THE RIVER came down from the ice line, cold and clear and always in a rush, and it filled the Valley with its noise as it boiled through the ravines and flashed past the wheatfields in a headlong dash for the faraway lowlands. For almost a year that sound had been constantly in Jane's ears: sometimes loud, when she went to bathe or when she took the winding cliffside paths between villages; and sometimes soft, as now, when she was high on the hillside and the Five Lions River was just a glint and a murmur in the distance. When eventually she left the Valley she would find the silence unnerving, she thought, like city dwellers on holiday in the countryside who cannot sleep because it is too quiet. Listening, she heard something else, and she realized that the new sound had made her aware of the old. Swelling over the river's chorus came the baritone of a propeller-driven aircraft.
Jane opened her eyes. It was an Antonov, the predatory, slow-moving reconnaissance plane whose incessant growl was the usual herald of faster, noisier jet aircraft on a bombing run. She sat up and looked anxiously across the Valley.
She was in her secret refuge, a broad, flat shelf halfway up a cliff. Above her, the overhang hid her from view without blocking the sun, and would dissuade anyone but a mountaineer from climbing down. Below, the approach to her refuge was steep and stony and bare of vegetation: no one could climb it without being heard and seen by Jane.
There was no reason for anyone to come here anyway. Jane had only found the place by wandering from the path and getting lost. The privacy of the place was important because she came here to take off her clothes and lie in the sun, and the Afghans were as modest as nuns: if she were seen naked she would be lynched.
To her right the dusty hillside fell away rapidly. Toward its foot, where the slope began to level out near the river, was the village of Banda, fifty or sixty houses clinging to a patch of uneven, rocky ground that no one could farm. The houses were made of gray stones and mud bricks, and each one had a flat roof of pressed earth laid over mats. Next to the little mosque was a small group of wrecked houses: one of the Russian bombers had scored a direct hit a couple of months back. Jane could see the village clearly, although it was a twenty-minute scramble away. She scanned the roofs and walled courtyards and mud footpaths, looking for stray children, but happily there were none - Banda was deserted under the hot blue sky.
To her left, the Valley broadened out. The small stony fields were dotted with bomb craters, and on the lower slopes of the mountainside several of the ancient terrace walls had collapsed. The wheat was ripe, but no one was reaping.
Beyond the fields, at the foot of the cliff wall that formed the far side of the Valley, ran the Five Lions River: deep in places, shallow in others; now broad, now narrow; always fast and always rocky. Jane scrutinized its length. There were no women bathing or washing clothes, no children playing in the shallows, no men leading horses or donkeys across the ford.
Jane contemplated throwing on her clothes and leaving her refuge to climb farther up the mountainside to the caves. That was where the villagers were, the men sleeping after a night of working in their fields, the women cooking and trying to stop the children wandering, the cows penned and the goats tethered and the dogs fighting over scraps. She was probably quite safe here, for the Russians bombed the villages, not the bare hillsides; but
there was always the chance of a stray bomb, and a cave would protect her from everything but a direct hit.
Before she had made up her mind she heard the roar of the jets. She squinted into the sun to look at them. Their noise filled the Valley, swamping the rush of the river, as they passed over her, heading northeast, high but descending, one, two, three, four silver killers, the summit of mankind's ingenuity deployed to maim illiterate farmers and knock down mud-brick houses and return to base at seven hundred miles per hour.
In a minute they were gone. Banda was to be spared, for today. Slowly, Jane relaxed. The jets terrified her. Banda had escaped bombing completely last summer, and the whole of the Valley got a respite during the winter; but it had started again in earnest this spring, and Banda had been hit several times, once in the center of the village. Since then Jane had hated the jets.
The courage of the villagers was amazing. Each family had made a second home up in the caves, and they climbed the hill every morning to spend the day there, returning at dusk, for there was no bombing at night. Since it was unsafe to work in the fields by day, the men did it at night - or rather the older ones did, for the young men were away most of the time, shooting at Russians down at the southern end of the Valley or farther afield. This summer the bombing was more intensive than ever in all the rebel areas, according to what Jean-Pierre heard from the guerrillas. If Afghans in other parts of the country were like these here in the Valley, they were able to adapt and survive: salvaging a few precious possessions from the rubble of a bombed house, tirelessly replanting a ruined vegetable garden, nursing the wounded and burying the dead, and sending ever-younger teenage boys to join the guerrilla leaders. The Russians could never defeat these people, Jane felt, unless they turned the whole country into a radioactive desert.
As to whether the rebels could ever defeat the Russians - that was another question. They were brave and irrepressible, and they controlled the countryside, but rival tribes
hated one another almost as much as they hated the invaders, and their rifles were useless against jet bombers and armored helicopters.
She pushed thoughts of war out of her mind. This was the heat of the day, the siesta time, when she liked to be alone and relax. She put her hand into a goatskin bag of clarified butter and began to oil the taut skin of her enormous belly, wondering how she could possibly have been so foolish as to get pregnant in Afghanistan.
She had arrived with a two-year supply of contraceptive pills, a diaphragm, and a whole carton of spermicidal jelly; and yet, just a few weeks later, she had forgotten to restart the pills after her period and then forgotten to put in the diaphragm - several times. "How could you make such a mistake?" Jean-Pierre had yelled, and she had had no answer.
But now, lying in the sun, cheerfully pregnant with lovely swollen breasts and a permanent backache, she could see that it had been a deliberate mistake, a kind of professional foul perpetrated by her unconscious mind. She had wanted a baby, and she knew Jean-Pierre did not, so she had started one by accident.
