What Abdullah remembered most about the visit was how Parwana—who had been pregnant with Iqbal then—had remained a shrouded figure, sitting in a corner in stiff silence, shriveled up into a ball. She had sat with her shoulders gathered, feet tucked beneath her swollen belly, like she was trying to disappear into the wall. Her face was shielded from view with a soiled veil. She held a knotted clump of it under her chin. Abdullah could almost see the shame rising from her, like steam, the embarrassment, how small she felt, and he had felt a surprising swell of sympathy for his stepmother.
Mrs. Wahdati reached for the pack next to the cookie plate and lit herself a cigarette.
“We took a long detour on the way, and I showed them a little of the city,” Uncle Nabi said.
“Good! Good,” Mrs. Wahdati said. “Have you been to Kabul before, Saboor?”
Father said, “Once or twice, Bibi Sahib.”
“And, may I ask, what is your impression?”
Father shrugged. “It’s very crowded.”
Mr. Wahdati picked at a speck of lint on the sleeve of his jacket and looked down at the carpet.
“Crowded, yes, and at times tiresome as well,” his wife said.
Father nodded as if he understood.
“Kabul is an island, really. Some say it’s progressive, and that may be true. It’s true enough, I suppose, but it’s also out of touch with the rest of this country.”
Father looked down at the skullcap in his hands and blinked.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” she said. “I would wholeheartedly support any progressive agenda coming out of the city. God knows this country could use it. Still, the city is sometimes a little too pleased with itself for my taste. I swear, the pomposity in this place.” She sighed. “It does grow tiresome. I’ve always admired the countryside myself. I have a great fondness for it. The distant provinces, the qarias, the small villages. The real Afghanistan, so to speak.”
Father nodded uncertainly.
“I may not agree with all or even most of the tribal traditions, but it seems to me that, out there, people live more authentic lives. They have a sturdiness about them. A refreshing humility. Hospitality too. And resilience. A sense of pride. Is that the right word, Suleiman? Pride?”
“Stop it, Nila,” her husband said quietly.
A dense silence followed. Abdullah watched Mr. Wahdati drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair, and his wife, smiling tightly, the pink smudge on the butt end of her cigarette, her feet crossed at the ankles, her elbow resting on the arm of the chair.
“Probably not the right word,” she said, breaking the silence. “Dignity, perhaps.” She smiled, revealing teeth that were straight and white. Abdullah had never seen teeth like these. “That’s it. Much better. People in the countryside carry a sense of dignity. They wear it, don’t they? Like a badge? I’m being genuine. I see it in you, Saboor.”
“Thank you, Bibi Sahib,” Father muttered, shifting on the couch, still looking down at his skullcap.
Mrs. Wahdati nodded. She turned her gaze to Pari. “And, may I say, you are so lovely.” Pari nudged closer to Abdullah.
Slowly, Mrs. Wahdati recited, “Today I have seen the charm, the beauty, the unfathomable grace of the face that I was looking for.” She smiled. “Rumi. Have you heard of him? You’d think he’d composed it just for you, my dear.”
“Mrs. Wahdati is an accomplished poet,” Uncle Nabi said.
Across the room, Mr. Wahdati reached for a cookie, split it in half, and took a small bite.
“Nabi is being kind,” Mrs. Wahdati said, casting him a warm glance. Abdullah again caught a flush creeping up Uncle Nabi’s cheeks.
Mrs. Wahdati crushed her cigarette, giving the butt a series of sharp taps against the ashtray. “Maybe I could take the children somewhere?” she said.
Mr. Wahdati let out a breath huffily, slapped both palms against the arms of his chair, and made as if to get up, though he didn’t.
“I’ll take them to the bazaar,” Mrs. Wahdati said to Father now. “If that’s all right with you, Saboor. Nabi will drive us. Suleiman can show you to the work site out back. So you can see it for yourself.”
Mr. Wahdati’s eyes slowly fell shut.
They got up to go.
Suddenly, Abdullah wished Father would thank these people for their cookies and tea, take his hand and Pari’s, and leave this house and its paintings and drapes and overstuffed luxury and comfort. They could refill their water bag, buy bread and a few boiled eggs, and go back the way they had come. Back through the desert, the boulders, the hills, Father telling them stories. They would take turns pulling Pari in the wagon. And in two, maybe three, days’ time, though there would be dust in their lungs and tiredness in their limbs, they would be back in Shadbagh again. Shuja would see them coming and he would hurry over, prance circles around Pari. They would be home.
Father said, “Go on, children.”
Abdullah took a step forward, meaning to say something, but then Uncle Nabi’s thick hand was on his shoulder, turning him around, Uncle Nabi leading him down the hallway, saying, “Wait ’til you see the bazaars in this place. You’ve not seen the likes of it, you two.”
Mrs. Wahdati sat in the backseat with them, the air filled with the thick weight of her perfume and something Abdullah didn’t recognize, something sweet, a little pungent. She peppered them with questions as Uncle Nabi drove. Who were their friends? Did they go to school? Questions about their chores, their neighbors, games they played. The sun fell on the right half of her face. Abdullah could see the fuzzy little hairs on her cheek and the faint line below her jaw where the makeup ended.
“I have a dog,” Pari said.
“He’s quite the specimen,” Uncle Nabi said from the front seat.
“His name is Shuja. He knows when I’m sad.”
“Dogs are like that,” Mrs. Wahdati said. “They’re better at it than some people I’ve come across.”
