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The Kite Runner: Page 20
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He held up a finger, asking me to wait, and walked to his living quarters. A
moment later, he emerged with something in his hands. "The opportunity never
presented itself last night for Hassan and me to give you this," he said, handing
me a box. "It's modest and not worthy of you, Amir agha. But we hope you like it
still. Happy birthday."
A lump was rising in my throat. "Thank you, Ali," I said. I wished they
hadn't bought me anything. I opened the box and found a brand new
_Shahnamah_, a hardback with glossy colored illustrations beneath the passages.
Here was Ferangis gazing at her newborn son, Kai Khosrau. There was Afrasiyab
riding his horse, sword drawn, leading his army. And, of course, Rostam inflicting
a mortal wound onto his son, the warrior Sohrab. "It's beautiful," I said.
"Hassan said your copy was old and ragged, and that some of the pages
were missing," Ali said. "All the pictures are hand-drawn in this one with pen and
ink," he added proudly, eyeing a book neither he nor his son could read.
"It's lovely," I said. And it was. And, I suspected, not inexpensive either. I
wanted to tell Ali it was not the book, but I who was unworthy. I hopped back on
the bicycle. "Thank Hassan for me," I said.
I ended up tossing the book on the heap of gifts in the corner of my room.
But my eyes kept going back to it, so I buried it at the bottom. Before I went to
bed that night, I asked Baba if he'd seen my new watch anywhere.
THE NEXT MORNING, I waited in my room for Ali to clear the breakfast table in
the kitchen. Waited for him to do the dishes, wipe the counters. I looked out my
bedroom window and waited until Ali and Hassan went grocery shopping to the
bazaar, pushing the empty wheelbarrows in front of them.
Then I took a couple of the envelopes of cash from the pile of gifts and my
watch, and tiptoed out. I paused before Baba's study and listened in. He'd been in
there all morning, making phone calls. He was talking to someone now, about a
shipment of rugs due to arrive next week. I went downstairs, crossed the yard,
and entered Ali and Hassan's living quarters by the loquat tree. 1 lifted Hassan's
mattress and planted my new watch and a handful of Afghani bills under it.
I waited another thirty minutes. Then I knocked on Baba's door and told
what I hoped would be the last in a long line of shameful lies.
THROUGH MY BEDROOM WINDOW, I watched Ali and Hassan push the
wheelbarrows loaded with meat, _naan_, fruit, and vegetables up the driveway. I
saw Baba emerge from the house and walk up to Ali. Their mouths moved over
words I couldn't hear. Baba pointed to the house and Ali nodded. They separated.
Baba came back to the house; Ali followed Hassan to their hut.
A few moments later, Baba knocked on my door. "Come to my office," he
"We're all going to sit down and settle this thing."
I went to Baba's study, sat in one of the leather sofas. It was thirty
minutes or more before Hassan and Ali joined us.
THEY'D BOTH BEEN CRYING; I could tell from their red, puffed up eyes. They
stood before Baba, hand in hand, and I wondered how and when I'd become
capable of causing this kind of pain.
Baba came right out and asked. "Did you steal that money? Did you steal
Amir's watch, Hassan?"
Hassan's reply was a single word, delivered in a thin, raspy voice: "Yes."
I flinched, like I'd been slapped. My heart sank and I almost blurted out
the truth. Then I understood: This was Hassan's final sacrifice for me. If he'd said
no, Baba would have believed him because we all knew Hassan never lied. And if
Baba believed him, then I'd be the accused; I would have to explain and I would
be revealed for what I really was. Baba would never, ever forgive me. And that
led to another understanding: Hassan knew He knew I'd seen everything in that
alley, that I'd stood there and done nothing. He knew I had betrayed him and yet
he was rescuing me once again, maybe for the last time. I loved him in that
moment, loved him more than I'd ever loved anyone, and I wanted to tell them
all that I was the snake in the grass, the monster in the lake. I wasn't worthy of
this sacrifice; I was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. And I would have told, except that a
part of me was glad. Glad that this would all be over with soon. Baba would
dismiss them, there would be some pain, but life would move on. 1 wanted that,
to move on, to forget, to start with a clean slate. I wanted to be able to breathe
Except Baba stunned me by saying, "I forgive you."