Why did I want a baby so badly? she asked herself, and the answer came to her out of nowhere: because I was lonely.
"Is that true?" she said aloud. It would be ironic. She had never felt lonely in Paris, living on her own and shopping for one and talking to herself in the mirror; but when she was married, and spent every evening and every night with her husband and worked alongside him most of every day, then she had felt isolated, frightened and alone.
They had married in Paris just before coming here. It had seemed a natural part of the adventure, somehow: another challenge, another risk, another thrill. Everyone had said how happy and beautiful and brave and in love they were, and it had been true.
No doubt she had expected too much. She had looked forward to ever-growing love and intimacy with Jean-Pierre. She had thought she would learn about his child-
hood sweetheart and what he was really frightened of and whether it was true that men shook the drops off after peeing; and in turn she would tell him that her father had been an alcoholic and that she had a fantasy about being raped by a black man and that she sometimes sucked her thumb when she was anxious. But Jean-Pierre seemed to think their relationship after marriage should be just what it had been before. He treated her courteously, made her laugh in his manic moods, fell helpless into her arms when he was depressed, discussed politics and the war, made love to her expertly once a week with his lean young body and his strong, sensitive surgeon's hands, and behaved in every way like a boyfriend rather than a husband. She still felt unable to talk to him about silly, embarrassing things such as whether a hat made her nose look longer and how angry she still was about having been spanked for spilling red ink on the drawing-room rug when in fact her sister Pauline had done it. She wanted to ask someone Is this how it's supposed to be, or will it get better? but her friends and family were all far away and the Afghan women would have found her expectations outrageous. She had resisted the temptation to confront Jean-Pierre with her disappointment, partly because her complaint was so vague, and partly because she was frightened of what his answer might be.
Looking back, she could see that the idea of a baby had been creeping up on her even earlier, when she was seeing Ellis Thaler. That year she had flown from Paris to London for the christening of her sister Pauline's third child, something she would not normally have done, for she disliked formal family occasions. She had also started babysitting for a couple in her building, a hysterical antique dealer and his aristocratic wife, and she had enjoyed it most when the baby had cried and she had had to pick him up and comfort him.
And then, here in the Valley, where her duty was to encourage the women to space their babies for the sake of healthier children, she had found herself sharing the joy with which each new pregnancy was greeted even in the
poorest and most overcrowded households. Thus loneliness and the maternal instinct had conspired against common sense.
Had there been a time - even just a fleeting instant - when she realized that her unconscious mind was trying to get her pregnant? Had she thought / might have a baby at the moment when Jean-Pierre penetrated her, gliding in slowly and gracefully like a ship into a dock, while she tightened her arms about his body; or in the second of hesitation, immediately before his climax, when he shut his eyes tightly and seemed to retreat from her deep into himself, a spaceship falling into the heart of the sun; or afterward, as she was drifting blissfully into sleep with his seed hot inside her? "Did I realize?" she said aloud; but thinking about making love had turned her on, and she began to caress herself luxuriously with her butter-slippery hands, forgetting the question and letting her mind fill with vague swirling images of passion.
The scream of jets jerked her back to the real world. She stared, frightened, as another four bombers streaked up the Valley and disappeared. When the noise died away she started to touch herself again, but her mood had been spoiled. She lay still in the sun and thought about her baby.
Jean-Pierre had reacted to her pregnancy just as if it had been premeditated. So furious had he been that he had wanted to perform an abortion himself, immediately. Jane had found that wish of his dreadfully macabre, and he had suddenly seemed a stranger. But hardest to bear was the feeling of having been rejected. The thought that her husband did not want her baby had made her utterly desolate. He had made matters worse by refusing to touch her. She had never been so miserable in her life. For the first time she understood why people sometimes tried to kill themselves. The withdrawal of physical contact was the worst torture of all - she genuinely wished Jean-Pierre would beat her instead, so badly did she need to be touched. When she remembered those days she still felt angry with him, even though she knew she had brought it on herself.
Then, one morning, he had put his arm around her and apologized for his behavior; and although part of her had wanted to say "Being sorry isn't enough, you bastard," the rest of her was desperate for his love, and she had forgiven him immediately. He had explained that he was already afraid of losing her; and that if she were to be the mother of his son he would be absolutely terrified, for then he would lose them both. This confession had moved her to tears, and she had realized that in getting pregnant she had made the ultimate commitment to Jean-Pierre, and she made up her mind that she would make this marriage work, come what may.
He had been warmer to her after that. He had taken an interest in the growing baby, and had become anxious about Jane's health and safety, the way expectant fathers were supposed to. Their marriage would be an imperfect but happy union, Jane thought, and she envisaged an ideal future, with Jean-Pierre as the French Minister of Health in a Socialist administration, herself as a member of the European Parliament, and three brilliant children, one at the Sorbonne, one at the London School of Economics, and one at the New York High School for the Performing Arts.
In this fantasy the eldest and most brilliant child was a girl. Jane touched her tummy, pressing gently with her fingertips, feeling the shape of the baby: according to Rabia Gul, the old village midwife, it would be a girl, for it could be felt on the left side, whereas boys grew on the right side. Rabia had accordingly prescribed a diet of vegetables. For a boy she would have recommended plenty of meat. In Afghanistan the males were better fed even before they were born.
Jane's thoughts were interrupted by a loud bang. For a moment she was confused, associating the explosion with the jets which had passed overhead several minutes before on their way to bomb some other village; then she heard quite close by, the high continuous scream of a child in pain and panicking.