They drove past a trio of schoolgirls skipping down the sidewalk. They wore black uniforms with white scarves tied under their chins.
“I know what I said earlier, but Kabul isn’t that bad.” Mrs. Wahdati toyed with her necklace absently. She was looking out the window, a heaviness set on her features. “I like it best here at the end of spring, after the rains. The air so clean. That first burst of summer. The way the sun hits the mountains.” She smiled wanly. “It will be good to have a child around the house. A little noise, for a change. A little life.”
Abdullah looked at her and sensed something alarming in the woman, beneath the makeup and the perfume and the appeals for sympathy, something deeply splintered. He found himself thinking of the smoke of Parwana’s cooking, the kitchen shelf cluttered with her jars and mismatched plates and smudged pots. He missed the mattress he shared with Pari, though it was dirty, and the jumbles of springs forever threatened to poke through. He missed all of it. He had never before ached so badly for home.
Mrs. Wahdati slumped back into the seat with a sigh, hugging her purse the way a pregnant woman might hold her swollen belly.
Uncle Nabi pulled up to a crowded curbside. Across the street, next to a mosque with soaring minarets, was the bazaar, composed of congested labyrinths of both vaulted and open alleyways. They strolled through corridors of stalls that sold leather coats, rings with colored jewels and stones, spices of all kinds, Uncle Nabi in the rear, Mrs. Wahdati and the two of them in the lead. Now that they were outside, Mrs. Wahdati wore a pair of dark glasses that made her face look oddly catlike.
Hagglers’ calls echoed everywhere. Music blared from virtually every stall. They walked past open-fronted shops selling books, radios, lamps, and silver-colored cooking pots. Abdullah saw a pair of soldiers in dusty boots and dark brown greatcoats, sharing a cigarette, eyeing everyone with bored indifference.
They stopped by a shoe stall. Mrs. Wahdati rummaged through the rows of shoes displayed on boxes. Uncle Nabi wandered over to the next stall, hands clasped behind his back, and gave a down-the-nose look at some old coins.
“How about these?” Mrs. Wahdati said to Pari. She was holding up a new pair of yellow sneakers.
“They’re so pretty,” Pari said, looking at the shoes with disbelief.
“Let’s try them on.”
Mrs. Wahdati helped Pari slip on the shoes, working the strap and buckle for her. She peered up at Abdullah over her glasses. “You could use a pair too, I think. I can’t believe you walked all the way from your village in those sandals.”
Abdullah shook his head and looked away. Down the alleyway, an old man with a ragged beard and two clubfeet begged passersby.
“Look, Abollah!” Pari raised one foot, then the other. She stomped her feet on the ground, hopped. Mrs. Wahdati called Uncle Nabi over and told him to walk Pari down the alley, see how the shoes felt. Uncle Nabi took Pari’s hand and led her up the lane.
Mrs. Wahdati looked down at Abdullah.
“You think I’m a bad person,” she said. “The way I spoke earlier.”
Abdullah watched Pari and Uncle Nabi pass by the old beggar with the clubfeet. The old man said something to Pari, Pari turned her face up to Uncle Nabi and said something, and Uncle Nabi tossed the old man a coin.
Abdullah began to cry soundlessly.
“Oh, you sweet boy,” Mrs. Wahdati said, startled. “You poor darling.” She fetched a handkerchief from her purse and offered it.
Abdullah swiped it away. “Please don’t do it,” he said, his voice cracking.
She hunkered down beside him now, her glasses pushed up on her hair. There was wetness in her eyes too, and when she dabbed at them with the handkerchief, it came away with black smudges. “I don’t blame you if you hate me. It’s your right. But—and I don’t expect you to understand, not now—this is for the best. It really is, Abdullah. It’s for the best. One day you’ll see.”
Abdullah turned his face up to the sky and wailed just as Pari came skipping back to him, her eyes dripping with gratitude, her face shining with happiness.
One morning that winter, Father fetched his ax and cut down the giant oak tree. He had Mullah Shekib’s son, Baitullah, and a few other men help him. No one tried to intervene. Abdullah stood alongside other boys and watched the men. The very first thing Father did was take down the swing. He climbed the tree and cut the ropes with a knife. Then he and the other men hacked away at the thick trunk until late afternoon, when the old tree finally toppled with a massive groan. Father told Abdullah they needed the firewood for winter. But he had swung his ax at the old tree with violence, with his jaw firmly set and a cloud over his face like he couldn’t bear to look at it any longer.
Now, beneath a stone-colored sky, men were striking at the felled trunk, their noses and cheeks flushed in the cold, their blades echoing hollowly when they hit the wood. Farther up the tree, Abdullah snapped small branches off the big ones. The first of the winter snow had fallen two days before. Not heavy, not yet, only a promise of things to come. Soon, winter would descend on Shadbagh, winter and its icicles and weeklong snowdrifts and winds that cracked the skin on the back of hands in a minute flat. For now, the white on the ground was scant, pocked from here to the steep hillsides with pale brown blotches of earth.
Abdullah gathered an armful of slim branches and carried them to a growing communal pile nearby. He was wearing his new snow boots, gloves, and winter coat. It was secondhand, but other than the broken zipper, which Father had fixed, it was as good as new—padded, dark blue, with orange fur lining inside. It had four deep pockets that snapped open and shut and a quilted hood that tightened around Abdullah’s face when he drew its cords. He pushed back the hood from his head now and let out a long foggy breath.