The day’s colors slowly dissolved into gray, and the distant mountain peaks became opaque silhouettes of crouching giants. Earlier in the day, they had passed by several villages, most of them far-flung and dusty just like Shadbagh. Small square-shaped homes made of baked mud, sometimes raised into the side of a mountain and sometimes not, ribbons of smoke rising from their roofs. Wash lines, women squatting by cooking fires. A few poplar trees, a few chickens, a handful of cows and goats, and always a mosque. The last village they passed sat adjacent to a poppy field, where an old man working the pods waved at them. He shouted something Abdullah couldn’t hear. Father waved back.
Pari said, “Abollah?”
“Do you think Shuja is sad?”
“I think he’s fine.”
“No one will hurt him?”
“He’s a big dog, Pari. He can defend himself.”
Shuja was a big dog. Father said he must have been a fighting dog at one point because someone had severed his ears and his tail. Whether he could, or would, defend himself was another matter. When the stray first turned up in Shadbagh, kids had hurled rocks at him, poked him with tree branches or rusted bicycle-wheel spokes. Shuja never fought back. With time, the village’s kids grew tired of tormenting him and left him alone, though Shuja’s demeanor was still cautious, suspicious, as if he’d not forgotten their past unkindness toward him.
He avoided everyone in Shadbagh but Pari. It was for Pari that Shuja lost all composure. His love for her was vast and unclouded. She was his universe. In the mornings, when he saw Pari stepping out of the house, Shuja sprang up, and his entire body shivered. The stump of his mutilated tail wagged wildly, and he tap-danced like he was treading on hot coal. He pranced happy circles around her. All day the dog shadowed Pari, sniffing at her heels, and at night, when they parted ways, he lay outside the door, forlorn, waiting for morning.
“When I grow up, will I live with you?”
Abdullah watched the orange sun dropping low, nudging the horizon. “If you want. But you won’t want to.”
“Yes I will!”
“You’ll want a house of your own.”
“But we can be neighbors.”
“You won’t live far.”
“What if you get sick of me?”
She jabbed his side with her elbow. “I wouldn’t!”
Abdullah grinned to himself. “All right, fine.”
“You’ll be close by.”
“Until we’re old.”
“Yes, for always.”
From the front of the wagon, she turned to look at him. “Do you promise, Abollah?”
“For always and always.”
Later, Father hoisted Pari up on his back, and Abdullah was in the rear, pulling the empty wagon. As they walked, he fell into a thoughtless trance. He was aware only of the rise and fall of his own knees, of the sweat beads trickling down from the edge of his skullcap. Pari’s small feet bouncing against Father’s hips. Aware only of the shadow of his father and sister lengthening on the gray desert floor, pulling away from him if he slowed down.
It was Uncle Nabi who had found this latest job for Father—Uncle Nabi was Parwana’s older brother and so he was really Abdullah’s stepuncle. Uncle Nabi was a cook and a chauffeur in Kabul. Once a month, he drove from Kabul to visit them in Shadbagh, his arrival announced by a staccato of honks and the hollering of a horde of village kids who chased the big blue car with the tan top and shiny rims. They slapped the fender and windows until he killed the engine and emerged grinning from the car, handsome Uncle Nabi with the long sideburns and wavy black hair combed back from his forehead, dressed in his oversize olive-colored suit with white dress shirt and brown loafers. Everyone came out to see him because he drove a car, though it belonged to his employer, and because he wore a suit and worked in the big city, Kabul.
It was on his last visit that Uncle Nabi had told Father about the job. The wealthy people he worked for were building an addition to their home—a small guesthouse in the backyard, complete with a bathroom, separate from the main building—and Uncle Nabi had suggested they hire Father, who knew his way around a construction site. He said the job would pay well and take a month to complete, give or take.
Father did know his way around a construction site. He’d worked in enough of them. As long as Abdullah could remember, Father was out searching for work, knocking on doors for a day’s labor. He had overheard Father one time tell the village elder, Mullah Shekib, If I had been born an animal, Mullah Sahib, I swear I would have come out a mule. Sometimes Father took Abdullah along on his jobs. They had picked apples once in a town that was a full day’s walk away from Shadbagh. Abdullah remembered his father mounted on the ladder until sundown, his hunched shoulders, the creased back of his neck burning in the sun, the raw skin of his forearms, his thick fingers twisting and turning apples one at a time. They had made bricks for a mosque in another town. Father had shown Abdullah how to collect the good soil, the deep lighter-colored stuff. They had sifted the dirt together, added straw, and Father had patiently taught him to titrate the water so the mixture didn’t turn runny. Over the last year, Father had lugged stones. He had shoveled dirt, tried his hand at plowing fields. He had worked on a road crew laying down asphalt.
Abdullah knew that Father blamed himself for Omar. If he had found more work, or better work, he could have bought the baby better winter clothes, heavier blankets, maybe even a proper stove to warm the house. This was what Father thought. He hadn’t said a word to Abdullah about Omar since the burial, but Abdullah knew.
