puffyboa.xyz Speedreed

Speedreed

THE

KITE

RUNNER

by

KHALED

HOSSEINI

Published

2003

-December

2001_

I

became

what

I

am

today

at

the

age

of

twelve,

on

a

frigid

overcast

day

in

the

winter

of

1975.

1

remember

the

precise

moment,

crouching

behind

a

crumbling

mud

wall,

peeking

into

the

alley

near

the

frozen

creek.

That

was

a

long

time

ago,

but

it's

wrong

what

they

say

about

the

past,

I've

learned,

about

how

you

can

bury

it.

Because

the

past

claws

its

way

out.

Looking

back

now,

I

realize

I

have

been

peeking

into

that

deserted

alley

for

the

last

twenty-six

years.

One

day

last

summer,

my

friend

Rahim

Khan

called

from

Pakistan.

He

asked

me

to

come

see

him.

Standing

in

the

kitchen

with

the

receiver

to

my

ear,

I

knew

it

wasn't

just

Rahim

Khan

on

the

line.

It

was

my

past

of

unatoned**

sins.

After

I

hung

up,

I

went

for

a

walk

along

Spreckels

Lake

on

the

northern

edge

of

Golden

Gate

Park.

The

early-afternoon

sun

sparkled

on

the

water

where

dozens

of

miniature

boats

sailed,

propelled

by

a

crisp

breeze.

Then

I

glanced

up

and

saw

a

pair

of

kites,

red

with

long

blue

tails,

soaring

in

the

sky.

They

danced

high

above

the

trees

on

the

west

end

of

the

park,

over

the

windmills,

floating

side

by

side

like

a

pair

of

eyes

looking

down

on

San

Francisco,

the

city

I

now

call

home.

And

suddenly

Hassan's

voice

whispered

in

my

head:

_For

you,

a

thousand

times

over._

Hassan

the

harelipped

kite

runner.

I

sat

on

a

park

bench

near

a

willow

tree.

I

thought

about

something

Rahim

Khan

said

just

before

he

hung

up,

almost

as

an

after

thought.

-There

is

a

way

to

be

good

again.-

1

looked

up

at

those

twin

kites.

I

thought

about

Hassan.

Thought

about

Baba.

Ali.

Kabul.

I

thought

of

the

life

I

had

lived

until

the

winter

of

1975

came

and

changed

everything.

And

made

me

what

I

am

today.

TWO

When

we

were

children,

Hassan

and

I

used

to

climb

the

poplar

trees

in

the

driveway

of

my

father's

house

and

annoy

our

neighbors

by

reflecting

sunlight

into

their

homes

with

a

shard

of

mirror.

We

would

sit

across

from

each

other

on

a

pair

of

high

branches,

our

naked

feet

dangling,

our

trouser

pockets

filled

with

dried

mulberries

and

walnuts.

We

took

turns

with

the

mirror

as

we

ate

mulberries,

pelted

each

other

with

them,

giggling,

laughing;

I

can

still

see

Hassan

up

on

that

tree,

sunlight

flickering

through

the

leaves

on

his

almost

perfectly

round

face,

a

face

like

a

Chinese

doll

chiseled

from

hardwood:

his

flat,

broad

nose

and

slanting,

narrow

eyes

like

bamboo

leaves,

eyes

that

looked,

depending

on

the

light,

gold,

green,

even

sapphire

I

can

still

see

his

tiny

low-set

ears

and

that

pointed

stub

of

a

chin,

a

meaty

appendage

that

looked

like

it

was

added

as

a

mere

afterthought.

And

the

cleft

lip,

just

left

of

midline,

where

the

Chinese

doll

maker's

instrument

may

have

slipped;

or

perhaps

he

had

simply

grown

tired

and

careless.

Sometimes,

up

in

those

trees,

I

talked

Hassan

into

firing

walnuts

with

his

slingshot

at

the

neighbor's

one-eyed

German

shepherd.

Hassan

never

wanted

to,

but

if

I

asked,

_really_

asked,

he

wouldn't

deny

me.

Hassan

never

denied

me

anything.

And

he

was

deadly

with

his

slingshot.

Hassan's

father,

Ali,

used

to

catch

us

and

get

mad,

or

as

mad

as

someone

as

gentle

as

Ali

could

ever

get.

He

would

wag

his

finger

and

wave

us

down

from

the

tree.

He

would

take

the

mirror

and

tell

us

what

his

mother

had

told

him,

that

the

devil

shone

mirrors

too,

shone

them

to

distract

Muslims

during

prayer.

"And

he

laughs

while

he

does

it,"

he

always

added,

scowling

at

his

son.

"Yes,

Father,"

Hassan

would

mumble,

looking

down

at

his

feet.

But

he

never

told

on

me.

Never

told

that

the

mirror,

like

shooting

walnuts

at

the

neighbor's

dog,

was

always

my

idea.

The

poplar

trees

lined

the

redbrick

driveway,

which

led

to

a

pair

of

wrought-iron

gates.

They

in

turn

opened

into

an

extension

of

the

driveway

into

my

father's

estate.

The

house

sat

on

the

left

side

of

the

brick

path,

the

backyard

at

the

end

of

it.

Everyone

agreed

that

my

father,

my

Baba,

had

built

the

most

beautiful

house

in

the

Wazir

Akbar

Khan

district,

a

new

and

affluent

neighborhood

in

the

northern

part

of

Kabul.

Some

thought

it

was

the

prettiest

house

in

all

of

Kabul.

A

broad

entryway

flanked

by

rosebushes

led

to

the

sprawling

house

of

marble

floors

and

wide

windows.

Intricate

mosaic

tiles,

handpicked

by

Baba

in

Isfahan,

covered

the

floors

of

the

four

bathrooms.

Gold-stitched

tapestries,

which

Baba

had

bought

in

Calcutta,

lined

the

walls;

a

crystal

chandelier

hung

from

the

vaulted

ceiling.

Upstairs

was

my

bedroom,

Baba's

room,

and

his

study,

also

known

as

"the

smoking

room,"

which

perpetually

smelled

of

tobacco

and

cinnamon.

Baba

and

his

friends

reclined

on

black

leather

chairs

there

after

Ali

had

served

dinner.

They

stuffed

their

pipes--except

Baba

always

called

it

"fattening

the

pipe"--and

discussed

their

favorite

three

topics:

politics,

business,

soccer.

Sometimes

I

asked

Baba

if

I

could

sit

with

them,

but

Baba

would

stand

in

the

doorway.

"Go

on,

now,"

he'd

say.

"This

is

grown-ups'

time.

Why

don't

you

go

read

one

of

those

books

of

yours?"

He'd

close

the

door,

leave

me

to

wonder

why

it

was

always

grown-ups'

time

with

him.

I'd

sit

by

the

door,

knees

drawn

to

my

chest.

Sometimes

I

sat

there

for

an

hour,

sometimes

two,

listening

to

their

laughter,

their

chatter.

The

living

room

downstairs

had

a

curved

wall

with

custom

built

cabinets.

Inside

sat

framed

family

pictures:

an

old,

grainy

photo

of

my

grandfather

and

King

Nadir

Shah

taken

in

1931,

two

years

before

the

king's

assassination;

they

are

standing

over

a

dead

deer,

dressed

in

knee-high

boots,

rifles

slung

over

their

shoulders.

There

was

a

picture

of

my

parents'

wedding

night,

Baba

dashing

in

his

black

suit

and

my

mother

a

smiling

young

princess

in

white.

Here

was

Baba

and

his

best

friend

and

business

partner,

Rahim

Khan,

standing

outside

our

house,

neither

one

smiling-I

am

a

baby

in

that

photograph

and

Baba

is

holding

me,

looking

tired

and

grim.

I'm

in

his

arms,

but

it's

Rahim

Khan's

pinky

my

fingers

are

curled

around.

The

curved

wall

led

into

the

dining

room,

at

the

center

of

which

was

a

mahogany

table

that

could

easily

sit

thirty

guests-and,

given

my

father's

taste

for

extravagant

parties,

it

did

just

that

almost

every

week.

On

the

other

end

of

the

dining

room

was

a

tall

marble

fireplace,

always

lit

by

the

orange

glow

of

a

fire

in

the

wintertime.

A

large

sliding

glass

door

opened

into

a

semicircular

terrace

that

overlooked

two

acres

of

backyard

and

rows

of

cherry

trees.

Baba

and

Ali

had

planted

a

small

vegetable

garden

along

the

eastern

wall:

tomatoes,

mint,

peppers,

and

a

row

of

corn

that

never

really

took.

Hassan

and

I

used

to

call

it

"the

Wall

of

Ailing

Corn."

On

the

south

end

of

the

garden,

in

the

shadows

of

a

loquat

tree,

was

the

servants'

home,

a

modest

little

mud

hut

where

Hassan

lived

with

his

father.

It

was

there,

in

that

little

shack,

that

Hassan

was

born

in

the

winter

of

1964,

just

one

year

after

my

mother

died

giving

birth

to

me.

In

the

eighteen

years

that

I

lived

in

that

house,

I

stepped

into

Hassan

and

Ali's

quarters

only

a

handful

of

times.

When

the

sun

dropped

low

behind

the

hills

and

we

were

done

playing

for

the

day,

Hassan

and

I

parted

ways.

I

went

past

the

rosebushes

to

Baba's

mansion,

Hassan

to

the

mud

shack

where

he

had

been

born,

where

he'd

lived

his

entire

life.

I

remember

it

was

spare,

clean,

dimly

lit

by

a

pair

of

kerosene

lamps.

There

were

two

mattresses

on

opposite

sides

of

the

room,

a

worn

Herati

rug

with

frayed

edges

in

between,

a

three-legged

stool,

and

a

wooden

table

in

the

corner

where

Hassan

did

his

drawings.

The

walls

stood

bare,

save

for

a

single

tapestry

with

sewn-in

beads

forming

the

words

_Allah-u-

akbar_.

Baba

had

bought

it

for

Ali

on

one

of

his

trips

to

Mashad.

It

was

in

that

small

shack

that

Hassan's

mother,

Sanaubar,

gave

birth

to

him

one

cold

winter

day

in

1964.

While

my

mother

hemorrhaged

to

death

during

childbirth,

Hassan

lost

his

less

than

a

week

after

he

was

born.

Lost

her

to

a

fate

most

Afghans

considered

far

worse

than

death:

She

ran

off

with

a

clan

of

traveling

singers

and

dancers.

Hassan

never

talked

about

his

mother,

as

if

she'd

never

existed.

I

always

wondered

if

he

dreamed

about

her,

about

what

she

looked

like,

where

she

was.

I

wondered

if

he

longed

to

meet

her.

Did

he

ache

for

her,

the

way

I

ached

for

the

mother

I

had

never

met?

One

day,

we

were

walking

from

my

father's

house

to

Cinema

Zainab

for

a

new

Iranian

movie,

taking

the

shortcut

through

the

military

barracks

near

Istiqlal

Middle

School-Baba

had

forbidden

us

to

take

that

shortcut,

but

he

was

in

Pakistan

with

Rahim

Khan

at

the

time.

We

hopped

the

fence

that

surrounded

the

barracks,

skipped

over

a

little

creek,

and

broke

into

the

open

dirt

field

where

old,

abandoned

tanks

collected

dust.

A

group

of

soldiers

huddled

in

the

shade

of

one

of

those

tanks,

smoking

cigarettes

and

playing

cards.

One

of

them

saw

us,

elbowed

the

guy

next

to

him,

and

called

Hassan.

"Hey,

you!"

he

said.

"I

know

you."

We

had

never

seen

him

before.

He

was

a

squatly

man

with

a

shaved

head

and

black

stubble

on

his

face.

The

way

he

grinned

at

us,

leered,

scared

me.

"Just

keep

walking,"

1

muttered

to

Hassan.

"You!

The

Hazara!

Look

at

me

when

I'm

talking

to

you!"

the

soldier

barked.

He

handed

his

cigarette

to

the

guy

next

to

him,

made

a

circle

with

the

thumb

and

index

finger

of

one

hand.

Poked

the

middle

finger

of

his

other

hand

through

the

circle.

Poked

it

in

and

out.

In

and

out.

"I

knew

your

mother,

did

you

know

that?

I

knew

her

real

good.

I

took

her

from

behind

by

that

creek

over

there."

The

soldiers

laughed.

One

of

them

made

a

squealing

sound.

I

told

Hassan

to

keep

walking,

keep

walking.

"What

a

tight

little

sugary

cunt

she

had!"

the

soldier

was

saying,

shaking

hands

with

the

others,

grinning.

Later,

in

the

dark,

after

the

movie

had

started,

I

heard

Hassan

next

to

me,

croaking.

Tears

were

sliding

down

his

cheeks.

I

reached

across

my

seat,

slung

my

arm

around

him,

pulled

him

close.

He

rested

his

head

on

my

shoulder.

"He

took

you

for

someone

else,"

I

whispered.

"He

took

you

for

someone

else."

I'm

told

no

one

was

really

surprised

when

Sanaubar

eloped.

People

_had_

raised

their

eyebrows

when

Ah,

a

man

who

had

memorized

the

Koran,

married

Sanaubar,

a

woman

nineteen

years

younger,

a

beautiful

but

notoriously

unscrupulous

woman

who

lived

up

to

her

dishonorable

reputation.

Like

Ali,

she

was

a

Shi'a

Muslim

and

an

ethnic

Hazara.

She

was

also

his

first

cousin

and

therefore

a

natural

choice

for

a

spouse.

But

beyond

those

similarities,

Ali

and

Sanaubar

had

little

in

common,

least

of

all

their

respective

appearances.

While

Sanaubar's

brilliant

green

eyes

and

impish

face

had,

rumor

has

it,

tempted

countless

men

into

sin,

Ah

had

a

congenital

paralysis

of

his

lower

facial

muscles,

a

condition

that

rendered

him

unable

to

smile

and

left

him

perpetually

grim-

faced.

It

was

an

odd

thing

to

see

the

stone-faced

Ah

happy,

or

sad,

because

only

his

slanted

brown

eyes

glinted

with

a

smile

or

welled

with

sorrow.

People

say

that

eyes

are

windows

to

the

soul.

Never

was

that

more

true

than

with

Ah,

who

could

only

reveal

himself

through

his

eyes.

I

have

heard

that

Sanaubar's

suggestive

stride

and

oscillating

hips

sent

men

to

reveries

of

infidelity.

But

polio

had

left

Ali

with

a

twisted,

atrophied

right

leg

that

was

sallow

skin

over

bone

with

little

in

between

except

a

paper-thin

layer

of

muscle.

I

remember

one

day,

when

I

was

eight,

Ali

was

taking

me

to

the

bazaar

to

buy

some

_naan_.

I

was

walking

behind

him,

humming,

trying

to

imitate

his

walk.

I

watched

him

swing

his

scraggy

leg

in

a

sweeping

arc,

watched

his

whole

body

tilt

impossibly

to

the

right

every

time

he

planted

that

foot.

It

seemed

a

minor

miracle

he

didn't

tip

over

with

each

step.

When

I

tried

it,

I

almost

fell

into

the

gutter.

That

got

me

giggling.

Ali

turned

around,

caught

me

aping

him.

He

didn't

say

anything.

Not

then,

not

ever.

He

just

kept

walking.

Ali's

face

and

his

walk

frightened

some

of

the

younger

children

in

the

neighborhood.

But

the

real

trouble

was

with

the

older

kids.

They

chased

him

on

the

street,

and

mocked

him

when

he

hobbled

by.

Some

had

taken

to

calling

him

_Babalu_,

or

Boogeyman.

"Hey,

Babalu,

who

did

you

eat

today?"

they

barked

to

a

chorus

of

laughter.

"Who

did

you

eat,

you

flat-nosed

Babalu?"

They

called

him

"flat-nosed"

because

of

Ali

and

Hassan's

characteristic

Hazara

Mongoloid

features.

For

years,

that

was

all

I

knew

about

the

Hazaras,

that

they

were

Mogul

descendants,

and

that

they

looked

a

little

like

Chinese

people.

School

text

books

barely

mentioned

them

and

referred

to

their

ancestry

only

in

passing.

Then

one

day,

I

was

in

Baba's

study,

looking

through

his

stuff,

when

1

found

one

of

my

mother's

old

history

books.

It

was

written

by

an

Iranian

named

Khorami.

I

blew

the

dust

off

it,

sneaked

it

into

bed

with

me

that

night,

and

was

stunned

to

find

an

entire

chapter

on

Hazara

history.

An

entire

chapter

dedicated

to

Hassan's

people!

In

it,

I

read

that

my

people,

the

Pashtuns,

had

persecuted

and

oppressed

the

Hazaras.

It

said

the

Hazaras

had

tried

to

rise

against

the

Pashtuns

in

the

nineteenth

century,

but

the

Pashtuns

had

"quelled

them

with

unspeakable

violence."

The

book

said

that

my

people

had

killed

the

Hazaras,

driven

them

from

their

lands,

burned

their

homes,

and

sold

their

women.

The

book

said

part

of

the

reason

Pashtuns

had

oppressed

the

Hazaras

was

that

Pashtuns

were

Sunni

Muslims,

while

Hazaras

were

Shi'a.

The

book

said

a

lot

of

things

I

didn't

know,

things

my

teachers

hadn't

mentioned.

Things

Baba

hadn't

mentioned

either.

It

also

said

some

things

I

did

know,

like

that

people

called

Hazaras

_mice-eating,

flat-nosed,

load-carrying

donkeys_.

I

had

heard

some

of

the

kids

in

the

neighborhood

yell

those

names

to

Hassan.

The

following

week,

after

class,

I

showed

the

book

to

my

teacher

and

pointed

to

the

chapter

on

the

Hazaras.

He

skimmed

through

a

couple

of

pages,

snickered,

handed

the

book

back.

"That's

the

one

thing

Shi'a

people

do

well,"

he

said,

picking

up

his

papers,

"passing

themselves

as

martyrs."

He

wrinkled

his

nose

when

he

said

the

word

Shi'a,

like

it

was

some

kind

of

disease.

But

despite

sharing

ethnic

heritage

and

family

blood,

Sanaubar

joined

the

neighborhood

kids

in

taunting

Ali.

I

have

heard

that

she

made

no

secret

of

her

disdain

for

his

appearance.

"This

is

a

husband?"

she

would

sneer.

"I

have

seen

old

donkeys

better

suited

to

be

a

husband."

In

the

end,

most

people

suspected

the

marriage

had

been

an

arrangement

of

sorts

between

Ali

and

his

uncle,

Sanaubar's

father.

They

said

Ali

had

married

his

cousin

to

help

restore

some

honor

to

his

uncle's

blemished

name,

even

though

Ali,

who

had

been

orphaned

at

the

age

of

five,

had

no

worldly

possessions

or

inheritance

to

speak

of.

Ali

never

retaliated

against

any

of

his

tormentors,

I

suppose

partly

because

he

could

never

catch

them

with

that

twisted

leg

dragging

behind

him.

But

mostly

because

Ali

was

immune

to

the

insults

of

his

assailants;

he

had

found

his

joy,

his

antidote,

the

moment

Sanaubar

had

given

birth

to

Hassan.

It

had

been

a

simple

enough

affair.

No

obstetricians,

no

anesthesiologists,

no

fancy

monitoring

devices.

Just

Sanaubar

lying

on

a

stained,

naked

mattress

with

Ali

and

a

midwife

helping

her.

She

hadn't

needed

much

help

at

all,

because,

even

in

birth,

Hassan

was

true

to

his

nature:

He

was

incapable

of

hurting

anyone.

A

few

grunts,

a

couple

of

pushes,

and

out

came

Hassan.

Out

he

came

smiling.

As

confided

to

a

neighbor's

servant

by

the

garrulous

midwife,

who

had

then

in

turn

told

anyone

who

would

listen,

Sanaubar

had

taken

one

glance

at

the

baby

in

Ali's

arms,

seen

the

cleft

lip,

and

barked

a

bitter

laughter.

"There,"

she

had

said.

"Now

you

have

your

own

idiot

child

to

do

all

your

smiling

for

you!"

She

had

refused

to

even

hold

Hassan,

and

just

five

days

later,

she

was

gone.

Baba

hired

the

same

nursing

woman

who

had

fed

me

to

nurse

Hassan.

Ali

told

us

she

was

a

blue-eyed

Hazara

woman

from

Bamiyan,

the

city

of

the

giant

Buddha

statues.

"What

a

sweet

singing

voice

she

had,"

he

used

to

say

to

us.

What

did

she

sing,

Hassan

and

I

always

asked,

though

we

already

knew-

Ali

had

told

us

countless

times.

We

just

wanted

to

hear

Ali

sing.

He'd

clear

his

throat

and

begin:

_On

a

high

mountain

I

stood,

And

cried

the

name

of

Ali,

Lion

of

God

0

Ali,

Lion

of

God,

King

of

Men,

Bring

joy

to

our

sorrowful

hearts._

Then

he

would

remind

us

that

there

was

a

brotherhood

between

people

who

had

fed

from

the

same

breast,

a

kinship

that

not

even

time

could

break.

Hassan

and

I

fed

from

the

same

breasts.

We

took

our

first

steps

on

the

same

lawn

in

the

same

yard.

And,

under

the

same

roof,

we

spoke

our

first

words.

Mine

was

_Baba_.

His

was

_Amir_.

My

name.

Looking

back

on

it

now,

I

think

the

foundation

for

what

happened

in

the

winter

of

1975--and

all

that

followed--was

already

laid

in

those

first

words.

THREE

Lore

has

it

my

father

once

wrestled

a

black

bear

in

Baluchistan

with

his

bare

hands.

If

the

story

had

been

about

anyone

else,

it

would

have

been

dismissed

as

_laaf_,

that

Afghan

tendency

to

exaggerate--sadly,

almost

a

national

affliction;

if

someone

bragged

that

his

son

was

a

doctor,

chances

were

the

kid

had

once

passed

a

biology

test

in

high

school.

But

no

one

ever

doubted

the

veracity

of

any

story

about

Baba.

And

if

they

did,

well,

Baba

did

have

those

three

parallel

scars

coursing

a

jagged

path

down

his

back.

I

have

imagined

Baba's

wrestling

match

countless

times,

even

dreamed

about

it.

And

in

those

dreams,

I

can

never

tell

Baba

from

the

bear.

It

was

Rahim

Khan

who

first

referred

to

him

as

what

eventually

became

Baba's

famous

nickname,

_Toophan

agha_,

or

"Mr.

Hurricane."

It

was

an

apt

enough

nickname.

My

father

was

a

force

of

nature,

a

towering

Pashtun

specimen

with

a

thick

beard,

a

wayward

crop

of

curly

brown

hair

as

unruly

as

the

man

himself,

hands

that

looked

capable

of

uprooting

a

willow

tree,

and

a

black

glare

that

would

"drop

the

devil

to

his

knees

begging

for

mercy,"

as

Rahim

Khan

used

to

say.

At

parties,

when

all

six-foot-five

of

him

thundered

into

the

room,

attention

shifted

to

him

like

sunflowers

turning

to

the

sun.

Baba

was

impossible

to

ignore,

even

in

his

sleep.

I

used

to

bury

cotton

wisps

in

my

ears,

pull

the

blanket

over

my

head,

and

still

the

sounds

of

Baba's

snoring-so

much

like

a

growling

truck

engine-penetrated

the

walls.

And

my

room

was

across

the

hall

from

Baba's

bedroom.

How

my

mother

ever

managed

to

sleep

in

the

same

room

as

him

is

a

mystery

to

me.

It's

on

the

long

list

of

things

I

would

have

asked

my

mother

if

I

had

ever

met

her.

In

the

late

1960s,

when

I

was

five

or

six,

Baba

decided

to

build

an

orphanage.

I

heard

the

story

through

Rahim

Khan.

He

told

me

Baba

had

drawn

the

blueprints

himself

despite

the

fact

that

he'd

had

no

architectural

experience

at

all.

Skeptics

had

urged

him

to

stop

his

foolishness

and

hire

an

architect.

Of

course,

Baba

refused,

and

everyone

shook

their

heads

in

dismay

at

his

obstinate

ways.

Then

Baba

succeeded

and

everyone

shook

their

heads

in

awe

at

his

triumphant

ways.

Baba

paid

for

the

construction

of

the

two-story

orphanage,

just

off

the

main

strip

of

Jadeh

Maywand

south

of

the

Kabul

River,

with

his

own

money.

Rahim

Khan

told

me

Baba

had

personally

funded

the

entire

project,

paying

for

the

engineers,

electricians,

plumbers,

and

laborers,

not

to

mention

the

city

officials

whose

"mustaches

needed

oiling."

It

took

three

years

to

build

the

orphanage.

I

was

eight

by

then.

I

remember

the

day

before

the

orphanage

opened,

Baba

took

me

to

Ghargha

Lake,

a

few

miles

north

of

Kabul.

He

asked

me

to

fetch

Hassan

too,

but

1

lied

and

told

him

Hassan

had

the

runs.

I

wanted

Baba

all

to

myself.

And

besides,

one

time

at

Ghargha

Lake,

Hassan

and

I

were

skimming

stones

and

Hassan

made

his

stone

skip

eight

times.

The

most

I

managed

was

five.

Baba

was

there,

watching,

and

he

patted

Hassan

on

the

back.

Even

put

his

arm

around

his

shoulder.

We

sat

at

a

picnic

table

on

the

banks

of

the

lake,

just

Baba

and

me,

eating

boiled

eggs

with

_kofta_

sandwiches-meatballs

and

pickles

wrapped

in

_naan_.

The

water

was

a

deep

blue

and

sunlight

glittered

on

its

looking

glass-clear

surface.

On

Fridays,

the

lake

was

bustling

with

families

out

for

a

day

in

the

sun.

But

it

was

midweek

and

there

was

only

Baba

and

me,

us

and

a

couple

of

longhaired,

bearded

tourists-"hippies,"

I'd

heard

them

called.

They

were

sitting

on

the

dock,

feet

dangling

in

the

water,

fishing

poles

in

hand.

I

asked

Baba

why

they

grew

their

hair

long,

but

Baba

grunted,

didn't

answer.

He

was

preparing

his

speech

for

the

next

day,

flipping

through

a

havoc

of

handwritten

pages,

making

notes

here

and

there

with

a

pencil.

I

bit

into

my

egg

and

asked

Baba

if

it

was

true

what

a

boy

in

school

had

told

me,

that

if

you

ate

a

piece

of

eggshell,

you'd

have

to

pee

it

out.

Baba

grunted

again.

I

took

a

bite

of

my

sandwich.

One

of

the

yellow-haired

tourists

laughed

and

slapped

the

other

one

on

the

back.

In

the

distance,

across

the

lake,

a

truck

lumbered

around

a

corner

on

the

hill.

Sunlight

twinkled

in

its

side-view

mirror,

"I

think

1

have

_saratan_,"

I

said.

Cancer.

Baba

lifted

his

head

from

the

pages

flapping

in

the

breeze.

Told

me

I

could

get

the

soda

myself,

all

I

had

to

do

was

look

in

the

trunk

of

the

car.

Outside

the

orphanage,

the

next

day,

they

ran

out

of

chairs.

A

lot

of

people

had

to

stand

to

watch

the

opening

ceremony.

It

was

a

windy

day,

and

I

sat

behind

Baba

on

the

little

podium

just

outside

the

main

entrance

of

the

new

building.

Baba

was

wearing

a

green

suit

and

a

caracul

hat.

Midway

through

the

speech,

the

wind

knocked

his

hat

off

and

everyone

laughed.

He

motioned

to

me

to

hold

his

hat

for

him

and

I

was

glad

to,

because

then

everyone

would

see

that

he

was

my

father,

my

Baba.

He

turned

back

to

the

microphone

and

said

he

hoped

the

building

was

sturdier

than

his

hat,

and

everyone

laughed

again.

When

Baba

ended

his

speech,

people

stood

up

and

cheered.

They

clapped

for

a

long

time.

Afterward,

people

shook

his

hand.

Some

of

them

tousled

my

hair

and

shook

my

hand

too.

I

was

so

proud

of

Baba,

of

us.

But

despite

Baba's

successes,

people

were

always

doubting

him.

