There was a dense pause. When she spoke again, it was in a lower tone, slower, like when I was little and we would go to the mosque for a funeral and she would hunker down next to me beforehand and patiently explain how I had to remove my shoes at the entrance, how I had to keep quiet during prayers and not fidget, not complain, and how I should use the bathroom now so I wouldn’t have to later.
I won’t, she said. And don’t you go thinking I will. The time has come, you have to be ready for it.
I blew out a gush of air; a hardness lodged in my throat. Somewhere, a chain saw buzzed to life, the crescendo of its whine at violent odds with the stillness of the woods.
Your father is like a child. Terrified of being abandoned. He would lose his way without you, Pari, and never find his way back.
I made myself look at the trees, the wash of sunlight falling on the feathery leaves, the rough bark of the trunks. I slid my tongue between the incisors and bit down hard. My eyes watered, and the coppery taste of blood flooded my mouth.
A brother, I said.
I have a lot of questions.
Ask me tonight. When I’m not as tired. I’ll tell you everything I know.
I nodded. I gulped the rest of my tea, which had gone cold. At a nearby table, a middle-aged couple traded pages of the newspaper. The woman, red-haired and open-faced, was quietly watching us over the top of her broadsheet, her eyes switching from me to my gray-faced mother, her beanie hat, her hands mapped with bruises, her sunken eyes and skeletal grin. When I met her gaze, the woman smiled just a tad like there was a secret knowledge between us, and I knew that she had done this too.
So what do you think, Mother? The fair, are you up for it?
Mother’s gaze lingered on me. Her eyes looked too big for her head and her head too big for her shoulders.
I could use a new hat, she said.
I tossed the napkin on the table and pushed back my chair, walked around to the other side. I released the brake on the wheelchair and pulled the chair away from the table.
Pari? Mother said.
She rolled her head all the way back to look up at me. Sunlight pushed through the leaves of the trees and pinpricked her face. Do you even know how strong God has made you? she said. How strong and good He has made you?
There is no accounting for how the mind works. This moment, for instance. Of the thousands and thousands of moments my mother and I shared together through all the years, this is the one that shines the brightest, the one that vibrates with the loudest hum at the back of my mind: my mother looking up at me over her shoulder, her face upside down, all those dazzling points of light shimmering on her skin, her asking did I know how good and strong God had made me.
After Baba falls asleep on the recliner, Pari gently zips up his cardigan and pulls up the shawl to cover his torso. She tucks a loose strand of hair behind his ear and stands over him, watching him sleep for a while. I like watching him sleep too because then you can’t tell something is wrong. With his eyes closed, the blankness is lifted, and the lackluster, absent gaze too, and Baba looks more familiar. Asleep, he looks more alert and present, as if something of his old self has seeped back into him. I wonder if Pari can picture it, looking at his face resting on the pillow, how he used to be, how he used to laugh.
We move from the living room to the kitchen. I fetch a pot from the cabinet and fill it at the sink.
“I want to show you some of these,” Pari says, a charge of excitement in her voice. She’s sitting at the table, busily flipping through a photo album that she fished from her suitcase earlier.
“I’m afraid the coffee won’t be up to Parisian standards,” I say over my shoulder, pouring water from the pot into the coffeemaker.
“I promise you I am not a coffee snob.” She has taken off the yellow scarf and put on reading glasses, through which she is peering at pictures.
When the coffeemaker begins to gurgle, I take my seat at the kitchen table beside Pari. “Ah oui. Voilà. Here it is,” she says. She flips the album around and pushes it over to me. She taps on a picture. “This is the place. Where your father and I were born. And our brother Iqbal too.”
When she first called me from Paris, she mentioned Iqbal’s name—as proof, perhaps, to convince me she was not lying about who she said she was. But I already knew she was telling the truth. I knew it the moment I picked up the receiver and she spoke my father’s name into my ear and asked whether it was his residence she had reached. And I said, Yes, who is this? and she said, I am his sister. My heart kicked violently. I fumbled for a chair to drop into, everything around me suddenly pin-drop quiet. It was a shock, yes, the sort of third-act theatrical thing that rarely happens to people in real life. But on another plane—a plane that defies rationalizing, a more fragile plane, one whose essence would fracture and splinter if I even vocalized it—I wasn’t surprised that she was calling. As if I had expected it, even, my whole life, that through some dizzying fit of design, or circumstance, or chance, or fate, or whatever name you want to slap on it, we would find each other, she and I.
I carried the receiver with me to the backyard then and sat on a chair by the vegetable patch, where I have kept growing the bell peppers and giant squash my mother had planted. The sun warmed my neck as I lit a cigarette with quivering hands.
I know who you are, I said. I’ve known all my life.
There was silence at the other end, but I had the impression she was weeping soundlessly, that she had rolled her head away from the phone to do it.
