The kite runner, p.30
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       The Kite Runner, p.30

           Khaled Hosseini

  I hear a whimpering and realize it is mine, my lips are salty with the tears trickling down my face. I feel the eyes of everyone in this corridor on me and still I bow to the west. I pray. I pray that my sins have not caught up with me the way I'd always feared they would.

  A STARLESS, BLACK NIGHT falls over Islamabad. It's a few hours later and I am sitting now on the floor of a tiny lounge off the corridor that leads to the emergency ward. Before me is a dull brown coffee table cluttered with newspapers and dog-eared magazines--an April 1996 issue of Time; a Pakistani newspaper showing the face of a young boy who was hit and killed by a train the week before; an entertainment magazine with smiling Lollywood actors on its glossy cover. There is an old woman wearing a jade green shalwar-kameez and a crocheted shawl nodding off in a wheelchair across from me. Every once in a while, she stirs awake and mutters a prayer in Arabic. I wonder tiredly whose prayers will be heard tonight, hers or mine. I picture Sohrab's face, the pointed meaty chin, his small seashell ears, his slanting bamboo-leaf eyes so much like his father's. A sorrow as black as the night outside invades me, and I feel my throat clamping.

  I need air.

  I get up and open the windows. The air coming through the screen is musty and hot--it smells of overripe dates and dung. I force it into my lungs in big heaps, but it doesn't clear the clamping feeling in my chest. I drop back on the floor. I pick up the Time magazine and flip through the pages. But I can't read, can't focus on anything. So I toss it on the table and go back to staring at the zigzagging pattern of the cracks on the cement floor, at the cobwebs on the ceiling where the walls meet, at the dead flies littering the windowsill. Mostly, I stare at the clock on the wall. It's just past 4 A.M. and I have been shut out of the room with the swinging double doors for over five hours now. I still haven't heard any news.

  The floor beneath me begins to feel like part of my body, and my breathing is growing heavier, slower. I want to sleep, shut my eyes and lie my head down on this cold, dusty floor. Drift off. When I wake up, maybe I will discover that everything I saw in the hotel bathroom was part of a dream: the water drops dripping from the faucet and landing with a plink into the bloody bathwater; the left arm dangling over the side of the tub, the blood-soaked razor sitting on the toilet tank--the same razor I had shaved with the day before--and his eyes, still half open but lightless. That more than anything. I want to forget the eyes.

  Soon, sleep comes and I let it take me. I dream of things I can't remember later.

  SOMEONE IS TAPPING ME on the shoulder. I open my eyes. There is a man kneeling beside me. He is wearing a cap like the men behind the swinging double doors and a paper surgical mask over his mouth--my heart sinks when I see a drop of blood on the mask. He has taped a picture of a doe-eyed little girl to his beeper. He unsnaps his mask and I'm glad I don't have to look at Sohrab's blood anymore. His skin is dark like the imported Swiss chocolate Hassan and I used to buy from the bazaar in Shar-e-Nau; he has thinning hair and hazel eyes topped with curved eyelashes. In a British accent, he tells me his name is Dr. Nawaz, and suddenly I want to be away from this man, because I don't think I can bear to hear what he has come to tell me. He says the boy had cut himself deeply and had lost a great deal of blood and my mouth begins to mutter that prayer again:

  La illaha il Allah, Muhammad u rasul ullah.

  They had to transfuse several units of red cells--How will I tell Soraya?

  Twice, they had to revive him--I will do namaz, I will do zakat.

  They would have lost him if his heart hadn't been young and strong--I will fast.

  He is alive.

  Dr. Nawaz smiles. It takes me a moment to register what he has just said. Then he says more but I don't hear him. Because I have taken his hands and I have brought them up to my face. I weep my relief into this stranger's small, meaty hands and he says nothing now. He waits.

