But every once in a while, he thought he heard another noise among these. It was always the same, the high-pitched jingle of a bell. He didn’t understand why he should hear such a noise, alone in the dark, all the sheep and goats sleeping. Sometimes he told himself he had heard no such thing, and sometimes he was so convinced to the contrary that he called out into the darkness, “Is someone out there? Who is there? Show yourself.” But no reply ever came. Baba Ayub didn’t understand. Just as he didn’t understand why a wave of something, something like the tail end of a sad dream, always swept through him whenever he heard the jingling, surprising him each time like an unexpected gust of wind. But then it passed, as all things do. It passed.
So there it is, boy. That’s the end of it. I have nothing more to say. And now it really is late and I am tired, and your sister and I have to wake at dawn. So blow out your candle. Lay your head down and close your eyes. Sleep well, boy. We’ll say our good-byes in the morning.
Father had never before hit Abdullah. So when he did, when he whacked the side of his head, just above the ear—hard, suddenly, and with an open palm—tears of surprise sprung to Abdullah’s eyes. He quickly blinked them back.
“Go home,” Father said through gritted teeth.
From up ahead, Abdullah heard Pari burst into sobs.
Then Father hit him again, harder, and this time across the left cheek. Abdullah’s head snapped sideways. His face burned, and more tears leaked. His left ear rang. Father stooped down, leaning in so close his dark creased face eclipsed the desert and the mountains and the sky altogether.
“I told you to go home, boy,” he said with a pained look.
Abdullah didn’t make a sound. He swallowed hard and squinted at his father, blinking into the face shading his eyes from the sun.
From the small red wagon up ahead, Pari cried out his name, her voice high, shaking with apprehension. “Abollah!”
Father held him with a cutting look, and trudged back to the wagon. From its bed, Pari reached for Abdullah with outstretched hands. Abdullah allowed them a head start. Then he wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands, and followed.
A little while later, Father threw a rock at him, the way children in Shadbagh would do to Pari’s dog, Shuja—except they meant to hit Shuja, to hurt him. Father’s rock fell harmlessly a few feet from Abdullah. He waited, and when Father and Pari got moving again Abdullah tailed them once more.
Finally, with the sun just past its peak, Father pulled up again. He turned back in Abdullah’s direction, seemed to consider, and motioned with his hand.
“You won’t give up,” he said.
From the bed of the wagon, Pari’s hand quickly slipped into Abdullah’s. She was looking up at him, her eyes liquid, and she was smiling her gap-toothed smile like no bad thing would ever befall her so long as he stood at her side. He closed his fingers around her hand, the way he did each night when he and his little sister slept in their cot, their skulls touching, their legs tangled.
“You were supposed to stay home,” Father said. “With your mother and Iqbal. Like I told you to.”
Abdullah thought, She’s your wife. My mother, we buried. But he knew to stifle those words before they came up and out.
“All right, then. Come,” Father said. “But there won’t be any crying. You hear me?”
“I’m warning you. I won’t have it.”
Pari grinned up at Abdullah, and he looked down at her pale eyes and pink round cheeks and grinned back.
From then on, he walked beside the wagon as it jostled along on the pitted desert floor, holding Pari’s hand. They traded furtive happy glances, brother and sister, but said little for fear of souring Father’s mood and spoiling their good fortune. For long stretches they were alone, the three of them, nothing and no one in sight but the deep copper gorges and vast sandstone cliffs. The desert unrolled ahead of them, open and wide, as though it had been created for them and them alone, the air still, blazing hot, the sky high and blue. Rocks shimmered on the cracked floor. The only sounds Abdullah heard were his own breathing and the rhythmic creaking of the wheels as Father pulled the red wagon north.
A while later, they stopped to rest in the shadow of a boulder. With a groan, Father dropped the handle to the ground. He winced as he arched his back, his face raised to the sun.
“How much longer to Kabul?” Abdullah asked.
