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History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
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Mystery & Detective
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The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner/8
ked swinging doors. I stood there panting, sweating, wishing things had turned out some other way.
About fifteen minutes later, I heard voices and running footfalls. I crouched behind the cubicle and watched Assef and the other two sprinting by, laughing as they hurried down the deserted lane. I forced myself to wait ten more minutes. Then I walked back to the rutted track that ran along the snow-filled ravine. I squinted in the dimming light and spotted Hassan walking slowly toward me. I met him by a leafless birch tree on the edge of the ravine.
He had the blue kite in his hands; that was the first thing I saw. And I can't lie now and say my eyes didn't scan it for any rips. His chapan had mud smudges down the front and his shirt was ripped just below the collar. He stopped. Swayed on his feet like he was going to collapse. Then he steadied himself. Handed me the kite.
"Where were you? I looked for you," I said. Speaking those words was like chewing on a rock.
Hassan dragged a sleeve across his face, wiped snot and tears. I waited for him to say something, but we just stood there in silence, in the fading light. I was grateful for the early-evening shadows that fell on Hassan's face and concealed mine. I was glad I didn't have to return his gaze. Did he know I knew? And if he knew, then what would I see if I did look in his eyes? Blame? Indignation? Or, God forbid, what I feared most: guileless devotion? That, most of all, I couldn't bear to see.
He began to say something and his voice cracked. He closed his mouth, opened it, and closed it again. Took a step back. Wiped his face. And that was as close as Hassan and I ever came to discussing what had happened in the alley. I thought he might burst into tears, but, to my relief, he didn't, and I pretended I hadn't heard the crack in his voice. Just like I pretended I hadn't seen the dark stain in the seat of his pants. Or those tiny drops that fell from between his legs and stained the snow black.
"Agha sahib will worry," was all he said. He turned from me and limped away.
IT HAPPENED JUST THE WAY I'd imagined. I opened the door to the smoky study and stepped in. Baba and Rahim Khan were drinking tea and listening to the news crackling on the radio. Their heads turned. Then a smile played on my father's lips. He opened his arms. I put the kite down and walked into his thick hairy arms. I buried my face in the warmth of his chest and wept. Baba held me close to him, rocking me back and forth. In his arms, I forgot what I'd done. And that was good.
For a week, I barely saw Hassan. I woke up to find toasted bread, brewed tea, and a boiled egg already on the kitchen table. My clothes for the day were ironed and folded, left on the cane-seat chair in the foyer where Hassan usually did his ironing. He used to wait for me to sit at the breakfast table before he started ironing--that way, we could talk. Used to sing too, over the hissing of the iron, sang old Hazara songs about tulip fields. Now only the folded clothes greeted me. That, and a breakfast I hardly finished anymore.
One overcast morning, as I was pushing the boiled egg around on my plate, Ali walked in cradling a pile of chopped wood. I asked him where Hassan was.
"He went back to sleep," Ali said, kneeling before the stove. He pulled the little square door open.
Would Hassan be able to play today?
Ali paused with a log in his hand. A worried look crossed his face. "Lately, it seems all he wants to do is sleep. He does his chores--I see to that--but then he just wants to crawl under his blanket. Can I ask you something?"
"If you have to."
"After that kite tournament, he came home a little bloodied and his shirt was torn. I asked him what had happened and he said it was nothing, that he'd gotten into a little scuffle with some kids over the kite."
I didn't say anything. Just kept pushing the egg around on my plate.
"Did something happen to him, Amir agha? Something he's not telling me?"
I shrugged. "How should I know?"
"You would tell me, nay? Inshallah, you would tell me if something had happened?"
"Like I said, how should I know what's wrong with him?" I snapped. "Maybe he's sick. People get sick all the time, Ali. Now, am I going to freeze to death or are you planning on lighting the stove today?"
THAT NIGHT I asked Baba if we could go to Jalalabad on Friday. He was rocking on the leather swivel chair behind his desk, reading a newspaper. He put it down, took off the reading glasses I disliked so much--Baba wasn't old, not at all, and he had lots of years left to live, so why did he have to wear those stupid glasses?
"Why not!" he said. Lately, Baba agreed to everything I asked. Not only that, just two nights before, he'd asked me if I wanted to see El Cid with Charlton Heston at Cinema Aryana. "Do you want to ask Hassan to come along to Jalalabad?"