  THE INTENSIVE CARE UNIT is L-shaped and dim, a jumble of bleeping monitors and whirring machines. Dr. Nawaz leads me between two rows of beds separated by white plastic curtains. Sohrab's bed is the last one around the corner, the one nearest the nurses' station where two nurses in green surgical scrubs are jotting notes on clipboards, chatting in low voices. On the silent ride up the elevator with Dr. Nawaz, I had thought I'd weep again when I saw Sohrab. But when I sit on the chair at the foot of his bed, looking at his white face through the tangle of gleaming plastic tubes and IV lines, I am dry-eyed. Watching his chest rise and fall to the rhythm of the hissing ventilator, a curious numbness washes over me, the same numbness a man might feel seconds after he has swerved his car and barely avoided a head-on collision.

  I doze off, and, when I wake up, I see the sun rising in a buttermilk sky through the window next to the nurses' station. The light slants into the room, aims my shadow toward Sohrab. He hasn't moved.

  "You'd do well to get some sleep," a nurse says to me. I don't recognize her--there must have been a shift change while I'd napped. She takes me to another lounge, this one just outside the ICU. It's empty. She hands me a pillow and a hospital-issue blanket. I thank her and lie on the vinyl sofa in the corner of the lounge. I fall asleep almost immediately.

  I dream I am back in the lounge downstairs. Dr. Nawaz walks in and I rise to meet him. He takes off his paper mask, his hands suddenly whiter than I remembered, his nails manicured, he has neatly parted hair, and I see he is not Dr. Nawaz at all but Raymond Andrews, the little embassy man with the potted tomatoes. Andrews cocks his head. Narrows his eyes.

  IN THE DAYTIME, the hospital was a maze of teeming, angled hallways, a blur of blazing-white overhead fluorescence. I came to know its layout, came to know that the fourth-floor button in the east wing elevator didn't light up, that the door to the men's room on that same floor was jammed and you had to ram your shoulder into it to open it. I came to know that hospital life has a rhythm, the flurry of activity just before the morning shift change, the midday hustle, the stillness and quiet of the late-night hours interrupted occasionally by a blur of doctors and nurses rushing to revive someone. I kept vigil at Sohrab's bedside in the daytime and wandered through the hospital's serpentine corridors at night, listening to my shoe heels clicking on the tiles, thinking of what I would say to Sohrab when he woke up. I'd end up back in the ICU, by the whooshing ventilator beside his bed, and I'd be no closer to knowing.

  After three days in the ICU, they withdrew the breathing tube and transferred him to a ground-level bed. I wasn't there when they moved him. I had gone back to the hotel that night to get some sleep and ended up tossing around in bed all night. In the morning, I tried to not look at the bathtub. It was clean now, someone had wiped off the blood, spread new floor mats on the floor, and scrubbed the walls. But I couldn't stop myself from sitting on its cool, porcelain edge. I pictured Sohrab filling it with warm water. Saw him undressing. Saw him twisting the razor handle and opening the twin safety latches on the head, sliding the blade out, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. I pictured him lowering himself into the water, lying there for a while, his eyes closed. I wondered what his last thought had been as he had raised the blade and brought it down.

  I was exiting the lobby when the hotel manager, Mr. Fayyaz, caught up with me. "I am very sorry for you," he said, "but I am asking for you to leave my hotel, please. This is bad for my business, very bad."

  I told him I understood and I checked out. He didn't charge me for the three days I'd spent at the hospital. Waiting for a cab outside the hotel lobby, I thought about what Mr. Fayyaz had said to me that night we'd gone looking for Sohrab: The thing about you Afghanis is that . . . well, you people are a little reckless. I had laughed at him, but now I wondered. Had I actually gone to sleep after I had given Sohrab the news he feared most?

  When I got in the cab, I asked the driver if he knew any Persian bookstores. He said there was one a couple of kilometers south. We stopped there on the way to the hospital.

  SOHRAB'S NEW ROOM had cream-colored walls, chipped, dark gray moldings, and gl
azed tiles that might have once been white. He shared the room with a teenaged Punjabi boy who, I later learned from one of the nurses, had broken his leg when he had slipped off the roof of a moving bus. His leg was in a cast, raised and held by tongs strapped to several weights.

  Sohrab's bed was next to the window, the lower half lit by the late-morning sunlight streaming through the rectangular panes. A uniformed security guard was standing at the window, munching on cooked watermelon seeds--Sohrab was under twenty-four-hours-a-day suicide watch. Hospital protocol, Dr. Nawaz had informed me. The guard tipped his hat when he saw me and left the room.

