The kite runner, p.27
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       The Kite Runner, p.27

           Khaled Hosseini
 

  "What do we do with him?" Farid said, walking me slowly from the hospital accounting office back to the car. Sohrab was in the backseat of the Land Cruiser, looking at traffic through the rolled-down window, chin resting on his palms.

  "He can't stay in Peshawar," I said, panting.

  "Nay, Amir agha, he can't," Farid said. He'd read the question in my words. "I'm sorry. I wish I--"

  "That's all right, Farid," I said. I managed a tired smile. "You have mouths to feed." A dog was standing next to the truck now, propped on its rear legs, paws on the truck's door, tail wagging. Sohrab was petting the dog. "I guess he goes to Islamabad for now," I said.

  I SLEPT THROUGH almost the entire four-hour ride to Islamabad. I dreamed a lot, and most of it I only remember as a hodgepodge of images, snippets of visual memory flashing in my head like cards in a Rolodex: Baba marinating lamb for my thirteenth birthday party. Soraya and I making love for the first time, the sun rising in the east, our ears still ringing from the wedding music, her henna-painted hands laced in mine. The time Baba had taken Hassan and me to a strawberry field in Jalalabad--the owner had told us we could eat as much as we wanted to as long as we bought at least four kilos--and how we'd both ended up with bellyaches. How dark, almost black, Hassan's blood had looked on the snow, dropping from the seat of his pants. Blood is a powerful thing, bachem. Khala Jamila patting Soraya's knee and saying, God knows best, maybe it wasn't meant to be. Sleeping on the roof of my father's house. Baba saying that the only sin that mattered was theft. When you tell a lie, you steal a man's right to the truth. Rahim Khan on the phone, telling me there was a way to be good again. A way to be good again . . .

  TWENTY-FOUR

  If Peshawar was the city that reminded me of what Kabul used to be, then Islamabad was the city Kabul could have become someday. The streets were wider than Peshawar's, cleaner, and lined with rows of hibiscus and flame trees. The bazaars were more organized and not nearly as clogged with rickshaws and pedestrians. The architecture was more elegant too, more modern, and I saw parks where roses and jasmine bloomed in the shadows of trees.

  Farid found a small hotel on a side street running along the foot of the Margalla Hills. We passed the famous Shah Faisal Mosque on the way there, reputedly the biggest mosque in the world, with its giant concrete girders and soaring minarets. Sohrab perked up at the sight of the mosque, leaned out of the window and looked at it until Farid turned a corner.

  THE HOTEL ROOM was a vast improvement over the one in Kabul where Farid and I had stayed. The sheets were clean, the carpet vacuumed, and the bathroom spotless. There was shampoo, soap, razors for shaving, a bathtub, and towels that smelled like lemon. And no bloodstains on the walls. One other thing: a television set sat on the dresser across from the two single beds.

  "Look!" I said to Sohrab. I turned it on manually--no remote--and turned the dial. I found a children's show with two fluffy sheep puppets singing in Urdu. Sohrab sat on one of the beds and drew his knees to his chest. Images from the TV reflected in his green eyes as he watched, stone-faced, rocking back and forth. I remembered the time I'd promised Hassan I'd buy his family a color TV when we both grew up.

  "I'll get going, Amir agha," Farid said.

  "Stay the night," I said. "It's a long drive. Leave tomorrow."

  "Tashakor," he said. "But I want to get back tonight. I miss my children." On his way out of the room, he paused in the doorway. "Goodbye, Sohrab jan," he said. He waited for a reply, but Sohrab paid him no attention. Just rocked back and forth, his face lit by the silver glow of the images flickering across the screen.

  Outside, I gave him an envelope. When he tore it, his mouth opened.

  "I didn't know how to thank you," I said. "You've done so much for me."

  "How much is in here?" Farid said, slightly dazed.

  "A little over two thousand dollars."

  "Two thou--" he began. His lower lip was quivering a little. Later, when he pulled away from the curb, he honked twice and waved. I waved back. I never saw him again.

  I returned to the hotel room and found Sohrab lying on the bed, curled up in a big C. His eyes were closed but I couldn't tell if he was sleeping. He had shut off the television. I sat on my bed and grimaced with pain, wiped the cool sweat off my brow. I wondered how much longer it would hurt to get up, sit down, roll over in bed. I wondered when I'd be able to eat solid food. I wondered what I'd do with the wounded little boy lying on the bed, though a part of me already knew.

