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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 5.
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Chapter 5.
I know what I want," Mariam said to Jalil.
It was the spring of 1974, the year Mariam turned fifteen.
The three of them were sitting outside thekolba, in a patch ofshade thrown by the willows, on folding chairs arranged in atriangle.
"For my birthday…I know what I want.""You do?" said Jalil, smiling encouragingly.
Two weeks before, at Mariam's prodding, Jalil had let on thatan American film was playing at his cinema. It wasa specialkind of film, what he'd called a cartoon. The entire film was aseries of drawings, he said, thousands of them, so that whenthey were made into a film and projected onto a screen youhad the illusion that the drawings were moving. Jalil said thefilm told the story of an old, childless toymaker who is lonelyand desperately wants a son. So he carves a puppet, a boy,who magically comes to life. Mariam had asked him to tell hermore, and Jalil said that the old man and his puppet had allsorts of adventures, that there was a place called PleasureIsland, and bad boys who turned into donkeys. They even gotswallowed by a whale at the end, the puppet and his father.
Mariam had told Mullah Faizullah all about this film.
"I want you to take me to your cinema," Mariam said now. "Iwant to see the cartoon. I want to see the puppet boy."With this, Mariam sensed a shift in the atmosphere. Herparents stirred in their seats. Mariam could feel themexchanging looks.
"That's not a good idea," said Nana. Her voice was calm, hadthe controlled, polite tone she used around Jalil, but Mariamcould feel her hard, accusing glare.
Jalil shifted on his chair. He coughed, cleared his throat.
"You know," he said, "the picture quality isn't that good.
Neither is the sound. And the projector's been malfunctioningrecently. Maybe your mother is right. Maybe you can think ofanother present, Mariam jo.""Aneh,"Nana said. "You see? Your father agrees."* * *But later, at the stream, Mariam said, "Take me.""I'll tell you what," Jalil said. "I'll send someone to pick youup and take you. I'll make sure they get you a good seat andall the candy you want.""Nay.Iwant you to take me.""Mariam jo-""And I want you to invite my brothers and sisters too. I wantto meet them. I want us all to go, together. It's what I want."Jalil sighed. He was looking away, toward the mountains.
Mariam remembered him telling her that on the screen ahuman face looked as big as a house, that when a carcrashed up there you felt the metal twisting in your bones. Shepictured herself sitting in the private balcony seats, lapping atice cream, alongside her siblings and Jalil. "It's what I want,"she said.
Jalil looked at her with a forlorn expression.
"Tomorrow. At noon. I'll meet you at this very spot. All right?
Tomorrow?""Come here," he said. He hunkered down, pulled her to him,and held her for a long, long time.
* * *At first. Nana paced around thekolba, clenching andunclenching her fists.
"Of all the daughters I could have had, why did God give mean ungrateful one like you? Everything I endured for you! Howdare you! How dare you abandon me like this, youtreacherous littleharamil"Then she mocked.
"What a stupid girl you are! You think you matter to him,that you're wanted in his house? You think you're a daughterto him? That he's going to take you in? Let me tell yousomething- A man's heart is a wretched, wretched thing,Mariam. It isn't like a mother's womb. It won't bleed, it won'tstretch to make room for you. I'm the only one who lovesyou. I'm all you have in this world, Mariam, and when I'mgone you'll have nothing. You'll have nothing. Youare nothing!"Then she tried guilt.
"I'll die if you go.The jinn will come, and I'll have one of myfits. You'll see, I'll swallow my tongue and die. Don't leave me,Mariam jo. Please stay. I'll die if you go."Mariam said nothing.
"You know I love you, Mariam jo."Mariam said she was going for a walk.
She feared she might say hurtful things if she stayed: that sheknewthe jinn was a lie, that Jalil had told her that what Nanahad was a disease with a name and that pills could make itbetter. She might have asked Nana why she refused to seeJalil's doctors, as he had insisted she do, why she wouldn'ttake the pills he'd bought for her. If she could articulate it, shemight have said to Nana that she was tired of being aninstrument, of being lied to, laid claim to, used. That she wassick of Nana twisting the truths of their life and making her,Mariam, another of her grievances against the world.
