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Chapter 23

Faces poke through the haze, linger, fade away. They peer down, ask me questions. They all ask questions. Do I know who I am? Do I hurt anywhere? I know who I am and I hurt everywhere. I want to tell them this but talking hurts. I know this because some time ago, maybe a year ago, maybe two, maybe ten, I tried to talk to a child with rouge on his cheeks and eyes smeared black. The child. Yes, I see him now. We are in a car of sorts, the child and I, and I don't think Soraya's driving because Soraya never drives this fast. I want to say something to this child--it seems very impor tant that I do. But I don't remember what I want to say, or why it might have been important. Maybe I want to tell him to stop cry ing, that everything will be all right now. Maybe not. For some reason I can't think of, I want to thank the child.

Faces. They're all wearing green hats. They slip in and out of view They talk rapidly, use words I don't understand. I hear other voices, other noises, beeps and alarms. And always more faces. Peering down. I don't remember any of them, except for the one with the gel in his hair and the Clark Gable mustache, the one?with the Africa stain on his cap. Mister Soap Opera Star. That's funny. I want to laugh now. But laughing hurts too.

I fade out.


SHE SAYS HER NAME IS AISHA, "like the prophet's wife.?Her graying hair is parted in the middle and tied in a ponytail, her nose pierced with a stud shaped like the sun. She wears bifocals that make her eyes bug out. She wears green too and her hands are soft. She sees me looking at her and smiles. Says something in English. Something is jabbing at the side of my chest.

I fade out.


A MAN IS STANDING at my bedside. I know him. He is dark and lanky, has a long beard. He wears a hat--what are those hats called? Pakols? Wears it tilted to one side like a famous person whose name escapes me now. I know this man. He drove me somewhere a few years ago. I know him. There is something wrong with my mouth. I hear a bubbling sound.

I fade out.


MY RIGHT ARM BURNS. The woman with the bifocals and sun-shaped stud is hunched over my arm, attaching a clear plastic tubing to it. She says it's "the Potassium.?"It stings like a bee, no??she says. It does. What's her name? Something to do with a prophet. I know her too from a few years ago. She used to wear her hair in a ponytail. Now it's pulled back, tied in a bun. Soraya
wore her hair like that the first time we spoke. When was that? Last week?

Aisha! Yes.

There is something wrong with my mouth. And that thing jab bing at my chest.

I fade out.

WE ARE IN THE SULAIMAN MOUNTAINS of Baluchistan and Baba is wrestling the black bear. He is the Baba of my child hood, _Toophan agha_, the towering specimen of Pashtun might, not the withered man under the blankets, the man with the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. They roll over a patch of green grass, man and beast, Baba's curly brown hair flying. The bear roars, or maybe it's Baba. Spittle and blood fly; claw and hand swipe. They fall to the ground with a loud thud and Baba is sitting on the bear's chest, his fingers digging in its snout. He looks up at me and I see. He's me. I am wrestling the bear.

I wake up. The lanky dark man is back at my bedside. His name is Farid, I remember now. And with him is the child from the car. His face reminds me of the sound of bells. I am thirsty.

I fade out.

I keep fading in and out.

THE NAME OF THE MAN with the Clark Gable mustache turned out to be Dr. Faruqi. He wasn't a soap opera star at all, but a head-and-neck surgeon, though I kept thinking of him as some one named Armand in some steamy soap set on a tropical island.

Where am I? I wanted to ask. But my mouth wouldn't open. I frowned. Grunted. Armand smiled; his teeth were blinding white.

"Not yet, Amir,?he said, "but soon. When the wires are out.?He spoke English with a thick, rolling Urdu accent.

Wires?

Armand crossed his arms; he had hairy forearms and wore a gold wedding band. "You must be wondering where you are, what happened to you. That's perfectly normal, the postsurgical state is always disorienting. So I'll tell you what I know.?

I wanted to ask him about the wires. Postsurgical? Where was Aisha? I wanted her to smile at me, wanted her soft hands in mine.

