The kite runner, p.11
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       The Kite Runner, p.11
 

           Khaled Hosseini

  The young woman pulled the shawl down over her face. Burst into tears. The toddler sitting in her husband's lap started crying too. The husband's face had become as pale as the moon hovering above. He told Karim to ask "Mister Soldier Sahib" to show a little mercy, maybe he had a sister or a mother, maybe he had a wife too. The Russian listened to Karim and barked a series of words.

  "It's his price for letting us pass," Karim said. He couldn't bring himself to look the husband in the eye.

  "But we've paid a fair price already. He's getting paid good money," the husband said.

  Karim and the Russian soldier spoke. "He says . . . he says every price has a tax."

  That was when Baba stood up. It was my turn to clamp a hand on his thigh, but Baba pried it loose, snatched his leg away. When he stood, he eclipsed the moonlight. "I want you to ask this man something," Baba said. He said it to Karim, but looked directly at the Russian officer. "Ask him where his shame is."

  They spoke. "He says this is war. There is no shame in war."

  "Tell him he's wrong. War doesn't negate decency. It demands it, even more than in times of peace."

  Do you have to always be the hero? I thought, my heart fluttering. Can't you just let it go for once? But I knew he couldn't--it wasn't in his nature. The problem was, his nature was going to get us all killed.

  The Russian soldier said something to Karim, a smile creasing his lips. "Agha sahib," Karim said, "these Roussi are not like us. They understand nothing about respect, honor."

  "What did he say?"

  "He says he'll enjoy putting a bullet in you almost as much as . . ." Karim trailed off, but nodded his head toward the young woman who had caught the guard's eye. The soldier flicked his unfinished cigarette and unholstered his handgun. So this is where Baba dies, I thought. This is how it's going to happen. In my head, I said a prayer I had learned in school.

  "Tell him I'll take a thousand of his bullets before I let this indecency take place," Baba said. My mind flashed to that winter day six years ago. Me, peering around the corner in the alley. Kamal and Wali holding Hassan down. Assef's buttock muscles clenching and unclenching, his hips thrusting back and forth. Some hero I had been, fretting about the kite. Sometimes, I too wondered if I was really Baba's son.

  The bulldog-faced Russian raised his gun.

  "Baba, sit down please," I said, tugging at his sleeve. "I think he really means to shoot you."

  Baba slapped my hand away. "Haven't I taught you anything?" he snapped. He turned to the grinning soldier. "Tell him he'd better kill me good with that first shot. Because if I don't go down, I'm tearing him to pieces, goddamn his father!"

  The Russian soldier's grin never faltered when he heard the translation. He clicked the safety on the gun. Pointed the barrel to Baba's chest. Heart pounding in my throat, I buried my face in my hands.

  The gun roared.

  It's done, then. I'm eighteen and alone. I have no one left in the world. Baba's dead and now I have to bury him. Where do I bury him? Where do I go after that?

  But the whirlwind of half thoughts spinning in my head came to a halt when I cracked my eyelids, found Baba still standing. I saw a second Russian officer with the others. It was from the muzzle of his upturned gun that smoke swirled. The soldier who had meant to shoot Baba had already holstered his weapon. He was shuffling his feet. I had never felt more like crying and laughing at the same time.

  The second Russian officer, gray-haired and heavyset, spoke to us in broken Farsi. He apologized for his comrade's behavior. "Russia sends them here to fight," he said. "But they are just boys, and when they come here, they find the pleasure of drug." He gave the younger officer the rueful look of a father exasperated with his misbehaving son. "This one is attached to drug now. I try to stop him . . ." He waved us off.

  Moments later, we were pulling away. I heard a laugh and then the first soldier's voice, slurry and off-key, singing the old wedding song.

  WE RODE IN SILENCE for about fifteen minutes before the young woman's husband suddenly stood and did something I'd seen many others do before him: He kissed Baba's hand.

  TOOR'S BAD LUCK. Hadn't I overheard that in a snippet of conversation back at Mahipar?

  We rolled into Jalalabad about an hour before sunrise. Karim ushered us quickly from the truck into a one-story house at the intersection of two dirt roads lined with flat one-story homes, acacia trees, and closed shops. I pulled the collar of my coat against the chill as we hurried into the house, dragging our belongings. For some reason, I remember smelling radishes.

