A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 49)

He says he will wait here. He tells her to cross the dry streambed, walk toward the mountains.

"I’ll wait here," he says, sitting on a rock beneath a poplar. "You go on."

"I won’t – "

"Don’t worry. Take your time. Go on, hamshireh."

Laila thanks him. She crosses the streambed, stepping from one stone to another. She spots broken soda bottles amid the rocks, rusted cans, and a mold-coated metallic container with a zinc lid half buried in the ground.

She heads toward the mountains, toward the weeping willows, which she can see now, the long drooping branches shaking with each gust of wind. In her chest, her heart is drumming. She sees that the willows are arranged as Mariam had said, in a circular grove with a clearing in the middle. Laila walks faster, almost running now. She looks back over her shoulder and sees that Hamza is a tiny figure, his chapan a burst of color against the brown of the trees’ bark. She trips over a stone and almost falls, then regains her footing. She hurries the rest of the way with the legs of her trousers pulled up. She is panting by the time she reaches the willows.

Mariam’s kolba is still here.

When she approaches it, Laila sees that the lone windowpane is empty and that the door is gone. Mariam had described a chicken coop and a tandoor, a wooden outhouse too, but Laila sees no sign of them. She pauses at the entrance to the kolba. She can hear flies buzzing inside.

To get in, she has to sidestep a large fluttering spider-web. It’s dim inside. Laila has to give her eyes a few moments to adjust. When they do, she sees that the interior is even smaller than she’d imagined. Only half of a single rotting, splintered board remains of the floorboards. The rest, she imagines, have been ripped up for burning as firewood. The floor is carpeted now with dry-edged leaves, broken bottles, discarded chewing gum wrappers, wild mushrooms, old yellowed cigarette butts. But mostly with weeds, some stunted, some springing impudently halfway up the walls.

Fifteen years, Laila thinks. Fifteen years in this place.

Laila sits down, her back to the wall. She listens to the wind filtering through the willows. There are more spider-webs stretched across the ceiling. Someone has spray-painted something on one of the walls, but much of it has sloughed off, and Laila cannot decipher what it says. Then she realizes the letters are Russian. There is a deserted bird’s nest in one corner and a bat hanging upside down in another corner, where the wall meets the low ceiling.

Laila closes her eyes and sits there awhile.

In Pakistan, it was difficult sometimes to remember the details of Mariam’s face. There were times when, like a word on the tip of her tongue, Mariam’s face eluded her. But now, here in this place, it’s easy to summon Mariam behind the lids of her eyes: the soft radiance of her gaze, the long chin, the coarsened skin of her neck, the tightlipped smile. Here, Laila can lay her cheek on the softness of Mariam’s lap again, can feel Mariam swaying back and forth, reciting verses from the Koran, can feel the words vibrating down Mariam’s body, to her knees, and into her own ears.

Then, suddenly, the weeds begin to recede, as if something is pulling them by the roots from beneath the ground. They sink lower and lower until the earth in the kolba has swallowed the last of their spiny leaves. The spi-derwebs magically unspin themselves. The bird’s nest self-disassembles, the twigs snapping loose one by one, flying out of the kolba end over end. An invisible eraser wipes the Russian graffiti off the wall.

The floorboards are back. Laila sees a pair of sleeping cots now, a wooden table, two chairs, a cast-iron stove in the corner, shelves along the walls, on which sit clay pots and pans, a blackened teakettle, cups and spoons. She hears chickens clucking outside, the distant gurgling of the stream.

A young Mariam is sitting at the table making a doll by the glow of an oil lamp. She’s humming something. Her face is smooth and youthful, her hair washed, combed back. She has all her teeth.

Laila watches Mariam glue strands of yarn onto her doll’s head. In a few years, this little girl will be a woman who will make small demands on life, who will never burden others, who will never let on that she too has had sorrows, disappointments, dreams that have been ridiculed. A woman who will be like a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her. Already Laila sees something behind this young girl’s eyes, something deep in her core, that neither Rasheed nor the Taliban will be able to break. Something as hard and unyielding as a block of limestone. Something that, in the end, will be her undoing and Laila’s salvation.

The little girl looks up. Puts down the doll. Smiles.

Laila jo?

Laila’s eyes snap open. She gasps, and her body pitches forward. She startles the bat, which zips from one end of the kolba to the other, its beating wings like the fluttering pages of a book, before it flies out the window.

Laila gets to her feet, beats the dead leaves from the seat of her trousers. She steps out of the kolba. Outside, the light has shifted slightly. A wind is blowing, making the grass ripple and the willow branches click.

Before she leaves the clearing, Laila takes one last look at the kolba where Mariam had slept, eaten, dreamed, held her breath for Jalil. On sagging walls, the willows cast crooked patterns that shift with each gust of wind. A crow has landed on the flat roof. It pecks at something, squawks, flies off.

"Good-bye, Mariam."

And, with that, unaware that she is weeping, Laila begins to run through the grass.

She finds Hamza still sitting on the rock. When he spots her, he stands up.

"Let’s go back," he says. Then, "I have something to give you."

