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The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner/24
ran to the south-end goalposts where the Talib in the sunglasses was chatting with the plump cleric who'd given the sermon. The three spoke. I saw the guy in the sunglasses look up. He nodded. Said something in the messenger's ear. The young man relayed the message back to us.
It was set, then. Three o'clock.
Farid eased the Land Cruiser up the driveway of a big house in Wazir Akbar Khan. He parked in the shadows of willow trees that spilled over the walls of the compound located on Street 15, Sarak-e-Mehmana, Street of the Guests. He killed the engine and we sat for a minute, listening to the tink-tink of the engine cooling off, neither one of us saying anything. Farid shifted on his seat and toyed with the keys still hanging from the ignition switch. I could tell he was readying himself to tell me something.
"I guess I'll wait in the car for you," he said finally, his tone a little apologetic. He wouldn't look at me. "This is your business now. I--"
I patted his arm. "You've done much more than I've paid you for. I don't expect you to go with me." But I wished I didn't have to go in alone. Despite what I had learned about Baba, I wished he were standing alongside me now. Baba would have busted through the front doors and demanded to be taken to the man in charge, piss on the beard of anyone who stood in his way. But Baba was long dead, buried in the Afghan section of a little cemetery in Hayward. Just last month, Soraya and I had placed a bouquet of daisies and freesias beside his headstone. I was on my own.
I stepped out of the car and walked to the tall, wooden front gates of the house. I rang the bell but no buzz came--still no electricity--and I had to pound on the doors. A moment later, I heard terse voices from the other side and a pair of men toting Kalashnikovs answered the door.
I glanced at Farid sitting in the car and mouthed, I'll be back, not so sure at all that I would be.
The armed men frisked me head to toe, patted my legs, felt my crotch. One of them said something in Pashtu and they both chuckled. We stepped through the front gates. The two guards escorted me across a well-manicured lawn, past a row of geraniums and stubby bushes lined along the wall. An old hand-pump water well stood at the far end of the yard. I remembered how Kaka Homayoun's house in Jalalabad had had a water well like that--the twins, Fazila and Karima, and I used to drop pebbles in it, listen for the plink.
We climbed a few steps and entered a large, sparsely decorated house. We crossed the foyer--a large Afghan flag draped one of the walls--and the men took me upstairs to a room with twin mint green sofas and a big-screen TV in the far corner. A prayer rug showing a slightly oblong Mecca was nailed to one of the walls. The older of the two men motioned toward the sofa with the barrel of his weapon. I sat down. They left the room.
I crossed my legs. Uncrossed them. Sat with my sweaty hands on my knees. Did that make me look nervous? I clasped them together, decided that was worse and just crossed my arms on my chest. Blood thudded in my temples. I felt utterly alone. Thoughts were flying around in my head, but I didn't want to think at all, because a sober part of me knew that what I had managed to get myself into was insanity. I was thousands of miles from my wife, sitting in a room that felt like a holding cell, waiting for a man I had seen murder two people that same day. It was insanity. Worse yet, it was irresponsible. There was a very realistic chance that I was going to render Soraya a biwa, a widow, at the age of thirty-six. This isn't you, Amir, part of me said. You're gutless. It's how you were made. And that's not such a bad thing because your saving grace is that you've never lied to yourself about it. Not about that. Nothing wrong with cowardice as long as it comes with prudence. But when a coward stops remembering who he is . . . God help him.
There was a coffee table by the sofa. The base was X-shaped, walnut-sized brass balls studding the ring where the metallic legs crossed. I'd seen a table like that before. Where? And then it came to me: at the crowded tea shop in Peshawar, that night I'd gone for a walk. On the table sat a bowl of red grapes. I plucked one and tossed it in my mouth. I had to preoccupy myself with something, anything, to silence the voice in my head. The grape was sweet. I popped another one in, unaware that it would be the last bit of solid food I would eat for a long time.
The door opened and the two armed men returned, between them the tall Talib in white, still wearing his dark John Lennon glasses, looking like some broad-shouldered, New Age mystic guru.
