Chapter no 17

A Thousand Splendid Suns

The gun was red, the trigger guard bright green. Behind the gun loomed Khadim’s grinning face. Khadim was eleven, like Tariq. He was thick, tall, and had a severe underbite. His father was a butcher in Deh-Mazang, and, from time to time, Khadim was known to fling bits of calf intestine at passersby. Sometimes, if Tariq wasn’t nearby, Khadim shadowed Laila in the schoolyard at recess, leering, making little whining noises. One time, he’d tapped her on the shoulder and said, You’re so very pretty, Yellow Hair. I want to marry you.

Now he waved the gun. “Don’t worry,” he said. “This won’t show. Not on your hair.”

“Don’t you do it! I’m warning you.”

“What are you going to do?” he said. “Sic your cripple on me? ‘Oh, Tariq jan. Oh, won’t you come home and save me from the badmash!’ ”

Laila began to backpedal, but Khadim was already pumping the trigger.

One after another, thin jets of warm water struck Laila’s hair, then her palm when she raised it to shield her face.

Now the other boys came out of their hiding, laughing, cackling. An insult Laila had heard on the street rose to her lips.

She didn’t really understand it—couldn’t quite picture the logistics of it

—but the words packed a fierce potency, and she unleashed them now. “Your mother eats cock!”

“At least she’s not a loony like yours,” Khadim shot back, unruffled. “At least my father’s not a sissy! And, by the way, why don’t you smell your hands?”

The other boys took up the chant. “Smell your hands! Smell your hands!”

Laila did, but she knew even before she did, what he’d meant about it not showing in her hair. She let out a high-pitched yelp. At this, the boys hooted even harder.

Laila turned around and, howling, ran home.

SHE DREW WATER from the well, and, in the bathroom, filled a basin, tore off her clothes. She soaped her hair, frantically digging fingers into her scalp, whimpering with disgust. She rinsed with a bowl and soaped her hair again. Several times, she thought she might throw up. She kept mewling and shivering, as she rubbed and rubbed the soapy washcloth against her face and neck until they reddened.

This would have never happened if Tariq had been with her, she thought as she put on a clean shirt and fresh trousers. Khadim wouldn’t have dared. Of course, it wouldn’t have happened if Mammy had shown up like she was supposed to either. Sometimes Laila wondered why Mammy had even bothered having her. People, she believed now, shouldn’t be allowed to have new children if they’d already given away all their love to their old ones. It wasn’t fair. A fit of anger claimed her. Laila went to her room, collapsed on her bed.

When the worst of it had passed, she went across the hallway to Mammy’s door and knocked. When she was younger, Laila used to sit for hours outside this door. She would tap on it and whisper Mammy’s name over and over, like a magic chant meant to break a spell: Mammy, Mammy, Mammy, Mammy . . . But Mammy never opened the door. She didn’t open it now. Laila turned the knob and walked in.

SOMETIMES MAMMY had good days. She sprang out of bed bright-eyed and playful. The droopy lower lip stretched upward in a smile. She bathed. She put on fresh clothes and wore mascara. She let Laila brush her hair, which Laila loved doing, and pin earrings through her earlobes. They went shopping together to Mandaii Bazaar. Laila got her to play snakes and ladders, and they ate shavings from blocks of dark chocolate, one of the few things they shared a common taste for. Laila’s favorite part of Mammy’s good days was when Babi came home, when she and Mammy looked up from the board and grinned at him with brown teeth. A gust of contentment puffed through the room then, and Laila caught a momentary glimpse of the tenderness, the romance, that had once bound her parents back when this house had been crowded and noisy and cheerful.

Mammy sometimes baked on her good days and invited neighborhood

women over for tea and pastries. Laila got to lick the bowls clean, as Mammy set the table with cups and napkins and the good plates. Later, Laila would take her place at the living-room table and try to break into the conversation, as the women talked boisterously and drank tea and complimented Mammy on her baking. Though there was never much for

her to say, Laila liked to sit and listen in because at these gatherings she was treated to a rare pleasure: She got to hear Mammy speaking affectionately about Babi.

“What a first-rate teacher he was,” Mammy said. “His students loved him. And not only because he wouldn’t beat them with rulers, like other teachers did. They respected him, you see, because he respected them. He was marvelous.”

Mammy loved to tell the story of how she’d proposed to him.

“I was sixteen, he was nineteen. Our families lived next door to each other in Panjshir. Oh, I had the crush on him, hamshiras! I used to climb the wall between our houses, and we’d play in his father’s orchard.

Hakim was always scared that we’d get caught and that my father would give him a slapping. ‘Your father’s going to give me a slapping,’ he’d always say. He was so cautious, so serious, even then. And then one day I said to him, I said, ‘Cousin, what will it be? Are you going to ask for my hand or are you going to make me come khastegari to you?’ I said it just like that. You should have seen the face on him!”

Mammy would slap her palms together as the women, and Laila, laughed.

Listening to Mammy tell these stories, Laila knew that there had been a time when Mammy always spoke this way about Babi. A time when her parents did not sleep in separate rooms. Laila wished she hadn’t missed out on those times.

Inevitably, Mammy’s proposal story led to matchmaking schemes. When Afghanistan was free from the Soviets and the boys returned home, they would need brides, and so, one by one, the women paraded the neighborhood girls who might or might not be suitable for Ahmad and Noor. Laila always felt excluded when the talk turned to her brothers, as though the women were discussing a beloved film that only she hadn’t seen. She’d been two years old when Ahmad and Noor had left Kabul for Panjshir up north, to join Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces and fight the jihad. Laila hardly remembered anything at all about them. A shiny ALLAH pendant around Ahmad’s neck. A patch of black hairs on one of Noor’s ears. And that was it.

