They stood frozen, Mariam and Laila, eyes to the ground, as though looking at each ot-
her would give credence to the way Rasheed saw things, that while he was opening do-
ors and lugging baggage for people who wouldn't spare him a glance a lewd conspiracy
was shaping behind his back, in his home, in his beloved son's presence. Neither one of
them said a word. They listened to the footsteps in the hallway above, one heavy and fo-
reboding, the other the pattering of a skittish little animal. They listened to muted words
passed, a squeaky plea, a curt retort, a door shut, the rattle of a key as it turned. Then
one set of footsteps returning, more impatiently now.
Mariam saw his feet pounding the steps as he came down. She saw him pocketing the
key, saw his belt, the perforated end wrapped tightly around his knuckles. The fake
brass buckle dragged behind him, bouncing on the steps.
She went to stop him, but he shoved her back and blew by her. Without saying a word,
he swung the belt at Laila. He did it with such speed that she had no time to retreat or
duck, or even raise a protective arm. Laila touched her fingers to her temple, looked at
the blood, looked at Rasheed, with astonishment. It lasted only a moment or two, this
look of disbelief, before it was replaced by something hateful.
Rasheed swung the belt again.
This time, Laila shielded herself with a forearm and made a grab at the belt. She mis-
sed, and Rasheed brought the belt down again. Laila caught it briefly before Rasheed
yanked it free and lashed at her again. Then Laila was dashing around the room, and
Mariam was screaming words that ran together and imploring Rasheed, as he chased
Laila, as he blocked her way and cracked his belt at her. At one point, Laila ducked and
managed to land a punch across his ear, which made him spit a curse and pursue her
even more relentlessly. He caught her, threw her up against the wall, and struck her with
the belt again and again, the buckle slamming against her chest, her shoulder, her raised
arms, her fingers, drawing blood wherever it struck.
Mariam lost count of how many times the belt cracked, how many pleading words she
cried out to Rasheed, how many times she circled around the incoherent tangle of teeth
and fists and belt, before she saw fingers clawing at Rasheed's face, chipped nails dig-
ging into his jowls and pulling at his hair and scratching his forehead. How long before
she realized, with both shock and relish, that the fingers were hers.
He let go of Laila and turned on her. At first, he looked at her without seeing her, then
his eyes narrowed, appraised Mariam with interest. The look in them shifted from puz-
zlement to shock, then disapproval, disappointment even, lingering there a moment.
Mariam remembered the first time she had seen his eyes, under the wedding veil, in
the mirror, with Jalil looking on, how their gazes had slid across the glass and met, his
indifferent, hers docile, conceding, almost apologetic.
Mariam saw now in those same eyes what a fool she had been.
Had she been a deceitful wife? she asked herself. A complacent wife? A dishonorable
woman? Discreditable? Vulgar? What harmful thing had she willfully done to this man
to warrant his malice, his continual assaults, the relish with which he tormented her?
Had she not looked after him when he was ill? Fed him, and his friends, cleaned up after
Had she not given this man her youth?
Had she ever justly deserved his meanness?
The belt made a thump when Rasheed dropped it to the ground and came for her. So-
me jobs, thatthump said, were meant to be done with bare hands.
But just as he was bearing down on her, Mariam saw Laila behind him pick something
up from the ground. She watched Laila's hand rise overhead, hold, then come swooping
down against the side of his face. Glass shattered. The jagged remains of the drinking
glass rained down to the ground. There was blood on Laila's hands, blood flowing from
the open gash on Rasheed's cheek, blood down his neck, on his shirt. He turned around,
all snarling teeth and blazing eyes.
They crashed to the ground, Rasheed and Laila, thrashing about. He ended up on top,
his hands already wrapped around Laila's neck.
Mariam clawed at him. She beat at his chest. She hurled herself against him. She strug-
gled to uncurl his fingers from Laila's neck. She bit them. But they remained tightly
clamped around Laila's wind-pipe, and Mariam saw that he meant to carry this through.