Armand frowned, cocked one eyebrow in a slightly selfimportant way. "You are in a hospital in Peshawar. You've been here two days. You have suffered some very significant injuries, Amir, I should tell you. I would say you're very lucky to be alive, my friend.?He swayed his index finger back and forth like a pendu lum when he said this. "Your spleen had ruptured, probably--and fortunately for you--a delayed rupture, because you had signs of early hemorrhage into your abdominal cavity My colleagues from the general surgery unit had to perform an emergency splenec tomy. If it had ruptured earlier, you would have bled to death.?He patted me on the arm, the one with the IV, and smiled. "You also suffered seven broken ribs. One of them caused a pneumothorax.?

I frowned. Tried to open my mouth. Remembered about the wires.

"That means a punctured lung,?Armand explained. He tugged at a clear plastic tubing on my left side. I felt the jabbing again in my chest. "We sealed the leak with this chest tube.?I followed the tube poking through bandages on my chest to a container halffilled with columns of water. The bubbling sound came from there.

"You had also suffered various lacerations. That means ‘cuts.?I wanted to tell him I knew what the word meant; I was a writer. I went to open my mouth. Forgot about the wires again.

"The worst laceration was on your upper lip,?Armand said. "The impact had cut your upper lip in two, clean down the mid dle. But not to worry, the plastics guys sewed it back together and they think you will have an excellent result, though there will be a scar. That is unavoidable.

"There was also an orbital fracture on the left side; that's the eye socket bone, and we had to fix that too. The wires in your jaws will come out in about six weeks,?Armand said. "Until then it's liq uids and shakes. You will lose some weight and you will be talking like Al Pacino from the first Godfather movie for a little while.?He laughed. "But you have a job to do today. Do you know what it is??

I shook my head.

"Your job today is to pass gas. You do that and we can start feeding you liquids. No fart, no food.?He laughed again.

Later, after Aisha changed the IV tubing and raised the head of the bed like I'd asked, I thought about what had happened to me. Ruptured spleen. Broken teeth. Punctured lung. Busted eye socket. But as I watched a pigeon peck at a bread crumb on the windowsill, I kept thinking of something else Armand/Dr. Faruqi had said: The impact had cut your upper lip in two, he had said, clean down the middle. Clean down the middle. Like a harelip.


FARID AND SOHRAB came to visit the next day. "Do you know who we are today? Do you remember??Farid said, only half-jokingly. I nodded.

"Al hamdullellah!?he said, beaming. "No more talking non sense.?

"Thank you, Farid,?I said through jaws wired shut. Armand was right--I did sound like Al Pacino from The Godfather. And my tongue surprised me every time it poked in one of the empty spaces left by the teeth I had swallowed. "I mean, thank you. For everything.?

He waved a hand, blushed a little. "Bas, it's not worthy of thanks,?he said. I turned to Sohrab. He was wearing a new outfit, light brown pirhan-tumban that looked a bit big for him, and a black skullcap. He was looking down at his feet, toying with the IV line coiled on the bed.

"We were never properly introduced,?I said. I offered him my hand. "I am Amir.?

He looked at my hand, then to me. "You are the Amir agha Father told me about??he said.

"Yes.?I remembered the words from Hassan's letter. I have told much about you to Farzana jan and Sohrab, about us growing up together and playing games and running in the streets. They laugh at the stories of all the mischief you and I used to cause! "I owe you thanks too, Sohrab jan,?I said. "You saved my life.?

He didn't say anything. I dropped my hand when he didn't take it. "I like your new clothes,?I mumbled.

"They're my son's,?Farid said. "He has outgrown them. They fit Sohrab pretty well, I would say.?Sohrab could stay with him, he said, until we found a place for him. "We don't have a lot of room, but what can I do? I can't leave him to the streets. Besides, my children have taken a liking to him. Ha, Sohrab??But the boy just kept looking down, twirling the line with his finger.

