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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 36

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There was a sliver of fat, just a hint of it, beneath Soraya's chin now The
past ten years had padded the curves of her hips some, and combed into her coal
black hair a few streaks of cinder gray. But she still had the face of a Grand Ball
princess, with her bird-in-flight eyebrows and nose, elegantly curved like a letter
from ancient Arabic writings.

"You took pale," Soraya repeated, placing the stack of papers on the table.

"I have to go to Pakistan."

She stood up now. "Pakistan?"

"Rahim Khan is very sick." A fist clenched inside me with those words.

"Kaka's old business partner?" She'd never met Rahim Khan, but I had
told her about him. I nodded.

Oh," she said. "I'm so sorry, Amir.

"We used to be close," I said. "When I was a kid, he was the first grown-up
I ever thought of as a friend." I pictured him and Baba drinking tea in Baba's
study, then smoking near the window, a sweetbrier-scented breeze blowing from
the garden and bending the twin columns of smoke.

"I remember you telling me that," Soraya said. She paused. "How long will
you be gone?"

"I don't know. He wants to see me."

Is it...


"Yes, it's safe. I'll be all right, Soraya." It was the question she'd wanted to
ask all along-fifteen years of marriage had turned us into mind readers. "I'm
going to go for a walk."

"Should I go with you?"

"Nay, I'd rather be alone."

I DROVE TO GOLDEN GATE PARK and walked along Spreckels Lake on the
northern edge of the park. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon; the sun sparkled
on the water where dozens of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp San
Francisco breeze. I sat on a park bench, watched a man toss a football to his son,
telling him to not sidearm the ball, to throw over the shoulder. I glanced up and
saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails. They floated high above the trees on
the west end of the park, over the windmills.

I thought about a comment Rahim Khan had made just before we hung up.
Made it in passing, almost as an afterthought. I closed my eyes and saw him at
the other end of the scratchy long-distance line, saw him with his lips slightly

parted, head tilted to one side. And again, something in his bottomless black eyes
hinted at an unspoken secret between us. Except now I knew he knew. My
suspicions had been right all those years. He knew about Assef, the kite, the
money, the watch with the lightning bolt hands. He had always known.

Come. There is a way to be good again, Rahim Khan had said on the phone
just before hanging up. Said it in passing, almost as an afterthought.

A way to be good again.

WHEN I CAME HOME, Soraya was on the phone with her mother. "Won't be long,
Madarjan. A week, maybe two... Yes, you and Padar can stay with me."

Two years earlier, the general had broken his right hip. He'd had one of
his migraines again, and emerging from his room, bleary-eyed and dazed, he had
tripped on a loose carpet edge. His scream had brought Khala Jamila running
from the kitchen. "It sounded like a jaroo, a broomstick, snapping in half," she
was always fond of saying, though the doctor had said it was unlikely she'd heard
anything of the sort. The general's shattered hip-and all of the ensuing
complications, the pneumonia, blood poisoning, the protracted stay at the
nursing home-ended Khala Jamila's long-running soliloquies about her own
health. And started new ones about the general's. She'd tell anyone who would
listen that the doctors had told them his kidneys were failing. "But then they had
never seen Afghan kidneys, had they?" she'd say proudly. What I remember most
about the general's hospital stay is how Khala Jamila would wait until he fell
asleep, and then sing to him, songs I remembered from Kabul, playing on Baba's
scratchy old transistor radio.

The general's frailty-and time-had softened things between him and
Soraya too. They took walks together, went to lunch on Saturdays, and,
sometimes, the general sat in on some of her classes. He'd sit in the back of the
room, dressed in his shiny old gray suit, wooden cane across his lap, smiling.
Sometimes he even took notes.

