lit a cigarette. Laila would have to tail him home, helpless, trembling with resentment
and impotent rage.
Then one day he told Laila he wouldn't take her anymore. "I'm too tired from walking
the streets all day," he said, "looking for work."
"Then I'll go by myself," Laila said. "You can't stop me, Rasheed. Do you hear me?
You can hit me all you want, but I'll keep going there."
"Do as you wish. But you won't get past the Taliban. Don't say I didn't warn you."
"I'm coming with you," Mariam said.
Laila wouldn't allow it. "You have to stay home with Zalmai. If we get stop-
ped…Idon't want him to see."
And so Laila's life suddenly revolved around finding ways to see Aziza. Half the time,
she never made it to the orphanage. Crossing the street, she was spotted by the Taliban
and riddled with questions-What is your name? Where are you going? Why are you alo-
ne? Where is yourmahram? -before she was sent home. If she was lucky, she was given
a tongue-lashing or a single kick to the rear, a shove in the back. Other times, she met
with assortments of wooden clubs, fresh tree branches, short whips, slaps, often fists.
One day, a young Talib beat Laila with a radio antenna. When he was done, he gave a
final whack to the back of her neck and said, "I see you again, I'll beat you until your
mother's milk leaks out of your bones."
That time, Laila went home. She lay on her stomach, feeling like a stupid, pitiable ani-
mal, and hissed as Mariam arranged damp cloths across her bloodied back and thighs.
But, usually, Laila refused to cave in. She made as if she were going home, then took a
different route down side streets. Sometimes she was caught, questioned, scolded-two,
three, even four times in a single day. Then the whips came down and the antennas sli-
ced through the air, and she trudged home, bloodied, without so much as a glimpse of
Aziza. Soon Laila took to wearing extra layers, even in the heat, two, three sweaters be-
neath the burqa, for padding against the beatings.
But for Laila, the reward, if she made it past the Taliban, was worth it. She could
spend as much time as she liked then-hours,even-with Aziza. They sat in the courtyard,
near the swing set, among other children and visiting mothers, and talked about what
Aziza had learned that week.
Aziza said Kaka Zaman made it a point to teach them something every day, reading
and writing most days, sometimes geography, a bit of history or science, something
about plants, animals.
"But we have to pull the curtains," Aziza said, "so the Taliban don't see us." Kaka Za-
man had knitting needles and balls of yarn ready, she said, in case of a Taliban inspecti-
on. "We put the books away and pretend to knit."
One day, during a visit with Aziza, Laila saw a middle-aged woman, her burqa pushed
back, visiting with three boys and a girl. Laila recognized the sharp face, the heavy
eyebrows, if not the sunken mouth and gray hair. She remembered the shawls, the black
skirts, the curt voice, how she used to wear her jet-black hair tied in a bun so that you
could see the dark bristles on the back of her neck. Laila remembered this woman once
forbidding the female students from covering, saying women and men were equal, that
there was no reason women should cover if men didn't.
At one point, Khala Rangmaal looked up and caught her gaze, but Laila saw no linge-
ring, no light of recognition, in her old teacher's eyes.
* * *
"They're fractures along the earth's crust," said Aziza. 'They're called faults."
It was a warm afternoon, a Friday, in June of 2001. They were sitting in the orphana-
ge's back lot, the four of them, Laila, Zalmai, Mariam, and Aziza. Rasheed had relented
this time-as he infrequently did-and accompanied the four of them. He was waiting
down the street, by the bus stop.
Barefoot kids scampered about around them. A flat soccer ball was kicked around,
chased after listlessly.
"And, on either side of the faults, there are these sheets of rock that make up the earth's
crust," Aziza was saying.
Someone had pulled the hair back from Aziza's face, braided it, and pinned it neatly on
top of her head. Laila begrudged whoever had gotten to sit behind her daughter, to flip
sections of her hair one over the other, had asked her to sit still.
Aziza was demonstrating by opening her hands, palms up, and rubbing them against
each other. Zalmai watched this with intense interest.
"Kectonic plates, they're called?"