They

told

Baba

that

running

a

business

wasn't

in

his

blood

and

he

should

study

law

like

his

father.

So

Baba

proved

them

all

wrong

by

not

only

running

his

own

business

but

becoming

one

of

the

richest

merchants

in

Kabul.

Baba

and

Rahim

Khan

built

a

wildly

successful

carpet-exporting

business,

two

pharmacies,

and

a

restaurant.

When

people

scoffed

that

Baba

would

never

marry

well-after

all,

he

was

not

of

royal

blood-he

wedded

my

mother,

Sofia

Akrami,

a

highly

educated

woman

universally

regarded

as

one

of

Kabul's

most

respected,

beautiful,

and

virtuous

ladies.

And

not

only

did

she

teach

classic

Farsi

literature

at

the

university

she

was

a

descendant

of

the

royal

family,

a

fact

that

my

father

playfully

rubbed

in

the

skeptics'

faces

by

referring

to

her

as

"my

princess."

With

me

as

the

glaring

exception,

my

father

molded

the

world

around

him

to

his

liking.

The

problem,

of

course,

was

that

Baba

saw

the

world

in

black

and

white.

And

he

got

to

decide

what

was

black

and

what

was

white.

You

can't

love

a

person

who

lives

that

way

without

fearing

him

too.

Maybe

even

hating

him

a

little.

When

I

was

in

fifth

grade,

we

had

a

mullah

who

taught

us

about

Islam.

His

name

was

Mullah

Fatiullah

Khan,

a

short,

stubby

man

with

a

face

full

of

acne

scars

and

a

gruff

voice.

He

lectured

us

about

the

virtues

of

_zakat_

and

the

duty

of

_hadj_;

he

taught

us

the

intricacies

of

performing

the

five

daily

_namaz_

prayers,

and

made

us

memorize

verses

from

the

Koran-and

though

he

never

translated

the

words

for

us,

he

did

stress,

sometimes

with

the

help

of

a

stripped

willow

branch,

that

we

had

to

pronounce

the

Arabic

words

correctly

so

God

would

hear

us

better.

He

told

us

one

day

that

Islam

considered

drinking

a

terrible

sin;

those

who

drank

would

answer

for

their

sin

on

the

day

of

_Qiyamat_,

Judgment

Day.

In

those

days,

drinking

was

fairly

common

in

Kabul.

No

one

gave

you

a

public

lashing

for

it,

but

those

Afghans

who

did

drink

did

so

in

private,

out

of

respect.

People

bought

their

scotch

as

"medicine"

in

brown

paper

bags

from

selected

"pharmacies."

They

would

leave

with

the

bag

tucked

out

of

sight,

sometimes

drawing

furtive,

disapproving

glances

from

those

who

knew

about

the

store's

reputation

for

such

transactions.

We

were

upstairs

in

Baba's

study,

the

smoking

room,

when

I

told

him

what

Mullah

Fatiullah

Khan

had

taught

us

in

class.

Baba

was

pouring

himself

a

whiskey

from

the

bar

he

had

built

in

the

corner

of

the

room.

He

listened,

nodded,

took

a

sip

from

his

drink.

Then

he

lowered

himself

into

the

leather

sofa,

put

down

his

drink,

and

propped

me

up

on

his

lap.

I

felt

as

if

I

were

sitting

on

a

pair

of

tree

trunks.

He

took

a

deep

breath

and

exhaled

through

his

nose,

the

air

hissing

through

his

mustache

for

what

seemed

an

eternity

I

couldn't

decide

whether

I

wanted

to

hug

him

or

leap

from

his

lap

in

mortal

fear.

"I

see

you've

confused

what

you're

learning

in

school

with

actual

education,"

he

said

in

his

thick

voice.

"But

if

what

he

said

is

true

then

does

it

make

you

a

sinner,

Baba?"

"Hmm."

Baba

crushed

an

ice

cube

between

his

teeth.

"Do

you

want

to

know

what

your

father

thinks

about

sin?"

'Yes.

"Then

I'll

tell

you,"

Baba

said,

"but

first

understand

this

and

understand

it

now,

Amir:

You'll

never

learn

anything

of

value

from

those

bearded

idiots."

"You

mean

Mullah

Fatiullah

Khan?"

Baba

gestured

with

his

glass.

The

ice

clinked.

"I

mean

all

of

them.

Piss

on

the

beards

of

all

those

self-righteous

monkeys."

I

began

to

giggle.

The

image

of

Baba

pissing

on

the

beard

of

any

monkey,

self-righteous

or

otherwise,

was

too

much.

"They

do

nothing

but

thumb

their

prayer

beads

and

recite

a

book

written

in

a

tongue

they

don't

even

understand."

He

took

a

sip.

"God

help

us

all

if

Afghanistan

ever

falls

into

their

hands."

"But

Mullah

Fatiullah

Khan

seems

nice/'

I

managed

between

bursts

of

tittering.

"So

did

Genghis

Khan,"

Baba

said.

"But

enough

about

that.

You

asked

about

sin

and

I

want

to

tell

you.

Are

you

listening?"

"Yes,"

I

said,

pressing

my

lips

together.

But

a

chortle

escaped

through

my

nose

and

made

a

snorting

sound.

That

got

me

giggling

again.

Baba's

stony

eyes

bore

into

mine

and,

just

like

that,

I

wasn't

laughing

anymore.

"I

mean

to

speak

to

you

man

to

man.

Do

you

think

you

can

handle

that

for

once?"

"Yes,

Baba

jan,"

I

muttered,

marveling,

not

for

the

first

time,

at

how

badly

Baba

could

sting

me

with

so

few

words.

We'd

had

a

fleeting

good

moment--it

wasn't

often

Baba

talked

to

me,

let

alone

on

his

lap--and

I'd

been

a

fool

to

waste

it.

"Good,"

Baba

said,

but

his

eyes

wondered.

"Now,

no

matter

what

the

mullah

teaches,

there

is

only

one

sin,

only

one.

And

that

is

theft.

Every

other

sin

is

a

variation

of

theft.

Do

you

understand

that?"

"No,

Baba

jan,"

I

said,

desperately

wishing

I

did.

1

didn't

want

to

disappoint

him

again.

Baba

heaved

a

sigh

of

impatience.

That

stung

too,

because

he

was

not

an

impatient

man.

I

remembered

all

the

times

he

didn't

come

home

until

after

dark,

all

the

times

I

ate

dinner

alone.

I'd

ask

Ali

where

Baba

was,

when

he

was

coming

home,

though

I

knew

full

well

he

was

at

the

construction

site,

overlooking

this,

supervising

that.

Didn't

that

take

patience?

I

already

hated

all

the

kids

he

was

building

the

orphanage

for;

sometimes

I

wished

they'd

all

died

along

with

their

parents.

"When

you

kill

a

man,

you

steal

a

life,"

Baba

said.

"You

steal

his

wife's

right

to

a

husband,

rob

his

children

of

a

father.

When

you

tell

a

lie,

you

steal

someone's

right

to

the

truth.

When

you

cheat,

you

steal

the

right

to

fairness.

Do

you

see?"

I

did.

When

Baba

was

six,

a

thief

walked

into

my

grandfather's

house

in

the

middle

of

the

night.

My

grandfather,

a

respected

judge,

confronted

him,

but

the

thief

stabbed

him

in

the

throat,

killing

him

instantly--and

robbing

Baba

of

a

father.

The

townspeople

caught

the

killer

just

before

noon

the

next

day;

he

turned

out

to

be

a

wanderer

from

the

Kunduz

region.

They

hanged

him

from

the

branch

of

an

oak

tree

with

still

two

hours

to

go

before

afternoon

prayer.

It

was

Rahim

Khan,

not

Baba,

who

had

told

me

that

story.

I

was

always

learning

things

about

Baba

from

other

people.

"There

is

no

act

more

wretched

than

stealing,

Amir,"

Baba

said.

"A

man

who

takes

what's

not

his

to

take,

be

it

a

life

or

a

loaf

of

_naan_...

I

spit

on

such

a

man.

And

if

I

ever

cross

paths

with

him,

God

help

him.

Do

you

understand?"

1

found

the

idea

of

Baba

clobbering

a

thief

both

exhilarating

and

terribly

frightening.

"Yes,

Baba."

"If

there's

a

God

out

there,

then

I

would

hope

he

has

more

important

things

to

attend

to

than

my

drinking

scotch

or

eating

pork.

Now,

hop

down.

All

this

talk

about

sin

has

made

me

thirsty

again."

I

watched

him

fill

his

glass

at

the

bar

and

wondered

how

much

time

would

pass

before

we

talked

again

the

way

we

just

had.

Because

the

truth

of

it

was,

I

always

felt

like

Baba

hated

me

a

little.

And

why

not?

After

all,

I

_had_

killed

his

beloved

wife,

his

beautiful

princess,

hadn't

I?

The

least

I

could

have

done

was

to

have

had

the

decency

to

have

turned

out

a

little

more

like

him.

But

I

hadn't

turned

out

like

him.

Not

at

all.

IN

SCHOOL,

we

used

to

play

a

game

called

_Sherjangi_,

or

"Battle

of

the

Poems."

The

Farsi

teacher

moderated

it

and

it

went

something

like

this:

You

recited

a

verse

from

a

poem

and

your

opponent

had

sixty

seconds

to

reply

with

a

verse

that

began

with

the

same

letter

that

ended

yours.

Everyone

in

my

class

wanted

me

on

their

team,

because

by

the

time

I

was

eleven,

I

could

recite

dozens

of

verses

from

Khayyam,

Hafez,

or

Rumi's

famous

_Masnawi_.

One

time,

I

took

on

the

whole

class

and

won.

I

told

Baba

about

it

later

that

night,

but

he

just

nodded,

muttered,

"Good."

That

was

how

I

escaped

my

father's

aloofness,

in

my

dead

mother's

books.

That

and

Hassan,

of

course.

I

read

everything,

Rumi,

Hafez,

Saadi,

Victor

Hugo,

Jules

Verne,

Mark

Twain,

Ian

Fleming.

When

I

had

finished

my

mother's

books--not

the

boring

history

ones,

I

was

never

much

into

those,

but

the

novels,

the

epics--I

started

spending

my

allowance

on

books.

I

bought

one

a

week

from

the

bookstore

near

Cinema

Park,

and

stored

them

in

cardboard

boxes

when

I

ran

out

of

shelf

room.

Of

course,

marrying

a

poet

was

one

thing,

but

fathering

a

son

who

preferred

burying

his

face

in

poetry

books

to

hunting...

well,

that

wasn't

how

Baba

had

envisioned

it,

I

suppose.

Real

men

didn't

read

poetry--and

God

forbid

they

should

ever

write

it!

Real

men--real

boys--played

soccer

just

as

Baba

had

when

he

had

been

young.

Now

_that_

was

something

to

be

passionate

about.

In

1970,

Baba

took

a

break

from

the

construction

of

the

orphanage

and

flew

to

Tehran

for

a

month

to

watch

the

World

Cup

games

on

television,

since

at

the

time

Afghanistan

didn't

have

TVs

yet.

He

signed

me

up

for

soccer

teams

to

stir

the

same

passion

in

me.

But

I

was

pathetic,

a

blundering

liability

to

my

own

team,

always

in

the

way

of

an

opportune

pass

or

unwittingly

blocking

an

open

lane.

I

shambled

about

the

field

on

scraggy

legs,

squalled

for

passes

that

never

came

my

way.

And

the

harder

I

tried,

waving

my

arms

over

my

head

frantically

and

screeching,

"I'm

open!

I'm

open!"

the

more

I

went

ignored.

But

Baba

wouldn't

give

up.

When

it

became

abundantly

clear

that

I

hadn't

inherited

a

shred

of

his

athletic

talents,

he

settled

for

trying

to

turn

me

into

a

passionate

spectator.

Certainly

I

could

manage

that,

couldn't

I?

I

faked

interest

for

as

long

as

possible.

I

cheered

with

him

when

Kabul's

team

scored

against

Kandahar

and

yelped

insults

at

the

referee

when

he

called

a

penalty

against

our

team.

But

Baba

sensed

my

lack

of

genuine

interest

and

resigned

himself

to

the

bleak

fact

that

his

son

was

never

going

to

either

play

or

watch

soccer.

I

remember

one

time

Baba

took

me

to

the

yearly

_Buzkashi_

tournament

that

took

place

on

the

first

day

of

spring,

New

Year's

Day.

Buzkashi

was,

and

still

is,

Afghanistan's

national

passion.

A

_chapandaz_,

a

highly

skilled

horseman

usually

patronized

by

rich

aficionados,

has

to

snatch

a

goat

or

cattle

carcass

from

the

midst

of

a

melee,

carry

that

carcass

with

him

around

the

stadium

at

full

gallop,

and

drop

it

in

a

scoring

circle

while

a

team

of

other

_chapandaz_

chases

him

and

does

everything

in

its

power-kick,

claw,

whip,

punch-to

snatch

the

carcass

from

him.

That

day,

the

crowd

roared

with

excitement

as

the

horsemen

on

the

field

bellowed

their

battle

cries

and

jostled

for

the

carcass

in

a

cloud

of

dust.

The

earth

trembled

with

the

clatter

of

hooves.

We

watched

from

the

upper

bleachers

as

riders

pounded

past

us

at

full

gallop,

yipping

and

yelling,

foam

flying

from

their

horses'

mouths.

At

one

point

Baba

pointed

to

someone.

"Amir,

do

you

see

that

man

sitting

up

there

with

those

other

men

around

him?"

I

did.

"That's

Henry

Kissinger."

"Oh,"

I

said.

I

didn't

know

who

Henry

Kissinger

was,

and

I

might

have

asked.

But

at

the

moment,

I

watched

with

horror

as

one

of

the

_chapandaz_

fell

off

his

saddle

and

was

trampled

under

a

score

of

hooves.

His

body

was

tossed

and

hurled

in

the

stampede

like

a

rag

doll,

finally

rolling

to

a

stop

when

the

melee

moved

on.

He

twitched

once

and

lay

motionless,

his

legs

bent

at

unnatural

angles,

a

pool

of

his

blood

soaking

through

the

sand.

I

began

to

cry.

I

cried

all

the

way

back

home.

I

remember

how

Baba's

hands

clenched

around

the

steering

wheel.

Clenched

and

unclenched.

Mostly,

I

will

never

forget

Baba's

valiant

efforts

to

conceal

the

disgusted

look

on

his

face

as

he

drove

in

silence.

Later

that

night,

I

was

passing

by

my

father's

study

when

I

overheard

him

speaking

to

Rahim

Khan.

I

pressed

my

ear

to

the

closed

door.

"--grateful

that

he's

healthy,"

Rahim

Khan

was

saying.

"I

know,

I

know.

But

he's

always

buried

in

those

books

or

shuffling

around

the

house

like

he's

lost

in

some

dream."

'And?

"I

wasn't

like

that."

Baba

sounded

frustrated,

almost

angry.

Rahim

Khan

laughed.

"Children

aren't

coloring

books.

You

don't

get

to

fill

them

with

your

favorite

colors."

"I'm

telling

you,"

Baba

said,

"I

wasn't

like

that

at

all,

and

neither

were

any

of

the

kids

I

grew

up

with."

"You

know,

sometimes

you

are

the

most

self-centered

man

I

know,"

Rahim

Khan

said.

He

was

the

only

person

I

knew

who

could

get

away

with

saying

something

like

that

to

Baba.

"It

has

nothing

to

do

with

that."

"Nay?"

"Nay."

"Then

what?"

I

heard

the

leather

of

Baba's

seat

creaking

as

he

shifted

on

it.

I

closed

my

eyes,

pressed

my

ear

even

harder

against

the

door,

wanting

to

hear,

not

wanting

to

hear.

"Sometimes

I

look

out

this

window

and

I

see

him

playing

on

the

street

with

the

neighborhood

boys.

I

see

how

they

push

him

around,

take

his

toys

from

him,

give

him

a

shove

here,

a

whack

there.

And,

you

know,

he

never

fights

back.

Never.

He

just...

drops

his

head

and..."

"So

he's

not

violent,"

Rahim

Khan

said.

"That's

not

what

I

mean,

Rahim,

and

you

know

it,"

Baba

shot

back.

"There

is

something

missing

in

that

boy."

'Yes,

a

mean

streak.

"Self-defense

has

nothing

to

do

with

meanness.

You

know

what

always

happens

when

the

neighborhood

boys

tease

him?

Hassan

steps

in

and

fends

them

off.

I've

seen

it

with

my

own

eyes.

And

when

they

come

home,

I

say

to

him,

'How

did

Hassan

get

that

scrape

on

his

face?'

And

he

says,

'He

fell

down.'

I'm

telling

you,

Rahim,

there

is

something

missing

in

that

boy."

"You

just

need

to

let

him

find

his

way,"

Rahim

Khan

said.

"And

where

is

he

headed?"

Baba

said.

"A

boy

who

won't

stand

up

for

himself

becomes

a

man

who

can't

stand

up

to

anything."

"As

usual

you're

oversimplifying."

"I

don't

think

so."

"You're

angry

because

you're

afraid

he'll

never

take

over

the

business

for

you."

"Now

who's

oversimplifying?"

Baba

said.

"Look,

I

know

there's

a

fondness

between

you

and

him

and

I'm

happy

about

that.

Envious,

but

happy.

I

mean

that.

He

needs

someone

who.

..understands

him,

because

God

knows

I

don't.

But

something

about

Amir

troubles

me

in

a

way

that

I

can't

express.

It's

like..."

I

could

see

him

searching,

reaching

for

the

right

words.

He

lowered

his

voice,

but

I

heard

him

anyway.

"If

I

hadn't

seen

the

doctor

pull

him

out

of

my

wife

with

my

own

eyes,

I'd

never

believe

he's

my

son."

THE

NEXT

MORNING,

as

he

was

preparing

my

breakfast,

Hassan

asked

if

something

was

bothering

me.

I

snapped

at

him,

told

him

to

mind

his

own

business.

Rahim

Khan

had

been

wrong

about

the

mean

streak

thing.

FOUR

In

1933,

the

year

Baba

was

born

and

the

year

Zahir

Shah

began

his

forty-year

reign

of

Afghanistan,

two

brothers,

young

men

from

a

wealthy

and

reputable

family

in

Kabul,

got

behind

the

wheel

of

their

father's

Ford

roadster.

High

on

hashish

and

_mast_

on

French

wine,

they

struck

and

killed

a

Hazara

husband

and

wife

on

the

road

to

Paghman.

The

police

brought

the

somewhat

contrite

young

men

and

the

dead

couple's

five-year-old

orphan

boy

before

my

grandfather,

who

was

a

highly

regarded

judge

and

a

man

of

impeccable

reputation.

After

hearing

the

brothers'

account

and

their

father's

plea

for

mercy,

my

grandfather

ordered

the

two

young

men

to

go

to

Kandahar

at

once

and

enlist

in

the

army

for

one

year-

-this

despite

the

fact

that

their

family

had

somehow

managed

to

obtain

them

exemptions

from

the

draft.

Their

father

argued,

but

not

too

vehemently,

and

in

the

end,

everyone

agreed

that

the

punishment

had

been

perhaps

harsh

but

fair.

As

for

the

orphan,

my

grandfather

adopted

him

into

his

own

household,

and

told

the

other

servants

to

tutor

him,

but

to

be

kind

to

him.

That

boy

was

Ali.

Ali

and

Baba

grew

up

together

as

childhood

playmates-at

least

until

polio

crippled

Ali's

leg-just

like

Hassan

and

I

grew

up

a

generation

later.

Baba

was

always

telling

us

about

the

mischief

he

and

Ali

used

to

cause,

and

Ali

would

shake

his

head

and

say,

"But,

Agha

sahib,

tell

them

who

was

the

architect

of

the

mischief

and

who

the

poor

laborer?"

Baba

would

laugh

and

throw

his

arm

around

Ali.

But

in

none

of

his

stories

did

Baba

ever

refer

to

Ah

as

his

friend.

The

curious

thing

was,

I

never

thought

of

Hassan

and

me

as

friends

either.

Not

in

the

usual

sense,

anyhow.

Never

mind

that

we

taught

each

other

to

ride

a

bicycle

with

no

hands,

or

to

build

a

fully

functional

homemade

camera

out

of

a

cardboard

box.

Never

mind

that

we

spent

entire

winters

flying

kites,

running

kites.

Never

mind

that

to

me,

the

face

of

Afghanistan

is

that

of

a

boy

with

a

thin-

boned

frame,

a

shaved

head,

and

low-set

ears,

a

boy

with

a

Chinese

doll

face

perpetually

lit

by

a

harelipped

smile.

Never

mind

any

of

those

things.

Because

history

isn't

easy

to

overcome.

Neither

is

religion.

In

the

end,

1

was

a

Pashtun

and

he

was

a

Hazara,

I

was

Sunni

and

he

was

Shi'a,

and

nothing

was

ever

going

to

change

that.

Nothing.

But

we

were

kids

who

had

learned

to

crawl

together,

and

no

history,

ethnicity,

society,

or

religion

was

going

to

change

that

either.

I

spent

most

of

the

first

twelve

years

of

my

life

playing

with

Hassan.

Sometimes,

my

entire

childhood

seems

like

one

long

lazy

summer

day

with

Hassan,

chasing

each

other

between

tangles

of

trees

in

my

father's

yard,

playing

hide-and-seek,

cops

and

robbers,

cowboys

and

Indians,

insect

torture-with

our

crowning

achievement

undeniably

the

time

we

plucked

the

stinger

off

a

bee

and

tied

a

string

around

the

poor

thing

to

yank

it

back

every

time

it

took

flight.

We

chased

the

_Kochi_,

the

nomads

who

passed

through

Kabul

on

their

way

to

the

mountains

of

the

north.

We

would

hear

their

caravans

approaching

our

neighborhood,

the

mewling

of

their

sheep,

the

baaing

of

their

goats,

the

jingle

of

bells

around

their

camels'

necks.

We'd

run

outside

to

watch

the

caravan

plod

through

our

street,

men

with

dusty,

weather-beaten

faces

and

women

dressed

in

long,

colorful

shawls,

beads,

and

silver

bracelets

around

their

wrists

and

ankles.

We

hurled

pebbles

at

their

goats.

We

squirted

water

on

their

mules.

I'd

make

Hassan

sit

on

the

Wall

of

Ailing

Corn

and

fire

pebbles

with

his

slingshot

at

the

camels'

rears.

We

saw

our

first

Western

together,

_Rio

Bravo_

with

John

Wayne,

at

the

Cinema

Park,

across

the

street

from

my

favorite

bookstore.

I

remember

begging

Baba

to

take

us

to

Iran

so

we

could

meet

John

Wayne.

Baba

burst

out

in

gales

of

his

deep-throated

laughter-a

sound

not

unlike

a

truck

engine

revving

up-and,

when

he

could

talk

again,

explained

to

us

the

concept

of

voice

dubbing.

Hassan

and

I

were

stunned.

Dazed.

John

Wayne

didn't

really

speak

Farsi

and

he

wasn't

Iranian!

He

was

American,

just

like

the

friendly,

longhaired

men

and

women

we

always

saw

hanging

around

in

Kabul,

dressed

in

their

tattered,

brightly

colored

shirts.

We

saw

_Rio

Bravo_

three

times,

but

we

saw

our

favorite

Western,

_The

Magnificent

Seven_,

thirteen

times.

With

each

viewing,

we

cried

at

the

end

when

the

Mexican

kids

buried

Charles

Bronson-who,

as

it

turned

out,

wasn't

Iranian

either.

We

took

strolls

in

the

musty-smelling

bazaars

of

the

Shar-e-Nau

section

of

Kabul,

or

the

new

city,

west

of

the

Wazir

Akbar

Khan

district.

We

talked

about

whatever

film

we

had

just

seen

and

walked

amid

the

bustling

crowds

of

_bazarris_.

We

snaked

our

way

among

the

merchants

and

the

beggars,

wandered

through

narrow

alleys

cramped

with

rows

of

tiny,

tightly

packed

stalls.

Baba

gave

us

each

a

weekly

allowance

of

ten

Afghanis

and

we

spent

it

on

warm

Coca-

Cola

and

rosewater

ice

cream

topped

with

crushed

pistachios.

During

the

school

year,

we

had

a

daily

routine.

By

the

time

I

dragged

myself

out

of

bed

and

lumbered

to

the

bathroom,

Hassan

had

already

washed

up,

prayed

the

morning

_namaz_

with

Ah,

and

prepared

my

breakfast:

hot

black

tea

with

three

sugar

cubes

and

a

slice

of

toasted

_naan_

topped

with

my

favorite

sour

cherry

marmalade,

all

neatly

placed

on

the

dining

table.

While

I

ate

and

complained

about

homework,

Hassan

made

my

bed,

polished

my

shoes,

ironed

my

outfit

for

the

day,

packed

my

books

and

pencils.

I'd

hear

him

singing

to

himself

in

the

foyer

as

he

ironed,

singing

old

Hazara

songs

in

his

nasal

voice.

Then,

Baba

and

I

drove

off

in

his

black

Ford

Mustang-a

car

that

drew

envious

looks

everywhere

because

it

was

the

same

car

Steve

McQueen

had

driven

in

_Bullitt_,

a

film

that

played

in

one

theater

for

six

months.

Hassan

stayed

home

and

helped

Ah

with

the

day's

chores:

hand-washing

dirty

clothes

and

hanging

them

to

dry

in

the

yard,

sweeping

the

floors,

buying

fresh

_naan_

from

the

bazaar,

marinating

meat

for

dinner,

watering

the

lawn.

After

school,

Hassan

and

I

met

up,

grabbed

a

book,

and

trotted

up

a

bowl-

shaped

hill

just

north

of

my

father's

property

in

Wazir

Akbar

Khan.

There

was

an

old

abandoned

cemetery

atop

the

hill

with

rows

of

unmarked

headstones

and

tangles

of

brushwood

clogging

the

aisles.

Seasons

of

rain

and

snow

had

turned

the

iron

gate

rusty

and

left

the

cemetery's

low

white

stone

walls

in

decay.

There

was

a

pomegranate

tree

near

the

entrance

to

the

cemetery.

One

summer

day,

I

used

one

of

Ali's

kitchen

knives

to

carve

our

names

on

it:

"Amir

and

Hassan,

the

sultans

of

Kabul."

Those

words

made

it

formal:

the

tree

was

ours.

After

school,

Hassan

and

I

climbed

its

branches

and

snatched

its

blood-red

pomegranates.

After

we'd

eaten

the

fruit

and

wiped

our

hands

on

the

grass,

I

would

read

to

Hassan.

Sitting

cross-legged,

sunlight

and

shadows

of

pomegranate

leaves

dancing

on

his

face,

Hassan

absently

plucked

blades

of

grass

from

the

ground

as

I

read

him

stories

he

couldn't

read

for

himself.

That

Hassan

would

grow

up

illiterate

like

Ali

and

most

Hazaras

had

been

decided

the

minute

he

had

been

born,

perhaps

even

the

moment

he

had

been

conceived

in

Sanaubar's

un-welcoming

womb-after

all,

what

use

did

a

servant

have

for

the

written

word?

But

despite

his

illiteracy,

or

maybe

because

of

it,

Hassan

was

drawn

to

the

mystery

of

words,

seduced

by

a

secret

world

forbidden

to

him.

I

read

him

poems

and

stories,

sometimes

riddles-though

I

stopped

reading

those

when

I

saw

he

was

far

better

at

solving

them

than

I

was.

So

I

read

him

unchallenging

things,

like

the

misadventures

of

the

bumbling

Mullah

Nasruddin

and

his

donkey.

We

sat

for

hours

under

that

tree,

sat

there

until

the

sun

faded

in

the

west,

and

still

Hassan

insisted

we

had

enough

daylight

for

one

more

story,

one

more

chapter.

My

favorite

part

of

reading

to

Hassan

was

when

we

came

across

a

big

word

that

he

didn't

know.

I'd

tease

him,

expose

his

ignorance.

One

time,

I

was

reading

him

a

Mullah

Nasruddin

story

and

he

stopped

me.

"What

does

that

word

mean?"

"Which

one?"

