So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one. Don’t either of you ask me for more. It’s late, and we have a long day of travel ahead of us, Pari, you and I. You will need your sleep tonight. And you too, Abdullah. I am counting on you, boy, while your sister and I are away. So is your mother. Now. One story, then. Listen, both of you, listen well. And don’t interrupt.
Once upon a time, in the days when divs and jinns and giants roamed the land, there lived a farmer named Baba Ayub. He lived with his family in a little village by the name of Maidan Sabz. Because he had a large family to feed, Baba Ayub saw his days consumed by hard work. Every day, he labored from dawn to sundown, plowing his field and turning the soil and tending to his meager pistachio trees. At any given moment you could spot him in his field, bent at the waist, back as curved as the scythe he swung all day. His hands were always callused, and they often bled, and every night sleep stole him away no sooner than his cheek met the pillow.
I will say that, in this regard, he was hardly alone. Life in Maidan Sabz was hard for all its inhabitants. There were other, more fortunate villages to the north, in the valleys, with fruit trees and flowers and pleasant air, and streams that ran with cold, clear water. But Maidan Sabz was a desolate place, and it didn’t resemble in the slightest the image that its name, Field of Green, would have you picture. It sat in a flat, dusty plain ringed by a chain of craggy mountains. The wind was hot, and blew dust in the eyes. Finding water was a daily struggle because the village wells, even the deep ones, often ran low. Yes, there was a river, but the villagers had to endure a half-day walk to reach it, and even then its waters flowed muddy all year round. Now, after ten years of drought, the river too ran shallow. Let’s just say that people in Maidan Sabz worked twice as hard to eke out half the living.
Still, Baba Ayub counted himself among the fortunate because he had a family that he cherished above all things. He loved his wife and never raised his voice to her, much less his hand. He valued her counsel and found genuine pleasure in her companionship. As for children, he was blessed with as many as a hand has fingers, three sons and two daughters, each of whom he loved dearly. His daughters were dutiful and kind and of good character and repute. To his sons he had taught already the value of honesty, courage, friendship, and hard work without complaint. They obeyed him, as good sons must, and helped their father with his crops.
Though he loved all of his children, Baba Ayub privately had a unique fondness for one among them, his youngest, Qais, who was three years old. Qais was a little boy with dark blue eyes. He charmed anyone who met him with his devilish laughter. He was also one of those boys so bursting with energy that he drained others of theirs. When he learned to walk, he took such delight in it that he did it all day while he was awake, and then, troublingly, even at night in his sleep. He would sleepwalk out of the family’s mud house and wander off into the moonlit darkness. Naturally, his parents worried. What if he fell into a well, or got lost, or, worst of all, was attacked by one of the creatures lurking the plains at night? They took stabs at many remedies, none of which worked. In the end, the solution Baba Ayub found was a simple one, as the best solutions often are: He removed a tiny bell from around the neck of one of his goats and hung it instead around Qais’s neck. This way, the bell would wake someone if Qais were to rise in the middle of the night. The sleepwalking stopped after a time, but Qais grew attached to the bell and refused to part with it. And so, even though it didn’t serve its original use, the bell remained fastened to the string around the boy’s neck. When Baba Ayub came home after a long day’s work, Qais would run from the house face-first into his father’s belly, the bell jingling with each of his tiny steps. Baba Ayub would lift him up and take him into the house, and Qais would watch with great attention as his father washed up, and then he would sit beside Baba Ayub at suppertime. After they had eaten, Baba Ayub would sip his tea, watching his family, picturing a day when all of his children married and gave him children of their own, when he would be proud patriarch to an even greater brood.
Alas, Abdullah and Pari, Baba Ayub’s days of happiness came to an end.
It happened one day that a div came to Maidan Sabz. As it approached the village from the direction of the mountains, the earth shook with each of its footfalls. The villagers dropped their shovels and hoes and axes and scattered. They locked themselves in their homes and huddled with one another. When the deafening sounds of the div’s footsteps stopped, the skies over Maidan Sabz darkened with its shadow. It was said that curved horns sprouted from its head and that coarse black hair covered its shoulders and powerful tail. They said its eyes shone red. No one knew for sure, you understand, at least no one living: Thediv ate on the spot those who dared steal so much as a single glance. Knowing this, the villagers wisely kept their eyes glued to the ground.
Everyone at the village knew why the div had come. They had heard the tales of its visits to other villages and they could only marvel at how Maidan Sabz had managed to escape its attention for so long. Perhaps, they reasoned, the poor, stringent lives they led in Maidan Sabz had worked in their favor, as their children weren’t as well fed and didn’t have as much meat on their bones. Even so, their luck had run out at last.
Maidan Sabz trembled and held its breath. Families prayed that the div would bypass their home for they knew that if the div tapped on their roof, they would have to give it one child. The div would then toss the child into a sack, sling the sack over its shoulder, and go back the way it had come. No one would ever see the poor child again. And if a household refused, the div would take all of its children.
So where did the div take the children to? To its fort, which sat atop a steep mountain. The div’s fort was very far from Maidan Sabz. Valleys, several deserts, and two mountain chains had to be cleared before you could reach it. And what sane person would, only to meet death? They said the fort was full of dungeons where cleavers hung from walls. Meat hooks dangled from ceilings. They said there were giant skewers and fire pits. They said that if it caught a trespasser, the div was known to overcome its aversion to adult meat.
I guess you know which rooftop received the div’s dreaded tap. Upon hearing it, Baba Ayub let an agonized cry escape from his lips, and his wife fainted cold. The children wept with terror, and also sorrow, because they knew that the loss of one among them was now assured. The family had until the next dawn to make its offering.
What can I say to you of the anguish that Baba Ayub and his wife suffered that night? No parent should have to make a choice such as this. Out of the children’s earshot, Baba Ayub and his wife debated what they should do. They talked and wept and talked and wept. All night, they went back and forth, and, as dawn neared, they had yet to reach a decisionwhich was perhaps what the div wanted, as their indecision would allow it to take five children instead of one. In the end, Baba Ayub collected from just outside the house five rocks of identical size and shape. On the face of each he scribbled the name of one child, and when he was done he tossed the rocks into a burlap sack. When he offered the bag to his wife, she recoiled as though it held a venomous snake.
I can’t do it,” she said to her husband, shaking her head. I cannot be the one to choose. I couldn’t bear it.”