She realized instantly what had happened. The Rus-
sians, using tactics they had learned from the Americans in Vietnam, had littered the countryside with anti-personnel mines. Their ostensible aim was to block guerrilla supply lines; but since the "guerrilla supply lines" were the mountain pathways used daily by old men, women, children and animals, the real purpose was straightforward terror. That scream meant a child had detonated a mine.
Jane jumped to her feet. The sound seemed to be coming from somewhere near the mullah's house, which was about half a mile outside the village on the hillside footpath. Jane could just see it, away to her left and a little lower down. She stepped into her shoes, grabbed her clothes and ran that way. The first long scream ended and became a series of short, terrified yells: it sounded to Jane as if the child had seen the damage the mine had done to its body and was screaming with fright now. Rushing through the coarse undergrowth, Jane realized that she herself was panicking, so peremptory was the summons of a child in distress. "Calm down," she said breathlessly to herself. If she were to fall badly there would be two people in trouble and no one to help; and anyway the worst thing for a frightened child was a frightened adult.
She was near now. The child would be hidden in the bushes, not on the footpath, for all the paths were cleared by the menfolk each time they were mined, but it was impossible to sweep the entire mountainside.
She stopped, listening. Her panting was so loud that she had to hold her breath. The screams were coming from a clump of camelgrass and juniper bushes. She pushed through the shrubbery and glimpsed part of a bright blue coat. The child must be Mousa, the nine-year-old son of Mohammed Khan, one of the leading guerrillas. A moment later she was beside him.
He was kneeling on the dusty ground. He had evidently tried to pick up the mine, for it had blown off his hand, and now he was staring wild-eyed at the bloody stump and screaming in terror.
Jane had seen a lot of wounds in the past year, but still this one moved her to pity. "Oh, dear God," she said.
"You poor child." She knelt in front of him, hugged him, and murmured soothing noises. After a minute he stopped screaming. She hoped he would begin to cry instead, but he was too shocked, and lapsed into silence. As she held him she searched for and found the pressure point in his armpit, and stopped the gush of blood.
She was going to need his help. She must make him speak. "Mousa, what was it?" she said in Dari.
He made no reply. She asked him again.
"I thought . . ." His eyes opened wide as he remembered, and his voice rose to a scream as he said: "I thought it was A BALL!"
"Hush, hush," she murmured. "Tell me what you did."
"I PICKED IT UP! I PICKED IT UP!"
She held him tight, soothing him. "And what happened?"
His voice was shaky but no longer hysterical. "It went bang," he said. He was rapidly becoming calmer.
She took his right hand and put it under his left arm. "Press where I'm pressing," she said. She guided his fingertips to the point, then withdrew her own. The blood started to flow from the wound again. "Push hard," she told him. He did as she said. The flow stopped. She kissed his forehead. It was damp and cold.
She had dropped her bundle of clothing on the ground beside Mousa. Her clothes were what the Afghan women wore: a sackshaped dress over cotton trousers. She picked up the dress and tore the thin material into several strips, then began to make a tourniquet. Mousa watched her, wide-eyed and silent. She snapped a dry twig from a juniper bush and used it to finish the tourniquet.
Now he needed a dressing, a sedative, an antibiotic to prevent infection, and his mother to prevent trauma.
Jane pulled on her trousers and tied the drawstring. She wished she had been less hasty about tearing up her dress, for she might have preserved enough of it to cover her upper half. Now she would just have to hope she did not meet any men on the way to the caves.
And how would she get Mousa there? She did not want to try to make him walk. She could not carry him on her back, for he could not hold on. She sighed: she would just have to take him in her arms. She crouched down, put one arm around his shoulders and the other under his thighs, and picked him up, lifting with her knees rather than with her back, the way she had learned at her feminist fitness class. Cradling the child to her bosom with his back lying on the rise of her belly, she began to walk slowly up the hill. She could manage it only because he was half starved: a nine-year-old European child would have been too heavy.
She soon emerged from the bushes and found the footpath. But after forty or fifty yards she became exhausted. In the last few weeks she had found herself tiring very quickly, and it infuriated her, but she had learned not to fight it. She set Mousa down and stood with him, hugging him gently, while she rested, leaning against the cliff wall that ran along one side of the mountain path. He had lapsed into a frozen silence which she found more worrying than his screams. As soon as she felt better she picked him up and started again.
She was resting near the top of the hill, fifteen minutes later, when a man appeared on the path ahead. Jane recognized him. "Oh, no," she said in English. "Of all people - Abdullah.''
He was a short man of about fifty-five and he was rather tubby despite the local shortage of food. With his tan turban and billowing black trousers he wore an Argyle sweater and a blue double-breasted pinstriped suit coat that looked as if it had once been worn by a London stockbroker. His luxuriant beard was dyed red: he was Banda's mullah.
Abdullah mistrusted foreigners, despised women and hated all practitioners of foreign medicine. Jane, being all three, had never had the least chance of winning his affection. To make matters worse, many people in the Valley had realized that taking Jane's antibiotics was a more effective treatment for infections than inhaling the smoke from a burning slip of paper on which Abdullah had
written with saffron ink, and consequently the mullah was losing money. His reaction was to refer to Jane as "the Western whore," but it was difficult for him to do more, for she and Jean-Pierre were under the protection of Ahmed Shah Masud, the guerrilla leader, and even a mullah hesitated to cross swords with such a great hero.
When he saw her he stopped dead in his tracks, an expression of utter incredulity transforming his normally solemn face into a comic mask. He was the worst possible person to meet. Any of the other village men would have been embarrassed, and perhaps offended, to see her half-naked; but Abdullah would be enraged.
