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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 52

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Disorienting. Rahim Khan's Polaroid
hadn't done justice to it.

The boy had his father's round moon face, his pointy stub of a chin, his
twisted, seashell ears, and the same slight frame. It was the Chinese doll face of
my childhood, the face peering above fanned-out playing cards all those winter
days, the face behind the mosquito net when we slept on the roof of my father's
house in the summer. His head was shaved, his eyes darkened with mascara, and
his cheeks glowed with an unnatural red. When he stopped in the middle of the
room, the bells strapped around his anklets stopped jingling. His eyes fell on me.
Lingered. Then he looked away. Looked down at his naked feet.

One of the guards pressed a button and Pashtu music filled the room.
Tabla, harmonium, the whine of a dil-roba. I guessed music wasn't sinful as long
as it played to Taliban ears. The three men began to clap.

"Wah wah! _Mashallah_!" they cheered.

Sohrab raised his arms and turned slowly. He stood on tiptoes, spun
gracefully, dipped to his knees, straightened, and spun again. His little hands
swiveled at the wrists, his fingers snapped, and his head swung side to side like a
pendulum. His feet pounded the floor, the bells jingling in perfect harmony with
the beat of the tabla. He kept his eyes closed.

"_Mashallah_!" they cheered. "Shahbas! Bravo!" The two guards whistled
and laughed. The Talib in white was tilting his head back and forth with the
music, his mouth half-open in a leer.

Sohrab danced in a circle, eyes closed, danced until the music stopped.

The bells jingled one final time when he stomped his foot with the song's last
note. He froze in midspin.

"Bia, bia, my boy," the Talib said, calling Sohrab to him. Sohrab went to
him, head down, stood between his thighs. The Talib wrapped his arms around
the boy. "How talented he is, nay, my Hazara boy!" he said. His hands slid down
the child's back, then up, felt under his armpits. One of the guards elbowed the
other and snickered. The Talib told them to leave us alone.

"Yes, Agha sahib," they said as they exited.

The Talib spun the boy around so he faced me. He locked his arms around
Sohrab's belly, rested his chin on the boy's shoulder. Sohrab looked down at his
feet, but kept stealing shy, furtive glances at me. The man's hand slid up and
down the boy's belly. Up and down, slowly, gently.

"I've been wondering," the Talib said, his bloodshot eyes peering at me
over Sohrab's shoulder. "Whatever happened to old Babalu, anyway?"

The question hit me like a hammer between the eyes. I felt the color drain
from my face. My legs went cold. Numb.

He laughed. "What did you think? That you'd put on a fake beard and I
wouldn't recognize you? Here's something I'll bet you never knew about me: I
never forget a face. Not ever." He brushed his lips against Sohrab's ear, kept his
eye on me. "I heard your father died. Tsk-tsk. I always did want to take him on.
Looks like I'll have to settle for his weakling of a son." Then he took off his
sunglasses and locked his bloodshot blue eyes on mine.

I tried to take a breath and couldn't. I tried to blink and couldn't. The
moment felt surreal--no, not surreal, absurd--it had knocked the breath out of
me, brought the world around me to a standstill. My face was burning. What was
the old saying about the bad penny? My past was like that, always turning up. His
name rose from the deep and I didn't want to say it, as if uttering it might conjure
him. But he was already here, in the flesh, sitting less than ten feet from me, after
all these years. His name escaped my lips: "Assef."

"Amir jan."

"What are you doing here?" I said, knowing how utterly foolish the
question sounded, yet unable to think of anything else to say.

"Me?" Assef arched an eyebrow "I'm in my element. The question is what
are you doing here?"

"I already told you," I said. My voice was trembling. I wished it wouldn't
do that, wished my flesh wasn't shrinking against my bones.

"The boy?"



"I'll pay you for him," 1 said. "I can have money wired.