Neither could I,” Baba Ayub began to say, but he saw through the window that the sun was only moments away from peeking over the eastern hills. Time was running short. He gazed miserably at his five children. A finger had to be cut, to save the hand. He shut his eyes and withdrew a rock from the sack.
I suppose you also know which rock Baba Ayub happened to pick. When he saw the name on it, he turned his face heavenward and let out a scream. With a broken heart, he lifted his youngest son into his arms, and Qais, who had blind trust in his father, happily wrapped his arms around Baba Ayub’s neck. It wasn’t until Baba Ayub deposited him outside the house and shut the door that the boy realized what was amiss, and there stood Baba Ayub, eyes squeezed shut, tears leaking from both, back against the door, as his beloved Qais pounded his small fists on it, crying for Baba to let him back in, and Baba Ayub stood there, muttering, Forgive me, forgive me,” as the ground shook with the div’s footsteps, and his son screeched, and the earth trembled again and again as the div took its leave from Maidan Sabz, until at last it was gone, and the earth was still, and all was silence but for Baba Ayub, still weeping and asking Qais for forgiveness.
Abdullah. Your sister has fallen asleep. Cover her feet with the blanket. There. Good. Maybe I should stop now. No? You want me to go on? Are you sure, boy? All right.
Where was I? Ah yes. There followed a forty-day mourning period. Every day, neighbors cooked meals for the family and kept vigil with them. People brought over what offerings they couldtea, candy, bread, almondsand they brought as well their condolences and sympathies. Baba Ayub could hardly bring himself to say so much as a word of thanks. He sat in a corner, weeping, streams of tears pouring from both eyes as though he meant to end the village’s streak of droughts with them. You wouldn’t wish his torment and suffering on the vilest of men.
Several years passed. The droughts continued, and Maidan Sabz fell into even worse poverty. Several babies died of thirst in their cribs. The wells ran even lower and the river dried, unlike Baba Ayub’s anguish, a river that swelled and swelled with each passing day. He was of no use to his family any longer. He didn’t work, didn’t pray, hardly ate. His wife and children pleaded with him, but it was no good. His remaining sons had to take over his work, for every day Baba Ayub did nothing but sit at the edge of his field, a lone, wretched figure gazing toward the mountains. He stopped speaking to the villagers, for he believed they muttered things behind his back. They said he was a coward for willingly giving away his son. That he was an unfit father. A real father would have fought the div. He would have died defending his family.
He mentioned this to his wife one night.
They say no such things,” his wife replied. No one thinks you are a coward.”
I can hear them,” he said.
It is your own voice you are hearing, husband,” she said. She, however, did not tell him that the villagers did whisper behind his back. And what they whispered was that he’d perhaps gone mad.
And then one day, he gave them proof. He rose at dawn. Without waking his wife and children, he stowed a few scraps of bread into a burlap sack, put on his shoes, tied his scythe around his waist, and set off.
He walked for many, many days. He walked until the sun was a faint red glow in the distance. Nights, he slept in caves as the wind whistled outside. Or else he slept beside rivers and beneath trees and among the cover of boulders. He ate his bread, and then he ate what he could findwild berries, mushrooms, fish that he caught with his bare hands from streamsand some days he didn’t eat at all. But still he walked. When passersby asked where he was going, he told them, and some laughed, some hurried past for fear he was a madman, and some prayed for him, as they too had lost a child to the div. Baba Ayub kept his head down and walked. When his shoes fell apart, he fastened them to his feet with strings, and when the strings tore he pushed forward on bare feet. In this way, he traveled across deserts and valleys and mountains.
At last he reached the mountain atop which sat the div’s fort. So eager he was to fulfill his quest that he didn’t rest and immediately began his climb, his clothes shredded, his feet bloodied, his hair caked with dust, but his resolve unshaken. The jagged rocks ripped his soles. Hawks pecked at his cheeks when he climbed past their nest. Violent gusts of wind nearly tore him from the side of the mountain. And still he climbed, from one rock to the next, until at last he stood before the massive gates of the div’s fort.
Who dares? the div’s voice boomed when Baba Ayub threw a stone at the gates.
Baba Ayub stated his name. I come from the village of Maidan Sabz,” he said.
Do you have a wish to die? Surely you must, disturbing me in my home! What is your business?
I have come here to kill you.”
There came a pause from the other side of the gates. And then the gates creaked open, and there stood the div, looming over Baba Ayub in all of its nightmarish glory.
Have you? it said in a voice thick as thunder.
Indeed,” Baba Ayub said. One way or another, one of us dies today.”
It appeared for a moment that the div would swipe Baba Ayub off the ground and finish him with a single bite of its dagger-sharp teeth. But something made the creature hesitate. It narrowed its eyes. Perhaps it was the craziness of the old man’s words. Perhaps it was the man’s appearance, the shredded garb, the bloodied face, the dust that coated him head to toe, the open sores on his skin. Or perhaps it was that, in the old man’s eyes, the div found not even a tinge of fear.
Where did you say you came from?
Maidan Sabz,” said Baba Ayub.
It must be far away, by the look of you, this Maidan Sabz.
I did not come here to palaver. I came here to”
The div raised one clawed hand. Yes. Yes. You’ve come to kill me. I know. But surely I can be granted a few last words before I am slain.
Very well,” said Baba Ayub. But only a few.”
I thank you. The div grinned. May I ask what evil I have committed against you so as to warrant death?
You took from me my youngest son,” Baba Ayub replied. He was in the world the dearest thing to me.”
The div grunted and tapped its chin. I have taken many children from many fathers, it said.
Baba Ayub angrily drew his scythe. Then I shall exact revenge on their behalf as well.”
I must say your courage rouses in me a surge of admiration.
You know nothing of courage,” said Baba Ayub. For courage, there must be something at stake. I come here with nothing to lose.”
You have your life to lose, said the div.
You already took that from me.”
The div grunted again and studied Baba Ayub thoughtfully. After a time, it said, Very well, then. I will grant you your duel. But first I ask that you follow me.
Be quick,” Baba Ayub said, I am out of patience.” But the div was already walking toward a giant hallway, and Baba Ayub had no choice but to follow it. He trailed the div through a labyrinth of hallways, the ceiling of each nearly scraped the clouds, each supported by enormous columns. They passed many stairwells, and chambers big enough to contain all of Maidan Sabz. They walked this way until at last the div led Baba Ayub into an enormous room, at the far end of which was a curtain.