Jane decided to brazen it out. She said in Dari: "Peace be with you." This was the beginning of a formal exchange of greetings which could sometimes go on for several minutes. But Abdullah did not respond with the usual And with you. Instead he opened his mouth and began in a high-pitched shout to abuse her with a stream of imprecations which included the Dari words for prostitute, pervert and seducer of children. His face empurpled with fury, he walked toward her and raised his stick.
This was going too far. She pointed at Mousa, who stood silent by her side, dazed by pain and weak from loss of blood. "Look!" she yelled at Abdullah. "Can't you see - "
But he was blinded by rage. Before she could finish what she was trying to say he brought down his stick on her head with a whack. Jane cried out with pain and anger: she was surprised at how much it hurt and furious that he should do this.
He still had not noticed Mousa's wound. The mullah's staring eyes were focused on Jane's chest, and she realized in a flash that for him to see in broad daylight the naked breasts of a pregnant white Western woman was a sight so overloaded with different kinds of sexual anxiety that he was bound to blow his top. He was not planning to chastise her with a blow or two, as he might chastise his wife for disobedience. There was murder in his heart.
Suddenly Jane was very frightened - for herself, for
Mousa and for her unborn child. She stumbled backward, out of range, but he stepped toward her and raised his stick again. Suddenly inspired, she leaped at him and poked her fingers into his eyes.
He roared like a wounded bull. He was not hurt so much as indignant that a woman he was beating should have the temerity to fight back. While he was blinded, Jane grabbed his beard with both hands and tugged. He stumbled forward, tripped and fell. He rolled a couple of yards downhill and came to rest in a dwarf willow bush.
Jane thought: Oh, God, what have I done?
Looking at the pompous, malevolent priest in his humiliation, Jane knew he would never forget what she had done. He might complain to the "whiteboards" - the village elders. He might go to Masud and demand that the foreign doctors be sent home. He might even try to inflame the menfolk of Banda into stoning Jane. But almost as soon as she had this thought, it struck her that, in order to make any kind of complaint, he would have to tell his story in all its ignominious details, and the villagers would ridicule him forever afterward - the Afghans were nothing if not cruel. So perhaps she would get away with it.
She turned around. She had something more important to worry about. Mousa was standing where she had set him down, silent and expressionless, too shocked to understand what had been going on. Jane took a deep breath, picked him up and walked on.
She reached the crest of the hill after a few paces, and she was able to walk faster as the ground leveled out. She crossed the stony plateau. She was tired and her back hurt but she was almost there: the caves were just below the brow of the mountain. She reached the far side of the ridge and heard children's voices as she began to descend. A moment later she saw a group of six-year-olds playing Heaven-and-Hell, a game which involved holding your toes while two other children carried you to Heaven - if you succeeded in keeping hold of your toes - or Hell, usually a rubbish dump or a latrine, if you let go. She realized that Mousa would never play that game again, and
she was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of tragedy. The children noticed her then, and as she passed them they stopped playing and stared. One of them whispered: "Mousa." Another repeated the name, then the spell was broken and they all ran ahead of Jane, shouting the news.
The daytime hideout of the villagers of Banda looked like the desert encampment of a tribe of nomads: the dusty ground, the blazing midday sun, the remains of cooking fires, the hooded women, the dirty children. Jane crossed the small square of level ground in front of the caves. The women were already converging on the largest cave, which Jane and Jean-Pierre had made their clinic. Jean-Pierre heard the commotion and came out. Gratefully, Jane handed Mousa to him, saying in French: "It was a mine. He's lost his hand. Give me your shirt."
Jean-Pierre took Mousa inside and laid him down on the rug which served as an examination table. Before attending to the child he stripped off his bleached-khaki shirt and gave it to Jane. She put it on.
She felt a little light-headed. She thought she would sit down and rest in the cool rear of the cave, but after taking a couple of steps in that direction, she changed her mind and sat down immediately. Jean-Pierre said: "Get me some swabs." She ignored him. Mousa's mother, Halima, came running into the cave and began screaming when she saw her son. I should calm her, Jane thought, so that she can comfort the child; why can't I get up? I think I'll close my eyes. Just for a minute.
By nightfall Jane knew her baby was coming.
When she came around after fainting in the cave, she had what she thought was a backache - caused, she assumed, by carrying Mousa. Jean-Pierre agreed with her diagnosis, gave her an aspirin and told her to lie still. Rabia, the midwife, came into the cave to see Mousa, and gave Jane a hard look, but at the time Jane did not understand its significance. Jean-Pierre cleaned and dressed Mousa's stump, gave him penicillin and injected him against tetanus. The child would not die of infection, as almost certainly he would have without Western medicine; but all
the same Jane wondered whether his life would be worth living - survival here was hard even for the fittest, and crippled children generally died young.
Late in the afternoon Jean-Pierre prepared to leave. He was scheduled to hold a clinic tomorrow in a village several miles away, and - for some reason Jane had never quite understood - he never missed such appointments, even though he knew that no Afghan would have been surprised if he had been a day or even a week late.
By the time he kissed Jane goodbye she was beginning to wonder whether her backache might be the beginning of labor, brought on early by her ordeal with Mousa, but as she had never had a baby before, she could not tell, and it seemed unlikely. She asked Jean-Pierre. "Don't worry," he said briskly. "You've got another six weeks to wait." She asked him whether he ought perhaps to stay, just in case, but he thought it was quite unnecessary, and she began to feel foolish; so she let him go, with his medical supplies loaded on a scrawny horse, to reach his destination before dark so that he could begin work first thing in the morning.