He meant to suffocate her, and there was nothing either of them could do about it.
Mariam backed away and left the room. She was aware of a thumping sound from ups-
tairs, aware that tiny palms were slapping against a locked door. She ran down the hal-
lway. She burst through the front door. Crossed the yard.
In the toolshed, Mariam grabbed the shovel.
Rasheed didn't notice her coming back into the room. He was still on top of Laila, his
eyes wide and crazy, his hands wrapped around her neck. Laila's face was turning blue
now, and her eyes had rolled back. Mariam saw that she was no longer struggling.He's
going to kill her, she thought.He really means to. And Mariam could not, would not, al-
low that to happen. He'd taken so much from her in twenty-seven years of marriage. She
would not watch him take Laila too.
Mariam steadied her feet and tightened her grip around the shovel's handle. She raised
it. She said his name. She wanted him to see.
He looked up.
She hit him across the temple. The blow knocked him off Laila.
Rasheed touched his head with the palm of his hand. He looked at the blood on his fin-
gertips, then at Mariam. She thought she saw his face soften. She imagined that somet-
hing had passed between them, that maybe she had quite literally knocked some unders-
tanding into his head. Maybe he saw something in her face too, Mariam thought, somet-
hing that made him hedge. Maybe he saw some trace of all the self-denial, all the sacri-
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fice, all the sheer exertion it had taken her to live with him for all these years, live with
his continual condescension and violence, his faultfinding and meanness. Was that res-
pect she saw in his eyes? Regret?
But then his upper lip curled back into a spiteful sneer, and Mariam knew then the futi-
lity, maybe even the irresponsibility, of not finishing this. If she let him walk now, how
long before he fetched the key from his pocket and went for that gun of his upstairs in
the room where he'd locked Zalmai? Had Mariam been certain that he would be satisfi-
ed with shooting only her, that there was a chance he would spare Laila, she might have
dropped the shovel. But in Rasheed's eyes she saw murder for them both.
And so Mariam raised the shovel high, raised it as high as she could, arching it so it to-
uched the small of her back. She turned it so the sharp edge was vertical, and, as she
did, it occurred to her that this was the first time thatshe was deciding the course of her
And, with that, Mariam brought down the shovel This time, she gave it everything she
Laila was aware of the face over her, all teeth and tobacco and foreboding eyes. She
was dimly aware, too, of Mariam, a presence beyond the face, of her fists raining down.
Above them was the ceiling, and it was the ceiling Laila was drawn to, the dark mar-
kings of mold spreading across it like ink on a dress, the crack in the plaster that was a
stolid smile or a frown, depending on which end of the room you looked at it from. La-
ila thought of all the times she had tied a rag around the end of a broom and cleaned
cobwebs from this ceiling. The three times she and Mariam had put coats of white paint
on it. The crack wasn't a smile any longer now but a mocking leer. And it was receding.
The ceiling was shrinking, lifting, rising away from her and toward some hazy dimness
beyond. It rose until it shrank to the size of a postage stamp, white and bright, everyt-
hing around it blotted out by the shuttered darkness. In the dark, Rasheed's face was like
Brief little bursts of blinding light before her eyes now, like silver stars exploding. Bi-
zarre geometric forms in the light, worms, egg-shaped things, moving up and down, si-
deways, melting into each other, breaking apart, morphing into something else, then fa-
ding, giving way to blackness.
Voices muffled and distant.
Behind the lids of her eyes, her children's faces flared and fizzled. Aziza, alert and bur-
dened, knowing, secretive. Zalmai, looking up at his father with quivering eagerness.
It would end like this, then, Laila thought. What a pitiable end-But then the darkness
began to lift. She had a sensation of rising up, of being hoisted up. The ceiling slowly
came back, expanded, and now Laila could make out the crack again, and it was the sa-
me old dull smile.