Come closer, the div motioned.
Baba Ayub stood next to the div.
The div pulled the curtains open. Behind it was a glass window. Through the window, Baba Ayub looked down on an enormous garden. Lines of cypress trees bordered the garden, the ground at their base filled with flowers of all colors. There were pools made of blue tiles, and marble terraces, and lush green lawns. Baba Ayub saw beautifully sculpted hedges and water fountains gurgling in the shade of pomegranate trees. In three lifetimes he could not have imagined a place so beautiful.
But what truly brought Baba Ayub to his knees was the sight of children running and playing happily in the garden. They chased one another through the walkways and around trees. They played games of hide-and-seek behind the hedges. Baba Ayub’s eyes searched among the children and at last found what he was looking for. There he was! His son Qais, alive, and more than well. He had grown in height, and his hair was longer than Baba Ayub remembered. He wore a beautiful white shirt over handsome trousers. He laughed happily as he ran after a pair of comrades.
Qais,” Baba Ayub whispered, his breath fogging the glass. And then he screamed his son’s name.
He cannot hear you, the div said. Nor see you.
Baba Ayub jumped up and down, waving his arms and pounding on the glass, until the div pulled the curtains shut once more.
I don’t understand,” Baba Ayub said. I thought . . .”
This is your reward, the div said.
Explain yourself,” Baba Ayub exclaimed.
I forced upon you a test.
A test of your love. It was a harsh challenge, I recognize, and its heavy toll upon you does not escape me. But you passed. This is your reward. And his.
What if I hadn’t chosen,” cried Baba Ayub. What if I had refused you your test?”
Then all your children would have perished, the div said, for they would have been cursed anyway, fathered as they were by a weak man. A coward who would see them all die rather than burden his own conscience. You say you have no courage, but I see it in you. What you did, the burden you agreed to shoulder, took courage. For that, I honor you.
Baba Ayub weakly drew his scythe, but it slipped from his hand and struck the marble floor with a loud clang. His knees buckled, and he had to sit.
Your son does not remember you, the div continued. This is his life now, and you saw for yourself his happiness. He is provided here with the finest food and clothes, with friendship and affection. He receives tutoring in the arts and languages and in the sciences, and in the ways of wisdom and charity. He wants for nothing. Someday, when he is a man, he may choose to leave, and he shall be free to do so. I suspect he will touch many lives with his kindness and bring happiness to those trapped in sorrow.
I want to see him,” Baba Ayub said. I want to take him home.”
Baba Ayub looked up at the div.
The creature moved to a cabinet that sat near the curtains and removed from one of its drawers an hourglass. Do you know what that is, Abdullah, an hourglass? You do. Good. Well, the div took the hourglass, flipped it over, and placed it at Baba Ayub’s feet.
I will allow you to take him home with you, the div said. If you choose to, he can never return here. If you choose not to, you can never return here. When all the sand has poured, I will ask for your decision.
And with that, the div exited the chamber, leaving Baba Ayub with yet another painful choice to make.
I will take him home, Baba Ayub thought immediately. This was what he desired the most, with every fiber of his being. Hadn’t he pictured this in a thousand dreams? To hold little Qais again, to kiss his cheek and feel the softness of his small hands in his own? And yet . . . If he took him home, what sort of life awaited Qais in Maidan Sabz? The hard life of a peasant at best, like his own, and little more. That is, if Qais didn’t die from the droughts like so many of the village’s children had. Could you forgive yourself, then, Baba Ayub asked himself, knowing that you plucked him, for your own selfish reasons, from a life of luxury and opportunity? On the other hand, if he left Qais behind, how could he bear it, knowing that his boy was alive, to know his whereabouts and yet be forbidden to see him? How could he bear it? Baba Ayub wept. He grew so despondent that he lifted the hourglass and hurled it at the wall, where it crashed into a thousand pieces and its fine sand spilled all over the floor.
The div reentered the room and found Baba Ayub standing over the broken glass, his shoulders slumped.
You are a cruel beast,” Baba Ayub said.
When you have lived as long as I have, the div replied, you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color. Have you made your choice?
Baba Ayub dried his tears, picked up his scythe, and tied it around his waist. He slowly walked toward the door, his head hung low.
You are a good father, the div said, as Baba Ayub passed him by.
Would that you roast in the fires of Hell for what you have done to me,” Baba Ayub said wearily.
He exited the room and was heading down the hallway when the div called after him.
Take this, the div said. The creature handed Baba Ayub a small glass flask containing a dark liquid. Drink this upon your journey home. Farewell.
Baba Ayub took the flask and left without saying another word.
Many days later, his wife was sitting at the edge of the family’s field, looking out for him much as Baba Ayub had sat there hoping to see Qais. With each passing day, her hopes for his return diminished. Already people in the village were speaking of Baba Ayub in the past tense. One day she was sitting on the dirt yet again, a prayer playing upon her lips, when she saw a thin figure approaching Maidan Sabz from the direction of the mountains. At first she took him for a lost dervish, a thin man with threadbare rags for clothing, hollow eyes and sunken temples, and it wasn’t until he came closer yet that she recognized her husband. Her heart leapt with joy and she cried out with relief.
After he had washed, and after he had been given water to drink and food to eat, Baba Ayub lay in his house as villagers circled around him and asked him question after question.
Where did you go, Baba Ayub?
What did you see?
What happened to you?
Baba Ayub couldn’t answer them, because he didn’t recall what had happened to him. He remembered nothing of his voyage, of climbing the div’s mountain, of speaking to the div, of the great palace, or the big room with the curtains. It was as though he had woken from an already forgotten dream. He didn’t remember the secret garden, the children, and, most of all, he didn’t remember seeing his son Qais playing among the trees with his friends. In fact, when someone mentioned Qais’s name, Baba Ayub blinked with puzzlement. Who? he said. He didn’t recall that he had ever had a son named Qais.
Do you understand, Abdullah, how this was an act of mercy? The potion that erased these memories? It was Baba Ayub’s reward for passing the div’s second test.
That spring, the skies at last broke open over Maidan Sabz. What came down was not the soft drizzle of years past but a great, great rainfall. Fat rain fell from the sky, and the village rose thirstily to meet it. All day, water drummed upon the roofs of Maidan Sabz and drowned all other sound from the world. Heavy, swollen raindrops rolled from the tips of leaves. The wells filled and the river rose. The hills to the east turned green. Wildflowers bloomed, and for the first time in many years children played on grass and cows grazed. Everyone rejoiced.
