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Chapter no 29

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Mariam

I’m so sorry,” Rasheed said to the girl, taking his bowl of mastawa and meatballs from Mariam without looking at her. “I know you were very close . . . friends . . . the two of you. Always together, since you were kids. It’s a terrible thing, what’s happened. Too many young Afghan men are dying this way.”

He motioned impatiently with his hand, still looking at the girl, and Mariam passed him a napkin.

For years, Mariam had looked on as he ate, the muscles of his temples churning, one hand making compact little rice balls, the back of the other wiping grease, swiping stray grains, from the corners of his mouth. For years, he had eaten without looking up, without speaking, his silence condemning, as though some judgment were being passed, then broken only by an accusatory grunt, a disapproving cluck of his tongue, a one-word command for more bread, more water.

Now he ate with a spoon. Used a napkin. Said lotfan when asking for water. And talked. Spiritedly and incessantly.

“If you ask me, the Americans armed the wrong man in Hekmatyar.

All the guns the CIA handed him in the eighties to fight the Soviets. The Soviets are gone, but he still has the guns, and now he’s turning them on innocent people like your parents. And he calls this jihad. What a farce! What does jihad have to do with killing women and children? Better the CIA had armed Commander Massoud.”

Mariam’s eyebrows shot up of their own will. Commander Massoud? In her head, she could hear Rasheed’s rants against Massoud, how he was a traitor and a communist. But, then, Massoud was a Tajik, of course. Like Laila.

“Now, there is a reasonable fellow. An honorable Afghan. A man genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution.”

Rasheed shrugged and sighed.

“Not that they give a damn in America, mind you. What do they care that Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other? How many Americans can even tell one from the other? Don’t expect help from them, I say. Now that the Soviets have collapsed, we’re no use to them. We served our purpose. To them, Afghanistan is a kenarab, a shit hole. Excuse my language, but it’s true. What do you think, Laila jan?”

The girl mumbled something unintelligible and pushed a meatball around in her bowl.

Rasheed nodded thoughtfully, as though she’d said the most clever thing he’d ever heard. Mariam had to look away.

“You know, your father, God give him peace, your father and I used to have discussions like this. This was before you were born, of course. On and on we’d go about politics. About books too. Didn’t we, Mariam?

You remember.”

Mariam busied herself taking a sip of water.

“Anyway, I hope I am not boring you with all this talk of politics.”

Later, Mariam was in the kitchen, soaking dishes in soapy water, a tightly wound knot in her belly.

It wasn’t so much what he said, the blatant lies, the contrived empathy, or even the fact that he had not raised a hand to her, Mariam, since he had dug the girl out from under those bricks.

It was the staged delivery. Like a performance. An attempt on his part, both sly and pathetic, to impress. To charm.

And suddenly Mariam knew that her suspicions were right. She understood with a dread that was like a blinding whack to the side of her head that what she was witnessing was nothing less than a courtship.

WHEN SHE’D at last worked up the nerve, Mariam went to his room.

Rasheed lit a cigarette, and said, “Why not?”

Mariam knew right then that she was defeated. She’d half expected, half hoped, that he would deny everything, feign surprise, maybe even outrage, at what she was implying. She might have had the upper hand then. She might have succeeded in shaming him. But it stole her grit, his calm acknowledgment, his matter-of-fact tone.

“Sit down,” he said. He was lying on his bed, back to the wall, his thick, long legs splayed on the mattress. “Sit down before you faint and cut your head open.”

Mariam felt herself drop onto the folding chair beside his bed.

“Hand me that ashtray, would you?” he said. Obediently, she did.

Rasheed had to be sixty or more now—though Mariam, and in fact Rasheed himself did not know his exact age. His hair had gone white, but it was as thick and coarse as ever. There was a sag now to his eyelids and the skin of his neck, which was wrinkled and leathery. His cheeks hung a bit more than they used to. In the mornings, he stooped just a tad. But he still had the stout shoulders, the thick torso, the strong hands, the swollen belly that entered the room before any other part of him did.

On the whole, Mariam thought that he had weathered the years considerably better than she.

“We need to legitimize this situation,” he said now, balancing the ashtray on his belly. His lips scrunched up in a playful pucker. “People will talk. It looks dishonorable, an unmarried young woman living here. It’s bad for my reputation. And hers. And yours, I might add.”

“Eighteen years,” Mariam said. “And I never asked you for a thing.

Not one thing. I’m asking now.”

He inhaled smoke and let it out slowly. “She can’t just stay here, if that’s what you’re suggesting. I can’t go on feeding her and clothing her and giving her a place to sleep. I’m not the Red Cross, Mariam.”

“But this?”

“What of it? What? She’s too young, you think? She’s fourteen. Hardly a child. You were fifteen, remember? My mother was fourteen when she had me. Thirteen when she married.”

“I . . . I don’t want this,” Mariam said, numb with contempt and helplessness.

“It’s not your decision. It’s hers and mine.” “I’m too old.”

“She’s too young, you’re too old. This is nonsense.”

“I am too old. Too old for you to do this to me,” Mariam said, balling up fistfuls of her dress so tightly her hands shook. “For you, after all these years, to make me an ambagh.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. It’s a common thing and you know it. I have friends who have two, three, four wives. Your own father had three.

Besides, what I’m doing now most men I know would have done long ago. You know it’s true.”

“I won’t allow it.”

At this, Rasheed smiled sadly.

“There is another option,” he said, scratching the sole of one foot with

the calloused heel of the other. “She can leave. I won’t stand in her way. But I suspect she won’t get far. No food, no water, not a rupiah in her pockets, bullets and rockets flying everywhere. How many days do you suppose she’ll last before she’s abducted, raped, or tossed into some roadside ditch with her throat slit? Or all three?”

He coughed and adjusted the pillow behind his back.

“The roads out there are unforgiving, Mariam, believe me. Bloodhounds and bandits at every turn. I wouldn’t like her chances, not at all. But let’s say that by some miracle she gets to Peshawar. What then? Do you have any idea what those camps are like?”

He gazed at her from behind a column of smoke.

“People living under scraps of cardboard. TB, dysentery, famine, crime.

And that’s before winter. Then it’s frostbite season. Pneumonia. People turning to icicles. Those camps become frozen graveyards.

“Of course,” he made a playful, twirling motion with his hand, “she could keep warm in one of those Peshawar brothels. Business is booming there, I hear. A beauty like her ought to bring in a small fortune, don’t you think?”

He set the ashtray on the nightstand and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

“Look,” he said, sounding more conciliatory now, as a victor could afford to. “I knew you wouldn’t take this well. I don’t really blame you. But this is for the best. You’ll see. Think of it this way, Mariam. I’m giving you help around the house and her a sanctuary. A home and a husband. These days, times being what they are, a woman needs a husband. Haven’t you noticed all the widows sleeping on the streets?

They would kill for this chance. In fact, this is . . . Well, I’d say this is downright charitable of me.”

He smiled.

“The way I see it, I deserve a medal.”

LATER, in the dark, Mariam told the girl.

For a long time, the girl said nothing.

“He wants an answer by this morning,” Mariam said. “He can have it now,” the girl said. “My answer is yes.”

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