"I've been meaning to ask,?Farid said, a little hesitantly. "What happened in that house? What happened between you and the Talib??

"Let's just say we both got what we deserved,?I said.

Farid nodded, didn't push it. It occurred to me that somewhere between the time we had left Peshawar for Afghanistan and now, we had become friends. "I've been meaning to ask something too.?

"What??

I didn't want to ask. I was afraid of the answer. "Rahim Khan,?I said.

"He's gone.?

My heart skipped. "Is he--?

"No, just... gone.?He handed me a folded piece of paper and a small key. "The landlord gave me this when I went looking for him. He said Rahim Khan left the day after we did.?

"Where did he go??

Farid shrugged. "The landlord didn't know He said Rahim Khan left the letter and the key for you and took his leave.?He checked his watch. "I'd better go. Bia, Sohrab.?

"Could you leave him here for a while??I said. "Pick him up later??I turned to Sohrab. "Do you want to stay here with me for a little while??

He shrugged and said nothing.

"Of course,?Farid said. "I'll pick him up just before evening _namaz_.?


THERE WERE THREE OTHER PATIENTS in my room. Two older men, one with a cast on his leg, the other wheezing with asthma, and a young man of fifteen or sixteen who'd had appendix surgery. The old guy in the cast stared at us without blinking, his eyes switching from me to the Hazara boy sitting on a stool. My roommates?families--old women in bright shalwar-kameezes, children, men wearing skullcaps--shuffled noisily in and out of the room. They brought with them pakoras, _naan_, sa,nosas, biryani. Sometimes people just wandered into the room, like the tall, bearded man who walked in just before Farid and Sohrab arrived. He wore a brown blanket wrapped around him. Aisha asked him something in Urdu. He paid her no attention and scanned the room with his eyes. I thought he looked at me a little longer than necessary. When the nurse spoke to him again, he just spun around and left.

"How are you??I asked Sohrab. He shrugged, looked at his hands.

"Are you hungry? That lady there gave me a plate of biryani, but I can't eat it,?I said. I didn't know what else to say to him. "You want it??

He shook his head.

"Do you want to talk??

He shook his head again.

We sat there like that for a while, silent, me propped up in bed, two pillows behind my back, Sohrab on the three-legged stool next to the bed. I fell asleep at some point, and, when I woke up, daylight had dimmed a bit, the shadows had stretched, and Sohrab was still sitting next to me. He was still looking down at his hands.


THAT NIGHT, after Farid picked up Sohrab, I unfolded Rahim Khan's letter. I had delayed reading it as long as possible. It read:

Amirjan, _Inshallah_, you have reached this letter safely. I pray that I have not put you in harm's way and that Afghanistan has not been too unkind to you. You have been in my prayers since the day you left. You were right all those years to suspect that I knew. I did know. Hassan told me shortly after it happened. What you did was wrong, Amir jan, but do not forget that you were a boy when it happened. A troubled little boy. You were too hard on yourself then, and you still are--I saw it in your eyes in Peshawar. But I hope you will heed this: A man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer. I hope your suffering comes to an end with this journey to Afghanistan.

Amir jan, I am ashamed for the lies we told you all those years. You were right to be angry in Peshawar. You had a right to know. So did Hassan. I know it doesn't absolve anyone of anything, but the Kabul we lived in in those days was a strange world, one in which some things mattered more than the truth.

Amir jan, I know how hard your father was on you when you were growing up. I saw how you suffered and yearned for his affections, and my heart bled for you. But your father was a man torn between two halves, Amir jan:

you and Hassan. He loved you both, but he could not love Hassan the way he longed to, openly, and as a father. So he took it out on you instead--Amir, the socially legitimate half, the half that represented the riches he had inherited and the sin-with-impunity privileges that came with them. When he saw you, he saw himself. And his guilt. You are still angry and I realize it is far too early to expect you to accept this, but maybe someday you will see that when your father was hard on you, he was also being hard on himself. Your father, like you, was a tortured soul, Amir jan.

