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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 10

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The next day, we'd wind the battle-ready line around a
wooden spool. By the time the snow melted and the rains of spring swept in,
every boy in Kabul bore telltale horizontal gashes on his fingers from a whole

winter of fighting kites. I remember how my classmates and I used to huddle,
compare our battle scars on the first day of school. The cuts stung and didn't heal
for a couple of weeks, but I didn't mind. They were reminders of a beloved
season that had once again passed too quickly. Then the class captain would
blow his whistle and we'd march in a single file to our classrooms, longing for
winter already, greeted instead by the specter of yet another long school year.

But it quickly became apparent that Hassan and I were better kite fighters
than kite makers. Some flaw or other in our design always spelled its doom. So
Baba started taking us to Saifo's to buy our kites. Saifo was a nearly blind old
man who was a _moochi_ by profession--a shoe repairman. But he was also the
city's most famous kite maker, working out of a tiny hovel on Jadeh Maywand,
the crowded street south of the muddy banks of the Kabul River. I remember you
had to crouch to enter the prison cell-sized store, and then had to lift a trapdoor
to creep down a set of wooden steps to the dank basement where Saifo stored
his coveted kites. Baba would buy us each three identical kites and spools of
glass string. If I changed my mind and asked for a bigger and fancier kite, Baba
would buy it for me-but then he'd buy it for Hassan too. Sometimes I wished he
wouldn't do that. Wished he'd let me be the favorite.

The kite-fighting tournament was an old winter tradition in Afghanistan.
It started early in the morning on the day of the contest and didn't end until only
the winning kite flew in the sky-I remember one year the tournament outlasted
daylight. People gathered on sidewalks and roofs to cheer for their kids. The
streets filled with kite fighters, jerking and tugging on their lines, squinting up to
the sky, trying to gain position to cut the opponent's line. Every kite fighter had
an assistant-in my case, Hassan-who held the spool and fed the line.

One time, a bratty Hindi kid whose family had recently moved into the
neighborhood told us that in his hometown, kite fighting had strict rules and
regulations. "You have to play in a boxed area and you have to stand at a right
angle to the wind," he said proudly. "And you can't use aluminum to make your
glass string." Hassan and I looked at each other. Cracked up. The Hindi kid would
soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians
would eventually learn by the late 1980s: that Afghans are an independent
people. Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules. And so it was with kite fighting.
The rules were simple: No rules. Fly your kite. Cut the opponents. Good luck.

Except that wasn't all. The real fun began when a kite was cut. That was
where the kite runners came in, those kids who chased the windblown kite
drifting through the neighborhoods until it came spiraling down in a field,
dropping in someone's yard, on a tree, or a rooftop. The chase got pretty fierce;
hordes of kite runners swarmed the streets, shoved past each other like those

people from Spain I'd read about once, the ones who ran from the bulls. One year
a neighborhood kid climbed a pine tree for a kite. A branch snapped under his
weight and he fell thirty feet. Broke his back and never walked again. But he fell
with the kite still in his hands. And when a kite runner had his hands on a kite, no
one could take it from him. That wasn't a rule. That was custom.

For kite runners, the most coveted prize was the last fallen kite of a
winter tournament. It was a trophy of honor, something to be displayed on a
mantle for guests to admire. When the sky cleared of kites and only the final two
remained, every kite runner readied himself for the chance to land this prize. He
positioned himself at a spot that he thought would give him a head start. Tense
muscles readied themselves to uncoil. Necks craned. Eyes crinkled. Fights broke
out. And when the last kite was cut, all hell broke loose.

Over the years, I had seen a lot of guys run kites. But Hassan was by far
the greatest kite runner I'd ever seen. It was downright eerie the way he always
got to the spot the kite would land before the kite did, as if he had some sort of
inner compass.

I remember one overcast winter day, Hassan and I were running a kite. I
was chasing him through neighborhoods, hopping gutters, weaving through
narrow streets. I was a year older than him, but Hassan ran faster than I did, and
I was falling behind.

"Hassan! Wait!" I yelled, my breathing hot and ragged.

He whirled around, motioned with his hand. "This way!" he called before
dashing around another corner. I looked up, saw that the direction we were
running was opposite to the one the kite was drifting.

"We're losing it! We're going the wrong way!" I cried out.

"Trust me!" I heard him call up ahead. I reached the corner and saw
Hassan bolting along, his head down, not even looking at the sky, sweat soaking
through the back of his shirt. I tripped over a rock and fell--I wasn't just slower
than Hassan but clumsier too; I'd always envied his natural athieticism. When I
staggered to my feet, I caught a glimpse of Hassan disappearing around another
street corner. I hobbled after him, spikes of pain battering my scraped knees.

I saw we had ended up on a rutted dirt road near Isteqial Middle School.
There was a field on one side where lettuce grew in the summer, and a row of
sour cherry trees on the other. I found Hassan sitting cross-legged at the foot of
one of the trees, eating from a fistful of dried mulberries.

"What are we doing here?" I panted, my stomach roiling with nausea.

He smiled. "Sit with me, Amir agha."

I dropped next to him, lay on a thin patch of snow, wheezing. "You're
wasting our time. It was going the other way, didn't you see?"

Hassan popped a mulberry in his mouth. "It's coming," he said. I could
hardly breathe and he didn't even sound tired.

"How do you know?" I said.

"I know."

"How can you know?"

He turned to me. A few sweat beads rolled from his bald scalp. "Would I
ever lie to you, Amir agha?"

Suddenly I decided to toy with him a little. "I don't know. Would you?"

"I'd sooner eat dirt," he said with a look of indignation.

Really? You'd do that?

He threw me a puzzled look. "Do what?

"Eat dirt if I told you to," I said. I knew I was being cruel, like when I'd
taunt him if he didn't know some big word. But there was something fascinating-
-albeit in a sick way--about teasing Hassan. Kind of like when we used to play
insect torture. Except now, he was the ant and I was holding the magnifying

His eyes searched my face for a long time. We sat there, two boys under a
sour cherry tree, suddenly looking, really looking, at each other. That's when it
happened again: Hassan's face changed. Maybe not_changed_, not really, but
suddenly I had the feeling I was looking at two faces, the one I knew, the one that
was my first memory, and another, a second face, this one lurking just beneath
the surface. I'd seen it happen before--it always shook me up a little. It just
appeared, this other face, for a fraction of a moment, long enough to leave me
with the unsettling feeling that maybe I'd seen it someplace before. Then Hassan
blinked and it was just him again. Just Hassan.

"If you asked, I would," he finally said, looking right at me. I dropped my
eyes. To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who
mean every word they say.

"But I wonder," he added. "Would you ever ask me to do such a thing,
Amir agha?" And, just like that, he had thrown at me his own little test. If I was
going to toy with him and challenge his loyalty, then he'd toy with me, test my

I wished I hadn't started this conversation. I forced a smile. "Don't be
stupid, Hassan. You know I wouldn't."

Hassan returned the smile. Except his didn't look forced. "I know," he said.
And that's the thing about people who mean everything they say. They think
everyone else does too.

"Here it comes," Hassan said, pointing to the sky. He rose to his feet and
walked a few paces to his left. I looked up, saw the kite plummeting toward us.

I heard footfalls, shouts, an approaching melee of kite runners.
But they
were wasting their time. Because Hassan stood with his arms wide open, smiling,
waiting for the kite. And may God--if He exists, that is--strike me blind if the kite
didn't just drop into his outstretched arms.

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