Mariam loved having visitors at thekolba. The villagearbab and his gifts, Bibi jo and
her aching hip and endless gossiping, and, of course, Mullah Faizullah. But there was
no one, no one, that Mariam longed to see more than Jalil.
The anxiety set in on Tuesday nights. Mariam would sleep poorly, fretting that some
business entanglement would prevent Jalil from coming on Thursday, that she would
have to wait a whole other week to see him. On Wednesdays, she paced outside, around
thekolba, tossed chicken feed absentmindedly into the coop. She went for aimless
walks, picking petals from flowers and batting at the mosquitoes nibbling on her arms.
Finally, on Thursdays, all she could do was sit against a wall, eyes glued to the stream,
and wait. If Jalil was running late, a terrible dread filled her bit by bit. Her knees would
weaken, and she would have to go somewhere and lie down.
Then Nana would call, "And there he is, your father. In all his glory."
Mariam would leap to her feet when she spotted him hopping stones across the stream,
all smiles and hearty waves. Mariam knew that Nana was watching her, gauging her re-
action, and it always took effort to stay in the doorway, to wait, to watch him slowly
make his way to her, to not run to him. She restrained herself, patiently watched him
walk through the tall grass, his suit jacket slung over his shoulder, the breeze lifting his
When Jalil entered the clearing, he would throw his jacket on the tandoor and open his
arms. Mariam would walk, then finally run, to him, and he would catch her under the
arms and toss her up high. Mariam would squeal.
Suspended in the air, Mariam would see Jalil's upturned face below her, his wide, cro-
oked smile, his widow's peak, his cleft chin-a perfect pocket for the tip of her pinkie-his
teeth, the whitest in a town of rotting molars. She liked his trimmed mustache, and she
liked that no matter the weather he always wore a suit on his visits-dark brown, his fa-
vorite color, with the white triangle of a handkerchief in the breast pocket-and cuff links
too, and a tie, usually red, which he left loosened Mariam could see herself too, reflec-
ted in the brown of Jalil's eyes: her hair billowing, her face blazing with excitement, the
sky behind her.
Nana said that one of these days he would miss, that she, Mariam, would slip through
his fingers, hit the ground, and break a bone. But Mariam did not believe that Jalil wo-
uld drop her. She believed that she would always land safely into her father's clean,
They sat outside thekolba, in the shade, and Nana served them tea. Jalil and she ack-
nowledged each other with an uneasy smile and a nod. Jalil never brought up Nana's
rock throwing or her cursing.
Despite her rants against him when he wasn't around, Nana was subdued and mannerly
when Jalil visited. Her hair was always washed. She brushed her teeth, wore her besthij-
ab for him. She sat quietly on a chair across from him, hands folded on her lap. She did
not look at him directly and never used coarse language around him. When she laughed,
she covered her mouth with a fist to hide the bad tooth.
Nana asked about his businesses. And his wives too. When she told him that she had
heard, through Bibi jo, that his youngest wife, Nargis, was expecting her third child,
Jalil smiled courteously and nodded.
"Well. You must be happy," Nana said. "How many is that for you, now? Ten, is
Jalil said yes, ten.
"Eleven, if you count Mariam, of course."
Later, after Jalil went home, Mariam and Nana had a small fight about this. Mariam sa-
id she had tricked him.
After tea with Nana, Mariam and Jalil always went fishing in the stream. He showed
her how to cast her line, how to reel in the trout. He taught her the proper way to gut a
trout, to clean it, to lift the meat off the bone in one motion. He drew pictures for her as
they waited for a strike, showed her how to draw an elephant in one stroke without ever
lifting the pen off the paper. He taught her rhymes. Together they sang:
Lili Mi birdbath, Sitting on a dirt path, Minnow sat on the rim and drank, Slipped, and
in the water she sank
Jalil brought clippings from Herat's newspaper,Iiiifaq-i Islam, and read from them to
her. He was Mariam's link, her proof that there existed a world at large, beyond thekol-
ba, beyond Gul Daman and Herat too, a world of presidents with unpronounceable na-
mes, and trains and museums and soccer, and rockets that orbited the earth and landed
on the moon, and, every Thursday, Jalil brought a piece of that world with him to
He was the one who told her in the summer of 1973, when Mariam was fourteen, that
King Zahir Shah, who had ruled from Kabul for forty years, had been overthrown in a
"His cousin Daoud Khan did it while the king was in Italy getting medical treatment-
You remember Daoud Khan, right? I told you about him. He was prime minister in Ka-
bul when you were bom. Anyway, Afghanistan is no longer a monarchy, Mariam. You
see, it's a republic now, and Daoud Khan is the president. There are rumors that the so-
cialists in Kabul helped him take power. Not that he's a socialist himself, mind you, but
that they helped him. That's the rumor anyway."