I cannot describe to you the depth and blackness of the sorrow that came over me when I learned of his passing. I loved him because he was my friend, but also because he was a good man, maybe even a great man. And this is what I want you to understand, that good, real good, was born out of your father's remorse. Sometimes, I think everything he did, feeding the poor on the streets, building the orphanage, giving money to friends in need, it was all his way of redeeming himself. And that, I believe, is what true redemption is, Amir jan, when guilt leads to good.

I know that in the end, God will forgive. He will forgive your father, me, and you too. I hope you can do the same. Forgive your father if you can. Forgive me if you wish. But, most important, forgive yourself.

I have left you some money, most of what I have left, in fact. I think you may have some expenses when you return here, and the money should be enough to cover them. There is a bank in Peshawar; Farid knows the location. The money is in a safe-deposit box. I have given you the key.

As for me, it is time to go. I have little time left and I wish to spend it alone. Please do not look for me. That is my final request of you.

I leave you in the hands of God.

Your friend always,

Rahim


I dragged the hospital gown sleeve across my eyes. I folded the letter and put it under my mattress.

Amir, the socially legitimate half, the half that represented the riches he had inherited and the sin-with-impunity privileges that came with them. Maybe that was why Baba and I had been on such better terms in the U.S., I wondered. Selling junk for petty cash, our menial jobs, our grimy apartment--the American version of a hut; maybe in America, when Baba looked at me, he saw a little bit of Hassan.

Your father, like you, was a tortured soul, Rahim Khan had written. Maybe so. We had both sinned and betrayed. But Baba had found a way to create good out of his remorse. What had I done, other than take my guilt out on the very same people I had betrayed, and then try to forget it all? What had I done, other than become an insomniac?

What had I ever done to right things?

When the nurse--not Aisha but a red-haired woman whose name escapes me--walked in with a syringe in hand and asked me if I needed a morphine injection, I said yes.


THEY REMOVED THE CHEST TUBE early the next morning, and Armand gave the staff the go-ahead to let me sip apple juice. I asked Aisha for a mirror when she placed the cup of juice on the dresser next to my bed. She lifted her bifocals to her forehead as she pulled the curtain open and let the morning sun flood the room. "Remember, now,?she said over her shoulder, "it will look better in a few days. My son-in-law was in a moped accident last year. His handsome face was dragged on the asphalt and became purple like an eggplant. Now he is beautiful again, like a Hollywood movie star.?

Despite her reassurances, looking in the mirror and seeing the thing that insisted it was my face left me a little breathless. It looked like someone had stuck an air pump nozzle under my skin and had pumped away. My eyes were puffy and blue. The worst of it was my mouth, a grotesque blob of purple and red, all bruise and stitches. I tried to smile and a bolt of pain ripped through my lips. I wouldn't be doing that for a while. There were stitches
across my left cheek, just under the chin, on the forehead just below the hairline.

The old guy with the leg cast said something in Urdu. I gave him a shrug and shook my head. He pointed to his face, patted it, and grinned a wide, toothless grin. "Very good,?he said in English. "Ins hallah.?

"Thank you,?I whispered.

Farid and Sohrab came in just as I put the mirror away. Sohrab took his seat on the stool, rested his head on the bed's side rail.

"You know, the sooner we get you out of here the better,?Farid said.
"Dr. Faruqi says--?

"I don't mean the hospital. I mean Peshawar.?

"Why??

"I don't think you'll be safe here for long,?Farid said. He lowered his voice. "The Taliban have friends here. They will start looking for you.?

"I think they already may have,?I murmured. I thought suddenly of the bearded man who'd wandered into the room and just stood there staring at me.

Farid leaned in. "As soon as you can walk, I'll take you to Islamabad. Not entirely safe there either, no place in Pakistan is, but it's better than here. At least it will buy you some time.?

"Farid Jan, this can't be safe for you either. Maybe you shouldn't be seen with me. You have a family to take care of.?