Why did Baba have to spoil it like that? "He's mareez," I said. Not feeling well.
"Really?" Baba stopped rocking in his chair. "What's wrong with him?"
I gave a shrug and sank in the sofa by the fireplace. "He's got a cold or something. Ali says he's sleeping it off."
"I haven't seen much of Hassan the last few days," Baba said. "That's all it is, then, a cold?" I couldn't help hating the way his brow furrowed with worry.
"Just a cold. So are we going Friday, Baba?"
"Yes, yes," Baba said, pushing away from the desk. "Too bad about Hassan. I thought you might have had more fun if he came."
"Well, the two of us can have fun together," I said. Baba smiled.
Winked. "Dress warm," he said.
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN just the two of us--that was the way I wanted it--but by Wednesday night, Baba had managed to invite another two dozen people. He called his cousin Homayoun--he was actually Baba's second cousin--and mentioned he was going to Jalalabad on Friday, and Homayoun, who had studied engineering in France and had a house in Jalalabad, said he'd love to have everyone over, he'd bring the kids, his two wives, and, while he was at it, cousin Shafiqa and her family were visiting from Herat, maybe she'd like to tag along, and since she was staying with cousin Nader in Kabul, his family would have to be invited as well even though Homayoun and Nader had a bit of a feud going, and if Nader was invited, surely his brother Faruq had to be asked too or his feelings would be hurt and he might not invite them to his daughter's wedding next month and . . .
We filled three vans. I rode with Baba, Rahim Khan, Kaka Homayoun--Baba had taught me at a young age to call any older male Kaka, or Uncle, and any older female, Khala, or Aunt. Kaka Homayoun's two wives rode with us too--the pinch-faced older one with the warts on her hands and the younger one who always smelled of perfume and danced with her eyes close--as did Kaka Homayoun's twin girls. I sat in the back row, carsick and dizzy, sandwiched between the seven-year-old twins who kept reaching over my lap to slap at each other. The road to Jalalabad is a two-hour trek through mountain roads winding along a steep drop, and my stomach lurched with each hairpin turn. Everyone in the van was talking, talking loudly and at the same time, nearly shrieking, which is how Afghans talk. I asked one of the twins--Fazila or Karima, I could never tell which was which--if she'd trade her window seat with me so I could get fresh air on account of my car sickness. She stuck her tongue out and said no. I told her that was fine, but I couldn't be held accountable for vomiting on her new dress. A minute later, I was leaning out the window. I watched the cratered road rise and fall, whirl its tail around the mountainside, counted the multicolored trucks packed with squatting men lumbering past. I tried closing my eyes, letting the wind slap at my cheeks, opened my mouth to swallow the clean air. I still didn't feel better. A finger poked me in the side. It was Fazila/Karima.
"What?" I said.
"I was just telling everyone about the tournament," Baba said from behind the wheel. Kaka Homayoun and his wives were smiling at me from the middle row of seats.
"There must have been a hundred kites in the sky that day?" Baba said. "Is that about right, Amir?"
"I guess so," I mumbled.
"A hundred kites, Homayoun jan. No laaf. And the only one still flying at the end of the day was Amir's. He has the last kite at home, a beautiful blue kite. Hassan and Amir ran it together."
"Congratulations," Kaka Homayoun said. His first wife, the one with the warts, clapped her hands. "Wah wah, Amir jan, we're all so proud of you!" she said. The younger wife joined in. Then they were all clapping, yelping their praises, telling me how proud I'd made them all. Only Rahim Khan, sitting in the passenger seat next to Baba, was silent. He was looking at me in an odd way.
"Please pull over, Baba," I said.
"Getting sick," I muttered, leaning across the seat, pressing against Kaka Homayoun's daughters.
Fazila/Karima's face twisted. "Pull over, Kaka! His face is yellow! I don't want him throwing up on my new dress!" she squealed.
Baba began to pull over, but I didn't make it. A few minutes later, I was sitting on a rock on the side of the road as they aired out the van. Baba was smoking with Kaka Homayoun who was telling Fazila/Karima to stop crying; he'd buy her another dress in Jalalabad. I closed my eyes, turned my face to the sun. Little shapes formed behind my eyelids, like hands playing shadows on the wall. They twisted, merged, formed a single image: Hassan's brown corduroy pants discarded on a pile of old bricks in the alley.