Father looked down at them. His name was Saboor. He was dark-skinned and had a hard face, angular and bony, nose curved like a desert hawk’s beak, eyes set deep in his skull. Father was thin as a reed, but a lifetime of work had made his muscles powerful, tightly wound like rattan strips around the arm of a wicker chair. “Tomorrow afternoon,” he said, lifting the cowhide water bag to his lips. “If we make good time.” He took a long swallow, his Adam’s apple rising and dropping.
“Why didn’t Uncle Nabi drive us?” Abdullah said. “He has a car.”
Father rolled his eyes toward him.
“Then we wouldn’t have had to walk all this way.”
Father didn’t say anything. He took off his soot-stained skullcap and wiped sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt.
Pari’s finger shot from the wagon. “Look, Abollah!” she cried excitedly. “Another one.”
Abdullah followed her finger, traced it to a spot in the shadow of the boulder where a feather lay, long, gray, like charcoal after it has burned. Abdullah walked over to it and picked it by the stem. He blew the flecks of dust off it. A falcon, he thought, turning it over. Maybe a dove, or a desert lark. He’d seen a number of those already that day. No, a falcon. He blew on it again and handed it to Pari, who happily snatched it from him.
Back home, in Shadbagh, Pari kept underneath her pillow an old tin tea box Abdullah had given her. It had a rusty latch, and on the lid was a bearded Indian man, wearing a turban and a long red tunic, holding up a steaming cup of tea with both hands. Inside the box were all of the feathers that Pari collected. They were her most cherished belongings. Deep green and dense burgundy rooster feathers; a white tail feather from a dove; a sparrow feather, dust brown, dotted with dark blotches; and the one of which Pari was proudest, an iridescent green peacock feather with a beautiful large eye at the tip.
This last was a gift Abdullah had given her two months earlier. He had heard of a boy from another village whose family owned a peacock. One day when Father was away digging ditches in a town south of Shadbagh, Abdullah walked to this other village, found the boy, and asked him for a feather from the bird. Negotiation ensued, at the end of which Abdullah agreed to trade his shoes for the feather. By the time he returned to Shadbagh, peacock feather tucked in the waist of his trousers beneath his shirt, his heels had split open and left bloody smudges on the ground. Thorns and splinters had burrowed into the skin of his soles. Every step sent barbs of pain shooting through his feet.
When he arrived home, he found his stepmother, Parwana, outside the hut, hunched before the tandoor, making the daily naan. He quickly ducked behind the giant oak tree near their home and waited for her to finish. Peeking around the trunk, he watched her work, a thick-shouldered woman with long arms, rough-skinned hands, and stubby fingers; a woman with a puffed, rounded face who possessed none of the grace of the butterfly she’d been named after.
Abdullah wished he could love her as he had his own mother. Mother, who had bled to death giving birth to Pari three and a half years earlier when Abdullah was seven. Mother, whose face was all but lost to him now. Mother, who cupped his head in both palms and held it to her chest and stroked his cheek every night before sleep and sang him a lullaby:
I found a sad little fairy
Beneath the shade of a paper tree.
I know a sad little fairy
Who was blown away by the wind one night.
He wished he could love his new mother in the same way. And perhaps Parwana, he thought, secretly wished the same, that she could love him. The way she did Iqbal, her one-year-old son, whose face she always kissed, whose every cough and sneeze she fretted over. Or the way she had loved her first baby, Omar. She had adored him. But he had died of the cold the winter before last. He was two weeks old. Parwana and Father had barely named him. He was one of three babies that brutal winter had taken in Shadbagh. Abdullah remembered Parwana clutching Omar’s swaddled little corpse, her fits of grief. He remembered the day they buried him up on the hill, a tiny mound on frozen ground, beneath a pewter sky, Mullah Shekib saying the prayers, the wind spraying grits of snow and ice into everyone’s eyes.