  Sohrab was wearing short-sleeved hospital pajamas and lying on his back, blanket pulled to his chest, face turned to the window. I thought he was sleeping, but when I scooted a chair up to his bed his eyelids fluttered and opened. He looked at me, then looked away. He was so pale, even with all the blood they had given him, and there was a large purple bruise in the crease of his right arm.

  "How are you?" I said.

  He didn't answer. He was looking through the window at a fenced-in sandbox and swing set in the hospital garden. There was an arch-shaped trellis near the playground, in the shadow of a row of hibiscus trees, a few green vines climbing up the timber lattice. A handful of kids were playing with buckets and pails in the sandbox. The sky was a cloudless blue that day, and I saw a tiny jet leaving behind twin white trails. I turned back to Sohrab. "I spoke to Dr. Nawaz a few minutes ago and he thinks you'll be discharged in a couple of days. That's good news, nay?"

  Again I was met by silence. The Punjabi boy at the other end of the room stirred in his sleep and moaned something. "I like your room," I said, trying not to look at Sohrab's bandaged wrists. "It's bright, and you have a view." Silence. A few more awkward minutes passed, and a light sweat formed on my brow, my upper lip. I pointed to the untouched bowl of green pea aush on his nightstand, the unused plastic spoon. "You should try to eat something. Gain your quwat back, your strength. Do you want me to help you?"

  He held my glance, then looked away, his face set like stone. His eyes were still lightless, I saw, vacant, the way I had found them when I had pulled him out of the bathtub. I reached into the paper bag between my feet and took out the used copy of the Shahnamah I had bought at the Persian bookstore. I turned the cover so it faced Sohrab. "I used to read this to your father when we were children. We'd go up the hill by our house and sit beneath the pomegranate . . ." I trailed off. Sohrab was looking through the window again. I forced a smile. "Your father's favorite was the story of Rostam and Sohrab and that's how you got your name, I know you know that." I paused, feeling a bit like an idiot. "Anyway, he said in his letter that it was your favorite too, so I thought I'd read you some of it. Would you like that?"

  Sohrab closed his eyes. Covered them with his arm, the one with the bruise.

  I flipped to the page I had bent in the taxicab. "Here we go," I said, wondering for the first time what thoughts had passed through Hassan's head when he had finally read the Shahnamah for himself and discovered that I had deceived him all those times. I cleared my throat and read. "'Give ear unto the combat of Sohrab against Rostam, though it be a tale replete with tears,' " I began. "'It came about that on a certain day Rostam rose from his couch and his mind was filled with forebodings. He bethought him . . .' " I read him most of chapter 1, up to the part where the young warrior Sohrab comes to his mother, Tahmineh, the princess of Samengan, and demands to know the identity of his father. I closed the book. "Do you want me to go on? There are battles coming up, remember? Sohrab leading his army to the White Castle in Iran? Should I read on?"

  He shook his head slowly. I dropped the book back in the paper bag. "That's fine," I said, encouraged that he had responded at all. "Maybe we can continue tomorrow. How do you feel?"

  Sohrab's mouth opened and a hoarse sound came out. Dr. Nawaz had told me that would happen, on account of the breathing tube they had slid through his vocal cords. He licked his lips and tried again. "Tired."

  "I know. Dr. Nawaz said that was to be expected--"

  He was shaking his head.

  "What, Sohrab?"

  He winced when he spoke again in that husky voice, barely above a whisper. "Tired of everything."

  I sighed and slumped in my chair. There was a band of sunlight on the bed between us, and, for just a moment, the ashen gray face looking at me from the other side of it was a dead ringer for Hassan's, not the Hassan I played marbles with until the mullah belted out the evening azan and Ali called us home, not the Hassan I chased down our hill as the sun dipped behind clay rooftops in the west, but the Hassan I saw alive for the last time, dragging his belongings behind Ali in a warm summer downpour, stuffing them in the trunk of Baba's car while I watched through the rain-soaked window of my room.

  He gave a slow shake of his head. "Tired of everything," he repeated.

  "What can I do, Sohrab? Please tell me."