"Imbecile."

"You

don't

know

what

it

means?"

I

said,

grinning.

"Nay,

Amir

agha."

"But

it's

such

a

common

word!"

"Still,

I

don't

know

it."

If

he

felt

the

sting

of

my

tease,

his

smiling

face

didn't

show

it.

"Well,

everyone

in

my

school

knows

what

it

means,"

I

said.

"Let's

see.

'Imbecile.'

It

means

smart,

intelligent.

I'll

use

it

in

a

sentence

for

you.

'When

it

comes

to

words,

Hassan

is

an

imbecile.'"

"Aaah,"

he

said,

nodding.

I

would

always

feel

guilty

about

it

later.

So

I'd

try

to

make

up

for

it

by

giving

him

one

of

my

old

shirts

or

a

broken

toy.

I

would

tell

myself

that

was

amends

enough

for

a

harmless

prank.

Hassan's

favorite

book

by

far

was

the

_Shahnamah_,

the

tenth-century

epic

of

ancient

Persian

heroes.

He

liked

all

of

the

chapters,

the

shahs

of

old,

Feridoun,

Zal,

and

Rudabeh.

But

his

favorite

story,

and

mine,

was

"Rostam

and

Sohrab,"

the

tale

of

the

great

warrior

Rostam

and

his

fleet-footed

horse,

Rakhsh.

Rostam

mortally

wounds

his

valiant

nemesis,

Sohrab,

in

battle,

only

to

discover

that

Sohrab

is

his

long-lost

son.

Stricken

with

grief,

Rostam

hears

his

son's

dying

words:

If

thou

art

indeed

my

father,

then

hast

thou

stained

thy

sword

in

the

life-

blood

of

thy

son.

And

thou

did'st

it

of

thine

obstinacy.

For

I

sought

to

turn

thee

unto

love,

and

I

implored

of

thee

thy

name,

for

I

thought

to

behold

in

thee

the

tokens

recounted

of

my

mother.

But

I

appealed

unto

thy

heart

in

vain,

and

now

is

the

time

gone

for

meeting...

"Read

it

again

please,

Amir

agha,"

Hassan

would

say.

Sometimes

tears

pooled

in

Hassan's

eyes

as

I

read

him

this

passage,

and

I

always

wondered

whom

he

wept

for,

the

grief-stricken

Rostam

who

tears

his

clothes

and

covers

his

head

with

ashes,

or

the

dying

Sohrab

who

only

longed

for

his

father's

love?

Personally,

I

couldn't

see

the

tragedy

in

Rostam's

fate.

After

all,

didn't

all

fathers

in

their

secret

hearts

harbor

a

desire

to

kill

their

sons?

One

day,

in

July

1973,

1

played

another

little

trick

on

Hassan.

I

was

reading

to

him,

and

suddenly

I

strayed

from

the

written

story.

I

pretended

I

was

reading

from

the

book,

flipping

pages

regularly,

but

I

had

abandoned

the

text

altogether,

taken

over

the

story,

and

made

up

my

own.

Hassan,

of

course,

was

oblivious

to

this.

To

him,

the

words

on

the

page

were

a

scramble

of

codes,

indecipherable,

mysterious.

Words

were

secret

doorways

and

1

held

all

the

keys.

After,

1

started

to

ask

him

if

he'd

liked

the

story,

a

giggle

rising

in

my

throat,

when

Hassan

began

to

clap.

"What

are

you

doing?"

I

said.

"That

was

the

best

story

you've

read

me

in

a

long

time,"

he

said,

still

clapping.

I

laughed.

"Really?"

"Really.

ii

"That's

fascinating,"

I

muttered.

I

meant

it

too.

This

was...

wholly

unexpected.

'Are

you

sure,

Hassan?

He

was

still

clapping.

"It

was

great,

Amir

agha.

Will

you

read

me

more

of

it

tomorrow?"

"Fascinating,"

I

repeated,

a

little

breathless,

feeling

like

a

man

who

discovers

a

buried

treasure

in

his

own

backyard.

Walking

down

the

hill,

thoughts

were

exploding

in

my

head

like

the

fireworks

at

Chaman.

_Best

story

you've

read

me

in

a

long

time_,

he'd

said.

I

had

read

him

a

lot

of

stories.

Hassan

was

asking

me

something.

"What?"

I

said.

"What

does

that

mean,

'fascinating'?"

I

laughed.

Clutched

him

in

a

hug

and

planted

a

kiss

on

his

cheek.

"What

was

that

for?"

he

said,

startled,

blushing.

I

gave

him

a

friendly

shove.

Smiled.

"You're

a

prince,

Hassan.

You're

a

prince

and

I

love

you."

That

same

night,

I

wrote

my

first

short

story.

It

took

me

thirty

minutes.

It

was

a

dark

little

tale

about

a

man

who

found

a

magic

cup

and

learned

that

if

he

wept

into

the

cup,

his

tears

turned

into

pearls.

But

even

though

he

had

always

been

poor,

he

was

a

happy

man

and

rarely

shed

a

tear.

So

he

found

ways

to

make

himself

sad

so

that

his

tears

could

make

him

rich.

As

the

pearls

piled

up,

so

did

his

greed

grow.

The

story

ended

with

the

man

sitting

on

a

mountain

of

pearls,

knife

in

hand,

weeping

helplessly

into

the

cup

with

his

beloved

wife's

slain

body

in

his

arms.

That

evening,

I

climbed

the

stairs

and

walked

into

Baba's

smoking

room,

in

my

hands

the

two

sheets

of

paper

on

which

I

had

scribbled

the

story.

Baba

and

Rahim

Khan

were

smoking

pipes

and

sipping

brandy

when

I

came

in.

"What

is

it,

Amir?"

Baba

said,

reclining

on

the

sofa

and

lacing

his

hands

behind

his

head.

Blue

smoke

swirled

around

his

face.

His

glare

made

my

throat

feel

dry.

I

cleared

it

and

told

him

I'd

written

a

story.

Baba

nodded

and

gave

a

thin

smile

that

conveyed

little

more

than

feigned

interest.

"Well,

that's

very

good,

isn't

it?"

he

said.

Then

nothing

more.

He

just

looked

at

me

through

the

cloud

of

smoke.

I

probably

stood

there

for

under

a

minute,

but,

to

this

day,

it

was

one

of

the

longest

minutes

of

my

life.

Seconds

plodded

by,

each

separated

from

the

next

by

an

eternity.

Air

grew

heavy

damp,

almost

solid.

I

was

breathing

bricks.

Baba

went

on

staring

me

down,

and

didn't

offer

to

read.

As

always,

it

was

Rahim

Khan

who

rescued

me.

He

held

out

his

hand

and

favored

me

with

a

smile

that

had

nothing

feigned

about

it.

"May

I

have

it,

Amir

jan?

I

would

very

much

like

to

read

it."

Baba

hardly

ever

used

the

term

of

endearment

_jan_

when

he

addressed

me.

Baba

shrugged

and

stood

up.

He

looked

relieved,

as

if

he

too

had

been

rescued

by

Rahim

Khan.

"Yes,

give

it

to

Kaka

Rahim.

I'm

going

upstairs

to

get

ready."

And

with

that,

he

left

the

room.

Most

days

I

worshiped

Baba

with

an

intensity

approaching

the

religious.

But

right

then,

I

wished

I

could

open

my

veins

and

drain

his

cursed

blood

from

my

body.

An

hour

later,

as

the

evening

sky

dimmed,

the

two

of

them

drove

off

in

my

father's

car

to

attend

a

party.

On

his

way

out,

Rahim

Khan

hunkered

before

me

and

handed

me

my

story

and

another

folded

piece

of

paper.

He

flashed

a

smile

and

winked.

"For

you.

Read

it

later."

Then

he

paused

and

added

a

single

word

that

did

more

to

encourage

me

to

pursue

writing

than

any

compliment

any

editor

has

ever

paid

me.

That

word

was

_Bravo_.

When

they

left,

I

sat

on

my

bed

and

wished

Rahim

Khan

had

been

my

father.

Then

I

thought

of

Baba

and

his

great

big

chest

and

how

good

it

felt

when

he

held

me

against

it,

how

he

smelled

of

Brut

in

the

morning,

and

how

his

beard

tickled

my

face.

I

was

overcome

with

such

sudden

guilt

that

I

bolted

to

the

bathroom

and

vomited

in

the

sink.

Later

that

night,

curled

up

in

bed,

I

read

Rahim

Khan's

note

over

and

over.

It

read

like

this:

Amir

jan,

I

enjoyed

your

story

very

much.

_Mashallah_,

God

has

granted

you

a

special

talent.

It

is

now

your

duty

to

hone

that

talent,

because

a

person

who

wastes

his

God-given

talents

is

a

donkey.

You

have

written

your

story

with

sound

grammar

and

interesting

style.

But

the

most

impressive

thing

about

your

story

is

that

it

has

irony.

You

may

not

even

know

what

that

word

means.

But

you

will

someday.

It

is

something

that

some

writers

reach

for

their

entire

careers

and

never

attain.

You

have

achieved

it

with

your

first

story.

My

door

is

and

always

will

be

open

to

you,

Amir

jan.

I

shall

hear

any

story

you

have

to

tell.

Bravo.

Your

friend,

Rahim

Buoyed

by

Rahim

Khan's

note,

I

grabbed

the

story

and

hurried

downstairs

to

the

foyer

where

Ali

and

Hassan

were

sleeping

on

a

mattress.

That

was

the

only

time

they

slept

in

the

house,

when

Baba

was

away

and

Ah

had

to

watch

over

me.

I

shook

Hassan

awake

and

asked

him

if

he

wanted

to

hear

a

story.

He

rubbed

his

sleep-clogged

eyes

and

stretched.

"Now?

What

time

is

it?"

"Never

mind

the

time.

This

story's

special.

I

wrote

it

myself,"

I

whispered,

hoping

not

to

wake

Ali.

Hassan's

face

brightened.

"Then

I

_have_

to

hear

it,"

he

said,

already

pulling

the

blanket

off

him.

I

read

it

to

him

in

the

living

room

by

the

marble

fireplace.

No

playful

straying

from

the

words

this

time;

this

was

about

me!

Hassan

was

the

perfect

audience

in

many

ways,

totally

immersed

in

the

tale,

his

face

shifting

with

the

changing

tones

in

the

story.

When

I

read

the

last

sentence,

he

made

a

muted

clapping

sound

with

his

hands.

.Mashallah_,

Amir

agha.

Bravo!"

He

was

beaming.

"You

liked

it?"

I

said,

getting

my

second

taste--and

how

sweet

it

was--of

a

positive

review.

"Some

day,

_Inshallah_,

you

will

be

a

great

writer,"

Hassan

said.

"And

people

all

over

the

world

will

read

your

stories."

"You

exaggerate,

Hassan,"

I

said,

loving

him

for

it.

"No.

You

will

be

great

and

famous,"

he

insisted.

Then

he

paused,

as

if

on

the

verge

of

adding

something.

He

weighed

his

words

and

cleared

his

throat.

"But

will

you

permit

me

to

ask

a

question

about

the

story?"

he

said

shyly.

"Of

course."

"Well..."

he

started,

broke

off.

"Tell

me,

Hassan,"

I

said.

I

smiled,

though

suddenly

the

insecure

writer

in

me

wasn't

so

sure

he

wanted

to

hear

it.

"Well,"

he

said,

"if

I

may

ask,

why

did

the

man

kill

his

wife?

In

fact,

why

did

he

ever

have

to

feel

sad

to

shed

tears?

Couldn't

he

have

just

smelled

an

onion?"

I

was

stunned.

That

particular

point,

so

obvious

it

was

utterly

stupid,

hadn't

even

occurred

to

me.

I

moved

my

lips

soundlessly.

It

appeared

that

on

the

same

night

I

had

learned

about

one

of

writing's

objectives,

irony,

I

would

also

be

introduced

to

one

of

its

pitfalls:

the

Plot

Hole.

Taught

by

Hassan,

of

all

people.

Hassan

who

couldn't

read

and

had

never

written

a

single

word

in

his

entire

life.

A

voice,

cold

and

dark,

suddenly

whispered

in

my

ear,

_What

does

he

know,

that

illiterate

Hazara?

He'll

never

be

anything

but

a

cook.

How

dare

he

criticize

you?_

"Well,"

I

began.

But

I

never

got

to

finish

that

sentence.

Because

suddenly

Afghanistan

changed

forever.

FIVE

Something

roared

like

thunder.

The

earth

shook

a

little

and

we

heard

the

_rat-a-

tat-tat_

of

gunfire.

"Father!"

Hassan

cried.

We

sprung

to

our

feet

and

raced

out

of

the

living

room.

We

found

Ali

hobbling

frantically

across

the

foyer.

"Father!

What's

that

sound?"

Hassan

yelped,

his

hands

outstretched

toward

Ali.

Ali

wrapped

his

arms

around

us.

A

white

light

flashed,

lit

the

sky

in

silver.

It

flashed

again

and

was

followed

by

a

rapid

staccato

of

gunfire.

"They're

hunting

ducks,"

Ali

said

in

a

hoarse

voice.

"They

hunt

ducks

at

night,

you

know.

Don't

be

afraid."

A

siren

went

off

in

the

distance.

Somewhere

glass

shattered

and

someone

shouted.

I

heard

people

on

the

street,

jolted

from

sleep

and

probably

still

in

their

pajamas,

with

ruffled

hair

and

puffy

eyes.

Hassan

was

crying.

Ah

pulled

him

close,

clutched

him

with

tenderness.

Later,

I

would

tell

myself

I

hadn't

felt

envious

of

Hassan.

N

ot

at

all.

We

stayed

huddled

that

way

until

the

early

hours

of

the

morning.

The

shootings

and

explosions

had

lasted

less

than

an

hour,

but

they

had

frightened

us

badly,

because

none

of

us

had

ever

heard

gunshots

in

the

streets.

They

were

foreign

sounds

to

us

then.

The

generation

of

Afghan

children

whose

ears

would

know

nothing

but

the

sounds

of

bombs

and

gunfire

was

not

yet

born.

Huddled

together

in

the

dining

room

and

waiting

for

the

sun

to

rise,

none

of

us

had

any

notion

that

a

way

of

life

had

ended.

Our

way

of

life.

If

not

quite

yet,

then

at

least

it

was

the

beginning

of

the

end.

The

end,

the

_official_

end,

would

come

first

in

April

1978

with

the

communist

coup

d'etat,

and

then

in

December

1979,

when

Russian

tanks

would

roll

into

the

very

same

streets

where

Hassan

and

I

played,

bringing

the

death

of

the

Afghanistan

I

knew

and

marking

the

start

of

a

still

ongoing

era

of

bloodletting.

Just

before

sunrise,

Baba's

car

peeled

into

the

driveway.

His

door

slammed

shut

and

his

running

footsteps

pounded

the

stairs.

Then

he

appeared

in

the

doorway

and

I

saw

something

on

his

face.

Something

I

didn't

recognize

right

away

because

I'd

never

seen

it

before:

fear.

"Amir!

Hassan!"

he

exclaimed

as

he

ran

to

us,

opening

his

arms

wide.

"They

blocked

all

the

roads

and

the

telephone

didn't

work.

I

was

so

worried!"

We

let

him

wrap

us

in

his

arms

and,

for

a

brief

insane

moment,

I

was

glad

about

whatever

had

happened

that

night.

THEY

WEREN'T

SHOOTING

ducks

after

all.

As

it

turned

out,

they

hadn't

shot

much

of

anything

that

night

of

July

17,

1973.

Kabul

awoke

the

next

morning

to

find

that

the

monarchy

was

a

thing

of

the

past.

The

king,

Zahir

Shah,

was

away

in

Italy.

In

his

absence,

his

cousin

Daoud

Khan

had

ended

the

king's

forty-year

reign

with

a

bloodless

coup.

I

remember

Hassan

and

I

crouching

that

next

morning

outside

my

father's

study,

as

Baba

and

Rahim

Khan

sipped

black

tea

and

listened

to

breaking

news

of

the

coup

on

Radio

Kabul.

"Amir

agha?"

Hassan

whispered.

"What?"

"What's

a

'republic'?"

I

shrugged.

"I

don't

know."

On

Baba's

radio,

they

were

saying

that

word,

republic,"

over

and

over

again.

'Amir

agha?

"What?"

"Does

'republic'

mean

Father

and

I

will

have

to

move

away?"

"I

don't

think

so,"

I

whispered

back.

Hassan

considered

this.

"Amir

agha?"

"What?"

"I

don't

want

them

to

send

me

and

Father

away."

I

smiled.

"_Bas_,

you

donkey.

No

one's

sending

you

away."

"Amir

agha?"

"What?"

"Do

you

want

to

go

climb

our

tree?"

My

smile

broadened.

That

was

another

thing

about

Hassan.

He

always

knew

when

to

say

the

right

thing--the

news

on

the

radio

was

getting

pretty

boring.

Hassan

went

to

his

shack

to

get

ready

and

I

ran

upstairs

to

grab

a

book.

Then

I

went

to

the

kitchen,

stuffed

my

pockets

with

handfuls

of

pine

nuts,

and

ran

outside

to

find

Hassan

waiting

for

me.

We

burst

through

the

front

gates

and

headed

for

the

hill.

We

crossed

the

residential

street

and

were

trekking

through

a

barren

patch

of

rough

land

that

led

to

the

hill

when,

suddenly,

a

rock

struck

Hassan

in

the

back.

We

whirled

around

and

my

heart

dropped.

Assef

and

two

of

his

friends,

Wali

and

Kamal,

were

approaching

us.

Assef

was

the

son

of

one

of

my

father's

friends,

Mahmood,

an

airline

pilot.

His

family

lived

a

few

streets

south

of

our

home,

in

a

posh,

high-walled

compound

with

palm

trees.

If

you

were

a

kid

living

in

the

Wazir

Akbar

Khan

section

of

Kabul,

you

knew

about

Assef

and

his

famous

stainless-steel

brass

knuckles,

hopefully

not

through

personal

experience.

Born

to

a

German

mother

and

Afghan

father,

the

blond,

blue-eyed

Assef

towered

over

the

other

kids.

His

well-earned

reputation

for

savagery

preceded

him

on

the

streets.

Flanked

by

his

obeying

friends,

he

walked

the

neighborhood

like

a

Khan

strolling

through

his

land

with

his

eager-to-please

entourage.

His

word

was

law,

and

if

you

needed

a

little

legal

education,

then

those

brass

knuckles

were

just

the

right

teaching

tool.

I

saw

him

use

those

knuckles

once

on

a

kid

from

the

Karteh-Char

district.

I

will

never

forget

how

Assef's

blue

eyes

glinted

with

a

light

not

entirely

sane

and

how

he

grinned,

how

he

_grinned_,

as

he

pummeled

that

poor

kid

unconscious.

Some

of

the

boys

in

Wazir

Akbar

Khan

had

nicknamed

him

Assef

_Goshkhor_,

or

Assef

"the

Ear

Eater."

Of

course,

none

of

them

dared

utter

it

to

his

face

unless

they

wished

to

suffer

the

same

fate

as

the

poor

kid

who

had

unwittingly

inspired

that

nickname

when

he

had

fought

Assef

over

a

kite

and

ended

up

fishing

his

right

ear

from

a

muddy

gutter.

Years

later,

I

learned

an

English

word

for

the

creature

that

Assef

was,

a

word

for

which

a

good

Farsi

equivalent

does

not

exist:

"sociopath."

Of

all

the

neighborhood

boys

who

tortured

Ali,

Assef

was

by

far

the

most

relentless.

He

was,

in

fact,

the

originator

of

the

Babalu

jeer,

_Hey,

Babalu,

who

did

you

eat

today?

Huh?

Come

on,

Babalu,

give

us

a

smile!

_

And

on

days

when

he

felt

particularly

inspired,

he

spiced

up

his

badgering

a

little,

_Hey,

you

flat-nosed

Babalu,

who

did

you

eat

today?

Tell

us,

you

slant-eyed

donkeyL

Now

he

was

walking

toward

us,

hands

on

his

hips,

his

sneakers

kicking

up

little

puffs

of

dust.

"Good

morning,

_kunis_!"

Assef

exclaimed,

waving.

"Fag,"

that

was

another

of

his

favorite

insults.

Hassan

retreated

behind

me

as

the

three

older

boys

closed

in.

They

stood

before

us,

three

tall

boys

dressed

in

jeans

and

T-

shirts.

Towering

over

us

all,

Assef

crossed

his

thick

arms

on

his

chest,

a

savage

sort

of

grin

on

his

lips.

N

ot

for

the

first

time,

it

occurred

to

me

that

Assef

might

not

be

entirely

sane.

It

also

occurred

to

me

how

lucky

I

was

to

have

Baba

as

my

father,

the

sole

reason,

I

believe,

Assef

had

mostly

refrained

from

harassing

me

too

much.

He

tipped

his

chin

to

Hassan.

"Hey,

Flat-Nose,"

he

said.

"How

is

Babalu?"

Hassan

said

nothing

and

crept

another

step

behind

me.

"Have

you

heard

the

news,

boys?"

Assef

said,

his

grin

never

faltering.

"The

king

is

gone.

Good

riddance.

Long

live

the

president!

My

father

knows

Daoud

Khan,

did

you

know

that,

Amir?"

"So

does

my

father,"

I

said.

In

reality,

I

had

no

idea

if

that

was

true

or

not.

"So

does

my

father,"

Assef

mimicked

me

in

a

whining

voice.

Kamal

and

Wali

cackled

in

unison.

I

wished

Baba

were

there.

"Well,

Daoud

Khan

dined

at

our

house

last

year,"

Assef

went

on.

"How

do

you

like

that,

Amir?"

I

wondered

if

anyone

would

hear

us

scream

in

this

remote

patch

of

land.

Baba's

house

was

a

good

kilometer

away.

I

wished

we'd

stayed

at

the

house.

"Do

you

know

what

I

will

tell

Daoud

Khan

the

next

time

he

comes

to

our

house

for

dinner?"

Assef

said.

"I'm

going

to

have

a

little

chat

with

him,

man

to

man,

_mard_

to

_mard_.

Tell

him

what

I

told

my

mother.

About

Hitler.

Now,

there

was

a

leader.

A

great

leader.

A

man

with

vision.

I'll

tell

Daoud

Khan

to

remember

that

if

they

had

let

Hitler

finish

what

he

had

started,

the

world

be

a

better

place

now"

"Baba

says

Hitler

was

crazy,

that

he

ordered

a

lot

of

innocent

people

killed,"

I

heard

myself

say

before

I

could

clamp

a

hand

on

my

mouth.

Assef

snickered.

"He

sounds

like

my

mother,

and

she's

German;

she

should

know

better.

But

then

they

want

you

to

believe

that,

don't

they?

They

don't

want

you

to

know

the

truth."

I

didn't

know

who

"they"

were,

or

what

truth

they

were

hiding,

and

I

didn't

want

to

find

out.

I

wished

I

hadn't

said

anything.

I

wished

again

I'd

look

up

and

see

Baba

coming

up

the

hill.

"But

you

have

to

read

books

they

don't

give

out

in

school,"

Assef

said.

"I

have.

And

my

eyes

have

been

opened.

Now

I

have

a

vision,

and

I'm

going

to

share

it

with

our

new

president.

Do

you

know

what

it

is?"

I

shook

my

head.

He'd

tell

me

anyway;

Assef

always

answered

his

own

questions.

His

blue

eyes

flicked

to

Hassan.

"Afghanistan

is

the

land

of

Pashtuns.

It

always

has

been,

always

will

be.

We

are

the

true

Afghans,

the

pure

Afghans,

not

this

Flat-Nose

here.

His

people

pollute

our

homeland,

our

watan.

They

dirty

our

blood."

He

made

a

sweeping,

grandiose

gesture

with

his

hands.

"Afghanistan

for

Pashtuns,

I

say.

That's

my

vision."

Assef

shifted

his

gaze

to

me

again.

He

looked

like

someone

coming

out

of

a

good

dream.

"Too

late

for

Hitler,"

he

said.

"But

not

for

us."

He

reached

for

something

from

the

back

pocket

of

his

jeans.

"I'll

ask

the

president

to

do

what

the

king

didn't

have

the

quwat

to

do.

T

o

rid

Afghanistan

of

all

the

dirty,

Kasseef

Hazaras."

"Just

let

us

go,

Assef,"

I

said,

hating

the

way

my

voice

trembled.

"We're

not

bothering

you."

"Oh,

you're

bothering

me,"

Assef

said.

And

I

saw

with

a

sinking

heart

what

he

had

fished

out

of

his

pocket.

Of

course.

His

stainless-steel

brass

knuckles

sparkled

in

the

sun.

"You're

bothering

me

very

much.

In

fact,

you

bother

me

more

than

this

Hazara

here.

How

can

you

talk

to

him,

play

with

him,

let

him

touch

you?"

he

said,

his

voice

dripping

with

disgust.

Wali

and

Kamal

nodded

and

grunted

in

agreement.

Assef

narrowed

his

eyes.

Shook

his

head.

When

he

spoke

again,

he

sounded

as

baffled

as

he

looked.

"How

can

you

call

him

your

'friend'?"

_But

he's

not

my

friend!_

I

almost

blurted.

_He's

my

servant!.

Had

I

really

thought

that?

Of

course

I

hadn't.

I

hadn't.

I

treated

Hassan

well,

just

like

a

friend,

better

even,

more

like

a

brother.

But

if

so,

then

why,

when

Baba's

friends

came

to

visit

with

their

kids,

didn't

I

ever

include

Hassan

in

our

games?

Why

did

I

play

with

Hassan

only

when

no

one

else

was

around?

Assef

slipped

on

the

brass

knuckles.

Gave

me

an

icy

look.

"You're

part

of

the

problem,

Amir.

If

idiots

like

you

and

your

father

didn't

take

these

people

in,

we'd

be

rid

of

them

by

now.

They'd

all

just

go

rot

in

Hazarajat

where

they

belong.

You're

a

disgrace

to

Afghanistan."

I

looked

in

his

crazy

eyes

and

saw

that

he

meant

it.

He

_really_

meant

to

hurt

me.

Assef

raised

his

fist

and

came

for

me.

There

was

a

flurry

of

rapid

movement

behind

me.

Out

of

the

corner

of

my

eye,

I

saw

Hassan

bend

down

and

stand

up

quickly.

Assef's

eyes

flicked

to

something

behind

me

and

widened

with

surprise.

I

saw

that

same

look

of

astonishment

on

Kamal

and

Wali's

faces

as

they

too

saw

what

had

happened

behind

me.

I

turned

and

came

face

to

face

with

Hassan's

slingshot.

Hassan

had

pulled

the

wide

elastic

band

all

the

way

back.

In

the

cup

was

a

rock

the

size

of

a

walnut.

Hassan

held

the

slingshot

pointed

directly

at

Assef's

face.

His

hand

trembled

with

the

strain

of

the

pulled

elastic

band

and

beads

of

sweat

had

erupted

on

his

brow.

"Please

leave

us

alone,

Agha,"

Hassan

said

in

a

flat

tone.

He'd

referred

to

Assef

as

"Agha,"

and

I

wondered

briefly

what

it

must

be

like

to

live

with

such

an

ingrained

sense

of

one's

place

in

a

hierarchy.

Assef

gritted

his

teeth.

"Put

it

down,

you

motherless

Hazara."

"Please

leave

us

be,

Agha,"

Hassan

said.

Assef

smiled.

"Maybe

you

didn't

notice,

but

there

are

three

of

us

and

two

of

you."

Hassan

shrugged.

To

an

outsider,

he

didn't

look

scared.

But

Hassan's

face

was

my

earliest

memory

and

I

knew

all

of

its

subtle

nuances,

knew

each

and

every

twitch

and

flicker

that

ever

rippled

across

it.

And

I

saw

that

he

was

scared.

He

was

scared

plenty.

"You

are

right,

Agha.

But

perhaps

you

didn't

notice

that

I'm

the

one

holding

the

slingshot.

If

you

make

a

move,

they'll

have

to

change

your

nickname

from

Assef

'the

Ear

Eater'

to

'One-Eyed

Assef,'

because

I

have

this

rock

pointed

at

your

left

eye."