  There was a carafe of water on the dresser. I poured a glass and took two of Armand's pain pills. The water was warm and bitter. I pulled the curtains, eased myself back on the bed, and lay down. I thought my chest would rip open. When the pain dropped a notch and I could breathe again, I pulled the blanket to my chest and waited for Armand's pills to work.

  WHEN I WOKE UP, the room was darker. The slice of sky peeking between the curtains was the purple of twilight turning into night. The sheets were soaked and my head pounded. I'd been dreaming again, but I couldn't remember what it had been about.

  My heart gave a sick lurch when I looked to Sohrab's bed and found it empty. I called his name. The sound of my voice startled me. It was disorienting, sitting in a dark hotel room, thousands of miles from home, my body broken, calling the name of a boy I'd only met a few days ago. I called his name again and heard nothing. I struggled out of bed, checked the bathroom, looked in the narrow hallway outside the room. He was gone.

  I locked the door and hobbled to the manager's office in the lobby, one hand clutching the rail along the walkway for support. There was a fake, dusty palm tree in the corner of the lobby and flying pink flamingos on the wallpaper. I found the hotel manager reading a newspaper behind the Formica-topped check-in counter. I described Sohrab to him, asked if he'd seen him. He put down his paper and took off his reading glasses. He had greasy hair and a square-shaped little mustache speckled with gray. He smelled vaguely of some tropical fruit I couldn't quite recognize.

  "Boys, they like to run around," he said, sighing. "I have three of them. All day they are running around, troubling their mother." He fanned his face with the newspaper, staring at my jaws.

  "I don't think he's out running around," I said. "And we're not from here. I'm afraid he might get lost."

  He bobbed his head from side to side. "Then you should have kept an eye on the boy, mister."

  "I know," I said. "But I fell asleep and when I woke up, he was gone."

  "Boys must be tended to, you know."

  "Yes," I said, my pulse quickening. How could he be so oblivious to my apprehension? He shifted the newspaper to his other hand, resumed the fanning. "They want bicycles now."

  "Who?"

  "My boys," he said. "They're saying, 'Daddy, Daddy, please buy us bicycles and we'll not trouble you. Please, Daddy!'" He gave a short laugh through his nose. "Bicycles. Their mother will kill me, I swear to you."

  I imagined Sohrab lying in a ditch. Or in the trunk of some car, bound and gagged. I didn't want his blood on my hands. Not his too. "Please . . ." I said. I squinted. Read his name tag on the lapel of his short-sleeve blue cotton shirt. "Mr. Fayyaz, have you seen him?"

  "The boy?"

  I bit down. "Yes, the boy! The boy who came with me. Have you seen him or not, for God's sake?"

  The fanning stopped. His eyes narrowed. "No getting smart with me, my friend. I am not the one who lost him."

  That he had a point did not stop the blood from rushing to my face. "You're right. I'm wrong. My fault. Now, have you seen him?"

  "Sorry," he said curtly. He put his glasses back on. Snapped his newspaper open. "I have seen no such boy."

  I stood at the counter for a minute, trying not to scream. As I was exiting the lobby, he said, "Any idea where he might have wandered to?"

  "No," I said. I felt tired. Tired and scared.

  "Does he have any interests?" he said. I saw he had folded the paper. "My boys, for example, they will do anything for American action films,
especially with that Arnold Whatsanegger--"

  "The mosque!" I said. "The big mosque." I remembered the way the mosque had jolted Sohrab from his stupor when we'd driven by it, how he'd leaned out of the window looking at it.

  "Shah Faisal?"

  "Yes. Can you take me there?"

  "Did you know it's the biggest mosque in the world?" he asked.

  "No, but--"

  "The courtyard alone can fit forty thousand people."

  "Can you take me there?"

  "It's only a kilometer from here," he said. But he was already pushing away from the counter.

  "I'll pay you for the ride," I said.

  He sighed and shook his head. "Wait here." He disappeared into the back room, returned wearing another pair of eyeglasses, a set of keys in hand, and with a short, chubby woman in an orange sari trailing him. She took his seat behind the counter. "I don't take your money," he said, blowing by me. "I will drive you because I am a father like you."

