But Abdullah could tell from the expression on Father’s face that there would be no story tonight.
“It’s late,” Father said again. He lifted the kettle with the edge of the shawl draping his shoulders and poured himself a cup of tea. He blew the steam and took a sip, his face glowing orange in the flames. “Time to sleep. Long day tomorrow.”
Abdullah pulled the blanket over their heads. Underneath, he sang into the nape of Pari’s neck:
I found a sad little fairy
Beneath the shade of a paper tree.
Pari, already sleepy, sluggishly sang her verse.
I know a sad little fairy
Who was blown away by the wind one night.
Almost instantly, she was snoring.
Abdullah awoke later and found Father gone. He sat up in a fright. The fire was all but dead, nothing left of it now but a few crimson speckles of ember. Abdullah’s gaze darted left, then right, but his eyes could penetrate nothing in the dark, at once vast and smothering. He felt his face going white. Heart sprinting, he cocked his ear, held his breath.
“Father?” he whispered.
Panic began to mushroom deep in his chest. He sat perfectly still, his body erect and tense, and listened for a long time. He heard nothing. They were alone, he and Pari, the dark closing in around them. They had been abandoned. Father had abandoned them. Abdullah felt the true vastness of the desert, and the world, for the first time. How easily a person could lose his way in it. No one to help, no one to show the way. Then a worse thought wormed its way into his head. Father was dead. Someone had slit his throat. Bandits. They had killed him, and now they were closing in on him and Pari, taking their time, relishing it, making a game of it.
“Father?” he called out again, his voice shrill this time.
No reply came.
He called for his father again and again, a claw tightening itself around his windpipe. He lost track of how many times and for how long he called for his father but no answer came forth from the dark. He pictured faces, hidden in the mountains bulging from the earth, watching, grinning down at him and Pari with malice. Panic seized him, shriveled up his innards. He began to shiver, and mewl under his breath. He felt himself on the cusp of screaming.
Then, footsteps. A shape materialized from the dark.
“I thought you’d gone,” Abdullah said shakily.
Father sat down by the remains of the fire.
“Where did you go?”
“Go to sleep, boy.”
“You wouldn’t leave us. You wouldn’t do that, Father.”
Father looked at him, but in the dark his face dissolved into an expression Abdullah couldn’t make out. “You’re going to wake your sister.”
“Don’t leave us.”
“That’s enough of that now.”
Abdullah lay down again, his sister clutched tightly in his arms, his heart battering in his throat.
Abdullah had never been to Kabul. What he knew about Kabul came from stories Uncle Nabi had told him. He had visited a few smaller towns on jobs with Father, but never a real city, and certainly nothing Uncle Nabi had said could have prepared him for the hustle and bustle of the biggest and busiest city of them all. Everywhere, he saw traffic lights, and teahouses, and restaurants, and glass-fronted shops with bright multicolored signs. Cars rattling noisily down the crowded streets, hooting, darting narrowly among buses, pedestrians, and bicycles. Horse-drawn garis jingled up and down boulevards, their iron-rimmed wheels bouncing on the road. The sidewalks he walked with Pari and Father were crowded with cigarette and chewing-gum sellers, magazine stands, blacksmiths pounding horseshoes. At intersections, traffic policemen in ill-fitting uniforms blew their whistles and made authoritative gestures that no one seemed to heed.
Pari on his lap, Abdullah sat on a sidewalk bench near a butcher’s shop, sharing a tin plate of baked beans and cilantro chutney that Father had bought them from a street stall.
“Look, Abollah,” Pari said, pointing to a shop across the street. In its window stood a young woman dressed in a beautifully embroidered green dress with small mirrors and beads. She wore a long matching scarf, with silver jewelry and deep red trousers. She stood perfectly still, gazing indifferently at passersby without once blinking. She didn’t move so much as a finger as Abdullah and Pari finished their beans, and remained motionless after that too. Up the block, Abdullah saw a huge poster hanging from the façade of a tall building. It showed a young, pretty Indian woman in a tulip field, standing in a downpour of rain, ducking playfully behind some kind of bungalow. She was grinning shyly, a wet sari hugging her curves. Abdullah wondered if this was what Uncle Nabi had called a cinema, where people went to watch films, and hoped that in the coming month Uncle Nabi would take him and Pari to see a film. He grinned at the thought.
It was just after the call to prayer blared from a blue-tiled mosque up the street that Abdullah saw Uncle Nabi pull up to the curb. Uncle Nabi swung out of the driver’s side, dressed in his olive suit, his door narrowly missing a young bicycle rider in a chapan, who swerved just in time.
Uncle Nabi hurried around the front of the car and embraced Father. When he saw Abdullah and Pari, his face erupted in a big grin. He stooped to be on the same level as them.
“How do you like Kabul, kids?”
“It’s very loud,” Pari said, and Uncle Nabi laughed.
“That it is. Come on, climb in. You’ll see a lot more of it from the car. Wipe your feet before you get in. Saboor, you take the front.”
The backseat was cool, hard, and light blue to match the exterior. Abdullah slid across it to the window behind the driver’s seat and helped Pari onto his lap. He noticed the envious way bystanders looked at the car. Pari swiveled her head toward him, and they exchanged a grin.
They watched the city stream by as Uncle Nabi drove. He said he would take a longer route so they could see a little of Kabul. He pointed to a ridge called Tapa Maranjan and to the dome-shaped mausoleum atop it overlooking the city. He said N?der Shah, father to King Zahir Shah, was buried there. He showed them the Bala Hissar fort atop the Koh-e-Shirdawaza mountain, which he said the British had used during their second war against Afghanistan.
