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Chapter 23

Faces poke through the haze, linger, fade away. They peer down, ask me questions. They all ask questions. Do I know who I am? Do I hurt anywhere? I know who I am and I hurt everywhere. I want to tell them this but talking hurts. I know this because some time ago, maybe a year ago, maybe two, maybe ten, I tried to talk to a child with rouge on his cheeks and eyes smeared black. The child. Yes, I see him now. We are in a car of sorts, the child and I, and I don't think Soraya's driving because Soraya never drives this fast. I want to say something to this child--it seems very impor tant that I do. But I don't remember what I want to say, or why it might have been important. Maybe I want to tell him to stop cry ing, that everything will be all right now. Maybe not. For some reason I can't think of, I want to thank the child.

Faces. They're all wearing green hats. They slip in and out of view They talk rapidly, use words I don't understand. I hear other voices, other noises, beeps and alarms. And always more faces. Peering down. I don't remember any of them, except for the one with the gel in his hair and the Clark Gable mustache, the one?with the Africa stain on his cap. Mister Soap Opera Star. That's funny. I want to laugh now. But laughing hurts too.

I fade out.

SHE SAYS HER NAME IS AISHA, "like the prophet's wife.?Her graying hair is parted in the middle and tied in a ponytail, her nose pierced with a stud shaped like the sun. She wears bifocals that make her eyes bug out. She wears green too and her hands are soft. She sees me looking at her and smiles. Says something in English. Something is jabbing at the side of my chest.

I fade out.

A MAN IS STANDING at my bedside. I know him. He is dark and lanky, has a long beard. He wears a hat--what are those hats called? Pakols? Wears it tilted to one side like a famous person whose name escapes me now. I know this man. He drove me somewhere a few years ago. I know him. There is something wrong with my mouth. I hear a bubbling sound.

I fade out.

MY RIGHT ARM BURNS. The woman with the bifocals and sun-shaped stud is hunched over my arm, attaching a clear plastic tubing to it. She says it's "the Potassium.?"It stings like a bee, no??she says. It does. What's her name? Something to do with a prophet. I know her too from a few years ago. She used to wear her hair in a ponytail. Now it's pulled back, tied in a bun. Soraya
wore her hair like that the first time we spoke. When was that? Last week?

Aisha! Yes.

There is something wrong with my mouth. And that thing jab bing at my chest.

I fade out.

WE ARE IN THE SULAIMAN MOUNTAINS of Baluchistan and Baba is wrestling the black bear. He is the Baba of my child hood, _Toophan agha_, the towering specimen of Pashtun might, not the withered man under the blankets, the man with the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. They roll over a patch of green grass, man and beast, Baba's curly brown hair flying. The bear roars, or maybe it's Baba. Spittle and blood fly; claw and hand swipe. They fall to the ground with a loud thud and Baba is sitting on the bear's chest, his fingers digging in its snout. He looks up at me and I see. He's me. I am wrestling the bear.

I wake up. The lanky dark man is back at my bedside. His name is Farid, I remember now. And with him is the child from the car. His face reminds me of the sound of bells. I am thirsty.

I fade out.

I keep fading in and out.

THE NAME OF THE MAN with the Clark Gable mustache turned out to be Dr. Faruqi. He wasn't a soap opera star at all, but a head-and-neck surgeon, though I kept thinking of him as some one named Armand in some steamy soap set on a tropical island.

Where am I? I wanted to ask. But my mouth wouldn't open. I frowned. Grunted. Armand smiled; his teeth were blinding white.

"Not yet, Amir,?he said, "but soon. When the wires are out.?He spoke English with a thick, rolling Urdu accent.


Armand crossed his arms; he had hairy forearms and wore a gold wedding band. "You must be wondering where you are, what happened to you. That's perfectly normal, the postsurgical state is always disorienting. So I'll tell you what I know.?

I wanted to ask him about the wires. Postsurgical? Where was Aisha? I wanted her to smile at me, wanted her soft hands in mine.