Forgive? But theft was the one unforgivable sin, the common
denominator of all sins. When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife's
right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal
someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.
There is no act more wretched than stealing. Hadn't Baba sat me on his lap and
said those words to me? Then how could he just forgive Hassan? And if Baba
could forgive that, then why couldn't he forgive me for not being the son he'd
always wanted? Why--"We are leaving, Agha sahib," Ali said.
"What?" Baba said, the color draining from his face.
"We can't live here anymore," Ali said.
"But I forgive him, Ali, didn't you hear?" said Baba.
"Life here is impossible for us now, Agha sahib. We're leaving." Ali drew
Hassan to him, curled his arm around his son's shoulder. It was a protective
gesture and I knew whom Ali was protecting him from. Ali glanced my way and
in his cold, unforgiving look, I saw that Hassan had told him. He had told him
everything, about what Assef and his friends had done to him, about the kite,
about me. Strangely, I was glad that someone knew me for who I really was; I
was tired of pretending.
"I don't care about the money or the watch," Baba said, his arms open,
"I don't understand why you're doing this... what do you mean
"I'm sorry, Agha sahib, but our bags are already packed. We have made
Baba stood up, a sheen of grief across his face. "Ali, haven't I provided
well for you? Haven't I been good to you and Hassan? You're the brother I never
had, Ali, you know that. Please don't do this."
"Don't make this even more difficult than it already is, Agha sahib," Ali
said. His mouth twitched and, for a moment, I thought I saw a grimace. That was
when I understood the depth of the pain I had caused, the blackness of the grief I
had brought onto everyone, that not even Ali's paralyzed face could mask his
sorrow. I forced myself to look at Hassan, but his head was downcast, his
shoulders slumped, his finger twirling a loose string on the hem of his shirt.
Baba was pleading now. "At least tell me why. I need to know!"
Ali didn't tell Baba, just as he didn't protest when Hassan confessed to the
stealing. I'll never really know why, but I could imagine the two of them in that
dim little hut, weeping, Hassan pleading him not to give me away. But I couldn't
imagine the restraint it must have taken Ali to keep that promise.
"Will you drive us to the bus station?"
"I forbid you to do this!" Baba bellowed. "Do you hear me? I forbid you!"
"Respectfully, you can't forbid me anything, Agha sahib," Ali said. "We
don't work for you anymore."
Where will you go?" Baba asked. His voice was breaking.
"To your cousin?"
"Yes. Will you take us to the bus station, Agha sahib?"
Then I saw Baba do something I had never seen him do before: He cried. It
scared me a little, seeing a grown man sob. Fathers weren't supposed to cry.
"Please," Baba was saying, but Ali had already turned to the door, Hassan trailing
him. I'll never forget the way Baba said that, the pain in his plea, the fear.
IN KABUL, it rarely rained in the summer. Blue skies stood tall and far, the sun
like a branding iron searing the back of your neck. Creeks where Hassan and I
skipped stones all spring turned dry, and rickshaws stirred dust when they
sputtered by. People went to mosques for their ten raka'ts of noontime prayer
and then retreated to whatever shade they could find to nap in, waiting for the
cool of early evening. Summer meant long school days sweating in tightly
packed, poorly ventilated classrooms learning to recite ayats from the Koran,
struggling with those tongue-twisting, exotic Arabic words. It meant catching
flies in your palm while the mullah droned on and a hot breeze brought with it
the smell of shit from the outhouse across the schoolyard, churning dust around
the lone rickety basketball hoop.
But it rained the afternoon Baba took Ali and Hassan to the bus station.
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