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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Part Two Chapter 16.
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Part Two Chapter 16.
Kabul, Spring1987JN ine-year-old Laila rose from bed, as she did mostmornings, hungry for the sight of her friend Tariq. Thismorning, however, she knew there would be no Tariq sighting.
"How long will you be gone?" she'd asked when Tariq hadtold her that his parents were taking him south, to the city ofGhazni, to visit his paternal uncle.
"Thirteen days.""Thirteen days?""It's not so long. You're making a face, Laila.""I am not.""You're not going to cry, are you?""I am not going to cry! Not over you. Not in a thousandyears."She'd kicked at his shin, not his artificial but his real one, andhe'd playfully whacked the back of her head.
Thirteen days. Almost two weeks. And, just five days in, Lailahad learned a fundamental truth about time: Like the accordionon which Tariq's father sometimes played old Pashto songs,time stretched and contracted depending on Tariq's absence orpresence-Downstairs, her parents were fighting. Again. Lailaknew the routine: Mammy, ferocious, indomitable, pacing andranting; Babi, sitting, looking sheepish and dazed, noddingobediently, waiting for the storm to pass. Laila closed her doorand changed. But she could still hear them. She could stillhearher Finally, a door slammed. Pounding footsteps. Mammy'sbed creaked loudly. Babi, it seemed, would survive to seeanother day.
"Laila!" he called now. "I'm going to be late for work!""One minute!"Laila put on her shoes and quickly brushed hershoulder-length, blond curls in the mirror. Mammy always toldLaila that she had inherited her hair color-as well as herthick-lashed, turquoise green eyes, her dimpled cheeks, her highcheekbones, and the pout of her lower lip, which Mammyshared-from her great-grandmother, Mammy's grandmother.Shewas a pari,a stunner, Mammy said.Her beauty was the talk ofthe valley. It skipped two generations of women in our family,but it sure didn't bypass you, Laila The valley Mammy referredto was the Panjshir, the Farsi-speaking Tajik region onehundred kilometers northeast of Kabul. Both Mammy and Babi,who were first cousins, had been born and raised in Panjshir;they had moved to Kabul back in 1960 as hopeful, bright-eyednewlyweds when Babi had been admitted to Kabul University.
Laila scrambled downstairs, hoping Mammy wouldn't come outof her room for another round. She found Babi kneeling bythe screen door.
"Did you see this, Laila?"The rip in the screen had been there for weeks. Lailahunkered down beside him. "No. Must be new.""That's what I told Fariba." He looked shaken, reduced, as healways did after Mammy was through with him. "She says it'sbeen letting in bees."Laila's heart went out to him. Babi was a small man, withnarrow shoulders and slim, delicate hands, almost like awoman's. At night, when Laila walked into Babi's room, shealways found the downward profile of his face burrowing into abook, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Sometimes hedidn't even notice that she was there. When he did, hemarked his page, smiled a close-lipped, companionable smile.
Babi knew most of Rumi's and Hafez'sghazals by heart. Hecould speak at length about the struggle between Britain andczarist Russia over Afghanistan. He knew the differencebetween a stalactite and a stalagmite, and could tell you thatthe distance between the earth and the sun was the same asgoing from Kabul to Ghazni one and a half million times. But ifLaila needed the lid of a candy jar forced open, she had to goto Mammy, which felt like a betrayal. Ordinary tools befuddledBabi. On his watch, squeaky door hinges never got oiled.
Ceilings went on leaking after he plugged them. Mold thriveddefiantly in kitchen cabinets. Mammy said that before he leftwith Noor to join the jihad against the Soviets, back in 1980, itwas Ahmad who had dutifully and competently minded thesethings.
"But if you have a book that needs urgent reading," she said,"then Hakim is your man."Still, Laila could not shake the feeling that at one time, beforeAhmad and Noor had gone to war against the Soviets-beforeBabi hadlet them go to war-Mammy too had thought Babi'sbookishness endearing, that, once upon a time, she too hadfound his forgetfulness and ineptitude charming.
"So what is today?" he said now, smiling coyly. "Day five? Oris it six?""What do I care? I don't keep count," Laila lied, shrugging,loving him for remembering- Mammy had no idea that Tariqhad left.
"Well, his flashlight will be going off before you know it," Babisaid, referring to Laila and Tariq's nightly signaling game. Theyhad played it for so long it had become a bedtime ritual, likebrushing teeth.
Babi ran his finger through the rip. "I'll patch this as soon asI get a chance. We'd better go." He raised his voice and calledover his shoulder, "We're going now, Fariba! I'm taking Laila toschool. Don't forget to pick her up!"Outside, as she was climbing on the carrier pack of Babi'sbicycle, Laila spotted a car parked up the street, across fromthe house where the shoemaker, Rasheed, lived with hisreclusive wife. It was a Benz, an unusual car in thisneighborhood, blue with a thick white stripe bisecting the hood,the roof, and the trunk. Laila could make out two men sittinginside, one behind the wheel, the other in the back.
"Who are they?" she said.
"It's not our business," Babi said. "Climb on, you'll be late forclass."Laila remembered another fight, and, that time, Mammy hadstood over Babi and said in a mincing way,That's yourbusiness, isn't it, cousin? To make nothing your business. Evenyour own sons going to war. Howl pleaded with you. Bui youburied your nose in those cursed books and let our sons golike they were a pair of haramis.
Babi pedaled up the street, Laila on the back, her armswrapped around his belly. As they passed the blue Benz, Lailacaught a fleeting glimpse of the man in the backseat: thin,white-haired, dressed in a dark brown suit, with a whitehandkerchief triangle in the breast pocket. The only other thingshe had time to notice was that the car had Herat licenseplates.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, except at the turns,where Babi braked cautiously and said, "Hold on, Laila. Slowingdown. Slowing down. There."* * *In class that day, Laila found it hard to pay attention,between Tariq's absence and her parents' fight. So when theteacher called on her to name the capitals of Romania andCuba, Laila was caught off guard.
The teacher's name was Shanzai, but, behind her back, thestudents called her Khala Rangmaal, Auntie Painter, referring tothe motion she favored when she slapped students-palm, thenback of the hand, back and forth, like a painter working abrush. Khala Rangmaal was a sharp-faced young woman withheavy eyebrows. On the first day of school, she had proudlytold the class that she was the daughter of a poor peasantfrom Khost. She stood straight, and wore her jet-black hairpulled tightly back and tied in a bun so that, when KhalaRangmaal turned around, Laila could see the dark bristles onher neck. Khala Rangmaal did not wear makeup or jewelry.
She did not cover and forbade the female students from doingit. She said women and men were equal in every way and............
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