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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 17.
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Chapter 17.
The gun was red, the trigger guard bright green. Behind thegun loomed Khadim's grinning face. Khadim was eleven, likeTariq. He was thick, tall, and had a severe underbite. Hisfather was a butcher in Deh-Mazang, and, from time to time,Khadim was known to fling bits of calf intestine at passersby.
Sometimes, if Tariq wasn't nearby, Khadim shadowed Laila inthe schoolyard at recess, leering, making little whining noises.
One time, he'd tapped her on the shoulder and said,You 're sovery pretty, Yellow Hair. I want to marry you.
Now he waved the gun. "Don't worry," he said. "This won'tshow. Noton your hair.""Don't you do it! I'm warning you.""What are you going to do?" he said. "Sic your cripple onme? 'Oh, Tariq jan. Oh, won't you come home and save mefrom thebadmashl'"Laila began to backpedal, but Khadim was already pumpingthe trigger. One after another, thin jets of warm water struckLaila's hair, then her palm when she raised it to shield herface.
Now the other boys came out of their hiding, laughing,cackling.
An insult Laila had heard on the street rose to her lips. Shedidn't really understand it-couldn't quite picture the logistics ofit-but the words packed a fierce potency, and she unleashedthem now.
"Your mother eats cock!""At least she's not a loony like yours," Khadim shot back,unruffled "At least my father's not a sissy! And, by the way,why don't you smell your hands?"The other boys took up the chant. "Smell your hands! Smellyour hands!"Laila did, but she knew even before she did, what he'd meantabout it not showing in her hair. She let out a high-pitchedyelp. At this, the boys hooted even harder.
Laila turned around and, howling, ran home.
* * *She drew water from the well, and, in the bathroom, filled abasin, tore off her clothes. She soaped her hair, franticallydigging fingers into her scalp, whimpering with disgust. Sherinsed with a bowl and soaped her hair again. Several times,she thought she might throw up. She kept mewling andshivering, as she rubbed and rubbed the soapy washclothagainst her face and neck until they reddened.
This would have never happened if Tariq had been with her,she thought as she put on a clean shirt and fresh trousers.
Khadim wouldn't have dared. Of course, it wouldn't havehappened if Mammy had shown up like she was supposed toeither. Sometimes Laila wondered why Mammy had evenbothered having her. People, she believed now, shouldn't beallowed to have new children if they'd already given away alltheir love to their old ones. It wasn't fair. A fit of angerclaimed her. Laila went to her room, collapsed on her bed.
When the worst of it had passed, she went across the hallwayto Mammy's door and knocked. When she was younger, Lailaused to sit for hours outside this door. She would tap on itand whisper Mammy's name over and over, like a magic chantmeant to break a spell:Mammy, Mammy, Mammy, Mammy…But Mammy never opened the door. She didn't open it now.
Laila turned the knob and walked in.
* * *Sometimes Mammy had good days. She sprang out of bedbright-eyed and playful. The droopy lower lip stretched upwardin a smile. She bathed. She put on fresh clothes and woremascara. She let Laila brush her hair, which Laila loved doing,and pin earrings through her earlobes. They went shoppingtogether to Mandaii Bazaar. Laila got her to play snakes andladders, and they ate shavings from blocks of dark chocolate,one of the few things they shared a common taste for. Laila'sfavorite part of Mammy's good days was when Babi camehome, when she and Mammy looked up from the board andgrinned at him with brown teeth. A gust of contentment puffedthrough the room then, and Laila caught a momentary glimpseof the tenderness, the romance, that had once bound herparents back when this house had been crowded and noisyand cheerful.
Mammy sometimes baked on her good days and invitedneighborhood women over for tea and pastries. Laila got to lickthe bowls clean, as Mammy set the table with cups andnapkins and the good plates. Later, Laila would take her placeat the living-room table and try to break into the conversation,as the women talked boisterously and drank tea andcomplimented Mammy on her baking. Though there was nevermuch for her to say, Laila liked to sit and listen in because atthese gatherings she was treated to a rare pleasure: She got tohear Mammy speaking affectionately about Babi.
"What a first-rate teacher he was," Mammy said. "Hisstudents loved him. And not only because he wouldn't beatthem with rulers, like other teachers did. They respected him,you see, because he respectedthem. He was marvelous."Mammy loved to tell the story of how she'd proposed to him.
"I was sixteen, he was nineteen. Our families lived next doorto each other in Panjshir. Oh, I had the crush onhim,hamshirasl I used to climb the wall between our houses,and we'd play in his father's orchard. Hakim was always scaredthat we'd get caught and that my father would give him aslapping. 'Your father's going to give me a slapping,' he'dalways say. He was so cautious, so serious, even then. Andthen one day I said to him, I said, 'Cousin, what will it be?
Are you going to ask for my hand or are you going to makeme comekhasiegari to you?' I said it just like that. You shouldhave seen the face on him!"Mammy would slap her palms together as the women, andLaila, laughed.
Listening to Mammy tell these stories, Laila knew that therehad been a time when Mammy always spoke this way aboutBabi. A time when her parents did not sleep in separaterooms. Laila wished she hadn't missed out on those times.
Inevitably, Mammy's proposal story led to matchmakingschemes. When Afghanistan was free from the Soviets and theboys returned home, they would need brides, and so, one byone, the women paraded the neighborhood girls who might ormight not be suitable for Ahmad and Noon Laila always feltexcluded when the talk turned to her brothers, as though thewomen were discussing a beloved film that only she hadn'tseen. She'd been two years old when Ahmad and Noor hadleft Kabul for Panjshir up north, to join Commander AhmadShah ............
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