A Thousand Splendid Suns

(Nancy Kaufman) #1

"Watch. Watch how she laughs when I snap my fingers. There. See? Did you see?"
Rasheed would grunt, and go back to his plate. Mariam remembered how the girl's mere
presence used to overwhelm him. Everything she said used to please him, intrigue him,
make him look up from his plate and nod with approval.
The strange thing was, the girl's fall from grace ought to have pleased Mariam, brought
her a sense of vindication. But it didn't. It didn't. To her own surprise, Mariam found herself
pitying the girl.
It was also over dinner that the girl let loose a steady stream of worries. Topping the list
was pneumonia, which was suspected with every minor cough. Then there was dysentery,
the specter of which was raised with every loose stool. Every rash was either chicken pox
or measles.
"You should not get so attached," Rasheed said one night.
"What do you mean?"
"I was listening to the radio the other night. Voice of America. I heard an interesting
statistic. They said that in Afghanistan one out of four children will die before the age of
five. That's what they said. Now, they What? What? Where are you going? Come back here.
Get back here this instant!"

He gave Mariam a bewildered look. "What's the matter with her?"
That night, Mariam was lying in bed when the bickering started again. It was a hot, dry
summer night, typical of the month of Saratan in Kabul. Mariam had opened her window,
then shut it when no breeze came through to temper the heat, only mosquitoes. She could
feel the heat rising from the ground outside, through the wheat brown, splintered planks of
the outhouse in the yard, up through the walls and into her room.
Usually, the bickering ran its course after a few minutes, but half an hour passed and not
only was it still going on, it was escalating. Mariam could hear Rasheed shouting now. The
girl's voice, underneath his, was tentative and shrill. Soon the baby was wailing.
Then Mariam heard their door open violently. In the morning, she would find the
doorknob's circular impression in the hallway wall. She was sitting up in bed when her own
door slammed open and Rasheed came through.
He was wearing white underpants and a matching undershirt, stained yellow in the
underarms with sweat. On his feet he wore flip flops. He held a belt in his hand, the brown
leather one he'd bought for his nikka with the girl, and was wrapping the perforated end
around his fist.
"It's your doing. I know it is," he snarled, advancing on her.
Mariam slid out of her bed and began backpedaling. Her arms instinctively crossed over
her chest, where he often struck her first.

"What are you talking about?" she stammered.
"Her denying me. You're teaching her to."
Over the years, Mariam had learned to harden herself against his scorn and reproach, his
ridiculing and reprimanding. But this fear she had no control over. All these years and still
she shivered with fright when he was like this, sneering, tightening the belt around his fist,
the creaking of the leather, the glint in his bloodshot eyes. It was the fear of the goat,
released in the tiger's cage, when the tiger first looks up from its paws, begins to growl
Now the girl was in the room, her eyes wide, her face contorted

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