You 're afraid, Nana,she might have said.You 're afraid that 1might find the happiness you never had. And you don 'i wantme to be happy. You don't want a good life for me. You 'rethe one with the wretched heart* * *There was A lookout, on the edge of the clearing, whereMariam liked to go. She sat there now, on dry, warm grass.
Herat was visible from here, spread below her like a child'sboard game: the Women's Garden to the north of the city,Char-suq Bazaar and the ruins of Alexander the Great's oldcitadel to the south. She could make out the minarets in thedistance, like the dusty fingers of giants, and the streets thatshe imagined were milling with people, carts, mules. She sawswallows swooping and circling overhead. She was envious ofthese birds. They had been to Herat. They had flown over itsmosques, its bazaars. Maybe they had landed on the walls ofJalil's home, on the front steps of his cinema.
She picked up ten pebbles and arranged them vertically, inthree columns. This was a game that she played privately fromtime to time when Nana wasn't looking. She put four pebblesin the first column, for Khadija's children, three for Afsoon's,and three in the third column for Nargis's children. Then sheadded a fourth column. A solitary, eleventh pebble.
* * *The next morning, Mariam wore a cream-colored dress thatfell to her knees, cotton trousers, and a greenhijab over herhair. She agonized a bit over thehijab, its being green and notmatching the dress, but it would have to do-moths had eatenholes into her white one.
She checked the clock. It was an old hand-wound clock withblack numbers on a mint green face, a present from MullahFaizullah. It was nine o'clock. She wondered where Nana was.
She thought about going outside and looking for her, but shedreaded the confrontation, the aggrieved looks. Nana wouldaccuse her of betrayal. She would mock her for her mistakenambitions.
Mariam sat down. She tried to make time pass by drawing anelephant in one stroke, the way Jalil had shown her, over andover. She became stiff from all the sitting but wouldn't lie downfor fear that her dress would wrinkle.
When the hands finally showed eleven-thirty, Mariam pocketedthe eleven pebbles and went outside. On her way to thestream, she saw Nana sitting on a chair, in the shade, beneaththe domed roof of a weeping willow. Mariam couldn't tellwhether Nana saw her or not.
At the stream, Mariam waited by the spot they had agreed onthe day before. In the sky, a few gray, cauliflower-shapedclouds drifted by. Jalil had taught her that gray clouds got theircolor by being so dense that their top parts absorbed thesunlight and cast their own shadow along the base.That's whatyou see, Mariam jo, he had said,the dark in their underbelly.
Some time passed.
Mariam went back to thekolba This time, she walked aroundthe west-facing periphery of the clearing so she wouldn't haveto pass by Nana. She checked the clock. It was almost oneo'clock.
He's a businessman,Mariam thought.Something has come up.
She went back to the stream and waited awhile longer.
Blackbirds circled overhead, dipped into the grass somewhere.
She watched a caterpillar inching along the foot of an immaturethistle.
She waited until her legs were stiff. This time, she did not goback to thekolba She rolled up the legs of her trousers to theknees, crossed the stream, and, for the first time in her life,headed down the hill for Herat.
* * *Nana was "wrong about Herat too. No one pointed. No onelaughed. Mariam walked along noisy, crowded, cypress-linedboulevards, amid a steady stream of pedestrians, bicycle riders,and mule-drawngaris, and no one threw a rock at her. No onecalled her aharami. Hardly anyone even looked at her. Shewas, unexpectedly, marvelously, an ordinary person here.
For a while, Mariam stood by an oval-shaped pool in thecenter of a big park where pebble paths crisscrossed. Withwonder, she ran her fingers over the beautiful marble horsesthat stood along the edge of the pool and gazed down at thewater with opaque eyes. She spied on a cluster of boys whowere setting sail to paper ships. Mariam saw flowerseverywhere, tulips, lilies, petunias, their petals awash in sunlight.
People walked along the paths, sat on benches and sipped tea.
