And the Mountains Echoed

Page 23



The week proves one of the hardest of his professional career. Though he had meant to, he doesn’t find the time to talk to Joan Schaeffer about Roshi. A foul mood takes hold of him all week. He is short with the boys at home, annoyed with the workers streaming in and out of his house and all the noise. His sleep pattern has yet to return to normal. He receives two more e-mails from Amra, more updates on the conditions in Kabul. Rabia Balkhi, the women’s hospital, has reopened. Karzai’s cabinet will allow cable television networks to broadcast programs, challenging the Islamic hard-liners who had opposed it. In a postscript at the end of the second e-mail, she says that Roshi has become withdrawn since he left, and asks again whether he has spoken to his chief. He steps away from the keyboard. He returns to it later, ashamed of how Amra’s note had irritated him, how tempted he had been, for just a moment, to answer her, in capital letters, I WILL. IN DUE TIME.



“I hope that went okay for you.”

Joan Schaeffer sits behind her desk, hands laced in her lap. She is a woman of cheerful energy, with a full face and coarse white hair. She peers at him over the narrow reading glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. “You understand the point was not to impugn you.”

“Yes, of course,” Idris says. “I understand.”

“And don’t feel bad. It could happen to any of us. CHF and pneumonia on X-ray, sometimes it’s hard to tell.”

“Thanks, Joan.” He gets up to go, pauses at the door. “Oh. Something I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.”

“Sure. Sure. Sit.”

He sits down again. He tells her about Roshi, describes the injury, the lack of resources at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. He confides in her the commitment he has made to Amra and Roshi. Saying it aloud, he feels weighed down by his promise in a way he had not in Kabul, standing in the hallway with Amra, when she’d kissed his cheek. He is troubled to find that it feels like buyer’s remorse.

“My God, Idris,” Joan says, shaking her head, “I commend you. But how dreadful. The poor child. I can’t imagine.”

“I know,” he says. He asks if the group would be willing to cover her procedure. “Or procedures. My sense is, she’ll need more than one.”

Joan sighs. “I wish. But, frankly, I doubt the board of directors would approve it, Idris. I doubt it very much. You know we’ve been in the red for the last five years. And there would be legal issues as well, complicated ones.”

She waits for him, maybe prepared for him, to challenge this, but he doesn’t.

“I understand,” he says.

“You should be able to find a humanitarian group that does this sort of thing, no? It would take some work, but …”

“I’ll look into it. Thanks, Joan.” He gets up again, surprised that he is feeling lighter, almost relieved by her response.

The home theater takes another month to be built, but it is a marvel. The picture, shot from the projector mounted on the ceiling, is sharp, the movements on the 102-inch screen strikingly fluid. The 7.1 channel surround sound, the graphic equalizers, and the bass traps they have put in the four corners, have done wonders for the acoustics. They watch Pirates of the Caribbean, the boys, delighted by the technology, sitting on either side of him, eating from the communal bucket of popcorn on his lap. They fall asleep before the final, drawn-out battle scene.

“I’ll put them to bed,” Idris says to Nahil.

He lifts one, then the other. The boys are growing, their lean bodies lengthening with alarming speed. As he tucks each into bed, an awareness sets in of the heartbreak that is in store for him with his boys. In a year, two at the outside, he will be replaced. The boys will become enamored with other things, other people, embarrassed by him and Nahil. Idris thinks longingly of when they were small and helpless, so wholly dependent on him. He remembers how terrified Zabi was of manholes when he was little, walking wide, clumsy circles around them. Once, watching an old film, Lemar had asked Idris if he had been alive back when the world was in black and white. The memory brings a smile. He kisses his sons’ cheeks.

He sits back in the dark, watching Lemar sleep. He had judged his boys hastily, he sees now, and unfairly. And he had judged himself harshly too. He is not a criminal. Everything he owns he has earned. In the nineties, while half the guys he knew were out clubbing and chasing women, he had been buried in study, dragging himself through hospital corridors at two in the morning, forgoing leisure, comfort, sleep. He had given his twenties to medicine. He has paid his dues. Why should he feel badly? This is his family. This is his life.

In the last month, Roshi has become something abstract to him, like a character in a play. Their connection has frayed. The unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in that hospital, so urgent and acute, has eroded into something dull. The experience has lost its power. He recognizes the fierce determination that had seized him for what it really was, an illusion, a mirage. He had fallen under the influence of something like a drug. The distance between him and the girl feels vast now. It feels infinite, insurmountable, and his promise to her misguided, a reckless mistake, a terrible misreading of the measures of his own powers and will and character. Something best forgotten. He isn’t capable of it. It is that simple. In the last two weeks, he has received three more e-mails from Amra. He read the first and didn’t answer. He deleted the next two without reading.

The line in the bookstore is about twelve or thirteen people long. It stretches from the makeshift stage to the magazine stand. A tall, broad-faced woman passes out little yellow Post-its to those in line to write their names on and any personal message they want inscribed in the book. A saleswoman at the head of the line helps people flip to the title page.

Idris is near the head of the line, holding a copy in his hand. The woman in front of him, in her fifties and with short-clipped blond hair, turns and says to him, “Have you read it?”

“No,” he says.

“We’re going to read it for our book club next month. It’s my turn to pick.”

“Ah.”