He

said

this

so

flatly

that

even

I

had

to

strain

to

hear

the

fear

that

1

knew

hid

under

that

calm

voice.

Assef's

mouth

twitched.

Wali

and

Kamal

watched

this

exchange

with

something

akin

to

fascination.

Someone

had

challenged

their

god.

Humiliated

him.

And,

worst

of

all,

that

someone

was

a

skinny

Hazara.

Assef

looked

from

the

rock

to

Hassan.

He

searched

Hassan's

face

intently.

What

he

found

in

it

must

have

convinced

him

of

the

seriousness

of

Hassan's

intentions,

because

he

lowered

his

fist.

"You

should

know

something

about

me,

Hazara,"

Assef

said

gravely.

"I'm

a

very

patient

person.

This

doesn't

end

today,

believe

me."

He

turned

to

me.

"This

isn't

the

end

for

you

either,

Amir.

Someday,

I'll

make

you

face

me

one

on

one."

Assef

retreated

a

step.

His

disciples

followed.

"Your

Hazara

made

a

big

mistake

today,

Amir,"

he

said.

They

then

turned

around,

walked

away.

I

watched

them

walk

down

the

hill

and

disappear

behind

a

wall.

Hassan

was

trying

to

tuck

the

slingshot

in

his

waist

with

a

pair

of

trembling

hands.

His

mouth

curled

up

into

something

that

was

supposed

to

be

a

reassuring

smile.

It

took

him

five

tries

to

tie

the

string

of

his

trousers.

Neither

one

of

us

said

much

of

anything

as

we

walked

home

in

trepidation,

certain

that

Assef

and

his

friends

would

ambush

us

every

time

we

turned

a

corner.

They

didn't

and

that

should

have

comforted

us

a

little.

But

it

didn't.

Not

at

all.

FOR

THE

NEXT

COUPLE

of

years,

the

words

_economic

development,

and

_reform_

danced

on

a

lot

of

lips

in

Kabul.

The

constitutional

monarchy

had

been

abolished,

replaced

by

a

republic,

led

by

a

president

of

the

republic.

For

a

while,

a

sense

of

rejuvenation

and

purpose

swept

across

the

land.

People

spoke

of

women's

rights

and

modern

technology.

And

for

the

most

part,

even

though

a

new

leader

lived

in

_Arg_--the

royal

palace

in

Kabul--life

went

on

as

before.

People

went

to

work

Saturday

through

Thursday

and

gathered

for

picnics

on

Fridays

in

parks,

on

the

banks

of

Ghargha

Lake,

in

the

gardens

of

Paghman.

Multicolored

buses

and

lorries

filled

with

passengers

rolled

through

the

narrow

streets

of

Kabul,

led

by

the

constant

shouts

of

the

driver

assistants

who

straddled

the

vehicles'

rear

bumpers

and

yelped

directions

to

the

driver

in

their

thick

Kabuli

accent.

On

_Eid_,

the

three

days

of

celebration

after

the

holy

month

of

Ramadan,

Kabulis

dressed

in

their

best

and

newest

clothes

and

visited

their

families.

People

hugged

and

kissed

and

greeted

each

other

with

"_Eid

Mubarak_."

Happy

Eid.

Children

opened

gifts

and

played

with

dyed

hard-boiled

eggs.

Early

that

following

winter

of

1974,

Hassan

and

I

were

playing

in

the

yard

one

day,

building

a

snow

fort,

when

Ah

called

him

in.

"Hassan,

Agha

sahib

wants

to

talk

to

you!"

He

was

standing

by

the

front

door,

dressed

in

white,

hands

tucked

under

his

armpits,

breath

puffing

from

his

mouth.

Hassan

and

I

exchanged

a

smile.

We'd

been

waiting

for

his

call

all

day:

It

was

Hassan's

birthday.

"What

is

it,

Father,

do

you

know?

Will

you

tell

us?"

Hassan

said.

His

eyes

were

gleaming.

Ali

shrugged.

"Agha

sahib

hasn't

discussed

it

with

me."

"Come

on,

Ali,

tell

us,"

I

pressed.

"Is

it

a

drawing

book?

Maybe

a

new

pistol?"

Like

Hassan,

Ali

was

incapable

of

lying.

Every

year,

he

pretended

not

to

know

what

Baba

had

bought

Hassan

or

me

for

our

birthdays.

And

every

year,

his

eyes

betrayed

him

and

we

coaxed

the

goods

out

of

him.

This

time,

though,

it

seemed

he

was

telling

the

truth.

Baba

never

missed

Hassan's

birthday.

For

a

while,

he

used

to

ask

Hassan

what

he

wanted,

but

he

gave

up

doing

that

because

Hassan

was

always

too

modest

to

actually

suggest

a

present.

So

every

winter

Baba

picked

something

out

himself.

He

bought

him

a

Japanese

toy

truck

one

year,

an

electric

locomotive

and

train

track

set

another

year.

The

previous

year,

Baba

had

surprised

Hassan

with

a

leather

cowboy

hat

just

like

the

one

Clint

Eastwood

wore

in

_The

Good,

the

Bad,

and

the

Ugly_-which

had

unseated

_The

Magnificent

Seven_

as

our

favorite

Western.

That

whole

winter,

Hassan

and

I

took

turns

wearing

the

hat,

and

belted

out

the

film's

famous

music

as

we

climbed

mounds

of

snow

and

shot

each

other

dead.

We

took

off

our

gloves

and

removed

our

snow-laden

boots

at

the

front

door.

When

we

stepped

into

the

foyer,

we

found

Baba

sitting

by

the

wood-

burning

cast-iron

stove

with

a

short,

balding

Indian

man

dressed

in

a

brown

suit

and

red

tie.

"Hassan,"

Baba

said,

smiling

coyly,

"meet

your

birthday

present."

Hassan

and

I

traded

blank

looks.

There

was

no

gift-wrapped

box

in

sight.

No

bag.

No

toy.

Just

Ali

standing

behind

us,

and

Baba

with

this

slight

Indian

fellow

who

looked

a

little

like

a

mathematics

teacher.

The

Indian

man

in

the

brown

suit

smiled

and

offered

Hassan

his

hand.

"I

am

Dr.

Kumar,"

he

said.

"It's

a

pleasure

to

meet

you."

He

spoke

Farsi

with

a

thick,

rolling

Hindi

accent.

"_Salaam

alaykum_,"

Hassan

said

uncertainly.

He

gave

a

polite

tip

of

the

head,

but

his

eyes

sought

his

father

behind

him.

Ali

moved

closer

and

set

his

hand

on

Hassan's

shoulder.

Baba

met

Hassan's

wary-and

puzzled-eyes.

"I

have

summoned

Dr.

Kumar

from

New

Delhi.

Dr.

Kumar

is

a

plastic

surgeon."

"Do

you

know

what

that

is?"

the

Indian

man-Dr.

Kumar-said.

Hassan

shook

his

head.

He

looked

to

me

for

help

but

I

shrugged.

All

I

knew

was

that

you

went

to

a

surgeon

to

fix

you

when

you

had

appendicitis.

I

knew

this

because

one

of

my

classmates

had

died

of

it

the

year

before

and

the

teacher

had

told

us

they

had

waited

too

long

to

take

him

to

a

surgeon.

We

both

looked

to

Ah,

but

of

course

with

him

you

could

never

tell.

His

face

was

impassive

as

ever,

though

something

sober

had

melted

into

his

eyes.

"Well,"

Dr.

Kumar

said,

"my

job

is

to

fix

things

on

people's

bodies.

Sometimes

their

faces."

"Oh,"

Hassan

said.

He

looked

from

Dr.

Kumar

to

Baba

to

Ali.

His

hand

touched

his

upper

lip.

"Oh,"

he

said

again.

"It's

an

unusual

present,

I

know,"

Baba

said.

"And

probably

not

what

you

had

in

mind,

but

this

present

will

last

you

forever."

"Oh,"

Hassan

said.

He

licked

his

lips.

Cleared

his

throat.

"Agha

sahib,

will

it...

will

it--"

"Nothing

doing,"

Dr.

Kumar

intervened,

smiling

kindly.

"It

will

not

hurt

you

one

bit.

In

fact,

I

will

give

you

a

medicine

and

you

will

not

remember

a

thing."

"Oh,"

Hassan

said.

He

smiled

back

with

relief.

A

little

relief

anyway.

"I

wasn't

scared,

Agha

sahib,

I

just..."

Hassan

might

have

been

fooled,

but

I

wasn't.

I

knew

that

when

doctors

said

it

wouldn't

hurt,

that's

when

you

knew

you

were

in

trouble.

With

dread,

I

remembered

my

circumcision

the

year

prior.

The

doctor

had

given

me

the

same

line,

reassured

me

it

wouldn't

hurt

one

bit.

But

when

the

numbing

medicine

wore

off

later

that

night,

it

felt

like

someone

had

pressed

a

red

hot

coal

to

my

loins.

Why

Baba

waited

until

I

was

ten

to

have

me

circumcised

was

beyond

me

and

one

of

the

things

I

will

never

forgive

him

for.

I

wished

I

too

had

some

kind

of

scar

that

would

beget

Baba's

sympathy.

It

wasn't

fair.

Hassan

hadn't

done

anything

to

earn

Baba's

affections;

he'd

just

been

born

with

that

stupid

harelip.

The

surgery

went

well.

We

were

all

a

little

shocked

when

they

first

removed

the

bandages,

but

kept

our

smiles

on

just

as

Dr.

Kumar

had

instructed

us.

It

wasn't

easy,

because

Hassan's

upper

lip

was

a

grotesque

mesh

of

swollen,

raw

tissue.

I

expected

Hassan

to

cry

with

horror

when

the

nurse

handed

him

the

mirror.

Ah

held

his

hand

as

Hassan

took

a

long,

thoughtful

look

into

it.

He

muttered

something

I

didn't

understand.

I

put

my

ear

to

his

mouth.

He

whispered

it

again.

"_Tashakor_."

Thank

you.

Then

his

lips

twisted,

and,

that

time,

I

knew

just

what

he

was

doing.

He

was

smiling.

Just

as

he

had,

emerging

from

his

mother's

womb.

The

swelling

subsided,

and

the

wound

healed

with

time.

Soon,

it

was

just

a

pink

jagged

line

running

up

from

his

lip.

By

the

following

winter,

it

was

only

a

faint

scar.

Which

was

ironic.

Because

that

was

the

winter

that

Hassan

stopped

smiling.

SIX

Winter.

Here

is

what

I

do

on

the

first

day

of

snowfall

every

year:

I

step

out

of

the

house

early

in

the

morning,

still

in

my

pajamas,

hugging

my

arms

against

the

chill.

I

find

the

driveway,

my

father's

car,

the

walls,

the

trees,

the

rooftops,

and

the

hills

buried

under

a

foot

of

snow.

I

smile.

The

sky

is

seamless

and

blue,

the

snow

so

white

my

eyes

burn.

I

shovel

a

handful

of

the

fresh

snow

into

my

mouth,

listen

to

the

muffled

stillness

broken

only

by

the

cawing

of

crows.

I

walk

down

the

front

steps,

barefoot,

and

call

for

Hassan

to

come

out

and

see.

Winter

was

every

kid's

favorite

season

in

Kabul,

at

least

those

whose

fathers

could

afford

to

buy

a

good

iron

stove.

The

reason

was

simple:

They

shut

down

school

for

the

icy

season.

Winter

to

me

was

the

end

of

long

division

and

naming

the

capital

of

Bulgaria,

and

the

start

of

three

months

of

playing

cards

by

the

stove

with

Hassan,

free

Russian

movies

on

Tuesday

mornings

at

Cinema

Park,

sweet

turnip

_qurma_

over

rice

for

lunch

after

a

morning

of

building

snowmen.

And

kites,

of

course.

Flying

kites.

And

running

them.

For

a

few

unfortunate

kids,

winter

did

not

spell

the

end

of

the

school

year.

There

were

the

so-called

voluntary

winter

courses.

No

kid

I

knew

ever

volunteered

to

go

to

these

classes;

parents,

of

course,

did

the

volunteering

for

them.

Fortunately

for

me,

Baba

was

not

one

of

them.

I

remember

one

kid,

Ahmad,

who

lived

across

the

street

from

us.

His

father

was

some

kind

of

doctor,

I

think.

Ahmad

had

epilepsy

and

always

wore

a

wool

vest

and

thick

black-rimmed

glasses-he

was

one

of

Assef's

regular

victims.

Every

morning,

I

watched

from

my

bedroom

window

as

their

Hazara

servant

shoveled

snow

from

the

driveway,

cleared

the

way

for

the

black

Opel.

I

made

a

point

of

watching

Ahmad

and

his

father

get

into

the

car,

Ahmad

in

his

wool

vest

and

winter

coat,

his

schoolbag

filled

with

books

and

pencils.

I

waited

until

they

pulled

away,

turned

the

corner,

then

I

slipped

back

into

bed

in

my

flannel

pajamas.

I

pulled

the

blanket

to

my

chin

and

watched

the

snowcapped

hills

in

the

north

through

the

window.

Watched

them

until

1

drifted

back

to

sleep.

I

loved

wintertime

in

Kabul.

I

loved

it

for

the

soft

pattering

of

snow

against

my

window

at

night,

for

the

way

fresh

snow

crunched

under

my

black

rubber

boots,

for

the

warmth

of

the

cast-iron

stove

as

the

wind

screeched

through

the

yards,

the

streets.

But

mostly

because,

as

the

trees

froze

and

ice

sheathed

the

roads,

the

chill

between

Baba

and

me

thawed

a

little.

And

the

reason

for

that

was

the

kites.

Baba

and

I

lived

in

the

same

house,

but

in

different

spheres

of

existence.

Kites

were

the

one

paper

thin

slice

of

intersection

between

those

spheres.

EVERY

WINTER,

districts

in

Kabul

held

a

kite-fighting

tournament.

And

if

you

were

a

boy

living

in

Kabul,

the

day

of

the

tournament

was

undeniably

the

highlight

of

the

cold

season.

I

never

slept

the

night

before

the

tournament.

I'd

roll

from

side

to

side,

make

shadow

animals

on

the

wall,

even

sit

on

the

balcony

in

the

dark,

a

blanket

wrapped

around

me.

I

felt

like

a

soldier

trying

to

sleep

in

the

trenches

the

night

before

a

major

battle.

And

that

wasn't

so

far

off.

In

Kabul,

fighting

kites

was

a

little

like

going

to

war.

As

with

any

war,

you

had

to

ready

yourself

for

battle.

For

a

while,

Hassan

and

I

used

to

build

our

own

kites.

We

saved

our

weekly

allowances

in

the

fall,

dropped

the

money

in

a

little

porcelain

horse

Baba

had

brought

one

time

from

Herat.

When

the

winds

of

winter

began

to

blow

and

snow

fell

in

chunks,

we

undid

the

snap

under

the

horse's

belly.

We

went

to

the

bazaar

and

bought

bamboo,

glue,

string,

and

paper.

We

spent

hours

every

day

shaving

bamboo

for

the

center

and

cross

spars,

cutting

the

thin

tissue

paper

which

made

for

easy

dipping

and

recovery

And

then,

of

course,

we

had

to

make

our

own

string,

or

tar.

If

the

kite

was

the

gun,

then

_tar_,

the

glass-coated

cutting

line,

was

the

bullet

in

the

chamber.

We'd

go

out

in

the

yard

and

feed

up

to

five

hundred

feet

of

string

through

a

mixture

of

ground

glass

and

glue.

We'd

then

hang

the

line

between

the

trees,

leave

it

to

dry.

The

next

day,

we'd

wind

the

battle-ready

line

around

a

wooden

spool.

By

the

time

the

snow

melted

and

the

rains

of

spring

swept

in,

every

boy

in

Kabul

bore

telltale

horizontal

gashes

on

his

fingers

from

a

whole

winter

of

fighting

kites.

I

remember

how

my

classmates

and

I

used

to

huddle,

compare

our

battle

scars

on

the

first

day

of

school.

The

cuts

stung

and

didn't

heal

for

a

couple

of

weeks,

but

I

didn't

mind.

They

were

reminders

of

a

beloved

season

that

had

once

again

passed

too

quickly.

Then

the

class

captain

would

blow

his

whistle

and

we'd

march

in

a

single

file

to

our

classrooms,

longing

for

winter

already,

greeted

instead

by

the

specter

of

yet

another

long

school

year.

But

it

quickly

became

apparent

that

Hassan

and

I

were

better

kite

fighters

than

kite

makers.

Some

flaw

or

other

in

our

design

always

spelled

its

doom.

So

Baba

started

taking

us

to

Saifo's

to

buy

our

kites.

Saifo

was

a

nearly

blind

old

man

who

was

a

_moochi_

by

profession--a

shoe

repairman.

But

he

was

also

the

city's

most

famous

kite

maker,

working

out

of

a

tiny

hovel

on

Jadeh

Maywand,

the

crowded

street

south

of

the

muddy

banks

of

the

Kabul

River.

I

remember

you

had

to

crouch

to

enter

the

prison

cell-sized

store,

and

then

had

to

lift

a

trapdoor

to

creep

down

a

set

of

wooden

steps

to

the

dank

basement

where

Saifo

stored

his

coveted

kites.

Baba

would

buy

us

each

three

identical

kites

and

spools

of

glass

string.

If

I

changed

my

mind

and

asked

for

a

bigger

and

fancier

kite,

Baba

would

buy

it

for

me-but

then

he'd

buy

it

for

Hassan

too.

Sometimes

I

wished

he

wouldn't

do

that.

Wished

he'd

let

me

be

the

favorite.

The

kite-fighting

tournament

was

an

old

winter

tradition

in

Afghanistan.

It

started

early

in

the

morning

on

the

day

of

the

contest

and

didn't

end

until

only

the

winning

kite

flew

in

the

sky-I

remember

one

year

the

tournament

outlasted

daylight.

People

gathered

on

sidewalks

and

roofs

to

cheer

for

their

kids.

The

streets

filled

with

kite

fighters,

jerking

and

tugging

on

their

lines,

squinting

up

to

the

sky,

trying

to

gain

position

to

cut

the

opponent's

line.

Every

kite

fighter

had

an

assistant-in

my

case,

Hassan-who

held

the

spool

and

fed

the

line.

One

time,

a

bratty

Hindi

kid

whose

family

had

recently

moved

into

the

neighborhood

told

us

that

in

his

hometown,

kite

fighting

had

strict

rules

and

regulations.

"You

have

to

play

in

a

boxed

area

and

you

have

to

stand

at

a

right

angle

to

the

wind,"

he

said

proudly.

"And

you

can't

use

aluminum

to

make

your

glass

string."

Hassan

and

I

looked

at

each

other.

Cracked

up.

The

Hindi

kid

would

soon

learn

what

the

British

learned

earlier

in

the

century,

and

what

the

Russians

would

eventually

learn

by

the

late

1980s:

that

Afghans

are

an

independent

people.

Afghans

cherish

custom

but

abhor

rules.

And

so

it

was

with

kite

fighting.

The

rules

were

simple:

No

rules.

Fly

your

kite.

Cut

the

opponents.

Good

luck.

Except

that

wasn't

all.

The

real

fun

began

when

a

kite

was

cut.

That

was

where

the

kite

runners

came

in,

those

kids

who

chased

the

windblown

kite

drifting

through

the

neighborhoods

until

it

came

spiraling

down

in

a

field,

dropping

in

someone's

yard,

on

a

tree,

or

a

rooftop.

The

chase

got

pretty

fierce;

hordes

of

kite

runners

swarmed

the

streets,

shoved

past

each

other

like

those

people

from

Spain

I'd

read

about

once,

the

ones

who

ran

from

the

bulls.

One

year

a

neighborhood

kid

climbed

a

pine

tree

for

a

kite.

A

branch

snapped

under

his

weight

and

he

fell

thirty

feet.

Broke

his

back

and

never

walked

again.

But

he

fell

with

the

kite

still

in

his

hands.

And

when

a

kite

runner

had

his

hands

on

a

kite,

no

one

could

take

it

from

him.

That

wasn't

a

rule.

That

was

custom.

For

kite

runners,

the

most

coveted

prize

was

the

last

fallen

kite

of

a

winter

tournament.

It

was

a

trophy

of

honor,

something

to

be

displayed

on

a

mantle

for

guests

to

admire.

When

the

sky

cleared

of

kites

and

only

the

final

two

remained,

every

kite

runner

readied

himself

for

the

chance

to

land

this

prize.

He

positioned

himself

at

a

spot

that

he

thought

would

give

him

a

head

start.

Tense

muscles

readied

themselves

to

uncoil.

Necks

craned.

Eyes

crinkled.

Fights

broke

out.

And

when

the

last

kite

was

cut,

all

hell

broke

loose.

Over

the

years,

I

had

seen

a

lot

of

guys

run

kites.

But

Hassan

was

by

far

the

greatest

kite

runner

I'd

ever

seen.

It

was

downright

eerie

the

way

he

always

got

to

the

spot

the

kite

would

land

before

the

kite

did,

as

if

he

had

some

sort

of

inner

compass.

I

remember

one

overcast

winter

day,

Hassan

and

I

were

running

a

kite.

I

was

chasing

him

through

neighborhoods,

hopping

gutters,

weaving

through

narrow

streets.

I

was

a

year

older

than

him,

but

Hassan

ran

faster

than

I

did,

and

I

was

falling

behind.

"Hassan!

Wait!"

I

yelled,

my

breathing

hot

and

ragged.

He

whirled

around,

motioned

with

his

hand.

"This

way!"

he

called

before

dashing

around

another

corner.

I

looked

up,

saw

that

the

direction

we

were

running

was

opposite

to

the

one

the

kite

was

drifting.

"We're

losing

it!

We're

going

the

wrong

way!"

I

cried

out.

"Trust

me!"

I

heard

him

call

up

ahead.

I

reached

the

corner

and

saw

Hassan

bolting

along,

his

head

down,

not

even

looking

at

the

sky,

sweat

soaking

through

the

back

of

his

shirt.

I

tripped

over

a

rock

and

fell--I

wasn't

just

slower

than

Hassan

but

clumsier

too;

I'd

always

envied

his

natural

athieticism.

When

I

staggered

to

my

feet,

I

caught

a

glimpse

of

Hassan

disappearing

around

another

street

corner.

I

hobbled

after

him,

spikes

of

pain

battering

my

scraped

knees.

I

saw

we

had

ended

up

on

a

rutted

dirt

road

near

Isteqial

Middle

School.

There

was

a

field

on

one

side

where

lettuce

grew

in

the

summer,

and

a

row

of

sour

cherry

trees

on

the

other.

I

found

Hassan

sitting

cross-legged

at

the

foot

of

one

of

the

trees,

eating

from

a

fistful

of

dried

mulberries.

"What

are

we

doing

here?"

I

panted,

my

stomach

roiling

with

nausea.

He

smiled.

"Sit

with

me,

Amir

agha."

I

dropped

next

to

him,

lay

on

a

thin

patch

of

snow,

wheezing.

"You're

wasting

our

time.

It

was

going

the

other

way,

didn't

you

see?"

Hassan

popped

a

mulberry

in

his

mouth.

"It's

coming,"

he

said.

I

could

hardly

breathe

and

he

didn't

even

sound

tired.

"How

do

you

know?"

I

said.

"I

know."

"How

can

you

know?"

He

turned

to

me.

A

few

sweat

beads

rolled

from

his

bald

scalp.

"Would

I

ever

lie

to

you,

Amir

agha?"

Suddenly

I

decided

to

toy

with

him

a

little.

"I

don't

know.

Would

you?"

"I'd

sooner

eat

dirt,"

he

said

with

a

look

of

indignation.

Really?

You'd

do

that?

He

threw

me

a

puzzled

look.

"Do

what?

"Eat

dirt

if

I

told

you

to,"

I

said.

I

knew

I

was

being

cruel,

like

when

I'd

taunt

him

if

he

didn't

know

some

big

word.

But

there

was

something

fascinating-

-albeit

in

a

sick

way--about

teasing

Hassan.

Kind

of

like

when

we

used

to

play

insect

torture.

Except

now,

he

was

the

ant

and

I

was

holding

the

magnifying

glass.

His

eyes

searched

my

face

for

a

long

time.

We

sat

there,

two

boys

under

a

sour

cherry

tree,

suddenly

looking,

really

looking,

at

each

other.

That's

when

it

happened

again:

Hassan's

face

changed.

Maybe

not_changed_,

not

really,

but

suddenly

I

had

the

feeling

I

was

looking

at

two

faces,

the

one

I

knew,

the

one

that

was

my

first

memory,

and

another,

a

second

face,

this

one

lurking

just

beneath

the

surface.

I'd

seen

it

happen

before--it

always

shook

me

up

a

little.

It

just

appeared,

this

other

face,

for

a

fraction

of

a

moment,

long

enough

to

leave

me

with

the

unsettling

feeling

that

maybe

I'd

seen

it

someplace

before.

Then

Hassan

blinked

and

it

was

just

him

again.

Just

Hassan.

"If

you

asked,

I

would,"

he

finally

said,

looking

right

at

me.

I

dropped

my

eyes.

To

this

day,

I

find

it

hard

to

gaze

directly

at

people

like

Hassan,

people

who

mean

every

word

they

say.

"But

I

wonder,"

he

added.

"Would

you

ever

ask

me

to

do

such

a

thing,

Amir

agha?"

And,

just

like

that,

he

had

thrown

at

me

his

own

little

test.

If

I

was

going

to

toy

with

him

and

challenge

his

loyalty,

then

he'd

toy

with

me,

test

my

integrity.

I

wished

I

hadn't

started

this

conversation.

I

forced

a

smile.

"Don't

be

stupid,

Hassan.

You

know

I

wouldn't."

Hassan

returned

the

smile.

Except

his

didn't

look

forced.

"I

know,"

he

said.

And

that's

the

thing

about

people

who

mean

everything

they

say.

They

think

everyone

else

does

too.

"Here

it

comes,"

Hassan

said,

pointing

to

the

sky.

He

rose

to

his

feet

and

walked

a

few

paces

to

his

left.

I

looked

up,

saw

the

kite

plummeting

toward

us.

I

heard

footfalls,

shouts,

an

approaching

melee

of

kite

runners.

But

they

were

wasting

their

time.

Because

Hassan

stood

with

his

arms

wide

open,

smiling,

waiting

for

the

kite.

And

may

God--if

He

exists,

that

is--strike

me

blind

if

the

kite

didn't

just

drop

into

his

outstretched

arms.

IN

THE

WINTER

OF

1975,

1

saw

Hassan

run

a

kite

for

the

last

time.

Usually,

each

neighborhood

held

its

own

competition.

But

that

year,

the

tournament

was

going

to

be

held

in

my

neighborhood,

Wazir

Akbar

Khan,

and

several

other

districts--Karteh-Char,

Karteh-Parwan,

Mekro-Rayan,

and

Koteh-

Sangi-had

been

invited.

You

could

hardly

go

anywhere

without

hearing

talk

of

the

upcoming

tournament.

Word

had

it

this

was

going

to

be

the

biggest

tournament

in

twenty-five

years.

One

night

that

winter,

with

the

big

contest

only

four

days

away,

Baba

and

I

sat

in

his

study

in

overstuffed

leather

chairs

by

the

glow

of

the

fireplace.

We

were

sipping

tea,

talking.

Ali

had

served

dinner

earlier-potatoes

and

curried

cauliflower

over

rice-and

had

retired

for

the

night

with

Hassan.

Baba

was

fattening

his

pipe

and

I

was

asking

him

to

tell

the

story

about

the

winter

a

pack

of

wolves

had

descended

from

the

mountains

in

Herat

and

forced

everyone

to

stay

indoors

for

a

week,

when

he

lit

a

match

and

said,

casually,

"I

think

maybe

you'll

win

the

tournament

this

year.

What

do

you

think?"

I

didn't

know

what

to

think.

Or

what

to

say.

Was

that

what

it

would

take?

Had

he

just

slipped

me

a

key?

I

was

a

good

kite

fighter.

Actually,

a

very

good

one.

