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The Kite Runner: Page 14
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I'd reached a secluded, muddy road. It ran
perpendicular to the end of the main thoroughfare bisecting the bazaar. I turned
onto the rutted track and followed the voices. My boot squished in mud with
every step and my breath puffed out in white clouds before me. The narrow path
ran parallel on one side to a snow-filled ravine through which a stream may have
tumbled in the spring. To my other side stood rows of snow-burdened cypress
trees peppered among flat-topped clay houses-no more than mud shacks in
most cases-separated by narrow alleys.
I heard the voices again, louder this time, coming from one of the alleys. I
crept close to the mouth of the alley. Held my breath. Peeked around the corner.
Hassan was standing at the blind end of the alley in a defiant stance: fists
curled, legs slightly apart. Behind him, sitting on piles of scrap and rubble, was
the blue kite. My key to Baba's heart.
Blocking Hassan's way out of the alley were three boys, the same three
from that day on the hill, the day after Daoud Khan's coup, when Hassan had
saved us with his slingshot. Wali was standing on one side, Kamal on the other,
and in the middle, Assef. I felt my body clench up, and something cold rippled up
my spine. Assef seemed relaxed, confident. He was twirling his brass knuckles.
The other two guys shifted nervously on their feet, looking from Assef to Hassan,
like they'd cornered some kind of wild animal that only Assef could tame.
"Where is your slingshot, Hazara?" Assef said, turning the brass knuckles
in his hand. "What was it you said? 'They'll have to call you One-Eyed Assef.'
That's right. One-Eyed Assef. That was clever. Really clever. Then again, it's easy
to be clever when you're holding a loaded weapon."
I realized 1 still hadn't breathed out. I exhaled, slowly, quietly. I felt
paralyzed. I watched them close in on the boy I'd grown up with, the boy whose
harelipped face had been my first memory.
"But today is your lucky day, Hazara," Assef said. He had his back to me,
but I would have bet he was grinning. "I'm in a mood to forgive. What do you say
to that, boys?"
"That's generous," Kamal blurted, "Especially after the rude manners he
showed us last time." He was trying to sound like Assef, except there was a
tremor in his voice. Then I understood: He wasn't afraid of Hassan, not really. He
was afraid because he had no idea what Assef had in mind.
Assef waved a dismissive hand. "Bakhshida. Forgiven. It's done." His voice
dropped a little. "Of course, nothing is free in this world, and my pardon comes
with a small price."
"That's fair," Kamal said.
"Nothing is free," Wali added.
"You're a lucky Hazara," Assef said, taking a step toward Hassan.
today, it's only going to cost you that blue kite. A fair deal, boys, isn't it?"
"More than fair," Kamal said.
Even from where I was standing, I could see the fear creeping into
Hassan's eyes, but he shook his head. "Amir agha won the tournament and I ran
this kite for him. I ran it fairly. This is his kite."
"A loyal Hazara. Loyal as a dog," Assef said. Kamal's laugh was a shrill,
"But before you sacrifice yourself for him, think about this: Would he do
the same for you? Have you ever wondered why he never includes you in games
when he has guests? Why he only plays with you when no one else is around? I'll
tell you why, Hazara. Because to him, you're nothing but an ugly pet. Something
he can play with when he's bored, something he can kick when he's angry. Don't
ever fool yourself and think you're something more."
"Amir agha and I are friends," Hassan said. He looked flushed.
"Friends?" Assef said, laughing. "You pathetic fool! Someday you'll wake
up from your little fantasy and learn just how good of a friend he is. Now, has!
Enough of this. Give us that kite."
Hassan stooped and picked up a rock.
Assef flinched. He began to take a step back, stopped. "Last chance,
Hassan's answer was to cock the arm that held the rock.
"Whatever you wish." Assef unbuttoned his winter coat, took it off, folded
it slowly and deliberately. He placed it against the wall.
I opened my mouth, almost said something. Almost. The rest of my life
might have turned out differently if I had. But I didn't. I just watched. Paralyzed.
