The kite runner, p.9
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       The Kite Runner, p.9

           Khaled Hosseini
 

  "I won't, Baba. I'm sorry."

  We planted the rest of the tulips in silence.

  I was relieved when school started that next week. Students with new notebooks and sharpened pencils in hand ambled about the courtyard, kicking up dust, chatting in groups, waiting for the class captains' whistles. Baba drove down the dirt lane that led to the entrance. The school was an old two-story building with broken windows and dim, cobblestone hallways, patches of its original dull yellow paint still showing between sloughing chunks of plaster. Most of the boys walked to school, and Baba's black Mustang drew more than one envious look. I should have been beaming with pride when he dropped me off--the old me would have--but all I could muster was a mild form of embarrassment. That and emptiness. Baba drove away without saying good-bye.

  I bypassed the customary comparing of kite-fighting scars and stood in line. The bell rang and we marched to our assigned class, filed in in pairs. I sat in the back row. As the Farsi teacher handed out our textbooks, I prayed for a heavy load of homework.

  School gave me an excuse to stay in my room for long hours. And, for a while, it took my mind off what had happened that winter, what I had let happen. For a few weeks, I preoccupied myself with gravity and momentum, atoms and cells, the Anglo-Afghan wars, instead of thinking about Hassan and what had happened to him. But, always, my mind returned to the alley. To Hassan's brown corduroy pants lying on the bricks. To the droplets of blood staining the snow dark red, almost black.

  One sluggish, hazy afternoon early that summer, I asked Hassan to go up the hill with me. Told him I wanted to read him a new story I'd written. He was hanging clothes to dry in the yard and I saw his eagerness in the harried way he finished the job.

  We climbed the hill, making small talk. He asked about school, what I was learning, and I talked about my teachers, especially the mean math teacher who punished talkative students by sticking a metal rod between their fingers and then squeezing them together. Hassan winced at that, said he hoped I'd never have to experience it. I said I'd been lucky so far, knowing that luck had nothing to do with it. I had done my share of talking in class too. But my father was rich and everyone knew him, so I was spared the metal rod treatment.

  We sat against the low cemetery wall under the shade thrown by the pomegranate tree. In another month or two, crops of scorched yellow weeds would blanket the hillside, but that year the spring showers had lasted longer than usual, nudging their way into early summer, and the grass was still green, peppered with tangles of wildflowers. Below us, Wazir Akbar Khan's white-walled, flat-topped houses gleamed in the sunshine, the laundry hanging on clotheslines in their yards stirred by the breeze to dance like butterflies.

  We had picked a dozen pomegranates from the tree. I unfolded the story I'd brought along, turned to the first page, then put it down. I stood up and picked up an overripe pomegranate that had fallen to the ground.

  "What would you do if I hit you with this?" I said, tossing the fruit up and down.

  Hassan's smile wilted. He looked older than I'd remembered. No, not older, old. Was that possible? Lines had etched into his tanned face and creases framed his eyes, his mouth. I might as well have taken a knife and carved those lines myself.

  "What would you do?" I repeated.

  The color fell from his face. Next to him, the stapled pages of the story I'd promised to read him fluttered in the breeze. I hurled the pomegranate at him. It struck him in the chest, exploded in a spray of red pulp. Hassan's cry was pregnant with surprise and pain.

  "Hit me back!" I snapped. Hassan looked from the stain on his chest to me.

  "Get up! Hit me!" I said. Hassan did get up, but he just stood there, looking dazed like a man dragged into the ocean by a riptide when, just a moment ago, he was enjoying a nice stroll on the beach.

  I hit him with another pomegranate, in the shoulder this time. The juice splattered his face. "Hit me back!" I spat. "Hit me back, goddamn you!" I wished he would. I wished he'd give me the punishment I craved, so maybe I'd finally sleep at night. Maybe then things could return to how they used to be between us. But Hassan did nothing as I pelted him again and again. "You're a coward!" I said. "Nothing but a goddamn coward!"

  I don't know how many times I hit him. All I know is that, when I finally stopped, exhausted and panting, Hassan was smeared in red like he'd been shot by a firing squad. I fell to my knees, tired, spent, frustrated.