He remembered seeing Father once, some days after Omar died, standing alone beneath the giant oak tree. The oak towered over everything in Shadbagh and was the oldest living thing in the village. Father said it wouldn’t surprise him if it had witnessed the emperor Babur marching his army to capture Kabul. He said he had spent half his childhood in the shade of its massive crown or climbing its sweeping boughs. His own father, Abdullah’s grandfather, had tied long ropes to one of the thick boughs and suspended a swing, a contraption that had survived countless harsh seasons and the old man himself. Father said he used to take turns with Parwana and her sister, Masooma, on this swing when they were all children.
But, these days, Father was always too exhausted from work when Pari pulled on his sleeve and asked him to make her fly on the swing.
Maybe tomorrow, Pari.
Just for a while, Baba. Please get up.
Not now. Another time.
She would give up in the end, release his sleeve, and walk away resigned. Sometimes Father’s narrow face collapsed in on itself as he watched her go. He would roll over in his cot, then pull up the quilt and shut his weary eyes.
Abdullah could not picture that Father had once swung on a swing. He could not imagine that Father had once been a boy, like him. A boy. Carefree, light on his feet. Running headlong into the open fields with his playmates. Father, whose hands were scarred, whose face was crosshatched with deep lines of weariness. Father, who might as well have been born with shovel in hand and mud under his nails.
They had to sleep in the desert that night. They ate bread and the last of the boiled potatoes Parwana had packed for them. Father made a fire and set a kettle on the flames for tea.
Abdullah lay beside the fire, curled beneath the wool blanket behind Pari, the soles of her cold feet pressed against him.
Father bent over the flames and lit a cigarette.
Abdullah rolled to his back, and Pari adjusted, fitting her cheek into the familiar nook beneath his collarbone. He breathed in the coppery smell of desert dust and looked up at a sky thick with stars like ice crystals, flashing and flickering. A delicate crescent moon cradled the dim ghostly outline of its full self.
Abdullah thought back to the winter before last, everything plunged into darkness, the wind coming in around the door, whistling slow and long and loud, and whistling from every little crack in the ceiling. Outside, the village’s features obliterated by snow. The nights long and starless, daytime brief, gloomy, the sun rarely out, and then only to make a cameo appearance before it vanished. He remembered Omar’s labored cries, then his silence, then Father grimly carving a wooden board with a sickle moon, just like the one above them now, pounding the board into the hard ground burnt with frost at the head of the small grave.
And now autumn’s end was in sight once more. Winter was already lurking around the corner, though neither Father nor Parwana spoke about it, as though saying the word might hasten its arrival.
“Father?” he said.
From the other side of the fire, Father gave a soft grunt.
“Will you allow me to help you? Build the guesthouse, I mean.”
Smoke spiraled up from Father’s cigarette. He was staring off into the darkness.
Father shifted on the rock where he was seated. “I suppose you could help mix mortar,” he said.
“I don’t know how.”
“I’ll show you. You’ll learn.”
“What about me?” Pari said.
“You?” Father said slowly. He took a drag of his cigarette and poked at the fire with a stick. Scattered little sparks went dancing up into the blackness. “You’ll be in charge of the water. Make sure we never go thirsty. Because a man can’t work if he’s thirsty.”
Pari was quiet.
“Father’s right,” Abdullah said. He sensed Pari wanted to get her hands dirty, climb down into the mud, and that she was disappointed with the task Father had assigned her. “Without you fetching us water, we’ll never get the guesthouse built.”
Father slid the stick beneath the handle of the teakettle and lifted it from the fire. He set it aside to cool.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You show me you can handle the water job and I’ll find you something else to do.”
Pari tilted up her chin and looked at Abdullah, her face lit up with a gapped smile.
He remembered when she was a baby, when she would sleep atop his chest, and he would open his eyes sometimes in the middle of the night and find her grinning silently at him with this same expression.
He was the one raising her. It was true. Even though he was still a child himself. Ten years old. When Pari was an infant, it was he she had awakened at night with her squeaks and mutters, he who had walked and bounced her in the dark. He had changed her soiled diapers. He had been the one to give Pari her baths. It wasn’t Father’s job to do—he was a man—and, besides, he was always too exhausted from work. And Parwana, already pregnant with Omar, was slow to rouse herself to Pari’s needs. She never had the patience or the energy. Thus the care had fallen on Abdullah, but he didn’t mind at all. He did it gladly. He loved the fact that he was the one to help with her first step, to gasp at her first uttered word. This was his purpose, he believed, the reason God had made him, so he would be there to take care of Pari when He took away their mother.
“Baba,” Pari said. “Tell a story.”
“It’s getting late,” Father said.
Father was a closed-off man by nature. He rarely uttered more than two consecutive sentences at any time. But on occasion, for reasons unknown to Abdullah, something in Father unlocked and stories suddenly came spilling out. Sometimes he had Abdullah and Pari sit raptly before him, as Parwana banged pots in the kitchen, and told them stories his grandmother had passed on to him when he had been a boy, sending them off to lands populated by sultans and jinns and malevolent divs and wise dervishes. Other times, he made up stories. He made them up on the spot, his tales unmasking a capacity for imagination and dream that always surprised Abdullah. Father never felt more present to Abdullah, more vibrant, revealed, more truthful, than when he told his stories, as though the tales were pinholes into his opaque, inscrutable world.