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Chapter no 45

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Mariam

was upstairs, playing with Mariam,” Zalmai said. “And your mother?”

“She was . . . She was downstairs, talking to that man.” “I see,” said Rasheed. “Teamwork.”

Mariam watched his face relax, loosen. She watched the folds clear from his brow. Suspicion and misgiving winked out of his eyes. He sat up straight, and, for a few brief moments, he appeared merely thoughtful, like a ship captain informed of imminent mutiny taking his time to ponder his next move.

He looked up.

Mariam began to say something, but he raised a hand, and, without looking at her, said, “It’s too late, Mariam.”

To Zalmai he said coldly, “You’re going upstairs, boy.”

On Zalmai’s face, Mariam saw alarm. Nervously, he looked around at the three of them. He sensed now that his tattletale game had let something serious—adult serious—into the room. He cast a despondent, contrite glance toward Mariam, then his mother.

In a challenging voice, Rasheed said, “Now!”

He took Zalmai by the elbow. Zalmai meekly let himself be led upstairs.

They stood frozen, Mariam and Laila, eyes to the ground, as though looking at each other would give credence to the way Rasheed saw things, that while he was opening doors and lugging baggage for people who wouldn’t spare him a glance a lewd conspiracy was shaping behind his back, in his home, in his beloved son’s presence. Neither one of them said a word. They listened to the footsteps in the hallway above, one heavy and foreboding, the other the pattering of a skittish little animal.

They listened to muted words passed, a squeaky plea, a curt retort, a

door shut, the rattle of a key as it turned. Then one set of footsteps returning, more impatiently now.

Mariam saw his feet pounding the steps as he came down. She saw him pocketing the key, saw his belt, the perforated end wrapped tightly around his knuckles. The fake brass buckle dragged behind him, bouncing on the steps.

She went to stop him, but he shoved her back and blew by her.

Without saying a word, he swung the belt at Laila. He did it with such speed that she had no time to retreat or duck, or even raise a protective arm. Laila touched her fingers to her temple, looked at the blood, looked at Rasheed, with astonishment. It lasted only a moment or two, this look of disbelief, before it was replaced by something hateful.

Rasheed swung the belt again.

This time, Laila shielded herself with a forearm and made a grab at the belt. She missed, and Rasheed brought the belt down again. Laila caught it briefly before Rasheed yanked it free and lashed at her again. Then Laila was dashing around the room, and Mariam was screaming words that ran together and imploring Rasheed, as he chased Laila, as he blocked her way and cracked his belt at her. At one point, Laila ducked and managed to land a punch across his ear, which made him spit a curse and pursue her even more relentlessly. He caught her, threw her up against the wall, and struck her with the belt again and again, the buckle slamming against her chest, her shoulder, her raised arms, her fingers, drawing blood wherever it struck.

Mariam lost count of how many times the belt cracked, how many pleading words she cried out to Rasheed, how many times she circled around the incoherent tangle of teeth and fists and belt, before she saw fingers clawing at Rasheed’s face, chipped nails digging into his jowls and pulling at his hair and scratching his forehead. How long before she realized, with both shock and relish, that the fingers were hers.

He let go of Laila and turned on her. At first, he looked at her without seeing her, then his eyes narrowed, appraised Mariam with interest. The look in them shifted from puzzlement to shock, then disapproval, disappointment even, lingering there a moment.

Mariam remembered the first time she had seen his eyes, under the wedding veil, in the mirror, with Jalil looking on, how their gazes had slid across the glass and met, his indifferent, hers docile, conceding, almost apologetic.

Apologetic.

Mariam saw now in those same eyes what a fool she had been.

Had she been a deceitful wife? she asked herself. A complacent wife? A dishonorable woman? Discreditable? Vulgar? What harmful thing had she willfully done to this man to warrant his malice, his continual assaults, the relish with which he tormented her? Had she not looked after him when he was ill? Fed him, and his friends, cleaned up after him dutifully?

Had she not given this man her youth? Had she ever justly deserved his meanness?

The belt made a thump when Rasheed dropped it to the ground and came for her. Some jobs, that thump said, were meant to be done with bare hands.

But just as he was bearing down on her, Mariam saw Laila behind him pick something up from the ground. She watched Laila’s hand rise overhead, hold, then come swooping down against the side of his face.

Glass shattered. The jagged remains of the drinking glass rained down to the ground. There was blood on Laila’s hands, blood flowing from the open gash on Rasheed’s cheek, blood down his neck, on his shirt. He turned around, all snarling teeth and blazing eyes.

They crashed to the ground, Rasheed and Laila, thrashing about. He ended up on top, his hands already wrapped around Laila’s neck.

Mariam clawed at him. She beat at his chest. She hurled herself against him. She struggled to uncurl his fingers from Laila’s neck. She bit them. But they remained tightly clamped around Laila’s windpipe, and Mariam saw that he meant to carry this through.

He meant to suffocate her, and there was nothing either of them could do about it.

Mariam backed away and left the room. She was aware of a thumping sound from upstairs, aware that tiny palms were slapping against a locked door. She ran down the hallway. She burst through the front door. Crossed the yard.

In the toolshed, Mariam grabbed the shovel.

Rasheed didn’t notice her coming back into the room. He was still on top of Laila, his eyes wide and crazy, his hands wrapped around her neck. Laila’s face was turning blue now, and her eyes had rolled back. Mariam saw that she was no longer struggling. He’s going to kill her, she thought. He really means to. And Mariam could not, would not, allow that to happen. He’d taken so much from her in twenty-seven years of marriage. She would not watch him take Laila too.

Mariam steadied her feet and tightened her grip around the shovel’s handle. She raised it. She said his name. She wanted him to see.

“Rasheed.”

He looked up. Mariam swung.

She hit him across the temple. The blow knocked him off Laila.

Rasheed touched his head with the palm of his hand. He looked at the blood on his fingertips, then at Mariam. She thought she saw his face soften. She imagined that something had passed between them, that maybe she had quite literally knocked some understanding into his head. Maybe he saw something in her face too, Mariam thought, something that made him hedge. Maybe he saw some trace of all the self-denial, all the sacrifice, all the sheer exertion it had taken her to live with him for all these years, live with his continual condescension and violence, his faultfinding and meanness. Was that respect she saw in his eyes? Regret?

But then his upper lip curled back into a spiteful sneer, and Mariam knew then the futility, maybe even the irresponsibility, of not finishing this. If she let him walk now, how long before he fetched the key from his pocket and went for that gun of his upstairs in the room where he’d locked Zalmai? Had Mariam been certain that he would be satisfied with shooting only her, that there was a chance he would spare Laila, she might have dropped the shovel. But in Rasheed’s eyes she saw murder for them both.

And so Mariam raised the shovel high, raised it as high as she could, arching it so it touched the small of her back. She turned it so the sharp edge was vertical, and, as she did, it occurred to her that this was the first time that she was deciding the course of her own life.

And, with that, Mariam brought down the shovel. This time, she gave it everything she had.

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