Mariam asked him what a socialist was and Jalil beganto explain, but Mariam barely
"Are you listening?"
He saw her looking at the bulge in his coat's side pocket. "Ah. Of course. Well. Here,
then. Without further ado…"
He fished a small box from his pocket and gave it to her. He did this from time to time,
bring her small presents. A carnelian bracelet cuff one time, a choker with lapis lazuli
beads another. That day, Mariam opened the box and found a leaf-shaped pendant, tiny
coins etched with moons and stars hanging from it.
"Try it on, Mariam jo."
She did. "What do you think?"
Jalil beamed "I think you look like a queen."
After he left, Nana saw the pendant around Mariam's neck.
"Nomad jewelry," she said. "I've seen them make it. They melt the coins people throw
at them and make jewelry. Let's see him bring you gold next time, your precious father.
Let's see him."
When it was time for Jalil to leave, Mariam always stood in the doorway and watched
him exit the clearing, deflated at the thought of the week that stood, like an immense,
immovable object, between her and his next visit. Mariam always held her breath as she
watched him go. She held her breath and, in her head, counted seconds. She pretended
that for each second that she didn't breathe, God would grant her another day with Jalil.
At night, Mariam lay in her cot and wondered what his house in Herat was like. She
wondered what it would be like to live with him, to see him every day. She pictured her-
self handing him a towel as he shaved, telling him when he nicked himself. She would
brew tea for him. She would sew on his missing buttons. They would take walks in He-
rat together, in the vaulted bazaar where Jalil said you could find anything you wanted.
They would ride in his car, and people would point and say, "There goes Jalil Khan with
his daughter." He would show her the famed tree that had a poet buried beneath it.
One day soon, Mariam decided, she would tell Jalil these things. And when he heard,
when he saw how much she missed him when he was gone, he would surely take her
with him. He would bring her to Herat, to live in his house, just like his other children.
I know what I want," Mariam said to Jalil.
It was the spring of 1974, the year Mariam turned fifteen. The three of them were sit-
ting outside thekolba, in a patch of shade thrown by the willows, on folding chairs ar-
ranged in a triangle.
"For my birthday…I know what I want."
"You do?" said Jalil, smiling encouragingly.
Two weeks before, at Mariam's prodding, Jalil had let on that an American film was
playing at his cinema. It wasa special kind of film, what he'd called a cartoon. The enti-
re film was a series of drawings, he said, thousands of them, so that when they were ma-
de into a film and projected onto a screen you had the illusion that the drawings were
moving. Jalil said the film told the story of an old, childless toymaker who is lonely and
desperately wants a son. So he carves a puppet, a boy, who magically comes to life. Ma-
riam had asked him to tell her more, and Jalil said that the old man and his puppet had
all sorts of adventures, that there was a place called Pleasure Island, and bad boys who
turned into donkeys. They even got swallowed by a whale at the end, the puppet and his
father. Mariam had told Mullah Faizullah all about this film.
"I want you to take me to your cinema," Mariam said now. "I want to see the cartoon. I
want to see the puppet boy."
With this, Mariam sensed a shift in the atmosphere. Her parents stirred in their seats.
Mariam could feel them exchanging looks.
"That's not a good idea," said Nana. Her voice was calm, had the controlled, polite to-
ne she used around Jalil, but Mariam could feel her hard, accusing glare.
Jalil shifted on his chair. He coughed, cleared his throat.
"You know," he said, "the picture quality isn't that good. Neither is the sound. And the
projector's been malfunctioning recently. Maybe your mother is right. Maybe you can
think of another present, Mariam jo."
"Aneh,"Nana said. "You see? Your father agrees."
* * *
But later, at the stream, Mariam said, "Take me."
"I'll tell you what," Jalil said. "I'll send someone to pick you up and take you. I'll make
sure they get you a good seat and all the candy you want."
"Nay.Iwant you to take me."
"And I want you to invite my brothers and sisters too. I want to meet them. I want us
all to go, together. It's what I want."
Jalil sighed. He was looking away, toward the mountains.
Mariam remembered him telling her that on the screen a human face looked as big as a
house, that when a car crashed up there you felt the metal twisting in your bones. She
pictured herself sitting in the private balcony seats, lapping at ice cream, alongside her
siblings and Jalil. "It's what I want," she said.
Jalil looked at her with a forlorn expression.