A

few

times,

I'd

even

come

close

to

winning

the

winter

tournament-once,

I'd

made

it

to

the

final

three.

But

coming

close

wasn't

the

same

as

winning,

was

it?

Baba

hadn't

_come

close_.

He

had

won

because

winners

won

and

everyone

else

just

went

home.

Baba

was

used

to

winning,

winning

at

everything

he

set

his

mind

to.

Didn't

he

have

a

right

to

expect

the

same

from

his

son?

And

just

imagine.

If

I

did

win...

Baba

smoked

his

pipe

and

talked.

I

pretended

to

listen.

But

I

couldn't

listen,

not

really,

because

Baba's

casual

little

comment

had

planted

a

seed

in

my

head:

the

resolution

that

I

would

win

that

winter's

tournament.

I

was

going

to

win.

There

was

no

other

viable

option.

I

was

going

to

win,

and

I

was

going

to

run

that

last

kite.

Then

I'd

bring

it

home

and

show

it

to

Baba.

Show

him

once

and

for

all

that

his

son

was

worthy.

Then

maybe

my

life

as

a

ghost

in

this

house

would

finally

be

over.

I

let

myself

dream:

I

imagined

conversation

and

laughter

over

dinner

instead

of

silence

broken

only

by

the

clinking

of

silverware

and

the

occasional

grunt.

I

envisioned

us

taking

a

Friday

drive

in

Baba's

car

to

Paghman,

stopping

on

the

way

at

Ghargha

Lake

for

some

fried

trout

and

potatoes.

We'd

go

to

the

zoo

to

see

Marjan

the

lion,

and

maybe

Baba

wouldn't

yawn

and

steal

looks

at

his

wristwatch

all

the

time.

Maybe

Baba

would

even

read

one

of

my

stories.

I'd

write

him

a

hundred

if

I

thought

he'd

read

one.

Maybe

he'd

call

me

Amir

jan

like

Rahim

Khan

did.

And

maybe,

just

maybe,

I

would

finally

be

pardoned

for

killing

my

mother.

Baba

was

telling

me

about

the

time

he'd

cut

fourteen

kites

on

the

same

day.

I

smiled,

nodded,

laughed

at

all

the

right

places,

but

I

hardly

heard

a

word

he

said.

I

had

a

mission

now.

And

I

wasn't

going

to

fail

Baba.

Not

this

time.

IT

SNOWED

HEAVILY

the

night

before

the

tournament.

Hassan

and

I

sat

under

the

kursi

and

played

panjpar

as

wind-rattled

tree

branches

tapped

on

the

window.

Earlier

that

day,

I'd

asked

Ali

to

set

up

the

kursi

for

us-which

was

basically

an

electric

heater

under

a

low

table

covered

with

a

thick,

quilted

blanket.

Around

the

table,

he

arranged

mattresses

and

cushions,

so

as

many

as

twenty

people

could

sit

and

slip

their

legs

under.

Hassan

and

I

used

to

spend

entire

snowy

days

snug

under

the

kursi,

playing

chess,

cards-mostly

panjpar.

I

killed

Hassan's

ten

of

diamonds,

played

him

two

jacks

and

a

six.

Next

door,

in

Baba's

study,

Baba

and

Rahim

Khan

were

discussing

business

with

a

couple

of

other

men-one

of

them

I

recognized

as

Assef's

father.

Through

the

wall,

I

could

hear

the

scratchy

sound

of

Radio

Kabul

News.

Hassan

killed

the

six

and

picked

up

the

jacks.

On

the

radio,

Daoud

Khan

was

announcing

something

about

foreign

investments.

"He

says

someday

we'll

have

television

in

Kabul,"

I

said.

Who?

Daoud

Khan,

you

ass,

the

president

Hassan

giggled.

"I

heard

they

already

have

it

in

Iran,"

he

said.

I

sighed.

"Those

Iranians..."

For

a

lot

of

Hazaras,

Iran

represented

a

sanctuary

of

sorts--I

guess

because,

like

Hazaras,

most

Iranians

were

Shi'a

Muslims.

But

I

remembered

something

my

teacher

had

said

that

summer

about

Iranians,

that

they

were

grinning

smooth

talkers

who

patted

you

on

the

back

with

one

hand

and

picked

your

pocket

with

the

other.

I

told

Baba

about

that

and

he

said

my

teacher

was

one

of

those

jealous

Afghans,

jealous

because

Iran

was

a

rising

power

in

Asia

and

most

people

around

the

world

couldn't

even

find

Afghanistan

on

a

world

map.

"It

hurts

to

say

that,"

he

said,

shrugging.

"But

better

to

get

hurt

by

the

truth

than

comforted

with

a

lie."

"I'll

buy

you

one

someday,"

I

said.

Hassan's

face

brightened.

"A

television?

In

truth?"

"Sure.

And

not

the

black-and-white

kind

either.

We'll

probably

be

grown-

ups

by

then,

but

I'll

get

us

two.

One

for

you

and

one

for

me."

"I'll

put

it

on

my

table,

where

I

keep

my

drawings,"

Hassan

said.

His

saying

that

made

me

kind

of

sad.

Sad

for

who

Hassan

was,

where

he

lived.

For

how

he'd

accepted

the

fact

that

he'd

grow

old

in

that

mud

shack

in

the

yard,

the

way

his

father

had.

I

drew

the

last

card,

played

him

a

pair

of

queens

and

a

ten.

Hassan

picked

up

the

queens.

"You

know,

I

think

you're

going

to

make

Agha

sahib

very

proud

tomorrow."

"You

think

so?"

Inshallah_,"

he

said.

"_Inshallah_,"

I

echoed,

though

the

"God

willing"

qualifier

didn't

sound

as

sincere

coming

from

my

lips.

That

was

the

thing

with

Hassan.

He

was

so

goddamn

pure,

you

always

felt

like

a

phony

around

him.

I

killed

his

king

and

played

him

my

final

card,

the

ace

of

spades.

He

had

to

pick

it

up.

I'd

won,

but

as

I

shuffled

for

a

new

game,

I

had

the

distinct

suspicion

that

Hassan

had

let

me

win.

"Amir

agha?"

"What?"

"You

know...

I

_like_

where

I

live."

He

was

always

doing

that,

reading

my

mind.

"It's

my

home."

"Whatever,"

I

said.

"Get

ready

to

lose

again."

SEVEN

The

next

morning,

as

he

brewed

black

tea

for

breakfast,

Hassan

told

me

he'd

had

a

dream.

"We

were

at

Ghargha

Lake,

you,

me,

Father,

Agha

sahib,

Rahim

Khan,

and

thousands

of

other

people,"

he

said.

"It

was

warm

and

sunny,

and

the

lake

was

clear

like

a

mirror.

But

no

one

was

swimming

because

they

said

a

monster

had

come

to

the

lake.

It

was

swimming

at

the

bottom,

waiting."

He

poured

me

a

cup

and

added

sugar,

blew

on

it

a

few

times.

Put

it

before

me.

"So

everyone

is

scared

to

get

in

the

water,

and

suddenly

you

kick

off

your

shoes,

Amir

agha,

and

take

off

your

shirt.

'There's

no

monster,'

you

say.

'I'll

show

you

all.'

And

before

anyone

can

stop

you,

you

dive

into

the

water,

start

swimming

away.

I

follow

you

in

and

we're

both

swimming."

"But

you

can't

swim."

Hassan

laughed.

"It's

a

dream,

Amir

agha,

you

can

do

anything.

Anyway,

everyone

is

screaming,

'Get

out!

Get

out!'

but

we

just

swim

in

the

cold

water.

We

make

it

way

out

to

the

middle

of

the

lake

and

we

stop

swimming.

We

turn

toward

the

shore

and

wave

to

the

people.

They

look

small

like

ants,

but

we

can

hear

them

clapping.

They

see

now.

There

is

no

monster,

just

water.

They

change

the

name

of

the

lake

after

that,

and

call

it

the

'Lake

of

Amir

and

Hassan,

Sultans

of

Kabul,'

and

we

get

to

charge

people

money

for

swimming

in

it."

"So

what

does

it

mean?"

I

said.

He

coated

my

_naan_

with

marmalade,

placed

it

on

a

plate.

"I

don't

know.

I

was

hoping

you

could

tell

me."

"Well,

it's

a

dumb

dream.

Nothing

happens

in

it."

"Father

says

dreams

always

mean

something."

I

sipped

some

tea.

"Why

don't

you

ask

him,

then?

He's

so

smart,"

I

said,

more

curtly

than

I

had

intended.

I

hadn't

slept

all

night.

My

neck

and

back

were

like

coiled

springs,

and

my

eyes

stung.

Still,

I

had

been

mean

to

Hassan.

I

almost

apologized,

then

didn't.

Hassan

understood

I

was

just

nervous.

Hassan

always

understood

about

me.

Upstairs,

I

could

hear

the

water

running

in

Baba's

bathroom.

THE

STREETS

GLISTENED

with

fresh

snow

and

the

sky

was

a

blameless

blue.

Snow

blanketed

every

rooftop

and

weighed

on

the

branches

of

the

stunted

mulberry

trees

that

lined

our

street.

Overnight,

snow

had

nudged

its

way

into

every

crack

and

gutter.

I

squinted

against

the

blinding

white

when

Hassan

and

I

stepped

through

the

wrought-iron

gates.

Ali

shut

the

gates

behind

us.

I

heard

him

mutter

a

prayer

under

his

breath--he

always

said

a

prayer

when

his

son

left

the

house.

I

had

never

seen

so

many

people

on

our

street.

Kids

were

flinging

snowballs,

squabbling,

chasing

one

another,

giggling.

Kite

fighters

were

huddling

with

their

spool

holders,

making

last

minute

preparations.

From

adjacent

streets,

I

could

hear

laughter

and

chatter.

Already,

rooftops

were

jammed

with

spectators

reclining

in

lawn

chairs,

hot

tea

steaming

from

thermoses,

and

the

music

of

Ahmad

Zahir

blaring

from

cassette

players.

The

immensely

popular

Ahmad

Zahir

had

revolutionized

Afghan

music

and

outraged

the

purists

by

adding

electric

guitars,

drums,

and

horns

to

the

traditional

tabla

and

harmonium;

on

stage

or

at

parties,

he

shirked

the

austere

and

nearly

morose

stance

of

older

singers

and

actually

smiled

when

he

sang--sometimes

even

at

women.

I

turned

my

gaze

to

our

rooftop,

found

Baba

and

Rahim

Khan

sitting

on

a

bench,

both

dressed

in

wool

sweaters,

sipping

tea.

Baba

waved.

I

couldn't

tell

if

he

was

waving

at

me

or

Hassan.

"We

should

get

started,"

Hassan

said.

He

wore

black

rubber

snow

boots

and

a

bright

green

chapan

over

a

thick

sweater

and

faded

corduroy

pants.

Sunlight

washed

over

his

face,

and,

in

it,

I

saw

how

well

the

pink

scar

above

his

lip

had

healed.

Suddenly

I

wanted

to

withdraw.

Pack

it

all

in,

go

back

home.

What

was

I

thinking?

Why

was

I

putting

myself

through

this,

when

I

already

knew

the

outcome?

Baba

was

on

the

roof,

watching

me.

I

felt

his

glare

on

me

like

the

heat

of

a

blistering

sun.

This

would

be

failure

on

a

grand

scale,

even

for

me.

"I'm

not

sure

I

want

to

fly

a

kite

today,"

I

said.

"It's

a

beautiful

day,"

Hassan

said.

I

shifted

on

my

feet.

Tried

to

peel

my

gaze

away

from

our

rooftop.

"I

don't

know.

Maybe

we

should

go

home."

Then

he

stepped

toward

me

and,

in

a

low

voice,

said

something

that

scared

me

a

little.

"Remember,

Amir

agha.

There's

no

monster,

just

a

beautiful

day."

How

could

I

be

such

an

open

book

to

him

when,

half

the

time,

I

had

no

idea

what

was

milling

around

in

his

head?

I

was

the

one

who

went

to

school,

the

one

who

could

read,

write.

I

was

the

smart

one.

Hassan

couldn't

read

a

first

grade

textbook

but

he'd

read

me

plenty.

That

was

a

little

unsettling,

but

also

sort

of

comfortable

to

have

someone

who

always

knew

what

you

needed.

"No

monster,"

I

said,

feeling

a

little

better,

to

my

own

surprise.

He

smiled.

"No

monster."

"Are

you

sure?"

He

closed

his

eyes.

Nodded.

I

looked

to

the

kids

scampering

down

the

street,

flinging

snowballs.

"It

is

a

beautiful

day,

isn't

it?"

"Let's

fly,"

he

said.

It

occurred

to

me

then

that

maybe

Hassan

had

made

up

his

dream.

Was

that

possible?

I

decided

it

wasn't.

Hassan

wasn't

that

smart.

I

wasn't

that

smart.

But

made

up

or

not,

the

silly

dream

had

lifted

some

of

my

anxiety.

Maybe

I

should

take

off

my

shirt,

take

a

swim

in

the

lake.

Why

not?

"Let's

do

it,"

I

said.

Hassan's

face

brightened.

"Good,"

he

said.

He

lifted

our

kite,

red

with

yellow

borders,

and,

just

beneath

where

the

central

and

cross

spars

met,

marked

with

Saifo's

unmistakable

signature.

He

licked

his

finger

and

held

it

up,

tested

the

wind,

then

ran

in

its

direction--on

those

rare

occasions

we

flew

kites

in

the

summer,

he'd

kick

up

dust

to

see

which

way

the

wind

blew

it.

The

spool

rolled

in

my

hands

until

Hassan

stopped,

about

fifty

feet

away.

He

held

the

kite

high

over

his

head,

like

an

Olympic

athlete

showing

his

gold

medal.

I

jerked

the

string

twice,

our

usual

signal,

and

Hassan

tossed

the

kite.

Caught

between

Baba

and

the

mullahs

at

school,

I

still

hadn't

made

up

my

mind

about

God.

But

when

a

Koran

ayat

I

had

learned

in

my

diniyat

class

rose

to

my

lips,

1

muttered

it.

I

took

a

deep

breath,

exhaled,

and

pulled

on

the

string.

Within

a

minute,

my

kite

was

rocketing

to

the

sky.

It

made

a

sound

like

a

paper

bird

flapping

its

wings.

Hassan

clapped

his

hands,

whistled,

and

ran

back

to

me.

I

handed

him

the

spool,

holding

on

to

the

string,

and

he

spun

it

quickly

to

roll

the

loose

string

back

on.

At

least

two

dozen

kites

already

hung

in

the

sky,

like

paper

sharks

roaming

for

prey.

Within

an

hour,

the

number

doubled,

and

red,

blue,

and

yellow

kites

glided

and

spun

in

the

sky.

A

cold

breeze

wafted

through

my

hair.

The

wind

was

perfect

for

kite

flying,

blowing

just

hard

enough

to

give

some

lift,

make

the

sweeps

easier.

Next

to

me,

Hassan

held

the

spool,

his

hands

already

bloodied

by

the

string.

Soon,

the

cutting

started

and

the

first

of

the

defeated

kites

whirled

out

of

control.

They

fell

from

the

sky

like

shooting

stars

with

brilliant,

rippling

tails,

showering

the

neighborhoods

below

with

prizes

for

the

kite

runners.

I

could

hear

the

runners

now,

hollering

as

they

ran

the

streets.

Someone

shouted

reports

of

a

fight

breaking

out

two

streets

down.

I

kept

stealing

glances

at

Baba

sitting

with

Rahim

Khan

on

the

roof,

wondered

what

he

was

thinking.

Was

he

cheering

for

me?

Or

did

a

part

of

him

enjoy

watching

me

fail?

That

was

the

thing

about

kite

flying:

Your

mind

drifted

with

the

kite.

They

were

coming

down

all

over

the

place

now,

the

kites,

and

I

was

still

flying.

I

was

still

flying.

My

eyes

kept

wandering

over

to

Baba,

bundled

up

in

his

wool

sweater.

Was

he

surprised

I

had

lasted

as

long

as

I

had?

You

don't

keep

your

eyes

to

the

sky,

you

won't

last

much

longer.

I

snapped

my

gaze

back

to

the

sky.

A

red

kite

was

closing

in

on

me--I'd

caught

it

just

in

time.

I

tangled

a

bit

with

it,

ended

up

besting

him

when

he

became

impatient

and

tried

to

cut

me

from

below.

Up

and

down

the

streets,

kite

runners

were

returning

triumphantly,

their

captured

kites

held

high.

They

showed

them

off

to

their

parents,

their

friends.

But

they

all

knew

the

best

was

yet

to

come.

The

biggest

prize

of

all

was

still

flying.

I

sliced

a

bright

yellow

kite

with

a

coiled

white

tail.

It

cost

me

another

gash

on

the'

index

finger

and

blood

trickled

down

into

my

palm.

I

had

Hassan

hold

the

string

and

sucked

the

blood

dry,

blotted

my

finger

against

my

jeans.

Within

another

hour,

the

number

of

surviving

kites

dwindled

from

maybe

fifty

to

a

dozen.

I

was

one

of

them.

I'd

made

it

to

the

last

dozen.

I

knew

this

part

of

the

tournament

would

take

a

while,

because

the

guys

who

had

lasted

this

long

were

good-they

wouldn't

easily

fall

into

simple

traps

like

the

old

lift-and-dive,

Hassan's

favorite

trick.

By

three

o'clock

that

afternoon,

tufts

of

clouds

had

drifted

in

and

the

sun

had

slipped

behind

them.

Shadows

started

to

lengthen.

The

spectators

on

the

roofs

bundled

up

in

scarves

and

thick

coats.

We

were

down

to

a

half

dozen

and

I

was

still

flying.

My

legs

ached

and

my

neck

was

stiff.

But

with

each

defeated

kite,'

hope

grew

in

my

heart,

like

snow

collecting

on

a

wall,

one

flake

at

a

time.

My

eyes

kept

returning

to

a

blue

kite

that

had

been

wreaking

havoc

for

the

last

hour.

"How

many

has

he

cut?"

I

asked.

"I

counted

eleven,"

Hassan

said.

"Do

you

know

whose

it

might

be?"

Hassan

clucked

his

tongue

and

tipped

his

chin.

That

was

a

trademark

Hassan

gesture,

meant

he

had

no

idea.

The

blue

kite

sliced

a

big

purple

one

and

swept

twice

in

big

loops.

Ten

minutes

later,

he'd

cut

another

two,

sending

hordes

of

kite

runners

racing

after

them.

After

another

thirty

minutes,

only

four

kites

remained.

And

I

was

still

flying.

It

seemed

I

could

hardly

make

a

wrong

move,

as

if

every

gust

of

wind

blew

in

my

favor.

I'd

never

felt

so

in

command,

so

lucky

It

felt

intoxicating.

I

didn't

dare

look

up

to

the

roof.

Didn't

dare

take

my

eyes

off

the

sky.

I

had

to

concentrate,

play

it

smart.

Another

fifteen

minutes

and

what

had

seemed

like

a

laughable

dream

that

morning

had

suddenly

become

reality:

It

was

just

me

and

the

other

guy.

The

blue

kite.

The

tension

in

the

air

was

as

taut

as

the

glass

string

I

was

tugging

with

my

bloody

hands.

People

were

stomping

their

feet,

clapping,

whistling,

chanting,

"Boboresh!

Boboresh!"

Cut

him!

Cut

him!

I

wondered

if

Baba's

voice

was

one

of

them.

Music

blasted.

The

smell

of

steamed

mantu

and

fried

pakora

drifted

from

rooftops

and

open

doors.

But

all

I

heard--all

I

willed

myself

to

hear--was

the

thudding

of

blood

in

my

head.

All

I

saw

was

the

blue

kite.

All

I

smelled

was

victory.

Salvation.

Redemption.

If

Baba

was

wrong

and

there

was

a

God

like

they

said

in

school,

then

He'd

let

me

win.

I

didn't

know

what

the

other

guy

was

playing

for,

maybe

just

bragging

rights.

But

this

was

my

one

chance

to

become

someone

who

was

looked

at,

not

seen,

listened

to,

not

heard.

If

there

was

a

God,

He'd

guide

the

winds,

let

them

blow

for

me

so

that,

with

a

tug

of

my

string,

I'd

cut

loose

my

pain,

my

longing.

I'd

endured

too

much,

come

too

far.

And

suddenly,

just

like

that,

hope

became

knowledge.

I

was

going

to

win.

It

was

just

a

matter

of

when.

It

turned

out

to

be

sooner

than

later.

A

gust

of

wind

lifted

my

kite

and

I

took

advantage.

Fed

the

string,

pulled

up.

Looped

my

kite

on

top

of

the

blue

one.

I

held

position.

The

blue

kite

knew

it

was

in

trouble.

It

was

trying

desperately

to

maneuver

out

of

the

jam,

but

I

didn't

let

go.

I

held

position.

The

crowd

sensed

the

end

was

at

hand.

The

chorus

of

"Cut

him!

Cut

him!"

grew

louder,

like

Romans

chanting

for

the

gladiators

to

kill,

kill!

"You're

almost

there,

Amir

agha!

Almost

there!"

Hassan

was

panting.

Then

the

moment

came.

I

closed

my

eyes

and

loosened

my

grip

on

the

string.

It

sliced

my

fingers

again

as

the

wind

dragged

it.

And

then...

I

didn't

need

to

hear

the

crowd's

roar

to

know

I

didn't

need

to

see

either.

Hassan

was

screaming

and

his

arm

was

wrapped

around

my

neck.

"Bravo!

Bravo,

Amir

agha!"

I

opened

my

eyes,

saw

the

blue

kite

spinning

wildly

like

a

tire

come

loose

from

a

speeding

car.

I

blinked,

tried

to

say

something.

Nothing

came

out.

Suddenly

I

was

hovering,

looking

down

on

myself

from

above.

Black

leather

coat,

red

scarf,

faded

jeans.

A

thin

boy,

a

little

sallow,

and

a

tad

short

for

his

twelve

years.

He

had

narrow

shoulders

and

a

hint

of

dark

circles

around

his

pale

hazel

eyes.

The

breeze

rustled

his

light

brown

hair.

He

looked

up

to

me

and

we

smiled

at

each

other.

Then

I

was

screaming,

and

everything

was

color

and

sound,

everything

was

alive

and

good.

I

was

throwing

my

free

arm

around

Hassan

and

we

were

hopping

up

and

down,

both

of

us

laughing,

both

of

us

weeping.

"You

won,

Amir

agha!

You

won!"

"We

won!

We

won!"

was

all

I

could

say.

This

wasn't

happening.

In

a

moment,

I'd

blink

and

rouse

from

this

beautiful

dream,

get

out

of

bed,

march

down

to

the

kitchen

to

eat

breakfast

with

no

one

to

talk

to

but

Hassan.

Get

dressed.

Wait

for

Baba.

Give

up.

Back

to

my

old

life.

Then

I

saw

Baba

on

our

roof.

He

was

standing

on

the

edge,

pumping

both

of

his

fists.

Hollering

and

clapping.

And

that

right

there

was

the

single

greatest

moment

of

my

twelve

years

of

life,

seeing

Baba

on

that

roof,

proud

of

me

at

last.

But

he

was

doing

something

now,

motioning

with

his

hands

in

an

urgent

way.

Then

I

understood.

"Hassan,

we--"

"I

know,"

he

said,

breaking

our

embrace.

"_Inshallah_,

we'll

celebrate

later.

Right

now,

I'm

going

to

run

that

blue

kite

for

you,"

he

said.

He

dropped

the

spool

and

took

off

running,

the

hem

of

his

green

chapan

dragging

in

the

snow

behind

him.

"Hassan!"

I

called.

"Come

back

with

it!"

He

was

already

turning

the

street

corner,

his

rubber

boots

kicking

up

snow.

He

stopped,

turned.

He

cupped

his

hands

around

his

mouth.

"For

you

a

thousand

times

over!"

he

said.

Then

he

smiled

his

Hassan

smile

and

disappeared

around

the

corner.

The

next

time

I

saw

him

smile

unabashedly

like

that

was

twenty-six

years

later,

in

a

faded

Polaroid

photograph.

I

began

to

pull

my

kite

back

as

people

rushed

to

congratulate

me.

I

shook

hands

with

them,

said

my

thanks.

The

younger

kids

looked

at

me

with

an

awestruck

twinkle

in

their

eyes;

I

was

a

hero.

Hands

patted

my

back

and

tousled

my

hair.

I

pulled

on

the

string

and

returned

every

smile,

but

my

mind

was

on

the

blue

kite.

Finally,

I

had

my

kite

in

hand.

I

wrapped

the

loose

string

that

had

collected

at

my

feet

around

the

spool,

shook

a

few

more

hands,

and

trotted

home.

When

I

reached

the

wrought-iron

gates,

Ali

was

waiting

on

the

other

side.

He

stuck

his

hand

through

the

bars.

"Congratulations,"

he

said.

I

gave

him

my

kite

and

spool,

shook

his

hand.

"Tashakor,

Ah

jan.

"1

was

praying

for

you

the

whole

time."

"Then

keep

praying.

We're

not

done

yet."

I

hurried

back

to

the

street.

I

didn't

ask

Ah

about

Baba.

I

didn't

want

to

see

him

yet.

In

my

head,

I

had

it

all

planned:

I'd

make

a

grand

entrance,

a

hero,

prized

trophy

in

my

bloodied

hands.

Heads

would

turn

and

eyes

would

lock.

Rostam

and

Sohrab

sizing

each

other

up.

A

dramatic

moment

of

silence.

Then

the

old

warrior

would

walk

to

the

young

one,

embrace

him,

acknowledge

his

worthiness.

Vindication.

Salvation.

Redemption.

And

then?

Well...

happily

ever

after,

of

course.

What

else?

The

streets

of

Wazir

Akbar

Khan

were

numbered

and

set

at

right

angles

to

each

other

like

a

grid.

It

was

a

new

neighborhood

then,

still

developing,

with

empty

lots

of

land

and

half-constructed

homes

on

every

street

between

compounds

surrounded

by

eight-foot

walls.

I

ran

up

and

down

every

street,

looking

for

Hassan.

Everywhere,

people

were

busy

folding

chairs,

packing

food

and

utensils

after

a

long

day

of

partying.

Some,

still

sitting

on

their

rooftops,

shouted

their

congratulations

to

me.

Four

streets

south

of

ours,

I

saw

Omar,

the

son

of

an

engineer

who

was

a

friend

of

Baba's.

He

was

dribbling

a

soccer

ball

with

his

brother

on

the

front

lawn

of

their

house.

Omar

was

a

pretty

good

guy.

We'd

been

classmates

in

fourth

grade,

and

one

time

he'd

given

me

a

fountain

pen,

the

kind

you

had

to

load

with

a

cartridge.

"I

heard

you

won,

Amir,"

he

said.

"Congratulations."

"Thanks.

Have

you

seen

Hassan?"

"Your

Hazara?"

I

nodded.

Omar

headed

the

ball

to

his

brother.

"I

hear

he's

a

great

kite

runner."

His

brother

headed

the

ball

back

to

him.

Omar

caught

it,

tossed

it

up

and

down.

"Although

I've

always

wondered

how

he

manages.

I

mean,

with

those

tight

little

eyes,

how

does

he

see

anything?"

His

brother

laughed,

a

short

burst,

and

asked

for

the

ball.

Omar

ignored

him.

"Have

you

seen

him?"

Omar

flicked

a

thumb

over

his

shoulder,

pointing

southwest.

"I

saw

him

running

toward

the

bazaar

awhile

ago."

"Thanks."

I

scuttled

away.

By

the

time

I

reached

the

marketplace,

the

sun

had

almost

sunk

behind

the

hills

and

dusk

had

painted

the

sky

pink

and

purple.

A

few

blocks

away,

from

the

Haji

Yaghoub

Mosque,

the

mullah

bellowed

azan,

calling

for

the

faithful

to

unroll

their

rugs

and

bow

their

heads

west

in

prayer.

Hassan

never

missed

any

of

the

five

daily

prayers.

Even

when

we

were

out

playing,

he'd

excuse

himself,

draw

water

from

the

well

in

the

yard,

wash

up,

and

disappear

into

the

hut.

