Parwana raises her face to the darkened sky.
“Be happy, Parwana, please be happy. Do it for me.”
Parwana feels herself standing on the brink of telling her everything, telling Masooma how wrong she is, how little she knows the sister with whom she shared the womb, how for years now Parwana’s life has been one long unspoken apology. But to what end? Her own relief once again at Masooma’s expense? She bites down the words. She has inflicted enough pain on her sister.
“I want to smoke now,” Masooma says.
Parwana begins to protest, but Masooma cuts her off. “It’s time,” she says, harder now, with finality.
From the bag slung around the saddle’s tip, Parwana fetches the hookah. With trembling hands, she begins to prepare the usual mixture in the hookah’s bowl.
“More,” Masooma says. “Put in a lot more.”
Sniffling, her cheeks wet, Parwana adds another pinch, then another, and yet more again. She lights the coal and places the hookah next to her sister.
“Now,” Masooma says, the orange glow of the flames shimmering on her cheeks, in her eyes, “if you ever loved me, Parwana, if you were ever my true sister, then leave. No kisses. No good-byes. Don’t make me beg.”
Parwana begins to say something, but Masooma makes a pained, choking sound and rolls her head away.
Parwana slowly rises to her feet. She walks to the mule and tightens the saddle. She grabs the reins to the animal. She suddenly realizes that she may not know how to live without Masooma. She doesn’t know if she can. How will she bear the days when Masooma’s absence feels like a far heavier burden than her presence ever had? How will she learn to tread around the edges of the big gaping hole where Masooma had once been?
Have heart, she almost hears Masooma saying.
Parwana pulls the reins, turns the mule around, and begins to walk.
She walks, slicing the dark, as a cool night wind rips across her face. She keeps her head down. She turns around once only, later. Through the moisture in her eyes, the campfire is a distant, dim, tiny blur of yellow. She pictures her twin sister lying by the fire, alone in the dark. Soon, the fire will die, and Masooma will be cold. Her instinct is to go back, to cover her sister with a blanket and slip in next to her.
Parwana makes herself wheel around and resume walking once more.
And that is when she hears something. A faraway, muffled sound, like wailing. Parwana stops in her tracks. She tilts her head and hears it again. Her heart begins to ram in her chest. She wonders, with dread, if it’s Masooma calling her back, having had a change of heart. Or maybe it is nothing but a jackal or a desert fox howling somewhere in the dark. Parwana can’t be sure. She thinks it might be the wind.
Don’t leave me, sister. Come back.
The only way to know for sure is to go back the way she had come and Parwana begins to do just that; she turns around and takes a few steps in Masooma’s direction. Then she stops. Masooma was right. If she goes back now, she will not have the courage to do it when the sun rises. She will lose heart and end up staying. She will stay forever. This is her only chance.
Parwana shuts her eyes. The wind makes the scarf flap against her face.
No one has to know. No one would. It would be her secret, one she would share with the mountains only. The question is whether it is a secret she can live with, and Parwana thinks she knows the answer. She has lived with secrets all her life.
She hears the wailing again in the distance.
Everyone loved you, Masooma.
No one me.
And why, sister? What had I done?
Parwana stands motionless in the dark for a long time.
At last, she makes her choice. She turns around, drops her head, and walks toward a horizon she cannot see. After that, she does not look back anymore. She knows that if she does, she will weaken. She will lose what resolve she has because she will see an old bicycle speeding down a hill, bouncing on rocks and gravel, the metal pounding both their rears, clouds of dust kicked up with each sudden skid. She sits on the frame, and Masooma is the one on the saddle, she is the one who takes the hairpin turns at full speed, dropping the bike into a deep lean. But Parwana is not afraid. She knows that her sister will not send her flying over the handlebars, that she will not hurt her. The world melts into a whirligig blur of excitement, and the wind whooshes in their ears, and Parwana looks over her shoulder at her sister and her sister looks back, and they laugh together as stray dogs give chase.
Parwana keeps marching toward her new life. She keeps walking, the darkness around her like a mother’s womb, and when it lifts, when she looks up in the dawn haze and catches a band of pale light from the east striking the side of a boulder, it feels like being born.
In the Name of Allah the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful, I know that I will be gone when you read this letter, Mr. Markos, for when I gave it to you I requested that you not open it until after my death. Let me state now what a pleasure it has been to know you over the last seven years, Mr. Markos. As I write this, I think fondly of our yearly ritual of planting tomatoes in the garden, your morning visits to my small quarters for tea and pleasantry, our impromptu trading of Farsi and English lessons. I thank you for your friendship, your thoughtfulness, and for the work that you have undertaken in this country, and I trust that you will extend my gratitude to your kindhearted colleagues as well, especially to my friend Ms. Amra Ademovic, who has such capacity for compassion, and to her brave and lovely daughter, Roshi.
I should say that I intend this letter not just for you, Mr. Markos, but for another as well, to whom I hope you will pass it on, as I shall explain later. Forgive me, then, if I repeat a few things you may already know. I include them out of necessity, for her benefit. As you will see, this letter contains more than an element of confession, Mr. Markos, but there are also pragmatic matters that prompt this writing. For those, I fear I will call upon your assistance, my friend.
I have thought long on where to begin this story. No easy task, this, for a man who must be in his mid-eighties. My exact age is a mystery to me, as it is to many Afghans of my generation, but I am confident in my approximation because I recall quite vividly a fist-fight with my friend, and later to be brother-in-law, Saboor, on the day we heard that N?der Shah had been shot and killed, and that N?der Shah’s son, young Zahir, had ascended to the throne. That was 1933. I could begin there, I suppose. Or somewhere else. A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later. But I suppose I ought to begin this tale with the same thing that ends it. Yes, I think it stands to reason that I bookend this account with Nila Wahdati.