Abdullah suspected Parwana would be furious later to learn that he had traded his only pair of shoes for a peacock feather. Father had labored hard under the sun to pay for them. She would let him have it when she found out. She might even hit him, Abdullah thought. She had struck him a few times before. She had strong, heavy hands—from all those years of lifting her invalid sister, Abdullah imagined—and they knew how to swing a broomstick or land a well-aimed slap.
But to her credit, Parwana did not seem to derive any satisfaction from hitting him. Nor was she incapable of tenderness toward her stepchildren. There was the time she had sewn Pari a silver-and-green dress from a roll of fabric Father had brought from Kabul. The time she had taught Abdullah, with surprising patience, how to crack two eggs simultaneously without breaking the yolks. And the time she had shown them how to twist and turn husks of corn into little dolls, the way she had with her own sister when they were little. She showed them how to fashion dresses for the dolls out of little torn strips of cloth.
But these were gestures, Abdullah knew, acts of duty, drawn from a well far shallower than the one she reached into for Iqbal. If one night their house caught fire, Abdullah knew without doubt which child Parwana would grab rushing out. She would not think twice. In the end, it came down to a simple thing: They weren’t her children, he and Pari. Most people loved their own. It couldn’t be helped that he and his sister didn’t belong to her. They were another woman’s leftovers.
He waited for Parwana to take the bread inside, then watched as she reemerged from the hut, carrying Iqbal on one arm and a load of laundry under the other. He watched her amble in the direction of the stream and waited until she was out of sight before he sneaked into the house, his soles throbbing each time they met the ground. Inside, he sat down and slipped on his old plastic sandals, the only other footwear he owned. Abdullah knew it wasn’t a sensible thing he had done. But when he knelt beside Pari, gently shook her awake from a nap, and produced the feather from behind his back like a magician, it was all worth it—worth it for the way her face broke open with surprise first, then delight; for the way she stamped his cheeks with kisses; for how she cackled when he tickled her chin with the soft end of the feather—and suddenly his feet didn’t hurt at all.
Father wiped his face with his sleeve once more. They took turns drinking from the water bag. When they were done, Father said, “You’re tired, boy.”
“No,” Abdullah said, though he was. He was exhausted. And his feet hurt. It wasn’t easy crossing a desert in sandals.
Father said, “Climb in.”
In the wagon, Abdullah sat behind Pari, his back against the wooden slat sides, the little knobs of his sister’s spine pressing against his belly and chest bone. As Father dragged them forward, Abdullah stared at the sky, the mountains, the rows upon rows of closely packed, rounded hills, soft in the distance. He watched his father’s back as he pulled them, his head low, his feet kicking up little puffs of red-brown sand. A caravan of Kuchi nomads passed them by, a dusty procession of jingling bells and groaning camels, and a woman with kohl-rimmed eyes and hair the color of wheat smiled at Abdullah.
Her hair reminded Abdullah of his mother’s, and he ached for her all over again, for her gentleness, her inborn happiness, her bewilderment at people’s cruelty. He remembered her hiccuping laughter, and the timid way she sometimes tilted her head. His mother had been delicate, both in stature and nature, a wispy, slim-waisted woman with a puff of hair always spilling from under her scarf. He used to wonder how such a frail little body could house so much joy, so much goodness. It couldn’t. It spilled out of her, came pouring out her eyes. Father was different. Father had hardness in him. His eyes looked out on the same world as Mother’s had, and saw only indifference. Endless toil. Father’s world was unsparing. Nothing good came free. Even love. You paid for all things. And if you were poor, suffering was your currency. Abdullah looked down at the scabby parting in his little sister’s hair, at her narrow wrist hanging over the side of the wagon, and he knew that in their mother’s dying, something of her had passed to Pari. Something of her cheerful devotion, her guilelessness, her unabashed hopefulness. Pari was the only person in the world who would never, could never, hurt him. Some days, Abdullah felt she was the only true family he had.