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History & Fiction
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The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner/19
He came back the next morning, looking tired and weary, like he had not slept all night. He took Sanaubar's hand in both of his and told her she could cry if she wanted to but she needn't, she was home now, he said, home with her family. He touched the scars on her face, and ran his hand through her hair.
Hassan and Farzana nursed her back to health. They fed her and washed her clothes. I gave her one of the guest rooms upstairs. Sometimes, I would look out the window into the yard and watch Hassan and his mother kneeling together, picking tomatoes or trimming a rosebush, talking. They were catching up on all the lost years, I suppose. As far as I know, he never asked where she had been or why she had left and she never told. I guess some stories do not need telling.
It was Sanaubar who delivered Hassan's son that winter of 1990. It had not started snowing yet, but the winter winds were blowing through the yards, bending the flowerbeds and rustling the leaves. I remember Sanaubar came out of the hut holding her grandson, had him wrapped in a wool blanket. She stood beaming under a dull gray sky, tears streaming down her cheeks, the needle-cold wind blowing her hair, and clutching that baby in her arms like she never wanted to let go. Not this time. She handed him to Hassan and he handed him to me and I sang the prayer of Ayat-ul-kursi in that little boy's ear.
They named him Sohrab, after Hassan's favorite hero from the Shahnamah, as you know, Amir jan. He was a beautiful little boy, sweet as sugar, and had the same temperament as his father. You should have seen Sanaubar with that baby, Amir jan. He became the center of her existence. She sewed clothes for him, built him toys from scraps of wood, rags, and dried grass. When he caught a fever, she stayed up all night, and fasted for three days. She burned isfand for him on a skillet to cast out nazar, the evil eye. By the time Sohrab was two, he was calling her Sasa. The two of them were inseparable.
She lived to see him turn four, and then, one morning, she just did not wake up. She looked calm, at peace, like she did not mind dying now. We buried her in the cemetery on the hill, the one by the pomegranate tree, and I said a prayer for her too. The loss was hard on Hassan--it always hurts more to have and lose than to not have in the first place. But it was even harder on little Sohrab. He kept walking around the house, looking for Sasa, but you know how children are, they forget so quickly.
By then--that would have been 1995--the Shorawi were defeated and long gone and Kabul belonged to Massoud, Rabbani, and the Mu-jahedin. The infighting between the factions was fierce and no one knew if they would live to see the end of the day. Our ears became accustomed to the whistle of falling shells, to the rumble of gunfire, our eyes familiar with the sight of men digging bodies out of piles of rubble. Kabul in those days, Amir jan, was as close as you could get to that proverbial hell on earth. Allah was kind to us, though. The Wazir Akbar Khan area was not attacked as much, so we did not have it as bad as some of the other neighborhoods.
On those days when the rocket fire eased up a bit and the gunfight-ing was light, Hassan would take Sohrab to the zoo to see Marjan the lion, or to the cinema. Hassan taught him how to shoot the slingshot, and, later, by the time he was eight, Sohrab had become deadly with that thing: He could stand on the terrace and hit a pinecone propped on a pail halfway across the yard. Hassan taught him to read and write--his son was not going to grow up illiterate like he had. I grew very attached to that little boy--I had seen him take his first step, heard him utter his first word. I bought children's books for Sohrab from the bookstore by Cinema Park--they have destroyed that too now--and Sohrab read them as quickly as I could get them to him. He reminded me of you, how you loved to read when you were little, Amir jan. Sometimes, I read to him at night, played riddles with him, taught him card tricks. I miss him terribly.
In the wintertime, Hassan took his son kite running. There were not nearly as many kite tournaments as in the old days--no one felt safe outside for too long--but there were still a few scattered tournaments. Hassan would prop Sohrab on his shoulders and they would go trotting through the streets, running kites, climbing trees where kites had dropped. You remember, Amir jan, what a good kite runner Hassan was? He was still just as good. At the end of winter, Hassan and Sohrab would hang the kites they had run all winter on the walls of the main hallway. They would put them up like paintings.