He took a seat across from me and lowered his hands on the armrests. For a long time, he said nothing. Just sat there, watching me, one hand drumming the upholstery, the other twirling turquoise blue prayer beads. He wore a black vest over the white shirt now, and a gold watch. I saw a splotch of dried blood on his left sleeve. I found it morbidly fascinating that he hadn't changed clothes after the executions earlier that day.
Periodically, his free hand floated up and his thick fingers batted at something in the air. They made slow stroking motions, up and down, side to side, as if he were caressing an invisible pet. One of his sleeves retracted and I saw marks on his forearm--I'd seen those same tracks on homeless people living in grimy alleys in San Francisco.
His skin was much paler than the other two men's, almost sallow, and a crop of tiny sweat beads gleamed on his forehead just below the edge of his black turban. His beard, chest-length like the others, was lighter in color too.
"Salaam alaykum," he said.
"You can do away with that now, you know," he said.
He turned his palm to one of the armed men and motioned. Rrrriiiip.Suddenly my cheeks were stinging and the guard was tossing my beard up and down in his hand, giggling. The Talib grinned. "One of the better ones I've seen in a while. But it really is so much better this way, I think. Don't you?" He twirled his fingers, snapped them, fist opening and closing. "So, Inshallah, you enjoyed the show today?"
"Was that what it was?" I said, rubbing my cheeks, hoping my voice didn't betray the explosion of terror I felt inside.
"Public justice is the greatest kind of show, my brother. Drama. Suspense. And, best of all, education en masse." He snapped his fingers. he younger of the two guards lit him a cigarette. The Talib laughed. Mumbled to himself. His hands were shaking and he almost dropped the cigarette. "But you want a real show, you should have been with me in Mazar. August 1998, that was."
"We left them out for the dogs, you know."
I saw what he was getting at.
He stood up, paced around the sofa once, twice. Sat down again. He spoke rapidly. "Door to door we went, calling for the men and the boys. We'd shoot them right there in front of their families. Let them see. Let them remember who they were, where they belonged." He was almost panting now. "Sometimes, we broke down their doors and went inside their homes. And . . . I'd . . . I'd sweep the barrel of my machine gun around the room and fire and fire until the smoke blinded me." He leaned toward me, like a man about to share a great secret. "You don't know the meaning of the word 'liberating' until you've done that, stood in a roomful of targets, let the bullets fly, free of guilt and remorse, knowing you are virtuous, good, and decent. Knowing you're doing God's work. It's breathtaking." He kissed the prayer beads, tilted his head. "You remember that, Javid?"
"Yes, Agha sahib," the younger of the guards replied. "How could I forget?"
I had read about the Hazara massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif in the papers. It had happened just after the Taliban took over Mazar, one of the last cities to fall. I remembered Soraya handing me the article over breakfast, her face bloodless.
"Door-to-door. We only rested for food and prayer," the Talib said. He said it fondly, like a man telling of a great party he'd attended. "We left the bodies in the streets, and if their families tried to sneak out to drag them back into their homes, we'd shoot them too. We left them in the streets for days. We left them for the dogs. Dog meat for dogs." He crushed his cigarette. Rubbed his eyes with tremulous hands. "You come from America?"
"How is that whore these days?"
I had a sudden urge to urinate. I prayed it would pass. "I'm looking for a boy."
"Isn't everyone?" he said. The men with the Kalashnikovs laughed. Their teeth were stained green with naswar.
"I understand he is here, with you," I said. "His name is Sohrab."
"I'll ask you something: What are you doing with that whore? Why aren't you here, with your Muslim brothers, serving your country?"
"I've been away a long time," was all I could think of saying. My head felt so hot. I pressed my knees together, held my bladder. The Talib turned to the two men standing by the door. "That's an answer?" he asked them.
"Nay, Agha sahib," they said in unison, smiling.
He turned his eyes to me. Shrugged. "Not an answer, they say." He took a drag of his cigarette. "There are those in my circle who believe that abandoning watan when it needs you the most is the same as treason. I could have you arrested for treason, have you shot for it even. Does that frighten you?"
"I'm only here for the boy."
"Does that frighten you?"
"It should," he said. He leaned back in the sofa. Crushed the cigarette.
