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The Kite Runner: Page 53
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"But there are
things traitors like you don't understand."
Assef's brow twitched. "Like pride in your people, your customs, your
language. Afghanistan is like a beautiful mansion littered with garbage, and
someone has to take out the garbage."
"That's what you were doing in Mazar, going door-to-door? Taking out the
"In the west, they have an expression for that," I said. "They call it ethnic
"Do they?" Assef's face brightened. "Ethnic cleansing. I like it. I like the
sound of it."
"All I want is the boy."
"Ethnic cleansing," Assef murmured, tasting the words.
"I want the boy," I said again. Sohrab's eyes flicked to me. They were
slaughter sheep's eyes. They even had the mascara-1 remembered how, on the
day of Eid of Qorban, the mullah in our backyard used to apply mascara to the
eyes of the sheep and feed it a cube of sugar before slicing its throat. I thought I
saw pleading in Sohrab's eyes.
"Tell me why," Assef said. He pinched Sohrab's earlobe between his teeth.
Let go. Sweat beads rolled down his brow.
"That's my business."
What do you want to do with him?" he said. Then a coy smile. "Or to
That's disgusting," I said.
"How would you know? Have you tried it?"
"I want to take him to a better place."
"Tell me why."
"That's my business," I said. I didn't know what had emboldened me to be
so curt, maybe the fact that I thought I was going to die anyway.
"1 wonder," Assef said. "I wonder why you've come all this way, Amir,
come all this way for a Hazara? Why are you here? Why are you really here?"
"I have my reasons," I said.
"Very well then," Assef said, sneering. He shoved Sohrab in the back,
pushed him right into the table. Sohrab's hips struck the table, knocking it upside
down and spilling the grapes. He fell on them, face first, and stained his shirt
purple with grape juice. The table's legs, crossing through the ring of brass balls,
were now pointing to the ceiling.
"Take him, then," Assef said. I helped Sohrab to his feet, swatted the bits
of crushed grape that had stuck to his pants like barnacles to a pier.
"Go, take him," Assef said, pointing to the door.
I took Sohrab's hand. It was small, the skin dry and calloused. His fingers
moved, laced themselves with mine. I saw Sohrab in that Polaroid again, the way
his arm was wrapped around Hassan's leg, his head resting against his father's
They'd both been smiling. The bells jingled as we crossed the room.
We made it as far as the door.
Of course/' Assef said behind us, "I didn't say you could take him for
I turned. "What do you want?"
"You have to earn him."
"What do you want?"
"We have some unfinished business, you and I," Assef said. "You
remember, don't you?"
He needn't have worried. I would never forget the day after Daoud Khan
overthrew the king. My entire adult life, whenever I heard Daoud Khan's name,
what I saw was Hassan with his sling shot pointed at Assef s face, Hassan saying
that they'd have to start calling him One-Eyed Assef, instead of Assef Goshkhor. I
remember how envious I'd been of Hassan's bravery. Assef had backed down,
promised that in the end he'd get us both. He'd kept that promise with Hassan.
Now it was my turn.
"All right," I said, not knowing what else there was to say. I wasn't about
to beg; that would have only sweetened the moment for him.
Assef called the guards back into the room. "I want you to listen to me," he
said to them. "In a moment, I'm going to close the door. Then he and I are going
to finish an old bit of business. No matter what you hear, don't come in! Do you
hear me? Don't come in.
The guards nodded. Looked from Assef to me. "Yes, Agha sahib."
"When it's all done, only one of us will walk out of this room alive," Assef
said. "If it's him, then he's earned his freedom and you let him pass, do you
The older guard shifted on his feet. "But Agha sahib-
"If it's him, you let him pass!" Assef screamed. The two men flinched but
nodded again. They turned to go. One of them reached for Sohrab.
"Let him stay," Assef said. He grinned. "Let him watch. Lessons are good
things for boys."
