Zalmai is almost six. Aziza is ten. They celebrated her birthday last week, took her to Cinema Park, where, at last, Titanic was openly screened for the people of Kabul.
"COME ON, CHILDREN, we're going to be late," Laila calls, putting their lunches in a paper bag.
It's eight o'clock in the morning. Laila was up at five. As always, it was Aziza who shook her awake for morning namaz. The prayers, Laila knows, are Aziza's way of clinging to Mariam, her way of keeping Mariam close awhile yet before time has its way, before it snatches Mariam from the garden of her memory like a weed pulled by its roots.
After namaz, Laila had gone back to bed, and was still asleep when Tariq left the house. She vaguely remembers him kissing her cheek. Tariq has found work with a French NGO that fits land mine survivors and amputees with prosthetic limbs.
Zalmai comes chasing Aziza into the kitchen.
"You have your notebooks, you two? Pencils?Textbooks?"
"Right here," Aziza says, lifting her backpack. Again, Laila notices how her stutter is lessening.
"Let's go, then."
Laila lets the children out of the house, locks the door.
They step out into the cool morning. It isn't raining today. The sky is blue, and Laila sees no clumps of clouds in the horizon. Holding hands, the three of them make their way to the bus stop. The streets are busy already, teeming with a steady stream of rickshaws, taxicabs, UN trucks, buses, ISAF jeeps. Sleepy-eyed merchants are unlocking store gates that had been rolled down for the night. Vendors sit behind towers of chewing gum and cigarette packs. Already the widows have claimed their spots at street corners, asking the passersby for coins.
Laila finds it strange to be back in Kabul. The city has changed. Every day now she sees people planting saplings, painting old houses, carrying bricks for new ones. They dig gutters and wells. On windowsills, Laila spots flowers potted in the empty shells of old Mujahideen rockets - rocket flowers, Kabulis call them. Recently, Tariq took Laila and the children to the Gardens of Babur, which are being renovated. For the first time in years, Laila hears music at Kabul's street corners, rubab and tabla, dootar, harmonium and tamboura, old Ahmad Zahir songs.
Laila wishes Mammy and Babi were alive to see these changes. But, like Jalil's letter, Kabul's penance has arrived too late.
Laila and the children are about to cross the street to the bus stop when suddenly a black Land Cruiser with tinted windows blows by. It swerves at the last instant and misses Laila by less than an arm's length. It splatters tea-colored rainwater all over the children's shirts.
Laila yanks her children back onto the sidewalk, heart somersaulting in her throat.
The Land Cruiser speeds down the street, honks twice, and makes a sharp left.
Laila stands there, trying to catch her breath, her fingers gripped tightly around her children's wrists.
It slays Laila. It slays her that the warlords have been allowed back to Kabul. That her parents' murderers live in posh homes with walled gardens, that they have been appointed minister of this and deputy minister of that, that they ride with impunity in shiny, bulletproof SUVs through neighborhoods that they demolished. It slays her.
But Laila has decided that she will not be crippled by resentment. Mariam wouldn't want it that way. What's the sense? she would say with a smile both innocent and wise. What good is it, Laila jo? And so Laila has resigned herself to moving on. For her own sake, for Tariq's, for her children's. And for Mariam, who still visits Laila in her dreams, who is never more than a breath or two below her consciousness. Laila has moved on. Because in the end she knows that's all she can do. That and hope.
ZAMAN IS STANDING at the free throw line, his knees bent, bouncing a basketball. He is instructing a group of boys in matching jerseys sitting in a semicircle on the court. Zaman spots Laila, tucks the ball under his arm, and waves. He says something to the boys, who then wave and cry out, "Salaam, moalim sahib!"
Laila waves back.
The orphanage playground has a row of apple saplings now along the east-facing wall. Laila is planning to plant some on the south wall as well as soon as it is rebuilt. There is a new swing set, new monkey bars, and a jungle gym.
Laila walks back inside through the screen door.
They have repainted both the exterior and the interior of the orphanage. Tariq and Zaman have repaired all the roof leaks, patched the walls, replaced the windows, carpeted the rooms where the children sleep and play. This past winter, Laila bought a few beds for the children's sleeping quarters, pillows too, and proper wool blankets. She had cast-iron stoves installed for the winter.
