The sun was dropping into the horizon. Abdullah could still make out the old windmill, looming stark and gray over the village’s mud walls. Its blades gave a creaky groan whenever a nippy gust blew in from the hills. The windmill was home mainly to blue herons in the summer, but now that winter was here the herons had gone and the crows had moved in. Every morning, Abdullah awoke to their squawks and harsh croaks.
Something caught his eye, off to his right, on the ground. He walked over to it and knelt down.
A feather. Small. Yellow.
He took off one glove and picked it up.
Tonight they were going to a party, he, his father, and his little half brother Iqbal. Baitullah had a new infant boy. A motreb would sing for the men, and someone would tap on a tambourine. There would be tea and warm, freshly baked bread, and shorwa soup with potatoes. Afterward, Mullah Shekib would dip his finger in a bowl of sweetened water and let the baby suckle it. He would produce his shiny black stone and his double-edged razor, lift the cloth from the boy’s midriff. An ordinary ritual. Life rolling on in Shadbagh.
Abdullah turned the feather over in his hand.
I won’t have any crying, Father had said. No crying. I won’t have it.
And there hadn’t been any. No one in the village asked after Pari. No one even spoke her name. It astonished Abdullah how thoroughly she had vanished from their lives.
Only in Shuja did Abdullah find a reflection of his own grief. The dog turned up at their door every day. Parwana threw rocks at him. Father went at him with a stick. But he kept returning. Every night he could be heard whimpering mournfully and every morning they found him lying by the door, chin on his front paws, blinking up at his assailants with melancholy, unaccusing eyes. This went on for weeks until one morning Abdullah saw him hobbling toward the hills, head hung low. No one in Shadbagh had seen him since.
Abdullah pocketed the yellow feather and began walking toward the windmill.
Sometimes, in unguarded moments, he caught Father’s face clouding over, drawn into confusing shades of emotion. Father looked diminished to him now, stripped of something essential. He loped sluggishly about the house or else sat in the heat of their big new cast-iron stove, little Iqbal on his lap, and stared unseeingly into the flames. His voice dragged now in a way that Abdullah did not remember, as though something weighed on each word he spoke. He shrank into long silences, his face closed off. He didn’t tell stories anymore, had not told one since he and Abdullah had returned from Kabul. Maybe, Abdullah thought, Father had sold the Wahdatis his muse as well.
Other than these words from Parwana: It had to be her. I am sorry, Abdullah. She had to be the one.
The finger cut, to save the hand.
He knelt on the ground behind the windmill, at the base of the decaying stone tower. He took off his gloves and dug at the ground. He thought of her heavy eyebrows and her wide rounded forehead, her gap-toothed smile. He heard in his head the tinkle of her laughter rolling around the house like it used to. He thought of the scuffle that had broken out when they had come back from the bazaar. Pari panicking. Shrieking. Uncle Nabi quickly whisking her away. Abdullah dug until his fingers struck metal. Then he maneuvered his hands underneath and lifted the tin tea box from the hole. He swiped cold dirt off the lid.
Lately, he thought a lot about the story Father had told them the night before the trip to Kabul, the old peasant Baba Ayub and the div. Abdullah would find himself on a spot where Pari had once stood, her absence like a smell pushing up from the earth beneath his feet, and his legs would buckle, and his heart would collapse in on itself, and he would long for a swig of the magic potion the div had given Baba Ayub so he too could forget.
But there was no forgetting. Pari hovered, unbidden, at the edge of Abdullah’s vision everywhere he went. She was like the dust that clung to his shirt. She was in the silences that had become so frequent at the house, silences that welled up between their words, sometimes cold and hollow, sometimes pregnant with things that went unsaid, like a cloud filled with rain that never fell. Some nights he dreamed that he was in the desert again, alone, surrounded by the mountains, and in the distance a single tiny glint of light flickering on, off, on, off, like a message.
He opened the tea box. They were all there, Pari’s feathers, shed from roosters, ducks, pigeons; the peacock feather too. He tossed the yellow feather into the box. One day, he thought.
His days in Shadbagh were numbered, like Shuja’s. He knew this now. There was nothing left for him here. He had no home here. He would wait until winter passed and the spring thaw set in, and he would rise one morning before dawn and he would step out the door. He would choose a direction and he would begin to walk. He would walk as far from Shadbagh as his feet would take him. And if one day, trekking across some vast open field, despair should take hold of him, he would stop in his tracks and shut his eyes and he would think of the falcon feather Pari had found in the desert. He would picture the feather coming loose from the bird, up in the clouds, half a mile above the world, twirling and spinning in violent currents, hurled by gusts of blustering wind across miles and miles of desert and mountains, to finally land, of all places and against all odds, at the foot of that one boulder for his sister to find. It would strike him with wonder, then, and hope too, that such things happened. And though he would know better, he would take heart, and he would open his eyes, and walk.
Parwana smells it before she pulls back the quilt and sees it. It has smeared all over Masooma’s bu**ocks, down her thighs, against the sheets and the mattress and the quilt too. Masooma looks up at her over her shoulder with a timid plea for forgiveness, and shame—still the shame after all this time, all these years.
“I’m sorry,” Masooma whispers.