  Then Hassan did pick up a pomegranate. He walked toward me. He opened it and crushed it against his own forehead. "There," he croaked, red dripping down his face like blood. "Are you satisfied? Do you feel better?" He turned around and started down the hill.

  I let the tears break free, rocked back and forth on my knees. "What am I going to do with you, Hassan? What am I going to do with you?" But by the time the tears dried up and I trudged down the hill, I knew the answer to that question.

  I TURNED THIRTEEN that summer of 1976, Afghanistan's next to last summer of peace and anonymity. Things between Baba and me were already cooling off again. I think what started it was the stupid comment I'd made the day we were planting tulips, about getting new servants. I regretted saying it--I really did--but I think even if I hadn't, our happy little interlude would have come to an end. Maybe not quite so soon, but it would have. By the end of the summer, the scraping of spoon and fork against the plate had replaced dinner table chatter and Baba had resumed retreating to his study after supper. And closing the door. I'd gone back to thumbing through Hafez and Khayyam, gnawing my nails down to the cuticles, writing stories. I kept the stories in a stack under my bed, keeping them just in case, though I doubted Baba would ever again ask me to read them to him. Baba's motto about throwing parties was this: Invite the whole world or it's not a party. I remember scanning over the invitation list a week before my birthday party and not recognizing at least three-quarters of the four hundred-plus Kakas and Khalas who were going to bring me gifts and congratulate me for having lived to thirteen. Then I realized they weren't really coming for me. It was my birthday, but I knew who the real star of the show was.

  For days, the house was teeming with Baba's hired help. There was Salahuddin the butcher, who showed up with a calf and two sheep in tow, refusing payment for any of the three. He slaughtered the animals himself in the yard by a poplar tree. "Blood is good for the tree," I remember him saying as the grass around the poplar soaked red. Men I didn't know climbed the oak trees with coils of small electric bulbs and meters of extension cords. Others set up dozens of tables in the yard, spread a tablecloth on each. The night before the big party Baba's friend Del-Muhammad, who owned a kabob house in Shar-e-Nau, came to the house with his bags of spices. Like the butcher, Del-Muhammad--or Dello, as Baba called him--refused payment for his services. He said Baba had done enough for his family already. It was Rahim Khan who whispered to me, as Dello marinated the meat, that Baba had lent Dello the money to open his restaurant. Baba had refused repayment until Dello had shown up one day in our driveway in a Benz and insisted he wouldn't leave until Baba took his money.

  I guess in most ways, or at least in the ways in which parties are judged, my birthday bash was a huge success. I'd never seen the house so packed. Guests with drinks in hand were chatting in the hallways, smoking on the stairs, leaning against doorways. They sat where they found space, on kitchen counters, in the foyer, even under the stairwell. In the backyard, they mingled under the glow of blue, red, and green lights winking in the trees, their faces illuminated by the light of kerosene torches propped everywhere. Baba had had a stage built on the balcony that overlooked the garden and planted speakers throughout the yard. Ahmad Zahir was playing an accordion and singing on the stage over masses of dancing bodies.

  I had to greet each of the guests personally--Baba made sure of that; no one was going to gossip the next day about how he'd raised a son with no manners. I kissed hundreds of cheeks, hugged total strangers, thanked them for their gifts. My face ached from the strain of my plastered smil
e.

  I was standing with Baba in the yard near the bar when someone said, "Happy birthday, Amir." It was Assef, with his parents. Assef 's father, Mahmood, was a short, lanky sort with dark skin and a narrow face. His mother, Tanya, was a small, nervous woman who smiled and blinked a lot. Assef was standing between the two of them now, grinning, looming over both, his arms resting on their shoulders. He led them toward us, like he had brought them here. Like he was the parent, and they his children. A wave of dizziness rushed through me. Baba thanked them for coming.

  "I picked out your present myself," Assef said. Tanya's face twitched and her eyes flicked from Assef to me. She smiled, unconvincingly, and blinked. I wondered if Baba had noticed.

  "Still playing soccer, Assef jan?" Baba said. He'd always wanted me to be friends with Assef.

  Assef smiled. It was creepy how genuinely sweet he made it look. "Of course, Kaka jan."

  "Right wing, as I recall?"

  "Actually, I switched to center forward this year," Assef said. "You get to score more that way. We're playing the Mekro-Rayan team next week. Should be a good match. They have some good players."

