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The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner: Page 51


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I remembered how Kaka Homayoun's
house in Jalalabad had had a water well like that-the twins, Fazila and Karima,
and I used to drop pebbles in it, listen for the plink.




We climbed a few steps and entered a large, sparsely decorated house. We
crossed the foyer--a large Afghan flag draped one of the walls--and the men took
me upstairs to a room with twin mint green sofas and a big-screen TV in the far
corner. A prayer rug showing a slightly oblong Mecca was nailed to one of the
walls. The older of the two men motioned toward the sofa with the barrel of his
weapon.
I sat down. They left the room.



I crossed my legs. Uncrossed them. Sat with my sweaty hands on my
knees. Did that make me look nervous? I clasped them together, decided that was
worse and just crossed my arms on my chest. Blood thudded in my temples. I felt
utterly alone. Thoughts were flying around in my head, but I didn't want to think
at all, because a sober part of me knew that what I had managed to get myself
into was insanity. I was thousands of miles from my wife, sitting in a room that
felt like a holding cell, waiting for a man I had seen murder two people that same
day. It was insanity. Worse yet, it was irresponsible. There was a very realistic
chance that I was going to render Soraya a biwa, a widow, at the age of thirty-six.
This isn't you, Amir, part of me said. You're gutless. It's how you were made. And
that's not such a bad thing because your saving grace is that you've never lied to
yourself about it. Not about that. Nothing wrong with cowardice as long as it
comes with prudence. But when a coward stops remembering who he is... God
help him.



There was a coffee table by the sofa. The base was X-shaped, walnut-sized
brass balls studding the ring where the metallic legs crossed. I'd seen a table like
that before. Where? And then it came to me: at the crowded tea shop in
Peshawar, that night I'd gone for a walk. On the table sat a bowl of red grapes. I
plucked one and tossed it in my mouth. I had to preoccupy myself with
something, anything, to silence the voice in my head. The grape was sweet. I
popped another one in, unaware that it would be the last bit of solid food I would
eat for a long time.



The door opened and the two armed men returned, between them the tall
Talib in white, still wearing his dark John Lennon glasses, looking like some
broad-shouldered, NewAge mystic guru.



He took a seat across from me and lowered his hands on the armrests. For
a long time, he said nothing. Just sat there, watching me, one hand drumming the
upholstery, the other twirling turquoise blue prayer beads. He wore a black vest
over the white shirt now, and a gold watch. I saw a splotch of dried blood on his
left sleeve. I found it morbidly fascinating that he hadn't changed clothes after
the executions earlier that day.




Periodically, his free hand floated up and his thick fingers batted at
something in the air. They made slow stroking motions, up and down, side to
side, as if he were caressing an invisible pet. One of his sleeves retracted and I
saw marks on his forearm--Td seen those same tracks on homeless people living
in grimy alleys in San Francisco.



His skin was much paler than the other two men's, almost sallow, and a
crop of tiny sweat beads gleamed on his forehead just below the edge of his black
turban. His beard, chest-length like the others, was lighter in color too.



"Salaam alaykum," he said.



"Salaam."



"You can do away with that now, you know," he said.



"Pardon?"



He turned his palm to one of the armed men and motioned. Rrrriiiip.
Suddenly my cheeks were stinging and the guard was tossing my beard up and
down in his hand, giggling. The Talib grinned. "One of the better ones I've seen in
a while. But it really is so much better this way, I think. Don't you?" He twirled
his fingers, snapped them, fist opening and closing. "So, _Inshallah_, you enjoyed
the show today?"



"Was that what it was?" I said, rubbing my cheeks, hoping my voice didn't
betray the explosion of terror I felt inside.



"Public justice is the greatest kind of show, my brother. Drama. Suspense.
And, best of all, education en masse." He snapped his fingers. The younger of the
two guards lit him a cigarette. The Talib laughed. Mumbled to himself. His hands
were shaking and he almost dropped the cigarette. "But you want a real show,
you should have been with me in Mazar. August 1998, that was."