I told you how we all celebrated in 1996 when the Taliban rolled in and put an end to the daily fighting. I remember coming home that night and finding Hassan in the kitchen, listening to the radio. He had a sober look in his eyes. I asked him what was wrong, and he just shook his head. "God help the Hazaras now, Rahim Khan sahib," he said.
"The war is over, Hassan," I said. "There's going to be peace, Inshallah, and happiness and calm. No more rockets, no more killing, no more funerals!" But he just turned off the radio and asked if he could get me anything before he went to bed.
A few weeks later, the Taliban banned kite fighting. And two years later, in 1998, they massacred the Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Rahim Khan slowly uncrossed his legs and leaned against the bare wall in the wary, deliberate way of a man whose every movement triggers spikes of pain. Outside, a donkey was braying and someone was shouting something in Urdu. The sun was beginning to set, glittering red through the cracks between the ramshackle buildings.
It hit me again, the enormity of what I had done that winter and that following summer. The names rang in my head: Hassan, Sohrab, Ali, Farzana, and Sanaubar. Hearing Rahim Khan speak Ali's name was like finding an old dusty music box that hadn't been opened in years; the melody began to play immediately: Who did you eat today, Babalu? Who did you eat, you slant-eyed Babalu? I tried to conjure Ali's frozen face, to really see his tranquil eyes, but time can be a greedy thing--sometimes it steals all the details for itself.
"Is Hassan still in that house now?" I asked.
Rahim Khan raised the teacup to his parched lips and took a sip. He then fished an envelope from the breast pocket of his vest and handed it to me. "For you."
I tore the sealed envelope. Inside, I found a Polaroid photograph and a folded letter. I stared at the photograph for a full minute.
A tall man dressed in a white turban and a green-striped chapan stood with a little boy in front of a set of wrought-iron gates. Sunlight slanted in from the left, casting a shadow on half of his rotund face. He was squinting and smiling at the camera, showing a pair of missing front teeth. Even in this blurry Polaroid, the man in the chapan exuded a sense of self-assuredness, of ease. It was in the way he stood, his feet slightly apart, his arms comfortably crossed on his chest, his head titled a little toward the sun. Mostly, it was in the way he smiled. Looking at the photo, one might have concluded that this was a man who thought the world had been good to him. Rahim Khan was right: I would have recognized him if I had bumped into him on the street. The little boy stood barefoot, one arm wrapped around the man's thigh, his shaved head resting against his father's hip. He too was grinning and squinting.
I unfolded the letter. It was written in Farsi. No dots were omitted, no crosses forgotten, no words blurred together--the handwriting was almost childlike in its neatness. I began to read:
In the name of Allah the most beneficent, the most merciful, Amir agha, with my deepest respects,
Farzana jan, Sohrab, and I pray that this latest letter finds you in good health and in the light of Allah's good graces. Please offer my warmest thanks to Rahim Khan sahib for carrying it to you. I am hopeful that one day I will hold one of your letters in my hands and read of your life in America. Perhaps a photograph of you will even grace our eyes. I have told much about you to Farzana jan and Sohrab, about us growing up together and playing games and running in the streets. They laugh at the stories of all the mischief you and I used to cause!
Alas the Afghanistan of our youth is long dead. Kindness is gone from the land and you cannot escape the killings. Always the killings. In Kabul, fear is everywhere, in the streets, in the stadium, in the markets, it is a part of our lives here, Amir agha. The savages who rule our watan don't care about human decency. The other day, I accompanied Farzana jan to the bazaar to buy some potatoes and naan. She asked the vendor how much the potatoes cost, but he did not hear her, I think he had a deaf ear. So she asked louder and suddenly a young Talib ran over and hit her on the thighs with his wooden stick. He struck her so hard she fell down. He was screaming at her and cursing and saying the Ministry of Vice and Virtue does not allow women to speak loudly. She had a large purple bruise on her leg for days but what could I do except stand and watch my wife get beaten? If I fought, that dog would have surely put a bullet in me, and gladly! Then what would happen to my Sohrab? The streets are full enough already of hungry orphans and every day I thank Allah that I am alive, not because I fear death, but because my wife has a husband and my son is not an orphan.