Anis, one of Kabul's newspapers, had run a story the month before on the renovation of the orphanage. They'd taken a photo too, of Zaman, Tariq, Laila, and one of the attendants, standing in a row behind the children. When Laila saw the article, she'd thought of her childhood friends Giti and Hasina, and Hasina saying, By the time we're twenty, Giti and I, we'll have pushed out four, five kids each. But you, Laila, you'll make us two dummies proud. You're going to be somebody. I know one day I'll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the front page. The photo hadn't made the front page, but there it was nevertheless, as Hasina had predicted.
Laila takes a turn and makes her way down the same hallway where, two years before, she and Mariam had delivered Aziza to Zaman. Laila still remembers how they had to pry Aziza's fingers from her wrist. She remembers running down this hallway, holding back a howl, Mariam calling after her, Aziza screaming with panic. The hallway's walls are covered now with posters, of dinosaurs, cartoon characters, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and displays of artwork by the orphans. Many of the drawings depict tanks running over huts, men brandishing AK-47s, refugee camp tents, scenes of jihad.
Laila turns a corner in the hallway and sees the children now, waiting outside the classroom. She is greeted by their scarves, their shaved scalps covered by skullcaps, their small, lean figures, the beauty of their drabness.
When the children spot Laila, they come running. They come running at full tilt. Laila is swarmed. There is a flurry of high-pitched greetings, of shrill voices, of patting, clutching, tugging, groping, of jostling with one another to climb into her arms. There are outstretched little hands and appeals for attention. Some of them call her Mother. Laila does not correct them.
It takes Laila some work this morning to calm the children down, to get them to form a proper queue, to usher them into the classroom.
It was Tariq and Zaman who built the classroom by knocking down the wall between two adjacent rooms. The floor is still badly cracked and has missing tiles. For the time being, it is covered with tarpaulin, but Tariq has promised to cement some new tiles and lay down carpeting soon.
Nailed above the classroom doorway is a rectangular board, which Zaman has sanded and painted in gleaming white. On it, with a brush, Zaman has written four lines of poetry, his answer, Laila knows, to those who grumble that the promised aid money to Afghanistan isn't coming, that the rebuilding is going too slowly, that there is corruption, that the Taliban are regrouping already and will come back with a vengeance, that the world will forget once again about Afghanistan. The lines are from his favorite of Hafez's ghazals:
Joseph shall return to Canaan, grieve not,
Hovels shall turn to rose gardens, grieve not.
If a flood should arrive, to drown all that's alive,
Noah is your guide in the typhoon's eye, grieve not.
Laila passes beneath the sign and enters the classroom. The children are taking their seats, flipping notebooks open, chattering. Aziza is talking to a girl in the adjacent row. A paper airplane floats across the room in a high arc. Someone tosses it back.
"Open your Farsi books, children," Laila says, dropping her own books on her desk.
To a chorus of flipping pages, Laila makes her way to the curtainless window. Through the glass, she can see the boys in the playground lining up to practice their free throws. Above them, over the mountains, the morning sun is rising. It catches the metallic rim of the basketball hoop, the chain link of the tire swings, the whistle hanging around Zaman's neck, his new, unchipped spectacles. Laila flattens her palms against the warm glass panes. Closes her eyes. She lets the sunlight fall on her cheeks, her eyelids, her brow.
When they first came back to Kabul, it distressed Laila that she didn't know where the Taliban had buried Mariam. She wished she could visit Mariam's grave, to sit with her awhile, leave a flower or two. But Laila sees now that it doesn't matter. Mariam is never very far. She is here, in these walls they've repainted, in the trees they've planted, in the blankets that keep the children warm, in these pillows and books and pencils. She is in the children's laughter. She is in the verses Aziza recites and in the prayers she mutters when she bows westward. But, mostly, Mariam is in Laila's own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.
Someone has been calling her name, Laila realizes. She turns around, instinctively tilts her head, lifting her good ear just a tad. It's Aziza.
"Mammy? Are you all right?"
The room has become quiet. The children are watching her.
Laila is about to answer when her breath suddenly catches. Her hands shoot down. They pat the spot where, a moment before, she'd felt a wave go through her. She waits. But there is no more movement.
"Yes, my love." Laila smiles. "I'm all right. Yes. Very much."
As she walks to her desk at the front of the class, Laila thinks of the naming game they'd played again over dinner the night before. It has become a nightly ritual ever since Laila gave Tariq and the children the news. Back and forth they go, making a case for their own choice. Tariq likes Mohammad. Zalmai, who has recently watched Superman on tape, is puzzled as to why an Afghan boy cannot be named Clark. Aziza is campaigning hard for Aman. Laila likes Omar.
But the game involves only male names. Because, if it's a girl, Laila has already named her.