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Chapter 10

_March 1981_

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 dark ness. 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 any more--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 hand gun 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, cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. Behind them, a bone-colored moon hung in the sky. Karim and the Afghan soldier had a brief exchange in Pashtu. I caught a little of it--something about Toor and his bad luck. The Russian soldier thrust his face into the rear of the truck. He was humming the wedding song and drumming his finger on the edge of the tailgate. Even in the dim light of the moon, I saw the glazed look in his eyes as they skipped from passenger to passenger. Despite the cold, sweat streamed from his brow. His eyes settled on the young woman wearing the black shawl. He spoke in Russian to Karim without taking his eyes off her. Karim gave a curt reply in Russian, which the soldier returned with an even curter retort. The Afghan soldier said some thing too, in a low, reasoning voice. But the Russian soldier shouted something that made the other two flinch. I could feel Baba tightening up next to me. Karim cleared his throat, dropped his head. Said the soldier wanted a half hour with the lady in the back of the truck.

The young woman pulled the shawl down over her face. Burst into tears. The toddler sitting in her husband's lap started crying too. The husband's face had become as pale as the moon hovering above. He told Karim to ask "Mister Soldier Sahib?to show a little mercy, maybe he had a sister or a mother, maybe he had a wife too. The Russian listened to Karim and barked a series of words.

"It's his price for letting us pass,?Karim said. He couldn't bring himself to look the husband in the eye.

"But we've paid a fair price already. He's getting paid good money,?the husband said.

Karim and the Russian soldier spoke. "He says... he says every price has a tax.?

That was when Baba stood up. It was my turn to clamp a hand on his thigh, but Baba pried it loose, snatched his leg away. When he stood, he eclipsed the moonlight. "I want you to ask this man something,?Baba said. He said it to Karim, but looked directly at the Russian officer. "Ask him where his shame is.?

They spoke. "He says this is war. There is no shame in war.?

"Tell him he's wrong. War doesn't negate decency. It demands it, even more than in times of peace.?

Do you have to always be the hero? I thought, my heart fluttering. Can't you just let it go for once? But I knew he couldn't--it wasn't in his nature. The problem was, his nature was going to get us all killed.

The Russian soldier said something to Karim, a smile creasing his lips. "Agha sahib,?Karim said, "these Roussi are not like us. They understand nothing about respect, honor.?

"What did he say??

"He says he'll enjoy putting a bullet in you almost as much as...?Karim trailed off, but nodded his head toward the young woman who had caught the guard's eye. The soldier flicked his unfinished cigarette and unholstered his handgun. So this is where Baba dies, I thought. This is how it's going to happen. In my head, I said a prayer I had learned in school.

"Tell him I'll take a thousand of his bullets before I let this indecency take place,?Baba said. My mind flashed to that winter day six years ago. Me, peering around the corner in the alley. Kamal and Wali holding Hassan down. Assef's buttock muscles clenching and unclenching, his hips thrusting back and forth. Some hero I had been, fretting about the kite. Sometimes, I too wondered if I was really Baba's son.

The bulldog-faced Russian raised his gun.

"Baba, sit down please,?I said, tugging at his sleeve. "I think he really means to shoot you.?

Baba slapped my hand away. "Haven't I taught you anything??he snapped. He turned to the grinning soldier. "Tell him he'd better kill me good with that first shot. Because if I don't go down, I'm tearing him to pieces, goddamn his father!?

The Russian soldier's grin never faltered when he heard the translation. He clicked the safety on the gun. Pointed the barrel to Baba's chest. Heart pounding in my throat, I buried my face in my hands.

The gun roared.

It's done, then. I'm eighteen and alone. I have no one left in the world. Baba's dead and now I have to bury him. Where do I bury him? Where do I go after that?

But the whirlwind of half thoughts spinning in my head came to a halt when I cracked my eyelids, found Baba still standing. I saw a second Russian officer with the others. It was from the muzzle of his upturned gun that smoke swirled. The soldier who had meant to shoot Baba had already holstered his weapon. He was shuffling his feet. I had never felt more like crying and laughing at the same time.

The second Russian officer, gray-haired and heavyset, spoke to us in broken Farsi. He apologized for his comrade's behavior. "Russia sends them here to fight,?he said. "But they are just boys, and when they come here, they find the pleasure of drug.?He gave the younger officer the rueful look of a father exasperated with his misbehaving son. &quo............

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