When the rains stopped, the village had some work to do. Several mud walls had melted, and a few of the roofs sagged, and entire sections of farmland had turned into swamps. But after the misery of the devastating drought, the people of Maidan Sabz weren’t about to complain. Walls were reerected, roofs repaired, and irrigation canals drained. That fall, Baba Ayub produced the most plentiful crop of pistachios of his life, and, indeed, the year after that, and the one following, his crops increased in both size and quality. In the great cities where he sold his goods, Baba Ayub sat proudly behind pyramids of his pistachios and beamed like the happiest man who walked the earth. No drought ever came to Maidan Sabz again.
There is little more to say, Abdullah. You may ask, though, did a young handsome man riding a horse ever pass through the village on his way to great adventures? Did he perhaps stop for a drink of water, of which the village had plenty now, and did he sit to break bread with the villagers, perhaps with Baba Ayub himself? I can’t tell you, boy. What I can say is that Baba Ayub grew to be a very old man indeed. I can tell you that he saw his children married, as he had always wished, and I can say that his children bore him many children of their own, every one of whom brought Baba Ayub great happiness.
And I can also tell you that some nights, for no particular reason, Baba Ayub couldn’t sleep. Though he was a very old man now, he still had the use of his legs so long as he held a cane. And so on those sleepless nights he slipped from bed without waking his wife, fetched his cane, and left the house. He walked in the dark, his cane tapping before him, the night breeze stroking his face. There was a flat rock at the edge of his field and he lowered himself upon it. He often sat there for an hour or more, gazing up at the stars, the clouds floating past the moon. He thought about his long life and gave thanks for all the bounty and joy that he had been given. To want more, to wish for yet more, he knew, would be petty. He sighed happily, and listened to the wind sweeping down from the mountains, to the chirping of night birds.
But every once in a while, he thought he heard another noise among these. It was always the same, the high-pitched jingle of a bell. He didn’t understand why he should hear such a noise, alone in the dark, all the sheep and goats sleeping. Sometimes he told himself he had heard no such thing, and sometimes he was so convinced to the contrary that he called out into the darkness, Is someone out there? Who is there? Show yourself.” But no reply ever came. Baba Ayub didn’t understand. Just as he didn’t understand why a wave of something, something like the tail end of a sad dream, always swept through him whenever he heard the jingling, surprising him each time like an unexpected gust of wind. But then it passed, as all things do. It passed.
So there it is, boy. That’s the end of it. I have nothing more to say. And now it really is late and I am tired, and your sister and I have to wake at dawn. So blow out your candle. Lay your head down and close your eyes. Sleep well, boy. We’ll say our good-byes in the morning.
Father had never before hit Abdullah. So when he did, when he whacked the side of his head, just above the earhard, suddenly, and with an open palmtears of surprise sprung to Abdullah’s eyes. He quickly blinked them back.
Go home,” Father said through gritted teeth.
From up ahead, Abdullah heard Pari burst into sobs.
Then Father hit him again, harder, and this time across the left cheek. Abdullah’s head snapped sideways. His face burned, and more tears leaked. His left ear rang. Father stooped down, leaning in so close his dark creased face eclipsed the desert and the mountains and the sky altogether.
I told you to go home, boy,” he said with a pained look.
Abdullah didn’t make a sound. He swallowed hard and squinted at his father, blinking into the face shading his eyes from the sun.
From the small red wagon up ahead, Pari cried out his name, her voice high, shaking with apprehension. Abollah!”
Father held him with a cutting look, and trudged back to the wagon. From its bed, Pari reached for Abdullah with outstretched hands. Abdullah allowed them a head start. Then he wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands, and followed.
A little while later, Father threw a rock at him, the way children in Shadbagh would do to Pari’s dog, Shujaexcept they meant to hit Shuja, to hurt him. Father’s rock fell harmlessly a few feet from Abdullah. He waited, and when Father and Pari got moving again Abdullah tailed them once more.
Finally, with the sun just past its peak, Father pulled up again. He turned back in Abdullah’s direction, seemed to consider, and motioned with his hand.
You won’t give up,” he said.
From the bed of the wagon, Pari’s hand quickly slipped into Abdullah’s. She was looking up at him, her eyes liquid, and she was smiling her gap-toothed smile like no bad thing would ever befall her so long as he stood at her side. He closed his fingers around her hand, the way he did each night when he and his little sister slept in their cot, their skulls touching, their legs tangled.
You were supposed to stay home,” Father said. With your mother and Iqbal. Like I told you to.”
Abdullah thought, She’s your wife. My mother, we buried. But he knew to stifle those words before they came up and out.
All right, then. Come,” Father said. But there won’t be any crying. You hear me?”
I’m warning you. I won’t have it.”
Pari grinned up at Abdullah, and he looked down at her pale eyes and pink round cheeks and grinned back.
From then on, he walked beside the wagon as it jostled along on the pitted desert floor, holding Pari’s hand. They traded furtive happy glances, brother and sister, but said little for fear of souring Father’s mood and spoiling their good fortune. For long stretches they were alone, the three of them, nothing and no one in sight but the deep copper gorges and vast sandstone cliffs. The desert unrolled ahead of them, open and wide, as though it had been created for them and them alone, the air still, blazing hot, the sky high and blue. Rocks shimmered on the cracked floor. The only sounds Abdullah heard were his own breathing and the rhythmic creaking of the wheels as Father pulled the red wagon north.
A while later, they stopped to rest in the shadow of a boulder. With a groan, Father dropped the handle to the ground. He winced as he arched his back, his face raised to the sun.
How much longer to Kabul?” Abdullah asked.
Father looked down at them. His name was Saboor. He was dark-skinned and had a hard face, angular and bony, nose curved like a desert hawk’s beak, eyes set deep in his skull. Father was thin as a reed, but a lifetime of work had made his muscles powerful, tightly wound like rattan strips around the arm of a wicker chair. Tomorrow afternoon,” he said, lifting the cowhide water bag to his lips. If we make good time.” He took a long swallow, his Adam’s apple rising and dropping.
Why didn’t Uncle Nabi drive us?” Abdullah said. He has a car.”
Father rolled his eyes toward him.