When the sun began to set behind the western cliff wall, and the valley was brimful of shadow, Jane walked with the women and children down the mountainside to the darkening village, and the men headed for their fields, to reap their crops while the bombers slept.
The house in which Jane and Jean-Pierre lived actually belonged to the village shopkeeper, who had given up hope of making money in wartime - there was almost nothing to sell - and had decamped, with his family, to Pakistan. The front room, formerly the shop, had been Jean-Pierre's clinic until the intensity of the summer bombing had driven the villagers to the caves during the day. The house had two back rooms, one would have been for the men and their guests, the other for women and children. Jane and Jean-Pierre used them as bedroom and living room. At the side of the house was a mud-walled courtyard containing the cooking fire and a small pool for washing clothes, dishes and children. The shopkeeper had
left behind some homemade wooden furniture, and the villagers had loaned Jane several beautiful rugs for the floors. Jane and Jean-Pierre slept on a mattress, like the Afghans, but they had a down sleeping bag instead of blankets. Like the Afghans, they rolled up the mattress during the day or put it on the flat roof to air in fine weather. In the summer everyone slept on the roofs.
Walking from the cave to the house had a peculiar effect on Jane. Her backache got much worse, and when she reached home she was ready to collapse with pain and exhaustion. She had a desperate urge to pee, but she was too tired to go outside to the latrine, so she used the emergency pot behind the screen in the bedroom. It was then that she noticed a small blood-streaked stain in the crotch of her cotton trousers.
She did not have the energy to climb up the outside ladder onto the roof to fetch the mattress, so she lay on a rug in the bedroom. The "backache" came in waves. She put her hands on her tummy during the next wave, and felt the bulge shift, sticking farther out as the pain increased then flattening again as it eased. Now she was in no doubt that she was having contractions.
She was frightened. She recalled talking to her sister Pauline about childbirth. After Pauline's first, Jane had visited her, taking a bottle of champagne and a little marijuana. When they were both extremely relaxed, Jane had asked what it was really like, and Pauline had replied: "Like shitting a melon." They had giggled for what seemed like hours.
But Pauline had given birth at University College Hospital in the heart of London, not in a mud-brick house in the Five Lions Valley.
Jane thought: What am I going to do?
I mustn't panic. I must wash myself with warm water and soap; find a sharp scissors and put it in boiling water for fifteen minutes; get clean sheets to lie on; sip liquids; and relax.
But before she could do anything, another contraction began, and this one really hurt. She closed her eyes and
tried to take slow, deep, regular breaths, as Jean-Pierre had explained, but it was difficult to be so controlled when all she wanted to do was cry out in fear and pain.
The spasm left her drained. She lay still, recovering. She realized she could not do any of the things she had listed: she could not manage on her own. As soon as she felt strong enough she would get up and go to the nearest house and ask the women to fetch the midwife.
The next contraction came sooner than she had expected, after what seemed like only a minute or two. As the tension reached its peak Jane said aloud: "Why don't they tell you how much it hurts?"
As soon as it passed its peak she forced herself to get up. The terror of giving birth all alone gave her strength. She hobbled from the bedroom into the living room. She felt a little stronger with each step. She made it out into the courtyard, then suddenly there was a gush of warm fluid between her thighs, and her trousers were instantly drenched: the waters had broken. "Oh, no," she groaned. She leaned against the doorpost. She was not sure she could walk even a few yards with her trousers falling down like this. She felt humiliated. "I must," she said; but a new contraction began, and she sank to the ground, thinking: I'm going to have to do this alone.
Next time she opened her eyes there was a man's face close to her own. He looked like an Arab sheikh: he had dark brown skin, black eyes and a black moustache, and his features were aristocratic - high cheekbones, a Roman nose, white teeth and a long jaw. It was Mohammed Khan, the father of Mousa.
"Thank God," Jane muttered thickly.
"I came to thank you for saving the life of my only son," Mohammed said in Dari. "Are you sick?"
"I'm having a baby."
"Now?" he said, startled.
"Soon. Help me into the house."
He hesitated - childbirth, like all things uniquely feminine, was considered unclean - but to his credit the hesitation was only momentary. He lifted her to her feet and
supported her as she walked through the living room and into the bedroom. She lay down on the rug again. ''Get help," she told him.
He frowned, unsure what to do, looking very boyish and handsome. "Where is Jean-Pierre?"
"Gone to Khawak. I. need Rabia."
"Yes," he said. "I'll send my wife."
"Before you go . . ."
"Please give me some water."
He looked shocked. It was unheard-of for a man to serve a woman, even with a simple drink of water.
Jane added: "From the special jug." She kept handy a jug of filtered boiled water for drinking: this was the only way to avoid the numerous intestinal parasites from which almost all the local people suffered all their lives.
Mohammed decided to flout convention. "Of course," he said. He went into the next room and returned a moment later with a cup of water Jane thanked him and sipped gratefully.
"I'll send Halima to fetch the midwife," he said.
Halima was his wife. "Thank you," said Jane. "Tell her to hurry."
Mohammed left. Jane was lucky it was he and not one of the other men. The others would have refused to touch a sick woman, but Mohammed was different. He was one of the most important guerrillas, and in practice was the local representative of the rebel leader, Masud, Mohammed was only twenty-four, but in this country that was not too young to be a guerrilla leader or to have a nine-year-old son. He had studied in Kabul, he spoke a little French, and he knew that the customs of the Valley were not the only forms of polite behavior in the world. His main responsibility was to organize the convoys to and from Pakistan with their vital supplies of arms and ammunition for the rebels. It was one such convoy that had brought Jane and Jean-Pierre to the Valley.