  Baba nodded. "You know, I played center forward too when I was young."

  "I'll bet you still could if you wanted to," Assef said. He favored Baba with a good-natured wink.

  Baba returned the wink. "I see your father has taught you his world-famous flattering ways." He elbowed Assef 's father, almost knocked the little fellow down. Mahmood's laughter was about as convincing as Tanya's smile, and suddenly I wondered if maybe, on some level, their son frightened them. I tried to fake a smile, but all I could manage was a feeble upturning of the corners of my mouth--my stomach was turning at the sight of my father bonding with Assef.

  Assef shifted his eyes to me. "Wali and Kamal are here too. They wouldn't miss your birthday for anything," he said, laughter lurking just beneath the surface. I nodded silently.

  "We're thinking about playing a little game of volleyball tomorrow at my house," Assef said. "Maybe you'll join us. Bring Hassan if you want to."

  "That sounds fun," Baba said, beaming. "What do you think, Amir?"

  "I don't really like volleyball," I muttered. I saw the light wink out of Baba's eyes and an uncomfortable silence followed.

  "Sorry, Assef jan," Baba said, shrugging. That stung, his apologizing for me.

  "Nay, no harm done," Assef said. "But you have an open invitation, Amir jan. Anyway, I heard you like to read so I brought you a book. One of my favorites." He extended a wrapped birthday gift to me. "Happy birthday."

  He was dressed in a cotton shirt and blue slacks, a red silk tie and shiny black loafers. He smelled of cologne and his blond hair was neatly combed back. On the surface, he was the embodiment of every parent's dream, a strong, tall, well-dressed and well-mannered boy with talent and striking looks, not to mention the wit to joke with an adult. But to me, his eyes betrayed him. When I looked into them, the facade faltered, revealed a glimpse of the madness hiding behind them.

  "Aren't you going to take it, Amir?" Baba was saying.

  "Huh?"

  "Your present," he said testily. "Assef jan is giving you a present."

  "Oh," I said. I took the box from Assef and lowered my gaze. I wished I could be alone in my room, with my books, away from these people.

  "Well?" Baba said.

  "What?"

  Baba spoke in a low voice, the one he took on whenever I embarrassed him in public. "Aren't you going to thank Assef jan? That was very considerate of him."

  I wished Baba would stop calling him that. How often did he call me "Amir jan"? "Thanks," I said. Assef 's mother looked at me like she wanted to say something, but she didn't, and I realized that neither of Assef 's parents had said a word. Before I could embarrass myself and Baba anymore--but mostly to get away from Assef and his grin--I stepped away. "Thanks for coming," I said.

  I squirmed my way through the throng of guests and slipped through the wrought-iron gates. Two houses down from our house, there was a large, barren dirt lot. I'd heard Baba tell Rahim Khan that a judge had bought the land and that an architect was working on the design. For now, the lot was bare, save for dirt, stones, and weeds.

  I tore the wrapping paper from Assef 's present and tilted the book cover in the moonlight. It was a biography of Hitler. I threw it amid a tangle of weeds.

  I leaned against the neighbor's wall, slid down to the ground. I just sat in the dark for a while, knees drawn to my chest, looking up at the stars, waiting for the night to be over.

  "Shouldn't you be entertaining your guests?" a familiar voice said. Rahim Khan was walking toward me along the wall.

  "They don't need me for that. Baba's there, remember?" I said. The ice in Rahim Khan's drink clinked when he sat next to me. "I didn't know you drank."

  "Turns out I do," he said. Elbowed me playfully. "But only on the most important occasions."

  I smiled. "Thanks."

  He tipped his drink to me and took a sip. He lit a cigarette, one of the unfiltered Pakistani cigarettes he and Baba were always smoking. "Did I ever tell you I was almost married once?"

  "Really?" I said, smiling a little at the notion of Rahim Khan getting married. I'd always thought of him as Baba's quiet alter ego, my writing mentor, my pal, the one who never forgot to bring me a souvenir, a saughat, when he returned from a trip abroad. But a husband? A father?