  Once he had us inside the dimly lit, bare living room, Karim locked the front door, pulled the tattered sheets that passed for curtains. Then he took a deep breath and gave us the bad news: His brother Toor couldn't take us to Peshawar. It seemed his truck's engine had blown the week before and Toor was still waiting for parts.

  "Last week?" someone exclaimed. "If you knew this, why did you bring us here?"

  I caught a flurry of movement out of the corner of my eye. Then a blur of something zipping across the room, and the next thing I saw was Karim slammed against the wall, his sandaled feet dangling two feet above the floor. Wrapped around his neck were Baba's hands.

  "I'll tell you why," Baba snapped. "Because he got paid for his leg of the trip. That's all he cared about." Karim was making guttural choking sounds. Spittle dripped from the corner of his mouth.

  "Put him down, Agha, you're killing him," one of the passengers said.

  "It's what I intend to do," Baba said. What none of the others in the room knew was that Baba wasn't joking. Karim was turning red and kicking his legs. Baba kept choking him until the young mother, the one the Russian officer had fancied, begged him to stop.

  Karim collapsed on the floor and rolled around fighting for air when Baba finally let go. The room fell silent. Less than two hours ago, Baba had volunteered to take a bullet for the honor of a woman he didn't even know. Now he'd almost choked a man to death, would have done it cheerfully if not for the pleas of that same woman.

  Something thumped next door. No, not next door, below.

  "What's that?" someone asked.

  "The others," Karim panted between labored breaths. "In the basement."

  "How long have they been waiting?" Baba said, standing over Karim.

  "Two weeks."

  "I thought you said the truck broke down last week."

  Karim rubbed his throat. "It might have been the week before," he croaked.

  "How long?"

  "What?"

  "How long for the parts?" Baba roared. Karim flinched but said nothing. I was glad for the darkness. I didn't want to see the murderous look on Baba's face.

  THE STENCH OF SOMETHING DANK, like mildew, bludgeoned my nostrils the moment Karim opened the door that led down the creaky steps to the basement. We descended in single file. The steps groaned under Baba's weight. Standing in the cold basement, I felt watched by eyes blinking in the dark. I saw shapes huddled around the room, their silhouettes thrown on the walls by the dim light of a pair of kerosene lamps. A low murmur buzzed through the basement, beneath it the sound of water drops trickling somewhere, and, something else, a scratching sound.

  Baba sighed behind me and dropped the bags.

  Karim told us it should be a matter of a couple of short days before the truck was fixed. Then we'd be on our way to Peshawar. On to freedom. On to safety.

  The basement was our home for the next week and, by the third night, I discovered the source of the scratching sounds. Rats.

  ONCE MY EYES ADJUSTED to the dark, I counted about thirty refugees in that basement. We sat shoulder to shoulder along the walls, ate crackers, bread with dates, apples. That first night, all the men prayed together. One of the refugees asked Baba why he wasn't joining them. "God is going to save us all. Why don't you pray to him?"

  Baba snorted a pinch of his snuff. Stretched his legs. "What'll save us is eight cylinders and a good carburetor." That silenced the rest of them for
good about the matter of God.

  It was later that first night when I discovered that two of the people hiding with us were Kamal and his father. That was shocking enough, seeing Kamal sitting in the basement just a few feet away from me. But when he and his father came over to our side of the room and I saw Kamal's face, really saw it . . .

  He had withered--there was simply no other word for it. His eyes gave me a hollow look and no recognition at all registered in them. His shoulders hunched and his cheeks sagged like they were too tired to cling to the bone beneath. His father, who'd owned a movie theater in Kabul, was telling Baba how, three months before, a stray bullet had struck his wife in the temple and killed her. Then he told Baba about Kamal. I caught only snippets of it: Should have never let him go alone . . . always so handsome, you know . . . four of them . . . tried to fight . . . God . . . took him . . . bleeding down there . . . his pants . . . doesn't talk anymore . . . just stares . . .

