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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 41.
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Chapter 41.
MadamIn the summer of 2000, the drought reached its third andworst year.
In Helmand, Zabol, Kandahar, villages turned into herds ofnomadic communities, always moving, searching for water andgreen pastures for their livestock. When they found neither,when their goats and sheep and cows died off, they came toKabul They took to the Kareh-Ariana hillside, living in makeshiftslums, packed in huts, fifteen or twenty at a time.
That was also the summer ofTitanic, the summer that Mariamand Aziza were a tangle of limbs, rolling and giggling, Azizainsistingshe get to be Jack.
"Quiet, Aziza jo.""Jack! Say my name, Khala Mariam. Say it. Jack!" "Yourfather will be angry if you wake him.""Jack! And you're Rose."It would end with Mariam on her back, surrendering, agreeingagain to be Rose. "Fine, you be Jack," she relented "You dieyoung, and I get to live to a ripe old age.""Yes, but I die a hero," said Aziza, "while you, Rose, youspend your entire, miserable life longing for me." Then,straddling Mariam's chest, she'd announce, "Now we mustkiss!" Mariam whipped her head side to side, and Aziza,delighted with her own scandalous behavior, cackled throughpuckered lips.
Sometimes Zalmai would saunter in and watch this game.
What didhe get to be, he asked"You can be the iceberg," said Aziza.
That summer,Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggledpirated copies of the film from Pakistan- sometimes in theirunderwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turnedout the lights, turned down the volume, and reaped tears forJack and Rose and the passengers of the doomed ship. Ifthere was electrical power, Mariam, Laila, and the childrenwatched it too. A dozen times or more, they unearthed the TVfrom behind the toolshed, late at night, with the lights out andquilts pinned over the windows.
At the Kabul River, vendors moved into the parched riverbed.
Soon, from the river's sunbaked hollows, it was possible tobuyTitanic carpets, andTitanic cloth, from bolts arranged inwheelbarrows. There wasTitanic deodorant,Titanictoothpaste,Titanic perfume,Titanicpakora, evenTitanic burqas. Aparticularly persistent beggar began calling himself "TitanicBeggar.""Titanic City" was born.
It's the song,they said.
No, the sea. The luxury. The ship.
It's the sex,they whisperedLeo,said Aziza sheepishly.It's all about Leo.
"Everybody wants Jack," Laila said to Mariam. "That's what itis. Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. Butthere is no Jack. Jack is not coming back. Jack is dead."* * *Then, late that summer, a fabric merchant fell asleep andforgot to put out his cigarette. He survived the fire, but hisstore did not. The fire took the adjacent fabric store as well, asecondhand clothing store, a small furniture shop, a bakery.
They told Rasheed later that if the winds had blown eastinstead of west, his shop, which was at the corner of the block,might have been spared.
* * *They sold everything.
First to go were Mariam's things, then Laila's. Aziza's babyclothes, the few toys Laila had fought Rasheed to buy her.
Aziza watched the proceedings with a docile look. Rasheed'swatch too was sold, his old transistor radio, his pair of neckties,his shoes, and his wedding ring. The couch, the table, the rug,and the chairs went too. Zalmai threw a wicked tantrum whenRasheed sold the TV.
After the fire, Rasheed was home almost every day. Heslapped Aziza. He kicked Mariam. He threw things. He foundfault with Laila, the way she smelled, the way she dressed, theway she combed her hair, her yellowing teeth.
"What's happened to you?" he said. "I marriedapart, and nowI'm saddled with a hag. You're turning into Mariam."He got fired from the kebab house near Haji Yaghoub Squarebecause he and a customer got into a scuffle. The customercomplained that Rasheed had rudely tossed the bread on histable. Harsh words had passed. Rasheed had called thecustomer a monkey-faced Uzbek. A gun had been brandished.
A skewer pointed in return. In Rasheed's version, he held theskewer. Mariam had her doubts.
Fired from the restaurant in Taimani because customerscomplained about the long waits, Rasheed said the cook wasslow and lazy.
"You were probably out back napping," said Laila.
"Don't provoke him, Laila jo," Mariam said.
"I'm warning you, woman," he said.
"Either that or smoking.""I swear to God.""You can't help being what you are."And then he was on Laila, pummeling her chest, her head,her belly with fists, tearing at her hair, throwing her to thewall. Aziza was shrieking, pulling at his shirt; Zalmai wasscreaming too, trying to get him off his mother. Rasheedshoved the children aside, pushed Laila to the ground, andbegan kicking her. Mariam threw herself on Laila. He went onkicking, kicking Mariam now, spittle flying from his mouth, hiseyes glittering with murderous intent, kicking until he couldn'tanymore.
"I swear you're going to make me kill you, Laila," he said,panting. Then he stormed out of the house.
* * *When the money ran out, hunger began to cast a pall overtheir lives. It was stunning to Mariam how quickly alleviatinghunger became the crux of their existence.
Rice, boiled plain and white, with no meat or sauce, was arare treat now. They skipped meals with increasing andalarming regularity. Sometimes Rasheed brought home sardinesin a can and brittle, dried bread that tasted like sawdust.
Sometimes a stolen bag of apples, at the risk of getting hishand sawed off. In grocery stores, he carefully pocketed cannedravioli, which they split five ways, Zalmai getting the lion'sshare. They ate raw turnips sprinkled with salt. Limp leaves oflettuce and blackened bananas for dinner.
Death from starvation suddenly became a distinct possibility.
Some chose not to wait for it. Mariam heard of aneighborhood widow who had ground some dried bread, lacedit with rat poison, and fed it to all seven of her children. Shehad saved the biggest portion for herself.
Aziza's ribs began to push through the skin, and the fat fromher cheeks vanished. Her calves thinned, and her complexionturned the color of weak tea. When Mariam picked her up,she could feel her hip bone poking through the taut skin.
Zalmai lay around the house, eyes dulled and half closed, or inhis father's lap limp as a rag. He cried himself to sleep, whenhe could muster the energy, but his sleep was fitful andsporadic. White dots leaped before Mariam's eyes whenever shegot up. Her head spun, and her ears rang all the time. Sheremembered something Mullah Faizullah used to say abouthunger when Ramadan started:Even the snakebiiien man findssleep, but not the hungry.
"My children are going to die," Laila said. "Right before myeyes.""They are not," Mariam said. "I won't let them. It's going tobe all right, Laila jo. I know what to do."* * *One blistering-hot day, Mariam put on her burqa, and sheand Rasheed walked to the Intercontinental Hotel. Bus fare wasan un-affordable luxury now, and Mariam was exhausted bythe time they reached the top of the steep hill. Climbing theslope, she was struck by bouts of dizziness, and twice she hadto stop, wait for it to pass.
At the hotel entrance, Rasheed greeted and hugged one ofthe doormen, who was dressed in a burgundy suit and visorcap. There was some friendly-looking talk between them.
Rasheed spoke with his hand on the doorman's elbow. Hemotioned toward Mariam at one point, and they both lookedher way bri............
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