Parwana wants to howl but she forces herself into a weak smile. It takes strenuous effort at times like this to remember, to not lose sight of, one unshakable truth: This is her own handiwork, this mess. Nothing that has befallen her is unjust or undue. This is what she deserves. She sighs, surveying the soiled linens, dreading the work that awaits her. “I’ll get you cleaned up,” she says.
Masooma starts to weep without a sound, without even a shift in her expression. Only tears, welling, trickling down.
Outside, in the early-morning chill, Parwana starts a fire in the cooking pit. When the flames take hold, she fills a pail with water from Shadbagh’s communal well and sets it to heat. She holds her palms to the fire. She can see the windmill from here, and the village mosque where Mullah Shekib had taught her and Masooma to read when they were little, and Mullah Shekib’s house too, set at the foot at a mild slope. Later, when the sun is up, its roof will be a perfect, strikingly red square against the dust because of the tomatoes his wife has set out to dry in the sun. Parwana gazes up at the morning stars, fading, pale, blinking at her indifferently. She gathers herself.
Inside, she turns Masooma onto her stomach. She soaks a washcloth in the water and rubs clean Masooma’s bu**ocks, wiping the waste off her back and the flaccid flesh of her legs.
“Why the warm water?” Masooma says into the pillow. “Why the trouble? You don’t have to. I won’t know the difference.”
“Maybe. But I will,” Parwana says, grimacing against the stench. “Now, quit your talking and let me finish this.”
From there, Parwana’s day unfolds as it always does, as it has for the four years since their parents’ deaths. She feeds the chickens. She chops wood and lugs buckets back and forth from the well. She makes dough and bakes the bread in the tandoor outside their mud house. She sweeps the floor. In the afternoon, she squats by the stream, alongside other village women, washing laundry against the rocks. Afterward, because it is a Friday, she visits her parents’ graves in the cemetery and says a brief prayer for each. And all day, in between these chores, she makes time to move Masooma, from side to side, tucking a pillow under one buttock, then the other.
Twice that day, she spots Saboor.
She finds him squatting outside his small mud house, fanning a fire in the cooking pit, eyes squeezed against the smoke, with his boy, Abdullah, beside him. She finds him later, talking to other men, men who, like Saboor, have families of their own now but were once the village boys with whom Saboor feuded, flew kites, chased dogs, played hide-and-seek. There is a weight over Saboor these days, a pall of tragedy, a dead wife and two motherless children, one an infant. He speaks now in a tired, barely audible voice. He lumbers around the village a worn, shrunken version of himself.
Parwana watches him from afar and with a longing that is nearly crippling. She tries to avert her eyes when she passes by him. And if by accident their gazes do meet, he simply nods at her, and the blood rushes to her face.
That night, by the time Parwana lies down to sleep, she can barely lift her arms. Her head swims with exhaustion. She lies in her cot, waiting for sleep.
Then, in the darkness:
“Do you remember that time, us riding the bicycle together?”
“How fast we went! Riding down the hill. The dogs chasing us.”
“Both of us screaming. And when we hit that rock …” Parwana can almost hear her sister smiling in the dark. “Mother was so angry with us. And Nabi too. We ruined his bicycle.”
Parwana shuts her eyes.
“Can you sleep by me tonight?”
Parwana kicks off her quilt, makes her way across the hut to Masooma, and slips under the blanket beside her. Masooma rests her cheek on Parwana’s shoulder, one arm draped across her sister’s chest.
Masooma whispers, “You deserve better than me.”
“Don’t start that again,” Parwana whispers back. She plays with Masooma’s hair in long, patient strokes, the way Masooma likes it.
They chat idly for a while in hushed voices of small, inconsequential things, one’s breath warming the other’s face. These are relatively happy minutes for Parwana. They remind her of when they were little girls, curled up nose to nose beneath the blanket, whispering secrets and gossip, giggling soundlessly. Soon, Masooma is asleep, her tongue rolling noisily around some dream, and Parwana is staring out the window at a sky burnt black. Her mind bounces from one fragmented thought to another and eventually swims to a picture she saw in an old magazine once of a pair of grim-faced brothers from Siam joined at the torso by a thick band of flesh. Two creatures inextricably bound, blood formed in the marrow of one running in the veins of the other, their union permanent. Parwana feels a constriction, despair, like a hand tightening inside her chest. She takes a breath. She tries to direct her thoughts to Saboor once more and instead finds her mind drifting to the rumor she has heard around the village: that he is looking for a new wife. She forces his face from her head. She nips the foolish thought.
Parwana was a surprise.
Masooma was already out, wriggling quietly in the midwife’s arms, when their mother cried out and the crown of another head parted her a second time. Masooma’s arrival was uneventful. She delivered herself, the angel, the midwife would say later. Parwana’s birth was prolonged, agonizing for the mother, treacherous for the baby. The midwife had to free her from the cord that had wrapped itself around Parwana’s neck, as if in a murderous fit of separation anxiety. In her worst moments, when she cannot help being swallowed up by a torrent of self-loathing, Parwana thinks that perhaps the cord knew best. Maybe it knew which was the better half.
Masooma fed on schedule, slept on time. She cried only if in need of food or cleaning. When awake, she was playful, good-humored, easily delighted, a swaddled bundle of giggles and happy squeaks. She liked to suck on her rattle.
What a sensible baby, people said.