“Yeah? Then how come my father has the ownership documents?” Gholam said. “The ones he gave to the judge at the courthouse.”
“I’m sure if your father talks to Baba—”
“Your Baba won’t talk to him. He won’t acknowledge what he’s done. He drives past like we’re stray dogs.”
“You’re not dogs,” Adel said. It was a struggle to keep his voice even. “You’re buzzards. Just like Kabir said. I should have known.”
Gholam stood up, took a step or two, and paused. “Just so you know,” he said, “I hold nothing against you. You’re just an ignorant little boy. But next time Baba goes to Helmand, ask him to take you to that factory of his. See what he’s got growing out there. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not cotton.”
Later that night, before dinner, Adel lay in a bath full of warm soapy water. He could hear the TV downstairs, Kabir watching an old pirate movie. The anger, which had lingered all afternoon, had washed through Adel, and now he thought that he’d been too rough with Gholam. Baba jan had told him once that no matter how much you did, sometimes the poor spoke ill of the rich. They mainly did it out of disappointment with their own lives. It couldn’t be helped. It was natural, even. And we mustn’t blame them, Adel, he said.
Adel was not too naïve to know that the world was a fundamentally unfair place; he only had to gaze out the window of his bedroom. But he imagined that for people like Gholam, the acknowledgment of this truth brought no satisfaction. Maybe people like Gholam needed someone to stand culpable, a flesh-and-bones target, someone they could conveniently point to as the agent of their hardship, someone to condemn, blame, be angry with. And perhaps Baba jan was right when he said the proper response was to understand, to withhold judgment. To answer with kindness, even. Watching little soapy bubbles come up to the surface and pop, Adel thought of his father building schools and clinics when he knew there were people in town who spread wicked gossip about him.
As he was drying himself off, his mother poked her head through the bathroom door. “You’re coming down for dinner?”
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“Oh.” She came inside and grabbed a towel off the rack. “Here. Sit. Let me dry your hair.”
“I can do it myself,” Adel said.
She stood behind him, her eyes studying him in the mirror. “Are you all right, Adel?”
He shrugged. She rested a hand on his shoulder and looked at him as if expecting him to rub his cheek against it. He didn’t.
“Mother, have you ever seen Baba jan’s factory?”
He noticed the pause in his mother’s movements. “Of course,” she said. “So have you.”
“I don’t mean pictures. Have you actually seen it? Been to it?”
“How could I?” his mother said, tilting her head in the mirror. “Helmand is unsafe. Your father would never put me or you in harm’s way.”
Downstairs, cannons blasted and pirates hollered their war cries.
Three days later, Gholam showed up again. He walked briskly up to Adel and stopped.
“I’m glad you came,” Adel said, “I have something for you.” From the top of the tree stump he fetched the coat he had been bringing with him daily since their spat. It was chocolate brown leather, with a soft sheepskin lining and a hood that could be zippered on and off. He extended it to Gholam. “I’ve only worn it a few times. It’s a little big for me. It should fit you.”
Gholam didn’t make a move. “We took a bus to Kabul and went to the courthouse yesterday,” he said flatly. “Guess what the judge told us? He said he had bad news. He said there was an accident. A small fire. My father’s ownership documents burned in it. Gone. Destroyed.”
Adel slowly dropped the hand holding the jacket.
“And as he’s telling us that there’s nothing he can do now without the papers, do you know what he has on his wrist? A brand-new gold watch he wasn’t wearing the last time my father saw him.”
Gholam flicked his gaze to the coat. It was a cutting, punishing look, meant to inflict shame. It worked. Adel shrunk. In his hand, he felt the coat shifting, transforming from peace offering to bribe.
Gholam spun around and hurried back toward the road in brisk, busy steps.
The evening of the same day that he returned, Baba jan threw a party at the house. Adel was sitting now beside his father at the head of the big cloth that had been spread on the floor for the meal. Baba jan sometimes preferred to sit on the ground and to eat with his fingers, especially if he was seeing friends from his jihadi years. Reminds me of the cave days, he joked. The women were eating at the table in the dining room with spoons and forks, Adel’s mother seated at the head. Adel could hear their chatter echoing off the marble walls. One of them, a thick-hipped woman with long hair dyed red, was engaged to be married to one of Baba jan’s friends. Earlier in the evening, she had shown Adel’s mother pictures on her digital camera of the bridal shop they had visited in Dubai.
Over tea after the meal, Baba jan told a story about the time his unit had ambushed a Soviet column to stop it from entering a valley up north. Everyone listened closely.
“When they entered the kill zone,” Baba jan said, one hand absently stroking Adel’s hair, “we opened fire. We hit the lead vehicle, then a few jeeps. I thought they would back out or try to plow through. But the sons of whores stopped, dismounted, and engaged us in gunfire. Can you believe it?”
A murmur spread around the room. Heads shook. Adel knew that at least half the men in the room were former Mujahideen.