I met her in 1949, the year she married Mr. Wahdati. At the time, I had already been working for Mr. Suleiman Wahdati for two years, having moved to Kabul from Shadbagh, the village where I was born, back in 1946—I had worked for a year in another household in the same neighborhood. The circumstances of my departure from Shadbagh are not something I am proud of, Mr. Markos. Consider it the first of my confessions, then, when I say that I felt stifled by the life I had in the village with my sisters, one of whom was an invalid. Not that it absolves me, but I was a young man, Mr. Markos, eager to take on the world, full of dreams, modest and vague as they may have been, and I pictured my youth ebbing away, my prospects increasingly truncated. So I left. To help provide for my sisters, yes, that is true. But also to escape.
Since I was a full-time worker for Mr. Wahdati, I lived at his residence full-time as well. In those days, the house bore little resemblance to the lamentable state in which you found it when you arrived in Kabul in 2002, Mr. Markos. It was a beautiful, glorious place. The house shone sparkling white in those days, as if sheathed with diamonds. The front gates opened onto a wide asphalt driveway. One entered into a high-ceilinged foyer decorated with tall ceramic vases and a circular mirror framed in carved walnut, precisely the spot where you for a while hung the old homemade-camera photo of your childhood friend at the beach. The marble floor of the living room glistened and was partly covered by a dark red Turkoman carpet. The carpet is gone now, as are the leather sofas, the handcrafted coffee table, the lapis chess set, the tall mahogany cabinet. Little of the grand furniture has survived, and I am afraid it is not in the shape it once was.
The first time I entered the stone-tiled kitchen, my mouth fell wide open. I thought it had been built large enough to feed all of my home village of Shadbagh. I had a six-burner stove, a refrigerator, a toaster, and an abundance of pots, pans, knives, and appliances at my disposal. The bathrooms, all four of them, had intricately carved marble tiles and porcelain sinks. And those square holes in your bathroom counter upstairs, Mr. Markos? They were once filled with lapis.
Then there was the backyard. You must one day sit in your office upstairs, Mr. Markos, look down on the garden, and try to picture it as it was. One entered it through a semilunar veranda bordered by a railing sheathed with green vines. The lawn in those days was lush and green, dotted with beds of flowers—jasmine, sweetbriar, geraniums, tulips—and bordered by two rows of fruit trees. A man could lie beneath one of the cherry trees, Mr. Markos, close his eyes and listen to the breeze squeezing through the leaves and think that there wasn’t on earth a finer place to live.
My own living space was a shack in the back of the yard. It had a window, clean walls with white paint, and provided enough space to accommodate an unmarried young man his meager needs. I had a bed, a desk and a chair, and enough room to unroll my prayer rug five times a day. It suited me just fine then and it suits me fine now.
I cooked for Mr. Wahdati, a skill I had picked up first from observing my late mother and later from an elderly Uzbek cook who worked at a household in Kabul where I had served for a year as his help. I was also, and quite happily, Mr. Wahdati’s chauffeur. He owned a mid-1940s model Chevrolet, blue with a tan top, matching blue vinyl seats, and chrome wheels, a handsome car that drew lingering looks wherever we went. He allowed me to drive because I had proven myself to be a prudent and skilled driver, and, besides, he was the rare breed of man who did not enjoy the act of operating a car.
Please do not think I am boasting, Mr. Markos, when I say I was a good servant. Through careful observation, I had familiarized myself with Mr. Wahdati’s likes and dislikes, his quirks, his peeves. I had come to know his habits and rituals well. For instance, every morning after breakfast he liked to go for a stroll. He disliked walking alone, however, and thus I was expected to accompany him. I abided by this wish, of course, though I did not see the point of my presence. He hardly said a word to me in the course of these walks and seemed forever lost in his own thoughts. He walked briskly, hands clamped behind his back, nodding at passersby, the heels of his well-polished leather loafers clicking against the pavement. And because his long legs made strides I could not match, I was always falling behind and forced to catch up. The rest of the day, he mostly retreated to his study upstairs, reading or playing a game of chess against himself. He loved to draw—though I could not attest to his skills, at least not then, because he never shared his artwork with me—and I would often catch him up in the study, by the window, or on the veranda, his brow furrowed in concentration, his charcoal pencil looping and circling over the sketch pad.
I drove him around the city every few days. He went to see his mother once a week. There were also family gatherings. And though Mr. Wahdati avoided most of them, he did attend on occasion, and so I would drive him there, to funerals, birthday parties, weddings. I drove him monthly to an art supply store, where he restocked his pastel pencils, his charcoal, and his erasers and sharpeners and sketchbooks. Sometimes, he liked to sit in the backseat and just go for a drive. I would say, Where to, Sahib? and he would shrug, and I would say, Very well, Sahib, and I would shift into gear and off we would go. I would drive us around the city, for hours, without aim or purpose, from one neighborhood to another, alongside the Kabul River, up to Bala Hissar, sometimes out to the Darulaman Palace. Some days, I drove us out of Kabul and up to Ghargha Lake, where I would park near the banks of the water. I would turn off the engine, and Mr. Wahdati would sit perfectly still in the backseat, not saying a word to me, seemingly content enough to just roll down the window and look at the birds darting from tree to tree, and the streaks of sunlight that struck the lake and scattered into a thousand tiny bobbing specks on the water. I would gaze at him in the rearview mirror and he looked to me like the most lonesome person on earth.