"Tomorrow. At noon. I'll meet you at this very spot. All right? Tomorrow?"
"Come here," he said. He hunkered down, pulled her to him, and held her for a long,
* * *
At first. Nana paced around thekolba, clenching and unclenching her fists.
"Of all the daughters I could have had, why did God give me an ungrateful one like
you? Everything I endured for you! How dare you! How dare you abandon me like this,
you treacherous littleharamil"
Then she mocked.
"What a stupid girl you are! You think you matter to him, that you're wanted in his ho-
use? You think you're a daughter to him? That he's going to take you in? Let me tell you
something- A man's heart is a wretched, wretched thing, Mariam. It isn't like a mother's
womb. It won't bleed, it won't stretch to make room for you. I'm the only one who loves
you. I'm all you have in this world, Mariam, and when I'm gone you'll have nothing.
You'll have nothing. Youare nothing!"
Then she tried guilt.
"I'll die if you go.The jinn will come, and I'll have one of my fits. You'll see, I'll swal-
low my tongue and die. Don't leave me, Mariam jo. Please stay. I'll die if you go."
Mariam said nothing.
"You know I love you, Mariam jo."
Mariam said she was going for a walk.
She feared she might say hurtful things if she stayed: that she knewthe jinn was a lie,
that Jalil had told her that what Nana had was a disease with a name and that pills could
make it better. She might have asked Nana why she refused to see Jalil's doctors, as he
had insisted she do, why she wouldn't take the pills he'd bought for her. If she could ar-
ticulate it, she might have said to Nana that she was tired of being an instrument, of be-
ing lied to, laid claim to, used. That she was sick of Nana twisting the truths of their life
and making her, Mariam, another of her grievances against the world.
You 're afraid, Nana,she might have said.You 're afraid that 1 might find the happiness
you never had. And you don 'i want me to be happy. You don't want a good life for me.
You 're the one with the wretched heart
* * *
There was A lookout, on the edge of the clearing, where Mariam liked to go. She sat
there now, on dry, warm grass. Herat was visible from here, spread below her like a
child's board game: the Women's Garden to the north of the city, Char-suq Bazaar and
the ruins of Alexander the Great's old citadel to the south. She could make out the mina-
rets in the distance, like the dusty fingers of giants, and the streets that she imagined we-
re milling with people, carts, mules. She saw swallows swooping and circling overhead.
She was envious of these birds. They had been to Herat. They had flown over its mos-
ques, its bazaars. Maybe they had landed on the walls of Jalil's home, on the front steps
of his cinema.
She picked up ten pebbles and arranged them vertically, in three columns. This was a
game that she played privately from time to time when Nana wasn't looking. She put fo-
ur pebbles in the first column, for Khadija's children, three for Afsoon's, and three in the
third column for Nargis's children. Then she added a fourth column. A solitary, eleventh
* * *
The next morning, Mariam wore a cream-colored dress that fell to her knees, cotton
trousers, and a greenhijab over her hair. She agonized a bit over thehijab, its being gre-
en and not matching the dress, but it would have to do-moths had eaten holes into her
She checked the clock. It was an old hand-wound clock with black numbers on a mint
green face, a present from Mullah Faizullah. It was nine o'clock. She wondered where
Nana was. She thought about going outside and looking for her, but she dreaded the
confrontation, the aggrieved looks. Nana would accuse her of betrayal. She would mock
her for her mistaken ambitions.
Mariam sat down. She tried to make time pass by drawing an elephant in one stroke,
the way Jalil had shown her, over and over. She became stiff from all the sitting but wo-
uldn't lie down for fear that her dress would wrinkle.
When the hands finally showed eleven-thirty, Mariam pocketed the eleven pebbles and
went outside. On her way to the stream, she saw Nana sitting on a chair, in the shade,
beneath the domed roof of a weeping willow. Mariam couldn't tell whether Nana saw
her or not.
At the stream, Mariam waited by the spot they had agreed on the day before. In the
sky, a few gray, cauliflower-shaped clouds drifted by. Jalil had taught her that gray clo-
uds got their color by being so dense that their top parts absorbed the sunlight and cast
their own shadow along the base.That's what you see, Mariam jo, he had said,the dark
in their underbelly.
Some time passed.
Mariam went back to thekolba This time, she walked around the west-facing periphery
of the clearing so she wouldn't have to pass by Nana. She checked the clock. It was al-
most one o'clock.
He's a businessman,Mariam thought.Something has come up.
