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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 44.
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Chapter 44.
LailaIariq said that one of the men who shared his cell had acousin who'd been publicly flogged once for painting flamingos.
He, the cousin, had a seemingly incurable thing for them.
"Entire sketchbooks," Tariq said. "Dozens of oil paintings ofthem, wading in lagoons, sunbathing in marshlands. Flying intosunsets too, I'm afraid.""Flamingos," Laila said. She looked at him sitting against thewall, his good leg bent at the knee. She had an urge to touchhim again, as she had earlier by the front gate when she'drun to him. It embarrassed her now to think of how she'dthrown her arms around his neck and wept into his chest,how she'd said his name over and over in a slurring, thickvoice. Had she acted too eagerly, she wondered, toodesperately? Maybe so. But she hadn't been able to help it.
And now she longed to touch him again, to prove to herselfagain that he was really here, that he was not a dream, anapparition.
"Indeed," he said. "Flamingos."When the Taliban had found the paintings, Tariq said, they'dtaken offense at the birds' long, bare legs. After they'd tied thecousin's feet and flogged his soles bloody, they had presentedhim with a choice: Either destroy the paintings or make theflamingos decent. So the cousin had picked up his brush andpainted trousers on every last bird"And there you have it. Islamic flamingos," Tariq said-Laughtercame up, but Laila pushed it back down. She was ashamed ofher yellowing teeth, the missing incisor-Ashamed of her witheredlooks and swollen lip. She wished she'd had the chance towash her face, at least comb her hair.
"But he'll have the last laugh, the cousin," Tariq said- "Hepainted those trousers with watercolor. When the Taliban aregone, he'll just wash them off" He smiled-Laila noticed that hehad a missing tooth of his own-and looked down at his hands.
"Indeed"He was wearingapakol on his head, hiking boots, and a blackwool sweater tucked into thewaist of khaki pants. He was halfsmiling, nodding slowly. Laila didn't remember him saying thisbefore, this wordindeed, and this pensive gesture,the fingersmaking a tent in his lap, the nodding, it was new too. Such anadult word, such an adult gesture, and why should it be sostartling? Hewas an adult now, Tariq, a twenty-five-year-oldman with slow movements and a tiredness to his smile. Tall,bearded, slimmer than in her dreams of him, but withstrong-looking hands, workman's hands, with tortuous, full veins.
His face was still lean and handsome but not fair-skinned anylonger; his brow had a weathered look to it, sunburned, likehis neck, the brow of a traveler at the end of a long andwearying journey. Hispakol was pushed back on his head, andshe could see that he'd started to lose his hair. The hazel ofhis eyes was duller than she remembered, paler, or perhaps itwas merely the light in the room.
Laila thought of Tariq's mother, her unhurried manners, theclever smiles, the dull purple wig. And his father, with hissquinty gaze, his wry humor. Earlier, at the door, with a voicefull of tears, tripping over her own words, she'd told Tariqwhat she thought had happened to him and his parents, andhe had shaken his head. So now she asked him how theywere doing, his parents. But she regretted the question whenTariq looked down and said, a bit distractedly, "Passed on.""I'm so sorry.""Well. Yes. Me too. Here." He fished a small paper bag fromhis pocket and passed it to her. "Compliments of Alyona."Inside was a block of cheese in plastic wrap.
"Alyona. It's a pretty name." Laila tried to say this nextwithout wavering. "Your wife?""My goat." He was smiling at her expectantly, as thoughwaiting for her to retrieve a memory.
Then Laila remembered. The Soviet film. Alyona had been thecaptain's daughter, the girl in love with the first mate. That wasthe day that she, Tariq, and Hasina had watched Soviet tanksand jeeps leave Kabul, the day Tariq had worn that ridiculousRussian fur hat.
"I had to tie her to a stake in the ground," Tariq was saying.
"And build a fence. Because of the wolves. In the foothillswhere I live, there's a wooded area nearby, maybe a quarterof a mile away, pine trees mostly, some fir, deodars. Theymostly stick to the woods, the wolves do, but a bleating goat,one that likes to go wandering, that can draw them out. Sothe fence. The stake."Laila asked him which foothills.
"Pir PanjaL Pakistan," he said "Where I live is called Murree;it's a summer retreat, an hour from Islamabad. It's hilly andgreen, lots of trees, high above sea level So it's cool in thesummer. Perfect for tourists."The British had built it as a hill station near their militaryheadquarters in Rawalpindi, he said, for the Victorians to escapethe heat. You could still spot a few relics of the colonial times,Tariq said, the occasional tearoom, tin-roofed bungalows, calledcottages, that sort of thing. The town itself was small andpleasant. The main street was called the Mall, where there wasa post office, a bazaar, a few restaurants, shops thatovercharged tourists for painted glass and handknotted carpets.
Curiously, the Mall's one-way traffic flowed in one direction oneweek, the opposite direction the next week.