Armand frowned, cocked one eyebrow in a slightly selfimportant way. "You are in a hospital in Peshawar. You've been here two days. You have suffered some very significant injuries, Amir, I should tell you. I would say you're very lucky to be alive, my friend.?He swayed his index finger back and forth like a pendu lum when he said this. "Your spleen had ruptured, probably--and fortunately for you--a delayed rupture, because you had signs of early hemorrhage into your abdominal cavity My colleagues from the general surgery unit had to perform an emergency splenec tomy. If it had ruptured earlier, you would have bled to death.?He patted me on the arm, the one with the IV, and smiled. "You also suffered seven broken ribs. One of them caused a pneumothorax.?

I frowned. Tried to open my mouth. Remembered about the wires.

"That means a punctured lung,?Armand explained. He tugged at a clear plastic tubing on my left side. I felt the jabbing again in my chest. "We sealed the leak with this chest tube.?I followed the tube poking through bandages on my chest to a container halffilled with columns of water. The bubbling sound came from there.

"You had also suffered various lacerations. That means ‘cuts.?I wanted to tell him I knew what the word meant; I was a writer. I went to open my mouth. Forgot about the wires again.

"The worst laceration was on your upper lip,?Armand said. "The impact had cut your upper lip in two, clean down the mid dle. But not to worry, the plastics guys sewed it back together and they think you will have an excellent result, though there will be a scar. That is unavoidable.

"There was also an orbital fracture on the left side; that's the eye socket bone, and we had to fix that too. The wires in your jaws will come out in about six weeks,?Armand said. "Until then it's liq uids and shakes. You will lose some weight and you will be talking like Al Pacino from the first Godfather movie for a little while.?He laughed. "But you have a job to do today. Do you know what it is??

I shook my head.

"Your job today is to pass gas. You do that and we can start feeding you liquids. No fart, no food.?He laughed again.

Later, after Aisha changed the IV tubing and raised the head of the bed like I'd asked, I thought about what had happened to me. Ruptured spleen. Broken teeth. Punctured lung. Busted eye socket. But as I watched a pigeon peck at a bread crumb on the windowsill, I kept thinking of something else Armand/Dr. Faruqi had said: The impact had cut your upper lip in two, he had said, clean down the middle. Clean down the middle. Like a harelip.

FARID AND SOHRAB came to visit the next day. "Do you know who we are today? Do you remember??Farid said, only half-jokingly. I nodded.

"Al hamdullellah!?he said, beaming. "No more talking non sense.?

"Thank you, Farid,?I said through jaws wired shut. Armand was right--I did sound like Al Pacino from The Godfather. And my tongue surprised me every time it poked in one of the empty spaces left by the teeth I had swallowed. "I mean, thank you. For everything.?

He waved a hand, blushed a little. "Bas, it's not worthy of thanks,?he said. I turned to Sohrab. He was wearing a new outfit, light brown pirhan-tumban that looked a bit big for him, and a black skullcap. He was looking down at his feet, toying with the IV line coiled on the bed.

"We were never properly introduced,?I said. I offered him my hand. "I am Amir.?

He looked at my hand, then to me. "You are the Amir agha Father told me about??he said.

"Yes.?I remembered the words from Hassan's letter. 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! "I owe you thanks too, Sohrab jan,?I said. "You saved my life.?

He didn't say anything. I dropped my hand when he didn't take it. "I like your new clothes,?I mumbled.

"They're my son's,?Farid said. "He has outgrown them. They fit Sohrab pretty well, I would say.?Sohrab could stay with him, he said, until we found a place for him. "We don't have a lot of room, but what can I do? I can't leave him to the streets. Besides, my children have taken a liking to him. Ha, Sohrab??But the boy just kept looking down, twirling the line with his finger.

"I've been meaning to ask,?Farid said, a little hesitantly. "What happened in that house? What happened between you and the Talib??