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She was being shaken.Are you all right? Answer me, are you all right? Mariam's face,
engraved with scratches, heavy with worry, hovered over Laila.
Laila tried a breath. It burned her throat. She tried another. It burned even more this ti-
me, and not just her throat but her chest too. And then she was coughing, and wheezing.
Gasping. But breathing. Her good ear rang.
* * *
The first thing she saw when she sat up was Rasheed. He was lying on his back, sta-
ring at nothing with an unblinking, fish-mouthed expression. A bit of foam, lightly pink,
had dribbled from his mouth down his cheek. The front of his pants was wet. She saw
Then she saw the shovel.
A groan came out of her. "Oh," she said, tremulously, barely able to make a voice,
* * *
Laila paced, moaning and banging her hands together, as Mariam sat near Rasheed, her
hands in her lap, calm and motionless. Mariam didn't say anything for a long time.
Laila's mouth was dry, and she was stammering her words, trembling all over. She wil-
led herself not to look at Rasheed, at the rictus of his mouth, his open eyes, at the blood
congealing in the hollow of his collarbone.
Outside, the light was fading, the shadows deepening. Mariam's face looked thin and
drawn in this light, but she did not appear agitated or frightened, merely preoccupied,
thoughtful, so self-possessed that when a fly landed on her chin she paid it no attention.
She just sat there with her bottom lip stuck out, the way she did when she was absorbed
At last, she said, "Sit down, Laila jo."
Laila did, obediently.
"We have to move him. Zalmai can't see this."
* * *
Mariam fished the bedroom key from Rasheed's pocket before they wrapped him in a
bedsheet. Laila took him by the legs, behind the knees, and Mariam grabbed him under
the arms. They tried lifting him, but he was too heavy, and they ended up dragging him.
As they were passing through the front door and into the yard, Rasheed's foot caught
against the doorframe and his leg bent sideways. They had to back up and try again, and
then something thumped upstairs and Laila's legs gave out. She dropped Rasheed. She
slumped to the ground, sobbing and shaking, and Mariam had to stand over her, hands
on hips, and say that she had to get herself together. That what was done was done-
After a time, Laila got up and wiped her face, and they carried Rasheed to the yard wit-
hout further incident. They took him into the toolshed. They left him behind the work-
bench, on which sat his saw, some nails, a chisel, a hammer, and a cylindrical block of
wood that Rasheed had been meaning to carve into something for Zalmai but had never
gotten around to doing-Then they went back inside. Mariam washed her hands, ran
them through her hair, took a deep breath and let it out. "Let me tend to your wounds
now. You're all cut up, Laila jo."
* * *
Mahiam said she needed the night to think things over. To get her thoughts together
and devise a plan.
"There is a way," she said, "and I just have to find it."
"We have to leave! We can't stay here," Laila said in a broken, husky voice. She tho-
ught suddenly of the sound the shovel must have made striking Rasheed's head, and her
body pitched forward. Bile surged up her chest.
Mariam waited patiently until Laila felt better. Then she had Laila lie down, and, as
she stroked Laila's hair in her lap, Mariam said not to worry, that everything would be
fine. She said that they would leave-she, Laila, the children, and Tariq too. They would
leave this house, and this unforgiving city. They would leave this despondent country
altogether, Mariam said, running her hands through Laila's hair, and go someplace re-
mote and safe where no one would find them, where they could disown their past and
"Somewhere with trees," she said. "Yes. Lots of trees."
They would live in a small house on the edge of some town they'd never heard of, Ma-
riam said, or in a remote village where the road was narrow and unpaved but lined with
all manner of plants and shrubs. Maybe there would be a path to take, a path that led to
a grass field where the children could play, or maybe a graveled road that would take
them to a clear blue lake where trout swam and reeds poked through the surface. They
would raise sheep and chickens, and they would make bread together and teach the
children to read. They would make new lives for themselves-peaceful, solitary lives-and
there the weight of all that they'd endured would lift from them, and they would be de-
serving of all the happiness and simple prosperity they would find.
