“This is a lovely carpet,” Nila said cheerfully, running her fingers over the rug. It was bright red with elephant-footprint patterns. It was the only object of any value that Saboor and Parwana owned—to be sold, as it turned out, that same winter.
“It belonged to my father,” Saboor said.
“Is it a Turkoman rug?”
“I do love the sheep fleece they use. The craftsmanship is incredible.”
Saboor nodded his head. He didn’t look her way once even as he spoke to her.
The plastic sheeting flapped when Abdullah returned with a tray of teacups and lowered it to the ground before Nila. He poured her a cup and sat cross-legged opposite her. Nila tried speaking to him, lobbing him a few simple questions, but Abdullah only nodded his shaved head, muttered a one- or two-word answer, and stared back at her guardedly. I made a mental note to speak to the boy, gently chide him about his manners. I would do it in a friendly way for I liked the boy, who was serious and competent by nature.
“How far along are you?” Nila asked Parwana.
Her head down, my sister said the baby was due in the winter.
“You are blessed,” Nila said. “To be awaiting a baby. And to have such a polite young stepson.” She smiled at Abdullah, who remained expressionless.
Parwana muttered something that might have been Thank you.
“And there is a little girl too, if I recall?” Nila said. “Pari?”
“She’s asleep,” Abdullah said tersely.
“Ah. I hear she is lovely.”
“Go fetch your sister,” Saboor said.
Abdullah lingered, looking from his father to Nila, then rose with visible reluctance to bring his sister.
If I had any wish, even at this late hour, to somehow acquit myself, I would say that the bond between Abdullah and his little sister was an ordinary one. But it was not so. No one but God knows why those two had chosen each other. It was a mystery. I have never seen such affinity between two beings. In truth, Abdullah was as much father to Pari as sibling. When she was an infant, when she cried at night, it was he who sprung from the sleeping cot to walk her. It was he who took it upon himself to change her soiled linens, to bundle her up, to soothe her back to sleep. His patience with her was boundless. He carried her around the village, showing her off as though she were the world’s most coveted trophy.
When he carried a still-groggy Pari into the room, Nila asked to hold her. Abdullah handed her over with a cutting look of suspicion, as though some instinctive alarm inside him had been set off.
“Oh, she is darling,” Nila exclaimed, her awkward bounces betraying her inexperience with small children. Pari gazed with confusion at Nila, looked toward Abdullah, and began to cry. Quickly, he retrieved her from Nila’s hands.
“Look at those eyes!” Nila said. “Oh, and these cheeks! Isn’t she darling, Nabi?”
“That she is, Bibi Sahib,” I said.
“And she’s been given the perfect name: Pari. She is indeed as beautiful as a fairy.”
Abdullah watched Nila, rocking Pari in his arms, his face growing cloudy.
On the way back to Kabul, Nila slumped in the backseat with her head resting on the glass. For a long while, she didn’t say a word. And then, suddenly, she started to cry.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road.
She didn’t speak for a long time. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed into her hands. Finally, she blew her nose into a handkerchief. “Thank you, Nabi,” she said.
“For what, Bibi Sahib?”
“For taking me there. It was a privilege to meet your family.”
“The privilege was all theirs. And mine. We were honored.”
“Your sister’s children are beautiful.” She removed her sunglasses and dabbed at her eyes.
I considered for a moment what to do, at first opting to remain quiet. But she had wept in my presence, and the intimacy of the moment called for kind words. Softly I said, “You will have your own soon, Bibi Sahib. Inshallah, God will see to it. You wait.”
“I don’t think He will. Even He can’t see to this.”
“Of course He can, Bibi Sahib. You’re so very young. If He wishes it, it will happen.”
“You don’t understand,” she said tiredly. I had never seen her look so exhausted, so drained. “It’s gone. They scooped it all out of me in India. I’m hollow inside.”
To this I could think of nothing to say. I longed to climb into the backseat beside her and pull her into my arms, to soothe her with kisses. Before I knew what I was doing, I had reached behind me and taken her hand into mine. I thought she would withdraw, but her fingers squeezed my hand gratefully, and we sat there in the car, not looking at each other but at the plains around us, yellow and withering from horizon to horizon, furrowed with dried-up irrigation ditches, pocked with shrubs and rocks and stirrings of life here and there. Nila’s hand in mine, I looked at the hills and the power poles. My eyes traced a cargo truck lumbering along in the distance, trailed by a puff of dust, and I would have happily sat there until dark.
“Take me home,” she said at last, releasing my hand. “I’m going to turn in early tonight.”
“Yes, Bibi Sahib.” I cleared my throat and dropped the shift into first gear with a slightly unsteady hand.
She went into her bedroom and didn’t leave it for days. This was not the first time. On occasion, she would pull up a chair to the window of her upstairs bedroom and plant herself there, smoking cigarettes, shaking one foot, staring out the window with a blank expression. She would not speak. She would not change out of her sleeping gown. She would not bathe or brush her teeth or hair. This time, she would not eat either, and this particular development caused Mr. Wahdati uncharacteristic alarm.
On the fourth day, there was a knock at the front gates. I opened them to a tall, elderly man in a crisply pressed suit and shiny loafers. There was something imposing and rather forbidding about him in the way he did not so much stand as loom, the way he looked right through me, the way he held his polished cane with both hands like it was a scepter. He had not said a word as yet, but I already sensed he was a man accustomed to being obeyed.
