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The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner/10
"Get some rest," Baba said, walking toward his room.
The other present Baba gave me--and he didn't wait around for me to open this one--was a wristwatch. It had a blue face with gold hands in the shape of lightning bolts. I didn't even try it on. I tossed it on the pile of toys in the corner. The only gift I didn't toss on that mound was Rahim Khan's leather-bound notebook. That was the only one that didn't feel like blood money.
I sat on the edge of my bed, turned the notebook in my hands, thought about what Rahim Khan had said about Homaira, how his father's dismissing her had been for the best in the end. She would have suffered. Like the times Kaka Homayoun's projector got stuck on the same slide, the same image kept flashing in my mind over and over: Hassan, his head downcast, serving drinks to Assef and Wali. Maybe it would be for the best. Lessen his suffering. And mine too. Either way, this much had become clear: One of us had to go.
Later that afternoon, I took the Schwinn for its first and last spin. I pedaled around the block a couple of times and came back. I rolled up the driveway to the backyard where Hassan and Ali were cleaning up the mess from last night's party. Paper cups, crumpled napkins, and empty bottles of soda littered the yard. Ali was folding chairs, setting them along the wall. He saw me and waved.
"Salaam, Ali," I said, waving back.
He held up a finger, asking me to wait, and walked to his living quarters. A moment later, he emerged with something in his hands. "The opportunity never presented itself last night for Hassan and me to give you this," he said, handing me a box. "It's modest and not worthy of you, Amir agha. But we hope you like it still. Happy birthday."
A lump was rising in my throat. "Thank you, Ali," I said. I wished they hadn't bought me anything. I opened the box and found a brand new Shahnamah, a hardback with glossy colored illustrations beneath the passages. Here was Ferangis gazing at her newborn son, Kai Khosrau. There was Afrasiyab riding his horse, sword drawn, leading his army. And, of course, Rostam inflicting a mortal wound onto his son, the warrior Sohrab. "It's beautiful," I said.
"Hassan said your copy was old and ragged, and that some of the pages were missing," Ali said. "All the pictures are hand-drawn in this one with pen and ink," he added proudly, eyeing a book neither he nor his son could read.
"It's lovely," I said. And it was. And, I suspected, not inexpensive either. I wanted to tell Ali it was not the book, but I who was unworthy. I hopped back on the bicycle. "Thank Hassan for me," I said.
I ended up tossing the book on the heap of gifts in the corner of my room. But my eyes kept going back to it, so I buried it at the bottom. Before I went to bed that night, I asked Baba if he'd seen my new watch anywhere.
THE NEXT MORNING, I waited in my room for Ali to clear the breakfast table in the kitchen. Waited for him to do the dishes, wipe the counters. I looked out my bedroom window and waited until Ali and Hassan went grocery shopping to the bazaar, pushing the empty wheelbarrows in front of them.
Then I took a couple of the envelopes of cash from the pile of gifts and my watch, and tiptoed out. I paused before Baba's study and listened in. He'd been in there all morning, making phone calls. He was talking to someone now, about a shipment of rugs due to arrive next week. I went downstairs, crossed the yard, and entered Ali and Hassan's living quarters by the loquat tree. I lifted Hassan's mattress and planted my new watch and a handful of Afghani bills under it.
I waited another thirty minutes. Then I knocked on Baba's door and told what I hoped would be the last in a long line of shameful lies.
THROUGH MY BEDROOM WINDOW, I watched Ali and Hassan push the wheelbarrows loaded with meat, naan, fruit, and vegetables up the driveway. I saw Baba emerge from the house and walk up to Ali. Their mouths moved over words I couldn't hear. Baba pointed to the house and Ali nodded. They separated. Baba came back to the house; Ali followed Hassan to their hut.
A few moments later, Baba knocked on my door. "Come to my office," he said. "We're all going to sit down and settle this thing."
I went to Baba's study, sat in one of the leather sofas. It was thirty minutes or more before Hassan and Ali joined us.
THEY'D BOTH BEEN CRYING ; I could tell from their red, puffed-up eyes. They stood before Baba, hand in hand, and I wondered how and when I'd become capable of causing this kind of pain.
Baba came right out and asked. "Did you steal that money? Did you steal Amir's watch, Hassan?"