KAKA HOMAYOUN'S WHITE, two-story house in Jalalabad had a balcony overlooking a large, walled garden with apple and persimmon trees. There were hedges that, in the summer, the gardener shaped like animals, and a swimming pool with emerald-colored tiles. I sat on the edge of the pool, empty save for a layer of slushy snow at the bottom, feet dangling in. Kaka Homayoun's kids were playing hide-and-seek at the other end of the yard. The women were cooking and I could smell onions frying already, could hear the phht-phht of a pressure cooker, music, laughter. Baba, Rahim Khan, Kaka Homayoun, and Kaka Nader were sitting on the balcony, smoking. Kaka Homayoun was telling them he'd brought the projector along to show his slides of France. Ten years since he'd returned from Paris and he was still showing those stupid slides.
It shouldn't have felt this way. Baba and I were finally friends. We'd gone to the zoo a few days before, seen Marjan the lion, and I had hurled a pebble at the bear when no one was watching. We'd gone to Dadkhoda's Kabob House afterward, across from Cinema Park, had lamb kabob with freshly baked naan from the tandoor. Baba told me stories of his travels to India and Russia, the people he had met, like the armless, legless couple in Bombay who'd been married forty-seven years and raised eleven children. That should have been fun, spending a day like that with Baba, hearing his stories. I finally had what I'd wanted all those years. Except now that I had it, I felt as empty as this unkempt pool I was dangling my legs into.
The wives and daughters served dinner--rice, kofta, and chicken qurma--at sundown. We dined the traditional way, sitting on cushions around the room, tablecloth spread on the floor, eating with our hands in groups of four or five from common platters. I wasn't hungry but sat down to eat anyway with Baba, Kaka Faruq, and Kaka Homayoun's two boys. Baba, who'd had a few scotches before dinner, was still ranting about the kite tournament, how I'd outlasted them all, how I'd come home with the last kite. His booming voice dominated the room. People raised their heads from their platters, called out their congratulations. Kaka Faruq patted my back with his clean hand. I felt like sticking a knife in my eye.
Later, well past midnight, after a few hours of poker between Baba and his cousins, the men lay down to sleep on parallel mattresses in the same room where we'd dined. The women went upstairs. An hour later, I still couldn't sleep. I kept tossing and turning as my relatives grunted, sighed, and snored in their sleep. I sat up. A wedge of moonlight streamed in through the window.
"I watched Hassan get raped," I said to no one. Baba stirred in his sleep. Kaka Homayoun grunted. A part of me was hoping someone would wake up and hear, so I wouldn't have to live with this lie anymore. But no one woke up and in the silence that followed, I understood the nature of my new curse: I was going to get away with it.
I thought about Hassan's dream, the one about us swimming in the lake. There is no monster, he'd said, just water. Except he'd been wrong about that. There was a monster in the lake. It had grabbed Hassan by the ankles, dragged him to the murky bottom. I was that monster.
That was the night I became an insomniac.
I DIDN 'T SPEAK TO HASSAN until the middle of the next week. I had just half-eaten my lunch and Hassan was doing the dishes. I was walking upstairs, going to my room, when Hassan asked if I wanted to hike up the hill. I said I was tired. Hassan looked tired too--he'd lost weight and gray circles had formed under his puffed-up eyes. But when he asked again, I reluctantly agreed.
We trekked up the hill, our boots squishing in the muddy snow. Neither one of us said anything. We sat under our pomegranate tree and I knew I'd made a mistake. I shouldn't have come up the hill. The words I'd carved on the tree trunk with Ali's kitchen knife, Amir and Hassan: The Sultans of Kabul . . . I couldn't stand looking at them now.
He asked me to read to him from the Shahnamah and I told him I'd changed my mind. Told him I just wanted to go back to my room. He looked away and shrugged. We walked back down the way we'd gone up: in silence. And for the first time in my life, I couldn't wait for spring.