“We outnumbered them, maybe three to one, but they had heavy weaponry and it wasn’t long before they were attacking us! Attacking our positions in the orchards. Soon, everybody was scattered. We ran for it. Me and this guy, Mohammad something or other, we ran together. We’re running side by side in a field of grapevines, not the kind on posts and wires but the kind that people let grow out on the ground. Bullets are flying everywhere and we’re running for our lives, and suddenly we both trip and go down. In a second flat, I’m back up on my feet running, but there’s no sign of this Mohammad something or other. I turn and yell, ‘Get the hell up, you donkey’s ass!’ ”
Baba jan paused for dramatic effect. He pushed a fist to his lips to fight laughter. “And then he pops up and starts running. And—would you believe it?—the crazy son of a whore is carrying two armfuls of grapes! One mound in each arm!”
Laughter erupted. Adel laughed too. His father rubbed his back and pulled him close. Someone started to tell another story, and Baba jan reached for the cigarette sitting next to his plate. But he never got the chance to light it because suddenly glass shattered somewhere in the house.
From the dining room, women screamed. Something metallic, maybe a fork or a butter knife, clanged loudly on the marble. The men bolted to their feet. Azmaray and Kabir came running into the room, handguns already drawn.
“It came from the entrance,” Kabir said. And, just as he said this, glass broke again.
“Wait here, Commander Sahib, we’ll have a look,” Azmaray said.
“Like hell I will,” Baba jan growled, already pushing forward. “I’m not cowering under my own roof.”
He headed toward the foyer, trailed by Adel, Azmaray, Kabir, and all the male guests. On their way, Adel saw Kabir pick up a metal rod they used in the winter to stoke the fire in the stove. Adel saw his mother too as she ran to join them, her face pale and drawn. When they reached the foyer, a rock came flying through the window and shards of glass crashed to the floor. The woman with red hair, the bride-to-be, screamed. Outside, someone was yelling.
“How the hell did they get past the guard?” someone said behind Adel.
“Commander Sahib, no!” Kabir barked. But Adel’s father had already opened the front door.
The light was dimming, but it was summer, and the sky was still awash in pale yellow. In the distance, Adel saw little clusters of light, people in Shadbagh-e-Nau settling in for dinner with their families. The hills running along the horizon had darkened and soon night would fill in all the hollows. But it wasn’t dark enough, not yet, to shroud the old man Adel saw standing at the foot of the front steps, a rock in each hand.
“Take him upstairs,” Baba jan said over his shoulder to Adel’s mother. “Now!”
Adel’s mother led him up the staircase by the shoulders, down the hallway, and into the master bedroom she shared with Baba jan. She closed the door, locked it, pulled the curtains shut, and turned on the TV. She guided Adel to the bed and together they sat. On the screen, two Arabs, dressed in long kurta shirts and knit caps, were working on a monster truck.
“What is he going to do to that old man?” Adel said. He couldn’t stop from shivering. “Mother, what is he going to do to him?”
He looked up at his mother, and saw a cloud pass over her face and he suddenly knew, he knew right away, that whatever came out of her mouth next could not be trusted.
“He’s going to talk to him,” she said with a tremor. “He’s going to reason with whoever is out there. It’s what your father does. He reasons with people.”
Adel shook his head. He was weeping now, sobbing. “What is he going to do, Mother? What is he going to do to that old man?”
His mother kept saying the same thing, that everything was going to be all right, that it would all turn out just fine, that no one was going to get hurt. But the more she said it, the more he sobbed, until it exhausted him and at some point he fell asleep on his mother’s lap.
Former Commander Escapes Assassination Attempt.
Adel read the story in his father’s study, on his father’s computer. The story described the attack as “vicious” and the assailant as a former refugee with “suspected ties to the Taliban.” Midway through the article, Adel’s father was quoted as saying that he had feared for the safety of his family. Especially my innocent little boy, he’d said. The article gave no name to the assailant nor any indication of what had happened to him.
Adel shut off the computer. He wasn’t supposed to be using it and he had trespassed, coming into his father’s study. A month ago, he wouldn’t have dared do either. He trudged back to his room, lay on his bed, and bounced an old tennis ball against the wall. Thump! Thump! Thump! It wasn’t long before his mother poked her head in through the door and asked, then told him, to stop, but he didn’t. She lingered at the door for a while before slinking away.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
On the surface, nothing had changed. A transcript of Adel’s daily activities would have revealed him falling back into a normal rhythm. He still got up at the same hour, washed, had breakfast with his parents, lessons with his tutor. Afterward, he ate lunch and then spent the afternoon lying around, watching movies with Kabir or else playing video games.
But nothing was the same. Gholam may have cracked a door open to him, but it was Baba jan who had pushed him through it. Dormant gears in Adel’s mind had begun to turn. Adel felt as though, overnight, he had acquired an altogether new auxiliary sense, one that empowered him to perceive things he never had before, things that had stared him in the face for years. He saw, for instance, how his mother had secrets inside of her. When he looked at her, they practically rippled over her face. He saw her struggles to keep from him all the things she knew, all the things she kept locked up, closed off, carefully guarded, like the two of them in this big house. He saw for the first time his father’s house for the monstrosity, the affront, the monument to injustice, that it privately was to everyone else. He saw in people’s rush to please his father the intimidation, the fear, that was the real underpinning of their respect and deference. He thought Gholam would be proud of him for this insight. For the first time, Adel felt truly aware of the broader movements that had always governed his life.