Waiting for the next contraction, Jane recalled that awful journey. She had thought of herself as a healthy, active
and strong person, easily capable of walking all day; but she had not anticipated the shortage of food, the steep climbs, the rough stony paths and the incapacitating diarrhea. For parts of the trip they had moved only at night, for fear of Russian helicopters. They had also had to contend with hostile villagers in places: fearing that the convoy would attract a Russian attack, the locals would refuse to sell food to the guerrillas, or hide behind barred doors, or direct the convoy to a meadow or orchard a few miles away, a perfect camping spot which turned out not to exist.
Because of the Russian attacks, Mohammed changed his routes constantly. Jean-Pierre had got hold of American maps of Afghanistan in Paris, and they were better than anything the rebels had, so Mohammed often came to the house to look at them before sending off a new convoy.
In fact Mohammed came oftener than was really necessary. He also addressed Jane more than Afghan men usually did. and made eye contact with her a little too much, and stole too many glances at her body. She thought he was in love with her, or at least he had been until her pregnancy became visible.
She in turn had been drawn to him at the time when she was miserable about Jean-Pierre. Mohammed was lean and brown and strong and powerful, and for the first time in her life, Jane had been attracted to a dyed-in-the-wool male chauvinist pig.
She could have had an affair with him. He was a devout Muslim, as were all the guerrillas, but she doubted whether that would have made any difference. She believed what her father had used to say: "Religious conviction may thwart a timid desire but nothing can stand against genuine lust." That particular line had enraged Mummy. No, there was as much adultery in this puritan peasant community as anywhere else, as Jane had realized listening to the riverside gossip among the women while they fetched water or bathed. Jane knew how it was managed, too. Mohammed had told her. "You can see the fish jump at dusk under the waterfall beyond the last water mill," he had said one day.
"I go there some nights to catch them." At dusk the women were all cooking, and the men were sitting in the courtyard of the mosque, talking and smoking: lovers would not be discovered so far from the village, and neither Jane nor Mohammed would have been missed.
The idea of making love by a waterfall with this handsome, primitive tribesman tempted Jane; but then she had got pregnant, and Jean-Pierre had confessed how frightened he was of losing her, and she had decided to devote all her energies to making her marriage work, come what may; and so she never went to the waterfall, and after her pregnancy began to show, Mohammed did not look at her body.
Perhaps it was their latent intimacy that had emboldened Mohammed to come in and to help her, when other men would have refused and might even have turned away at the door. Or perhaps it was Mousa. Mohammed had only one son - and three daughters - and he probably now felt unbearably indebted to Jane. I made a friend and an enemy today, she thought: Mohammed and Abdullah.
The pain began again, and she realized she had enjoyed a longer-than-usual respite. Were the contractions becoming irregular? Why? Jean-Pierre had said nothing about that. But he had forgotten much of the gynecology he had studied three or four years ago.
This one was the worst so far, and it left her feeling shivery and nauseated. What had happened to the midwife? Mohammed must have sent his wife to fetch her - he would not forget, or change his mind. But would she obey her husband? Of course - Afghan women always did. But she might walk slowly, gossiping on the way, or even stop off at some other house to drink tea. If there was adultery in the Five Lions Valley there would be jealousy, too, and Halima was sure to know or at least guess at her husband's feelings for Jane - wives always did. She might resent being asked to rush to the aid of her rival, the exotic white-skinned educated foreigner who so fascinated her husband. Suddenly Jane felt very angry with Mohammed and with Halima, too. I've done nothing wrong, she thought.
Why have they all deserted me? Why isn't my husband here?
When another contraction began, she burst into tears. It was just too much. "I can't go on," she said aloud. She was shaking uncontrollably. She wanted to die before the pain could get worse. "Mummy, help me, Mummy," she sobbed.
Suddenly there was a strong arm around her shoulders and a woman's voice in her ear, murmuring something incomprehensible but soothing in Dari. Without opening her eyes, she held on to the other woman, weeping and crying out as the contraction grew more intense; until at length it began to fade, too slowly, but with a feeling of finality, as if it might be the last, or perhaps the last bad one.
She looked up and saw the serene brown eyes and nutshell cheeks of old Rabia, the midwife.
"May God be with you, Jane Debout."
Jane felt relief like the lifting of a crushing burden. "And with you, Rabia Gul," she whispered gratefully.
"Are the pains coming fast?"
"Every minute or two."
Another woman's voice said: "The baby is coming early."
Jane turned her head and saw Zahara Gul, Rabia's daughter-in-law, a voluptuous girl of Jane's age with wavy near-black hair and a wide, laughing mouth. Of all the women in the village, Zahara was the one to whom Jane felt close. "I'm glad you're here," she said.
Rabia said: ' 'The birth has been brought on by carrying Mousa up the hillside."
"Is that all?" said Jane.
"It is plenty."
So they don't know about the fight with Abdullah, Jane thought. He has decided to keep it to himself.
Rabia said: "Shall I make everything ready for the baby?"
"Yes, please." Goodness knows what kind of primitive
gynecology I'm letting myself in for, Jane thought; but I can't do this alone, I just can't.
"Would you like Zahara to make some tea?" Rabia asked.
"Yes, please." There was nothing superstitious about that, at least.
