"He went back to sleep," Ali said, kneeling before the stove. He pulled the little square door open.
Would Hassan be able to play today? Ali paused with a log in his hand. A worried look crossed his face. "Lately, it seems all he wants to do is sleep. He does his chores-I see to that-but then he just wants to crawl under his blanket. Can I ask you something?"
"If you have to."
"After that kite tournament, he came home a little bloodied and his shirt was torn. I asked him what had happened and he said it was nothing, that he'd gotten into a little scuffle with some kids over the kite."
I didn't say anything. Just kept pushing the egg around on my plate.
"Did something happen to him, Amir agha? Something he's not telling me?"
I shrugged. "How should I know?
"You would tell me, nay? _Inshallah_, you would tell me if something had
"Like I said, how should I know what's wrong with him?" I snapped.
"Maybe he's sick. People get sick all the time, Ah. Now, am I going to freeze to death or are you planning on lighting the stove today?"
invite another two dozen people. He
called his cousin Homayoun--he was actually Baba's second cousin--and mentioned he was going to Jalalabad on Friday, and Homayoun, who had studied engineering in France and had a house in Jalalabad, said he'd love to have everyone over, he'd bring the kids, his two wives, and, while he was at it, cousin Shafiqa and her family were visiting from Herat, maybe she'd like to tag along, and since she was staying with cousin Nader in Kabul, his family would have to be invited as well even though Homayoun and Nader had a bit of a feud going, and if Nader was invited, surely his brother Faruq had to be asked too or his feelings would be hurt and he might not invite them to his daughter's wedding next month and...
two-hour trek through mountain roads winding along a steep drop, and my stomach lurched with each hairpin turn. Everyone in the van was talking, talking loudly and at the same time, nearly shrieking, which is how Afghans talk. I asked one of the twins-Fazila or Karima, I could never tell which was which-if she'd trade her window seat with me so I could get fresh air on account of my car sickness. She stuck her tongue out and said no. I told her that was fine, but I couldn't be held accountable for vomiting on her new dress. A minute later, I was leaning out the window. I watched the cratered road rise and fall, whirl its tail around the mountainside, counted the multicolored trucks packed with squatting men lumbering past. I tried closing my eyes, letting the
wind slap at my cheeks, opened my mouth to swallow the clean air. I still didn't feel better. A finger poked me in the side. It was Fazila/Karima.
After the rape, Hassan did not spend time with Amir although he still did his chores. A worried Ali asked Amir about Hassan's torn shirt and bloodied pants the night of the tournament, but Amir pretended not to know what happened. That night, he asked Baba if they could go to Jalalabad; ever since Amir won the tournament, Baba had not denied him anything. When Baba suggested they invite Hassan along, Amir told him that Hassan was sick. Amir looked forward to having Baba to himself, but Baba invited three vans' worth of relatives and friends along. As they drove along in the car, one friend's twin daughters recounted Amir's victory at the kite-fighting tournament. At this, Amir's carsickness overwhelmed him and he vomited. As they aired out the van on the roadside, Amir saw Hassan's bloodied pants in his head.
Finally, they reached Kaka Homayoun's house in Jalalabad. Even though Amir finally had the intimacy with Baba he had wanted all his life, his guilt made him feel emptier than ever. As Amir, Baba, and everyone else slept in the same room, Amir confessed to the darkness, "I watched Hassan get raped." No one heard him. He realized that he was the monster in Hassan's dream and had dragged Hassan to the bottom of the lake. That night, Amir's insomnia began.
A week later, Hassan asked Amir to climb the hill with him and read to him. When they reached their favorite spot, Amir changed his mind and the boys walked back down. After that incident, Amir's memories of the winter of 1975 are unclear. He could not wait for winter to end and school to begin, even though he had fun with Baba. He made sure to never be in the same room as Hassan, although his loyal friend kept trying to make things better between them. One day, after Amir refused to walk to the market with him, Hassan asked Amir what he had done wrong. Amir told Hassan that he should stop harassing him. After that, Hassan left him alone. One day as they were planting tulips, Amir asked Baba if he would get new servants. Baba was furious and threatened to strike Amir if he ever suggested it again. Ali and Hassan were their family, he said.
When school started, Amir was relieved to have homework to keep him busy. Then one day, he asked Hassan to climb the hill with him to hear a new story. Hassan joined him eagerly. After they picked pomegranates, Amir asked Hassan what he would do if he threw a pomegranate at him. When Hassan said nothing, he threw the fruit at him and demanded that Hassan throw one back. As Hassan refused to fight back, Amir threw countless pomegranates at him until he was stained in blood-red juice. Finally, Hassan smashed a pomegranate against his own forehead and asked, "Are you satisfied? Do you feel better?" before leaving.
