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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 21

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Thunderheads rolled in, painted the sky iron gray. Within minutes, sheets of rain
were sweeping in, the steady hiss of falling water swelling in my ears.

Baba had offered to drive them to Bamiyan himself, but Ali refused.
Through the blurry, rain-soaked window of my bedroom, I watched Ali haul the
lone suitcase carrying all of their belongings to Baba's car idling outside the
gates. Hassan lugged his mattress, rolled tightly and tied with a rope, on his back.
He'd left all of his toys behind in the empty shack-I discovered them the next
day, piled in a corner just like the birthday presents in my room.

Slithering beads of rain sluiced down my window. I saw Baba slam the
trunk shut. Already drenched, he walked to the driver's side. Leaned in and said
something to Ali in the backseat, perhaps one last-ditch effort to change his
mind. They talked that way awhile, Baba getting soaked, stooping, one arm on
the roof of the car. But when he straightened, I saw in his slumping shoulders
that the life I had known since I'd been born was over. Baba slid in. The
headlights came on and cut twin funnels of light in the rain. If this were one of
the Hindi movies Hassan and I used to watch, this was the part where I'd run
outside, my bare feet splashing rainwater. I'd chase the car, screaming for it to
stop. I'd pull Hassan out of the backseat and tell him I was sorry, so sorry, my
tears mixing with rainwater. We'd hug in the downpour. But this was no Hindi
movie. I was sorry, but I didn't cry and I didn't chase the car. I watched Baba's
car pull away from the curb, taking with it the person whose first spoken word
had been my name. I caught one final blurry glimpse of Hassan slumped in the
back seat before Baba turned left at the street corner where we'd played marbles
so many times.

I stepped back and all I saw was rain through windowpanes that looked
like melting silver.


March 1981

A young woman sat across from us. She was dressed in an olive green dress with
a black shawl wrapped tightly around her face against the night chill. She burst
into prayer every time the truck jerked or stumbled into a pothole, her
"Bismillah!" peaking with each of the truck's shudders and jolts. Her husband, a
burly man in baggy pants and sky blue turban, cradled an infant in one arm and
thumbed prayer beads with his free hand. His lips moved in silent prayer. There
were others, in all about a dozen, including Baba and me, sitting with our
suitcases between our legs, cramped with these strangers in the tarpaulin-
covered cab of an old Russian truck.

My innards had been roiling since we'd left Kabul just after two in the
morning. Baba never said so, but I knew he saw my car sickness as yet another of
my array of weakness--I saw it on his embarrassed face the couple of times my
stomach had clenched so badly I had moaned. When the burly guy with the
beads--the praying woman's husband--asked if I was going to get sick, I said I
might. Baba looked away. The man lifted his corner of the tarpaulin cover and
rapped on the driver's window, asked him to stop. But the driver, Karim, a
scrawny dark-skinned man with hawk-boned features and a pencil-thin
mustache, shook his head.

"We are too close to Kabul," he shot back. "Tell him to have a strong

Baba grumbled something under his breath. I wanted to tell him I was
sorry, but suddenly I was salivating, the back of my throat tasting bile. I turned
around, lifted the tarpaulin, and threw up over the side of the moving truck.
Behind me, Baba was apologizing to the other passengers. As if car sickness was
a crime. As if you weren't supposed to get sick when you were eighteen. I threw
up two more times before Karim agreed to stop, mostly so I wouldn't stink up his
vehicle, the instrument of his livelihood. Karim was a people smuggler� it was a
pretty lucrative business then, driving people out of Shorawi-occupied Kabul to
the relative safety of Pakistan. He was taking us to Jalalabad, about 170
kilometers southeast of Kabul, where his brother, Toor, who had a bigger truck
with a second convoy of refugees, was waiting to drive us across the Khyber Pass
and into Peshawar.