“What’s that, Uncle Nabi?” Abdullah tapped on the window, pointing to a big rectangular yellow building.
“That’s Silo. It’s the new bread factory.” Uncle Nabi drove with one hand and craned back to wink at him. “Compliments of our friends the Russians.”
A factory that makes bread, Abdullah marveled, picturing Parwana back in Shadbagh slapping slabs of dough against the sides of their mud tandoor.
Eventually, Uncle Nabi turned onto a clean, wide street lined with regularly spaced cypress trees. The homes here were elegant, and bigger than any Abdullah had ever seen. They were white, yellow, light blue. Most had a couple stories, were surrounded by high walls and closed off by double metal gates. Abdullah spotted several cars like Uncle Nabi’s parked along the street.
Uncle Nabi pulled up to a driveway decked by a row of neatly trimmed bushes. Beyond the driveway, the white-walled, two-story home loomed impossibly large.
“Your house is so big,” Pari breathed, eyes rolling wide with wonderment.
Uncle Nabi’s head rolled back on his shoulders as he laughed. “That would be something. No, this is my employers’ home. You’re about to meet them. Be on your best manners, now.”
The house proved even more impressive once Uncle Nabi led Abdullah, Pari, and Father inside. Abdullah estimated its size big enough to contain at least half the homes in Shadbagh. He felt as though he had stepped into the div’s palace. The garden, at the far back, was beautifully landscaped, with rows of flowers in all colors, neatly trimmed, with knee-high bushes and peppered with fruit trees—Abdullah recognized cherry, apple, apricot, and pomegranate. A roofed porch led into the garden from the house—Uncle Nabi said it was called a veranda—and was enclosed by a low railing covered with webs of green vines. On their way to the room where Mr. and Mrs. Wahdati awaited their arrival, Abdullah spied a bathroom with the porcelain toilet Uncle Nabi had told them about, as well as a glittering sink with bronze-colored faucets. Abdullah, who spent hours every week lugging buckets of water from Shadbagh’s communal well, marveled at a life where water was just a twist of the hand away.
Now they sat on a bulky couch with gold tassels, Abdullah, Pari, and Father. The soft cushions at their backs were dotted with tiny octagonal mirrors. Across from the couch, a single painting took up most of the wall. It showed an elderly stone carver, bent over his workbench, pounding a block of stone with a mallet. Pleated burgundy drapes dressed the wide windows that opened onto a balcony with a waist-high iron railing. Everything in the room was polished, free of dust.
Abdullah had never in his life been so conscious of his own dirtiness.
Uncle Nabi’s boss, Mr. Wahdati, sat on a leather chair, arms crossed over his chest. He was looking at them with an expression that was not quite unfriendly but remote, impenetrable. He was taller than Father; Abdullah had seen that as soon as he had stood to greet them. He had narrow shoulders, thin lips, and a high shiny forehead. He was wearing a white suit, tapered at the waist, with an open-collared green shirt whose cuffs were held together by oval-shaped lapis stones. The whole time, he hadn’t said more than a dozen words.
Pari was looking down at the plate of cookies on the glass table before them. Abdullah had never imagined such a variety of them existed. Finger-shaped chocolate cookies with swirls of cream, small round ones with orange filling in the center, green cookies shaped like leaves, and more.
“Would you like one?” Mrs. Wahdati said. She was the one doing all the talking. “Go ahead. Both of you. I put them out for you.”
Abdullah turned to Father for permission, and Pari followed suit. This seemed to charm Mrs. Wahdati, who tented her eyebrows, tilted her head, and smiled.
Father nodded lightly. “One each,” he said in a low voice.
“Oh, that won’t do,” Mrs. Wahdati said. “I had Nabi go to a bakery halfway across Kabul for these.”
Father flushed, averted his eyes. He was sitting on the edge of the couch, holding his battered skullcap with both hands. He had angled his knees away from Mrs. Wahdati and kept his eyes on her husband.
Abdullah plucked two cookies and gave one to Pari.
“Oh, take another. We don’t want Nabi’s troubles to go to waste,” Mrs. Wahdati said with cheerful reproach. She smiled at Uncle Nabi.
“It was no trouble at all,” Uncle Nabi said, blushing.
Uncle Nabi was standing near the door, beside a tall wooden cabinet with thick glass doors. On the shelves inside, Abdullah saw silver-framed photos of Mr. and Mrs. Wahdati. There they were, alongside another couple, dressed in thick scarves and heavy coats, a river flowing foamily behind them. In another picture, Mrs. Wahdati, holding a glass, laughing, her bare arm around the waist of a man who, unthinkably to Abdullah, was not Mr. Wahdati. There was a wedding photo as well, he tall and trim in a black suit, she in a flowing white dress, both of them smiling with their mouths closed.
Abdullah stole a glance at her, at her thin waist, her small, pretty mouth and perfectly arched eyebrows, her pink toenails and matching lipstick. He remembered her now from a couple of years earlier, when Pari was almost two. Uncle Nabi had brought her to Shadbagh because she had said she wanted to meet his family. She had worn a peach dress without sleeves—he remembered the look of astonishment on Father’s face—and dark sunglasses with thick white rims. She smiled the whole time, asking questions about the village, their lives, asking after the children’s names and ages. She acted like she belonged there in their low-ceilinged mud house, her back against a wall black with soot, sitting next to the flyspecked window and the cloudy plastic sheet that separated the main room from the kitchen, where Abdullah and Pari also slept. She had made a show of the visit, insisting on taking off her high-heeled shoes at the door, choosing the floor when Father had sensibly offered her a chair. Like she was one of them. He was only eight then, but Abdullah had seen through it.