I wish you could see Sohrab. He is a good boy. Rahim Khan sahib and I have taught him to read and write so he does not grow up stupid like his father. And can he shoot with that slingshot! I take Sohrab around Kabul sometimes and buy him candy. There is still a monkey man in Shar-e-Nau and if we run into him, I pay him to make his monkey dance for Sohrab. You should see how he laughs! The two of us often walk up to the cemetery on the hill. Do you remember how we used to sit under the pomegranate tree there and read from the Shahnamah? The droughts have dried the hill and the tree hasn't borne fruit in years, but Sohrab and I still sit under its shade and I read to him from the Shahnamah. It is not necessary to tell you that his favorite part is the one with his namesake, Rostam and Sohrab. Soon he will be able to read from the book himself. I am a very proud and very lucky father.
Rahim Khan sahib is quite ill. He coughs all day and I see blood on his sleeve when he wipes his mouth. He has lost much weight and I wish he would eat a little of the shorwa and rice that Farzana jan cooks for him. But he only takes a bite or two and even that I think is out of courtesy to Farzana jan. I am so worried about this dear man I pray for him every day. He is leaving for Pakistan in a few days to consult some doctors there and, Inshallah, he will return with good news. But in my heart I fear for him. Farzana jan and I have told little Sohrab that Rahim Khan sahib is going to be well. What can we do? He is only ten and he adores Rahim Khan sahib. They have grown so close to each other. Rahim Khan sahib used to take him to the bazaar for balloons and biscuits but he is too weak for that now.
I have been dreaming a lot lately, Amir agha. Some of them are nightmares, like hanged corpses rotting in soccer fields with blood-red grass. I wake up from those short of breath and sweaty. Mostly, though, I dream of good things, and praise Allah for that. I dream that Rahim Khan sahib will be well. I dream that my son will grow up to be a good person, a free person, and an important person. I dream that lawla flowers will bloom in the streets of Kabul again and rubab music will play in the samovar houses and kites will fly in the skies. And I dream that someday you will return to Kabul to revisit the land of our childhood. If you do, you will find an old faithful friend waiting for you.
May Allah be with you always.
I read the letter twice. I folded the note and looked at the photograph for another minute. I pocketed both. "How is he?" I asked.
"That letter was written six months ago, a few days before I left for Peshawar," Rahim Khan said. "I took the Polaroid the day before I left. A month after I arrived in Peshawar, I received a telephone call from one of my neighbors in Kabul. He told me this story: Soon after I took my leave, a rumor spread that a Hazara family was living alone in the big house in Wazir Akbar Khan, or so the Taliban claim. A pair of Talib officials came to investigate and interrogated Hassan. They accused him of lying when Hassan told them he was living with me even though many of the neighbors, including the one who called me, supported Hassan's story. The Talibs said he was a liar and a thief like all Hazaras and ordered him to get his family out of the house by sundown. Hassan protested. But my neighbor said the Talibs were looking at the big house like--how did he say it?--yes, like 'wolves looking at a flock of sheep.' They told Hassan they would be moving in to supposedly keep it safe until I return. Hassan protested again. So they took him to the street--"
"No," I breathed.
"--and order him to kneel--"
"No. God, no."
"--and shot him in the back of the head."
"--Farzana came screaming and attacked them--"
"--shot her too. Self-defense, they claimed later--"
But all I could manage was to whisper "No. No. No" over and over again.
I KEPT THINKING OF THAT DAY in 1974, in the hospital room, just after Hassan's harelip surgery. Baba, Rahim Khan, Ali, and I had huddled around Hassan's bed, watched him examine his new lip in a handheld mirror. Now everyone in that room was either dead or dying. Except for me.
Then I saw something else: a man dressed in a herringbone vest pressing the muzzle of his Kalashnikov to the back of Hassan's head. The blast echoes through the street of my father's house. Hassan slumps to the asphalt, his life of unrequited loyalty drifting from him like the windblown kites he used to chase.
"The Taliban moved into the house," Rahim Khan said. "The pretext was that they had evicted a trespasser. Hassan's and Farzana's murders were dismissed as a case of self-defense. No one said a word about it. Most of it was fear of the Taliban, I think. But no one was going to risk anything for a pair of Hazara servants."