  "I want--" he began. He winced again and brought his hand to his throat as if to clear whatever was blocking his voice. My eyes were drawn again to his wrist wrapped tightly with white gauze bandages. "I want my old life back," he breathed.

  "Oh, Sohrab."

  "I want Father and Mother jan. I want Sasa. I want to play with Rahim Khan sahib in the garden. I want to live in our house again." He dragged his forearm across his eyes. "I want my old life back."

  I didn't know what to say, where to look, so I gazed down at my hands. Your old life, I thought. My old life too. I played in the same yard, Sohrab. I lived in the same house. But the grass is dead and a stranger's jeep is parked in the driveway of our house, pissing oil all over the asphalt. Our old life is gone, Sohrab, and everyone in it is either dead or dying. It's just you and me now. Just you and me.

  "I can't give you that," I said.

  "I wish you hadn't--"

  "Please don't say that."

  "--wish you hadn't . . . I wish you had left me in the water."

  "Don't ever say that, Sohrab," I said, leaning forward. "I can't bear to hear you talk like that." I touched his shoulder and he flinched. Drew away. I dropped my hand, remembering ruefully how in the last days before I'd broken my promise to him he had finally become at ease with my touch. "Sohrab, I can't give you your old life back, I wish to God I could. But I can take you with me. That was what I was coming in the bathroom to tell you. You have a visa to go to America, to live with me and my wife. It's true. I promise."

  He sighed through his nose and closed his eyes. I wished I hadn't said those last two words. "You know, I've done a lot of things I regret in my life," I said, "and maybe none more than going back on the promise I made you. But that will never happen again, and I am so very profoundly sorry. I ask for your bakhshesh, your forgiveness. Can you do that? Can you forgive me? Can you believe me?" I dropped my voice. "Will you come with me?"

  As I waited for his reply, my mind flashed back to a winter day from long ago, Hassan and I sitting on the snow beneath a leafless sour cherry tree. I had played a cruel game with Hassan that day, toyed with him, asked him if he would chew dirt to prove his loyalty to me. Now I was the one under the microscope, the one who had to prove my worthiness. I deserved this.

  Sohrab rolled to his side, his back to me. He didn't say anything for a long time. And then, just as I thought he might have drifted to sleep, he said with a croak, "I am so khasta." So very tired.

  I sat by his bed until he fell asleep. Something was lost between Sohrab and me. Until my meeting with the lawyer, Omar Faisal, a light of hope had begun to enter Sohrab's eyes like a timid guest. Now the light was gone, the guest had fled, and I wondered when it would dare return. I wondered how long before Sohrab smiled again. How long before he trusted me. If ever.

  So I left the room and went looking for another hotel, unaware that almost a year would pass before I would hear Sohrab speak another word.

  IN THEEND, Sohrab never accepted my offer. Nor did he decline it. But he knew that when the bandages were re
moved and the hospital garments returned, he was just another homeless Hazara orphan. What choice did he have? Where could he go? So what I took as a yes from him was in actuality more of a quiet surrender, not so much an acceptance as an act of relinquishment by one too weary to decide, and far too tired to believe. What he yearned for was his old life. What he got was me and America. Not that it was such a bad fate, everything considered, but I couldn't tell him that. Perspective was a luxury when your head was constantly buzzing with a swarm of demons.

  And so it was that, about a week later, we crossed a strip of warm, black tarmac and I brought Hassan's son from Afghanistan to America, lifting him from the certainty of turmoil and dropping him in a turmoil of uncertainty.

  ONE DAY, maybe around 1983 or 1984, I was at a video store in Fremont. I was standing in the Westerns section when a guy next to me, sipping Coke from a 7-Eleven cup, pointed to The Magnificent Seven and asked me if I had seen it. "Yes, thirteen times," I said. "Charles Bronson dies in it, so do James Coburn and Robert Vaughn." He gave me a pinch-faced look, as if I had just spat in his soda. "Thanks a lot, man," he said, shaking his head and muttering something as he walked away. That was when I learned that, in America, you don't reveal the ending of the movie, and if you do, you will be scorned and made to apologize profusely for having committed the sin of Spoiling the End.

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