MY MEMORY OF THE REST of that winter of 1975 is pretty hazy. I remember I was fairly happy when Baba was home. We'd eat together, go to see a film, visit Kaka Homayoun or Kaka Faruq. Sometimes Rahim Khan came over and Baba let me sit in his study and sip tea with them. He'd even have me read him some of my stories. It was good and I even believed it would last. And Baba believed it too, I think. We both should have known better. For at least a few months after the kite tournament, Baba and I immersed ourselves in a sweet illusion, saw each other in a way that we never had before. We'd actually deceived ourselves into thinking that a toy made of tissue paper, glue, and bamboo could somehow close the chasm between us.
But when Baba was out--and he was out a lot--I closed myself in my room. I read a book every couple of days, wrote stories, learned to draw horses. I'd hear Hassan shuffling around the kitchen in the morning, hear the clinking of silverware, the whistle of the teapot. I'd wait to hear the door shut and only then I would walk down to eat. On my calendar, I circled the date of the first day of school and began a countdown.
To my dismay, Hassan kept trying to rekindle things between us. I remember the last time. I was in my room, reading an abbreviated Farsi translation of Ivanhoe, when he knocked on my door.
"What is it?"
"I'm going to the baker to buy naan," he said from the other side. "I was wondering if you . . . if you wanted to come along."
"I think I'm just going to read," I said, rubbing my temples. Lately, every time Hassan was around, I was getting a headache.
"It's a sunny day," he said.
"I can see that."
"Might be fun to go for a walk."
"I wish you'd come along," he said. Paused. Something thumped against the door, maybe his forehead. "I don't know what I've done, Amir agha. I wish you'd tell me. I don't know why we don't play anymore."
"You haven't done anything, Hassan. Just go."
"You can tell me, I'll stop doing it."
I buried my head in my lap, squeezed my temples with my knees, like a vice. "I'll tell you what I want you to stop doing," I said, eyes pressed shut.
"I want you to stop harassing me. I want you to go away," I snapped. I wished he would give it right back to me, break the door open and tell me off--it would have made things easier, better. But he didn't do anything like that, and when I opened the door minutes later, he wasn't there. I fell on my bed, buried my head under the pillow, and cried.
HASSAN MILLED ABOUT the periphery of my life after that. I made sure our paths crossed as little as possible, planned my day that way. Because when he was around, the oxygen seeped out of the room. My chest tightened and I couldn't draw enough air; I'd stand there, gasping in my own little airless bubble of atmosphere. But even when he wasn't around, he was. He was there in the hand-washed and ironed clothes on the cane-seat chair, in the warm slippers left outside my door, in the wood already burning in the stove when I came down for breakfast. Everywhere I turned, I saw signs of his loyalty, his goddamn unwavering loyalty.
Early that spring, a few days before the new school year started, Baba and I were planting tulips in the garden. Most of the snow had melted and the hills in the north were already dotted with patches of green grass. It was a cool, gray morning, and Baba was squatting next to me, digging the soil and planting the bulbs I handed to him. He was telling me how most people thought it was better to plant tulips in the fall and how that wasn't true, when I came right out and said it. "Baba, have you ever thought about getting new servants?"
He dropped the tulip bulb and buried the trowel in the dirt. Took off his gardening gloves. I'd startled him. "Chi? What did you say?"
"I was just wondering, that's all."
"Why would I ever want to do that?" Baba said curtly.
"You wouldn't, I guess. It was just a question," I said, my voice fading to a murmur. I was already sorry I'd said it.
"Is this about you and Hassan? I know there's something going on between you two, but whatever it is, you have to deal with it, not me. I'm staying out of it."
"I'm sorry, Baba."
He put on his gloves again. "I grew up with Ali," he said through clenched teeth. "My father took him in, he loved Ali like his own son. Forty years Ali's been with my family. Forty goddamn years. And you think I'm just going to throw him out?" He turned to me now, his face as red as a tulip. "I've never laid a hand on you, Amir, but you ever say that again . . ." He looked away, shaking his head. "You bring me shame. And Hassan . . . Hassan's not going anywhere, do you understand?"
I looked down and picked up a fistful of cool soil. Let it pour between my fingers.
"I said, Do you understand?" Baba roared.
I flinched. "Yes, Baba."
"Hassan's not going anywhere," Baba snapped. He dug a new hole with the trowel, striking the dirt harder than he had to. "He's staying right here with us, where he belongs. This is his home and we're his family. D