We were a few kilometers west of Mahipar Falls when Karim pulled to the
side of the road. Mahipar-which means "Flying Fish"-was a high summit with a
precipitous drop overlooking the hydro plant the Germans had built for
Afghanistan back in 1967. Baba and I had driven over the summit countless
times on our way to Jalalabad, the city of cypress trees and sugarcane fields
where Afghans vacationed in the winter.

I hopped down the back of the truck and lurched to the dusty
embankment on the side of the road. My mouth filled with saliva, a sign of the
retching that was yet to come. I stumbled to the edge of the cliff overlooking the
deep valley that was shrouded in dark ness. I stooped, hands on my kneecaps,
and waited for the bile. Somewhere, a branch snapped, an owl hooted. The wind,
soft and cold, clicked through tree branches and stirred the bushes that
sprinkled the slope. And from below, the faint sound of water tumbling through
the valley.

Standing on the shoulder of the road, I thought of the way we'd left the
house where I'd lived my entire life, as if we were going out for a bite: dishes
smeared with kofta piled in the kitchen sink; laundry in the wicker basket in the
foyer; beds unmade; Baba's business suits hanging in the closet. Tapestries still
hung on the walls of the living room and my mother's books still crowded the
shelves in Baba's study. The signs of our elopement were subtle: My parents'
wedding picture was gone, as was the grainy photograph of my grandfather and
King Nader Shah standing over the dead deer. A few items of clothing were
missing from the closets. The leather-bound notebook Rahim Khan had given me
five years earlier was gone.

In the morning, Jalaluddin-our seventh servant in five years-would
probably think we'd gone out for a stroll or a drive. We hadn't told him. You
couldn't trust anyone in Kabul any more-for a fee or under threat, people told
on each other, neighbor on neighbor, child on parent, brother on brother, servant
on master, friend on friend. I thought of the singer Ahmad Zahir, who had played
the accordion at my thirteenth birthday. He had gone for a drive with some
friends, and someone had later found his body on the side of the road, a bullet in
the back of his head. The rafiqs, the comrades, were everywhere and they'd split
Kabul into two groups: those who eavesdropped and those who didn't. The
tricky part was that no one knew who belonged to which. A casual remark to the
tailor while getting fitted for a suit might land you in the dungeons of Poleh-
charkhi. Complain about the curfew to the butcher and next thing you knew, you
were behind bars staring at the muzzle end of a Kalashnikov. Even at the dinner
table, in the privacy of their home, people had to speak in a calculated manner-
the rafiqs were in the classrooms too; they'd taught children to spy on their
parents, what to listen for, whom to tell.

What was I doing on this road in the middle of the night? I should have
been in bed, under my blanket, a book with dog-eared pages at my side. This had
to be a dream. Had to be. Tomorrow morning, I'd wake up, peek out the window:
No grim-faced Russian soldiers patrolling the sidewalks, no tanks rolling up and
down the streets of my city, their turrets swiveling like accusing fingers, no
rubble, no curfews, no Russian Army Personnel Carriers weaving through the
bazaars. Then, behind me, I heard Baba and Karim discussing the arrangement in
Jalalabad over a smoke. Karim was reassuring Baba that his brother had a big
truck of "excellent and first-class quality," and that the trek to Peshawar would
be very routine. "He could take you there with his eyes closed," Karim said. I
overheard him telling Baba how he and his brother knew the Russian and Afghan
soldiers who worked the checkpoints, how they had set up a "mutually
profitable" arrangement. This was no dream. As if on cue, a MiG suddenly
screamed past overhead. Karim tossed his cigarette and produced a hand gun
from his waist. Pointing it to the sky and making shooting gestures, he spat and
cursed at the MiG.

I wondered where Hassan was. Then the inevitable. I vomited on a tangle
of weeds, my retching and groaning drowned in the deafening roar of the MiG.

WE PULLED UP to the checkpoint at Mahipar twenty minutes later. Our driver let
the truck idle and hopped down to greet the approaching voices. Feet crushed
gravel. Words were exchanged, brief and hushed. A flick of a lighter. "Spasseba."

Another flick of the lighter.

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