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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 42.
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Chapter 42.
LailaIn a paper bag, Aziza packed these things: her flowered shirtand her lone pair of socks, her mismatched wool gloves, anold, pumpkin-colored blanket dotted with stars and comets, asplintered plastic cup, a banana, her set of dice-It was a coolmorning in April 2001, shortly before Laila's twenty-thirdbirthday. The sky was a translucent gray, and gusts of aclammy, cold wind kept rattling the screen door.
This was a few days after Laila heard that Ahmad ShahMassoud had gone to France and spoken to the EuropeanParliament. Massoud was now in his native North, and leadingthe Northern Alliance, the sole opposition group still fighting theTaliban. In Europe, Massoud had warned the West aboutterrorist camps in Afghanistan, and pleaded with the U.S. tohelp him fight the Taliban.
"If President Bush doesn't help us," he had said, "theseterrorists will damage the U.S. and Europe very soon."A month before that, Laila had learned that the Taliban hadplanted TNT in the crevices of the giant Buddhas in Bamiyanand blown them apart, calling them objects of idolatry and sin.
There was an outcry around the world, from the U.S. toChina. Governments, historians, and archaeologists from all overthe globe had written letters, pleaded with the Taliban not todemolish the two greatest historical artifacts in Afghanistan. Butthe Taliban had gone ahead and detonated their explosivesinside the two-thousand-year-old Buddhas. They hadchantedAllah-u-akbar with each blast, cheered each time thestatues lost an arm or a leg in a crumbling cloud of dust. Lailaremembered standing atop the bigger of the two Buddhas withBabi and Tariq, back in 1987, a breeze blowing in their sunlitfaces, watching a hawk gliding in circles over the sprawlingvalley below. But when she heard the news of the statues'
demise, Laila was numb to it. It hardly seemed to matter. Howcould she care about statues when her own life was crumblingdust?
Until Rasheed told her it was time to go, Laila sat on thefloor in a comer of the living room, not speaking andstone-faced, her hair hanging around her face in straggly curls.
No matter how much she breathed in and out, it seemed toLaila that she couldn't fill her lungs with enough air.
* * *On the way to Karteh-Seh, Zalmai bounced in Rasheed's arms,and Aziza held Mariam's hand as she walked quickly besideher. The wind blew the dirty scarf tied under Aziza's chin andrippled the hem of her dress. Aziza was more grim now, asthough she'd begun to sense, with each step, that she wasbeing duped. Laila had not found the strength to tell Aziza thetruth. She had told her that she was going to a school, aspecial school where the children ate and slept and didn't comehome after class. Now Aziza kept pelting Laila with the samequestions she had been asking for days. Did the students sleepin different rooms or all in one great big room? Would shemake friends? Was she, Laila, sure that the teachers would benice?
And, more than once,How long do I have to stay?
They stopped two blocks from the squat, barracks-stylebuilding.
"Zalmai and I will wait here," Rasheed said. "Oh, before Iforget…"He fished a stick of gum from his pocket, a parting gift, andheld it out to Aziza with a stiff, magnanimous air. Aziza took itand muttered a thank-you. Laila marveled at Aziza's grace,Aziza's vast capacity for forgiveness, and her eyes filled. Herheart squeezed, and she was faint with sorrow at the thoughtthat this afternoon Aziza would not nap beside her, that shewould not feel the flimsy weight of Aziza's arm on her chest,the curve of Aziza's head pressing into her ribs, Aziza's breathwarming her neck, Aziza's heels poking her belly.
When Aziza was led away, Zalmai began wailing, crying, Ziza!
Ziza! He squirmed and kicked in his father's arms, called forhis sister, until his attention was diverted by an organ-grinder'smonkey across the street.
They walked the last two blocks alone, Mariam, Laila, andAziza. As they approached the building, Laila could see itssplintered fa9ade, the sagging roof, the planks of wood nailedacross frames with missing windows, the top of a swing setover a decaying wall.
They stopped by the door, and Laila repeated to Aziza whatshe had told her earlier.
"And if they ask about your father, what do you say?""The Mujahideen killed him," Aziza said, her mouth set withwariness.
"That's good. Aziza, do you understand?""Because this is a special school," Aziza said Now that theywere here, and the building was a reality, she looked shaken.
Her lower lip was quivering and her eyes threatened to wellup, and Laila saw how hard she was struggling to be brave.
"If we tell the truth," Aziza said in a thin, breathless voice,"they won't take me. It's a special school. I want to go home.""I'll visit all the time," Laila managed to say. "I promise.""Me too," said Mariam. "We'll come to see you, Aziza jo, andwe'll play together, just like always. It's only for a while, untilyour father finds work.""They have food here," Laila said shakily. She was glad forthe burqa, glad that Aziza couldn't see how she was fallingapart inside it. "Here, you won't go hungry. They have riceand bread and water, and maybe even fruit.""Butyouwon't be here. And Khala Mariam won't be with me.""I'll come and see you," Laila said. "All the time. Look at me,Aziza. I'll come and see you. I'm your mother. If it kills me, I'llcome and see you."* * *The orphanage director was a stooping, narrow-chested manwith a pleasantly lined face. He was balding, had a shaggybeard, eyes like peas. His name was Zaman. He wore askullcap. The left lens of his eyeglasses was chipped.
As he led them to his office, he asked Laila and Mariam theirnames, asked for Aziza's name too, her age. They passedthrough poorly lit hallways where barefoot children steppedaside and watched They had disheveled hair or shaved scalps.
They wore sweaters with frayed sleeves, ragged jeans whoseknees had worn down to strings, coats patched with duct tape.
Laila smelled soap and talcum, ammonia and urine, and risingapprehension in Aziza, who had begun whimpering.