Then we wouldn’t have had to walk all this way.”
Father didn’t say anything. He took off his soot-stained skullcap and wiped sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt.
Pari’s finger shot from the wagon. Look, Abollah!” she cried excitedly. Another one.”
Abdullah followed her finger, traced it to a spot in the shadow of the boulder where a feather lay, long, gray, like charcoal after it has burned. Abdullah walked over to it and picked it by the stem. He blew the flecks of dust off it. A falcon, he thought, turning it over. Maybe a dove, or a desert lark. He’d seen a number of those already that day. No, a falcon. He blew on it again and handed it to Pari, who happily snatched it from him.
Back home, in Shadbagh, Pari kept underneath her pillow an old tin tea box Abdullah had given her. It had a rusty latch, and on the lid was a bearded Indian man, wearing a turban and a long red tunic, holding up a steaming cup of tea with both hands. Inside the box were all of the feathers that Pari collected. They were her most cherished belongings. Deep green and dense burgundy rooster feathers; a white tail feather from a dove; a sparrow feather, dust brown, dotted with dark blotches; and the one of which Pari was proudest, an iridescent green peacock feather with a beautiful large eye at the tip.
This last was a gift Abdullah had given her two months earlier. He had heard of a boy from another village whose family owned a peacock. One day when Father was away digging ditches in a town south of Shadbagh, Abdullah walked to this other village, found the boy, and asked him for a feather from the bird. Negotiation ensued, at the end of which Abdullah agreed to trade his shoes for the feather. By the time he returned to Shadbagh, peacock feather tucked in the waist of his trousers beneath his shirt, his heels had split open and left bloody smudges on the ground. Thorns and splinters had burrowed into the skin of his soles. Every step sent barbs of pain shooting through his feet.
When he arrived home, he found his stepmother, Parwana, outside the hut, hunched before the tandoor, making the daily naan. He quickly ducked behind the giant oak tree near their home and waited for her to finish. Peeking around the trunk, he watched her work, a thick-shouldered woman with long arms, rough-skinned hands, and stubby fingers; a woman with a puffed, rounded face who possessed none of the grace of the butterfly she’d been named after.
Abdullah wished he could love her as he had his own mother. Mother, who had bled to death giving birth to Pari three and a half years earlier when Abdullah was seven. Mother, whose face was all but lost to him now. Mother, who cupped his head in both palms and held it to her chest and stroked his cheek every night before sleep and sang him a lullaby:
I found a sad little fairy
Beneath the shade of a paper tree.
I know a sad little fairy
Who was blown away by the wind one night.
He wished he could love his new mother in the same way. And perhaps Parwana, he thought, secretly wished the same, that she could love him. The way she did Iqbal, her one-year-old son, whose face she always kissed, whose every cough and sneeze she fretted over. Or the way she had loved her first baby, Omar. She had adored him. But he had died of the cold two winters ago. He was two weeks old. Parwana and Father had barely named him. He was one of three babies that brutal winter had taken in Shadbagh. Abdullah remembered Parwana clutching Omar’s swaddled little corpse, her fits of grief. He remembered the day they buried him up on the hill, a tiny mound on frozen ground, beneath a pewter sky, Mullah Shekib saying the prayers, the wind spraying grits of snow and ice into everyone’s eyes.
Abdullah suspected Parwana would be furious later to learn that he had traded his only pair of shoes for a peacock feather. Father had labored hard under the sun to pay for them. She would let him have it when she found out. She might even hit him, Abdullah thought. She had struck him a few times before. She had strong, heavy handsfrom all those years of lifting her invalid sister, Abdullah imaginedand they knew how to swing a broomstick or land a well-aimed slap.
But to her credit, Parwana did not seem to derive any satisfaction from hitting him. Nor was she incapable of tenderness toward her stepchildren. There was the time she had sewn Pari a silver-and-green dress from a roll of fabric Father had brought from Kabul. The time she had taught Abdullah, with surprising patience, how to crack two eggs simultaneously without breaking the yolks. And the time she had shown them how to twist and turn husks of corn into little dolls, the way she had with her own sister when they were little. She showed them how to fashion dresses for the dolls out of little torn strips of cloth.
But these were gestures, Abdullah knew, acts of duty, drawn from a well far shallower than the one she reached into for Iqbal. If one night their house caught fire, Abdullah knew without doubt which child Parwana would grab rushing out. She would not think twice. In the end, it came down to a simple thing: They weren’t her children, he and Pari. Most people loved their own. It couldn’t be helped that he and his sister didn’t belong to her. They were another woman’s leftovers.
He waited for Parwana to take the bread inside, then watched as she reemerged from the hut, carrying Iqbal on one arm and a load of laundry under the other. He watched her amble in the direction of the stream and waited until she was out of sight before he sneaked into the house, his soles throbbing each time they met the ground. Inside, he sat down and slipped on his old plastic sandals, the only other footwear he owned. Abdullah knew it wasn’t a sensible thing he had done. But when he knelt beside Pari, gently shook her awake from a nap, and produced the feather from behind his back like a magician, it was all worth itworth it for the way her face broke open with surprise first, then delight; for the way she stamped his cheeks with kisses; for how she cackled when he tickled her chin with the soft end of the featherand suddenly his feet didn’t hurt at all.
Father wiped his face with his sleeve once more. They took turns drinking from the water bag. When they were done, Father said, You’re tired, boy.”
No,” Abdullah said, though he was. He was exhausted. And his feet hurt. It wasn’t easy crossing a desert in sandals.
Father said, Climb in.”
In the wagon, Abdullah sat behind Pari, his back against the wooden slat sides, the little knobs of his sister’s spine pressing against his belly and chest bone. As Father dragged them forward, Abdullah stared at the sky, the mountains, the rows upon rows of closely packed, rounded hills, soft in the distance. He watched his father’s back as he pulled them, his head low, his feet kicking up little puffs of red-brown sand. A caravan of Kuchi nomads passed them by, a dusty procession of jingling bells and groaning camels, and a woman with kohl-rimmed eyes and hair the color of wheat smiled at Abdullah.
