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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 2.
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Chapter 2.
To Jalil and his wives, I was a pokeroot. A mugwort. You too.
And you weren't even born yet.""What's a mugwort?" Mariam asked"A weed," Nana said. "Something you rip out and toss aside."Mariam frowned internally. Jalil didn't treat her as a weed. Henever had. But Mariam thought it wise to suppress this protest.
"Unlike weeds, I had to be replanted, you see, given food andwater. On account of you. That was the deal Jalil made withhis family."Nana said she had refused to live in Herat.
"For what? To watch him drive hiskinchini wives around townall day?"She said she wouldn't live in her father's empty house either,in the village of Gul Daman, which sat on a steep hill twokilometers north of Herat. She said she wanted to livesomewhere removed, detached, where neighbors wouldn't stareat her belly, point at her, snicker, or, worse yet, assault herwith insincere kindnesses.
"And, believe me," Nana said, "it was a relief to your fatherhaving me out of sight. It suited him just fine."It was Muhsin, Jalil's eldest son by his first wife, Khadija, whosuggested the clearing- It was on the outskirts of Gul Daman.
To get to it, one took a rutted, uphill dirt track that branchedoff the main road between Herat and Gul Daman. The trackwas flanked on either side by knee-high grass and speckles ofwhite and bright yellow flowers. The track snaked uphill andled to a flat field where poplars and cottonwoods soared andwild bushes grew in clusters. From up there, one could makeout the tips of the rusted blades of Gul Daman's windmill, onthe left, and, on the right, all of Herat spread below. The pathended perpendicular to a wide, trout-filled stream, which rolleddown from the Safid-koh mountains surrounding Gul Daman.
Two hundred yards upstream, toward the mountains, there wasa circular grove of weeping willow trees. In the center, in theshade of the willows, was the clearing.
Jalil went there to have a look. When he came back, Nanasaid, he sounded like a warden bragging about the clean wallsand shiny floors of his prison.
"And so, your father built us this rathole."* * *Nana had almost married once, when she was fifteen. Thesuitor had been a boy from Shindand, a young parakeet seller.
Mariam knew the story from Nana herself, and, though Nanadismissed the episode, Mariam could tell by the wistful light inher eyes that she had been happy. Perhaps for the only timein her life, during those days leading up to her wedding, Nanahad been genuinely happy.
As Nana told the story, Mariam sat on her lap and picturedher mother being fitted for a wedding dress. She imagined heron horseback, smiling shyly behind a veiled green gown, herpalms painted red with henna, her hair parted with silver dust,the braids held together by tree sap. She saw musiciansblowing theshahnai flute and banging ondohol drums, streetchildren hooting and giving chase.
Then, a week before the wedding date,ajinn had enteredNana's body. This required no description to Mariam. She hadwitnessed it enough times with her own eyes: Nana collapsingsuddenly, her body tightening, becoming rigid, her eyes rollingback, her arms and legs shaking as if something were throttlingher from the inside, the froth at the corners of her mouth,white, sometimes pink with blood. Then the drowsiness, thefrightening disorientation, the incoherent mumbling.
When the news reached Shindand, the parakeet seller's familycalled off the wedding.
"They got spooked" was how Nana put it.
The wedding dress was stashed away. After that, there wereno more suitors.
* * *In the clearing, Jalil and two of his sons, Farhad and Muhsin,built the smallkolba where Mariam would live the first fifteenyears of her life. They raised it with sun-dried bricks andplastered it with mud and handfuls of straw. It had twosleeping cots, a wooden table, two straight-backed chairs, awindow, and shelves nailed to the walls where Nana placed claypots and her beloved Chinese tea set. Jalil put in a newcast-iron stove for the winter and stacked logs of choppedwood behind thekolba He added a tandoor outside for makingbread and a chicken coop with a fence around it. He broughta few sheep, built them a feeding trough. He had Farhad andMuhsin dig a deep hole a hundred yards outside the circle ofwillows and built an outhouse over it.
Jalil could have hired laborers to build thekolba. Nana said,but he didn't.
"His idea of penance."* * *LstNana'S account of the day that she gave birth to Mariam,no one came to help. It happened on a damp, overcast day inthe spring of 1959, she said, the twenty-sixth year of KingZahir Shah's mostly uneventful forty-year reign. She said thatJalil hadn't bothered to summon a doctor, or even a midwife,even though he knew thatthejinn might enter her body andcause her to have one of her fits in the act of delivering. Shelay all alone on thekolba's floor, a knife by her side, sweatdrenching her body.
"When the pain got bad, I'd bite on a pillow and scream intoit until I was hoarse. And still no one came to wipe my faceor give me a drink of water. And you, Mariam jo, you were inno rush. Almost two days you made me lay on that cold, hardfloor. I didn't eat or sleep, all I did was push and pray thatyou would come out.""I'm sorry, Nana.""I cut the cord between us myself. That's why I had a knife.""I'm sorry."Nana always gave a slow, burdened smile here, one oflingering recrimination or reluctant forgiveness, Mariam couldnever tell It did not occur to young Mariam to ponder theunfairness of apologizing for the manner of her own birth.
By the time itdid occur to her, around the time she turnedten, Mariam no longer believed this story of her birth. Shebelieved JaliPs version, that though he'd been away he'darranged for Nana to be taken to a hospital in Herat whereshe had been tended to by a doctor. She had lain on a clean,proper bed in a well-lit room. Jalil shook his head with sadnesswhen Mariam told him about the knife.
Mariam also came to doubt that she had made her mothersuffer for two full days.
"They told me it was all over within under an hour," Jalilsaid. "You were a good daughter, Mariam jo. Even in birthyou were a good daughter.""He wasn't even there!" Nana spat. "He was in Takht-e-Safar,horseback riding with his precious friends."When they informed him that he had a new daughter, Nanasaid, Jalil had shrugged, kept brushing his horse's mane, andstayed in Takht-e-Safar another two weeks.
"The truth is, he didn't even hold you until you were amonth old. And then only to look down once, comment onyour longish face, and hand you back to me."Mariam came to disbelieve this part of the story as well. Yes,Jalil admitted, he had been horseback riding in Takht-e-Safar,but, when they gave him the news, he had not shrugged. Hehad hopped on the saddle and ridden back to Herat. He hadbounced her in his arms, run his thumb over her flakyeyebrows, and hummed a lullaby. Mariam did not picture Jalilsaying that her face was long, though it was true that it waslong.
Nana said she was the one who'd picked the name Mariambecause it had been the name of her mother. Jalil said hechose the name because Mariam, the tuberose, was a lovelyflower.
"Your favorite?" Mariam asked.
"Well, one of," he said and smiled.
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