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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 40.
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Chapter 40.
Laila Fall 1999It was Mariam's idea to dig the hole. One morning, shepointed to a patch of soil behind the toolshed. "We can do ithere," she said. "This is a good spot"They took turns striking the ground with a spade, thenshoveling the loose dirt aside. They hadn't planned on a bighole, or a deep one, so the work of digging shouldn't havebeen as demanding as it turned out. It was the drought,started in 1998, in its second year now, that was wreakinghavoc everywhere. It had hardly snowed that past winter anddidn't rain at all that spring. All over the country, farmers wereleaving behind their parched lands, selling off their goods,roaming from village to village looking for water. They movedto Pakistan or Iran. They settled in Kabul. But water tableswere low in the city too, and the shallow wells had dried up.
The lines at the deep wells were so long, Laila and Mariamwould spend hours waiting their turn. The Kabul River, withoutits yearly spring floods, had turned bone-dry. It was a publictoilet now, nothing in it but human waste and rubble.
So they kept swinging the spade and striking, but thesun-blistered ground had hardened like a rock, the dirtunyielding, compressed, almost petrified.
Mariam was forty now. Her hair, rolled up above her face,had a few stripes of gray in it. Pouches sagged beneath hereyes, brown and crescent-shaped. She'd lost two front teeth.
One fell out, the other Rasheed knocked out when she'daccidentally dropped Zalmai. Her skin had coarsened, tannedfrom all the time they were spending in the yardsitting beneaththe brazen sun. They would sit and watch Zalmai chase Aziza.
When it was done, when the hole was dug, they stood over itand looked down.
"It should do," Mariam said.
* * *Zalmai was twonow. He was a plump little boy with curlyhair. He had small brownisheyes, and a rosy tint tohis cheeks,like Rasheed, no matter the weather. He hadhis father'shairlinetoo, thick and half-moon-shaped,set low on his brow.
When Laila was alone with him, Zalmai was sweet,good-humored, and playful. He liked to climb Laila'sshoulders,play hide-and-seek in the yard with her and Aziza. Sometimes,inhis calmer moments, he liked tosit on Laila's lap and haveher sing tohim. His favorite song was "Mullah MohammadJan." He swung his meaty little feet as she sang into his curlyhair and joined in when she got to the chorus, singing whatwords he could make with his raspy voice:
Come and lei's go to Mazar, Mullah Mohammadjan, To seethe fields of tulips, o beloved companion.
Laila loved the moist kisses Zalmai planted on her cheeks,loved his dimpled elbows and stout little toes. She loved ticklinghim, building tunnels with cushions and pillows for him to crawlthrough, watching him fall asleep in her arms with one of hishands always clutching her ear. Her stomach turned when shethought of that afternoon, lying on the floor with the spoke ofa bicycle wheel between her legs. How close she'd come. Itwas unthinkable to her now that she could have evenentertained the idea. Her son was a blessing, and Laila wasrelieved to discover that her fears had proved baseless, thatshe loved Zalmai with the marrow of her bones, just as shedid Aziza.
But Zalmai worshipped his father, and, because he did, hewas transformed when his father was around to dote on him.
Zalmai was quick then with a defiant cackle or an impudentgrin. In his father's presence, he was easily offended. He heldgrudges. He persisted in mischief in spite of Laila's scolding,which he never did when Rasheed was away.
Rasheed approved of all of it. "A sign of intelligence," he said.
He said the same of Zalmai's recklessness-when he swallowed,then pooped, marbles; when he lit matches; when he chewedon Rasheed's cigarettes.
When Zalmai was born, Rasheed had moved him into the bedhe shared with Laila. He had bought him a new crib and hadlions and crouching leopards painted on the side panels. He'dpaid for new clothes, new rattles, new bottles, new diapers,even though they could not afford them and Aziza's old oneswere still serviceable. One day, he came home with abattery-run mobile, which he hung over Zalmai's crib. Littleyellow-and-black bumblebees dangled from a sunflower, andthey crinkled and squeaked when squeezed. A tune playedwhen it was turned on.
"I thought you said business was slow," Laila said.
"I have friends I can borrowfrom," he saiddismissively.
"Howwill you pay them back?""Thingswill turn around. They always do. Look,he likes it.
See?"Mostdays, Laila was deprived ofher son. Rasheed took him tothe shop, let him crawl around under his crowded workbench,play with old rubber soles and spare scraps of leather. Rasheeddrove in his iron nails and turned the sandpaper wheel, andkept a watchful eye on him. If Zalmai toppled a rack of shoes,Rasheed scolded him gently, in a calm, half-smiling way. If hedid it again, Rasheed put downhis hammer, sat him up on hisdesk, and talked to him softly.
Hispatience with Zalmaiwas a well that ran deep and neverdried.
They came home together in the evening, Zalmai's headbouncing on Rasheed's shoulder, both of them smelling of glueand leather. They grinned the way people who share a secretdo,slyly, like they'd satin thatdim shoe shop all day not makingshoes at all butdevising secret plots. Zalmai liked to sit besidehisfather at dinner, where they played private games, as Mariam,Laila, and Azizaset plates onthesojrah. They took turns pokingeach otheron the chest, giggling, pelting each other with breadcrumbs, whispering things the others couldn't hear. If Lailaspoke tothem, Rasheed looked up with displeasure at theunwelcome intrusion. If she asked to hold Zalmai-or, worse,ifZalmai reached for her-Rasheed glowered at her.
Laila walked away feeling stung.
* * *Then one night, a few weeks after Zalmai turned two,Rasheed came home with a television and a VCR. The dayhad been warm, almost balmy, but the evening was cooler andalready thickening into a starless, chilly night-He set it down onthe living-room table. He said he'd bought it on the blackmarket. "Another loan?" Laila asked. "It'saMagnavox."Aziza came into the room. When she saw the TV, she ran toit. "Careful, Aziza jo," saidMariam. "Don't touch."Aziza's hair had become as light as Laila's. Laila could see herown dimples on her cheeks. Aziza had turned into a calm,pensive little girl, with a demeanor that to Laila seemed beyondher six years. Laila marveled at her daughter's manner ofspeech, her cadence and rhythm, her thoughtful pauses andintonations, so adult, so at odds with the immature body thathoused the voice. It was Aziza who with lightheaded authorityhad taken it upon herself to wake Zalmai every day, to dresshim............
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