Laila had a glimpse of the yard: weedy lot, rickety swing set,old tires, a deflated basketball. The rooms they passed werebare, the windows covered with sheets of plastic. A boy dartedfrom one of the rooms and grabbed Laila's elbow, and tried toclimb up into her arms. An attendant, who was cleaning upwhat looked like a puddle of urine, put down his mop andpried the boy off.
Zaman seemed gently proprietary with the orphans. He pattedthe heads of some, as he passed by, said a cordial word ortwo to them, tousled their hair, without condescension. Thechildren welcomed his touch. They all looked at him, Lailathought, in hope of approval.
He showed them into his office, a room with only threefolding chairs, and a disorderly desk with piles of paperscattered atop it.
"You're from Herat," Zaman said to Mariam. "I can tell fromyour accent."He leaned back in his chair and laced his hands over hisbelly, and said he had a brother-in-law who used to live there.
Even in these ordinary gestures, Laila noted a laborious qualityto his movements. And though he was smiling faintly, Lailasensed something troubled and wounded beneath,disappointment and defeat glossed over with a veneer of goodhumor.
"He was a glassmaker," Zaman said. "He made thesebeautiful, jade green swans. You held them up to sunlight andthey glittered inside, like the glass was filled with tiny jewels.
Have you been back?"Mariam said she hadn't.
"I'm from Kandahar myself. Have you ever been toKandahar,hamshira1? No? It's lovely. What gardens! And thegrapes! Oh, the grapes. They bewitch the palate."A few children had gathered by the door and were peekingin. Zaman gently shooed them away, in Pashto.
"Of course I love Herat too. City of artists and writers, Sufisand mystics. You know the old joke, that you can't stretch aleg in Herat without poking a poet in the rear."Next to Laila, Aziza snorted.
Zaman feigned a gasp. "Ah, there. I've made you laugh,littlehamshira. That's usually the hard part. I was worried, there,for a while. I thought I'd have to cluck like a chicken or braylike a donkey. But, there you are. And so lovely you are."He called in an attendant to look after Aziza for a fewmoments. Aziza leaped onto Mariam's lap and clung to her.
"We're just going to talk, my love,"Laila said. "I'll be righthere. All right? Right here.""Why don't we go outside for a minute, Aziza jo?" Mariamsaid. "Your mother needs to talk to Kaka Zaman here.Just fora minute. Now, come on."When they were alone, Zaman asked for Aziza's date of birth,history of illnesses, allergies. He asked about Aziza's father, andLaila had the strange experience of telling a lie that was reallythe truth. Zaman listened, his expression revealing neither beliefnor skepticism. He ran the orphanage on the honor system, hesaid. If ahamshira said her husband was dead and she couldn'tcare for her children, he didn't question it.
Laila began to cry.
Zaman put down his pen.
"I'm ashamed," Laila croaked, her palm pressed to her mouth.
"Look at me,hamshira ""What kind of mother abandons her own child?""Look at me."Laila raised her gaze.
"It isn't your fault. Do you hear me? Not you. It'sthosesavages, thosewahshis, who are to blame. They bringshame on me as a Pashtun. They've disgraced the name ofmy people. And you're not alone,hamshira We get mothers likeyou all the time-all the time-mothers who come here who can'tfeed their children because the Taliban won't let them go outand make a living. So you don't blame yourself. No one hereblames you. I understand." He leaned forward."Hamshira Iunderstand."Laila wiped her eyes with the cloth of her burqa.
"As for this place," Zaman sighed, motioning with his hand,"you can see that it's in dire state. We're always underfunded,always scrambling, improvising. We get little or no support fromthe Taliban. But we manage. Like you, we do what we have todo. Allah is good and kind, and Allah provides, and, as longHe provides, I will see to it that Aziza is fed and clothed. Thatmuch I promise you."Laila nodded.
"All right?"He was smiling companionably. "But don't cry,hamshira Don'tlet her see you cry."Laila wiped her eyes again. "God bless you," she said thickly.
"God bless you, brother."***But "when the time for good-byes came, the scene eruptedprecisely as Laila had dreaded.
Aziza panicked.
All the way home, leaning on Mariam, Laila heard Aziza'sshrill cries. In her head, she saw Zaman's thick, callousedhands close around Aziza's arms; she saw them pull, gently atfirst, then harder, then with force to pry Aziza loose from her.
She saw Aziza kicking in Zaman's arms as he hurriedly turnedthe corner, heard Aziza screaming as though she were aboutto vanish from the face of the earth. And Laila saw herselfrunning down the hallway, head down, a howl rising up herthroat.
"I smell her," she told Mariam at home. Her eyes swamunseeingly past Mariam's shoulder, past the yard, the walls, tothe mountains, brown as smoker's spit. "I smell her sleep smell.
Do you? Do you smell it?""Oh, Laila jo," said Mariam. "Don't. What good is this? Whatgood?"* * *At first, Rasheed humored Laila, and accompanied them-her,Mariam, and Zalmai-to the orphanage, though he made sure,as they walked, that she had an eyeful of his grievous looks,an earful of his rants over what a hardship she was puttinghim through, how badly his legs and back and feet achedwalking to and from the orphanage. He made sure she knewhow awfully put out he was.
"I'm not a young man anymore," he said. "Not that you care.
You'd run me to the ground, if you had your way. But youdon't, Laila. You don't have your way."They parted ways two blocks from the orphanage, and henever spared them more than fifteen minutes. "A minute late,"he said, "and I start walking. I mean it."Laila had to pester him, plead with him, in order to spin outthe allotted minutes with Aziza a bit longer. For herself, and forMariam, who was disconsolate over Aziza's absence, though, asalways, Mariam chose to cradle her own suffering privately andquietly. And for Zalmai too, who asked for his sister every day,and threw tantrums that sometimes dissolved into inco............
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