He'd

come

out

a

few

minutes

later,

smiling,

find

me

sitting

against

the

wall

or

perched

on

a

tree.

He

was

going

to

miss

prayer

tonight,

though,

because

of

me.

The

bazaar

was

emptying

quickly,

the

merchants

finishing

up

their

haggling

for

the

day.

I

trotted

in

the

mud

between

rows

of

closely

packed

cubicles

where

you

could

buy

a

freshly

slaughtered

pheasant

in

one

stand

and

a

calculator

from

the

adjacent

one.

I

picked

my

way

through

the

dwindling

crowd,

the

lame

beggars

dressed

in

layers

of

tattered

rags,

the

vendors

with

rugs

on

their

shoulders,

the

cloth

merchants

and

butchers

closing

shop

for

the

day.

I

found

no

sign

of

Hassan.

I

stopped

by

a

dried

fruit

stand,

described

Hassan

to

an

old

merchant

loading

his

mule

with

crates

of

pine

seeds

and

raisins.

He

wore

a

powder

blue

turban.

He

paused

to

look

at

me

for

a

long

time

before

answering.

"I

might

have

seen

him."

Which

way

did

he

go?

He

eyed

me

up

and

down.

"What

is

a

boy

like

you

doing

here

at

this

time

of

the

day

looking

for

a

Hazara?"

His

glance

lingered

admiringly

on

my

leather

coat

and

my

jeans-cowboy

pants,

we

used

to

call

them.

In

Afghanistan,

owning

anything

American,

especially

if

it

wasn't

secondhand,

was

a

sign

of

wealth.

"I

need

to

find

him,

Agha."

"What

is

he

to

you?"

he

said.

I

didn't

see

the

point

of

his

question,

but

I

reminded

myself

that

impatience

wasn't

going

to

make

him

tell

me

any

faster.

"He's

our

servant's

son,"

1

said.

The

old

man

raised

a

pepper

gray

eyebrow.

"He

is?

Lucky

Hazara,

having

such

a

concerned

master.

His

father

should

get

on

his

knees,

sweep

the

dust

at

your

feet

with

his

eyelashes."

"Are

you

going

to

tell

me

or

not?"

He

rested

an

arm

on

the

mule's

back,

pointed

south.

"I

think

I

saw

the

boy

you

described

running

that

way.

He

had

a

kite

in

his

hand.

A

blue

one."

"He

did?"

I

said.

For

you

a

thousand

times

over,

he'd

promised.

Good

old

Hassan.

Good

old

reliable

Hassan.

He'd

kept

his

promise

and

run

the

last

kite

for

me.

"Of

course,

they've

probably

caught

him

by

now,"

the

old

merchant

said,

grunting

and

loading

another

box

on

the

mule's

back.

Who?

"The

other

boys,"

he

said.

"The

ones

chasing

him.

They

were

dressed

like

you."

He

glanced

to

the

sky

and

sighed.

"Now,

run

along,

you're

making

me

late

for

nainaz."

But

I

was

already

scrambling

down

the

lane.

For

the

next

few

minutes,

I

scoured

the

bazaar

in

vain.

Maybe

the

old

merchant's

eyes

had

betrayed

him.

Except

he'd

seen

the

blue

kite.

The

thought

of

getting

my

hands

on

that

kite...

I

poked

my

head

behind

every

lane,

every

shop.

No

sign

of

Hassan.

I

had

begun

to

worry

that

darkness

would

fall

before

I

found

Hassan

when

I

heard

voices

from

up

ahead.

I'd

reached

a

secluded,

muddy

road.

It

ran

perpendicular

to

the

end

of

the

main

thoroughfare

bisecting

the

bazaar.

I

turned

onto

the

rutted

track

and

followed

the

voices.

My

boot

squished

in

mud

with

every

step

and

my

breath

puffed

out

in

white

clouds

before

me.

The

narrow

path

ran

parallel

on

one

side

to

a

snow-filled

ravine

through

which

a

stream

may

have

tumbled

in

the

spring.

To

my

other

side

stood

rows

of

snow-burdened

cypress

trees

peppered

among

flat-topped

clay

houses-no

more

than

mud

shacks

in

most

cases-separated

by

narrow

alleys.

I

heard

the

voices

again,

louder

this

time,

coming

from

one

of

the

alleys.

I

crept

close

to

the

mouth

of

the

alley.

Held

my

breath.

Peeked

around

the

corner.

Hassan

was

standing

at

the

blind

end

of

the

alley

in

a

defiant

stance:

fists

curled,

legs

slightly

apart.

Behind

him,

sitting

on

piles

of

scrap

and

rubble,

was

the

blue

kite.

My

key

to

Baba's

heart.

Blocking

Hassan's

way

out

of

the

alley

were

three

boys,

the

same

three

from

that

day

on

the

hill,

the

day

after

Daoud

Khan's

coup,

when

Hassan

had

saved

us

with

his

slingshot.

Wali

was

standing

on

one

side,

Kamal

on

the

other,

and

in

the

middle,

Assef.

I

felt

my

body

clench

up,

and

something

cold

rippled

up

my

spine.

Assef

seemed

relaxed,

confident.

He

was

twirling

his

brass

knuckles.

The

other

two

guys

shifted

nervously

on

their

feet,

looking

from

Assef

to

Hassan,

like

they'd

cornered

some

kind

of

wild

animal

that

only

Assef

could

tame.

"Where

is

your

slingshot,

Hazara?"

Assef

said,

turning

the

brass

knuckles

in

his

hand.

"What

was

it

you

said?

'They'll

have

to

call

you

One-Eyed

Assef.'

That's

right.

One-Eyed

Assef.

That

was

clever.

Really

clever.

Then

again,

it's

easy

to

be

clever

when

you're

holding

a

loaded

weapon."

I

realized

1

still

hadn't

breathed

out.

I

exhaled,

slowly,

quietly.

I

felt

paralyzed.

I

watched

them

close

in

on

the

boy

I'd

grown

up

with,

the

boy

whose

harelipped

face

had

been

my

first

memory.

"But

today

is

your

lucky

day,

Hazara,"

Assef

said.

He

had

his

back

to

me,

but

I

would

have

bet

he

was

grinning.

"I'm

in

a

mood

to

forgive.

What

do

you

say

to

that,

boys?"

"That's

generous,"

Kamal

blurted,

"Especially

after

the

rude

manners

he

showed

us

last

time."

He

was

trying

to

sound

like

Assef,

except

there

was

a

tremor

in

his

voice.

Then

I

understood:

He

wasn't

afraid

of

Hassan,

not

really.

He

was

afraid

because

he

had

no

idea

what

Assef

had

in

mind.

Assef

waved

a

dismissive

hand.

"Bakhshida.

Forgiven.

It's

done."

His

voice

dropped

a

little.

"Of

course,

nothing

is

free

in

this

world,

and

my

pardon

comes

with

a

small

price."

"That's

fair,"

Kamal

said.

"Nothing

is

free,"

Wali

added.

"You're

a

lucky

Hazara,"

Assef

said,

taking

a

step

toward

Hassan.

"Because

today,

it's

only

going

to

cost

you

that

blue

kite.

A

fair

deal,

boys,

isn't

it?"

"More

than

fair,"

Kamal

said.

Even

from

where

I

was

standing,

I

could

see

the

fear

creeping

into

Hassan's

eyes,

but

he

shook

his

head.

"Amir

agha

won

the

tournament

and

I

ran

this

kite

for

him.

I

ran

it

fairly.

This

is

his

kite."

"A

loyal

Hazara.

Loyal

as

a

dog,"

Assef

said.

Kamal's

laugh

was

a

shrill,

nervous

sound.

"But

before

you

sacrifice

yourself

for

him,

think

about

this:

Would

he

do

the

same

for

you?

Have

you

ever

wondered

why

he

never

includes

you

in

games

when

he

has

guests?

Why

he

only

plays

with

you

when

no

one

else

is

around?

I'll

tell

you

why,

Hazara.

Because

to

him,

you're

nothing

but

an

ugly

pet.

Something

he

can

play

with

when

he's

bored,

something

he

can

kick

when

he's

angry.

Don't

ever

fool

yourself

and

think

you're

something

more."

"Amir

agha

and

I

are

friends,"

Hassan

said.

He

looked

flushed.

"Friends?"

Assef

said,

laughing.

"You

pathetic

fool!

Someday

you'll

wake

up

from

your

little

fantasy

and

learn

just

how

good

of

a

friend

he

is.

Now,

has!

Enough

of

this.

Give

us

that

kite."

Hassan

stooped

and

picked

up

a

rock.

Assef

flinched.

He

began

to

take

a

step

back,

stopped.

"Last

chance,

Hazara."

Hassan's

answer

was

to

cock

the

arm

that

held

the

rock.

"Whatever

you

wish."

Assef

unbuttoned

his

winter

coat,

took

it

off,

folded

it

slowly

and

deliberately.

He

placed

it

against

the

wall.

I

opened

my

mouth,

almost

said

something.

Almost.

The

rest

of

my

life

might

have

turned

out

differently

if

I

had.

But

I

didn't.

I

just

watched.

Paralyzed.

Assef

motioned

with

his

hand,

and

the

other

two

boys

separated,

forming

a

half

circle,

trapping

Hassan

in

the

alley.

"I've

changed

my

mind,"

Assef

said.

"I'm

letting

you

keep

the

kite,

Hazara.

I'll

let

you

keep

it

so

it

will

always

remind

you

of

what

I'm

about

to

do."

Then

he

charged.

Hassan

hurled

the

rock.

It

struck

Assef

in

the

forehead.

Assef

yelped

as

he

flung

himself

at

Hassan,

knocking

him

to

the

ground.

Wali

and

Kamal

followed.

I

bit

on

my

fist.

Shut

my

eyes.

A

MEMORY:

Did

you

know

Hassan

and

you

fed

from

the

same

breast?

Did

you

know

that,

Amir

agha?

Sakina,

her

name

was.

She

was

a

fair,

blue-eyed

Hazara

woman

from

Bamiyan

and

she

sang

you

old

wedding

songs.

They

say

there

is

a

brotherhood

between

people

who've

fed

from

the

same

breast.

Did

you

know

that?

A

memory:

"A

rupia

each,

children.

Just

one

rupia

each

and

I

will

part

the

curtain

of

truth."

The

old

man

sits

against

a

mud

wall.

His

sightless

eyes

are

like

molten

silver

embedded

in

deep,

twin

craters.

Hunched

over

his

cane,

the

fortune-teller

runs

a

gnarled

hand

across

the

surface

of

his

deflated

cheeks.

Cups

it

before

us.

"Not

much

to

ask

for

the

truth,

is

it,

a

rupia

each?"

Hassan

drops

a

coin

in

the

leathery

palm.

I

drop

mine

too.

"In

the

name

of

Allah

most

beneficent,

most

merciful,"

the

old

fortune-teller

whispers.

He

takes

Hassan's

hand

first,

strokes

the

palm

with

one

horn-like

fingernail,

round

and

round,

round

and

round.

The

finger

then

floats

to

Hassan's

face

and

makes

a

dry,

scratchy

sound

as

it

slowly

traces

the

curve

of

his

cheeks,

the

outline

of

his

ears.

The

calloused

pads

of

his

fingers

brush

against

Hassan's

eyes.

The

hand

stops

there.

Lingers.

A

shadow

passes

across

the

old

man's

face.

Hassan

and

I

exchange

a

glance.

The

old

man

takes

Hassan's

hand

and

puts

the

rupia

back

in

Hassan's

palm.

He

turns

to

me.

"How

about

you,

young

friend?"

he

says.

On

the

other

side

of

the

wall,

a

rooster

crows.

The

old

man

reaches

for

my

hand

and

I

withdraw

it.

A

dream:

I

am

lost

in

a

snowstorm.

The

wind

shrieks,

blows

stinging

sheets

of

snow

into

my

eyes.

I

stagger

through

layers

of

shifting

white.

I

call

for

help

but

the

wind

drowns

my

cries.

I

fall

and

lie

panting

on

the

snow,

lost

in

the

white,

the

wind

wailing

in

my

ears.

I

watch

the

snow

erase

my

fresh

footprints.

I'm

a

ghost

now,

I

think,

a

ghost

with

no

footprints.

I

cry

out

again,

hope

fading

like

my

footprints.

But

this

time,

a

muffled

reply.

I

shield

my

eyes

and

manage

to

sit

up.

Out

of

the

swaying

curtains

of

snow,

I

catch

a

glimpse

of

movement,

a

flurry

of

color.

A

familiar

shape

materializes.

A

hand

reaches

out

for

me.

I

see

deep,

parallel

gashes

across

the

palm,

blood

dripping,

staining

the

snow.

I

take

the

hand

and

suddenly

the

snow

is

gone.

We're

standing

in

a

field

of

apple

green

grass

with

soft

wisps

of

clouds

drifting

above.

I

look

up

and

see

the

clear

sky

is

filled

with

kites,

green,

yellow,

red,

orange.

They

shimmer

in

the

afternoon

light.

A

HAVOC

OF

SCRAP

AND

RUBBLE

littered

the

alley.

Worn

bicycle

tires,

bottles

with

peeled

labels,

ripped

up

magazines,

yellowed

newspapers,

all

scattered

amid

a

pile

of

bricks

and

slabs

of

cement.

A

rusted

cast-iron

stove

with

a

gaping

hole

on

its

side

tilted

against

a

wall.

But

there

were

two

things

amid

the

garbage

that

I

couldn't

stop

looking

at:

One

was

the

blue

kite

resting

against

the

wall,

close

to

the

cast-iron

stove;

the

other

was

Hassan's

brown

corduroy

pants

thrown

on

a

heap

of

eroded

bricks.

"I

don't

know,"

Wali

was

saying.

"My

father

says

it's

sinful."

He

sounded

unsure,

excited,

scared,

all

at

the

same

time.

Hassan

lay

with

his

chest

pinned

to

the

ground.

Kamal

and

Wali

each

gripped

an

arm,

twisted

and

bent

at

the

elbow

so

that

Hassan's

hands

were

pressed

to

his

back.

Assef

was

standing

over

them,

the

heel

of

his

snow

boots

crushing

the

back

of

Hassan's

neck.

"Your

father

won't

find

out,"

Assef

said.

"And

there's

nothing

sinful

about

teaching

a

lesson

to

a

disrespectful

donkey."

"I

don't

know,"

Wali

muttered.

"Suit

yourself,"

Assef

said.

He

turned

to

Kamal.

"What

about

you?"

H

I...

well...

ii

"It's

just

a

Hazara,"

Assef

said.

But

Kamal

kept

looking

away.

"Fine,"

Assef

snapped.

"All

I

want

you

weaklings

to

do

is

hold

him

down.

Can

you

manage

that?"

Wali

and

Kamal

nodded.

They

looked

relieved.

Assef

knelt

behind

Hassan,

put

his

hands

on

Hassan's

hips

and

lifted

his

bare

buttocks.

He

kept

one

hand

on

Hassan's

back

and

undid

his

own

belt

buckle

with

his

free

hand.

He

unzipped

his

jeans.

Dropped

his

underwear.

He

positioned

himself

behind

Hassan.

Hassan

didn't

struggle.

Didn't

even

whimper.

He

moved

his

head

slightly

and

I

caught

a

glimpse

of

his

face.

Saw

the

resignation

in

it.

It

was

a

look

I

had

seen

before.

It

was

the

look

of

the

lamb.

TOMORROW

IS

THE

TENTH

DAY

of

Dhul-Hij

jah,

the

last

month

of

the

Muslim

calendar,

and

the

first

of

three

days

of

Eid

Al-Adha,

or

Eid-e-Qorban,

as

Afghans

call

it--a

day

to

celebrate

how

the

prophet

Ibrahim

almost

sacrificed

his

own

son

for

God.

Baba

has

handpicked

the

sheep

again

this

year,

a

powder

white

one

with

crooked

black

ears.

We

all

stand

in

the

backyard,

Hassan,

Ali,

Baba,

and

I.

The

mullah

recites

the

prayer,

rubs

his

beard.

Baba

mutters,

Get

on

with

it,

under

his

breath.

He

sounds

annoyed

with

the

endless

praying,

the

ritual

of

making

the

meat

halal.

Baba

mocks

the

story

behind

this

Eid,

like

he

mocks

everything

religious.

But

he

respects

the

tradition

of

Eid-e-Qorban.

The

custom

is

to

divide

the

meat

in

thirds,

one

for

the

family,

one

for

friends,

and

one

for

the

poor.

Every

year,

Baba

gives

it

all

to

the

poor.

The

rich

are

fat

enough

already,

he

says.

The

mullah

finishes

the

prayer.

Ameen.

He

picks

up

the

kitchen

knife

with

the

long

blade.

The

custom

is

to

not

let

the

sheep

see

the

knife.

Ali

feeds

the

animal

a

cube

of

sugar--another

custom,

to

make

death

sweeter.

The

sheep

kicks,

but

not

much.

The

mullah

grabs

it

under

its

jaw

and

places

the

blade

on

its

neck.

Just

a

second

before

he

slices

the

throat

in

one

expert

motion,

I

see

the

sheep's

eyes.

It

is

a

look

that

will

haunt

my

dreams

for

weeks.

I

don't

know

why

I

watch

this

yearly

ritual

in

our

backyard;

my

nightmares

persist

long

after

the

bloodstains

on

the

grass

have

faded.

But

I

always

watch.

I

watch

because

of

that

look

of

acceptance

in

the

animal's

eyes.

Absurdly,

I

imagine

the

animal

understands.

1

imagine

the

animal

sees

that

its

imminent

demise

is

for

a

higher

purpose.

This

is

the

look...

I

STOPPED

WATCHING,

turned

away

from

the

alley.

Something

warm

was

running

down

my

wrist.

I

blinked,

saw

I

was

still

biting

down

on

my

fist,

hard

enough

to

draw

blood

from

the

knuckles.

I

realized

something

else.

I

was

weeping.

From

just

around

the

corner,

I

could

hear

Assef's

quick,

rhythmic

grunts.

I

had

one

last

chance

to

make

a

decision.

One

final

opportunity

to

decide

who

I

was

going

to

be.

I

could

step

into

that

alley,

stand

up

for

Hassan--the

way

he'd

stood

up

for

me

all

those

times

in

the

past--and

accept

whatever

would

happen

to

me.

Or

I

could

run.

In

the

end,

I

ran.

I

ran

because

I

was

a

coward.

I

was

afraid

of

Assef

and

what

he

would

do

to

me.

I

was

afraid

of

getting

hurt.

That's

what

I

told

myself

as

I

turned

my

back

to

the

alley,

to

Hassan.

That's

what

I

made

myself

believe.

I

actually

aspired

to

cowardice,

because

the

alternative,

the

real

reason

I

was

running,

was

that

Assef

was

right:

Nothing

was

free

in

this

world.

Maybe

Hassan

was

the

price

I

had

to

pay,

the

lamb

I

had

to

slay,

to

win

Baba.

Was

it

a

fair

price?

The

answer

floated

to

my

conscious

mind

before

I

could

thwart

it:

He

was

just

a

Hazara,

wasn't

he?

I

ran

back

the

way

I'd

come.

Ran

back

to

the

all

but

deserted

bazaar.

I

lurched

to

a

cubicle

and

leaned

against

the

padlocked

swinging

doors.

I

stood

there

panting,

sweating,

wishing

things

had

turned

out

some

other

way.

About

fifteen

minutes

later,

I

heard

voices

and

running

footfalls.

I

crouched

behind

the

cubicle

and

watched

Assef

and

the

other

two

sprinting

by,

laughing

as

they

hurried

down

the

deserted

lane.

I

forced

myself

to

wait

ten

more

minutes.

Then

I

walked

back

to

the

rutted

track

that

ran

along

the

snow-

filled

ravine.

I

squinted

in

the

dimming

light

and

spotted

Hassan

walking

slowly

toward

me.

I

met

him

by

a

leafless

birch

tree

on

the

edge

of

the

ravine.

He

had

the

blue

kite

in

his

hands;

that

was

the

first

thing

I

saw.

And

I

can't

lie

now

and

say

my

eyes

didn't

scan

it

for

any

rips.

His

chapan

had

mud

smudges

down

the

front

and

his

shirt

was

ripped

just

below

the

collar.

He

stopped.

Swayed

on

his

feet

like

he

was

going

to

collapse.

Then

he

steadied

himself.

Handed

me

the

kite.

"Where

were

you?

I

looked

for

you,"

I

said.

Speaking

those

words

was

like

chewing

on

a

rock.

Hassan

dragged

a

sleeve

across

his

face,

wiped

snot

and

tears.

I

waited

for

him

to

say

something,

but

we

just

stood

there

in

silence,

in

the

fading

light.

I

was

grateful

for

the

early-evening

shadows

that

fell

on

Hassan's

face

and

concealed

mine.

I

was

glad

I

didn't

have

to

return

his

gaze.

Did

he

know

I

knew?

And

if

he

knew,

then

what

would

I

see

if

I

did

look

in

his

eyes?

Blame?

Indignation?

Or,

God

forbid,

what

I

feared

most:

guileless

devotion?

That,

most

of

all,

I

couldn't

bear

to

see.

He

began

to

say

something

and

his

voice

cracked.

He

closed

his

mouth,

opened

it,

and

closed

it

again.

Took

a

step

back.

Wiped

his

face.

And

that

was

as

close

as

Hassan

and

I

ever

came

to

discussing

what

had

happened

in

the

alley.

I

thought

he

might

burst

into

tears,

but,

to

my

relief,

he

didn't,

and

I

pretended

I

hadn't

heard

the

crack

in

his

voice.

Just

like

I

pretended

I

hadn't

seen

the

dark

stain

in

the

seat

of

his

pants.

Or

those

tiny

drops

that

fell

from

between

his

legs

and

stained

the

snow

black.

"Agha

sahib

will

worry,"

was

all

he

said.

He

turned

from

me

and

limped

away.

IT

HAPPENED

JUST

THE

WAY

I'd

imagined.

I

opened

the

door

to

the

smoky

study

and

stepped

in.

Baba

and

Rahim

Khan

were

drinking

tea

and

listening

to

the

news

crackling

on

the

radio.

Their

heads

turned.

Then

a

smile

played

on

my

father's

lips.

He

opened

his

arms.

I

put

the

kite

down

and

walked

into

his

thick

hairy

arms.

I

buried

my

face

in

the

warmth

of

his

chest

and

wept.

Baba

held

me

close

to

him,

rocking

me

back

and

forth.

In

his

arms,

I

forgot

what

I'd

done.

And

that

was

good.

EIGHT

For

a

week,

I

barely

saw

Hassan.

I

woke

up

to

find

toasted

bread,

brewed

tea,

and

a

boiled

egg

already

on

the

kitchen

table.

My

clothes

for

the

day

were

ironed

and

folded,

left

on

the

cane-seat

chair

in

the

foyer

where

Hassan

usually

did

his

ironing.

He

used

to

wait

for

me

to

sit

at

the

breakfast

table

before

he

started

ironing-that

way,

we

could

talk.

Used

to

sing

too,

over

the

hissing

of

the

iron,

sang

old

Hazara

songs

about

tulip

fields.

Now

only

the

folded

clothes

greeted

me.

That,

and

a

breakfast

I

hardly

finished

anymore.

One

overcast

morning,

as

I

was

pushing

the

boiled

egg

around

on

my

plate,

Ali

walked

in

cradling

a

pile

of

chopped

wood.

I

asked

him

where

Hassan

was.

"He

went

back

to

sleep,"

Ali

said,

kneeling

before

the

stove.

He

pulled

the

little

square

door

open.

Would

Hassan

be

able

to

play

today?

Ali

paused

with

a

log

in

his

hand.

A

worried

look

crossed

his

face.

"Lately,

it

seems

all

he

wants

to

do

is

sleep.

He

does

his

chores-I

see

to

that-but

then

he

just

wants

to

crawl

under

his

blanket.

Can

I

ask

you

something?"

"If

you

have

to."

"After

that

kite

tournament,

he

came

home

a

little

bloodied

and

his

shirt

was

torn.

I

asked

him

what

had

happened

and

he

said

it

was

nothing,

that

he'd

gotten

into

a

little

scuffle

with

some

kids

over

the

kite."

I

didn't

say

anything.

Just

kept

pushing

the

egg

around

on

my

plate.

"Did

something

happen

to

him,

Amir

agha?

Something

he's

not

telling

me?"

I

shrugged.

"How

should

I

know?

"You

would

tell

me,

nay?

_Inshallah_,

you

would

tell

me

if

something

had

happened?"

"Like

I

said,

how

should

I

know

what's

wrong

with

him?"

I

snapped.

"Maybe

he's

sick.

People

get

sick

all

the

time,

Ah.

Now,

am

I

going

to

freeze

to

death

or

are

you

planning

on

lighting

the

stove

today?"

THAT

NIGHT

I

asked

Baba

if

we

could

go

to

Jalalabad

on

Friday.

He

was

rocking

on

the

leather

swivel

chair

behind

his

desk,

reading

a

newspaper.

He

put

it

down,

took

off

the

reading

glasses

I

disliked

so

much--Baba

wasn't

old,

not

at

all,

and

he

had

lots

of

years

left

to

live,

so

why

did

he

have

to

wear

those

stupid

glasses?

"Why

not!"

he

said.

Lately,

Baba

agreed

to

everything

I

asked.

Not

only

that,

just

two

nights

before,

he'd

asked

me

if

I

wanted

to

see

_E1

Cid_

with

Charlton

Heston

at

Cinema

Aryana.

"Do

you

want

to

ask

Hassan

to

come

along

to

Jalalabad?"

Why

did

Baba

have

to

spoil

it

like

that?

"He's

mazreez,"

I

said.

Not

feeling

well.

"Really?"

Baba

stopped

rocking

in

his

chair.

"What's

wrong

with

him?"

I

gave

a

shrug

and

sank

in

the

sofa

by

the

fireplace.

"He's

got

a

cold

or

something.

Ali

says

he's

sleeping

it

off."

"I

haven't

seen

much

of

Hassan

the

last

few

days,"

Baba

said.

"That's

all

it

is,

then,

a

cold?"

I

couldn't

help

hating

the

way

his

brow

furrowed

with

worry.

"Just

a

cold.

So

are

we

going

Friday,

Baba?"

"Yes,

yes,"

Baba

said,

pushing

away

from

the

desk.

"Too

bad

about

Hassan.

I

thought

you

might

have

had

more

fun

if

he

came."

"Well,

the

two

of

us

can

have

fun

together,"

I

said.

Baba

smiled.

Winked.

"Dress

warm,"

he

said.

IT

SHOULD

HAVE

BEEN

just

the

two

of

us-that

was

the

way,

I

wanted

it--but

by

Wednesday

night,

Baba

had

managed

to

invite

another

two

dozen

people.

He

called

his

cousin

Homayoun--he

was

actually

Baba's

second

cousin--and

mentioned

he

was

going

to

Jalalabad

on

Friday,

and

Homayoun,

who

had

studied

engineering

in

France

and

had

a

house

in

Jalalabad,

said

he'd

love

to

have

everyone

over,

he'd

bring

the

kids,

his

two

wives,

and,

while

he

was

at

it,

cousin

Shafiqa

and

her

family

were

visiting

from

Herat,

maybe

she'd

like

to

tag

along,

and

since

she

was

staying

with

cousin

Nader

in

Kabul,

his

family

would

have

to

be

invited

as

well

even

though

Homayoun

and

Nader

had

a

bit

of

a

feud

going,

and

if

Nader

was

invited,

surely

his

brother

Faruq

had

to

be

asked

too

or

his

feelings

would

be

hurt

and

he

might

not

invite

them

to

his

daughter's

wedding

next

month

and...

We

filled

three

vans.

I

rode

with

Baba,

Rahim

Khan,

Kaka

Homayoun--

Baba

had

taught

me

at

a

young

age

to

call

any

older

male

Kaka,

or

Uncle,

and

any

older

female,

Khala,

or

Aunt.