Laila murmured encouragingly. It would be an existence rife with difficulties, she saw,
but of a pleasurable kind, difficulties they could take pride in, possess, value, as one wo-
uld a family heirloom. Mariam's soft maternal voice went on, brought a degree of com-
fort to her.There is a way, she'd said, and, in the morning, Mariam would tell her what
needed to be done and they would do it, and maybe by tomorrow this time they would
be on their way to this new life, a life luxuriant with possibility and joy and welcomed
difficulties. Laila was grateful that Mariam was in charge, unclouded and sober, able to
think this through for both of them. Her own mind was a jittery, muddled mess.
Mariam got up. "You should tend to your son now." On her was the most stricken exp-
ression Laila had ever seen on a human face.
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* * *
Laila found him in the dark, curled up on Rasheed'sside of the mattress. She slipped
beneath the covers beside him and pulled the blanket over them.
"Are you asleep?"
Without turning around to face her, he said, "Can't sleep yet. Baba jan hasn't said
theBabaloo prayers with me."
"Maybe I can say them with you tonight."
"You can't say them like he can."
She squeezed his little shoulder. Kissed the nape of his neck. "I can try."
"Where is Baba jan?"
"Baba jan has gone away," Laila said, her throat closing up again.
And there it was, spoken for the first time, the great, damning lie.How many more ti-
mes would this lie have to be told? Laila wondered miserably. How many more times
would Zalmai have to be deceived? She pictured Zalmai, his jubilant, running welcomes
when Rasheed came home and Rasheed picking him up by the elbows and swinging
him round and round until Zalmai's legs flew straight out, the two of them giggling af-
terward when Zalmai stumbled around like a drunk. She thought of their disorderly ga-
mes and their boisterous laughs, their secretive glances.
A pall of shame and grief for her son fell over Laila.
"Where did he go?"
"I don't know, my love."
When was he coming back? Would Baba jan bring a present with him when he retur-
She did the prayers with Zalmai. Twenty-oneBismallah-e-rahman-erahims -one for
each knuckle of seven fingers. She watched him cup his hands before his face and blow
into them, then place the back of both hands on his forehead and make a casting-away
motion, whispering, Babaloo,be gone, do not come to Zalmai, he has no business with
you. Babaloo,be gone. Then, to finish off, they saidAilah-u-akbar three times. And later,
much later that night, Laila was startled by a muted voice:Did Babajan leave because of
me? Because of what I said, about you and the man downstairs?
She leaned over him, meaning to reassure, meaning to sayIt had nothing to do with
you, Zalmai. No. Nothing is your fault. But he was asleep, his small chest rising and sin-
* * *
When Laila "went to bed, her mind was muffled up, clouded, incapable of sustained
rational thought. But when she woke up, to the muezzin's call for morning prayer, much
of the dullness had lifted.
She sat up and watched Zalmai sleep for a while, the ball of his fist under his chin. La-
ila pictured Mariam sneaking into the room in the middle of the night as she and Zalmai
had slept, watching them, making plans in her head.
Laila slipped out of bed. It took effort to stand. She ached everywhere. Her neck, her
shoulders, her back, her arms, her thighs, all engraved with the cuts of Rasheed's belt
buckle. Wincing, she quietly left the bedroom.
In Mariam's room, the light was a shade darker than gray, the kind of light Laila had
always associated with crowing roosters and dew rolling off blades of grass. Mariam
was sitting in a corner, on a prayer rug facing the window. Slowly, Laila lowered her-
self to the ground, sitting down across from her.
"You should go and visit Aziza this morning," Mariam said.
"I know what you mean to do."
"Don't walk. Take the bus, you'll blend in. Taxis are too conspicuous. You're sure to
get stopped for riding alone."
"What you promised last night…"
Laila could not finish. The trees, the lake, the nameless village. A delusion, she saw. A
lovely lie meant to soothe. Like cooing to a distressed child.