She frowns and pushes a palm against her chest. “I hope people read it. It’s such a moving story. So inspiring. I bet they make it a movie.”

It’s true, what he told her. He has not read the book and doubts he ever will. He does not think he has the stomach to revisit himself on its pages. But others will read it. And when they do, he will be exposed. People will know. Nahil, his sons, his colleagues. He feels sick at the thought of it.

He opens the book again, flips past the acknowledgments, past the bio of the coauthor, who has done the actual writing. He looks again at the photo on the book flap. There is no sign of the injury. If she bears a scar, which she must, the long, wavy black hair conceals it. Roshi is wearing a blouse with little gold beads, an Allah necklace, lapis ear studs. She is leaning against a tree, looking straight at the camera, smiling. He thinks of the stick figures she had drawn him. Don’t go. Don’t leave, Kaka. He does not detect in this young woman even a scrap of the tremulous little creature he had found behind a curtain six years before.

Idris glances at the dedication page.

To the two angels in my life: my mother Amra, and my Kaka Timur. You are my saviors. I owe you everything.

The line moves. The woman with the short blond hair gets her book signed. She moves aside, and Idris, heart stammering, steps forward. Roshi looks up. She is wearing an Afghan shawl over a pumpkin-colored long-sleeved blouse and little oval-shaped silver earrings. Her eyes are darker than he remembers, and her body is filling out with female curves. She looks at him without blinking, and though she gives no overt indication that she has recognized him, and though her smile is polite, there is something amused and distant about her expression, playful, sly, unintimidated. It steam-rolls him, and suddenly all the words that he had composed—even written down, rehearsed in his head on the way here—dry up. He cannot bring himself to say a thing. He can only stand there, looking vaguely foolish.

The salesclerk clears her throat. “Sir, if you’ll give me your book I’ll flip to the title page and Roshi will autograph it for you.”

The book. Idris looks down, finds it clutched tightly in his hands. He has not come here to get it signed, of course. That would be galling—grotesquely galling—after everything. Still, he sees himself handing it over, the salesclerk expertly flipping to the correct page, Roshi’s hand scrawling something beneath the title. He has seconds left now to say something, not that it would mitigate the indefensible but because he thinks he owes it to her. But when the clerk hands him back his book, he cannot summon the words. He wishes now for even a scrap of Timur’s courage. He looks again at Roshi. She is already gazing past him at the next person in line.

“I am—” he begins.

“We have to keep the line moving now, sir,” the clerk says.

He drops his head and leaves the queue.

He has parked in the lot behind the store. The walk to the car feels like the longest of his life. He opens the car door, pauses before entering. With hands that have not stopped shaking, he flips the book open again. The scrawling is not a signature. In English, she has written him two sentences.

He closes the book, his eyes too. He supposes he should be relieved. But part of him wishes for something else. Perhaps if she had grimaced at him, said something infantile, full of loathing and hate. An eruption of rancor. Perhaps that might have been better. Instead, a clean, diplomatic dismissal. And this note. Don’t worry. You’re not in it. An act of kindness. Perhaps, more accurately, an act of charity. He should be relieved. But it hurts. He feels the blow of it, like an ax to the head.

There is a bench nearby, beneath an elm tree. He walks over and leaves the book on it. He returns to the car and sits behind the wheel. And it is a while before he trusts himself to turn the key and drive away.

Six

February 1974

EDITOR’S NOTE,

Parallaxe 84 (WINTER 1974), P. 5

Dear Readers:

Five years ago, when we began our quarterly issues featuring interviews with little-known poets, we could not have anticipated how popular they would prove. Many of you asked for more, and, indeed, your enthusiastic letters paved the way for these issues to become an annual tradition here at Parallaxe. The profiles have now become our staff writers’ personal favorites as well. The features have led to the discovery, or rediscovery, of some valuable poets, and an overdue appreciation of their work.

Sadly, however, a shadow hovers over this present issue. The artist featured this quarter is Nila Wahdati, an Afghan poet interviewed by Étienne Boustouler last winter in the town of Courbevoie, near Paris. Mme. Wahdati, as we are sure you will agree, gave Mr. Boustouler one of the most revealing and startlingly frank interviews we have ever published. It was with great sadness that we learned of her untimely death not long after this interview was conducted. She will be missed in the community of poets. She is survived by her daughter.

It’s uncanny, the timing. The elevator door dings open at precisely—precisely—the same moment the phone begins to ring. Pari can hear the ringing because it comes from inside Julien’s apartment, which is at the head of the narrow, barely lit hallway and therefore closest to the elevator. Intuitively, she knows who is calling. By the look on Julien’s face, so does he.

Julien, who has already stepped into the elevator, says, “Let it ring.”

Behind him is the standoffish ruddy-faced woman from upstairs. She glares impatiently at Pari. Julien calls her La chèvre, because of her goatlike nest of chin hairs.

He says, “Let’s go, Pari. We’re already late.”

He has made reservations for seven o’clock at a new restaurant in the 16th arrondissement that has been making some noise for its poulet braisé, its sole cardinale, and its calf’s liver with sherry vinegar. They are meeting Christian and Aurelie, old university friends of Julien’s—from his student days, not his teaching. They are supposed to meet for aperitifs at six-thirty and it is already sixfifteen. They still have to walk to the Métro station, ride to Muette, then walk the six blocks to the restaurant.


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