She went back to the stream and waited awhile longer. Blackbirds circled overhead,
dipped into the grass somewhere. She watched a caterpillar inching along the foot of an
She waited until her legs were stiff. This time, she did not go back to thekolba She rol-
led up the legs of her trousers to the knees, crossed the stream, and, for the first time in
her life, headed down the hill for Herat.
* * *
Nana was "wrong about Herat too. No one pointed. No one laughed. Mariam walked
along noisy, crowded, cypress-lined boulevards, amid a steady stream of pedestrians,
bicycle riders, and mule-drawngaris, and no one threw a rock at her. No one called her
aharami. Hardly anyone even looked at her. She was, unexpectedly, marvelously, an or-
dinary person here.
For a while, Mariam stood by an oval-shaped pool in the center of a big park where
pebble paths crisscrossed. With wonder, she ran her fingers over the beautiful marble
horses that stood along the edge of the pool and gazed down at the water with opaque
eyes. She spied on a cluster of boys who were setting sail to paper ships. Mariam saw
flowers everywhere, tulips, lilies, petunias, their petals awash in sunlight. People wal-
ked along the paths, sat on benches and sipped tea.
Mariam could hardly believe that she was here. Her heart was battering with excite-
ment. She wished Mullah Faizullah could see her now. How daring he would find her.
How brave! She gave herself over to the new life that awaited her in this city, a life with
a father, with sisters and brothers, a life in which she would love and be loved back,
without reservation or agenda, without shame.
Sprightly, she walked back to the wide thoroughfare near the park. She passed old ven-
dors with leathery faces sitting under the shade of plane trees, gazing at her impassively
behind pyramids of cherries and mounds of grapes. Barefoot boys gave chase to cars
and buses, waving bags of quinces. Mariam stood at a street corner and watched the
passersby, unable to understand how they could be so indifferent to the marvels around
After a while, she worked up the nerve to ask the elderly owner of a horse-drawngari
if he knew where Jalil, the cinema's owner, lived. The old man had plump cheeks and
wore a rainbow-stripedchapan. "You're not from Herat, are you?" he said compani-
onably. "Everyone knows where Jalil Khan lives."
"Can you point me?"
He opened a foil-wrapped toffee and said, "Are you alone?"
"Climb on. I'll take you."
"I can't pay you. I don't have any money."
He gave her the toffee. He said he hadn't had a ride in two hours and he was planning
on going home anyway. Jalil's house was on the way.
Mariam climbed onto thegari. They rode in silence, side by side. On the way there,
Mariam saw herb shops, and open-fronted cubbyholes where shoppers bought oranges
and pears, books, shawls, even falcons. Children played marbles in circles drawn in
dust. Outside teahouses, on carpet-covered wooden platforms, men drank tea and smo-
ked tobacco from hookahs.
The old man turned onto a wide, conifer-lined street. He brought his horse to a stop at
the midway point.
"There. Looks like you're in luck,dokhiarjo. That's his car."
Mariam hopped down. He smiled and rode on.
* * *
Mariam had never before touched a car. She ran her fingers along the hood of Jalil's
car, which was black, shiny, with glittering wheels in which Mariam saw a flattened,
widened version of herself. The seats were made of white leather. Behind the steering
wheel, Mariam saw round glass panels with needles behind them.
For a moment, Mariam heard Nana's voice in her head, mocking, dousing the deep-se-
ated glow of her hopes. With shaky legs, Mariam approached the front door of the ho-
use. She put her hands on the walls. They were so tall, so foreboding, Jalil's walls. She
had to crane her neck to see where the tops of cypress trees protruded over them from
the other side. The treetops swayed in the breeze, and she imagined they were nodding
their welcome to her. Mariam steadied herself against the waves of dismay passing thro-
A barefoot young woman opened the door. She had a tattoo under her lower lip.
"I'm here to see Jalil Khan. I'm Mariam. His daughter."
A look of confusion crossed the girl's face. Then, a flash of recognition. There was a
faint smile on her lips now, and an air of eagerness about her, of anticipation. "Wait he-
re," the girl said quickly.
She closed the door.
A few minutes passed. Then a man opened the door. He was tall and square-shoulde-
red, with sleepy-looking eyes and a calm face.
"I'm Jalil Khan's chauffeur," he said, not unkindly.
"His driver. Jalil Khan is not here."
"I see his car," Mariam said.
"He's away on urgent business."
"When will he be back?"
"He didn't say."
Mariam said she would wait-He closed the gates. Mariam sat, and drew her knees to
her chest. It was early evening already, and she was getting hungry. She ate thegaridri-
ver's toffee. A while later, the driver came out again.
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