"I meant it," Mariam said. "I meant it foryou, Laila jo."
"I don't want any of it without you," Laila croaked.
Mariam smiled wanly.
"I want it to be just like you said, Mariam, all of us going together, you, me, the child-
ren. Tariq has a place in Pakistan. We can hide out there for a while, wait for things to
"That's not possible," Mariam said patiently, like a parent to a well-meaning but mis-
"We'll take care of each other," Laila said, choking on the words, her eyes wet with te-
ars. "Like you said. No. I'll take careof you for a change."
"Oh, Laila jo."
Laila went on a stammering rant. She bargained. She promised. She would do all the
cleaning, she said, and all the cooking. "You won't have to do a thing. Ever again. You
rest, sleep in, plant a garden. Whatever you want, you ask and I'll get it for you. Don't
do this, Mariam. Don't leave me. Don't break Aziza's heart."
"They chop off hands for stealing bread," Mariam said "What do you think they'll do
when they find a dead husband and two missing wives?"
"No one will know," Laila breathed. "No one will find us."
"They will. Sooner or later. They're bloodhounds." Mariam's voice was low, cauti-
oning; it made Laila's promises sound fantastical, trumped-up, foolish.
"When they do, they'll find you as guilty as me. Tariq too. I won't have the two of you
living on the run, like fugitives. What will happen to your children if you're caught?"
Laila's eyes brimming, stinging.
"Who will take care of them then? The Taliban? Think like a mother, Laila jo. Think
like a mother. I am."
"You have to."
"It isn't fair," Laila croaked.
"But itis. Come here. Come lie here."
Laila crawled to her and again put her head on Mariam's lap. She remembered all the
afternoons they'd spent together, braiding each other's hair, Mariam listening patiently
to her random thoughts and ordinary stories with an air of gratitude, with the expression
of a person to whom a unique and coveted privilege had been extended "Itis fair," Mari-
am said. "I've killed our husband. I've deprived your son of his father. It isn't right that I
run. Ican't. Even if they never catch us, I'll never…" Her lips trembled. "I'll never esca-
pe your son's grief How do I look at him? How do I ever bring myself to look at him,
Mariam twiddled a strand of Laila's hair, untangled a stubborn curl.
"For me, it ends here. There's nothing more I want. Everything I'd ever wished for as a
little girl you've already given me. You and your children have made me so very happy.
It's all right, Laila jo. This is all right. Don't be sad."
Laila could find no reasonable answer for anything Mariam said. But she rambled on
anyway, incoherently, childishly, about fruit trees that awaited planting and chickens
that awaited raising. She went on about small houses in unnamed towns, and walks to
trout-filled lakes. And, in the end, when the words dried up, the tears did not, and all
Laila could do was surrender and sob like a child over-whelmed by an adult's unassa-
ilable logic. All she could do was roll herself up and bury her face one last time in the
welcoming warmth of Mariam's lap.
* * *
Later that morning, Mariam packed Zalmai a small lunch of bread and dried figs. For
Aziza too she packed some figs, and a few cookies shaped like animals. She put it all in
a paper bag and gave it to Laila.
"Kiss Aziza for me," she said. "Tell her she is thenoor of my eyes and the sultan of my
heart. Will you do that for me?"
Laila nodded, her lips pursed together.
"Take the bus, like I said, and keep your head low."
"When will I see you, Mariam? I want to see you before I testify. I'll tell them how it
happened. I'll explain that it wasn't your fault. That you had to do it. They'll understand,
won't they, Mariam? They'll understand."
Mariam gave her a soft look.
She hunkered down to eye level with Zalmai. He was wearing a red T-shirt, ragged
khakis, and a used pair of cowboy boots Rasheed had bought him from Mandaii. He
was holding his new basketball with both hands. Mariam planted a kiss on his cheek.
