“What, me walking?”
“No,” he stammers, “I meant …” and then he grins when Masooma bursts out laughing.
Outside, Nabi passes Parwana the cash. He leans one shoulder against the wall and lights a cigarette. Masooma is inside, taking her afternoon nap.
“I saw Saboor earlier,” he says, picking at his finger. “Terrible thing. He told me the baby’s name. I forget now.”
“Pari,” Parwana says.
He nods. “I didn’t ask, but he told me he’s looking to marry again.”
Parwana looks away, trying to pretend she doesn’t care, but her heart is thumping in her ears. She feels a film of sweat blooming on her skin.
“Like I said, I didn’t ask. Saboor was the one who brought it up. He pulled me aside. He pulled me aside and told me.”
Parwana suspects that Nabi knows what she has carried with her for Saboor all these years. Masooma is her twin, but it is Nabi who has always understood her. But Parwana doesn’t see why her brother is telling her this news. What good does it do? What Saboor needs is a woman unanchored, a woman who won’t be held down, who is free to devote herself to him, to his boy, his newborn daughter. Parwana’s time is already consumed. Accounted for. Her whole life is.
“I’m sure he’ll find someone,” Parwana says.
Nabi nods. “I’ll be by again next month.” He crushes his cigarette underfoot and takes his leave.
When Parwana enters the hut, she is surprised to see Masooma awake. “I thought you were napping.”
Masooma drags her gaze to the window, blinking slowly, tiredly.
When the girls were thirteen, they sometimes went to the crowded bazaars of nearby towns for their mother. The smell of freshly sprayed water rose from the unpaved street. The two of them strolled down the lanes, past stalls that sold hookahs, silk shawls, copper pots, old watches. Slaughtered chickens hung by their feet, tracing slow circles over hunks of lamb and beef.
In every corridor Parwana would see men’s eyes snapping to attention when Masooma passed by. She saw their efforts to behave matter-of-factly, but their gazes lingered, helpless to tear away. If Masooma glanced in their direction, they looked idiotically privileged. They imagined they had shared a moment with her. She interrupted conversations midsentence, smokers mid-drag. She was the trembler of knees, the spiller of teacups.
Some days it was all too much for Masooma, as if she was almost ashamed, and she told Parwana she wanted to stay inside all day, wanted not to be looked at. On those days, Parwana thought it was as though, somewhere deep inside, her sister understood dimly that her beauty was a weapon. A loaded gun, with the barrel pointed at her own head. Most days, however, the attention seemed to please her. Most days, she relished her power to derail a man’s thoughts with a single fleeting but strategic smile, to make tongues falter over words.
It blistered the eyes, beauty like hers.
And then there was Parwana, shuffling next to her, with her flat chest and sallow complexion. Her frizzy hair, her heavy, mournful face, and her thick wrists and masculine shoulders. A pathetic shadow, torn between her envy and the thrill of being seen with Masooma, sharing in the attention as a weed would, lapping up water meant for the lily upstream.
All her life, Parwana had made sure to avoid standing in front of a mirror with her sister. It robbed her of hope to see her face beside Masooma’s, to see so plainly what she had been denied. But in public, every stranger’s eye was a mirror. There was no escape.
She carries Masooma outside. The two of them sit on the charpoy Parwana has set up. She makes sure to stack cushions so Masooma can comfortably lean her back against the wall. The night is quiet but for the chirping crickets, and dark too, lit only by a few lanterns still shimmering in windows and by the papery white light of the three-quarter moon.
Parwana fills the hookah’s vase with water. She takes two matchhead-sized portions of opium flakes with a pinch of tobacco and drops the mix into the hookah’s bowl. She lights the coal on the metal screen and hands the hookah to her sister. Masooma takes a deep puff from the hose, reclines against the cushions, and asks if she can rest her legs on Parwana’s lap. Parwana reaches down and lifts the limp legs to rest across her own.
When she smokes, Masooma’s face slackens. Her lids droop. Her head tilts unsteadily to the side and her voice takes on a sluggish, distant quality. A whisper of a smile forms on the corners of her mouth, whimsical, indolent, complacent rather than content. They say little to each other when Masooma is like this. Parwana listens to the breeze, to the water gurgling in the hookah. She watches the stars and the smoke drifting over her. The silence is pleasant, and neither she nor Masooma feel an urge to fill it with needless words.
Until Masooma says, “Will you do something for me?”
Parwana looks at her.
“I want you to take me to Kabul.” Masooma exhales slowly, the smoke twirling, curling, morphing into shapes with each blink of the eye.
“Are you serious?”
“I want to see Darulaman Palace. We didn’t get a chance to last time. Maybe go visit Babur’s tomb again.”
Parwana leans forward to decipher Masooma’s expression. She searches for a hint of playfulness, but in the moonlight she catches only the calm, unblinking glitter of her sister’s eyes.
“It’s a two-day walk at least. Probably three.”
“Imagine Nabi’s face when we surprise him at his door.”
“We don’t even know where he lives.”
Masooma listlessly sweeps her hand. “He already told us which neighborhood. We’ll knock on some doors and ask. It’s not that difficult.”
“How would we get there, Masooma, in your condition?”
Masooma pulls the hookah hose from her lips. “When you were out working today, Mullah Shekib came by, and I spoke to him a long time. I told him we were going to Kabul for a few days. Just you and I. He gave me his blessing in the end. Also his mule. So you see, it’s all arranged.”
“You are insane,” Parwana says.
“Well, it’s what I want. It’s my wish.”