Hassan's reply was a single word, delivered in a thin, raspy voice: "Yes."
I flinched, like I'd been slapped. My heart sank and I almost blurted out the truth. Then I understood: This was Hassan's final sacrifice for me. If he'd said no, Baba would have believed him because we all knew Hassan never lied. And if Baba believed him, then I'd be the accused; I would have to explain and I would be revealed for what I really was. Baba would never, ever forgive me. And that led to another understand-ing: Hassan knew. He knew I'd seen everything in that alley, that I'd stood there and done nothing. He knew I had betrayed him and yet he was rescuing me once again, maybe for the last time. I loved him in that moment, loved him more than I'd ever loved anyone, and I wanted to tell them all that I was the snake in the grass, the monster in the lake. I wasn't worthy of this sacrifice; I was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. And I would have told, except that a part of me was glad. Glad that this would all be over with soon. Baba would dismiss them, there would be some pain, but life would move on. I wanted that, to move on, to forget, to start with a clean slate. I wanted to be able to breathe again.
Except Baba stunned me by saying, "I forgive you."
Forgive? But theft was the one unforgivable sin, the common denominator of all sins. When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. There is no act more wretched than stealing. Hadn't Baba sat me on his lap and said those words to me? Then how could he just forgive Hassan? And if Baba could forgive that, then why couldn't he forgive me for not being the son he'd always wanted? Why--
"We are leaving, Agha sahib," Ali said.
"What?" Baba said, the color draining from his face.
"We can't live here anymore," Ali said.
"But I forgive him, Ali, didn't you hear?" said Baba.
"Life here is impossible for us now, Agha sahib. We're leaving." Ali drew Hassan to him, curled his arm around his son's shoulder. It was a protective gesture and I knew whom Ali was protecting him from. Ali glanced my way and in his cold, unforgiving look, I saw that Hassan had told him. He had told him everything, about what Assef and his friends had done to him, about the kite, about me. Strangely, I was glad that someone knew me for who I really was; I was tired of pretending.
"I don't care about the money or the watch," Baba said, his arms open, palms up. "I don't understand why you're doing this . . . what do you mean 'impossible'?"
"I'm sorry, Agha sahib, but our bags are already packed. We have made our decision."
Baba stood up, a sheen of grief across his face. "Ali, haven't I provided well for you? Haven't I been good to you and Hassan? You're the brother I never had, Ali, you know that. Please don't do this."
"Don't make this even more difficult than it already is, Agha sahib," Ali said. His mouth twitched and, for a moment, I thought I saw a grimace. That was when I understood the depth of the pain I had caused, the blackness of the grief I had brought onto everyone, that not even Ali's paralyzed face could mask his sorrow. I forced myself to look at Hassan, but his head was downcast, his shoulders slumped, his finger twirling a loose string on the hem of his shirt.
Baba was pleading now. "At least tell me why. I need to know!"
Ali didn't tell Baba, just as he didn't protest when Hassan confessed to the stealing. I'll never really know why, but I could imagine the two of them in that dim little hut, weeping, Hassan pleading him not to give me away. But I couldn't imagine the restraint it must have taken Ali to keep that promise.
"Will you drive us to the bus station?"
"I forbid you to do this!" Baba bellowed. "Do you hear me? I forbid you!"
"Respectfully, you can't forbid me anything, Agha sahib," Ali said. "We don't work for you anymore."
"Where will you go?" Baba asked. His voice was breaking.
"To your cousin?"
"Yes. Will you take us to the bus station, Agha sahib?"
Then I saw Baba do something I had never seen him do before: He cried. It scared me a little, seeing a grown man sob. Fathers weren't supposed to cry. "Please," Baba was saying, but Ali had already turned to the door, Hassan trailing him. I'll never forget the way Baba said that, the pain in his plea, the fear.
IN KABUL, it rarely rained in the summer. Blue skies stood tall and far, the sun like a branding iron searing the back of your neck. Creeks where Hassan and I skipped stones all spring turned dry, and rickshaws stirred dust when they sputtered by. People went to mosques for their ten raka'ts of noontime prayer and then retreated to whatever shade they could find to nap in, waiting for the cool of early evening. Summer meant long school days sweating in tightly packed, poorly ventilated classrooms learning to recite ayats from the Koran, struggling with those tongue-twisting, exotic Arabic words. It meant catching flies in your palm while the mullah droned on and a hot breeze brought with it the smell of shit from the outhouse across the schoolyard, churning dust around the lone rickety basketball hoop.