LAILA WAITS FOR Hamza in the garden by the front door. The boy who had served them tea earlier is standing beneath one of the fig trees holding a chicken, watching her impassively. Laila spies two faces, an old woman and a young girl in hijabs, observing her demurely from a window.

The door to the house opens and Hamza emerges. He is carrying a box.

He gives it to Laila.

"Jalil Khan gave this to my father a month or so before he died," Hamza says. "He asked my father to safeguard it for Mariam until she came to claim it. My father kept it for two years. Then, just before he passed away, he gave it to me, and asked me to save it for Mariam. But she . . . you know, she never came."

Laila looks down at the oval-shaped tin box. It looks like an old chocolate box. It’s olive green, with fading gilt scrolls all around the hinged lid. There is a little rust on the sides, and two tiny dents on the front rim of the lid. Laila tries to open the box, but the latch is locked.

"What’s in it?" she asks.

Hamza puts a key in her palm. "My father never unlocked it. Neither did I. I suppose it was God’s will that it be you."

BACK AT THE HOTEL, Tariq and the children are not back yet.

Laila sits on the bed, the box on her lap. Part of her wants to leave it unopened, let whatever Jalil had intended remain a secret. But, in the end, the curiosity proves too strong. She slides in the key. It takes some rattling and shaking, but she opens the box.

In it, she finds three things: an envelope, a burlap sack, and a videocassette.

Laila takes the tape and goes down to the reception desk. She learns from the elderly clerk who had greeted them the day before that the hotel has only one VCR, in its biggest suite. The suite is vacant at the moment, and he agrees to take her. He leaves the desk to a mustachioed young man in a suit who is talking on a cellular phone.

The old clerk leads Laila to the second floor, to a door at the end of a long hallway. He works the lock, lets her in. Laila’s eyes find the TV in the corner. They register nothing else about the suite.

She turns on the TV, turns on the VCR. Puts the tape in and pushes the PLAY button. The screen is blank for a few moments, and Laila begins to wonder why Jalil had gone to the trouble of passing a blank tape to Mariam. But then there is music, and images begin to play on the screen.

Laila frowns. She keeps watching for a minute or two. Then she pushes STOP, fast-forwards the tape, and pushes PLAY again. It’s the same film.

The old man is looking at her quizzically.

The film playing on the screen is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Laila does not understand.

TARIQ AND THE children come back to the hotel just after six o’clock. Aziza runs to Laila and shows her the earrings Tariq has bought for her, silver with an enamel butterfly on each. Zalmai is clutching an inflatable dolphin that squeaks when its snout is squeezed.

"How are you?" Tariq asks, putting his arm around her shoulder.

"I’m fine," Laila says. "I’ll tell you later."

They walk to a nearby kebab house to eat. It’s a small place, with sticky, vinyl tablecloths, smoky and loud. But the lamb is tender and moist and the bread hot. They walk the streets for a while after. Tariq buys the children rosewater ice cream from a street-side kiosk. They eat, sitting on a bench, the mountains behind them silhouetted against the scarlet red of dusk. The air is warm, rich with the fragrance of cedar.

Laila had opened the envelope earlier when she’d come back to the room after viewing the videotape. In it was a letter, handwritten in blue ink on a yellow, lined sheet of paper.

It read:

May 13, 1987

My dear Mariam:

I pray that this letter finds you in good health.

As you know, I came to Kabul a month ago to speak with you. But you would not see me. I was disappointed but could not blame you. In your place, I might have done the same. I lost the privilege of your good graces a long time ago and for that I only have myself to blame. But if you are reading this letter, then you have read the letter that I left at your door. You have read it and you have come to see Mullah Faizullah, as I had asked that you do. I am grateful that you did, Mariam jo. I am grateful for this chance to say a few words to you.

Where do I begin?

Your father has known so much sorrow since we last spoke, Mariam jo. Your stepmother Afsoon was killed on the first day of the 1979 uprising. A stray bullet killed your sister Niloufar that same day. I can still see her, my little Niloufar, doing headstands to impress guests. Your brother Farhad joined the jihad in 1980. The Soviets killed him in 1982, just outside of Helmand. I never got to see his body. I don’t know if you have children of your own, Mariam jo, but if you do I pray that God look after them and spare you the grief that I have known. I still dream of them. I still dream of my dead children.

I have dreams of you too, Mariam jo. I miss you. I miss the sound of your voice, your laughter. I miss reading to you, and all those times we fished together. Do you remember all those times we fished together? You were a good daughter, Mariam jo, and I cannot ever think of you without feeling shame and regret. Regret . . . When it comes to you, Mariam jo, I have oceans of it. I regret that I did not see you the day you came to Herat. I regret that I did not open the door and take you in. I regret that I did not make you a daughter to me, that I let you live in that place for all those years. And for what? Fear of losing face? Of staining my so-called good name? How little those things matter to me now after all the loss, all the terrible things I have seen in this cursed war. But now, of course, it is too late. Perhaps this is just punishment for those who have been heartless, to understand only when nothing can be undone. Now all I can do is say that you were a good daughter, Mariam jo, and that I never deserved you. Now all I can do is ask for your forgiveness. So forgive me, Mariam jo. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.