"Tectonic,"Laila said. It hurt to talk. Her jaw was still sore, her back and neck ached.
Her lip was swollen, and her tongue kept poking the empty pocket of the lower incisor
Rasheed had knocked loose two days before. Before Mammy and Babi had died and her
life turned upside down, Laila never would have believed that a human body could
withstand this much beating, this viciously, this regularly, and keep functioning.
"Right. And when they slide past each other, they catch and slip-see, Mammy?-and it
releases energy, which
travels to the earth's surface and makes it shake."
"You're getting so smart," Mariam said "So much smarter than your dumbkhala"
Aziza's face glowed, broadened. "You're not dumb, Khala Mariam. And Kaka Zaman
says that, sometimes, the shifting of rocks is deep, deep below, and it's powerful and
scary down there, but all we feel on the surface is a slight tremor. Only a slight tremor."
The visit before this one, it was oxygen atoms in the atmosphere scattering the blue
light from the sun.If the earth had no atmosphere, Aziza had said a little breathlessly,the
sky wouldn ‘t be blue at all but a pitch-black sea and the sun a big bright star in the
"Is Aziza coming home with us this time?" Zalmai said.
"Soon, my love," Laila said. "Soon."
Laila watched him wander away, walking like his father, stooping forward, toes turned
in. He walked to the swing set, pushed an empty seat, ended up sitting on the concrete,
ripping weeds from a crack.
Water evaporates from the leaves-Mammy, did you know?-the way it does from la-
undry hanging from a line. And that drives the flow of water up the tree. From the gro-
und and through the roots, then all the way up the tree trunk, through the branches and
into the leaves. It's called transpiration.
More than once, Laila had wondered what the Taliban would do about Kaka Zaman's
clandestine lessons if they found out.
During visits, Aziza didn't allow for much silence. She filled all the spaces with effusi-
ve speech, delivered in a high, ringing voice. She was tangential with her topics, and her
hands gesticulated wildly, flying up with a nervousness that wasn't like her at all. She
had a new laugh, Aziza did. Not so much a laugh, really, as nervous punctuation, meant,
Laila suspected, to reassure.
And there were other changes. Laila would notice the dirt under Aziza's fingernails,
and Aziza would notice her noticing and bury her hands under her thighs. Whenever a
kid cried in their vicinity, snot oozing from his nose, or if a kid walked by bare-assed,
hair clumped with dirt, Aziza's eyelids fluttered and she was quick to explain it away.
She was like a hostess embarrassed in front of her guests by the squalor of her home,
the untidiness of her children.
Questions of how she was coping were met with vague but cheerful replies.
Doing Jim, Khala I'm fine.
Do kids pick on you?
They dont Mammy. Everyone is nice.
Are you eating? Sleeping all right?
Eating. Sleeping too. Yes. We had lamb last night Maybe it was last week.
When Aziza spoke like this, Laila saw more than a little of Mariam in her.
Aziza stammered now. Mariam noticed it first. It was subtle but perceptible, and more
pronounced with words that began with /. Laila asked Zaman about it. He frowned and
said, "I thought she'd always done that."
They left the orphanage with Aziza that Friday afternoon for a short outing and met
Rasheed, who was waiting for them by the bus stop. When Zalmai spotted his father, he
uttered an excited squeak and impatiently wriggled from Laila's arms. Aziza's greeting
to Rasheed was rigid but not hostile.
Rasheed said they should hurry, he had only two hours before he had to report back to
work. This was his first week as a doorman for the Intercontinental. From noon to eight,
six days a week, Rasheed opened car doors, carried luggage, mopped up the occasional
spill. Sometimes, at day's end, the cook at the buffet-style restaurant let Rasheed bring
home a few leftovers-as long as he was discreet about it-cold meatballs sloshing in oil;
fried chicken wings, the crust gone hard and dry; stuffed pasta shells turned chewy;
stiff, gravelly rice. Rasheed had promised Laila that once he had some money saved up,
Aziza could move back home.
