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The Kite Runner: Page 47
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Now, if you'll permit me, I have work to do." He closed
the door. Locked the bolt.
I rapped on the door with my knuckles. "Agha! Agha, please open the
door. We don't mean him any harm."
"I told you. He's not here/' his voice came from the other side. "Now,
please go away."
Farid stepped up to the door, rested his forehead on it. "Friend, we are not
with the Taliban," he said in a low, cautious voice. "The man who is with me
wants to take this boy to a safe place."
"I come from Peshawar," I said. "A good friend of mine knows an
American couple there who run a charity home for children." I felt the man's
presence on the other side of the door. Sensed him standing there, listening,
hesitating, caught between suspicion and hope. "Look, I knew Sohrab's father," I
said. "His name was Hassan. His mother's name was Farzana. He called his grand
mother Sasa. He knows how to read and write. And he's good with the slingshot.
There's hope for this boy, Agha, a way out. Please open the door."
From the other side, only silence.
"I'm his half uncle," I said.
A moment passed. Then a key rattled in the lock. The man's narrow face
reappeared in the crack. He looked from me to Farid and back. "You were wrong
about one thing."
"He's great with the slingshot."
"He's inseparable from that thing. He tucks it in the waist of his pants
everywhere he goes."
THE MAN WHO LET US IN introduced himself as Zaman, the director of the
orphanage. "I'll take you to my office," he said.
We followed him through dim, grimy hallways where barefoot children
dressed in frayed sweaters ambled around. We walked past rooms with no floor
covering but matted carpets and windows shuttered with sheets of plastic.
Skeleton frames of steel beds, most with no mattress, filled the rooms.
"How many orphans live here?" Farid asked.
"More than we have room for. About two hundred and fifty," Zaman said
over his shoulder. "But they're not all yateem. Many of them have lost their
fathers in the war, and their mothers can't feed them because the Taliban don't
allow them to work. So they bring their children here." He made a sweeping
gesture with his hand and added ruefully, "This place is better than the street,
but not that much better. This building was never meant to be lived in--it used to
be a storage warehouse for a carpet manufacturer. So there's no water heater
and they've let the well go dry." He dropped his voice. "I've asked the Taliban for
money to dig a new well more times than I remember and they just twirl their
rosaries and tell me there is no money. No money." He snickered.
He pointed to a row of beds along the wall. "We don't have enough beds,
and not enough mattresses for the beds we do have. Worse, we don't have
enough blankets." He showed us a little girl skipping rope with two other kids.
"You see that girl? This past winter, the children had to share blankets. Her
brother died of exposure." He walked on. "The last time I checked, we have less
than a month's supply of rice left in the warehouse, and, when that runs out, the
children will have to eat bread and tea for breakfast and dinner." I noticed he
made no mention of lunch.
He stopped and turned to me. "There is very little shelter here, almost no
food, no clothes, no clean water. What I have in ample supply here is children
who've lost their childhood. But the tragedy is that these are the lucky ones.
We're filled beyond capacity and every day I turn away mothers who bring their
children." He took a step toward me. "You say there is hope for Sohrab? I pray
you don't lie, Agha. But... you may well be too late."
What do you mean?
Zaman's eyes shifted. "Follow me.
WHAT PASSED FOR THE DIRECTOR'S OFFICE was four bare, cracked walls, a
mat on the floor, a table, and two folding chairs. As Zaman and I sat down, I saw a
gray rat poke its head from a burrow in the wall and flit across the room. I
cringed when it sniffed at my shoes, then Zaman's, and scurried through the
"What did you mean it may be too late?" I said.
"Would you like some chai? I could make some."
"Nay, thank you. I'd rather we talk."
Zaman tilted back in his chair and crossed his arms on his chest. "What I
have to tell you is not pleasant. Not to mention that it may be very dangerous."
"You. Me. And, of course, for Sohrab, if it's not too late already."
"I need to know," I said.
He nodded. "So you say. But first I want to ask you a question: How badly
do you want to find your nephew?"
I thought of the street fights we'd get into when we were kids, all the
times Hassan used to take them on for me, two against one, sometimes three
against one. I'd wince and watch, tempted to step in, but always stopping short,
always held back by something.
I looked at the hallway, saw a group of kids dancing in a circle. A little girl,
her left leg amputated below the knee, sat on a ratty mattress and watched,
smiling and clapping along with the other children. I saw Farid watching the
children too, his own mangled hand hanging at his side. I remembered Wahid's
boys and... I realized something: I would not leave Afghanistan without finding
Sohrab. "Tell me where he is," I said.
Zaman's gaze lingered on me. Then he nodded, picked up a pencil, and
twirled it between his fingers. "Keep my name out of it."
He tapped the table with the pencil. "Despite your promise, I think I'll live
to regret this, but perhaps it's just as well. I'm damned anyway. But if something
can be done for Sohrab... I'll tell you because I believe you. You have the look of a
desperate man." He was quiet for a long time. "There is a Talib official," he
muttered. "He visits once every month or two. He brings cash with him, not a lot,
but better than nothing at all." His shifty eyes fell on me, rolled away. "Usually
he'll take a girl. But not always."
"And you allow this?" Farid said behind me. He was going around the
table, closing in on Zaman.
"What choice do I have?" Zaman shot back. He pushed himself away from
"You're the director here," Farid said. "Your job is watch over these
"There's nothing I can do to stop it."
"You're selling children!" Farid barked.
"Farid, sit down! Let it go!" I said. But I was too late. Because suddenly
Farid was leaping over the table. Zaman's chair went flying as Farid fell on him
and pinned him to the floor. The director thrashed beneath Farid and made
muffled screaming sounds. His legs kicked a desk drawer free and sheets of
paper spilled to the floor.
I ran around the desk and saw why Zaman's screaming was muffled: Farid
was strangling him. I grasped Farid's shoulders with both hands and pulled hard.
He snatched away from me. "That's enough!" I barked. But Farid's face had
flushed red, his lips pulled back in a snarl. "I'm killing him! You can't stop me! I'm
killing him," he sneered.
"Get off him!"
"I'm killing him!" Something in his voice told me that if I didn't do
something quickly I'd witness my first murder.
"The children are watching, Farid. They're watching," I said. His shoulder
muscles tightened under my grip and, for a moment, I thought he'd keep
squeezing Zaman's neck anyway. Then he turned around, saw the children. They
were standing silently by the door, holding hands, some of them crying. I felt
Farid's muscles slacken. He dropped his hands, rose to his feet. He looked down
on Zaman and dropped a mouthful of spit on his face. Then he walked to the door
and closed it.
Zaman struggled to his feet, blotted his bloody lips with his sleeve, wiped
the spit off his cheek. Coughing and wheezing, he put on his skullcap, his glasses,
saw both lenses had cracked, and took them off. He buried his face in his hands.
None of us said anything for a long time.
"He took Sohrab a month ago," Zaman finally croaked, hands still
shielding his face.
"You call yourself a director?" Farid said.
Zaman dropped his hands. "I haven't been paid in over six months. I'm
broke because I've spent my life's savings on this orphanage. Everything I ever
owned or inherited I sold to run this godforsaken place. You think I don't have
family in Pakistan and Iran? I could have run like everyone else. But I didn't. I
stayed. I stayed because of them." He pointed to the door. "If I deny him one
child, he takes ten. So I let him take one and leave the judging to Allah. I swallow
my pride and take his goddamn filthy... dirty money. Then I go to the bazaar and
buy food for the children."
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