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The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner: Page 22


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Someone laughed, a shrill cackling sound that
made me jump. Baba's hand clamped down on my thigh. The laughing man broke
into song, a slurring, off-key rendition of an old Afghan wedding song, delivered
with a thick Russian accent: Ahesta boro, Mah-e-man, ahesta boro.



Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.



Boot heels clicked on asphalt. Someone flung open the tarpaulin hanging
over the back of the truck, and three faces peered in. One was Karim, the other
two were soldiers, one Afghan, the other a grinning Russian, face like a bulldog's,
cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. Behind them, a bone-colored moon
hung in the sky. Karim and the Afghan soldier had a brief exchange in Pashtu. I
caught a little of it-something about Toor and his bad luck. The Russian soldier
thrust his face into the rear of the truck. He was humming the wedding song and
drumming his finger on the edge of the tailgate. Even in the dim light of the
moon, I saw the glazed look in his eyes as they skipped from passenger to
passenger.
Despite the cold, sweat streamed from his brow. His eyes settled on
the young woman wearing the black shawl. He spoke in Russian to Karim
without taking his eyes off her. Karim gave a curt reply in Russian, which the
soldier returned with an even curter retort. The Afghan soldier said something
too, in a low, reasoning voice. But the Russian soldier shouted something that
made the other two flinch. I could feel Baba tightening up next to me. Karim
cleared his throat, dropped his head. Said the soldier wanted a half hour with the
lady in the back of the truck.



The young woman pulled the shawl down over her face. Burst into tears.
The toddler sitting in her husband's lap started crying too. The husband's face
had become as pale as the moon hovering above. He told Karim to ask "Mister
Soldier Sahib" to show a little mercy, maybe he had a sister or a mother, maybe
he had a wife too. The Russian listened to Karim and barked a series of words.




"It's his price for letting us pass," Karim said. He couldn't bring himself to
look the husband in the eye.



"But we've paid a fair price already. He's getting paid good money," the
husband said.



Karim and the Russian soldier spoke. "He says... he says every price has a

tax."



That was when Baba stood up. It was my turn to clamp a hand on his
thigh, but Baba pried it loose, snatched his leg away. When he stood, he eclipsed
the moonlight. "I want you to ask this man something," Baba said. He said it to
Karim, but looked directly at the Russian officer. "Ask him where his shame is."



They spoke. "He says this is war. There is no shame in war."



"Tell him he's wrong. War doesn't negate decency. It demands it, even
more than in times of peace."



Do you have to always be the hero? I thought, my heart fluttering. Can't
you just let it go for once? But I knew he couldn't--it wasn't in his nature. The
problem was, his nature was going to get us all killed.



The Russian soldier said something to Karim, a smile creasing his lips.
"Agha sahib," Karim said, "these Roussi are not like us. They understand nothing
about respect, honor."



"What did he say?"



"He says he'll enjoy putting a bullet in you almost as much as..." Karim
trailed off, but nodded his head toward the young woman who had caught the
guard's eye. The soldier flicked his unfinished cigarette and unholstered his
handgun. So this is where Baba dies, I thought. This is how it's going to happen.
In my head, I said a prayer I had learned in school.




"T ell him I 'll take a thousand of his bullets before I let this indecency take
place," Baba said. My mind flashed to that winter day six years ago. Me, peering
around the corner in the alley. Kamal and Wali holding Hassan down. Assef's
buttock muscles clenching and unclenching, his hips thrusting back and forth.
Some hero I had been, fretting about the kite. Sometimes, I too wondered if I was
really Baba's son.



The bulldog-faced Russian raised his gun.



"Baba, sit down please," I said, tugging at his sleeve. "I think he really
means to shoot you."



Baba slapped my hand away. "Haven't I taught you anything?" he
snapped. He turned to the grinning soldier. "Tell him he'd better kill me good
with that first shot. Because if I don't go down, I'm tearing him to pieces,
goddamn his father!"



The Russian soldier's grin never faltered when he heard the translation.
He clicked the safety on the gun. Pointed the barrel to Baba's chest. Heart
pounding in my throat, I buried my face in my hands.



The gun roared.



It's done, then. I'm eighteen and alone. I have no one left in the world.
Baba's dead and now I have to bury him. Where do I bury him? Where do I go
after that? But the whirlwind of half thoughts spinning in my head came to a halt
when I cracked my eyelids, found Baba still standing. I saw a second Russian
officer with the others. It was from the muzzle of his upturned gun that smoke
swirled. The soldier who had meant to shoot Baba had already holstered his
weapon. He was shuffling his feet. I had never felt more like crying and laughing
at the same time.



The second Russian officer, gray-haired and heavyset, spoke to us in
broken Farsi. He apologized for his comrade's behavior. "Russia sends them here
to fight," he said. "But they are just boys, and when they come here, they find the
pleasure of drug." He gave the younger officer the rueful look of a father




exasperated with his misbehaving son. "This one is attached to drug now. I try to
stop him..." He waved us off.



Moments later, we were pulling away. I heard a laugh and then the first
soldier's voice, slurry and off-key, singing the old wedding song.



WE RODE IN SILENCE for about fifteen minutes before the young woman's
husband suddenly stood and did something I'd seen many others do before him:
He kissed Baba's hand.



TOOR'S BAD LUCK. Hadn't I overheard that in a snippet of conversation back at
Mahipar? We rolled into Jalalabad about an hour before sunrise. Karim ushered
us quickly from the truck into a one-story house at the intersection of two dirt
roads lined with flat one-story homes, acacia trees, and closed shops. I pulled the
collar of my coat against the chill as we hurried into the house, dragging our
belongings. For some reason, I remember smelling radishes.



Once he had us inside the dimly lit, bare living room, Karim locked the
front door, pulled the tattered sheets that passed for curtains. Then he took a
deep breath and gave us the bad news: His brother Toor couldn't take us to
Peshawar. It seemed his truck's engine had blown the week before and Toor was
still waiting for parts.



"Last week?" someone exclaimed. "If you knew this, why did you bring us

here?"



I caught a flurry of movement out of the corner of my eye. Then a blur of
something zipping across the room, and the next thing I saw was Karim slammed
against the wall, his sandaled feet dangling two feet above the floor. Wrapped
around his neck were Baba's hands.




"I'll tell you why," Baba snapped. "Because he got paid for his leg of the
trip. That's all he cared about." Karim was making guttural choking sounds.
Spittle dripped from the corner of his mouth.



"Put him down, Agha, you're killing him," one of the passengers said.



"It's what I intend to do," Baba said. What none of the others in the room
knew was that Baba wasn't joking. Karim was turning red and kicking his legs.
Baba kept choking him until the young mother, the one the Russian officer had
fancied, begged him to stop.



Karim collapsed on the floor and rolled around fighting for air when Baba
finally let go. The room fell silent. Less than two hours ago, Baba had volunteered
to take a bullet for the honor of a woman he didn't even know. Now he'd almost
choked a man to death, would have done it cheerfully if not for the pleas of that
same woman.



Something thumped next door. No, not next door, below.



"What's that?" someone asked.



"The others," Karim panted between labored breaths. "In the basement."



"How long have they been waiting?" Baba said, standing over Karim.



"Two weeks."



"I thought you said the truck broke down last week."



Karim rubbed his throat. "It might have been the week before," he
croaked.



How long?




What?



"How long for the parts?" Baba roared. Karim flinched but said nothing. I
was glad for the darkness. I didn't want to see the murderous look on Baba's
face.



THE STENCH OF SOMETHING DANK, like mildew, bludgeoned my nostrils the
moment Karim opened the door that led down the creaky steps to the basement.

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