“What about Azita?”

“The rugmaker’s daughter?” Mammy said, slapping her cheek with mock outrage. “She has a thicker mustache than Hakim!”

“There’s Anahita. We hear she’s top in her class at Zarghoona.” “Have you seen the teeth on that girl? Tombstones.

She’s hiding a graveyard behind those lips.”

“How about the Wahidi sisters?”

“Those two dwarfs? No, no, no. Oh, no. Not for my sons. Not for my sultans. They deserve better.”

As the chatter went on, Laila let her mind drift, and, as always, it found Tariq.

MAMMY HAD PULLED the yellowish curtains. In the darkness, the room had a layered smell about it: sleep, unwashed linen, sweat, dirty socks, perfume, the previous night’s leftover qurma. Laila waited for her eyes to adjust before she crossed the room. Even so, her feet became entangled with items of clothing that littered the floor.

Laila pulled the curtains open. At the foot of the bed was an old metallic folding chair. Laila sat on it and watched the unmoving blanketed mound that was her mother.

The walls of Mammy’s room were covered with pictures of Ahmad and Noor. Everywhere Laila looked, two strangers smiled back. Here was Noor mounting a tricycle. Here was Ahmad doing his prayers, posing beside a sundial Babi and he had built when he was twelve. And there they were, her brothers, sitting back to back beneath the old pear tree in the yard.

Beneath Mammy’s bed, Laila could see the corner of Ahmad’s shoe box protruding. From time to time, Mammy showed her the old, crumpled newspaper clippings in it, and pamphlets that Ahmad had managed to collect from insurgent groups and resistance organizations headquartered in Pakistan. One photo, Laila remembered, showed a man in a long white coat handing a lollipop to a legless little boy. The caption below the photo read: Children are the intended victims of Soviet land mine campaign. The article went on to say that the Soviets also liked to hide explosives inside brightly colored toys. If a child picked it up, the toy exploded, tore off fingers or an entire hand. The father could not join the jihad then; he’d have to stay home and care for his child. In another article in Ahmad’s box, a young Mujahid was saying that the Soviets had dropped gas on his village that burned people’s skin and blinded them. He said he had seen his mother and sister running for the stream, coughing up blood.


The mound stirred slightly. It emitted a groan. “Get up, Mammy. It’s three o’clock.”

Another groan. A hand emerged, like a submarine periscope breaking surface, and dropped. The mound moved more discernibly this time. Then

the rustle of blankets as layers of them shifted over each other. Slowly, in stages, Mammy materialized: first the slovenly hair, then the white, grimacing face, eyes pinched shut against the light, a hand groping for the headboard, the sheets sliding down as she pulled herself up, grunting. Mammy made an effort to look up, flinched against the light, and her head drooped over her chest.

“How was school?” she muttered.

So it would begin. The obligatory questions, the per functory answers. Both pretending. Unenthusiastic partners, the two of them, in this tired old dance.

“School was fine,” Laila said. “Did you learn anything?” “The usual.”

“Did you eat?” “I did.”


Mammy raised her head again, toward the window. She winced and her eyelids fluttered. The right side of her face was red, and the hair on that side had flattened. “I have a headache.”

“Should I fetch you some aspirin?”

Mammy massaged her temples. “Maybe later. Is your father home?” “It’s only three.”

“Oh. Right. You said that already.” Mammy yawned. “I was dreaming just now,” she said, her voice only a bit louder than the rustle of her nightgown against the sheets. “Just now, before you came in. But I can’t remember it now. Does that happen to you?”

“It happens to everybody, Mammy.” “Strangest thing.”

“I should tell you that while you were dreaming, a boy shot piss out of a water gun on my hair.”

“Shot what? What was that? I’m sorry.” “Piss. Urine.”

“That’s . . . that’s terrible. God. I’m sorry. Poor you. I’ll have a talk with him first thing in the morning. Or maybe with his mother. Yes, that would be better, I think.”

“I haven’t told you who it was.” “Oh. Well, who was it?”

“Never mind.” “You’re angry.”

“You were supposed to pick me up.”

“I was,” Mammy croaked. Laila could not tell whether this was a question. Mammy began picking at her hair. This was one of life’s great mysteries to Laila, that Mammy’s picking had not made her bald as an egg. “What about . . . What’s his name, your friend, Tariq? Yes, what about him?”

“He’s been gone for a week.”

“Oh.” Mammy sighed through her nose. “Did you wash?” “Yes.”

“So you’re clean, then.” Mammy turned her tired gaze to the window. “You’re clean, and everything is fine.”

Laila stood up. “I have homework now.”

“Of course you do. Shut the curtains before you go, my love,” Mammy said, her voice fading. She was already sinking beneath the sheets.

As Laila reached for the curtains, she saw a car pass by on the street tailed by a cloud of dust. It was the blue Benz with the Herat license plate finally leaving. She followed it with her eyes until it vanished around a turn, its back window twinkling in the sun.

“I won’t forget tomorrow,” Mammy was saying behind her. “I promise.”

“You said that yesterday.” “You don’t know, Laila.”

“Know what?” Laila wheeled around to face her mother. “What don’t I know?”

Mammy’s hand floated up to her chest, tapped there. “In here. What’s in here.” Then it fell flaccid. “You just don’t know.”

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