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Chapter 12

In Afghanistan, _yelda_ is the first night of the month of _Jadi_, the first night of winter, and the longest night of the year. As was the tradition, Hassan and I used to stay up late, our feet tucked under the kursi, while Ali tossed apple skin into the stove and told us ancient tales of sultans and thieves to pass that longest of nights. It was from Ali that I learned the lore of _yelda_, that bedeviled moths flung themselves at candle flames, and wolves climbed mountains looking for the sun. Ali swore that if you ate water melon the night of _yelda_, you wouldn't get thirsty the coming summer.

When I was older, I read in my poetry books that _yelda_ was the starless night tormented lovers kept vigil, enduring the endless dark, waiting for the sun to rise and bring with it their loved one. After I met Soraya Taheri, every night of the week became a _yelda_ for me. And when Sunday mornings came, I rose from bed, Soraya Taheri's brown-eyed face already in my head. In Baba's bus, I counted the miles until I'd see her sitting barefoot, arranging cardboard boxes of yellowed encyclopedias, her heels white against the asphalt, silver bracelets jingling around her slender wrists. I'd think of the shadow her hair cast on the ground when it slid off her back and hung down like a velvet curtain. Soraya. Swap Meet Princess. The morning sun to my yelda.

I invented excuses to stroll down the aisle--which Baba acknowledged with a playful smirk--and pass the Taheris?stand. I would wave at the general, perpetually dressed in his shiny overpressed gray suit, and he would wave back. Sometimes he'd get up from his director's chair and we'd make small talk about my writing, the war, the day's bargains. And I'd have to will my eyes not to peel away, not to wander to where Soraya sat reading a paperback. The general and I would say our good-byes and I'd try not to slouch as I walked away.

Sometimes she sat alone, the general off to some other row to socialize, and I would walk by, pretending not to know her, but dying to. Sometimes she was there with a portly middle-aged woman with pale skin and dyed red hair. I promised myself that I would talk to her before the summer was over, but schools reopened, the leaves reddened, yellowed, and fell, the rains of winter swept in and wakened Baba's joints, baby leaves sprouted once more, and I still hadn't had the heart, the dil, to even look her in the eye.

The spring quarter ended in late May 1985. I aced all of my general education classes, which was a minor miracle given how I'd sit in lectures and think of the soft hook of Soraya's nose.

Then, one sweltering Sunday that summer, Baba and I were at the flea market, sitting at our booth, fanning our faces with news papers. Despite the sun bearing down like a branding iron, the market was crowded that day and sales had been strong--it was only 12:30 but we'd already made $160. I got up, stretched, and asked Baba if he wanted a Coke. He said he'd love one.

"Be careful, Amir,?he said as I began to walk. "Of what, Baba??

"I am not an ahmaq, so don't play stupid with me.?

"I don't know what you're talking about.?

"Remember this,?Baba said, pointing at me, "The man is a Pashtun to the root. He has nang and namoos.?Nang. Namoos. Honor and pride. The tenets of Pashtun men. Especially when it came to the chastity of a wife. Or a daughter.

"I'm only going to get us drinks.?

"Just don't embarrass me, that's all I ask.?

"I won't. God, Baba.?

Baba lit a cigarette and started fanning himself again.

I walked toward the concession booth initially, then turned left at the T-shirt stand--where, for $5, you could have the face of Jesus, Elvis, Jim Morrison, or all three, pressed on a white nylon T-shirt. Mariachi music played overhead, and I smelled pickles and grilled meat.

I spotted the Taheris?gray van two rows from ours, next to a kiosk selling mango-on-a-stick. She was alone, reading. White ankle-length summer dress today. Open-toed sandals. Hair pulled back and crowned with a tulip-shaped bun. I meant to simply walk by again and I thought I had, except suddenly I was standing at the edge of the Taheris?white tablecloth, staring at Soraya across curling irons and old neckties. She looked up.

"Salaam,?I said. "I'm sorry to be mozahem, I didn't mean to disturb you.?