  He nodded. "It's true. I was eighteen. Her name was Homaira. She was a Hazara, the daughter of our neighbor's servants. She was as beautiful as a pari, light brown hair, big hazel eyes . . . she had this laugh . . . I can still hear it sometimes." He twirled his glass. "We used to meet secretly in my father's apple orchards, always after midnight when everyone had gone to sleep. We'd walk under the trees and I'd hold her hand . . . Am I embarrassing you, Amir jan?"

  "A little," I said.

  "It won't kill you," he said, taking another puff. "Anyway, we had this fantasy. We'd have a great, fancy wedding and invite family and friends from Kabul to Kandahar. I would build us a big house, white with a tiled patio and large windows. We would plant fruit trees in the garden and grow all sorts of flowers, have a lawn for our kids to play on. On Fridays, after namaz at the mosque, everyone would get together at our house for lunch and we'd eat in the garden, under cherry trees, drink fresh water from the well. Then tea with candy as we watched our kids play with their cousins . . ."

  He took a long gulp of his scotch. Coughed. "You should have seen the look on my father's face when I told him. My mother actually fainted. My sisters splashed her face with water. They fanned her and looked at me as if I had slit her throat. My brother Jalal actually went to fetch his hunting rifle before my father stopped him." Rahim Khan barked a bitter laughter. "It was Homaira and me against the world. And I'll tell you this, Amir jan: In the end, the world always wins. That's just the way of things."

  "So what happened?"

  "That same day, my father put Homaira and her family on a lorry and sent them off to Hazarajat. I never saw her again."

  "I'm sorry," I said.

  "Probably for the best, though," Rahim Khan said, shrugging. "She would have suffered. My family would have never accepted her as an equal. You don't order someone to polish your shoes one day and call them 'sister' the next." He looked at me. "You know, you can tell me anything you want, Amir jan. Anytime."

  "I know," I said uncertainly. He looked at me for a long time, like he was waiting, his black bottomless eyes hinting at an unspoken secret between us. For a moment, I almost did tell him. Almost told him everything, but then what would he think of me? He'd hate me, and rightfully.

  "Here." He handed me something. "I almost forgot. Happy birthday." It was a brown leather-bound notebook. I traced my fingers along the gold-colored stitching on the borders. I smelled the leather. "For your stories," he said. I was going to thank him when something exploded and bursts of fire lit up the sky.

  "Fireworks!"

  We hurried back to
the house and found the guests all standing in the yard, looking up to the sky. Kids hooted and screamed with each crackle and whoosh. People cheered, burst into applause each time flares sizzled and exploded into bouquets of fire. Every few seconds, the backyard lit up in sudden flashes of red, green, and yellow.

  In one of those brief bursts of light, I saw something I'll never for-get: Hassan serving drinks to Assef and Wali from a sliver platter. The light winked out, a hiss and a crackle, then another flicker of orange light: Assef grinning, kneading Hassan in the chest with a knuckle.

  Then, mercifully, darkness.

  NINE

  Sitting in the middle of my room the next morning, I ripped open box after box of presents. I don't know why I even bothered, since I just gave them a joyless glance and pitched them to the corner of the room. The pile was growing there: a Polaroid camera, a transistor radio, an elaborate electric train set--and several sealed envelopes containing cash. I knew I'd never spend the money or listen to the radio, and the electric train would never trundle down its tracks in my room. I didn't want any of it--it was all blood money; Baba would have never thrown me a party like that if I hadn't won the tournament.

  Baba gave me two presents. One was sure to become the envy of every kid in the neighborhood: a brand new Schwinn Stingray, the king of all bicycles. Only a handful of kids in all of Kabul owned a new Stingray and now I was one of them. It had high-rise handlebars with black rubber grips and its famous banana seat. The spokes were gold colored and the steel-frame body red, like a candy apple. Or blood. Any other kid would have hopped on the bike immediately and taken it for a full block skid. I might have done the same a few months ago.

  "You like it?" Baba said, leaning in the doorway to my room. I gave him a sheepish grin and a quick "Thank you." I wished I could have mustered more.

  "We could go for a ride," Baba said. An invitation, but only a halfhearted one.

  "Maybe later. I'm a little tired," I said.

  "Sure," Baba said.

  "Baba?"

  "Yes?"

  "Thanks for the fireworks," I said. A thank-you, but only a halfhearted one.

 
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