Farid made a waving gesture. "My boys are young, but they are very shrewd. They know how to take care of their mothers and sisters.?He smiled. "Besides, I didn't say I'd do it for free.?

"I wouldn't let you if you offered,?I said. I forgot I couldn't
smile and tried. A tiny streak of blood trickled down my chin. "Can I ask you for one more favor??

"For you a thousand times over,?Farid said.

And, just like that, I was crying. I hitched gusts of air, tears gushing down my cheeks, stinging the raw flesh of my lips.

"What's the matter??Farid said, alarmed.

I buried my face in one hand and held up the other. I knew the whole room was watching me. After, I felt tired, hollow. "I'm sorry,?I said. Sohrab was looking at me with a frown creasing his brow.

When I could talk again, I told Farid what I needed. "Rahim Khan said they live here in Peshawar.?

"Maybe you should write down their names,?Farid said, eyeing me cautiously, as if wondering what might set me off next. I scribbled their names on a scrap of paper towel. "John and Betty Caldwell.?

Farid pocketed the folded piece of paper. "I will look for them as soon as I can,?he said. He turned to Sohrab. "As for you, I'll pick you up this evening. Don't tire Amir agha too much.?

But Sohrab had wandered to the window, where a half-dozen pigeons strutted back and forth on the sill, pecking at wood and scraps of old bread.


IN THE MIDDLE DRAWER of the dresser beside my bed, I had found an old _National Geographic_ magazine, a chewed-up pencil, a comb with missing teeth, and what I was reaching for now, sweat pouring down my face from the effort: a deck of cards. I had counted them earlier and, surprisingly, found the deck complete. I asked Sohrab if he wanted to play. I didn't expect him to answer, let alone play. He'd been quiet since we had fled Kabul.
But he turned from the window and said, "The only game I know is panjpar.?

"I feel sorry for you already, because I am a grand master at panjpar. World renowned.?

He took his seat on the stool next to me. I dealt him his five cards. "When your father and I were your age, we used to play this game. Especially in the winter, when it snowed and we couldn't go outside. We used to play until the sun went down.?

He played me a card and picked one up from the pile. I stole looks at him as he pondered his cards. He was his father in so many ways: the way he fanned out his cards with both hands, the way he squinted while reading them, the way he rarely looked a person in the eye.

We played in silence. I won the first game, let him win the next one, and lost the next five fair and square. "You're as good as your father, maybe even better,?I said, after my last loss. "I used to beat him sometimes, but I think he let me win.?I paused before saying, "Your father and I were nursed by the same woman.?

"I know.?

"What... what did he tell you about us??

"That you were the best friend he ever had,?he said.

I twirled the jack of diamonds in my fingers, flipped it back and forth. "I wasn't such a good friend, I'm afraid,?I said. "But I'd like to be your friend. I think I could be a good friend to you. Would that be all right? Would you like that??I put my hand on his arm, gingerly, but he flinched. He dropped his cards and pushed away on the stool. He walked back to the window. The sky was awash with streaks of red and purple as the sun set on Peshawar. From the street below came a succession of honks and the braying of a donkey, the whistle of a policeman. Sohrab stood in that crimson light, forehead pressed to the glass, fists buried in his armpits.


AISHA HAD A MALE ASSISTANT help me take my first steps that night. I only walked around the room once, one hand clutching the wheeled IV stand, the other clasping the assistant's fore arm. It took me ten minutes to make it back to bed, and, by then, the incision on my stomach throbbed and I'd broken out in a drenching sweat. I lay in bed, gasping, my heart hammering in my ears, thinking how much I missed my wife.

Sohrab and I played panjpar most of the next day, again in silence. And the day after that. We hardly spoke, just played panjpar, me propped in bed, he on the three-legged stool, our routine broken only by my taking a walk around the room, or going to the bathroom down the hall. I had a dream later that night. I dreamed Assef was standing in the doorway of my hospital room, brass ball still in his eye socket. "We're the same, you and I,?he was saying. "You nursed with him, but you're my twin.?