"Is General Sahib here today??I said. My ears were burning. I couldn't bring myself to look her in the eye.

"He went that way,?she said. Pointed to her right. The bracelet slipped down to her elbow, silver against olive.

"Will you tell him I stopped by to pay my respects??I said.

"I will.?

"Thank you,?I said. "Oh, and my name is Amir. In case you need to know. So you can tell him. That I stopped by. To... pay my respects.?


I shifted on my feet, cleared my throat. "I'll go now. Sorry to have disturbed you.?

"Nay, you didn't,?she said.

"Oh. Good.?I tipped my head and gave her a half smile. "I'll go now.?Hadn't I already said that? "Khoda h?fez.?

"Khoda h?fez.?

I began to walk. Stopped and turned. I said it before I had a chance to lose my nerve: "Can I ask what you're reading??

She blinked.

I held my breath. Suddenly, I felt the collective eyes of the flea market Afghans shift to us. I imagined a hush falling. Lips stop ping in midsentence. Heads turning. Eyes narrowing with keen interest.

What was this?

Up to that point, our encounter could have been interpreted as a respectful inquiry, one man asking for the whereabouts of another man. But I'd asked her a question and if she answered, we'd be... well, we'd be chatting. Me a mojarad, a single young man, and she an unwed young woman. One with a history, no less. This was teetering dangerously on the verge of gossip material, and the best kind of it. Poison tongues would flap. And she would bear the brunt of that poison, not me--I was fully aware of the Afghan double standard that favored my gender. Not Did you see him chatting with her? but Wooooy! Did you see how she wouldn't let him go? What a lochak!

By Afghan standards, my question had been bold. With it, I had bared myself, and left little doubt as to my interest in her. But I was a man, and all I had risked was a bruised ego. Bruises healed. Reputations did not. Would she take my dare?

She turned the book so the cover faced me. Wuthering Heights. "Have you read it??she said.

I nodded. I could feel the pulsating beat of my heart behind my eyes. "It's a sad story.?

"Sad stories make good books,?she said.

"They do.?

"I heard you write.?

How did she know? I wondered if her father had told her, maybe she had asked him. I immediately dismissed both scenarios as absurd. Fathers and sons could talk freely about women. But no Afghan girl--no decent and mohtaram Afghan girl, at least--queried her father about a young man. And no father, especially a Pashtun with nang and namoos, would discuss a mojarad with his daughter, not unless the fellow in question was a khastegar, a suitor, who had done the honorable thing and sent his father to knock on the door.

Incredibly, I heard myself say, "Would you like to read one of my stories??

"I would like that,?she said. I sensed an unease in her now, saw it in the way her eyes began to flick side to side. Maybe checking for the general. I wondered what he would say if he found me speaking for such an inappropriate length of time with his daughter.

"Maybe I'll bring you one someday,?I said. I was about to say more when the woman I'd seen on occasion with Soraya came walking up the aisle. She was carrying a plastic bag full of fruit. When she saw us, her eyes bounced from Soraya to me and back. She smiled.
"Amir jan, good to see you,?she said, unloading the bag on the tablecloth. Her brow glistened with a sheen of sweat. Her red hair, coiffed like a helmet, glittered in the sunlight--I could see bits of her scalp where the hair had thinned. She had small green eyes buried in a cabbage-round face, capped teeth, and little fingers like sausages. A golden Allah rested on her chest, the chain burrowed under the skin tags and folds of her neck. "I am Jamila, Soraya jan's mother.?

"Salaam, Khala jan,?I said, embarrassed, as I often was around Afghans, that she knew me and I had no idea who she was.

"How is your father??she said.

"He's well, thank you.?

"You know, your grandfather, Ghazi Sahib, the judge? Now, his uncle and my grandfather were cousins,?she said. "So you see, we're related.?She smiled a cap-toothed smile, and I noticed the right side of her mouth drooping a little. Her eyes moved between Soraya and me again.