Kaka

Homayoun's

two

wives

rode

with

us

too--the

pinch-faced

older

one

with

the

warts

on

her

hands

and

the

younger

one

who

always

smelled

of

perfume

and

danced

with

her

eyes

closed-as

did

Kaka

Homayoun's

twin

girls.

I

sat

in

the

back

row,

carsick

and

dizzy,

sandwiched

between

the

seven-year-old

twins

who

kept

reaching

over

my

lap

to

slap

at

each

other.

The

road

to

Jalalabad

is

a

two-hour

trek

through

mountain

roads

winding

along

a

steep

drop,

and

my

stomach

lurched

with

each

hairpin

turn.

Everyone

in

the

van

was

talking,

talking

loudly

and

at

the

same

time,

nearly

shrieking,

which

is

how

Afghans

talk.

I

asked

one

of

the

twins-Fazila

or

Karima,

I

could

never

tell

which

was

which-if

she'd

trade

her

window

seat

with

me

so

I

could

get

fresh

air

on

account

of

my

car

sickness.

She

stuck

her

tongue

out

and

said

no.

I

told

her

that

was

fine,

but

I

couldn't

be

held

accountable

for

vomiting

on

her

new

dress.

A

minute

later,

I

was

leaning

out

the

window.

I

watched

the

cratered

road

rise

and

fall,

whirl

its

tail

around

the

mountainside,

counted

the

multicolored

trucks

packed

with

squatting

men

lumbering

past.

I

tried

closing

my

eyes,

letting

the

wind

slap

at

my

cheeks,

opened

my

mouth

to

swallow

the

clean

air.

I

still

didn't

feel

better.

A

finger

poked

me

in

the

side.

It

was

Fazila/Karima.

What?"

I

said.

"I

was

just

telling

everyone

about

the

tournament,"

Baba

said

from

behind

the

wheel.

Kaka

Homayoun

and

his

wives

were

smiling

at

me

from

the

middle

row

of

seats.

"There

must

have

been

a

hundred

kites

in

the

sky

that

day?"

Baba

said.

"Is

that

about

right,

Amir?"

"I

guess

so,"

I

mumbled.

"A

hundred

kites,

Homayoun

jan.

No

_laaf_.

And

the

only

one

still

flying

at

the

end

of

the

day

was

Amir's.

He

has

the

last

kite

at

home,

a

beautiful

blue

kite.

Hassan

and

Amir

ran

it

together."

"Congratulations,"

Kaka

Homayoun

said.

His

first

wife,

the

one

with

the

warts,

clapped

her

hands.

"Wah

wah,

Amir

jan,

we're

all

so

proud

of

you!"

she

said.

The

younger

wife

joined

in.

Then

they

were

all

clapping,

yelping

their

praises,

telling

me

how

proud

I'd

made

them

all.

Only

Rahim

Khan,

sitting

in

the

passenger

seat

next

to

Baba,

was

silent.

He

was

looking

at

me

in

an

odd

way.

"Please

pull

over,

Baba,"

I

said.

"What?"

"Getting

sick,"

I

muttered,

leaning

across

the

seat,

pressing

against

Kaka

Homayoun's

daughters.

Fazila/Karima's

face

twisted.

"Pull

over,

Kaka!

His

face

is

yellow!

I

don't

want

him

throwing

up

on

my

new

dress!"

she

squealed.

Baba

began

to

pull

over,

but

I

didn't

make

it.

A

few

minutes

later,

I

was

sitting

on

a

rock

on

the

side

of

the

road

as

they

aired

out

the

van.

Baba

was

smoking

with

Kaka

Homayoun

who

was

telling

Fazila/Karima

to

stop

crying;

he'd

buy

her

another

dress

in

Jalalabad.

I

closed

my

eyes,

turned

my

face

to

the

sun.

Little

shapes

formed

behind

my

eyelids,

like

hands

playing

shadows

on

the

wall.

They

twisted,

merged,

formed

a

single

image:

Hassan's

brown

corduroy

pants

discarded

on

a

pile

of

old

bricks

in

the

alley.

KARA

HOMAYOUN'S

WHITE,

two-story

house

in

Jalalabad

had

a

balcony

overlooking

a

large,

walled

garden

with

apple

and

persimmon

trees.

There

were

hedges

that,

in

the

summer,

the

gardener

shaped

like

animals,

and

a

swimming

pool

with

emerald

colored

tiles.

I

sat

on

the

edge

of

the

pool,

empty

save

for

a

layer

of

slushy

snow

at

the

bottom,

feet

dangling

in.

Kaka

Homayoun's

kids

were

playing

hide-and-seek

at

the

other

end

of

the

yard.

The

women

were

cooking

and

I

could

smell

onions

frying

already,

could

hear

the

phht-phht

of

a

pressure

cooker,

music,

laughter.

Baba,

Rahim

Khan,

Kaka

Homayoun,

and

Kaka

Nader

were

sitting

on

the

balcony,

smoking.

Kaka

Homayoun

was

telling

them

he'd

brought

the

projector

along

to

show

his

slides

of

France.

Ten

years

since

he'd

returned

from

Paris

and

he

was

still

showing

those

stupid

slides.

It

shouldn't

have

felt

this

way.

Baba

and

I

were

finally

friends.

We'd

gone

to

the

zoo

a

few

days

before,

seen

Marjan

the

lion,

and

I

had

hurled

a

pebble

at

the

bear

when

no

one

was

watching.

We'd

gone

to

Dadkhoda's

Kabob

House

afterward,

across

from

Cinema

Park,

had

lamb

kabob

with

freshly

baked

_naan_

from

the

tandoor.

Baba

told

me

stories

of

his

travels

to

India

and

Russia,

the

people

he

had

met,

like

the

armless,

legless

couple

in

Bombay

who'd

been

married

forty-seven

years

and

raised

eleven

children.

That

should

have

been

fun,

spending

a

day

like

that

with

Baba,

hearing

his

stories.

I

finally

had

what

I'd

wanted

all

those

years.

Except

now

that

I

had

it,

I

felt

as

empty

as

this

unkempt

pool

I

was

dangling

my

legs

into.

The

wives

and

daughters

served

dinner-rice,

kofta,

and

chicken

_qurma_-

-at

sundown.

We

dined

the

traditional

way,

sitting

on

cushions

around

the

room,

tablecloth

spread

on

the

floor,

eating

with

our

hands

in

groups

of

four

or

five

from

common

platters.

I

wasn't

hungry

but

sat

down

to

eat

anyway

with

Baba,

Kaka

Faruq,

and

Kaka

Homayoun's

two

boys.

Baba,

who'd

had

a

few

scotches

before

dinner,

was

still

ranting

about

the

kite

tournament,

how

I'd

outlasted

them

all,

how

I'd

come

home

with

the

last

kite.

His

booming

voice

dominated

the

room.

People

raised

their

heads

from

their

platters,

called

out

their

congratulations.

Kaka

Faruq

patted

my

back

with

his

clean

hand.

I

felt

like

sticking

a

knife

in

my

eye.

Later,

well

past

midnight,

after

a

few

hours

of

poker

between

Baba

and

his

cousins,

the

men

lay

down

to

sleep

on

parallel

mattresses

in

the

same

room

where

we'd

dined.

The

women

went

upstairs.

An

hour

later,

I

still

couldn't

sleep.

I

kept

tossing

and

turning

as

my

relatives

grunted,

sighed,

and

snored

in

their

sleep.

I

sat

up.

A

wedge

of

moonlight

streamed

in

through

the

window.

"I

watched

Hassan

get

raped,"

I

said

to

no

one.

Baba

stirred

in

his

sleep.

Kaka

Homayoun

grunted.

A

part

of

me

was

hoping

someone

would

wake

up

and

hear,

so

I

wouldn't

have

to

live

with

this

lie

anymore.

But

no

one

woke

up

and

in

the

silence

that

followed,

I

understood

the

nature

of

my

new

curse:

I

was

going

to

get

away

with

it.

I

thought

about

Hassan's

dream,

the

one

about

us

swimming

in

the

lake.

There

is

no

monster,

he'd

said,

just

water.

Except

he'd

been

wrong

about

that.

There

was

a

monster

in

the

lake.

It

had

grabbed

Hassan

by

the

ankles,

dragged

him

to

the

murky

bottom.

I

was

that

monster.

That

was

the

night

I

became

an

insomniac.

I

DIDN'T

SPEAK

TO

HASSAN

until

the

middle

of

the

next

week.

I

had

just

half-

eaten

my

lunch

and

Hassan

was

doing

the

dishes.

I

was

walking

upstairs,

going

to

my

room,

when

Hassan

asked

if

I

wanted

to

hike

up

the

hill.

I

said

I

was

tired.

Hassan

looked

tired

too-he'd

lost

weight

and

gray

circles

had

formed

under

his

puffed-up

eyes.

But

when

he

asked

again,

I

reluctantly

agreed.

We

trekked

up

the

hill,

our

boots

squishing

in

the

muddy

snow.

Neither

one

of

us

said

anything.

We

sat

under

our

pomegranate

tree

and

I

knew

I'd

made

a

mistake.

I

shouldn't

have

come

up

the

hill.

The

words

I'd

carved

on

the

tree

trunk

with

Ali's

kitchen

knife,

Amir

and

Hassan:

The

Sultans

of

Kabul...

I

couldn't

stand

looking

at

them

now.

He

asked

me

to

read

to

him

from

the

_Shahnamah_

and

I

told

him

I'd

changed

my

mind.

Told

him

1

just

wanted

to

go

back

to

my

room.

He

looked

away

and

shrugged.

We

walked

back

down

the

way

we'd

gone

up

in

silence.

And

for

the

first

time

in

my

life,

I

couldn't

wait

for

spring.

MY

MEMORY

OF

THE

REST

of

that

winter

of

1975

is

pretty

hazy.

I

remember

I

was

fairly

happy

when

Baba

was

home.

We'd

eat

together,

go

to

see

a

film,

visit

Kaka

Homayoun

or

Kaka

Faruq.

Sometimes

Rahim

Khan

came

over

and

Baba

let

me

sit

in

his

study

and

sip

tea

with

them.

He'd

even

have

me

read

him

some

of

my

stories.

It

was

good

and

I

even

believed

it

would

last.

And

Baba

believed

it

too,

I

think.

We

both

should

have

known

better.

For

at

least

a

few

months

after

the

kite

tournament,

Baba

and

I

immersed

ourselves

in

a

sweet

illusion,

saw

each

other

in

a

way

that

we

never

had

before.

We'd

actually

deceived

ourselves

into

thinking

that

a

toy

made

of

tissue

paper,

glue,

and

bamboo

could

somehow

close

the

chasm

between

us.

But

when

Baba

was

out--and

he

was

out

a

lot

I

closed

myself

in

my

room.

I

read

a

book

every

couple

of

days,

wrote

stories,

learned

to

draw

horses.

I'd

hear

Hassan

shuffling

around

the

kitchen

in

the

morning,

hear

the

clinking

of

silverware,

the

whistle

of

the

teapot.

I'd

wait

to

hear

the

door

shut

and

only

then

I

would

walk

down

to

eat.

On

my

calendar,

I

circled

the

date

of

the

first

day

of

school

and

began

a

countdown.

To

my

dismay,

Hassan

kept

trying

to

rekindle

things

between

us.

I

remember

the

last

time.

I

was

in

my

room,

reading

an

abbreviated

Farsi

translation

of

Ivanhoe,

when

he

knocked

on

my

door.

"What

is

it?"

"I'm

going

to

the

baker

to

buy

_naan_,"

he

said

from

the

other

side.

"I

was

wondering

if

you...

if

you

wanted

to

come

along."

"I

think

I'm

just

going

to

read,"

I

said,

rubbing

my

temples.

Lately,

every

time

Hassan

was

around,

I

was

getting

a

headache.

"It's

a

sunny

day,"

he

said.

"I

can

see

that."

"Might

be

fun

to

go

for

a

walk."

'You

go.

"I

wish

you'd

come

along,"

he

said.

Paused.

Something

thumped

against

the

door,

maybe

his

forehead.

"I

don't

know

what

I've

done,

Amir

agha.

I

wish

you'd

tell

me.

I

don't

know

why

we

don't

play

anymore."

"You

haven't

done

anything,

Hassan.

Just

go."

"You

can

tell

me,

I'll

stop

doing

it."

I

buried

my

head

in

my

lap,

squeezed

my

temples

with

my

knees,

like

a

vice.

"I'll

tell

you

what

I

want

you

to

stop

doing,"

I

said,

eyes

pressed

shut.

"Anything."

"I

want

you

to

stop

harassing

me.

I

want

you

to

go

away,"

I

snapped.

I

wished

he

would

give

it

right

back

to

me,

break

the

door

open

and

tell

me

off--it

would

have

made

things

easier,

better.

But

he

didn't

do

anything

like

that,

and

when

I

opened

the

door

minutes

later,

he

wasn't

there.

I

fell

on

my

bed,

buried

my

head

under

the

pillow,

and

cried.

HASSAN

MILLED

ABOUT

the

periphery

of

my

life

after

that.

I

made

sure

our

paths

crossed

as

little

as

possible,

planned

my

day

that

way.

Because

when

he

was

around,

the

oxygen

seeped

out

of

the

room.

My

chest

tightened

and

I

couldn't

draw

enough

air;

I'd

stand

there,

gasping

in

my

own

little

airless

bubble

of

atmosphere.

But

even

when

he

wasn't

around,

he

was.

He

was

there

in

the

hand-washed

and

ironed

clothes

on

the

cane-seat

chair,

in

the

warm

slippers

left

outside

my

door,

in

the

wood

already

burning

in

the

stove

when

I

came

down

for

breakfast.

Everywhere

I

turned,

I

saw

signs

of

his

loyalty,

his

goddamn

unwavering

loyalty.

Early

that

spring,

a

few

days

before

the

new

school

year

started,

Baba

and

I

were

planting

tulips

in

the

garden.

Most

of

the

snow

had

melted

and

the

hills

in

the

north

were

already

dotted

with

patches

of

green

grass.

It

was

a

cool,

gray

morning,

and

Baba

was

squatting

next

to

me,

digging

the

soil

and

planting

the

bulbs

I

handed

to

him.

He

was

telling

me

how

most

people

thought

it

was

better

to

plant

tulips

in

the

fall

and

how

that

wasn't

true,

when

I

came

right

out

and

said

it.

"Baba,

have

you

ever

thought

about

getting

new

servants?"

He

dropped

the

tulip

bulb

and

buried

the

trowel

in

the

dirt.

Took

off

his

gardening

gloves.

I'd

startled

him.

"Chi?

What

did

you

say?"

"I

was

just

wondering,

that's

all."

"Why

would

I

ever

want

to

do

that?"

Baba

said

curtly.

"You

wouldn't,

I

guess.

It

was

just

a

question,"

I

said,

my

voice

fading

to

a

murmur.

I

was

already

sorry

I'd

said

it.

"Is

this

about

you

and

Hassan?

I

know

there's

something

going

on

between

you

two,

but

whatever

it

is,

you

have

to

deal

with

it,

not

me.

I'm

staying

out

of

it."

"I'm

sorry,

Baba."

He

put

on

his

gloves

again.

"I

grew

up

with

Ali,"

he

said

through

clenched

teeth.

"My

father

took

him

in,

he

loved

Ali

like

his

own

son.

Forty

years

Ali's

been

with

my

family.

Forty

goddamn

years.

And

you

think

I'm

just

going

to

throw

him

out?"

He

turned

to

me

now,

his

face

as

red

as

a

tulip.

"I've

never

laid

a

hand

on

you,

Amir,

but

you

ever

say

that

again..."

He

looked

away,

shaking

his

head.

"You

bring

me

shame.

And

Hassan...

Hassan's

not

going

anywhere,

do

you

understand?"

I

looked

down

and

picked

up

a

fistful

of

cool

soil.

Let

it

pour

between

my

fingers.

"I

said,

Do

you

understand?"

Baba

roared.

I

flinched.

"Yes,

Baba.

"Hassan's

not

going

anywhere,"

Baba

snapped.

He

dug

a

new

hole

with

the

trowel,

striking

the

dirt

harder

than

he

had

to.

"He's

staying

right

here

with

us,

where

he

belongs.

This

is

his

home

and

we're

his

family.

Don't

you

ever

ask

me

that

question

again!"

"1

won't,

Baba.

I'm

sorry."

We

planted

the

rest

of

the

tulips

in

silence.

I

was

relieved

when

school

started

that

next

week.

Students

with

new

notebooks

and

sharpened

pencils

in

hand

ambled

about

the

courtyard,

kicking

up

dust,

chatting

in

groups,

waiting

for

the

class

captains'

whistles.

Baba

drove

down

the

dirt

lane

that

led

to

the

entrance.

The

school

was

an

old

two-story

building

with

broken

windows

and

dim,

cobblestone

hallways,

patches

of

its

original

dull

yellow

paint

still

showing

between

sloughing

chunks

of

plaster.

Most

of

the

boys

walked

to

school,

and

Baba's

black

Mustang

drew

more

than

one

envious

look.

I

should

have

been

beaming

with

pride

when

he

dropped

me

off-the

old

me

would

have-but

all

I

could

muster

was

a

mild

form

of

embarrassment.

That

and

emptiness.

Baba

drove

away

without

saying

good-bye.

I

bypassed

the

customary

comparing

of

kite-fighting

scars

and

stood

in

line.

The

bell

rang

and

we

marched

to

our

assigned

class,

filed

in

in

pairs.

I

sat

in

the

back

row.

As

the

Farsi

teacher

handed

out

our

textbooks,

I

prayed

for

a

heavy

load

of

homework.

School

gave

me

an

excuse

to

stay

in

my

room

for

long

hours.

And,

for

a

while,

it

took

my

mind

off

what

had

happened

that

winter,

what

I

had

let

happen.

For

a

few

weeks,

I

preoccupied

myself

with

gravity

and

momentum,

atoms

and

cells,

the

Anglo-Afghan

wars,

instead

of

thinking

about

Hassan

and

what

had

happened

to

him.

But,

always,

my

mind

returned

to

the

alley.

To

Hassan's

brown

corduroy

pants

lying

on

the

bricks.

To

the

droplets

of

blood

staining

the

snow

dark

red,

almost

black.

One

sluggish,

hazy

afternoon

early

that

summer,

I

asked

Hassan

to

go

up

the

hill

with

me.

Told

him

I

wanted

to

read

him

a

new

story

I'd

written.

He

was

hanging

clothes

to

dry

in

the

yard

and

I

saw

his

eagerness

in

the

harried

way

he

finished

the

job.

We

climbed

the

hill,

making

small

talk.

He

asked

about

school,

what

I

was

learning,

and

I

talked

about

my

teachers,

especially

the

mean

math

teacher

who

punished

talkative

students

by

sticking

a

metal

rod

between

their

fingers

and

then

squeezing

them

together.

Hassan

winced

at

that,

said

he

hoped

I'd

never

have

to

experience

it.

I

said

I'd

been

lucky

so

far,

knowing

that

luck

had

nothing

to

do

with

it.

I

had

done

my

share

of

talking

in

class

too.

But

my

father

was

rich

and

everyone

knew

him,

so

I

was

spared

the

metal

rod

treatment.

We

sat

against

the

low

cemetery

wall

under

the

shade

thrown

by

the

pomegranate

tree.

In

another

month

or

two,

crops

of

scorched

yellow

weeds

would

blanket

the

hillside,

but

that

year

the

spring

showers

had

lasted

longer

than

usual,

nudging

their

way

into

early

summer,

and

the

grass

was

still

green,

peppered

with

tangles

of

wildflowers.

Below

us,

Wazir

Akbar

Khan's

white

walled,

flat-topped

houses

gleamed

in

the

sunshine,

the

laundry

hanging

on

clotheslines

in

their

yards

stirred

by

the

breeze

to

dance

like

butterflies.

We

had

picked

a

dozen

pomegranates

from

the

tree.

I

unfolded

the

story

I'd

brought

along,

turned

to

the

first

page,

then

put

it

down.

I

stood

up

and

picked

up

an

overripe

pomegranate

that

had

fallen

to

the

ground.

"What

would

you

do

if

I

hit

you

with

this?"

I

said,

tossing

the

fruit

up

and

down.

Hassan's

smile

wilted.

He

looked

older

than

I'd

remembered.

No,

not

older,

old.

Was

that

possible?

Lines

had

etched

into

his

tanned

face

and

creases

framed

his

eyes,

his

mouth.

I

might

as

well

have

taken

a

knife

and

carved

those

lines

myself.

"What

would

you

do?"

I

repeated.

The

color

fell

from

his

face.

Next

to

him,

the

stapled

pages

of

the

story

I'd

promised

to

read

him

fluttered

in

the

breeze.

I

hurled

the

pomegranate

at

him.

It

struck

him

in

the

chest,

exploded

in

a

spray

of

red

pulp.

Hassan's

cry

was

pregnant

with

surprise

and

pain.

Hit

me

back!"

I

snapped.

Hassan

looked

from

the

stain

on

his

chest

to

me.

"Get

up!

Hit

me!"

I

said.

Hassan

did

get

up,

but

he

just

stood

there,

looking

dazed

like

a

man

dragged

into

the

ocean

by

a

riptide

when,

just

a

moment

ago,

he

was

enjoying

a

nice

stroll

on

the

beach.

I

hit

him

with

another

pomegranate,

in

the

shoulder

this

time.

The

juice

splattered

his

face.

"Hit

me

back!"

I

spat.

"Hit

me

back,

goddamn

you!"

I

wished

he

would.

I

wished

he'd

give

me

the

punishment

I

craved,

so

maybe

I'd

finally

sleep

at

night.

Maybe

then

things

could

return

to

how

they

used

to

be

between

us.

But

Hassan

did

nothing

as

I

pelted

him

again

and

again.

"You're

a

coward!"

I

said.

"Nothing

but

a

goddamn

coward!"

I

don't

know

how

many

times

I

hit

him.

All

I

know

is

that,

when

I

finally

stopped,

exhausted

and

panting,

Hassan

was

smeared

in

red

like

he'd

been

shot

by

a

firing

squad.

I

fell

to

my

knees,

tired,

spent,

frustrated.

Then

Hassan

did

pick

up

a

pomegranate.

He

walked

toward

me.

He

opened

it

and

crushed

it

against

his

own

forehead.

"There,"

he

croaked,

red

dripping

down

his

face

like

blood.

"Are

you

satisfied?

Do

you

feel

better?"

He

turned

around

and

started

down

the

hill.

I

let

the

tears

break

free,

rocked

back

and

forth

on

my

knees.

"What

am

I

going

to

do

with

you,

Hassan?

What

am

I

going

to

do

with

you?"

But

by

the

time

the

tears

dried

up

and

I

trudged

down

the

hill,

I

knew

the

answer

to

that

question.

I

TURNED

THIRTEEN

that

summer

of

1976,

Afghanistan's

next

to

last

summer

of

peace

and

anonymity.

Things

between

Baba

and

me

were

already

cooling

off

again.

I

think

what

started

it

was

the

stupid

comment

I'd

made

the

day

we

were

planting

tulips,

about

getting

new

servants.

I

regretted

saying

it--I

really

did--but

I

think

even

if

I

hadn't,

our

happy

little

interlude

would

have

come

to

an

end.

Maybe

not

quite

so

soon,

but

it

would

have.

By

the

end

of

the

summer,

the

scraping

of

spoon

and

fork

against

the

plate

had

replaced

dinner

table

chatter

and

Baba

had

resumed

retreating

to

his

study

after

supper.

And

closing

the

door.

I'd

gone

back

to

thumbing

through

Hafez

and

Khayyam,

gnawing

my

nails

down

to

the

cuticles,

writing

stories.

I

kept

the

stories

in

a

stack

under

my

bed,

keeping

them

just

in

case,

though

I

doubted

Baba

would

ever

again

ask

me

to

read

them

to

him.

Baba's

motto

about

throwing

parties

was

this:

Invite

the

whole

world

or

it's

not

a

party.

I

remember

scanning

over

the

invitation

list

a

week

before

my

birthday

party

and

not

recognizing

at

least

three-quarters

of

the

four

hundred-

plus

Kakas

and

Khalas

who

were

going

to

bring

me

gifts

and

congratulate

me

for

having

lived

to

thirteen.

Then

I

realized

they

weren't

really

coming

for

me.

It

was

my

birthday,

but

I

knew

who

the

real

star

of

the

show

was.

For

days,

the

house

was

teeming

with

Baba's

hired

help.

There

was

Salahuddin

the

butcher,

who

showed

up

with

a

calf

and

two

sheep

in

tow,

refusing

payment

for

any

of

the

three.

He

slaughtered

the

animals

himself

in

the

yard

by

a

poplar

tree.

"Blood

is

good

for

the

tree,"

I

remember

him

saying

as

the

grass

around

the

poplar

soaked

red.

Men

I

didn't

know

climbed

the

oak

trees

with

coils

of

small

electric

bulbs

and

meters

of

extension

cords.

Others

set

up

dozens

of

tables

in

the

yard,

spread

a

tablecloth

on

each.

The

night

before

the

big

party

Baba's

friend

Del-Muhammad,

who

owned

a

kabob

house

in

Shar-e-Nau,

came

to

the

house

with

his

bags

of

spices.

Like

the

butcher,

Del-Muhammad-or

Dello,

as

Baba

called

him-refused

payment

for

his

services.

He

said

Baba

had

done

enough

for

his

family

already.

It

was

Rahim

Khan

who

whispered

to

me,

as

Dello

marinated

the

meat,

that

Baba

had

lent

Dello

the

money

to

open

his

restaurant.

Baba

had

refused

repayment

until

Dello

had

shown

up

one

day

in

our

driveway

in

a

Benz

and

insisted

he

wouldn't

leave

until

Baba

took

his

money.

I

guess

in

most

ways,

or

at

least

in

the

ways

in

which

parties

are

judged,

my

birthday

bash

was

a

huge

success.

I'd

never

seen

the

house

so

packed.

Guests

with

drinks

in

hand

were

chatting

in

the

hallways,

smoking

on

the

stairs,

leaning

against

doorways.

They

sat

where

they

found

space,

on

kitchen

counters,

in

the

foyer,

even

under

the

stairwell.

In

the

backyard,

they

mingled

under

the

glow

of

blue,

red,

and

green

lights

winking

in

the

trees,

their

faces

illuminated

by

the

light

of

kerosene

torches

propped

everywhere.

Baba

had

had

a

stage

built

on

the

balcony

that

overlooked

the

garden

and

planted

speakers

throughout

the

yard.

Ahmad

Zahir

was

playing

an

accordion

and

singing

on

the

stage

over

masses

of

dancing

bodies.

I

had

to

greet

each

of

the

guests

personally-Baba

made

sure

of

that;

no

one

was

going

to

gossip

the

next

day

about

how

he'd

raised

a

son

with

no

manners.

I

kissed

hundreds

of

cheeks,

hugged

total

strangers,

thanked

them

for

their

gifts.

My

face

ached

from

the

strain

of

my

plastered

smile.

I

was

standing

with

Baba

in

the

yard

near

the

bar

when

someone

said,

"Happy

birthday,

Amir."

It

was

Assef,

with

his

parents.

Assef's

father,

Mahmood,

was

a

short,

lanky

sort

with

dark

skin

and

a

narrow

face.

His

mother,

Tanya,

was

a

small,

nervous

woman

who

smiled

and

blinked

a

lot.

Assef

was

standing

between

the

two

of

them

now,

grinning,

looming

over

both,

his

arms

resting

on

their

shoulders.

He

led

them

toward

us,

like

he

had

brought

them

here.

Like

he

was

the

parent,

and

they

his

children.

A

wave

of

dizziness

rushed

through

me.

Baba

thanked

them

for

coming.

"I

picked

out

your

present

myself,"

Assef

said.

Tanya's

face

twitched

and

her

eyes

flicked

from

Assef

to

me.

She

smiled,

unconvincingly,

and

blinked.

I

wondered

if

Baba

had

noticed.

"Still

playing

soccer,

Assef

jan?"

Baba

said.

He'd

always

wanted

me

to

be

friends

with

Assef.

Assef

smiled.

It

was

creepy

how

genuinely

sweet

he

made

it

look.

"Of

course,

Kaka

jan."