"Money?" Assef said. He tittered. "Have you ever heard of Rockingham?
Western Australia, a slice of heaven. You should see it, miles and miles of beach.
Green water, blue skies. My parents live there, in a beachfront villa. There's a golf
course behind the villa and a little lake. Father plays golf every day. Mother, she
prefers tennis--Father says she has a wicked backhand. They own an Afghan
restaurant and two jewelry stores; both businesses are doing spectacularly." He
plucked a red grape. Put it, lovingly, in Sohrab's mouth. "So if I need money, I'll
have them wire it to me." He kissed the side of Sohrab's neck. The boy flinched a
little, closed his eyes again. "Besides, I didn't fight the Shorawi for money. Didn't
join the Taliban for money either. Do you want to know why I joined them?"

My lips had gone dry. I licked them and found my tongue had dried too.

"Are you thirsty?" Assef said, smirking.

"I think you're thirsty."

"I'm fine," I said. The truth was, the room felt too hot suddenly--sweat was
bursting from my pores, prickling my skin. And was this really happening? Was I
really sitting across from Assef? "As you wish," he said. "Anyway, where was I?

Oh yes, how I joined the Taliban. Well, as you may remember, I wasn't much of a
religious type. But one day I had an epiphany. I had it in jail. Do you want to

I said nothing.

"Good. I'll tell you," he said. "I spent some time in jail, at Poleh-Charkhi**,
just after Babrak Karmal took over in 1980. 1 ended up there one night, when a
group of Parchami soldiers marched into our house and ordered my father and
me at gun point to follow them. The bastards didn't give a reason, and they
wouldn't answer my mother's questions. Not that it was a mystery; everyone
knew the communists had no class. They came from poor families with no name.
The same dogs who weren't fit to lick my shoes before the Shorawi came were
now ordering me at gunpoint, Parchami flag on their lapels, making their little
point about the fall of the bourgeoisie and acting like they were the ones with
class. It was happening all over: Round up the rich, throw them in jail, make an
example for the comrades.

"Anyway, we were crammed in groups of six in these tiny cells each the
size of a refrigerator. Every night the commandant, a half-Hazara, half-Uzbek
thing who smelled like a rotting donkey, would have one of the prisoners
dragged out of the cell and he'd beat him until sweat poured from his fat face.
Then he'd light a cigarette, crack his joints, and leave. The next night, he'd pick
someone else. One night, he picked me. It couldn't have come at a worse time. I'd
been peeing blood for three days. Kidney stones. And if you've never had one,
believe me when I say it's the worst imaginable pain. My mother used to get
them too, and I remember she told me once she'd rather give birth than pass a
kidney stone. Anyway, what could I do? They dragged me out and he started
kicking me. He had knee-high boots with steel toes that he wore every night for
his little kicking game, and he used them on me. I was screaming and screaming
and he kept kicking me and then, suddenly, he kicked me on the left kidney and
the stone passed. Just like that! Oh, the relief!" Assef laughed. "And I yelled 'Allah-
u akbar' and he kicked me even harder and I started laughing. He got mad and hit
me harder, and the harder he kicked me, the harder I laughed. They threw me
back in the cell laughing. I kept laughing and laughing because suddenly I knew
that had been a message from God: He was on my side. He wanted me to live for
a reason.

"You know, I ran into that commandant on the battlefield a few years
later-funny how God works. 1 found him in a trench just outside Meymanah,
bleeding from a piece of shrapnel in his chest. He was still wearing those same
boots. I asked him if he remembered me. He said no. I told him the same thing I
just told you, that I never forget a face. Then I shot him in the balls. I've been on a
mission since."

"What mission is that?" I heard myself say. "Stoning adulterers? Raping
children? Flogging women for wearing high heels? Massacring Hazaras? All in
the name of Islam?" The words spilled suddenly and unexpectedly, came out
before I could yank the leash. I wished I could take them back. Swallow them. But
they were out. I had crossed a line, and whatever little hope I had of getting out
alive had vanished with those words.

A look of surprise passed across Assef's face, briefly, and disappeared. "I
see this may turn out to be enjoyable after all," he said, snickering.

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