Assef motioned with his hand, and the other two boys separated, forming
a half circle, trapping Hassan in the alley.
"I've changed my mind," Assef said. "I'm letting you keep the kite, Hazara.
I'll let you keep it so it will always remind you of what I'm about to do."
Then he charged. Hassan hurled the rock. It struck Assef in the forehead.
Assef yelped as he flung himself at Hassan, knocking him to the ground. Wali and
I bit on my fist. Shut my eyes.
A MEMORY: Did you know Hassan and you fed from the same breast? Did you
know that, Amir agha? Sakina, her name was. She was a fair, blue-eyed Hazara
woman from Bamiyan and she sang you old wedding songs. They say there is a
brotherhood between people who've fed from the same breast. Did you know
that? A memory: "A rupia each, children. Just one rupia each and I will part the
curtain of truth." The old man sits against a mud wall. His sightless eyes are like
molten silver embedded in deep, twin craters.
Hunched over his cane, the fortune-teller runs a gnarled hand across the
surface of his deflated cheeks. Cups it before us. "Not much to ask for the truth, is
it, a rupia each?" Hassan drops a coin in the leathery palm. I drop mine too. "In
the name of Allah most beneficent, most merciful," the old fortune-teller
whispers. He takes Hassan's hand first, strokes the palm with one horn-like
fingernail, round and round, round and round. The finger then floats to Hassan's
face and makes a dry, scratchy sound as it slowly traces the curve of his cheeks,
the outline of his ears. The calloused pads of his fingers brush against Hassan's
eyes. The hand stops there. Lingers. A shadow passes across the old man's face.
Hassan and I exchange a glance. The old man takes Hassan's hand and puts the
rupia back in Hassan's palm. He turns to me. "How about you, young friend?" he
says. On the other side of the wall, a rooster crows. The old man reaches for my
hand and I withdraw it.
A dream: I am lost in a snowstorm. The wind shrieks, blows stinging
sheets of snow into my eyes. I stagger through layers of shifting white. I call for
help but the wind drowns my cries. I fall and lie panting on the snow, lost in the
white, the wind wailing in my ears. I watch the snow erase my fresh footprints.
I'm a ghost now, I think, a ghost with no footprints. I cry out again, hope fading
like my footprints. But this time, a muffled reply. I shield my eyes and manage to
sit up. Out of the swaying curtains of snow, I catch a glimpse of movement, a
flurry of color. A familiar shape materializes. A hand reaches out for me. I see
deep, parallel gashes across the palm, blood dripping, staining the snow. I take
the hand and suddenly the snow is gone. We're standing in a field of apple green
grass with soft wisps of clouds drifting above. I look up and see the clear sky is
filled with kites, green, yellow, red, orange. They shimmer in the afternoon light.
A HAVOC OF SCRAP AND RUBBLE littered the alley. Worn bicycle tires, bottles
with peeled labels, ripped up magazines, yellowed newspapers, all scattered
amid a pile of bricks and slabs of cement. A rusted cast-iron stove with a gaping
hole on its side tilted against a wall. But there were two things amid the garbage
that I couldn't stop looking at: One was the blue kite resting against the wall,
close to the cast-iron stove; the other was Hassan's brown corduroy pants
thrown on a heap of eroded bricks.
"I don't know," Wali was saying. "My father says it's sinful." He sounded
unsure, excited, scared, all at the same time. Hassan lay with his chest pinned to
the ground. Kamal and Wali each gripped an arm, twisted and bent at the elbow
so that Hassan's hands were pressed to his back. Assef was standing over them,
the heel of his snow boots crushing the back of Hassan's neck.
"Your father won't find out," Assef said. "And there's nothing sinful about
teaching a lesson to a disrespectful donkey."
"I don't know," Wali muttered.
"Suit yourself," Assef said. He turned to Kamal. "What about you?"
"It's just a Hazara," Assef said. But Kamal kept looking away.
"Fine," Assef snapped. "All I want you weaklings to do is hold him down.
Can you manage that?"
Wali and Kamal nodded. They looked relieved.
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