THAT NIGHT, Soraya and I lay in bed, her back pressed to my chest, my face
buried in her hair. I remembered when we used to lay forehead to forehead,
sharing afterglow kisses and whispering until our eyes drifted closed,
whispering about tiny, curled toes, first smiles, first words, first steps. We still
did sometimes, but the whispers were about school, my new book, a giggle over
someone's ridiculous dress at a party. Our lovemaking was still good, at times
better than good, but some nights all I'd feel was a relief to be done with it, to be
free to drift away and forget, at least for a while, about the futility of what we'd
just done. She never said so, but I knew sometimes Soraya felt it too. On those
nights, we'd each roll to our side of the bed and let our own savior take us away.
Soraya's was sleep. Mine, as always, was a book.

I lay in the dark the night Rahim Khan called and traced with my eyes the
parallel silver lines on the wall made by moonlight pouring through the blinds.

At some point, maybe just before dawn, I drifted to sleep. And dreamed of
Hassan running in the snow, the hem of his green chapan dragging behind him,
snow crunching under his black rubber boots. He was yelling over his shoulder:
For you, a thousand times over!

A WEEK LATER, I sat on a window seat aboard a Pakistani International Airlines
flight, watching a pair of uniformed airline workers remove the wheel chocks.
The plane taxied out of the terminal and, soon, we were airborne, cutting
through the clouds. I rested my head against the window. Waited, in vain, for


Three hours after my flight landed in Peshawar, I was sitting on shredded
upholstery in the backseat of a smoke-filled taxicab. My driver, a chain-smoking,
sweaty little man who introduced himself as Gholam, drove nonchalantly and

recklessly, averting collisions by the thinnest of margins, all without so much as a
pause in the incessant stream of words spewing from his mouth: ??terrible what
is happening in your country, yar. Afghani people and Pakistani people they are
like brothers, I tell you. Muslims have to help Muslims so..."

I tuned him out, switched to a polite nodding mode. I remembered
Peshawar pretty well from the few months Baba and I had spent there in 1981.
We were heading west now on Jamrud road, past the Cantonment and its lavish,
high-walled homes. The bustle of the city blurring past me reminded me of a
busier, more crowded version of the Kabul I knew, particularly of the Kocheh
Morgha, or Chicken Bazaar, where Hassan and I used to buy chutney-dipped
potatoes and cherry water. The streets were clogged with bicycle riders, milling
pedestrians, and rickshaws popping blue smoke, all weaving through a maze of
narrow lanes and alleys. Bearded vendors draped in thin blankets sold animal
skin lampshades, carpets, embroidered shawls, and copper goods from rows of
small, tightly jammed stalls. The city was bursting with sounds; the shouts of
vendors rang in my ears mingled with the blare of Hindi music, the sputtering of
rickshaws, and the jingling bells of horse-drawn carts. Rich scents, both pleasant
and not so pleasant, drifted to me through the passenger window, the spicy
aroma of pakora and the nihari Baba had loved so much blended with the sting of
diesel fumes, the stench of rot, garbage, and feces.

A little past the redbrick buildings of Peshawar University, we entered an
area my garrulous driver referred to as "Afghan Town." I saw sweetshops and
carpet vendors, kabob stalls, kids with dirt-caked hands selling cigarettes, tiny
restaurants-maps of Afghanistan painted on their windows-all interlaced with
backstreet aid agencies. "Many of your brothers in this area, yar. They are
opening businesses, but most of them are very poor." He tsk'ed his tongue and
sighed. "Anyway, we're getting close now."

I thought about the last time I had seen Rahim Khan, in 1981. He had
come to say good-bye the night Baba and I had fled Kabul. I remember Baba and
him embracing in the foyer, crying softly. When Baba and I arrived in the U.S., he
and Rahim Khan kept in touch. They would speak four or five times a year and,
sometimes, Baba would pass me the receiver. The last time I had spoken to
Rahim Khan had been shortly after Baba's death. The news had reached Kabul
and he had called. We'd only spoken for a few minutes and lost the connection.

The driver pulled up to a narrow building at a busy corner where two
winding streets intersected.

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