Rasheed was wearing his uniform, a burgundy red polyester suit, white shirt, clip-on
tie, visor cap pressing down on his white hair. In this uniform, Rasheed was transfor-
med. He looked vulnerable, pitiably bewildered, almost harmless. Like someone who
had accepted without a sigh of protest the indignities life had doled out to him. Some-
one both pathetic and admirable in his docility.
They rode the bus to Titanic City. They walked into the riverbed, flanked on either si-
de by makeshift stalls clinging to the dry banks. Near the bridge, as they were descen-
ding the steps, a barefoot man dangled dead from a crane, his ears cut off, his neck bent
at the end of a rope. In the river, they melted into the horde of shoppers milling about,
the money changers and bored-looking NGO workers, the cigarette vendors, the cove-
red women who thrust fake antibiotic prescriptions at people and begged for money to
fill them. Whip-toting,naswar-chew'mg Talibs patrolled Titanic City on the lookout for
the indiscreet laugh, the unveiled face.
From a toy kiosk, betweenapoosieen coat vendor and a fake-flower stand, Zalmai pic-
ked out a rubber basketball with yellow and blue swirls.
"Pick something," Rasheed said to Aziza.
Aziza hedged, stiffened with embarrassment.
"Hurry. I have to be at work in an hour."
Aziza chose a gum-ball machine-the same coin could be inserted to get candy, then
retrieved from the flap-door coin return below.
Rasheed's eyebrows shot up when the seller quoted him the price. A round of haggling
ensued, at the end of which Rasheed said to Aziza contentiously, as if itwere she who'd
haggled him, "Give it back. I can't afford both."
On the way back, Aziza's high-spirited fa9ade waned the closer they got to the orpha-
nage. The hands stopped flying
up. Her face turned heavy. It happened every time. It was Laila's turn now, with Mari-
am pitching in, to take up the chattering, to laugh nervously, to fill the melancholy quiet
with breathless, aimless banter-Later, after Rasheed had dropped them off and taken a
bus to work, Laila watched Aziza wave good-bye and scuff along the wall in the orpha-
nage back lot. She thought of Aziza's stutter, and of what Aziza had said earlier about
fractures and powerful collisions deep down and how sometimes all we see on the sur-
face is a slight tremor.
* * *
"Getaway, you!" Zalmai cried.
"Hush," Mariam said "Who are you yelling at?"
He pointed. "There. That man."
Laila followed his finger. Therewas a man at the front door of the house, leaning aga-
inst it. His head turned when he saw them approaching. He uncrossed his arms. Limped
a few steps toward them.
A choking noise came up her throat. Her knees weakened. Laila suddenly wanted,ne-
eded, to grope for Mariam's arm, her shoulder, her wrist, something, anything, to lean
on. But she didn't. She didn't dare. She didn't dare move a muscle. She didn't dare breat-
he, or blink even, for fear that he was nothing but a mirage shimmering in the distance,
a brittle illusion that would vanish at the slightest provocation. Laila stood perfectly still
and looked at Tariq until her chest screamed for air and her eyes burned to blink. And,
somehow, miraculously, after she took a breath, closed and opened her eyes, he was still
standing there. Tariq was still standing there.
Laila allowed herself to take a step toward him. Then another. And another. And then
she was running.
Upstairs, in Mariam's room, Zalmai was wound up. He bounced his new rubber bas-
ketball around for a while, on the floor, against the walls. Mariam asked him not to, but
he knew that she had no authority to exert over him and so he went on bouncing his
ball, his eyes holding hers defiantly. For a while, they pushed his toy car, an ambulance
with bold red lettering on the sides, sending it back and forth between them across the
Earlier, when they had met Tariq at the door, Zalmai had clutched the basketball close
to his chest and stuck a thumb in his mouth-something he didn't do anymore except
when he was apprehensive. He had eyed Tariq with suspicion.
"Who is that man?" he said now. "I don't like him."
Mariam was going to explain, say something about him and Laila growing up together,
but Zalmai cut her off and said to turn the ambulance around, so the front grille faced
him, and, when she did, he said he wanted his basketball again.
"Where is it?" he said. "Where is the ball Baba jan got me? Where is it? I want it! I
want it!" his voice rising and
becoming more shrill with each word.
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