  I THOUGHT WE'D END UP DRIVING around the city until night fell. I saw myself calling the police, describing Sohrab to them under Fayyaz's reproachful glare. I heard the officer, his voice tired and uninterested, asking his obligatory questions. And beneath the official questions, an unofficial one: Who the hell cared about another dead Afghan kid?

  But we found him about a hundred yards from the mosque, sitting in the half-full parking lot, on an island of grass. Fayyaz pulled up to the island and let me out. "I have to get back," he said.

  "That's fine. We'll walk back," I said. "Thank you, Mr. Fayyaz. Really."

  He leaned across the front seat when I got out. "Can I say something to you?"

  "Sure."

  In the dark of twilight, his face was just a pair of eyeglasses reflecting the fading light. "The thing about you Afghanis is that . . . well, you people are a little reckless."

  I was tired and in pain. My jaws throbbed. And those damn wounds on my chest and stomach felt like barbed wire under my skin. But I started to laugh anyway.

  "What . . . what did I . . ." Fayyaz was saying, but I was cackling by then, full-throated bursts of laughter spilling through my wired mouth.

  "Crazy people," he said. His tires screeched when he peeled away, his taillights blinking red in the dimming light.

  "YOU GAVE ME A GOOD SCARE," I said. I sat beside him, wincing with pain as I bent.

  He was looking at the mosque. Shah Faisal Mosque was shaped like a giant tent. Cars came and went; worshipers dressed in white streamed in and out. We sat in silence, me leaning against the tree, Sohrab next to me, knees to his chest. We listened to the call to prayer, watched the building's hundreds of lights come on as daylight faded. The mosque sparkled like a diamond in the dark. It lit up the sky, Sohrab's face.

  "Have you ever been to Mazar-i-Sharif?" Sohrab said, his chin resting on his kneecaps.

  "A long time ago. I don't remember it much."

  "Father took me there when I was little. Mother and Sasa came along too. Father bought me a monkey from the bazaar. Not a real one but the kind you have to blow up. It was brown and had a bow tie."

  "I might have had one of those when I was a kid."

  "Father took me to the Blue Mosque," Sohrab said. "I remember there were so many pigeons outside the masjid, and they weren't afraid of people. They came right up to us. Sasa gave me little pieces of naan and I fed the birds. Soon, there were pigeons cooing all around me. That was fun."

  "You must miss your parents very much," I said. I wondered if he'd seen the Taliban drag his parents out into the street. I hoped he hadn't.

  "Do you miss your parents?" he aked, resting his cheek on his knees, looking up at me.

  "Do I miss my parents? Well, I never met my mother. My father died a few years ago, and, yes, I do miss him. Sometimes a lot."

  "Do you remember what he looked like?"

  I thought of Baba's thick neck, his black eyes, his unruly brown hair. Sitting on his lap had been like sitting on a pair of tree trunks. "I remember what he looked like," I said. "What he smelled like too."

  "I'm starting to forget their faces," Sohrab said. "Is that bad?"

  "No," I said. "Time does that." I thought of something. I looked in the front pocket of my coat. Found the Polaroid snapshot of Hassan and Sohrab. "Here," I said.

  He brought the photo to within an inch of his face, turned it so the light from the mosque fell on it. He looked at it for a long time. I thought he might cry, but he didn't. He just held it in both hands, traced his thumb over its surface. I thought of a line I'd read somewhere, or maybe I'd heard someone say it: There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood. He stretched his hand to give it back to me.

  "Keep it," I said. "It's yours."

  "Thank you." He looked at the photo again and stowed it in the pocket of his vest. A horse-drawn cart clip-clopped by in the parking lot. Little bells dangled from the horse's neck and jingled with each step.

  "I've been thinking a lot about mosques lately," Sohrab said.

  "You have? What about them?"

  He shrugged. "Just thinking about them." He lifted his face, looked straight at me. Now he was crying, softly, silently. "Can I ask you something, Amir agha?"

  "Of course."

  "Will God . . ." he began, and choked a little. "Will God put me in hell for what I did to that man?"

  I reached for him and he flinched. I pulled back. "Nay. Of course not," I said. I wanted to pull him close, hold him, tell him the world had been unkind to him, not the other way around.

  His face twisted and strained to stay composed. "Father used to say it's wrong to hurt even bad people. Because they don't know any better, and because bad people sometimes become good."