I thought about Soraya. It calmed me. I thought of her sickle-shaped birthmark, the elegant curve of her neck, her luminous eyes. I thought of our wedding night, gazing at each other's reflection in the mirror under the green veil, and how her cheeks blushed when I whispered that I loved her. I remembered the two of us dancing to an old Afghan song, round and round, everyone watching and clapping, the world a blur of flowers, dresses, tuxedos, and smiling faces.
The Talib was saying something.
"I said would you like to see him? Would you like to see my boy?" His upper lip curled up in a sneer when he said those last two words.
The guard left the room. I heard the creak of a door swinging open. Heard the guard say something in Pashtu, in a hard voice. Then, footfalls, and the jingle of bells with each step. It reminded me of the Monkey Man Hassan and I used to chase down in Shar-e-Nau. We used to pay him a rupia of our allowance for a dance. The bell around his monkey's neck had made that same jingling sound.
Then the door opened and the guard walked in. He carried a stereo--a boom box--on his shoulder. Behind him, a boy dressed in a loose, sapphire blue pirhan-tumban followed.
The resemblance was breathtaking. Disorienting. Rahim Khan's Polaroid hadn't done justice to it.
The boy had his father's round moon face, his pointy stub of a chin, his twisted, seashell ears, and the same slight frame. It was the Chinese doll face of my childhood, the face peering above fanned-out playing cards all those winter days, the face behind the mosquito net when we slept on the roof of my father's house in the summer. His head was shaved, his eyes darkened with mascara, and his cheeks glowed with an unnatural red. When he stopped in the middle of the room, the bells strapped around his anklets stopped jingling.
His eyes fell on me. Lingered. Then he looked away. Looked down at his naked feet.
One of the guards pressed a button and Pashtu music filled the room. Tabla, harmonium, the whine of a dil-roba. I guessed music wasn't sinful as long as it played to Taliban ears. The three men began to clap.
"Wah wah! Mashallah!" they cheered.
Sohrab raised his arms and turned slowly. He stood on tiptoes, spun gracefully, dipped to his knees, straightened, and spun again. His little hands swiveled at the wrists, his fingers snapped, and his head swung side to side like a pendulum. His feet pounded the floor, the bells jingling in perfect harmony with the beat of the tabla. He kept his eyes closed.
"Mashallah!" they cheered. "Shahbas! Bravo!" The two guards whistled and laughed. The Talib in white was tilting his head back and forth with the music, his mouth half-open in a leer.
Sohrab danced in a circle, eyes closed, danced until the music stopped. The bells jingled one final time when he stomped his foot with the song's last note. He froze in midspin.
"Bia, bia, my boy," the Talib said, calling Sohrab to him. Sohrab went to him, head down, stood between his thighs. The Talib wrapped his arms around the boy. "How talented he is, nay, my Hazara boy!" he said. His hands slid down the child's back, then up, felt under his armpits. One of the guards elbowed the other and snickered. The Talib told them to leave us alone.
"Yes, Agha sahib," they said as they exited.
The Talib spun the boy around so he faced me. He locked his arms around Sohrab's belly, rested his chin on the boy's shoulder. Sohrab looked down at his feet, but kept stealing shy, furtive glances at me. The man's hand slid up and down the boy's belly. Up and down, slowly, gently.
"I've been wondering," the Talib said, his bloodshot eyes peering at me over Sohrab's shoulder. "Whatever happened to old Babalu, anyway?"
The question hit me like a hammer between the eyes. I felt the color drain from my face. My legs went cold. Numb.
He laughed. "What did you think? That you'd put on a fake beard and I wouldn't recognize you? Here's something I'll bet you never knew about me: I never forget a face. Not ever." He brushed his lips against Sohrab's ear, kept his eye on me. "I heard your father died. Tsk-tsk. I always did want to take him on. Looks like I'll have to settle for his weakling of a son." Then he took off his sunglasses and locked his bloodshot blue eyes on mine.
I tried to take a breath and couldn't. I tried to blink and couldn't.