But it rained the afternoon Baba took Ali and Hassan to the bus station. Thunderheads rolled in, painted the sky iron gray. Within minutes, sheets of rain were sweeping in, the steady hiss of falling water swelling in my ears.
Baba had offered to drive them to Bamiyan himself, but Ali refused. Through the blurry, rain-soaked window of my bedroom, I watched Ali haul the lone suitcase carrying all of their belongings to Baba's car idling outside the gates. Hassan lugged his mattress, rolled tightly and tied with a rope, on his back. He'd left all of his toys behind in the empty shack--I discovered them the next day, piled in a corner just like the birthday presents in my room.
Slithering beads of rain sluiced down my window. I saw Baba slam the trunk shut. Already drenched, he walked to the driver's side. Leaned in and said something to Ali in the backseat, perhaps one last-ditch effort to change his mind. They talked that way awhile, Baba getting soaked, stooping, one arm on the roof of the car. But when he straightened, I saw in his slumping shoulders that the life I had known since I'd been born was over. Baba slid in. The headlights came on and cut twin funnels of light in the rain. If this were one of the Hindi movies Hassan and I used to watch, this was the part where I'd run outside, my bare feet splashing rainwater. I'd chase the car, screaming for it to stop. I'd pull Hassan out of the backseat and tell him I was sorry, so sorry, my tears mixing with rainwater. We'd hug in the downpour. But this was no Hindi movie. I was sorry, but I didn't cry and I didn't chase the car. I watched Baba's car pull away from the curb, taking with it the person whose first spoken word had been my name. I caught one final blurry glimpse of Hassan slumped in the backseat before Baba turned left at the street corner where we'd played marbles so many times.
I stepped back and all I saw was rain through windowpanes that looked like melting silver.
A young woman sat across from us. She was dressed in an olive green dress with a black shawl wrapped tightly around her face against the night chill. She burst into prayer every time the truck jerked or stumbled into a pothole, her "Bismillah!" peaking with each of the truck's shudders and jolts. Her husband, a burly man in baggy pants and sky blue turban, cradled an infant in one arm and thumbed prayer beads with his free hand. His lips moved in silent prayer. There were others, in all about a dozen, including Baba and me, sitting with our suitcases between our legs, cramped with these strangers in the tarpaulin-covered cab of an old Russian truck.
My innards had been roiling since we'd left Kabul just after two in the morning. Baba never said so, but I knew he saw my car sickness as yet another of my array of weakness--I saw it on his embarrassed face the couple of times my stomach had clenched so badly I had moaned. When the burly guy with the beads--the praying woman's husband--asked if I was going to get sick, I said I might. Baba looked away. The man lifted his corner of the tarpaulin cover and rapped on the driver's window, asked him to stop. But the driver, Karim, a scrawny dark skinned man with hawk-boned features and a pencil-thin mustache, shook his head.
"We are too close to Kabul," he shot back. "Tell him to have a strong stomach."
Baba grumbled something under his breath. I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but suddenly I was salivating, the back of my throat tasting bile. I turned around, lifted the tarpaulin, and threw up over the side of the moving truck. Behind me, Baba was apologizing to the other passengers. As if car sickness was a crime. As if you weren't supposed to get sick when you were eighteen. I threw up two more times before Karim agreed to stop, mostly so I wouldn't stink up his vehicle, the instrument of his livelihood. Karim was a people smuggler--it was a pretty lucrative business then, driving people out of Shorawi-occupied Kabul to the relative safety of Pakistan. He was taking us to Jalalabad, about 170 kilometers southeast of Kabul, where his brother, Toor, who had a bigger truck with a second convoy of refugees, was waiting to drive us across the Khyber Pass and into Peshawar.
We were a few kilometers west of Mahipar Falls when Karim pulled to the side of the road. Mahipar--which means "Flying Fish"--was a high summit with a precipitous drop overlooking the hydro plant the Germans had built for Afghanistan back in 1967. Baba and I had driven over the summit countless times on our way to Jalalabad, the city of cypress trees and sugarcane fields where Afghans vacationed in the winter.
