thing. Tsk. You poor, poor thing."

That night, Mariam couldn't sleep for a long time. She lay in bed looking at the sky, listening to the footsteps below, the voices muffled by walls and the sheets of rain punishing the window. When she did doze off, she was startled awake by shouting. Voices downstairs, sharp and angry. Mariam couldn't make out the words. Someone slammed a door.

The next morning, Mullah Faizullah came to visit her.

When she saw her friend at the door, his white beard and his amiable, toothless smile, Mariam felt tears stinging the corners of her eyes again. She swung her feet over the side of the bed and hurried over. She kissed his hand as always and he her brow. She pulled him up a chair.

He showed her the Koran he had brought with him and opened it. "I figured no sense in skipping our routine, eh?"

"You know I don't need lessons anymore, Mullah sahib.

You taught me every surrah and ayat in the Koran years ago."

He smiled, and raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I confess, then. I've been found out. But I can think of worse excuses to visit you."

"You don't need excuses. Not you."

"You're kind to say that, Mariam jo."

He passed her his Koran. As he'd taught her, she kissed it three times - touching it to her brow between each kiss - and gave it back to him.

"How are you, my girl?"

"I keep," Mariam began. She had to stop, feeling like a rock had lodged itself in her throat. "I keep thinking of what she said to me before I left. She - "

"Nay, nay, nay." Mullah Faizullah put his hand on her knee. "Your mother, may Allah forgive her, was a troubled and unhappy woman, Mariam jo. She did a terrible thing to herself. To herself, to you, and also to Allah. He will forgive her, for He is all-forgiving, but Allah is saddened by what she did. He does not approve of the taking of life, be it another's or one's own, for He says that life is sacred. You see - " He pulled his chair closer, took Mariam's hand in both of his own. "You see, I knew your mother before you were born, when she was a little girl, and I tell you that she was unhappy then. The seed for what she did was planted long ago, I'm afraid. What I mean to say is that this was not your fault. It wasn't your fault, my girl."

"I shouldn't have left her. I should have - "

"You stop that. These thoughts are no good, Mariam jo.

You hear me, child? No good. They will destroy you. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't your fault. No."

Mariam nodded, but as desperately as she wanted to she could not bring herself to believe him.

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