That summer, Amir turned thirteen. Even though the coldness between him and Baba had returned, his father threw him a lavish birthday party with a guest list of four hundred people. Assef showed up with his parents and charmed Baba. He invited Amir to come play volleyball at his house and to bring along Hassan, but Amir refused. Then Assef offered Amir his gift, a book he picked out himself. After awkwardly excusing himself, he unwrapped the present alone; it was a biography of Hitler, which he threw into the bushes. Rahim Khan found him and told him a story. He had almost married a Hazara woman, but his family was outraged at the proposition and sent her and her family out of town. Then Rahim Khan told Amir that he could confide in him, but Amir could not bring himself to tell his friend what he had done. Rahim Khan gave him his present, a notebook for his stories. Then they hurried back to the party to watch the fireworks. In one flash of light, Amir saw Hassan serving drinks to Assef and Wali. He saw Assef playfully punch Hassan in the chest before, to his relief, the light faded.
balcony overlooking a large, walled garden with apple and persimmon trees. There were hedges that, in the summer, the gardener shaped like animals, and a swimming pool with emerald colored tiles. I sat on the edge of the pool, empty save for a layer of slushy snow at the bottom, feet dangling in. Kaka Homayoun's kids were playing hide-and-seek at the other end of the yard. The women were cooking and I could smell onions frying already, could hear the phht-phht of a pressure cooker, music, laughter. Baba, Rahim Khan, Kaka Homayoun, and Kaka Nader were sitting on the balcony, smoking. Kaka Homayoun was telling them he'd brought the projector along to show his slides of France. Ten years since he'd
returned from Paris and he was still showing those stupid slides.
Baba and I were finally friends. We'd gone
to the zoo a few days before, seen Marjan the lion, and I had hurled a pebble at the bear when no one was watching. We'd gone to Dadkhoda's Kabob House afterward, across from Cinema Park, had lamb kabob with freshly baked _naan_
from the tandoor. Baba told me stories of his travels to India and Russia, the people he had met, like the armless, legless couple in Bombay who'd been married forty-seven years and raised eleven children. That should have been fun, spending a day like that with Baba, hearing his stories. I finally had what I'd wanted all those years. Except now that I had it, I felt as empty as this unkempt pool I was dangling my legs into.
dinner-rice, kofta, and chicken _qurma_-
-at sundown. We dined the traditional way, sitting on cushions around the room, tablecloth spread on the floor, eating with our hands in groups of four or five from common platters. I wasn't hungry but sat down to eat anyway with Baba, Kaka Faruq, and Kaka Homayoun's two boys. Baba, who'd had a few scotches before dinner, was still ranting about the kite tournament, how I'd outlasted them all, how I'd come home with the last kite. His booming voice dominated the room. People raised their heads from their platters, called out their congratulations. Kaka Faruq patted my back with his clean hand. I felt like sticking a knife in my eye.
Later, well past midnight, after a few hours of poker between Baba and his cousins, the men lay down to sleep on parallel mattresses in the same room where we'd dined. The women went upstairs. An hour later, I still couldn't sleep. I kept tossing and turning as my relatives grunted, sighed, and snored in their sleep. I sat up. A wedge of moonlight streamed in through the window.
rekindle things between us. I remember the last time. I was in my room, reading an abbreviated Farsi translation of Ivanhoe, when he knocked on my door.
"What is it?"
"I'm going to the baker to buy _naan_," he said from the other side. "I was wondering if you... if you wanted to come along."
"I think I'm just going to read," I said, rubbing my temples. Lately, every time Hassan was around, I was getting a headache.
"It's a sunny day," he said.
"I can see that."
"Might be fun to go for a walk."
"I wish you'd come along," he said. Paused. Something thumped against the door, maybe his forehead. "I don't know what I've done, Amir agha. I wish you'd tell me. I don't know why we don't play anymore."
"You haven't done anything, Hassan. Just go."
"You can tell me, I'll stop doing it."
stay in my room for long hours. And, for a
while, it took my mind off what had happened that winter, what I had let happen. For a few weeks, I preoccupied myself with gravity and momentum, atoms and cells, the Anglo-Afghan wars, instead of thinking about Hassan and what had happened to him. But, always, my mind returned to the alley. To Hassan's brown corduroy pants lying on the bricks. To the droplets of blood staining the snow dark red, almost black.
One sluggish, hazy afternoon early that summer, I asked Hassan to go up the hill with me. Told him I wanted to read him a new story I'd written. He was hanging clothes to dry in the yard and I saw his eagerness in the harried way he finished the job.