I TOLD ARMAND early that next day that I was leaving.

"It's still early for discharge,?Armand protested. He wasn't dressed in surgical scrubs that day, instead in a button-down navy blue suit and yellow tie. The gel was back in the hair. "You are still in intravenous antibiotics and--?

"I have to go,?I said. "I appreciate everything you've done for me, all of you. Really. But I have to leave.?

"Where will you go??Armand said.

"I'd rather not say.?

"You can hardly walk.?

"I can walk to the end of the hall and back,?I said. "I'll b fine.?The plan was this: Leave the hospital. Get the money fror the safe-deposit box and pay my medical bills. Drive to the orphanage and drop Sohrab off with John and Betty Caldwell Then get a ride to Islamabad and change travel plans. Give mysel a few more days to get better. Fly Home.

That was the plan, anyway. Until Farid and Sohrab arrived tha morning. "Your friends, this John and Betty Caldwell, they aren?in Peshawar,?Farid said.

It had taken me ten minutes Just to slip into my pirhan tumban. My chest, where they'd cut me to insert the chest tube hurt when I raised my arm, and my stomach throbbed every time I leaned over. I was drawing ragged breaths just from the effort of packing a few of my belongings into a brown paper bag. But I'd managed to get ready and was sitting on the edge of the bed when Farid came in with the news. Sohrab sat on the bed next to me.

"Where did they go??I asked.

Farid shook his head. "You don't understand--?

"Because Rahim Khan said--?

"I went to the U.S. consulate,?Farid said, picking up my bag. "There never was a John and Betty Caldwell in Peshawar. According to the people at the consulate, they never existed. Not here in Peshawar, anyhow.?

Next to me, Sohrab was flipping through the pages of the old National Geographic.


WE GOT THE MONEY from the bank. The manager, a paunchy man with sweat patches under his arms, kept flashing smiles and telling me that no one in the bank had touched the money.

"Absolutely nobody,?he said gravely, swinging his index finger the same way Armand had.

Driving through Peshawar with so much money in a paper bag was a slightly frightening experience. Plus, I suspected every bearded man who stared at me to be a Talib killer, sent by Assef. Two things compounded my fears: There are a lot of bearded men in Peshawar, and everybody stares.

"What do we do with him??Farid said, walking me slowly from the hospital accounting office back to the car. Sohrab was in the backseat of the Land Cruiser, looking at traffic through the rolled-down window, chin resting on his palms.

"He can't stay in Peshawar,?I said, panting.

"Nay, Amir agha, he can't,?Farid said. He'd read the question in my words. "I'm sorry. I wish I--?

"That's all right, Farid,?I said. I managed a tired smile. "You have mouths to feed.?A dog was standing next to the truck now, propped on its rear legs, paws on the truck's door, tail wagging. Sohrab was petting the dog. "I guess he goes to Islamabad for now,?I said.


I SLEPT THROUGH almost the entire four-hour ride to Islamabad. I dreamed a lot, and most of it I only remember as a hodge podge of images, snippets of visual memory flashing in my head like cards in a Rolodex: Baba marinating lamb for my thirteenth birthday party. Soraya and I making love for the first time, the sun rising in the east, our ears still ringing from the wedding music, her henna-painted hands laced in mine. The time Baba had taken Hassan and me to a strawberry field in Jalalabad--the owner had told us we could eat as much as we wanted to as long as we bought at least four kilos--and how we'd both ended up with bellyaches. How dark, almost black, Hassan's blood had looked on the snow, dropping from the seat of his pants. Blood is a powerful thing, bachem. Khala Jamila patting Soraya's knee and saying, God knows best, maybe it wasn't meant to be. Sleeping on the roof of my father's house. Baba saying that the only sin that mattered was theft. When you tell a lie, you steal a man's right to the truth. Rahim Khan on the phone, telling me there was a way to be good again. A way to be good again...



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