I hopped down the back of the truck and lurched to the dusty embankment on the side of the road. My mouth filled with saliva, a sign of the retching that was yet to come. I stumbled to the edge of the cliff overlooking the deep valley that was shrouded in darkness. I stooped, hands on my kneecaps, and waited for the bile. Somewhere, a branch snapped, an owl hooted. The wind, soft and cold, clicked through tree branches and stirred the bushes that sprinkled the slope. And from below, the faint sound of water tumbling through the valley.
Standing on the shoulder of the road, I thought of the way we'd left the house where I'd lived my entire life, as if we were going out for a bite: dishes smeared with kofta piled in the kitchen sink; laundry in the wicker basket in the foyer; beds unmade; Baba's business suits hanging in the closet. Tapestries still hung on the walls of the living room and my mother's books still crowded the shelves in Baba's study. The signs of our elopement were subtle: My parents' wedding picture was gone, as was the grainy photograph of my grandfather and King Nader Shah standing over the dead deer. A few items of clothing were missing from the closets. The leather-bound notebook Rahim Khan had given me five years earlier was gone.
In the morning, Jalaluddin--our seventh servant in five years--would probably think we'd gone out for a stroll or a drive. We hadn't told him. You couldn't trust anyone in Kabul anymore--for a fee or under threat, people told on each other, neighbor on neighbor, child on parent, brother on brother, servant on master, friend on friend. I thought of the singer Ahmad Zahir, who had played the accordion at my thirteenth birthday. He had gone for a drive with some friends, and someone had later found his body on the side of the road, a bullet in the back of his head. The rafiqs, the comrades, were everywhere and they'd split Kabul into two groups: those who eavesdropped and those who didn't. The tricky part was that no one knew who belonged to which. A casual remark to the tailor while getting fitted for a suit might land you in the dungeons of Poleh-charkhi. Complain about the curfew to the butcher and next thing you knew, you were behind bars staring at the muzzle end of a Kalashnikov. Even at the dinner table, in the privacy of their home, people had to speak in a calculated manner--the rafiqs were in the classrooms too; they'd taught children to spy on their parents, what to listen for, whom to tell.
What was I doing on this road in the middle of the night? I should have been in bed, under my blanket, a book with dog-eared pages at my side. This had to be a dream. Had to be. Tomorrow morning, I'd wake up, peek out the window: No grim-faced Russian soldiers patrolling the sidewalks, no tanks rolling up and down the streets of my city, their turrets swiveling like accusing fingers, no rubble, no curfews, no Russian Army Personnel Carriers weaving through the bazaars. Then, behind me, I heard Baba and Karim discussing the arrangement in Jalalabad over a smoke. Karim was reassuring Baba that his brother had a big truck of "excellent and first-class quality," and that the trek to Peshawar would be very routine. "He could take you there with his eyes closed," Karim said. I overheard him telling Baba how he and his brother knew the Russian and Afghan soldiers who worked the checkpoints, how they had set up a "mutually profitable" arrangement. This was no dream. As if on cue, a MiG suddenly screamed past overhead. Karim tossed his cigarette and produced a handgun from his waist. Pointing it to the sky and making shooting gestures, he spat and cursed at the MiG.
I wondered where Hassan was. Then the inevitable. I vomited on a tangle of weeds, my retching and groaning drowned in the deafening roar of the MiG.
WE PULLED UP to the checkpoint at Mahipar twenty minutes later. Our driver let the truck idle and hopped down to greet the approaching voices. Feet crushed gravel. Words were exchanged, brief and hushed. A flick of a lighter. "Spasseba."
Another flick of the lighter. Someone laughed, a shrill cackling sound that made me jump. Baba's hand clamped down on my thigh. The laughing man broke into song, a slurring, off-key rendition of an old Afghan wedding song, delivered with a thick Russian accent:
Ahesta boro, Mah-e-man, ahesta boro.
Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.
Boot heels clicked on asphalt. Someone flung open the tarpaulin hanging over the back of the truck, and three faces peered in. One was Karim, the other two were soldiers, one Afghan, the other a grinning Russian, face like a bulldog's, ci