"I'm sorry?"




We left them out for the dogs, you know.



I saw what he was getting at.



He stood up, paced around the sofa once, twice. Sat down again. He spoke
rapidly. "Door to door we went, calling for the men and the boys. We'd shoot
them right there in front of their families. Let them see. Let them remember who
they were, where they belonged." He was almost panting now. "Sometimes, we
broke down their doors and went inside their homes. And... I'd... I'd sweep the
barrel of my machine gun around the room and fire and fire until the smoke
blinded me." He leaned toward me, like a man about to share a great secret. "You
don't know the meaning of the word 'liberating' until you've done that, stood in a
roomful of targets, let the bullets fly, free of guilt and remorse, knowing you are
virtuous, good, and decent. Knowing you're doing God's work. It's breathtaking."
He kissed the prayer beads, tilted his head. "You remember that, Javid?"



"Yes, Agha sahib," the younger of the guards replied. "How could I forget?"



I had read about the Hazara massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif in the papers. It
had happened just after the Taliban took over Mazar, one of the last cities to fall.
I remembered Soraya handing me the article over breakfast, her face bloodless.



"Door-to-door. We only rested for food and prayer," the Talib said. He
said it fondly, like a man telling of a great party he'd attended. "We left the bodies
in the streets, and if their families tried to sneak out to drag them back into their
homes, we'd shoot them too. We left them in the streets for days. We left them
for the dogs. Dog meat for dogs." He crushed his cigarette. Rubbed his eyes with
tremulous hands. "You come from America?"



'Yes.



"How is that whore these days?"



I had a sudden urge to urinate. I prayed it would pass. "I'm looking for a



boy.




"Isn't everyone?" he said. The men with the Kalashnikovs laughed. Their
teeth were stained green with naswar.



"I understand he is here, with you," I said. "His name is Sohrab."



"I'll ask you something: What are you doing with that whore? Why aren't
you here, with your Muslim brothers, serving your country?"



"I've been away a long time," was all I could think of saying. My head felt
so hot. I pressed my knees together, held my bladder.



The Talib turned to the two men standing by the door. "That's an
answer?" he asked them.



"Nay, Agha sahib," they said in unison, smiling.



He turned his eyes to me. Shrugged. "Not an answer, they say." He took a
drag of his cigarette. "There are those in my circle who believe that abandoning
watan when it needs you the most is the same as treason. I could have you
arrested for treason, have you shot for it even. Does that frighten you?"



"I'm only here for the boy."



"Does that frighten you?"



"Yes."



"It should," he said. He leaned back in the sofa. Crushed the cigarette.



I thought about Soraya. It calmed me. I thought of her sickle-shaped
birthmark, the elegant curve of her neck, her luminous eyes. I thought of our
wedding night, gazing at each other's reflection in the mirror under the green
veil, and how her cheeks blushed when I whispered that I loved her. I




remembered the two of us dancing to an old Afghan song, round and round,
everyone watching and clapping, the world a blur of flowers, dresses, tuxedos,
and smiling faces.



The Talib was saying something.



"Pardon?"



"I said would you like to see him? Would you like to see my boy?" His
upper lip curled up in a sneer when he said those last two words.



'Yes.



The guard left the room. I heard the creak of a door swinging open. Heard
the guard say something in Pashtu, in a hard voice. Then, footfalls, and the jingle
of bells with each step. It reminded me of the Monkey Man Hassan and 1 used to
chase down in Shar e-Nau. We used to pay him a rupia of our allowance for a
dance. The bell around his monkey's neck had made that same jingling sound.



Then the door opened and the guard walked in. He carried a stereo--a
boom box--on his shoulder. Behind him, a boy dressed in a loose, sapphire blue
pirhan-tumban followed.



The resemblance was breathtaking.

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