The color fell from his face. Next to him, the stapled pages of the story I'd promised to read him fluttered in the breeze. I hurled the pomegranate at him. It struck him in the chest, exploded in a spray of red pulp. Hassan's cry was pregnant with surprise and pain.
Hit me back!" I snapped. Hassan looked from the stain on his chest to me.
"Get up! Hit me!" I said. Hassan did get up, but he just stood there, looking
dazed like a man dragged into the ocean by a riptide when, just a moment ago, he
was enjoying a nice stroll on the beach.
I hit him with another pomegranate, in the shoulder this time. The juice splattered his face. "Hit me back!" I spat. "Hit me back, goddam you!" I wished he would. I wished he'd give me the punishment I craved, so maybe I'd finally sleep at night. Maybe then things could return to how they used to be between us. But Hassan did nothing as I pelted him again and again. "You're a coward!" I said. "Nothing but a goddam coward!"
I don't know how many times I hit him. All I know is that, when I finally stopped, exhausted and panting, Hassan was smeared in red like he'd been shot by a firing squad. I fell to my knees, tired, spent, frustrated.
Then Hassan did pick up a pomegranate. He walked toward me. He opened it and crushed it against his own forehead. "There," he croaked, red
dripping down his face like blood. "Are you satisfied? Do you feel better?" He turned around and started down the hill.
hired help. There was Salahuddin the butcher, who showed up with a calf and two sheep in tow, refusing payment for any of the three. He slaughtered the animals himself in the
yard by a poplar tree. "Blood is good for the tree," I remember him saying as the grass around the poplar soaked red. Men I didn't know climbed the oak trees with coils of small electric bulbs and meters of extension cords. Others set up
dozens of tables in the yard, spread a tablecloth on each. The night before the big party Baba's friend Del-Muhammad, who owned a kabob house in Shar-e-Nau, came to the house with his bags of spices. Like the butcher, Del-Muhammad-or
Dello, as Baba called him-refused payment for his services. He said Baba had done enough for his family already. It was Rahim Khan who whispered to me, as Dello marinated the meat, that Baba had lent Dello the money to open his restaurant. Baba had refused repayment until Dello had shown up one day in our driveway in a Benz and insisted he wouldn't leave until Baba took his money.
"Happy birthday, Amir." It was Assef, with his parents. Assef's father, Mahmood, was a short, lanky sort with dark skin and a narrow face. His mother, Tanya, was a small, nervous woman who smiled and blinked a lot. Assef was standing between the two of them now, grinning, looming over both, his arms resting on their shoulders. He led them toward us, like he had brought them here. Like he was the parent, and they his children. A wave of dizziness rushed through me. Baba thanked them for coming.
"I picked out your present myself," Assef said. Tanya's face twitched and her eyes flicked from Assef to me. She smiled, unconvincingly, and blinked. I wondered if Baba had noticed.
"Still playing soccer, Assef jan?" Baba said. He'd always wanted me to be friends with Assef.
Assef smiled. It was creepy how genuinely sweet he made it look. "Of
course, Kaka jan."
"Right wing, as I recall?"
"Actually, I switched to center forward this year," Assef said. "You get to score more that way. We're playing the Mekro-Rayan team next week. Should be a good match. They have some good players."
Baba nodded. "You know, I played center forward too when I was young."
"I'll bet you still could if you wanted to," Assef said. He favored Baba with a good-natured wink.
Anyway, I heard you like to read so I brought you a book. One of my favorites."
He extended a wrapped birthday gift to me. "Happy birthday."
He was dressed in a cotton shirt and blue slacks, a red silk tie and shiny black loafers. He smelled of cologne and his blond hair was neatly combed back. On the surface, he was the embodiment of every parent's dream, a strong, tall, well-dressed and well-mannered boy with talent and striking looks, not to mention the wit to joke with an adult. But to me, his eyes betrayed him. When I looked into them, the facade faltered, revealed a glimpse of the madness hiding behind them.
I tore the wrapping paper from Assef's present and tilted the book cover in the moonlight. It was a biography of Hitler. I threw it amid a tangle of weeds.
"Really?" I said, smiling a little at the notion of Rahim Khan getting married. I'd always thought of him as Baba's quiet alter ego, my writing mentor, my pal, the one who never forgot to bring me a souvenir, a saughat, when he returned from a trip abroad. But a husband? A father? He nodded. "It's true. I was eighteen. Her name was Homaira. She was a Hazara, the daughter of our neighbor's servants. She was as beautiful as a pari, light brown hair, big hazel eyes... she had this laugh... I can still hear it sometimes." He twirled his glass. "We used to meet secretly in my father's apple orchards, always after midnight when everyone had gone to sleep. We'd walk under the trees and I'd hold her hand... Am I embarrassing you, Amir jan?"