Mariam could hardly believe that she was here. Her heart wasbattering with excitement. She wished Mullah Faizullah could seeher now. How daring he would find her. How brave! She gaveherself over to the new life that awaited her in this city, a lifewith a father, with sisters and brothers, a life in which shewould love and be loved back, without reservation or agenda,without shame.
Sprightly, she walked back to the wide thoroughfare near thepark. She passed old vendors with leathery faces sitting underthe shade of plane trees, gazing at her impassively behindpyramids of cherries and mounds of grapes. Barefoot boysgave chase to cars and buses, waving bags of quinces. Mariamstood at a street corner and watched the passersby, unable tounderstand how they could be so indifferent to the marvelsaround them.
After a while, she worked up the nerve to ask the elderlyowner of a horse-drawngari if he knew where Jalil, thecinema's owner, lived. The old man had plump cheeks andwore a rainbow-stripedchapan. "You're not from Herat, areyou?" he said companionably. "Everyone knows where JalilKhan lives.""Can you point me?"He opened a foil-wrapped toffee and said, "Are you alone?""Yes.""Climb on. I'll take you.""I can't pay you. I don't have any money."He gave her the toffee. He said he hadn't had a ride in twohours and he was planning on going home anyway. Jalil'shouse was on the way.
Mariam climbed onto thegari. They rode in silence, side byside. On the way there, Mariam saw herb shops, andopen-fronted cubbyholes where shoppers bought oranges andpears, books, shawls, even falcons. Children played marbles incircles drawn in dust. Outside teahouses, on carpet-coveredwooden platforms, men drank tea and smoked tobacco fromhookahs.
The old man turned onto a wide, conifer-lined street. Hebrought his horse to a stop at the midway point.
"There. Looks like you're in luck,dokhiarjo. That's his car."Mariam hopped down. He smiled and rode on.
* * *Mariam had never before touched a car. She ran her fingersalong the hood of Jalil's car, which was black, shiny, withglittering wheels in which Mariam saw a flattened, widenedversion of herself. The seats were made of white leather.
Behind the steering wheel, Mariam saw round glass panels withneedles behind them.
For a moment, Mariam heard Nana's voice in her head,mocking, dousing the deep-seated glow of her hopes. Withshaky legs, Mariam approached the front door of the house.
She put her hands on the walls. They were so tall, soforeboding, Jalil's walls. She had to crane her neck to seewhere the tops of cypress trees protruded over them from theother side. The treetops swayed in the breeze, and sheimagined they were nodding their welcome to her. Mariamsteadied herself against the waves of dismay passing throughher.
A barefoot young woman opened the door. She had a tattoounder her lower lip.
"I'm here to see Jalil Khan. I'm Mariam. His daughter."A look of confusion crossed the girl's face. Then, a flash ofrecognition. There was a faint smile on her lips now, and anair of eagerness about her, of anticipation. "Wait here," the girlsaid quickly.
She closed the door.
A few minutes passed. Then a man opened the door. He wastall and square-shouldered, with sleepy-looking eyes and a calmface.
"I'm Jalil Khan's chauffeur," he said, not unkindly.
"His what?""His driver. Jalil Khan is not here.""I see his car," Mariam said.
"He's away on urgent business.""When will he be back?""He didn't say."Mariam said she would wait-He closed the gates. Mariam sat,and drew her knees to her chest. It was early evening already,and she was getting hungry. She ate thegaridriver's toffee. Awhile later, the driver came out again.
"You need to go home now," he said. "It'll be dark in lessthan an hour.""I'm used to the dark.""It'll get cold too. Why don't you let me drive you home? I'lltell him you were here."Mariam only looked at him.
"I'll take you to a hotel, then. You can sleep comfortablythere. We'll see what we can do in the morning.""Let me in the house.""I've been instructed not to. Look, no one knows when he'scoming back. It could be days."Mariam crossed her arms.
The driver sighed and looked at her with gentle reproach.