"The locals say that Ireland's traffic is like that too in places,"Tariq said. "I wouldn't know. Anyway, it's nice. It's aplain life, but I like it. I like living there.""With your goat. With Alyona."Laila meant this less as a joke than as a surreptitious entryinto another line of talk, such as who else was there with himworrying about wolves eating goats. But Tariq only went onnodding.
"I'm sorry about your parents too," he said.
"You heard.""I spoke to some neighbors earlier," he said. A pause, duringwhich Laila wondered what else the neighbors had told him. "Idon't recognize anybody. From the old days, I mean.""They're all gone. There's no one left you'd know.""I don't recognize Kabul.""Neither do I," Laila said. "And I never left."* * *"Mammy has a new friend," Zalmai said after dinner later thatsame night, after Tariq had left. "A man."Rasheed looked up."Does she, now?"* * *Tariqasked ifhecould smoke.
They had stayed awhile at theNasir Bagh refugee camp nearPeshawar, Tariq said, tapping ash into a saucer. There weresixty thousand Afghans living there already when he and hisparents arrived.
"It wasn't as bad as some of the other camps like, Godforbid, Jalozai," he said. "I guess at one point it was evensome kind of model camp, back during the Cold War, a placethe West could point to and prove to the world they weren'tjust funnel ing arms into Afghanistan."But that had been during the Soviet war, Tariq said, the daysof jihad and worldwide interest and generous funding and visitsfrom Margaret Thatcher.
"You know the rest, Laila. After the war, the Soviets fell apart,and the West moved on. There was nothing at stake for themin Afghanistan anymore and the money dried up. Now NasirBagh is tents, dust, and open sewers. When we got there, theyhanded us a stick and a sheet of canvas and told us to buildourselves a tent."Tariq said what he remembered most about Nasir Bagh,where they had stayed for a year, was the color brown.
"Brown tents. Brown people. Brown dogs. Brown porridge."There was a leafless tree he climbed every day, where hestraddled a branch and watched the refugees lying about in thesun, their sores and stumps in plain view. He watched littleemaciated boys carrying water in their jerry cans, gathering dogdroppings to make fire, carving toy AK-47s out of wood withdull knives, lugging the sacks of wheat flour that no one couldmake bread from that held together. All around the refugeetown, the wind made the tents flap. It hurled stubbles of weedeverywhere, lifted kites flown from the roofs of mud hovels.
"A lot of kids died. Dysentery, TB, hunger-you name it.
Mostly, that damn dysentery. God, Laila. I saw so many kidsburied. There's nothing worse a person can see."He crossed his legs. It grew quiet again between them for awhile.
"My father didn't survive that first winter," he said. "He diedin his sleep. I don't think there was any pain."That same winter, he said, his mother caught pneumonia andalmost died, would have died, if not for a camp doctor whoworked out of a station wagon made into a mobile clinic. Shewould wake up all night long, feverish, coughing out thick,rust-colored phlegm. The queues were long to see the doctor,Tariq said. Everyone was shivering in line, moaning, coughing,some with shit running down their legs, others too tired orhungry or sick to make words.
"But he was a decent man, the doctor. He treated mymother, gave her some pills, saved her life that winter."That same winter, Tariq had cornered a kid.
"Twelve, maybe thirteen years old," he said evenly. "I held ashard of glass to his throat and took his blanket from him. Igave it to my mother."He made a vow to himself, Tariq said, after his mother'sillness, that they would not spend another winter in camp. He'dwork, save, move them to an apartment in Peshawar withheating and clean water. When spring came, he looked forwork. From time to time, a truck came to camp early in themorning and rounded up a couple of dozen boys, took themto a field to move stones or an orchard to pick apples inexchange for a little money, sometimes a blanket, a pair ofshoes. But they never wanted him, Tariq said.
"One look at my leg and it was over."There were other jobs. Ditches to dig, hovels to build, waterto carry, feces to shovel from outhouses. But young menfought over these jobs, and Tariq never stood a chance-Thenhe met a shopkeeper one day, that fall of 1993.
"He offered me money to take a leather coat to Lahore. Nota lot but enough, enough for one or maybe two months'
apartment rent."The shopkeeper gave him a bus ticket, Tariq said, and theaddress of a street corner near the Lahore Rail Station wherehe was to deliver the coat to a friend of the shopkeeper's.
"I knew already. Of course I knew," Tariq said. "He said thatif I got caught, I was on my own, that I should rememberthat he knew where my mother lived. But the money was toogood to pass up. And winter was coming again.""How far did you get?" Laila asked.
"Not far," he said and laughed, sounding apologetic, ashamed.
"Never even got on the bus. But I thought I was immune, youknow, safe. As though there was some accountant up theresomewhere, a guy with a pencil tucked behind his ear whokept track of these things, who tallied things up, and he'd lookdown and say, 'Yes, yes, he can have this, we'll let it go. He'spaid some dues already, this one.'"It was in the seams, the hashish, and it spilled all over thestreet when the police took a knife to the coat.
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