Her hair reminded Abdullah of his mother’s, and he ached for her all over again, for her gentleness, her inborn happiness, her bewilderment at people’s cruelty. He remembered her hiccuping laughter, and the timid way she sometimes tilted her head. His mother had been delicate, both in stature and nature, a wispy, slim-waisted woman with a puff of hair always spilling from under her scarf. He used to wonder how such a frail little body could house so much joy, so much goodness. It couldn’t. It spilled out of her, came pouring out her eyes. Father was different. Father had hardness in him. His eyes looked out on the same world as Mother’s had, and saw only indifference. Endless toil. Father’s world was unsparing. Nothing good came free. Even love. You paid for all things. And if you were poor, suffering was your currency. Abdullah looked down at the scabby parting in his little sister’s hair, at her narrow wrist hanging over the side of the wagon, and he knew that in their mother’s dying, something of her had passed to Pari. Something of her cheerful devotion, her guilelessness, her unabashed hopefulness. Pari was the only person in the world who would never, could never, hurt him. Some days, Abdullah felt she was the only true family he had.
The day’s colors slowly dissolved into gray, and the distant mountain peaks became opaque silhouettes of crouching giants. Earlier in the day, they had passed by several villages, most of them far-flung and dusty just like Shadbagh. Small square-shaped homes made of baked mud, sometimes raised into the side of a mountain and sometimes not, ribbons of smoke rising from their roofs. Wash lines, women squatting by cooking fires. A few poplar trees, a few chickens, a handful of cows and goats, and always a mosque. The last village they passed sat adjacent to a poppy field, where an old man working the pods waved at them. He shouted something Abdullah couldn’t hear. Father waved back.
Pari said, Abollah?”
Do you think Shuja is sad?”
I think he’s fine.”
No one will hurt him?”
He’s a big dog, Pari. He can defend himself.”
Shuja was a big dog. Father said he must have been a fighting dog at one point because someone had severed his ears and his tail. Whether he could, or would, defend himself was another matter. When the stray first turned up in Shadbagh, kids had hurled rocks at him, poked him with tree branches or rusted bicycle-wheel spokes. Shuja never fought back. With time, the village’s kids grew tired of tormenting him and left him alone, though Shuja’s demeanor was still cautious, suspicious, as if he’d not forgotten their past unkindness toward him.
He avoided everyone in Shadbagh but Pari. It was for Pari that Shuja lost all composure. His love for her was vast and unclouded. She was his universe. In the mornings, when he saw Pari stepping out of the house, Shuja sprang up, and his entire body shivered. The stump of his mutilated tail wagged wildly, and he tap-danced like he was treading on hot coal. He pranced happy circles around her. All day the dog shadowed Pari, sniffing at her heels, and at night, when they parted ways, he lay outside the door, forlorn, waiting for morning.
When I grow up, will I live with you?”
Abdullah watched the orange sun dropping low, nudging the horizon. If you want. But you won’t want to.”
Yes I will!”
You’ll want a house of your own.”
But we can be neighbors.”
You won’t live far.”
What if you get sick of me?”
She jabbed his side with her elbow. I wouldn’t!”
Abdullah grinned to himself. All right, fine.”
You’ll be close by.”
Until we’re old.”
Yes, for always.”
From the front of the wagon, she turned to look at him. Do you promise, Abollah?”
For always and always.”
Later, Father hoisted Pari up on his back, and Abdullah was in the rear, pulling the empty wagon. As they walked, he fell into a thoughtless trance. He was aware only of the rise and fall of his own knees, of the sweat beads trickling down from the edge of his skullcap. Pari’s small feet bouncing against Father’s hips. Aware only of the shadow of his father and sister lengthening on the gray desert floor, pulling away from him if he slowed down.
It was Uncle Nabi who had found this latest job for FatherUncle Nabi was Parwana’s older brother and so he was really Abdullah’s stepuncle. Uncle Nabi was a cook and a chauffeur in Kabul. Once a month, he drove from Kabul to visit them in Shadbagh, his arrival announced by a staccato of honks and the hollering of a horde of village kids who chased the big blue car with the tan top and shiny rims. They slapped the fender and windows until he killed the engine and emerged grinning from the car, handsome Uncle Nabi with the long sideburns and wavy black hair combed back from his forehead, dressed in his oversize olive-colored suit with white dress shirt and brown loafers. Everyone came out to see him because he drove a car, though it belonged to his employer, and because he wore a suit and worked in the big city, Kabul.
It was on his last visit that Uncle Nabi had told Father about the job. The wealthy people he worked for were building an addition to their homea small guesthouse in the backyard, complete with a bathroom, separate from the main buildingand Uncle Nabi had suggested they hire Father, who knew his way around a construction site. He said the job would pay well and take a month to complete, give or take.
Father did know his way around a construction site. He’d worked in enough of them. As long as Abdullah could remember, Father was out searching for work, knocking on doors for a day’s labor. He had overheard Father one time tell the village elder, Mullah Shekib, If I had been born an animal, Mullah Sahib, I swear I would have come out a mule. Sometimes Father took Abdullah along on his jobs. They had picked apples once in a town that was a full day’s walk away from Shadbagh. Abdullah remembered his father mounted on the ladder until sundown, his hunched shoulders, the creased back of his neck burning in the sun, the raw skin of his forearms, his thick fingers twisting and turning apples one at a time. They had made bricks for a mosque in another town. Father had shown Abdullah how to collect the good soil, the deep lighter-colored stuff. They had sifted the dirt together, added straw, and Father had patiently taught him to titrate the water so the mixture didn’t turn runny. Over the last year, Father had lugged stones. He had shoveled dirt, tried his hand at plowing fields. He had worked on a road crew laying down asphalt.
Abdullah knew that Father blamed himself for Omar. If he had found more work, or better work, he could have bought the baby better winter clothes, heavier blankets, maybe even a proper stove to warm the house. This was what Father thought. He hadn’t said a word to Abdullah about Omar since the burial, but Abdullah knew.
He remembered seeing Father once, some days after Omar died, standing alone beneath the giant oak tree. The oak towered over everything in Shadbagh and was the oldest living thing in the village. Father said it wouldn’t surprise him if it had witnessed the emperor Babur marching his army to capture Kabul. He said he had spent half his childhood in the shade of its massive crown or climbing its sweeping boughs. His own father, Abdullah’s grandfather, had tied long ropes to one of the thick boughs and suspended a swing, a contraption that had survived countless harsh seasons and the old man himself. Father said he used to take turns with Parwana and her sister, Masooma, on this swing when they were all children.
But, these days, Father was always too exhausted from work when Pari pulled on his sleeve and asked him to make her fly on the swing.