Over the years, Mariam would have ample occasion to thinkabout how things might have turned out if she had let thedriver take her back to thekolba But she didn't. She spent thenight outside Jalil's house. She watched the sky darken, theshadows engulf the neighboring housefronts. The tattooed girlbrought her some bread and a plate of rice, which Mariamsaid she didn't want. The girl left it near Mariam. From time totime, Mariam heard footsteps down the street, doors swingingopen, muffled greetings. Electric lights came on, and windowsglowed dimly. Dogs barked. When she could no longer resistthe hunger, Mariam ate the plate of rice and the bread. Thenshe listened to the crickets chirping from gardens. Overhead,clouds slid past a pale moon.
In the morning, she was shaken awake. Mariam saw thatduring the night someone had covered her with a blanket.
It was the driver shaking her shoulder.
"This is enough. You've made a scene.Bos. It's time to go."Mariam sat up and rubbed her eyes. Her back and neckwere sore. "I'm going to wait for him.""Look at me," he said. "Jalil Khan says that I need to takeyou back now. Right now. Do you understand? Jalil Khan saysso."He opened the rear passenger door to the car."Bia Come on,"he said softly.
"I want to see him," Mariam said. Her eyes were tearing over.
The driver sighed. "Let me take you home. Comeon,dokhtarjo. "Mariam stood up and walked toward him. But then, at thelast moment, she changed direction and ran to the front gates.
She felt the driver's fingers fumbling for a grip at her shoulder.
She shed him and burst through the open gates.
In the handful of seconds that she was in Jalil's garden,Mariam's eyes registered seeing a gleaming glass structure withplants inside it, grape vines clinging to wooden trellises, afishpond built with gray blocks of stone, fruittrees, and bushes of brightly colored flowers everywhere. Hergaze skimmed over all of these things before they found a face,across the garden, in an upstairs window. The face was therefor only an instant, a flash, but long enough. Long enough forMariam to see the eyes widen, the mouth open. Then itsnapped away from view. A hand appeared and franticallypulled at a cord. The curtains fell shut.
Then a pair of hands buried into her armpits and she waslifted off the ground. Mariam kicked. The pebbles spilled fromher pocket. Mariam kept kicking and crying as she was carriedto the car and lowered onto the cold leather of the backseat.
* * *The driver talked in a muted, consoling tone as he drove.
Mariam did not hear him. All during the ride, as she bouncedin the backseat, she cried. They were tears of grief, of anger,of disillusionment. But mainly tears of a deep, deep shame athow foolishly she had given herself over to Jalil, how she hadfretted over what dress to wear, over the mismatchinghijab,walking all the way here, refusing to leave, sleeping on thestreet like a stray dog. Andshe was ashamed of how she had dismissed her mother'sstricken looks, her puffy eyes. Nana, who had warned her, whohad been right all along.
Mariam kept thinking of his face in the upstairs window. Helet her sleep on the street.On the street Mariam cried lyingdown. She didn't sit up, didn't want to be seen. She imaginedall of Herat knew this morning how she'd disgraced herself.
She wished Mullah Faizullah were here so she could put herhead on his lap and let him comfort her.
After a while, the road became bumpier and the nose of thecar pointed up. They were on the uphill road between Heratand Gul Daman.
What would she say to Nana, Mariam wondered. How wouldshe apologize? How could she even face Nana now?
The car stopped and the driver helped her out. "I'll walkyou," he said.
She let him guide her across the road and up the track.
There was honeysuckle growing along the path, and milkweedtoo. Bees were buzzing over twinkling wildflowers. The drivertook her hand and helped her cross the stream. Then he letgo, and he was talking about how Herat's famous one hundredand twenty days' winds would start blowing soon, frommidmorning to dusk, and how the sand flies would go on afeeding frenzy, and then suddenly he was standing in front ofher, trying to cover her eyes, pushing her back the way theyhad come and saying, "Go back! No. Don't look now. Turnaround! Go back!"But he wasn't fast enough. Mariam saw. A gust of wind blewand parted the drooping branches of the weeping willow like acurtain, and Mariam caught a glimpse of what was beneath thetree: the straight-backed chair, overturned. The rope droppingfrom a high branch. Nana dangling at the end of it.
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