The guards left. Assef put down his prayer beads. Reached in the breast
pocket of his black vest. What he fished out of that pocket didn't surprise me one
bit: stainless-steel brass knuckles.
HE HAS GEL IN HIS HAIR and a Clark Gable mustache above his thick lips. The gel
has soaked through the green paper surgical cap, made a dark stain the shape of
Africa. I remember that about him. That, and the gold Allah chain around his dark
neck. He is peering down at me, speaking rapidly in a language I don't
understand, Urdu, I think. My eyes keep going to his Adam's apple bobbing up
and down, up and down, and I want to ask him how old he is anyway-he looks
far too young, like an actor from some foreign soap opera-but all I can mutter is,
I think I gave him a good fight. I think I gave him a good fight.
I DON'T KNOW if I gave Assef a good fight. I don't think I did. How could I have?
That was the first time I'd fought anyone. I had never so much as thrown a punch
in my entire life.
My memory of the fight with Assef is amazingly vivid in stretches: I
remember Assef turning on the music before slipping on his brass knuckles. The
prayer rug, the one with the oblong, woven Mecca, came loose from the wall at
one point and landed on my head; the dust from it made me sneeze. I remember
Assef shoving grapes in my face, his snarl all spit-shining teeth, his bloodshot
eyes rolling. His turban fell at some point, let loose curls of shoulder-length blond
And the end, of course. That, I still see with perfect clarity. I always will.
Mostly, I remember this: His brass knuckles flashing in the afternoon
light; how cold they felt with the first few blows and how quickly they warmed
with my blood. Getting thrown against the wall, a nail where a framed picture
may have hung once jabbing at my back. Sohrab screaming. Tabla, harmonium, a
dil-roba. Getting hurled against the wall. The knuckles shattering my jaw.
Choking on my own teeth, swallowing them, thinking about all the countless
hours I'd spent flossing and brushing. Getting hurled against the wall. Lying on
the floor, blood from my split upper lip staining the mauve carpet, pain ripping
through my belly, and wondering when I'd be able to breathe again. The sound of
my ribs snapping like the tree branches Hassan and I used to break to sword
fight like Sinbad in those old movies. Sohrab screaming. The side of my face
slamming against the corner of the television stand. That snapping sound again,
this time just under my left eye. Music. Sohrab screaming. Fingers grasping my
hair, pulling my head back, the twinkle of stainless steel. Here they come. That
snapping sound yet again, now my nose. Biting down in pain, noticing how my
teeth didn't align like they used to. Getting kicked. Sohrab screaming.
I don't know at what point I started laughing, but I did. It hurt to laugh,
hurt my jaws, my ribs, my throat. But I was laughing and laughing. And the
harder I laughed, the harder he kicked me, punched me, scratched me.
"WHAT'S SO FUNNY?" Assef kept roaring with each blow. His spittle
landed in my eye. Sohrab screamed.
"WHAT'S SO FUNNY?" Assef bellowed. Another rib snapped, this time left
lower. What was so funny was that, for the first time since the winter of 1975, 1
felt at peace. I laughed because I saw that, in some hidden nook in a corner of my
mind, I'd even been looking forward to this. I remembered the day on the hill I
had pelted Hassan with pomegranates and tried to provoke him. He'd just stood
there, doing nothing, red juice soaking through his shirt like blood. Then he'd
taken the pomegranate from my hand, crushed it against his forehead. Are you
satisfied now? he'd hissed. Do you feel better? I hadn't been happy and I hadn't
felt better, not at all. But I did now. My body was broken--just how badly I
wouldn't find out until later--but I felt healed. Healed at last. I laughed.
Then the end. That, I'll take to my grave: I was on the ground laughing,
Assef straddling my chest, his face a mask of lunacy, framed by snarls of his hair
swaying inches from my face. His free hand was locked around my throat. The
other, the one with the brass knuckles, cocked above his shoulder. He raised his
fist higher, raised it for another blow.
Then: "Bas." A thin voice.
We both looked.
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