The two women got busy. Just having them there made Jane feel better. It was nice, she thought, that Rabia had asked permission to help - a Western doctor would have walked in and taken charge as if he owned the place. Rabia washed her hands ritually, calling on the prophets to make her red-faced - which meant successful - and then washed them again, thoroughly, with soap and lots of water. Zahara brought in a jar of wild rue, and Rabia lit a handful of the small dark seeds with some charcoal. Jane recalled that evil spirits were said to be frightened off by the smell of burning rue. She consoled herself with the thought that the acrid smoke would serve to keep flies out of the room.
Rabia was a little more than a midwife. Delivering babies was her main work, but she also had herbal and magical treatments to increase the fertility of women who were having difficulty getting pregnant. She had methods of preventing conception and bringing on abortion, too, but there was much less demand for these: Afghan women generally wanted lots of children. Rabia would also be consulted about any "feminine" illness. And she was usually asked to wash the dead - a task which, like delivering babies, was considered unclean.
Jane watched her move around the room. She was probably the oldest woman in the village, being somewhere around sixty. She was short - not much more than five feet tall - and very thin, like most of the people here. Her wrinkled brown face was surrounded by white hair. She moved quietly, her bony old hands precise and efficient.
Jane's relationship with her had begun in mistrust and hostility. When Jane had asked whom Rabia called upon in case of difficult deliveries, Rabia had snapped: "May the devil be deaf, I've never had a difficult birth and I've
never lost a mother or a child." But later, when village women came to Jane with minor menstrual problems or routine pregnancies, Jane would send them to Rabia instead of prescribing placebos; and this was the beginning of a working relationship. Rabia had consulted Jane about a recently delivered mother who had a vaginal infection. Jane had given Rabia a supply of penicillin and had explained how to prescribe it. Rabia's prestige had rocketed when it became known that she had been entrusted with Western medicine; and Jane had been able to tell her, without giving offense, that Rabia herself had probably caused the infection by her practice of manually lubricating the birth canal during delivery.
From then on Rabia began to turn up at the clinic once or twice a week to talk to Jane and watch her work. Jane took these opportunities to explain, rather casually, such things as why she washed her hands so often, why she put all her instruments in boiling water after using them, and why she gave lots of fluids to infants with diarrhea.
In turn, Rabia told Jane some of her secrets. Jane was interested to learn what was in the potions Rabia made, and she could guess how some of them might work: medicines to promote pregnancy contained rabbit brains or cat spleen, which might provide hormones missing from the patient's metabolism; and the mint and catnip in many preparations probably helped to clear up infections which hindered conception. Rabia also had a physic for wives to give to impotent husbands, and there was no doubt about how that worked: it contained opium.
Mistrust had given way to wary mutual respect, but Jane had not consulted Rabia about her own pregnancy. It was one thing to allow that Rabia's mixture of folklore and witchcraft might work on Afghan women, and quite another to subject herself to it. Besides, Jane had expected Jean-Pierre to deliver her baby. So, when Rabia had asked about the position of the baby, and had prescribed a vegetable diet for a girl, Jane had made it clear that this pregnancy was going to be a Western one. Rabia had looked hurt, but had accepted the ruling with dignity. And
now Jean-Pierre was in Khawak and Rabia was right here, and Jane was glad to have the help of an old woman who had delivered hundreds of babies and had herself given birth to eleven.
There had been no pain for a while, but in the last few minutes, as she watched Rabia move quietly around the room, Jane had been feeling new sensations in her abdomen: a distinct feeling of pressure accompanied by a growing urge to push. The urge became irresistible, and as she pushed, she groaned, not because she was in pain, but just with the sheer effort of pushing.
She heard Rabia's voice, as if from a distance, saying: "It begins. This is good."
After a while the urge went away. Zahara brought a cup of green tea. Jane sat upright and sipped gratefully. It was warm and very sweet. Zahara is the same age as me, Jane thought, and she's had four children already, not counting miscarriages and stillborn babies. But she was one of those women who seemed to be full of vitality, like a healthy young lioness. She would probably have several more children. She had greeted Jane with open curiosity, when most of the women had been suspicious and hostile, in the early days; and Jane had discovered that Zahara was impatient with the sillier customs and traditions of the Valley and eager to learn what she could of foreign ideas on health, child care and nutrition. Consequently Zahara had become not just Jane's friend but the spearhead of her health education program.
Today, however, Jane was learning about Afghan methods. She watched Rabia spread a plastic sheet on the floor (What had they used in the days before there was all this waste plastic around?) and cover it with a layer of sandy earth, which Zahara brought from outside in a bucket. Rabia had laid out a few things on a cloth on the floor, and Jane was pleased to see clean cotton rags and a new razor blade still in its wrapping.
The need to push came again, and Jane closed her eyes to concentrate. It did not hurt exactly; it was more like being incredibly, impossibly constipated. She found it help-
ful to groan as she strained, and she wanted to explain to Rabia that this was not a groan of agony, but she was too busy pushing to talk.
In the next pause, Rabia knelt down and untied the drawstring of Jane's trousers, then eased them off. "Do you want to make water before I wash you?'' she asked.
She helped Jane get up and walk behind the screen, then held her shoulders while she sat on the pot.
Zahara brought a bowl of warm water and took the pot away. Rabia washed Jane's tummy, thighs and private parts, assuming for the first time a rather brisk air as she did so. Then Jane lay down again. Rabia washed her own hands and dried them. She showed Jane a small jar of blue powder - copper sulfate, Jane guessed - and said: "This color frightens the evil spirits."
"What do you want to do?"
"Put a little on your brow."