Maybe tomorrow, Pari.
Just for a while, Baba. Please get up.
Not now. Another time.
She would give up in the end, release his sleeve, and walk away resigned. Sometimes Father’s narrow face collapsed in on itself as he watched her go. He would roll over in his cot, then pull up the quilt and shut his weary eyes.
Abdullah could not picture that Father had once swung on a swing. He could not imagine that Father had once been a boy, like him. A boy. Carefree, light on his feet. Running headlong into the open fields with his playmates. Father, whose hands were scarred, whose face was crosshatched with deep lines of weariness. Father, who might as well have been born with shovel in hand and mud under his nails.
They had to sleep in the desert that night. They ate bread and the last of the boiled potatoes Parwana had packed for them. Father made a fire and set a kettle on the flames for tea.
Abdullah lay beside the fire, curled beneath the wool blanket behind Pari, the soles of her cold feet pressed against him.
Father bent over the flames and lit a cigarette.
Abdullah rolled to his back, and Pari adjusted, fitting her cheek into the familiar nook beneath his collarbone. He breathed in the coppery smell of desert dust and looked up at a sky thick with stars like ice crystals, flashing and flickering. A delicate crescent moon cradled the dim ghostly outline of its full self.
Abdullah thought back to two winters ago, everything plunged into darkness, the wind coming in around the door, whistling slow and long and loud, and whistling from every little crack in the ceiling. Outside, the village’s features obliterated by snow. The nights long and starless, daytime brief, gloomy, the sun rarely out, and then only to make a cameo appearance before it vanished. He remembered Omar’s labored cries, then his silence, then Father grimly carving a wooden board with a sickle moon, just like the one above them now, pounding the board into the hard ground burnt with frost at the head of the small grave.
And now autumn’s end was in sight once more. Winter was already lurking around the corner, though neither Father nor Parwana spoke about it, as though saying the word might hasten its arrival.
Father?” he said.
From the other side of the fire, Father gave a soft grunt.
Will you allow me to help you? Build the guesthouse, I mean.”
Smoke spiraled up from Father’s cigarette. He was staring off into the darkness.
Father shifted on the rock where he was seated. I suppose you could help mix mortar,” he said.
I don’t know how.”
I’ll show you. You’ll learn.”
What about me?” Pari said.
You?” Father said slowly. He took a drag of his cigarette and poked at the fire with a stick. Scattered little sparks went dancing up into the blackness. You’ll be in charge of the water. Make sure we never go thirsty. Because a man can’t work if he’s thirsty.”
Pari was quiet.
Father’s right,” Abdullah said. He sensed Pari wanted to get her hands dirty, climb down into the mud, and that she was disappointed with the task Father had assigned her. Without you fetching us water, we’ll never get the guesthouse built.”
Father slid the stick beneath the handle of the teakettle and lifted it from the fire. He set it aside to cool.
I’ll tell you what,” he said. You show me you can handle the water job and I’ll find you something else to do.”
Pari tilted up her chin and looked at Abdullah, her face lit up with a gapped smile.
He remembered when she was a baby, when she would sleep atop his chest, and he would open his eyes sometimes in the middle of the night and find her grinning silently at him with this same expression.
He was the one raising her. It was true. Even though he was still a child himself. Ten years old. When Pari was an infant, it was he she had awakened at night with her squeaks and mutters, he who had walked and bounced her in the dark. He had changed her soiled diapers. He had been the one to give Pari her baths. It wasn’t Father’s job to dohe was a manand, besides, he was always too exhausted from work. And Parwana, already pregnant with Omar, was slow to rouse herself to Pari’s needs. She never had the patience or the energy. Thus the care had fallen on Abdullah, but he didn’t mind at all. He did it gladly. He loved the fact that he was the one to help with her first step, to gasp at her first uttered word. This was his purpose, he believed, the reason God had made him, so he would be there to take care of Pari when He took away their mother.
Baba,” Pari said. Tell a story.”
It’s getting late,” Father said.
Father was a closed-off man by nature. He rarely uttered more than two consecutive sentences at any time. But on occasion, for reasons unknown to Abdullah, something in Father unlocked and stories suddenly came spilling out. Sometimes he had Abdullah and Pari sit raptly before him, as Parwana banged pots in the kitchen, and told them stories his grandmother had passed on to him when he had been a boy, sending them off to lands populated by sultans andjinns and malevolent divs and wise dervishes. Other times, he made up stories. He made them up on the spot, his tales unmasking a capacity for imagination and dream that always surprised Abdullah. Father never felt more present to Abdullah, more vibrant, revealed, more truthful, than when he told his stories, as though the tales were pinholes into his opaque, inscrutable world.
But Abdullah could tell from the expression on Father’s face that there would be no story tonight.
It’s late,” Father said again. He lifted the kettle with the edge of the shawl draping his shoulders and poured himself a cup of tea. He blew the steam and took a sip, his face glowing orange in the flames. Time to sleep. Long day tomorrow.”
Abdullah pulled the blanket over their heads. Underneath, he sang into the nape of Pari’s neck:
I found a sad little fairy
Beneath the shade of a paper tree.
Pari, already sleepy, sluggishly sang her verse.
I know a sad little fairy
Who was blown away by the wind one night.
Almost instantly, she was snoring.
Abdullah awoke later and found Father gone. He sat up in a fright. The fire was all but dead, nothing left of it now but a few crimson speckles of ember. Abdullah’s gaze darted left, then right, but his eyes could penetrate nothing in the dark, at once vast and smothering. He felt his face going white. Heart sprinting, he cocked his ear, held his breath.
Father?” he whispered.
Panic began to mushroom deep in his chest. He sat perfectly still, his body erect and tense, and listened for a long time. He heard nothing. They were alone, he and Pari, the dark closing in around them. They had been abandoned. Father had abandoned them. Abdullah felt the true vastness of the desert, and the world, for the first time. How easily a person could lose his way in it. No one to help, no one to show the way. Then a worse thought wormed its way into his head. Father was dead. Someone had slit his throat. Bandits. They had killed him, and now they were closing in on him and Pari, taking their time, relishing it, making a game of it.
Father?” he called out again, his voice shrill this time.
No reply came.