“I understand my daughter is not well,” he said.
So he was the father. I had never met him before. “Yes, Sahib. I’m afraid that is true,” I said.
“Then move aside, young man.” He pushed past me.
In the garden, I busied myself, chopping a block of wood for the stove. From where I worked, I had a good clear view of Nila’s bedroom window. Framed in it was the father, bent at the waist, leaning into Nila, one hand pressing on her shoulder. On Nila’s face was the expression people have when they have been startled by an abrupt loud noise, like a firecracker, or a door slammed by a sudden draft of wind.
That night, she ate.
A few days later, Nila summoned me into the house and said she was going to throw a party. We rarely, if ever, had parties at the house back when Mr. Wahdati was single. After Nila moved in, she arranged them two or three times a month. The day prior to the party, Nila would give me detailed instructions on what appetizers and meals I was to prepare, and I would drive to the market to purchase the necessary items. Chief among these necessary items was alcohol, which I had never procured before, as Mr. Wahdati did not drink—though his reasons had nothing to do with religion, he merely disliked its effects. Nila, however, was well acquainted with certain establishments—pharmacies, as she called them jokingly—where for the equivalent of double my monthly salary a bottle of medicine could be purchased subversively. I had mixed feelings about running this particular errand, playing the part of sin enabler, but, as always, pleasing Nila superseded everything else.
You must understand, Mr. Markos, that when we had parties in Shadbagh, be it for a wedding or to celebrate a circumcision, the proceedings took place at two separate houses, one for women, the other for us men. At Nila’s parties, men and women mingled with one another. Most of the women dressed as Nila did, in dresses that showed the entire lengths of their arms and a good deal of their legs as well. They smoked, and they drank too, their glasses half filled with colorless or red- or copper-colored liquor, and they told jokes and laughed and freely touched the arms of men I knew to be married to someone else in the room. I carried small platters of bolani and lola kabob from one end of the smoke-filled room to the other, from one cluster of guests to another, as a record played on the turntable. The music was not Afghan but something Nila called jazz, a kind of music that, I learned decades later, you appreciate as well, Mr. Markos. To my ears, the random tinkling of piano and the strange wailing of horns sounded an inharmonious mess. But Nila loved it, and I kept overhearing her telling guests how they simply had to hear this recording or that. All night, she held a glass and tended to it far more than the food I served.
Mr. Wahdati made limited effort to engage his guests. He made a token show of mingling, but mostly he occupied a corner, with a remote expression on his face, swirling a glass of soda, smiling a courteous, closemouthed smile when someone talked to him. And, as was his habit, he excused himself when the guests began asking Nila to recite her poetry.
This was my favorite part, by far, of the evening. When she started, I always found some task that would keep me nearby. There I would be, frozen in place, towel in hand, straining to hear. Nila’s poems did not resemble any I had grown up with. As you well know, we Afghans love our poetry; even the most uneducated among us can recite verses of Hafez or Khayyám or Saadi. Do you recall, Mr. Markos, telling me last year how much you loved Afghans? And I asked you why, and you laughed and said, Because even your graffiti artists spray Rumi on the walls.
But Nila’s poems defied tradition. They followed no preset meter or rhyming pattern. Nor did they deal with the usual things, trees and spring flowers and bulbul birds. Nila wrote about love, and by love I do not mean the Sufi yearnings of Rumi or Hafez but instead physical love. She wrote about lovers whispering across pillows, touching each other. She wrote about pleasure. I had never heard language such as this spoken by a woman. I would stand there, listening to Nila’s smoky voice drift down the hallway, my eyes closed and my ears burning red, imagining she was reading to me, that we were the lovers in the poem, until someone’s call for tea or fried eggs would break the spell, and then Nila would call my name and I would run.
That night, the poem she chose to read caught me off guard. It was about a man and his wife, in a village, mourning the death of the infant they had lost to the winter cold. The guests seemed to love the poem, judging by the nods and the murmurs of approval around the room, and by their hearty applause when Nila looked up from the page. Still, I felt some surprise, and disappointment, that my sister’s misfortune had been used to entertain guests, and I could not shake the sense that some vague betrayal had been committed.
A couple of days after the party, Nila said she needed a new purse. Mr. Wahdati was reading the newspaper at the table, where I had served him a lunch of lentil soup and naan.
“Do you need anything, Suleiman?” Nila asked.
“No, aziz. Thank you,” he said. I rarely heard him address her by anything other than aziz, which means “beloved,” “darling,” and yet never did the couple seem more distant from each other than when he said it, and never did this term of endearment sound so starched as when it came from Mr. Wahdati’s lips.
On the way to the store, Nila said she wanted to pick up a friend and gave me directions to the home. I parked on the street and watched her walk up the block to a two-story house with bright pink walls. At first, I left the engine running, but when five minutes passed and Nila hadn’t returned I shut it off. It was a good thing I did for it was not until two hours later that I saw her slim figure gliding down the sidewalk toward the car. I opened the rear passenger door and, as she slid in, I smelled on her, underneath her own familiar perfume, a second scent, something faintly like cedarwood and perhaps a trace of ginger, an aroma I recognized from having breathed it at the party two nights before.