"What did they do with Sohrab?" I asked. I felt tired, drained. A coughing fit gripped Rahim Khan and went on for a long time. When he finally looked up, his face was flushed and his eyes bloodshot. "I heard he's in an orphanage somewhere in Karteh-Seh. Amir jan--" then he was coughing again. When he stopped, he looked older than a few moments before, like he was aging with each coughing fit. "Amir jan, I summoned you here because I wanted to see you before I die, but that's not all."
I said nothing. I think I already knew what he was going to say.
"I want you to go to Kabul. I want you to bring Sohrab here," he said.
I struggled to find the right words. I'd barely had time to deal with the fact that Hassan was dead.
"Please hear me. I know an American pair here in Peshawar, a husband and wife named Thomas and Betty Caldwell. They are Christians and they run a small charity organization that they manage with private donations. Mostly they house and feed Afghan children who have lost their parents. I have seen the place. It's clean and safe, the children are well cared for, and Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell are kind people. They have already told me that Sohrab would be welcome to their home and--"
"Rahim Khan, you can't be serious."
"Children are fragile, Amir jan. Kabul is already full of broken children and I don't want Sohrab to become another."
"Rahim Khan, I don't want to go to Kabul. I can't!" I said.
"Sohrab is a gifted little boy. We can give him a new life here, new hope, with people who would love him. Thomas agha is a good man and Betty khanum is so kind, you should see how she treats those orphans."
"Why me? Why can't you pay someone here to go? I'll pay for it if it's a matter of money."
"It isn't about money, Amir!" Rahim Khan roared. "I'm a dying man and I will not be insulted! It has never been about money with me, you know that. And why you? I think we both know why it has to be you, don't we?"
I didn't want to understand that comment, but I did. I understood it all too well. "I have a wife in America, a home, a career, and a family. Kabul is a dangerous place, you know that, and you'd have me risk everything for . . ." I stopped.
"You know," Rahim Khan said, "one time, when you weren't around, your father and I were talking. And you know how he always worried about you in those days. I remember he said to me, 'Rahim, a boy who won't stand up for himself becomes a man who can't stand up to anything.' I wonder, is that what you've become?"
I dropped my eyes.
"What I'm asking from you is to grant an old man his dying wish," he said gravely.
He had gambled with that comment. Played his best card. Or so I thought then. His words hung in limbo between us, but at least he'd known what to say. I was still searching for the right words, and I was the writer in the room. Finally, I settled for this: "Maybe Baba was right."
"I'm sorry you think that, Amir."
I couldn't look at him. "And you don't?"
"If I did, I would not have asked you to come here."
I toyed with my wedding ring. "You've always thought too highly of me, Rahim Khan."
"And you've always been far too hard on yourself." He hesitated. "But there's something else. Something you don't know."
"Please, Rahim Khan--"
"Sanaubar wasn't Ali's first wife."
Now I looked up.
"He was married once before, to a Hazara woman from the Jaghori area. This was long before you were born. They were married for three years."
"What does this have to do with anything?"
"She left him childless after three years and married a man in Khost. She bore him three daughters. That's what I am trying to tell you."
I began to see where he was going. But I didn't want to hear the rest of it. I had a good life in California, pretty Victorian home with a peaked roof, a good marriage, a promising writing career, in-laws who loved me. I didn't need any of this shit.
"Ali was sterile," Rahim Khan said.
"No he wasn't. He and Sanaubar had Hassan, didn't they? They had Hassan--"
"No they didn't," Rahim Khan said.
"Yes they did!"
"No they didn't, Amir."
"I think you know who."
I felt like a man sliding down a steep cliff, clutching at shrubs and tangles of brambles and coming up empty-handed. The room was swooping up and down, swaying side to side. "Did Hassan know?" I said through lips that didn't feel like my own. Rahim Khan closed his eyes. Shook his head.
"You bastards," I muttered. Stood up. "You goddamn bastards!" I screamed. "All of you, you bunch of lying goddamn bastards!"
"Please sit down," Rahim Khan