"I was trying to annoy you," she said.
He gave her a sidelong glance. "It worked."
But she thought his grimace softened. And she thought that maybe the sunburn on his cheeks deepened momentarily.
LAILA DIDN'T MEAN to tell him. She'd, in fact, decided that telling him would be a very bad idea. Someone would get hurt, because Tariq wouldn't be able to let it pass. But when they were on the street later, heading down to the bus stop, she saw Khadim again, leaning against a wall. He was surrounded by his friends, thumbs hooked in his belt loops. He grinned at her defiantly.
And so she told Tariq. The story spilled out of her mouth before she could stop it.
"He did what?"
She told him again.
He pointed to Khadim. "Him? He's the one?
Tariq clenched his teeth and muttered something to himself in Pashto that Laila didn't catch. "You wait here," he said, in Farsi now.
"No, Tariq - "
He was already crossing the street.
Khadim was the first to see him. His grin faded, and he pushed himself off the wall. He unhooked his thumbs from the belt loops and made himself more upright, taking on a self-conscious air of menace. The others followed his gaze.
Laila wished she hadn't said anything. What if they banded together? How many of them were there - ten? eleven? twelve? What if they hurt him?
Then Tariq stopped a few feet from Khadim and his band. There was a moment of consideration, Laila thought, maybe a change of heart, and, when he bent down, she imagined he would pretend his shoelace had come undone and walk back to her. Then his hands went to work, and she understood.
The others understood too when Tariq straightened up, standing on one leg. When he began hopping toward Khadim, then charging him, his unstrapped leg raised high over his shoulder like a sword.
The boys stepped aside in a hurry. They gave him a clear path to Khadim.
Then it was all dust and fists and kicks and yelps.
Khadim never bothered Laila again.
THAT NIGHT, as most nights, Laila set the dinner table for two only. Mammy said she wasn't hungry. On those nights that she was, she made a point of taking a plate to her room before Babi even came home. She was usually asleep or lying awake in bed by the time Laila and Babi sat down to eat.
Babi came out of the bathroom, his hair - peppered white with flour when he'd come home - washed clean now and combed back.
"What are we having, Laila?"
"Leftover aush soup."
"Sounds good," he said, folding the towel with which he'd dried his hair. "So what are we working on tonight?
"Actually, converting fractions to mixed numbers."
Every night after dinner, Babi helped Laila with her homework and gave her some of his own. This was only to keep Laila a step or two ahead of her class, not because he disapproved of the work assigned by the school - the propaganda teaching notwithstanding. In fact, Babi thought that the one thing the communists had done right - or at least intended to - ironically, was in the field of education, the vocation from which they had fired him. More specifically, the education of women. The government had sponsored literacy classes for all women. Almost two-thirds of the students at Kabul University were women now, Babi said, women who were studying law, medicine, engineering.
Women have always had it hard in this country, Laila, but they're probably more free now, under the communists, and have more rights than they've ever had before, Babi said, always lowering his voice, aware of how intolerant Mammy was of even remotely positive talk of the communists. But it's true, Babi said, it's a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan. And you can take advantage of that, Laila. Of course, women's freedom - here, he shook his head ruefully - is also one of the reasons people out there took up arms in the first place.
By "out there," he didn't mean Kabul, which had always been relatively liberal and progressive. Here in Kabul, women taught at the university, ran schools, held office in the government. No, Babi meant the tribal areas, especially the Pashtun regions in the south or in the east near the Pakistani border, where women were rarely seen on the streets and only then in burqa and accompanied by men. He meant those regions where men who lived by ancient tribal laws had rebelled against the communists and their decrees to liberate women, to abolish forced marriage, to raise the minimum marriage age to sixteen for girls. There, men saw it as an insult to their centuries-old tradition, Babi said, to be told by the government - and a godless one at that - that their daughters had to leave home, attend school, and work alongside men.
God forbid that should happen! Babi liked to say sarcastically. Then he would sigh, and say, Laila, my love, the only enemy an Afghan cannot defeat is himself.
Babi took his seat at the table, dipped bread into his bowl of aush.
Laila decided that she would tell him about what Tariq had done to Khadim, over the meal, before they started in on fractions. But she never got the chance. Because, right then, there was a knock at the door, and, on the other side of the door, a stranger with news.
I need to speak to your parents, dokhtar jan," he said when Laila opened the door. He was a stocky man, with a sharp, weather-roughened face. He wore a potato-colored coat, and a brown wool pakol on his head.
"Can I tell them who's here?"
Then Babi's hand was on Laila's shoulder, and he gently pulled her from the door.
"Why don't you go upstairs, Laila. Go on."
As she moved toward the steps, Laila heard the visitor say to Babi that he had news from Panjshir. Mammy was in the room now too. She had one hand clamped over her mouth, and her eyes were skipping from Babi to the man in the pakol.
Laila peeked from the top of the stairs. She watched the stranger sit down with her parents. He leaned toward them. Said a few muted words. Then Babi's face was white, and getting whiter, and he was looking at his hands, and Mammy was screaming, screaming, and tearing at her hair.