  THERE WOULD BE NO TRUCK, Karim told us after we'd spent a week in the rat-infested basement. The truck was beyond repair.

  "There is another option," Karim said, his voice rising amid the groans. His cousin owned a fuel truck and had smuggled people with it a couple of times. He was here in Jalalabad and could probably fit us all.

  Everyone except an elderly couple decided to go.

  We left that night, Baba and I, Kamal and his father, the others. Karim and his cousin, a square-faced balding man named Aziz, helped us get into the fuel tank. One by one, we mounted the idling truck's rear deck, climbed the rear access ladder, and slid down into the tank. I remember Baba climbed halfway up the ladder, hopped back down and fished the snuffbox from his pocket. He emptied the box and picked up a handful of dirt from the middle of the unpaved road. He kissed the dirt. Poured it into the box. Stowed the box in his breast pocket, next to his heart.

  PANIC.

  You open your mouth. Open it so wide your jaws creak. You order your lungs to draw air, NOW, you need air, need it NOW. But your airways ignore you. They collapse, tighten, squeeze, and suddenly you're breathing through a drinking straw. Your mouth closes and your lips purse and all you can manage is a strangled croak. Your hands wriggle and shake. Somewhere a dam has cracked open and a flood of cold sweat spills, drenches your body. You want to scream. You would if you could. But you have to breathe to scream.

  Panic.

  The basement had been dark. The fuel tank was pitch-black. I looked right, left, up, down, waved my hands before my eyes, didn't see so much as a hint of movement. I blinked, blinked again. Nothing at all. The air wasn't right, it was too thick, almost solid. Air wasn't supposed to be solid. I wanted to reach out with my hands, crush the air into little pieces, stuff them down my windpipe. And the stench of gasoline. My eyes stung from the fumes, like someone had peeled my lids back and rubbed a lemon on them. My nose caught fire with each breath. You could die in a place like this, I thought. A scream was coming. Coming, coming . . .

  And then a small miracle. Baba tugged at my sleeve and something glowed green in the dark. Light! Baba's wristwatch. I kept my eyes glued to those fluorescent green hands. I was so afraid I'd lose them, I didn't dare blink.

  Slowly I became aware of my surroundings. I heard groans and muttered prayers. I heard a baby cry, its mother's muted soothing. Someone retched. Someone else cursed the Shorawi. The truck bounced side to side, up and down. Heads banged against metal.

  "Think of something good," Baba said in my ear. "Something happy."

  Something good. Something happy. I let my mind wander. I let it come:

  Friday afternoon in Paghman. An open field of grass speckled with mulberry trees in blossom. Hassan and I stand ankle-deep in untamed grass, I am tugging on the line, the spool spinning in Hassan's calloused hands, our eyes turned up to the kite in the sky. Not a word passes between us, not because we have nothing to say, but because we don't have to say anything--that's how it is between people who are each other's first memories, people who have fed from the same breast. A breeze stirs the grass and Hassan lets the spool roll. The kite spins, dips, steadies. Our twin shadows dance on the rippling grass. From somewhere over the low brick wall at the other end of the field, we hear chatter and laughter and the chirping of a water fountain. And music, something old and familiar, I think it's Ya Mowlah on rubab strings. Someone calls our names over the wall, says it's time for tea and cake.

  I didn't remember what month that was, or what year even. I only knew the memory lived in me, a perfectly encapsulated morsel of a good past, a brushstroke of color on the gray, barren canvas that our lives had become.

  THE REST OF THAT RIDE is scattered bits and pieces of memory that come and go, most of it sounds and smells: MiGs roaring past overhead; staccatos of gunfire; a donkey braying nearby; the jingling of bells and mewling of sheep; gravel crushed under the truck's tires; a baby wailing in the dark; the stench of gasoline, vomit, and shit.

  What I remember next is the blinding light of early morning as I climbed out of the fuel tank. I remember turning my face up to the sky, squinting, breathing like the world was running out of air. I lay on the side of the dirt road next to a rocky trench, looked up to the gray morning sky, thankful for air, thankful for light, thankful to be alive.

  "We're in Pakistan, Amir," Baba said. He was standing over me. "Karim says he will call for a bus to take us to Peshawar."