I'd asked Baba once why General Taheri's daughter hadn't married yet. No suitors, Baba said. No suitable suitors, he amended. But he wouldn't say more--Baba knew how lethal idle talk could prove to a young woman's prospects of marrying well. Afghan men, especially those from reputable families, were fickle creatures. A whisper here, an insinuation there, and they fled like startled birds. So weddings had come and gone and no one had sung ahesta boro for Soraya, no one had painted her palms with henna, no one had held a Koran over her headdress, and it had been General Taheri who'd danced with her at every wedding.

And now, this woman, this mother, with her heartbreakingly eager, crooked smile and the barely veiled hope in her eyes. I cringed a little at the position of power I'd been granted, and all because I had won at the genetic lottery that had determined my sex.

I could never read the thoughts in the general's eyes, but I knew this much about his wife: If I was going to have an adversary in this--whatever this was--it would not be her.

"Sit down, Amir jan,?she said. "Soraya, get him a chair, hachem. And wash one of those peaches. They're sweet and fresh.?

"Nay, thank you,?I said. "I should get going. My father's waiting.?

"Oh??Khanum Taheri said, clearly impressed that I'd done the polite thing and declined the offer. "Then here, at least have this.?She threw a handful of kiwis and a few peaches into a paper bag and insisted I take them. "Carry my Salaam to your father. And come back to see us again.?

"I will. Thank you, Khala jan,?I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Soraya looking away.

"I THOUGHT YOU WERE GETTING COKES,?Baba said, taking the bag of peaches from me. He was looking at me in a simultaneously serious and playful way. I began to make some thing up, but he bit into a peach and waved his hand, "Don't bother, Amir. Just remember what I said.?

THAT NIGHT IN BED, I thought of the way dappled sunlight had danced in Soraya's eyes, and of the delicate hollows above her collarbone. I replayed our conversation over and over in my head. Had she said I heard you write or I heard you're a writer? Which was it? I tossed in my sheets and stared at the ceiling, dismayed at the thought of six laborious, interminable nights of yelda until I saw her again.

IT WENT ON LIKE THAT for a few weeks. I'd wait until the general went for a stroll, then I'd walk past the Taheris?stand. If Khanum Taheri was there, she'd offer me tea and a kolcha and we'd chat about Kabul in the old days, the people we knew, her arthritis. Undoubtedly, she had noticed that my appearances always coincided with her husband's absences, but she never let on. "Oh you just missed your Kaka,?she'd say. I actually liked it when Khanum Taheri was there, and not just because of her amiable ways; Soraya was more relaxed, more talkative with her mother around. As if her presence legitimized whatever was happening between us--though certainly not to the same degree that the general's would have. Khanum Taheri's chaperoning made our meetings, if not gossip-proof, then less gossip-worthy, even if her borderline fawning on me clearly embarrassed Soraya.

One day, Soraya and I were alone at their booth, talking. She was telling me about school, how she too was working on her general education classes, at Ohlone Junior college in Fremont.

"What will you major in??

"I want to be a teacher,?she said.

"Really? Why??

"I've always wanted to. When we lived in Virginia, I became ESL certified and now I teach at the public library one night a week. My mother was a teacher too, she taught Farsi and history at Zarghoona High School for girls in Kabul.?

A potbellied man in a deerstalker hat offered three dollars for a five-dollar set of candlesticks and Soraya let him have it. She dropped the money in a little candy box by her feet. She looked at me shyly. "I want to tell you a story,?she said, "but I'm a little embarrassed about it.?

"Tell me.?

"It's kind of silly.?

"Please tell me.?

She laughed. "Well, when I was in fourth grade in Kabul, my father hired a woman named Ziba to help around the house. She had a sister in Iran, in Mashad, and, since Ziba was illiterate, she'd ask me to write her sister letters once in a while. And when the sister replied, I'd read her letter to Ziba. One day, I asked her if she'd like to learn to read and write. She gave me this big smile, crinkling her eyes, and said she'd like that very much. So we'd sit at the kitchen table after I was done with my own schoolwork and I'd teach her Alef-beh. I remember looking up sometimes in the middle of homework and seeing Ziba in the kitchen, stirring meat in the pressure cooker, then sitting down with a pencil to do the alphabet Homework I'd assigned to her the night before.