"You be a good, strong boy, now," she said. "You treat your mother well." She cupped
his face. He pulled back but she held on. "I am so sorry, Zalmai jo. Believe me that I'm
so very sorry for all your pain and sadness."
Laila held Zalmai's hand as they walked down the road together. Just before they tur-
ned the corner, Laila looked
back and saw Mariam at the door. Mariam was wearing a white scarf over her head, a
dark blue sweater buttoned in the front, and white cotton trousers. A crest of gray hair
had fallen loose over her brow. Bars of sunlight slashed across her face and shoulders.
Mariam waved amiably.
They turned the corner, and Laila never saw Mariam again.
Back in akolba, it seemed, after all these years.
The Walayat women's prison was a drab, square-shaped building in Shar-e-Nau near
Chicken Street. It sat in the center of a larger complex that housed male inmates. A pad-
locked door separated Mariam and the other women from the surrounding men. Mariam
counted five working cells. They were unfurnished rooms, with dirty, peeling walls, and
small windows that looked into the courtyard. The windows were barred, even though
the doors to the cells were unlocked and the women were free to come and go to the co-
urtyard as they pleased. The windows had no glass. There were no curtains either,
which meant the Talib guards who roamed the courtyard had an eyeful of the interior of
the cells. Some of the women complained that the guards smoked outside the window
and leered in, with their inflamed eyes and wolfish smiles, that they muttered indecent
jokes to each other about them. Because of this, most of the women wore burqas all day
and lifted them only after sundown, after the main gate was locked and the guards had
gone to their posts.
At night, the cell Mariam shared with five women and four children was dark. On tho-
se nights when there was electrical power, they hoisted Naghma, a short, flat-chested
girl with black frizzy hair, up to the ceiling. There was a wire there from which the co-
ating had been stripped. Naghma would hand-wrap the live wire around the base of the
lightbulb then to make a circuit.
The toilets were closet-sized, the cement floor cracked There was a small, rectangular
hole in the ground, at the bottom of which was a heap of feces. Flies buzzed in and out
of the hole-In the middle of the prison was an open, rectangular courtyard, and, in the
middle of that, a well The well had no drainage, meaning the courtyard was often a
swamp and the water tasted rotten. Laundry lines, loaded with handwashed socks and
diapers, slashed across each other in the courtyard. This was where inmates met visitors,
where they boiled the rice their families brought them-the prison provided no food The
courtyard was also the children's playground-Mariam had learned that many of the
children had been born in Walayat, had never seen the world outside these walls. Mari-
am watched them chase each other around, watched their shoeless feet sling mud. All
day, they ran around, making up lively games, unaware of the stench of feces and urine
that permeated Walayat and their own bodies, unmindful of the Talib guards until one
Mariam had no visitors. That was the first and only thing she had asked the Talib offi-
cials here. No visitors.
* * *
None of the women in Mariam's cell were serving time for violent crime-they were all
there for the common offense of "running away from home." As a result, Mariam ga-
ined some notoriety among them, became a kind of celebrity. The women eyed her with
a reverent, almost awestruck, expression. They offered her their blankets. They compe-
ted to share their food with her.
The most avid was Naghma, who was always hugging her elbows and following Mari-
am everywhere she went. Naghma was the sort of person who found it entertaining to
dispense news of misfortune, whether others' or her own. She said her father had promi-
sed her to a tailor some thirty years older than her.
"He smellslike goh, and has fewer teeth than fingers," Naghma said of the tailor.
She'd tried to elope to Gardez with a young man she'd fallen in love with, the son of a
local mullah. They'd barely made it out of Kabul. When they were caught and sent back,
the mullah's son was flogged before he repented and said that Naghma had seduced him
with her feminine charms. She'd cast a spell on him, he said. He promised he would re-
dedicate himself to the study of the Koran. The mullah's son was freed. Naghma was
sentenced to five years.
It was just as well, she said, her being here in prison. Her father had sworn that the day
she was released he would take a knife to her throat.
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