We spoke for almost an hour. I told her I knew what had happened to her, how I used to make my father recount the story for me at bedtime. Pari said she had been unaware of her own history herself and would have probably died without knowing it if not for a letter left behind by her stepuncle, Nabi, before his own death in Kabul, in which he had detailed the events of her childhood among other things. The letter had been left in the care of someone named Markos Varvaris, a surgeon working in Kabul, who had then searched for and found Pari in France. Over the summer, Pari had flown to Kabul, met with Markos Varvaris, who had arranged for her to visit Shadbagh.
Near the end of the conversation, I sensed her gathering herself before she finally said, Well, I think I am ready. Can I speak with him now?
That was when I had to tell her.
I slide the photo album closer now and inspect the picture that Pari is pointing to. I see a mansion nestled behind high shiny-white walls topped with barbed wire. Or, rather, someone’s tragically misguided idea of a mansion, three stories high, pink, green, yellow, white, with parapets and turrets and pointed eaves and mosaics and mirrored skyscraper glass. A monument to kitsch gone woefully awry.
“My God!” I breathe.
“C’est affreux, non?” Pari says. “It is horrible. The Afghans, they call these Narco Palaces. This one is the house of a well-known criminal of war.”
“So this is all that’s left of Shadbagh?”
“Of the old village, yes. This, and many acres of fruit trees of—what do you call it?—des vergers.”
“Yes.” She runs her fingers over the photo of the mansion. “I wish I know where our old house was exactly, I mean in relation to this Narco Palace. I would be happy to know the precise spot.”
She tells me about the new Shadbagh—an actual town, with schools, a clinic, a shopping district, even a small hotel—which has been built about two miles away from the site of the old village. The town was where she and her translator had looked for her half brother. I had learned all of this over the course of that first, long phone conversation with Pari, how no one in town seemed to know Iqbal until Pari had run into an old man who did, an old childhood friend of Iqbal’s, who had spotted him and his family staying on a barren field near the old windmill. Iqbal had told this old friend that when he was in Pakistan, he had been receiving money from his older brother who lived in northern California. I asked, Pari said on the phone, I asked, Did Iqbal tell you the name of this brother? and the old man said, Yes, Abdullah. And then, alors, after that the rest was not so difficult. Finding you and your father, I mean.
I asked Iqbal’s friend where Iqbal was now, Pari said. I asked what happened to him, and the old man said he did not know. But he seemed very nervous, and he did not look at me when he said this. And I think, Pari, I worry that something bad happened to Iqbal.
She flips through more pages now and shows me photographs of her children—Alain, Isabelle, and Thierry—and snapshots of her grandchildren—at birthday parties, posing in swimming trunks at the edge of a pool. Her apartment in Paris, the pastel blue walls and white blinds pulled down to the sills, the shelves of books. Her cluttered office at the university, where she had taught mathematics before the rheumatoid had forced her into retirement.
I keep turning the pages of the album as she provides captions to the snapshots—her old friend Collette, Isabelle’s husband Albert, Pari’s own husband Eric, who had been a playwright and had died of a heart attack back in 1997. I pause at a photo of the two of them, impossibly young, sitting side by side on orange-colored cushions in some kind of restaurant, her in a white blouse, him in a T-shirt, his hair, long and limp, tied in a ponytail.
“That was the night that we met,” Pari says. “It was a setup.”
“He had a kind face.”
Pari nods. “Yes. When we get married, I thought, Oh, we will have a long time together. I thought to myself, Thirty years at least, maybe forty. Fifty, if we are lucky. Why not?” She stares at the picture, lost for a moment, then smiles lightly. “But time, it is like charm. You never have as much as you think.” She pushes the album away and sips her coffee. “And you? You never get married?”
I shrug and flip another page. “There was one close call.”
“I am sorry, ‘close call’?”
“It means I almost did. But we never made it to the ring stage.”
This is not true. It was painful and messy. Even now, the memory of it is like a soft ache behind my breastbone.
She ducks her head. “I am sorry. I am very rude.”
“No. It’s fine. He found someone both more beautiful and less … encumbered, I guess. Speaking of beautiful, who is this?”
I point to a striking-looking woman with long dark hair and big eyes. In the picture, she is holding a cigarette like she is bored—elbow tucked into her side, head tilted up insouciantly—but her gaze is penetrating, defiant.
“This is Maman. My mother, Nila Wahdati. Or, I thought she was my mother. You understand.”
“She’s gorgeous,” I say.
“She was. She committed suicide. Nineteen seventy-four.”
“Non, non. It’s all right.” She brushes the picture absently with the side of her thumb. “Maman was elegant and talented. She read books and had many strong opinions and always she was telling them to people. But she had also very deep sadness. All my life, she gave to me a shovel and said, Fill these holes inside of me, Pari.”
I nod. I think I understand something of that.
“But I could not. And later, I did not want to. I did careless things. Reckless things.” She sits back in the chair, her shoulders slumping, puts her thin white hands in her lap. She considers for a minute before saying, “J’aurais dû être plus gentille—I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that.” For a moment, her face looks stricken. She is like a helpless schoolgirl. “It would not have been so difficult,” she says tiredly. “I should have been more kind. I should have been more like you.”
She lets out a heavy breath and folds the photo album shut. After a pause, she says brightly, “Ah, bon. Now I wish to ask something of you.”