"Anyway, within a year, Ziba could read children's books. We sat in the yard and she read me the tales of Dara and Sara--slowly but correctly. She started calling me Moalem Soraya, Teacher Soraya.?She laughed again. "I know it sounds childish, but the first time Ziba wrote her own letter, I knew there was nothing else I'd ever want to be but a teacher. I was so proud of her and I felt I'd done something really worthwhile, you know??

"Yes,?I lied. I thought of how I had used my literacy to ridicule Hassan. How I had teased him about big words he didn't know.

"My father wants me to go to law school, my mother's always throwing hints about medical school, but I'm going to be a teacher. Doesn't pay much here, but it's what I want.?

"My mother was a teacher too,?I said.

"I know,?she said. "My mother told me.?Then her face red dened with a blush at what she had blurted, at the implication of her answer, that "Amir Conversations?took place between them when I wasn't there. It took an enormous effort to stop myself from smiling.

"I brought you something.?I fished the roll of stapled pages from my back pocket. "As promised.?I handed her one of my short stories.

"Oh, you remembered,?she said, actually beaming. "Thank you!?I barely had time to register that she'd addressed me with "tu?for the first time and not the formal "shoma,?because suddenly her smile vanished. The color dropped from her face, and her eyes fixed on something behind me. I turned around. Came face-to-face with General Taheri.

"Amir jan. Our aspiring storyteller. What a pleasure,?he said. He was smiling thinly.

"Salaam, General Sahib,?I said through heavy lips.

He moved past me, toward the booth. "What a beautiful day it is, nay??he said, thumb hooked in the breast pocket of his vest, the other hand extended toward Soraya. She gave him the pages.

"They say it will rain this week. Hard to believe, isn't it??He dropped the rolled pages in the garbage can. Turned to me and gently put a hand on my shoulder. We took a few steps together.

"You know, bachem, I have grown rather fond of you. You are a decent boy, I really believe that, but--?he sighed and waved a hand ?-even decent boys need reminding sometimes. So it's my duty to remind you that you are among peers in this flea market.?He stopped. His expressionless eyes bore into mine. "You see, everyone here is a storyteller.?He smiled, revealing perfectly even teeth. "Do pass my respects to your father, Amir jan.?

He dropped his hand. Smiled again.

"WHAT'S WRONG??Baba said. He was taking an elderly woman's money for a rocking horse.

"Nothing,?I said. I sat down on an old TV set. Then I told him anyway.

"Akh, Amir,?he sighed.

As it turned out, I didn't get to brood too much over what had happened.

Because later that week, Baba caught a cold.

IT STARTED WITH A HACKING COUGH and the sniffles. He got over the sniffles, but the cough persisted. He'd hack into his handkerchief, stow it in his pocket. I kept after him to get it checked, but he'd wave me away. He hated doctors and hospitals. To my knowledge, the only time Baba had ever gone to a doctor was the time he'd caught malaria in India.

Then, two weeks later, I caught him coughing a wad of blood-stained phlegm into the toilet.

"How long have you been doing that??I said.

"What's for dinner??he said.

"I'm taking you to the doctor.?

Even though Baba was a manager at the gas station, the owner hadn't offered him health insurance, and Baba, in his recklessness, hadn't insisted. So I took him to the county hospital in San Jose. The sallow, puffy-eyed doctor who saw us introduced himself as a second-year resident. "He looks younger than you and sicker than me,?Baba grumbled. The resident sent us down for a chest X-ray. When the nurse called us back in, the resident was filling out a form.

"Take this to the front desk,?he said, scribbling quickly.

"What is it??I asked.

"A referral.?Scribble scribble.

"For what??

"Pulmonary clinic.?

"What's that??

He gave me a quick glance. Pushed up............

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