"Let's just say we both got what we deserved,?I said.

Farid nodded, didn't push it. It occurred to me that somewhere between the time we had left Peshawar for Afghanistan and now, we had become friends. "I've been meaning to ask something too.?


I didn't want to ask. I was afraid of the answer. "Rahim Khan,?I said.

"He's gone.?

My heart skipped. "Is he--?

"No, just... gone.?He handed me a folded piece of paper and a small key. "The landlord gave me this when I went looking for him. He said Rahim Khan left the day after we did.?

"Where did he go??

Farid shrugged. "The landlord didn't know He said Rahim Khan left the letter and the key for you and took his leave.?He checked his watch. "I'd better go. Bia, Sohrab.?

"Could you leave him here for a while??I said. "Pick him up later??I turned to Sohrab. "Do you want to stay here with me for a little while??

He shrugged and said nothing.

"Of course,?Farid said. "I'll pick him up just before evening _namaz_.?

THERE WERE THREE OTHER PATIENTS in my room. Two older men, one with a cast on his leg, the other wheezing with asthma, and a young man of fifteen or sixteen who'd had appendix surgery. The old guy in the cast stared at us without blinking, his eyes switching from me to the Hazara boy sitting on a stool. My roommates?families--old women in bright shalwar-kameezes, children, men wearing skullcaps--shuffled noisily in and out of the room. They brought with them pakoras, _naan_, sa,nosas, biryani. Sometimes people just wandered into the room, like the tall, bearded man who walked in just before Farid and Sohrab arrived. He wore a brown blanket wrapped around him. Aisha asked him something in Urdu. He paid her no attention and scanned the room with his eyes. I thought he looked at me a little longer than necessary. When the nurse spoke to him again, he just spun around and left.

"How are you??I asked Sohrab. He shrugged, looked at his hands.

"Are you hungry? That lady there gave me a plate of biryani, but I can't eat it,?I said. I didn't know what else to say to him. "You want it??

He shook his head.

"Do you want to talk??

He shook his head again.

We sat there like that for a while, silent, me propped up in bed, two pillows behind my back, Sohrab on the three-legged stool next to the bed. I fell asleep at some point, and, when I woke up, daylight had dimmed a bit, the shadows had stretched, and Sohrab was still sitting next to me. He was still looking down at his hands.

THAT NIGHT, after Farid picked up Sohrab, I unfolded Rahim Khan's letter. I had delayed reading it as long as possible. It read:

Amirjan, _Inshallah_, you have reached this letter safely. I pray that I have not put you in harm's way and that Afghanistan has not been too unkind to you. You have been in my prayers since the day you left. You were right all those years to suspect that I knew. I did know. Hassan told me shortly after it happened. What you did was wrong, Amir jan, but do not forget that you were a boy when it happened. A troubled little boy. You were too hard on yourself then, and you still are--I saw it in your eyes in Peshawar. But I hope you will heed this: A man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer. I hope your suffering comes to an end with this journey to Afghanistan.

Amir jan, I am ashamed for the lies we told you all those years. You were right to be angry in Peshawar. You had a right to know. So did Hassan. I know it doesn't absolve anyone of anything, but the Kabul we lived in in those days was a strange world, one in which some things mattered more than the truth.

Amir jan, I know how hard your father was on you when you were growing up. I saw how you suffered and yearned for his affections, and my heart bled for you. But your father was a man torn between two halves, Amir jan:

you and Hassan. He loved you both, but he could not love Hassan the way he longed to, openly, and as a father. So he took it out on you instead--Amir, the socially legitimate half, the half that represented the riches he had inherited and the sin-with-impunity privileges that came with them. When he saw you, he saw himself. And his guilt. You are still angry and I realize it is far too early to expect you to accept this, but maybe someday you will see that when your father was hard on you, he was also being hard on himself. Your father, like you, was a tortured soul, Amir jan.

I cannot describe to you the depth and blackness of the sorrow that came over me when ............

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