He called for his father again and again, a claw tightening itself around his windpipe. He lost track of how many times and for how long he called for his father but no answer came forth from the dark. He pictured faces, hidden in the mountains bulging from the earth, watching, grinning down at him and Pari with malice. Panic seized him, shriveled up his innards. He began to shiver, and mewl under his breath. He felt himself on the cusp of screaming.
Then, footsteps. A shape materialized from the dark.
I thought you’d gone,” Abdullah said shakily.
Father sat down by the remains of the fire.
Where did you go?”
Go to sleep, boy.”
You wouldn’t leave us. You wouldn’t do that, Father.”
Father looked at him, but in the dark his face dissolved into an expression Abdullah couldn’t make out. You’re going to wake your sister.”
Don’t leave us.”
That’s enough of that now.”
Abdullah lay down again, his sister clutched tightly in his arms, his heart battering in his throat.
Abdullah had never been to Kabul. What he knew about Kabul came from stories Uncle Nabi had told him. He had visited a few smaller towns on jobs with Father, but never a real city, and certainly nothing Uncle Nabi had said could have prepared him for the hustle and bustle of the biggest and busiest city of them all. Everywhere, he saw traffic lights, and teahouses, and restaurants, and glass-fronted shops with bright multicolored signs. Cars rattling noisily down the crowded streets, hooting, darting narrowly among buses, pedestrians, and bicycles. Horse-drawn garis jingled up and down boulevards, their iron-rimmed wheels bouncing on the road. The sidewalks he walked with Pari and Father were crowded with cigarette and chewing-gum sellers, magazine stands, blacksmiths pounding horseshoes. At intersections, traffic policemen in ill-fitting uniforms blew their whistles and made authoritative gestures that no one seemed to heed.
Pari on his lap, Abdullah sat on a sidewalk bench near a butcher’s shop, sharing a tin plate of baked beans and cilantro chutney that Father had bought them from a street stall.
Look, Abollah,” Pari said, pointing to a shop across the street. In its window stood a young woman dressed in a beautifully embroidered green dress with small mirrors and beads. She wore a long matching scarf, with silver jewelry and deep red trousers. She stood perfectly still, gazing indifferently at passersby without once blinking. She didn’t move so much as a finger as Abdullah and Pari finished their beans, and remained motionless after that too. Up the block, Abdullah saw a huge poster hanging from the façade of a tall building. It showed a young, pretty Indian woman in a tulip field, standing in a downpour of rain, ducking playfully behind some kind of bungalow. She was grinning shyly, a wet sari hugging her curves. Abdullah wondered if this was what Uncle Nabi had called a cinema, where people went to watch films, and hoped that in the coming month Uncle Nabi would take him and Pari to see a film. He grinned at the thought.
It was just after the call to prayer blared from a blue-tiled mosque up the street that Abdullah saw Uncle Nabi pull up to the curb. Uncle Nabi swung out of the driver’s side, dressed in his olive suit, his door narrowly missing a young bicycle rider in a chapan, who swerved just in time.
Uncle Nabi hurried around the front of the car and embraced Father. When he saw Abdullah and Pari, his face erupted in a big grin. He stooped to be on the same level as them.
How do you like Kabul, kids?”
It’s very loud,” Pari said, and Uncle Nabi laughed.
That it is. Come on, climb in. You’ll see a lot more of it from the car. Wipe your feet before you get in. Saboor, you take the front.”
The backseat was cool, hard, and light blue to match the exterior. Abdullah slid across it to the window behind the driver’s seat and helped Pari onto his lap. He noticed the envious way bystanders looked at the car. Pari swiveled her head toward him, and they exchanged a grin.
They watched the city stream by as Uncle Nabi drove. He said he would take a longer route so they could see a little of Kabul. He pointed to a ridge called Tapa Maranjan and to the dome-shaped mausoleum atop it overlooking the city. He said Shah, father to King Zahir Shah, was buried there. He showed them the Bala Hissar fort atop the Koh-e-Shirdawaza mountain, which he said the British had used during their second war against Afghanistan.
What’s that, Uncle Nabi?” Abdullah tapped on the window, pointing to a big rectangular yellow building.
That’s Silo. It’s the new bread factory.” Uncle Nabi drove with one hand and craned back to wink at him. Compliments of our friends the Russians.”
A factory that makes bread, Abdullah marveled, picturing Parwana back in Shadbagh slapping slabs of dough against the sides of their mud tandoor.
Eventually, Uncle Nabi turned onto a clean, wide street lined with regularly spaced cypress trees. The homes here were elegant, and bigger than any Abdullah had ever seen. They were white, yellow, light blue. Most had a couple stories, were surrounded by high walls and closed off by double metal gates. Abdullah spotted several cars like Uncle Nabi’s parked along the street.
Uncle Nabi pulled up to a driveway decked by a row of neatly trimmed bushes. Beyond the driveway, the white-walled, two-story home loomed impossibly large.
Your house is so big,” Pari breathed, eyes rolling wide with wonderment.
Uncle Nabi’s head rolled back on his shoulders as he laughed. That would be something. No, this is my employers’ home. You’re about to meet them. Be on your best manners, now.”
The house proved even more impressive once Uncle Nabi led Abdullah, Pari, and Father inside. Abdullah estimated its size big enough to contain at least half the homes in Shadbagh. He felt as though he had stepped into the div’s palace. The garden, at the far back, was beautifully landscaped, with rows of flowers in all colors, neatly trimmed, with knee-high bushes and peppered with fruit treesAbdullah recognized cherry, apple, apricot, and pomegranate. A roofed porch led into the garden from the houseUncle Nabi said it was called a verandaand was enclosed by a low railing covered with webs of green vines. On their way to the room where Mr. and Mrs. Wahdati awaited their arrival, Abdullah spied a bathroom with the porcelain toilet Uncle Nabi had told them about, as well as a glittering sink with bronze-colored faucets. Abdullah, who spent hours every week lugging buckets of water from Shadbagh’s communal well, marveled at a life where water was just a twist of the hand away.
Now they sat on a bulky couch with gold tassels, Abdullah, Pari, and Father. The soft cushions at their backs were dotted with tiny octagonal mirrors. Across from the couch, a single painting took up most of the wall. It showed an elderly stone carver, bent over his workbench, pounding a block of stone with a mallet. Pleated burgundy drapes dressed the wide windows that opened onto a balcony with a waist-high iron railing. Everything in the room was polished, free of dust.
Abdullah had never in his life been so conscious of his own dirtiness.