The moment felt surreal--no, not surreal, absurd--it had knocked the breath out of me, brought the world around me to a standstill. My face was burning. What was the old saying about the bad penny? My past was like that, always turning up. His name rose from the deep and I didn't want to say it, as if uttering it might conjure him. But he was already here, in the flesh, sitting less than ten feet from me, after all these years. His name escaped my lips: "Assef."
"What are you doing here?" I said, knowing how utterly foolish the question sounded, yet unable to think of anything else to say.
"Me?" Assef arched an eyebrow. "I'm in my element. The question is what are you doing here?"
"I already told you," I said. My voice was trembling. I wished it wouldn't do that, wished my flesh wasn't shrinking against my bones.
"I'll pay you for him," I said. "I can have money wired."
"Money?" Assef said. He tittered. "Have you ever heard of Rocking-ham? Western Australia, a slice of heaven. You should see it, miles and miles of beach. Green water, blue skies. My parents live there, in a beachfront villa. There's a golf course behind the villa and a little lake. Father plays golf every day. Mother, she prefers tennis--Father says she has a wicked backhand. They own an Afghan restaurant and two jewelry stores; both businesses are doing spectacularly." He plucked a red grape. Put it, lovingly, in Sohrab's mouth. "So if I need money, I'll have them wire it to me." He kissed the side of Sohrab's neck. The boy flinched a little, closed his eyes again. "Besides, I didn't fight the Shorawi for money. Didn't join the Taliban for money either. Do you want to know why I joined them?"
My lips had gone dry. I licked them and found my tongue had dried too.
"Are you thirsty?" Assef said, smirking.
"I think you're thirsty."
"I'm fine," I said. The truth was, the room felt too hot suddenly--sweat was bursting from my pores, prickling my skin. And was this really happening? Was I really sitting across from Assef?
"As you wish," he said. "Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, how I joined the Taliban. Well, as you may remember, I wasn't much of a religious type. But one day I had an epiphany. I had it in jail. Do you want to hear?"
I said nothing.
"Good. I'll tell you," he said. "I spent some time in jail, at Poleh-Charkhi, just after Babrak Karmal took over in 1980. I ended up there one night, when a group of Parchami soldiers marched into our house and ordered my father and me at gunpoint to follow them. The bastards didn't give a reason, and they wouldn't answer my mother's questions. Not that it was a mystery; everyone knew the communists had no class. They came from poor families with no name. The same dogs who weren't fit to lick my shoes before the Shorawi came were now ordering me at gunpoint, Parchami flag on their lapels, making their little point about the fall of the bourgeoisie and acting like they were the ones with class. It was happening all over: Round up the rich, throw them in jail, make an example for the comrades.
"Anyway, we were crammed in groups of six in these tiny cells each the size of a refrigerator. Every night the commandant, a half-Hazara, half-Uzbek thing who smelled like a rotting donkey, would have one of the prisoners dragged out of the cell and he'd beat him until sweat poured from his fat face. Then he'd light a cigarette, crack his joints, and leave. The next night, he'd pick someone else. One night, he picked me. It couldn't have come at a worse time. I'd been peeing blood for three days. Kidney stones. And if you've never had one, believe me when I say it's the worst imaginable pain. My mother used to get them too, and I remember she told me once she'd rather give birth than pass a kidney stone. Anyway, what could I do? They dragged me out and he started kicking me. He had knee-high boots with steel toes that he wore every night for his little kicking game, and he used them on me. I was screaming and screaming and he kept kicking me and then, suddenly, he kicked me on the left kidney and the stone passed. Just like that! Oh, the relief!" Assef laughed. "And I yelled 'Allah-u—akbar' and he kicked me even harder and I started laughing. He got mad and hit me harder, and the harder he kicked me, the harder I laughed. They threw me back in the cell laughing. I kept laughing and laughing because suddenly I knew that had been a message from God: He was on my side. He wanted me to live for a reason.
"You know, I ran into that commandant on the battlefield a few years later--funny how God works. I found him in a trench just outside Meymanah, bleeding from a piece of shrapnel in his chest. He was still wearing those same boots. I asked him if he remembered me. He said no. I told him the same thing I just told you, that I never forget a face. Then I shot him in the balls. I've been on a mission since."
"What mission is that?" I heard mys