"All right," said Jane, then she added: "Thank you."
Rabia smeared a little of the powder on Jane's forehead. I don't mind magic when it's harmless, Jane thought, but what will she do if there is a real medical problem? And just exactly how many weeks premature is this baby?
She was still worrying when the next contraction began, so that she was not concentrating on riding the wave of pressure, and in consequence it was very painful. I mustn't worry, she thought; I must make myself relax.
Afterward she felt exhausted and rather sleepy. She closed her eyes. She felt Rabia unbutton her shirt - the one she had borrowed from Jean-Pierre that afternoon, a hundred years ago. Rabia began to massage Jane's tummy with some kind of lubricant, probably clarified butter. She dug her fingers in. Jane opened her eyes and said: "Don't try to move the baby."
Rabia nodded, but continued to probe, one hand on the top of Jane's bulge and the other at the bottom. "The head is down," she said finally. "All is well. But the baby will come very soon. You should get up now."
Zahara and Rabia helped Jane stand and take two steps
forward onto the earth-covered plastic sheet. Rabia got behind her and said: "Stand on my feet."
Jane did as she was told, although she was not sure of the logic of this. Rabia eased her into a squat, crouching behind her. So this was the local birthing position. "Sit on me," said Rabia. "I can hold you." Jane let her weight settle on the old woman's thighs. The position was surprisingly comfortable and reassuring.
Jane felt her muscles begin to tighten again. She gritted her teeth and bore down, groaning. Zahara squatted in front of her. For a while there was nothing in Jane's mind but the pressure. At last it eased, and she slumped, exhausted and half asleep, letting Rabia take her weight.
When it started again there was a new pain, a sharp burning sensation in her crotch. Zahara suddenly said: "It comes."
"Don't push now," said Rabia. "Let the baby swim out."
The pressure eased. Rabia and Zahara changed places, and now Rabia squatted between Jane's legs, watching intently. The pressure began again. Jane gritted her teeth. Rabia said: "Don't push. Be calm." Jane tried to relax. Rabia looked at her and reached up to touch her face, saying: "Don't bite down. Make your mouth loose." Jane let her jaw sag, and found that it helped her to relax.
The burning sensation came again, worse than ever, and Jane knew the baby was almost born: she could feel its head pushing through, stretching her opening impossibly wide. She cried out with the pain - and suddenly it eased, and for a moment she could feel nothing. She looked down. Rabia reached between her thighs, calling out the names of the prophets. Through a haze of tears Jane saw something round and dark in the midwife's hands.
"Don't pull," Jane said. "Don't pull the head."
"No," said Rabia.
Jane felt the pressure again. At that moment Rabia said: "A small push for the shoulder." Jane closed her eyes and squeezed gently.
A few moments later Rabia said: "Now the other shoulder.''
Jane squeezed again, and then there was an enormous relief of tension, and she knew that the baby was born. She looked down and saw its tiny form cradled on Rabia's arm. Its skin was wrinkled and wet, and its head was covered with damp dark hair. The umbilical cord looked weird, a thick blue rope pulsing like a vein.
"Is it all right?" Jane asked.
Rabia did not reply. She pursed her lips and blew on the baby's squashed, immobile face.
Oh, God, it's dead, thought Jane.
"Is it all right?" she repeated.
Rabia blew again, and the baby opened its tiny mouth and cried.
Jane said: "Oh, thank God - it's alive."
Rabia picked up a clean cotton rag and wiped the baby's face.
"Is it normal?" asked Jane.
At last Rabia spoke. She looked into Jane's eyes, smiled and said: "Yes. She is normal."
She's normal, Jane thought. She. I made a little girl. A girl.
Suddenly she felt utterly drained. She could not remain upright a moment longer. "I want to lie down," she said.
Zahara helped her step back to the mattress and put cushions behind her so that she was sitting up, while Rabia held the baby, still attached to Jane by the cord. When Jane was settled, Rabia began to pat the baby dry with cotton rags.
Jane saw the cord stop pulsing, shrivel and turn white. "You can cut the cord," she said to Rabia.
"We always wait for the afterbirth," Rabia said.
"Do it now, please."
Rabia looked dubious, but complied. She took a piece of white string from her table and tied it around the cord a few inches from the baby's navel. It should have been closer, Jane thought; but it doesn't matter.
Rabia unwrapped the new razor blade. "In the name of Allah," she said, and cut the cord.
"Give her to me," said Jane.
Rabia handed the baby to her, saying: "Don't let her suckle."
Jane knew Rabia was wrong about this. "It helps the afterbirth," she said.
Jane put the baby's face to her breast. Her nipples were enlarged and felt deliciously sensitive, like when Jean-Pierre kissed them. As her nipple touched the baby's cheek, the child turned her head reflexively and opened her little mouth. As soon as the nipple went in, she began to suck. Jane was astonished to find that it felt sexy. For a moment she was shocked and embarrassed, then she thought: What the hell.
She sensed further movements in her abdomen. She obeyed an urge to push, and then felt the placenta come out, a slippery small birth. Rabia wrapped it carefully in a rag.
The baby stopped sucking and seemed to fall asleep.
Zahara handed Jane a cup of water. She drank it in one gulp. It tasted wonderful. She asked for more.
She was sore, exhausted and blissfully happy. She looked down at the little girl sleeping peacefully at her breast. She felt ready to sleep herself.
Rabia said: "We should wrap the little one."
Jane lifted the baby - she was as light as a doll - and handed her to the old woman. "Chantai," she said as Rabia took her. "Her name is Chantai." Then she closed her eyes.