  I rolled onto my chest, still lying on the cool dirt, and saw our suitcases on either side of Baba's feet. Through the upside down V between his legs, I saw the truck idling on the side of the road, the other refugees climbing down the rear ladder. Beyond that, the dirt road unrolled through fields that were like leaden sheets under the gray sky and disappeared behind a line of bowl-shaped hills. Along the way, it passed a small village strung out atop a sunbaked slope.

  My eyes returned to our suitcases. They made me sad for Baba. After everything he'd built, planned, fought for, fretted over, dreamed of, this was the summation of his life: one disappointing son and two suitcases.

  Someone was screaming. No, not screaming. Wailing. I saw the passengers huddled in a circle, heard their urgent voices. Someone said the word "fumes." Someone else said it too. The wail turned into a throat-ripping screech.

  Baba and I hurried to the pack of onlookers and pushed our way through them. Kamal's father was sitting cross-legged in the center of the circle, rocking back and forth, kissing his son's ashen face.

  "He won't breathe! My boy won't breathe!" he was crying. Kamal's lifeless body lay on his father's lap. His right hand, uncurled and limp, bounced to the rhythm of his father's sobs. "My boy! He won't breathe! Allah, help him breathe!"

  Baba knelt beside him and curled an arm around his shoulder. But Kamal's father shoved him away and lunged for Karim who was standing nearby with his cousin. What happened next was too fast and too short to be called a scuffle. Karim uttered a surprised cry and back-pedaled. I saw an arm swing, a leg kick. A moment later, Kamal's father was standing with Karim's gun in his hand.

  "Don't shoot me!" Karim cried.

  But before any of us could say or do a thing, Kamal's father shoved the barrel in his own mouth. I'll never forget the echo of that blast. Or the flash of light and the spray of red.

  I doubled over again and dry-heaved on the side of the road.

  ELEVEN

  Fremont, California. 1980s

  Baba loved the idea of America.

  It was living in America that gave him an ulcer.

  I remember the two of us walking through Lake Elizabeth Park in Fremont, a few streets down from our apartment, and watching boys at batting practice, little girls giggling on the swings in the playground. Baba would enlighten me with his politics during those walks with longwinded dissertations. "There are only three real men in this world, Amir," he'd say. He'd count them off on his fingers: America the brash savior, Britain, and Israel. "The rest of them--" he used to wave his hand and make a phht sound "--they're like gossiping old women."

&n
bsp; The bit about Israel used to draw the ire of Afghans in Fremont who accused him of being pro-Jewish and, de facto, anti-Islam. Baba would meet them for tea and rowt cake at the park, drive them crazy with his politics. "What they don't understand," he'd tell me later, "is that religion has nothing to do with it." In Baba's view, Israel was an island of "real men" in a sea of Arabs too busy getting fat off their oil to care for their own. "Israel does this, Israel does that," Baba would say in a mock Arabic accent. "Then do something about it! Take action. You're Arabs, help the Palestinians, then!"

  He loathed Jimmy Carter, whom he called a "big-toothed cretin." In 1980, when we were still in Kabul, the U.S. announced it would be boycotting the Olympic Games in Moscow. "Wah wah!" Baba exclaimed with disgust. "Brezhnev is massacring Afghans and all that peanut eater can say is I won't come swim in your pool." Baba believed Carter had unwittingly done more for communism than Leonid Brezhnev. "He's not fit to run this country. It's like putting a boy who can't ride a bike behind the wheel of a brand new Cadillac." What America and the world needed was a hard man. A man to be reckoned with, someone who took action instead of wringing his hands. That someone came in the form of Ronald Reagan. And when Reagan went on TV and called the Shorawi "the Evil Empire," Baba went out and bought a picture of the grinning president giving a thumbs up. He framed the picture and hung it in our hallway, nailing it right next to the old black-and-white of himself in his thin necktie shaking hands with King Zahir Shah. Most of our neighbors in Fremont were bus drivers, policemen, gas station attendants, and unwed mothers collecting welfare, exactly the sort of blue-collar people who would soon suffocate under the pillow Reganomics pressed to their faces. Baba was the lone Republican in our building.

 
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