  "Not always, Sohrab."

  He looked at me questioningly.

  "The man who hurt you, I knew him from many years ago," I said. "I guess you figured that out that from the conversation he and I had. He . . . he tried to hurt me once when I was your age, but your father saved me. Your father was very brave and he was always rescuing me from trouble, standing up for me. So one day the bad man hurt your father instead. He hurt him in a very bad way, and I . . . I couldn't save your father the way he had saved me."

  "Why did people want to hurt my father?" Sohrab said in a wheezy little voice. "He was never mean to anyone."

  "You're right. Your father was a good man. But that's what I'm trying to tell you, Sohrab jan. That there are bad people in this world, and sometimes bad people stay bad. Sometimes you have to stand up to them. What you did to that man is what I should have done to him all those years ago. You gave him what he deserved, and he deserved even more."

  "Do you think Father is disappointed in me?"

  "I know he's not," I said. "You saved my life in Kabul. I know he is very proud of you for that."

  He wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt. It burst a bubble of spittle that had formed on his lips. He buried his face in his hands and wept a long time before he spoke again. "I miss Father, and Mother too," he croaked. "And I miss Sasa and Rahim Khan sahib. But sometimes I'm glad they're not . . . they're not here anymore."

  "Why?" I touched his arm. He drew back.

  "Because--" he said, gasping and hitching between sobs, "because I don't want them to see me . . . I'm so dirty." He sucked in his breath and let it out in a long, wheezy cry. "I'm so dirty and full of sin."

  "You're not dirty, Sohrab," I said.

  "Those men--"

  "You're not dirty at all."

  "--they did things . . . the bad man and the other two . . . they did things . . . did things to me."

  "You're not dirty, and you're not full of sin." I touched his arm again and he drew away. I reached again, gently, and pulled him to me. "I won't hurt you," I whispered. "I promise." He resisted a little. Slackened. He let me draw him to me and rested his head on my chest. His little body convulsed in my arms with each sob.

  A kinship exists between people who've fed from the same breast. Now, as
the boy's pain soaked through my shirt, I saw that a kinship had taken root between us too. What had happened in that room with Assef had irrevocably bound us.

  I'd been looking for the right time, the right moment, to ask the question that had been buzzing around in my head and keeping me up at night. I decided the moment was now, right here, right now, with the bright lights of the house of God shining on us.

  "Would you like to come live in America with me and my wife?"

  He didn't answer. He sobbed into my shirt and I let him.

  FOR A WEEK, neither one of us mentioned what I had asked him, as if the question hadn't been posed at all. Then one day, Sohrab and I took a taxicab to the Daman-e-Koh Viewpoint--or "the hem of the mountain." Perched midway up the Margalla Hills, it gives a panoramic view of Islamabad, its rows of clean, tree-lined avenues and white houses. The driver told us we could see the presidential palace from up there. "If it has rained and the air is clear, you can even see past Rawalpindi," he said. I saw his eyes in his rearview mirror, skipping from Sohrab to me, back and forth, back and forth. I saw my own face too. It wasn't as swollen as before, but it had taken on a yellow tint from my assortment of fading bruises.

  We sat on a bench in one of the picnic areas, in the shade of a gum tree. It was a warm day, the sun perched high in a topaz blue sky. On benches nearby, families snacked on samosas and pakoras. Somewhere, a radio played a Hindi song I thought I remembered from an old movie, maybe Pakeeza. Kids, many of them Sohrab's age, chased soccer balls, giggling, yelling. I thought about the orphanage in Karteh-Seh, thought about the rat that had scurried between my feet in Zaman's office. My chest tightened with a surge of unexpected anger at the way my countrymen were destroying their own land.

  "What?" Sohrab asked. I forced a smile and told him it wasn't important.

  We unrolled one of the hotel's bathroom towels on the picnic table and played panjpar on it. It felt good being there, with my half brother's son, playing cards, the warmth of the sun patting the back of my neck. The song ended and another one started, one I didn't recognize.

  "Look," Sohrab said. He was pointing to the sky with his cards. I looked up, saw a hawk circling in the broad seamless sky. "Didn't know there were hawks in Islamabad," I said.

  "Me neither," he said, his eyes tracing the bird's circular flight. "Do they have them where you live?"

 
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