"Right

wing,

as

I

recall?"

"Actually,

I

switched

to

center

forward

this

year,"

Assef

said.

"You

get

to

score

more

that

way.

We're

playing

the

Mekro-Rayan

team

next

week.

Should

be

a

good

match.

They

have

some

good

players."

Baba

nodded.

"You

know,

I

played

center

forward

too

when

I

was

young."

"I'll

bet

you

still

could

if

you

wanted

to,"

Assef

said.

He

favored

Baba

with

a

good-natured

wink.

Baba

returned

the

wink.

"I

see

your

father

has

taught

you

his

world-

famous

flattering

ways."

He

elbowed

Assef's

father,

almost

knocked

the

little

fellow

down.

Mahmood's

laughter

was

about

as

convincing

as

Tanya's

smile,

and

suddenly

I

wondered

if

maybe,

on

some

level,

their

son

frightened

them.

I

tried

to

fake

a

smile,

but

all

I

could

manage

was

a

feeble

up-turning

of

the

corners

of

my

mouth-my

stomach

was

turning

at

the

sight

of

my

father

bonding

with

Assef.

Assef

shifted

his

eyes

to

me.

"Wali

and

Kamal

are

here

too.

They

wouldn't

miss

your

birthday

for

anything,"

he

said,

laughter

lurking

just

beneath

the

surface.

1

nodded

silently.

"We're

thinking

about

playing

a

little

game

of

volleyball

tomorrow

at

my

house,"

Assef

said.

"Maybe

you'll

join

us.

Bring

Hassan

if

you

want

to."

"That

sounds

fun,"

Baba

said,

beaming.

"What

do

you

think,

Amir?"

"I

don't

really

like

volleyball,"

I

muttered.

I

saw

the

light

wink

out

of

Baba's

eyes

and

an

uncomfortable

silence

followed.

"Sorry,

Assef

jan,"

Baba

said,

shrugging.

That

stung,

his

apologizing

for

me.

"Nay,

no

harm

done,"

Assef

said.

"But

you

have

an

open

invitation,

Amir

jan.

Anyway,

I

heard

you

like

to

read

so

I

brought

you

a

book.

One

of

my

favorites."

He

extended

a

wrapped

birthday

gift

to

me.

"Happy

birthday."

He

was

dressed

in

a

cotton

shirt

and

blue

slacks,

a

red

silk

tie

and

shiny

black

loafers.

He

smelled

of

cologne

and

his

blond

hair

was

neatly

combed

back.

On

the

surface,

he

was

the

embodiment

of

every

parent's

dream,

a

strong,

tall,

well-dressed

and

well-mannered

boy

with

talent

and

striking

looks,

not

to

mention

the

wit

to

joke

with

an

adult.

But

to

me,

his

eyes

betrayed

him.

When

I

looked

into

them,

the

facade

faltered,

revealed

a

glimpse

of

the

madness

hiding

behind

them.

"Aren't

you

going

to

take

it,

Amir?"

Baba

was

saying.

"Huh?"

'Your

present,"

he

said

testily.

"Assef

jan

is

giving

you

a

present.

"Oh,"

I

said.

I

took

the

box

from

Assef

and

lowered

my

gaze.

I

wished

I

could

be

alone

in

my

room,

with

my

books,

away

from

these

people.

"Well?"

Baba

said.

"What?"

Baba

spoke

in

a

low

voice,

the

one

he

took

on

whenever

I

embarrassed

him

in

public.

"Aren't

you

going

to

thank

Assef

jan?

That

was

very

considerate

of

him."

I

wished

Baba

would

stop

calling

him

that.

How

often

did

he

call

me

"Amir

jan"?

"Thanks,"

I

said.

Assef's

mother

looked

at

me

like

she

wanted

to

say

something,

but

she

didn't,

and

I

realized

that

neither

of

Assef's

parents

had

said

a

word.

Before

I

could

embarrass

myself

and

Baba

anymore--but

mostly

to

get

away

from

Assef

and

his

grin--I

stepped

away.

"Thanks

for

coming,"

I

said.

I

squirmed

my

way

through

the

throng

of

guests

and

slipped

through

the

wrought-iron

gates.

Two

houses

down

from

our

house,

there

was

a

large,

barren

dirt

lot.

I'd

heard

Baba

tell

Rahim

Khan

that

a

judge

had

bought

the

land

and

that

an

architect

was

working

on

the

design.

For

now,

the

lot

was

bare,

save

for

dirt,

stones,

and

weeds.

I

tore

the

wrapping

paper

from

Assef's

present

and

tilted

the

book

cover

in

the

moonlight.

It

was

a

biography

of

Hitler.

I

threw

it

amid

a

tangle

of

weeds.

1

leaned

against

the

neighbor's

wall,

slid

down

to

the

ground.

1

just

sat

in

the

dark

for

a

while,

knees

drawn

to

my

chest,

looking

up

at

the

stars,

waiting

for

the

night

to

be

over.

"Shouldn't

you

be

entertaining

your

guests?"

a

familiar

voice

said.

Rahim

Khan

was

walking

toward

me

along

the

wall.

"They

don't

need

me

for

that.

Baba's

there,

remember?"

I

said.

The

ice

in

Rahim

Khan's

drink

clinked

when

he

sat

next

to

me.

"I

didn't

know

you

drank."

"Turns

out

I

do/'

he

said.

Elbowed

me

playfully.

"But

only

on

the

most

important

occasions."

I

smiled.

"Thanks."

He

tipped

his

drink

to

me

and

took

a

sip.

He

lit

a

cigarette,

one

of

the

unfiltered

Pakistani

cigarettes

he

and

Baba

were

always

smoking.

"Did

I

ever

tell

you

I

was

almost

married

once?"

"Really?"

I

said,

smiling

a

little

at

the

notion

of

Rahim

Khan

getting

married.

I'd

always

thought

of

him

as

Baba's

quiet

alter

ego,

my

writing

mentor,

my

pal,

the

one

who

never

forgot

to

bring

me

a

souvenir,

a

saughat,

when

he

returned

from

a

trip

abroad.

But

a

husband?

A

father?

He

nodded.

"It's

true.

I

was

eighteen.

Her

name

was

Homaira.

She

was

a

Hazara,

the

daughter

of

our

neighbor's

servants.

She

was

as

beautiful

as

a

pari,

light

brown

hair,

big

hazel

eyes...

she

had

this

laugh...

I

can

still

hear

it

sometimes."

He

twirled

his

glass.

"We

used

to

meet

secretly

in

my

father's

apple

orchards,

always

after

midnight

when

everyone

had

gone

to

sleep.

We'd

walk

under

the

trees

and

I'd

hold

her

hand...

Am

I

embarrassing

you,

Amir

jan?"

"A

little,"

I

said.

"It

won't

kill

you,"

he

said,

taking

another

puff.

"Anyway,

we

had

this

fantasy.

We'd

have

a

great,

fancy

wedding

and

invite

family

and

friends

from

Kabul

to

Kandahar.

I

would

build

us

a

big

house,

white

with

a

tiled

patio

and

large

windows.

We

would

plant

fruit

trees

in

the

garden

and

grow

all

sorts

of

flowers,

have

a

lawn

for

our

kids

to

play

on.

On

Fridays,

after

_namaz_

at

the

mosque,

everyone

would

get

together

at

our

house

for

lunch

and

we'd

eat

in

the

garden,

under

cherry

trees,

drink

fresh

water

from

the

well.

Then

tea

with

candy

as

we

watched

our

kids

play

with

their

cousins..."

He

took

a

long

gulp

of

his

scotch.

Coughed.

"You

should

have

seen

the

look

on

my

father's

face

when

I

told

him.

My

mother

actually

fainted.

My

sisters

splashed

her

face

with

water.

They

fanned

her

and

looked

at

me

as

if

I

had

slit

her

throat.

My

brother

Jalal

actually

went

to

fetch

his

hunting

rifle

before

my

father

stopped

him."

Rahim

Khan

barked

a

bitter

laughter.

"It

was

Homaira

and

me

against

the

world.

And

I'll

tell

you

this,

Amir

jan:

In

the

end,

the

world

always

wins.

That's

just

the

way

of

things."

So

what

happened?

"That

same

day,

my

father

put

Homaira

and

her

family

on

a

lorry

and

sent

them

off

to

Hazarajat.

I

never

saw

her

again."

"I'm

sorry,"

I

said.

"Probably

for

the

best,

though,"

Rahim

Khan

said,

shrugging.

"She

would

have

suffered.

My

family

would

have

never

accepted

her

as

an

equal.

You

don't

order

someone

to

polish

your

shoes

one

day

and

call

them

'sister'

the

next."

He

looked

at

me.

"You

know,

you

can

tell

me

anything

you

want,

Amir

jan.

Anytime."

"I

know,"

I

said

uncertainly.

He

looked

at

me

for

a

long

time,

like

he

was

waiting,

his

black

bottomless

eyes

hinting

at

an

unspoken

secret

between

us.

For

a

moment,

I

almost

did

tell

him.

Almost

told

him

everything,

but

then

what

would

he

think

of

me?

He'd

hate

me,

and

rightfully.

"Here."

He

handed

me

something.

"I

almost

forgot.

Happy

birthday."

It

was

a

brown

leather-bound

notebook.

I

traced

my

fingers

along

the

gold-colored

stitching

on

the

borders.

I

smelled

the

leather.

"For

your

stories,"

he

said.

I

was

going

to

thank

him

when

something

exploded

and

bursts

of

fire

lit

up

the

sky.

"Fireworks!"

We

hurried

back

to

the

house

and

found

the

guests

all

standing

in

the

yard,

looking

up

to

the

sky.

Kids

hooted

and

screamed

with

each

crackle

and

whoosh.

People

cheered,

burst

into

applause

each

time

flares

sizzled

and

exploded

into

bouquets

of

fire.

Every

few

seconds,

the

backyard

lit

up

in

sudden

flashes

of

red,

green,

and

yellow.

In

one

of

those

brief

bursts

of

light,

I

saw

something

I'll

never

forget:

Hassan

serving

drinks

to

Assef

and

Wali

from

a

silver

platter.

The

light

winked

out,

a

hiss

and

a

crackle,

then

another

flicker

of

orange

light:

Assef

grinning,

kneading

Hassan

in

the

chest

with

a

knuckle.

Then,

mercifully,

darkness.

NINE

Sitting

in

the

middle

of

my

room

the

next

morning,

I

ripped

open

box

after

box

of

presents.

I

don't

know

why

I

even

bothered,

since

I

just

gave

them

a

joyless

glance

and

pitched

them

to

the

corner

of

the

room.

The

pile

was

growing

there:

a

Polaroid

camera,

a

transistor

radio,

an

elaborate

electric

train

set--and

several

sealed

envelopes

containing

cash.

I

knew

I'd

never

spend

the

money

or

listen

to

the

radio,

and

the

electric

train

would

never

trundle

down

its

tracks

in

my

room.

I

didn't

want

any

of

it--it

was

all

blood

money;

Baba

would

have

never

thrown

me

a

party

like

that

if

I

hadn't

won

the

tournament.

Baba

gave

me

two

presents.

One

was

sure

to

become

the

envy

of

every

kid

in

the

neighborhood:

a

brand

new

Schwinn

Stingray,

the

king

of

all

bicycles.

Only

a

handful

of

kids

in

all

of

Kabul

owned

a

new

Stingray

and

now

I

was

one

of

them.

It

had

high-rise

handlebars

with

black

rubber

grips

and

its

famous

banana

seat.

The

spokes

were

gold

colored

and

the

steel-frame

body

red,

like

a

candy

apple.

Or

blood.

Any

other

kid

would

have

hopped

on

the

bike

immediately

and

taken

it

for

a

full

block

skid.

I

might

have

done

the

same

a

few

months

ago.

"You

like

it?"

Baba

said,

leaning

in

the

doorway

to

my

room.

I

gave

him

a

sheepish

grin

and

a

quick

"Thank

you."

I

wished

I

could

have

mustered

more.

"We

could

go

for

a

ride,"

Baba

said.

An

invitation,

but

only

a

halfhearted

one.

Maybe

later.

I'm

a

little

tired,

said.

"Sure,"

Baba

said.

"Baba?"

II

Yes?

H

"Thanks

for

the

fireworks,"

I

said.

A

thank-you,

but

only

a

halfhearted

one.

"Get

some

rest,"

Baba

said,

walking

toward

his

room.

The

other

present

Baba

gave

me-and

he

didn't

wait

around

for

me

to

open

this

one-was

a

wristwatch.

It

had

a

blue

face

with

gold

hands

in

the

shape

of

lightning

bolts.

I

didn't

even

try

it

on.

I

tossed

it

on

the

pile

of

toys

in

the

corner.

The

only

gift

I

didn't

toss

on

that

mound

was

Rahim

Khan's

leather-

bound

notebook.

That

was

the

only

one

that

didn't

feel

like

blood

money.

I

sat

on

the

edge

of

my

bed,

turned

the

notebook

in

my

hands,

thought

about

what

Rahim

Khan

had

said

about

Homaira,

how

his

father's

dismissing

her

had

been

for

the

best

in

the

end.

She

would

have

suffered.

Like

the

times

Kaka

Homayoun's

projector

got

stuck

on

the

same

slide,

the

same

image

kept

flashing

in

my

mind

over

and

over:

Hassan,

his

head

downcast,

serving

drinks

to

Assef

and

Wali.

Maybe

it

would

be

for

the

best.

Lessen

his

suffering.

And

mine

too.

Either

way,

this

much

had

become

clear:

One

of

us

had

to

go.

Later

that

afternoon,

I

took

the

Schwinn

for

its

first

and

last

spin.

I

pedaled

around

the

block

a

couple

of

times

and

came

back.

I

rolled

up

the

driveway

to

the

backyard

where

Hassan

and

Ali

were

cleaning

up

the

mess

from

last

night's

party.

Paper

cups,

crumpled

napkins,

and

empty

bottles

of

soda

littered

the

yard.

Ali

was

folding

chairs,

setting

them

along

the

wall.

He

saw

me

and

waved.

Salaam,

Ali,"

I

said,

waving

back.

He

held

up

a

finger,

asking

me

to

wait,

and

walked

to

his

living

quarters.

A

moment

later,

he

emerged

with

something

in

his

hands.

"The

opportunity

never

presented

itself

last

night

for

Hassan

and

me

to

give

you

this,"

he

said,

handing

me

a

box.

"It's

modest

and

not

worthy

of

you,

Amir

agha.

But

we

hope

you

like

it

still.

Happy

birthday."

A

lump

was

rising

in

my

throat.

"Thank

you,

Ali,"

I

said.

I

wished

they

hadn't

bought

me

anything.

I

opened

the

box

and

found

a

brand

new

_Shahnamah_,

a

hardback

with

glossy

colored

illustrations

beneath

the

passages.

Here

was

Ferangis

gazing

at

her

newborn

son,

Kai

Khosrau.

There

was

Afrasiyab

riding

his

horse,

sword

drawn,

leading

his

army.

And,

of

course,

Rostam

inflicting

a

mortal

wound

onto

his

son,

the

warrior

Sohrab.

"It's

beautiful,"

I

said.

"Hassan

said

your

copy

was

old

and

ragged,

and

that

some

of

the

pages

were

missing,"

Ali

said.

"All

the

pictures

are

hand-drawn

in

this

one

with

pen

and

ink,"

he

added

proudly,

eyeing

a

book

neither

he

nor

his

son

could

read.

"It's

lovely,"

I

said.

And

it

was.

And,

I

suspected,

not

inexpensive

either.

I

wanted

to

tell

Ali

it

was

not

the

book,

but

I

who

was

unworthy.

I

hopped

back

on

the

bicycle.

"Thank

Hassan

for

me,"

I

said.

I

ended

up

tossing

the

book

on

the

heap

of

gifts

in

the

corner

of

my

room.

But

my

eyes

kept

going

back

to

it,

so

I

buried

it

at

the

bottom.

Before

I

went

to

bed

that

night,

I

asked

Baba

if

he'd

seen

my

new

watch

anywhere.

THE

NEXT

MORNING,

I

waited

in

my

room

for

Ali

to

clear

the

breakfast

table

in

the

kitchen.

Waited

for

him

to

do

the

dishes,

wipe

the

counters.

I

looked

out

my

bedroom

window

and

waited

until

Ali

and

Hassan

went

grocery

shopping

to

the

bazaar,

pushing

the

empty

wheelbarrows

in

front

of

them.

Then

I

took

a

couple

of

the

envelopes

of

cash

from

the

pile

of

gifts

and

my

watch,

and

tiptoed

out.

I

paused

before

Baba's

study

and

listened

in.

He'd

been

in

there

all

morning,

making

phone

calls.

He

was

talking

to

someone

now,

about

a

shipment

of

rugs

due

to

arrive

next

week.

I

went

downstairs,

crossed

the

yard,

and

entered

Ali

and

Hassan's

living

quarters

by

the

loquat

tree.

1

lifted

Hassan's

mattress

and

planted

my

new

watch

and

a

handful

of

Afghani

bills

under

it.

I

waited

another

thirty

minutes.

Then

I

knocked

on

Baba's

door

and

told

what

I

hoped

would

be

the

last

in

a

long

line

of

shameful

lies.

THROUGH

MY

BEDROOM

WINDOW,

I

watched

Ali

and

Hassan

push

the

wheelbarrows

loaded

with

meat,

_naan_,

fruit,

and

vegetables

up

the

driveway.

I

saw

Baba

emerge

from

the

house

and

walk

up

to

Ali.

Their

mouths

moved

over

words

I

couldn't

hear.

Baba

pointed

to

the

house

and

Ali

nodded.

They

separated.

Baba

came

back

to

the

house;

Ali

followed

Hassan

to

their

hut.

A

few

moments

later,

Baba

knocked

on

my

door.

"Come

to

my

office,"

he

said.

"We're

all

going

to

sit

down

and

settle

this

thing."

I

went

to

Baba's

study,

sat

in

one

of

the

leather

sofas.

It

was

thirty

minutes

or

more

before

Hassan

and

Ali

joined

us.

THEY'D

BOTH

BEEN

CRYING;

I

could

tell

from

their

red,

puffed

up

eyes.

They

stood

before

Baba,

hand

in

hand,

and

I

wondered

how

and

when

I'd

become

capable

of

causing

this

kind

of

pain.

Baba

came

right

out

and

asked.

"Did

you

steal

that

money?

Did

you

steal

Amir's

watch,

Hassan?"

Hassan's

reply

was

a

single

word,

delivered

in

a

thin,

raspy

voice:

"Yes."

I

flinched,

like

I'd

been

slapped.

My

heart

sank

and

I

almost

blurted

out

the

truth.

Then

I

understood:

This

was

Hassan's

final

sacrifice

for

me.

If

he'd

said

no,

Baba

would

have

believed

him

because

we

all

knew

Hassan

never

lied.

And

if

Baba

believed

him,

then

I'd

be

the

accused;

I

would

have

to

explain

and

I

would

be

revealed

for

what

I

really

was.

Baba

would

never,

ever

forgive

me.

And

that

led

to

another

understanding:

Hassan

knew

He

knew

I'd

seen

everything

in

that

alley,

that

I'd

stood

there

and

done

nothing.

He

knew

I

had

betrayed

him

and

yet

he

was

rescuing

me

once

again,

maybe

for

the

last

time.

I

loved

him

in

that

moment,

loved

him

more

than

I'd

ever

loved

anyone,

and

I

wanted

to

tell

them

all

that

I

was

the

snake

in

the

grass,

the

monster

in

the

lake.

I

wasn't

worthy

of

this

sacrifice;

I

was

a

liar,

a

cheat,

and

a

thief.

And

I

would

have

told,

except

that

a

part

of

me

was

glad.

Glad

that

this

would

all

be

over

with

soon.

Baba

would

dismiss

them,

there

would

be

some

pain,

but

life

would

move

on.

1

wanted

that,

to

move

on,

to

forget,

to

start

with

a

clean

slate.

I

wanted

to

be

able

to

breathe

again.

Except

Baba

stunned

me

by

saying,

"I

forgive

you."

Forgive?

But

theft

was

the

one

unforgivable

sin,

the

common

denominator

of

all

sins.

When

you

kill

a

man,

you

steal

a

life.

You

steal

his

wife's

right

to

a

husband,

rob

his

children

of

a

father.

When

you

tell

a

lie,

you

steal

someone's

right

to

the

truth.

When

you

cheat,

you

steal

the

right

to

fairness.

There

is

no

act

more

wretched

than

stealing.

Hadn't

Baba

sat

me

on

his

lap

and

said

those

words

to

me?

Then

how

could

he

just

forgive

Hassan?

And

if

Baba

could

forgive

that,

then

why

couldn't

he

forgive

me

for

not

being

the

son

he'd

always

wanted?

Why--"We

are

leaving,

Agha

sahib,"

Ali

said.

"What?"

Baba

said,

the

color

draining

from

his

face.

"We

can't

live

here

anymore,"

Ali

said.

"But

I

forgive

him,

Ali,

didn't

you

hear?"

said

Baba.

"Life

here

is

impossible

for

us

now,

Agha

sahib.

We're

leaving."

Ali

drew

Hassan

to

him,

curled

his

arm

around

his

son's

shoulder.

It

was

a

protective

gesture

and

I

knew

whom

Ali

was

protecting

him

from.

Ali

glanced

my

way

and

in

his

cold,

unforgiving

look,

I

saw

that

Hassan

had

told

him.

He

had

told

him

everything,

about

what

Assef

and

his

friends

had

done

to

him,

about

the

kite,

about

me.

Strangely,

I

was

glad

that

someone

knew

me

for

who

I

really

was;

I

was

tired

of

pretending.

"I

don't

care

about

the

money

or

the

watch,"

Baba

said,

his

arms

open,

palms

up.

"I

don't

understand

why

you're

doing

this...

what

do

you

mean

'impossible'?"

"I'm

sorry,

Agha

sahib,

but

our

bags

are

already

packed.

We

have

made

our

decision."

Baba

stood

up,

a

sheen

of

grief

across

his

face.

"Ali,

haven't

I

provided

well

for

you?

Haven't

I

been

good

to

you

and

Hassan?

You're

the

brother

I

never

had,

Ali,

you

know

that.

Please

don't

do

this."

"Don't

make

this

even

more

difficult

than

it

already

is,

Agha

sahib,"

Ali

said.

His

mouth

twitched

and,

for

a

moment,

I

thought

I

saw

a

grimace.

That

was

when

I

understood

the

depth

of

the

pain

I

had

caused,

the

blackness

of

the

grief

I

had

brought

onto

everyone,

that

not

even

Ali's

paralyzed

face

could

mask

his

sorrow.

I

forced

myself

to

look

at

Hassan,

but

his

head

was

downcast,

his

shoulders

slumped,

his

finger

twirling

a

loose

string

on

the

hem

of

his

shirt.

Baba

was

pleading

now.

"At

least

tell

me

why.

I

need

to

know!"

Ali

didn't

tell

Baba,

just

as

he

didn't

protest

when

Hassan

confessed

to

the

stealing.

I'll

never

really

know

why,

but

I

could

imagine

the

two

of

them

in

that

dim

little

hut,

weeping,

Hassan

pleading

him

not

to

give

me

away.

But

I

couldn't

imagine

the

restraint

it

must

have

taken

Ali

to

keep

that

promise.

"Will

you

drive

us

to

the

bus

station?"

"I

forbid

you

to

do

this!"

Baba

bellowed.

"Do

you

hear

me?

I

forbid

you!"

"Respectfully,

you

can't

forbid

me

anything,

Agha

sahib,"

Ali

said.

"We

don't

work

for

you

anymore."

Where

will

you

go?"

Baba

asked.

His

voice

was

breaking.

Hazarajat.

"To

your

cousin?"

"Yes.

Will

you

take

us

to

the

bus

station,

Agha

sahib?"

Then

I

saw

Baba

do

something

I

had

never

seen

him

do

before:

He

cried.

It

scared

me

a

little,

seeing

a

grown

man

sob.

Fathers

weren't

supposed

to

cry.

"Please,"

Baba

was

saying,

but

Ali

had

already

turned

to

the

door,

Hassan

trailing

him.

I'll

never

forget

the

way

Baba

said

that,

the

pain

in

his

plea,

the

fear.

IN

KABUL,

it

rarely

rained

in

the

summer.

Blue

skies

stood

tall

and

far,

the

sun

like

a

branding

iron

searing

the

back

of

your

neck.

Creeks

where

Hassan

and

I

skipped

stones

all

spring

turned

dry,

and

rickshaws

stirred

dust

when

they

sputtered

by.

People

went

to

mosques

for

their

ten

raka'ts

of

noontime

prayer

and

then

retreated

to

whatever

shade

they

could

find

to

nap

in,

waiting

for

the

cool

of

early

evening.

Summer

meant

long

school

days

sweating

in

tightly

packed,

poorly

ventilated

classrooms

learning

to

recite

ayats

from

the

Koran,

struggling

with

those

tongue-twisting,

exotic

Arabic

words.

It

meant

catching

flies

in

your

palm

while

the

mullah

droned

on

and

a

hot

breeze

brought

with

it

the

smell

of

shit

from

the

outhouse

across

the

schoolyard,

churning

dust

around

the

lone

rickety

basketball

hoop.

But

it

rained

the

afternoon

Baba

took

Ali

and

Hassan

to

the

bus

station.

Thunderheads

rolled

in,

painted

the

sky

iron

gray.

Within

minutes,

sheets

of

rain

were

sweeping

in,

the

steady

hiss

of

falling

water

swelling

in

my

ears.

Baba

had

offered

to

drive

them

to

Bamiyan

himself,

but

Ali

refused.

Through

the

blurry,

rain-soaked

window

of

my

bedroom,

I

watched

Ali

haul

the

lone

suitcase

carrying

all

of

their

belongings

to

Baba's

car

idling

outside

the

gates.

Hassan

lugged

his

mattress,

rolled

tightly

and

tied

with

a

rope,

on

his

back.

He'd

left

all

of

his

toys

behind

in

the

empty

shack-I

discovered

them

the

next

day,

piled

in

a

corner

just

like

the

birthday

presents

in

my

room.

Slithering

beads

of

rain

sluiced

down

my

window.

I

saw

Baba

slam

the

trunk

shut.

Already

drenched,

he

walked

to

the

driver's

side.

Leaned

in

and

said

something

to

Ali

in

the

backseat,

perhaps

one

last-ditch

effort

to

change

his

mind.

They

talked

that

way

awhile,

Baba

getting

soaked,

stooping,

one

arm

on

the

roof

of

the

car.

But

when

he

straightened,

I

saw

in

his

slumping

shoulders

that

the

life

I

had

known

since

I'd

been

born

was

over.

Baba

slid

in.

The

headlights

came

on

and

cut

twin

funnels

of

light

in

the

rain.

If

this

were

one

of

the

Hindi

movies

Hassan

and

I

used

to

watch,

this

was

the

part

where

I'd

run

outside,

my

bare

feet

splashing

rainwater.

I'd

chase

the

car,

screaming

for

it

to

stop.

I'd

pull

Hassan

out

of

the

backseat

and

tell

him

I

was

sorry,

so

sorry,

my

tears

mixing

with

rainwater.

We'd

hug

in

the

downpour.

But

this

was

no

Hindi

movie.

I

was

sorry,

but

I

didn't

cry

and

I

didn't

chase

the

car.

I

watched

Baba's

car

pull

away

from

the

curb,

taking

with

it

the

person

whose

first

spoken

word

had

been

my

name.

I

caught

one

final

blurry

glimpse

of

Hassan

slumped

in

the

back

seat

before

Baba

turned

left

at

the

street

corner

where

we'd

played

marbles

so

many

times.

I

stepped

back

and

all

I

saw

was

rain

through

windowpanes

that

looked

like

melting

silver.

TEN

March

1981

A

young

woman

sat

across

from

us.

She

was

dressed

in

an

olive

green

dress

with

a

black

shawl

wrapped

tightly

around

her

face

against

the

night

chill.

She

burst

into

prayer

every

time

the

truck

jerked

or

stumbled

into

a

pothole,

her

"Bismillah!"

peaking