THE NEXT MORNING, the day of the fatiha, a flock of neighborhood women descended on the house and took charge of preparations for the khatm dinner that would take place after the funeral. Mammy sat on the couch the whole morning, her fingers working a handkerchief, her face bloated. She was tended to by a pair of sniffling women who took turns patting Mammy's hand gingerly, like she was the rarest and most fragile doll in the world. Mammy did not seem aware of their presence.
Laila kneeled before her mother and took her hands. "Mammy."
Mammy's eyes drifted down. She blinked.
"We'll take care of her, Laila jan," one of the women said with an air of self-importance. Laila had been to funerals before where she had seen women like this, women who relished all things that had to do with death, official consolers who let no one trespass on their self-appointed duties.
"It's under control. You go on now, girl, and do something else. Leave your mother be."
Shooed away, Laila felt useless. She bounced from one room to the next. She puttered around the kitchen for a while. An uncharacteristically subdued Hasina and her mother came. So did Giti and her mother. When Giti saw Laila, she hurried over, threw her bony arms around her, and gave Laila a very long, and surprisingly strong, embrace. When she pulled back, tears had pooled in her eyes. "I am so sorry, Laila," she said. Laila thanked her. The three girls sat outside in the yard until one of the women assigned them the task of washing glasses and stacking plates on the table.
Babi too kept walking in and out of the house aimlessly, looking, it seemed, for something to do.
"Keep him away from me." That was the only time Mammy said anything all morning.
Babi ended up sitting alone on a folding chair in the hallway, looking desolate and small. Then one of the women told him he was in the way there. He apologized and disappeared into his study.
THAT AFTERNOON, the men went to a hall in Karteh-Seh that Babi had rented for the fatiha. The women came to the house. Laila took her spot beside Mammy, next to the living-room entrance where it was customary for the family of the deceased to sit. Mourners removed their shoes at the door, nodded at acquaintances as they crossed the room, and sat on folding chairs arranged along the walls. Laila saw Wajma, the elderly midwife who had delivered her. She saw Tariq's mother too, wearing a black scarf over the wig. She gave Laila a nod and a slow, sad, close-lipped smile.
From a cassette player, a man's nasal voice chanted verses from the Koran. In between, the women sighed and shifted and sniffled. There were muted coughs, murmurs, and, periodically, someone let out a theatrical, sorrow-drenched sob.
Rasheed's wife, Mariam, came in. She was wearing a black hijab. Strands of her hair strayed from it onto her brow. She took a seat along the wall across from Laila.
Next to Laila, Mammy kept rocking back and forth.
Laila drew Mammy's hand into her lap and cradled it with both of hers, but Mammy did not seem to notice.
"Do you want some water, Mammy?" Laila said in her ear. "Are you thirsty?"
But Mammy said nothing. She did nothing but sway back and forth and stare at the rug with a remote, spiritless look.
Now and then, sitting next to Mammy, seeing the drooping, woebegone looks around the room, the magnitude of the disaster that had struck her family would register with Laila. The possibilities denied. The hopes dashed.
But the feeling didn't last. It was hard to feel, really feel, Mammy's loss. Hard to summon sorrow, to grieve the deaths of people Laila had never really thought of as alive in the first place. Ahmad and Noor had always been like lore to her. Like characters in a fable. Kings in a history book.
It was Tariq who was real, flesh and blood. Tariq, who taught her cusswords in Pashto, who liked salted clover leaves, who frowned and made a low, moaning sound when he chewed, who had a light pink birthmark just beneath his left collarbone shaped like an upside-down mandolin.
So she sat beside Mammy and dutifully mourned Ahmad and Noor, but, in Laila's heart, her true brother was alive and well.
The ailments that would hound Mammy for the rest of her days began. Chest pains and headaches, joint aches and night sweats, paralyzing pains in her ears, lumps no one else could feel. Babi took her to a doctor, who took blood and urine, shot X-rays of Mammy's body, but found no physical illness.
Mammy lay in bed most days. She wore black. She picked at her hair and gnawed on the mole below her lip. When Mammy was awake, Laila found her staggering through the house. She always ended up in Laila's room, as though she would run into the boys sooner or later if she just kept walking into the room where they had once slept and farted and fought with pillows. But all she ran into was their absence. And Laila. Which, Laila believed, had become one and the same to Mammy.
The only task Mammy never neglected was her five daily namaz prayers. She ended each namaz with her head hung low, hands held before her face, palms up, muttering a prayer for God to bring victory to the Mujahideen. Laila had to shoulder more and more of the chores. If she didn't tend to the house, she was apt to find clothes, shoes, open rice bags, cans of beans, and dirty dishes strewn about everywhere. Laila washed Mammy's dresses and changed her sheets. She coaxed her out of bed for baths and meals. She was the one who ironed Babi's shirts and folded his pants. Increasingly, she was the cook.
Sometimes, after she was done with her chores, Laila crawled into bed next to Mammy. She wrapped her arms around her, laced her fingers with her mother's, buried her face in her hair. Mammy would stir, murmur something. Inevitably, she would start in on a story about the boys.
One day, as they were lying this way, Mammy said, "Ahmad was going to be a leader. He had the charisma for it. People three times his age listened to him with respect, Laila. It was something to see. And Noor. Oh, my Noor. He was always making sketches of buildings and bridges. He was going to be an architect, you know. He was going to transform Kabul with his designs. And now they're both shaheed, my boys, both martyrs."