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Chapter no 20

A Thousand Splendid Suns

The ailments that would hound Mammy for the rest of her days began. Chest pains and headaches, joint aches and night sweats, paralyzing pains in her ears, lumps no one else could feel. Babi took her to a doctor, who took blood and urine, shot X-rays of Mammy’s body, but found no physical illness.

Mammy lay in bed most days. She wore black. She picked at her hair and gnawed on the mole below her lip. When Mammy was awake, Laila found her staggering through the house. She always ended up in Laila’s room, as though she would run into the boys sooner or later if she just kept walking into the room where they had once slept and farted and fought with pillows. But all she ran into was their absence. And Laila.

Which, Laila believed, had become one and the same to Mammy.

The only task Mammy never neglected was her five daily namaz prayers. She ended each namaz with her head hung low, hands held before her face, palms up, muttering a prayer for God to bring victory to the Mujahideen. Laila had to shoulder more and more of the chores. If she didn’t tend to the house, she was apt to find clothes, shoes, open rice bags, cans of beans, and dirty dishes strewn about everywhere. Laila washed Mammy’s dresses and changed her sheets. She coaxed her out of bed for baths and meals. She was the one who ironed Babi’s shirts and folded his pants. Increasingly, she was the cook.

Sometimes, after she was done with her chores, Laila crawled into bed next to Mammy. She wrapped her arms around her, laced her fingers with her mother’s, buried her face in her hair. Mammy would stir, murmur something. Inevitably, she would start in on a story about the boys.

One day, as they were lying this way, Mammy said, “Ahmad was going to be a leader. He had the charisma for it. People three times his age listened to him with respect, Laila. It was something to see. And Noor. Oh, my Noor. He was always making sketches of buildings and bridges. He was going to be an architect, you know. He was going to

transform Kabul with his designs. And now they’re both shaheed, my boys, both martyrs.”

Laila lay there and listened, wishing Mammy would notice that she, Laila, hadn’t become shaheed, that she was alive, here, in bed with her, that she had hopes and a future. But Laila knew that her future was no match for her brothers’ past. They had overshadowed her in life. They would obliterate her in death. Mammy was now the curator of their lives’ museum and she, Laila, a mere visitor. A receptacle for their myths. The parchment on which Mammy meant to ink their legends.

“The messenger who came with the news, he said that when they brought the boys back to camp, Ahmad Shah Massoud personally oversaw the burial. He said a prayer for them at the gravesite. That’s the kind of brave young men your brothers were, Laila, that Commander Massoud himself, the Lion of Panjshir, God bless him, would oversee their burial.”

Mammy rolled onto her back. Laila shifted, rested her head on Mammy’s chest.

“Some days,” Mammy said in a hoarse voice, “I listen to that clock ticking in the hallway. Then I think of all the ticks, all the minutes, all the hours and days and weeks and months and years waiting for me. All of it without them. And I can’t breathe then, like someone’s stepping on my heart, Laila. I get so weak. So weak I just want to collapse somewhere.”

“I wish there was something I could do,” Laila said, meaning it. But it came out sounding broad, perfunctory, like the token consolation of a kind stranger.

“You’re a good daughter,” Mammy said, after a deep sigh. “And I haven’t been much of a mother to you.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Oh, it’s true. I know it and I’m sorry for it, my love.” “Mammy?”

“Mm.”

Laila sat up, looking down at Mammy. There were gray strands in Mammy’s hair now. And it startled Laila how much weight Mammy, who’d always been plump, had lost. Her cheeks had a sallow, drawn look. The blouse she was wearing drooped over her shoulders, and there was a gaping space between her neck and the collar. More than once Laila had seen the wedding band slide off Mammy’s finger.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something.” “What is it?”

“You wouldn’t . . .” Laila began.

She’d talked about it to Hasina. At Hasina’s suggestion, the two of them had emptied the bottle of aspirin in the gutter, hidden the kitchen knives and the sharp kebab skewers beneath the rug under the couch.

Hasina had found a rope in the yard. When Babi couldn’t find his razors, Laila had to tell him of her fears. He dropped on the edge of the couch, hands between his knees. Laila waited for some kind of reassurance from him. But all she got was a bewildered, hollow-eyed look.

“You wouldn’t . . . Mammy I worry that—”

“I thought about it the night we got the news,” Mammy said. “I won’t lie to you, I’ve thought about it since too. But, no. Don’t worry, Laila. I want to see my sons’ dream come true. I want to see the day the Soviets go home disgraced, the day the Mujahideen come to Kabul in victory. I want to be there when it happens, when Afghanistan is free, so the boys see it too. They’ll see it through my eyes.”

Mammy was soon asleep, leaving Laila with dueling emotions: reassured that Mammy meant to live on, stung that she was not the reason. She would never leave her mark on Mammy’s heart the way her brothers had, because Mammy’s heart was like a pallid beach where Laila’s footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed, swelled and crashed.

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