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Chapter no 19

A Thousand Splendid Suns

need to speak to your parents, dokhtar jan,” he said when Laila opene the door. He was a stocky man, with a sharp, weather-roughened face.

He wore a potato-colored coat, and a brown wool pakol on his head. “Can I tell them who’s here?”

Then Babi’s hand was on Laila’s shoulder, and he gently pulled her from the door.

“Why don’t you go upstairs, Laila. Go on.”

As she moved toward the steps, Laila heard the visitor say to Babi that he had news from Panjshir. Mammy was in the room now too. She had one hand clamped over her mouth, and her eyes were skipping from Babi to the man in the pakol.

Laila peeked from the top of the stairs. She watched the stranger sit down with her parents. He leaned toward them. Said a few muted words. Then Babi’s face was white, and getting whiter, and he was looking at his hands, and Mammy was screaming, screaming, and tearing at her hair.

* * *

THE NEXT MORNING, the day of the fatiha, a flock of neighborhood women descended on the house and took charge of preparations for the khatm dinner that would take place after the funeral. Mammy sat on the couch the whole morning, her fingers working a handkerchief, her face bloated. She was tended to by a pair of sniffling women who took turns patting Mammy’s hand gingerly, like she was the rarest and most fragile doll in the world. Mammy did not seem aware of their presence.

Laila kneeled before her mother and took her hands. “Mammy.” Mammy’s eyes drifted down. She blinked.

“We’ll take care of her, Laila jan,” one of the women said with an air of self-importance. Laila had been to funerals before where she had seen women like this, women who relished all things that had to do with death, official consolers who let no one trespass on their self-appointed

duties.

“It’s under control. You go on now, girl, and do something else. Leave your mother be.”

Shooed away, Laila felt useless. She bounced from one room to the next. She puttered around the kitchen for a while. An uncharacteristically subdued Hasina and her mother came. So did Giti and her mother. When Giti saw Laila, she hurried over, threw her bony arms around her, and gave Laila a very long, and surprisingly strong, embrace. When she pulled back, tears had pooled in her eyes. “I am so sorry, Laila,” she said. Laila thanked her. The three girls sat outside in the yard until one of the women assigned them the task of washing glasses and stacking plates on the table.

Babi too kept walking in and out of the house aimlessly, looking, it seemed, for something to do.

“Keep him away from me.” That was the only time Mammy said anything all morning.

Babi ended up sitting alone on a folding chair in the hallway, looking desolate and small. Then one of the women told him he was in the way there. He apologized and disappeared into his study.

THAT AFTERNOON, the men went to a hall in Karteh-Seh that Babi had rented for the fatiha. The women came to the house. Laila took her spot beside Mammy, next to the living-room entrance where it was customary for the family of the deceased to sit. Mourners removed their shoes at the door, nodded at acquaintances as they crossed the room, and sat on folding chairs arranged along the walls. Laila saw Wajma, the elderly midwife who had delivered her. She saw Tariq’s mother too, wearing a black scarf over the wig. She gave Laila a nod and a slow, sad, close-lipped smile.

From a cassette player, a man’s nasal voice chanted verses from the Koran. In between, the women sighed and shifted and sniffled. There were muted coughs, murmurs, and, periodically, someone let out a theatrical, sorrow-drenched sob.

Rasheed’s wife, Mariam, came in. She was wearing a black hijab.

Strands of her hair strayed from it onto her brow. She took a seat along the wall across from Laila.

Next to Laila, Mammy kept rocking back and forth.

Laila drew Mammy’s hand into her lap and cradled it with both of hers, but Mammy did not seem to notice.

“Do you want some water, Mammy?” Laila said in her ear. “Are you

thirsty?”

But Mammy said nothing. She did nothing but sway back and forth and stare at the rug with a remote, spiritless look.

Now and then, sitting next to Mammy, seeing the drooping, woebegone looks around the room, the magnitude of the disaster that had struck her family would register with Laila. The possibilities denied. The hopes dashed.

But the feeling didn’t last. It was hard to feel, really feel, Mammy’s loss. Hard to summon sorrow, to grieve the deaths of people Laila had never really thought of as alive in the first place. Ahmad and Noor had always been like lore to her. Like characters in a fable. Kings in a history book.

It was Tariq who was real, flesh and blood. Tariq, who taught her cusswords in Pashto, who liked salted clover leaves, who frowned and made a low, moaning sound when he chewed, who had a light pink birthmark just beneath his left collarbone shaped like an upside-down mandolin.

So she sat beside Mammy and dutifully mourned Ahmad and Noor, but, in Laila’s heart, her true brother was alive and well.

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