Parwana was a tyrant. She exerted upon their mother the full force of her authority. Their father, bewildered by the infant’s histrionics, took the babies’ older brother, Nabi, and escaped to sleep at his own brother’s house. Nighttime was a misery of epic proportion for the girls’ mother, punctuated by only a few moments of fitful rest. She bounced Parwana and walked her all night every night. She rocked her and sang to her. She winced as Parwana ripped into her chafed, swollen breast and gummed her nipple as though she was after the milk in her very bones. But nursing was no antidote: Even with a full belly, Parwana was flailing and shrieking, immune to her mother’s supplications.
Masooma watched from her corner of the room with a pensive, helpless expression, as though she pitied her mother this predicament.
Nabi was nothing like this, their mother said one day to their father.
Every baby is different.
She’s killing me, that one.
It will pass, he said. The way bad weather does.
And it did pass. Colic, perhaps, or some other innocuous ailment. But it was too late. Parwana had already made her mark.
One late-summer afternoon when the twins were ten months old, the villagers gathered in Shadbagh after a wedding. Women worked with fevered focus to pile onto platters pyramids of fluffy white rice speckled with bits of saffron. They cut bread, scraped crusty rice from the bottom of pots, passed around dishes of fried eggplant topped with yogurt and dried mint. Nabi was out playing with some boys. The girls’ mother sat with neighbors on a rug spread beneath the village’s giant oak tree. Every now and then, she glanced down at her daughters as they slept side by side in the shade.
After the meal, over tea, the babies woke from their nap, and almost immediately, someone snatched up Masooma. She was merrily passed around, from cousin to aunt to uncle. Bounced on this lap, balanced on that knee. Many hands tickled her soft belly. Many noses rubbed against hers. They rocked with laughter when she playfully grabbed Mullah Shekib’s beard. They marveled at her easy, sociable demeanor. They lifted her up and admired the pink flush of her cheeks, her sapphire blue eyes, the graceful curve of her brow, harbingers of the startling beauty that would mark her in a few years’ time.
Parwana was left in her mother’s lap. As Masooma performed, Parwana watched quietly as though slightly bewildered, the one member of an otherwise adoring audience who didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Every now and then, her mother looked down at her, and reached to squeeze her tiny foot softly, almost apologetically. When someone remarked that Masooma had two new teeth coming in, Parwana’s mother said, feebly, that Parwana had three. But no one took notice.
When the girls were nine years old, the family gathered at Saboor’s family home for an early-evening iftar to break the fast after Ramadan. The adults sat on cushions around the perimeter of the room, and the chatter was noisy. Tea, good wishes, and gossip were passed around in equal measure. Old men fingered their prayer beads. Parwana sat quietly, happy to be breathing the same air as Saboor, to be in the vicinity of his owlish dark eyes. In the course of the evening, she chanced glances his way. She caught him in the midst of biting into a sugar cube, or rubbing the smooth slope of his forehead, or laughing spiritedly at something an elderly uncle had said. And if he caught her looking at him, as he did once or twice, she quickly looked away, rigid with embarrassment. Her knees began to shake. Her mouth went so dry she could hardly speak.
Parwana thought then of the notebook hidden under a pile of her things at home. Saboor was always coming up with stories, tales packed with jinns and fairies and demons and divs; often, village kids gathered around him and listened in absolute quiet as he made up fables for them. And about six months earlier, Parwana had overheard Saboor telling Nabi that one day he hoped to write his stories down. It was shortly after that that Parwana, with her mother, had found herself at a bazaar in another town, and there, at a stall that sold used books, she had spotted a beautiful notebook with crisp lined pages and a thick dark brown leather binding embossed along the edges. Holding it in her hand, she knew her mother couldn’t afford to buy it for her. So Parwana had picked a moment when the shopkeeper was not looking and quickly slipped the notebook under her sweater.
But in the six months that had since passed, Parwana still hadn’t found the courage to give the notebook to Saboor. She was terrified that he might laugh or that he would see it for what it was and give it back. Instead, every night she lay in her cot, the notebook secretly clutched in her hands under the blanket, fingertips brushing the engravings on the leather. Tomorrow, she promised herself every night. Tomorrow I will walk up to him with it.
Later that evening, after iftar dinner, all the kids rushed outside to play. Parwana, Masooma, and Saboor took turns on the swing that Saboor’s father had suspended from a sturdy branch of the giant oak tree. Parwana took her turn, but Saboor kept forgetting to push her because he was busy telling another story. This time it was about the giant oak tree, which he said had magic powers. If you had a wish, he said, you had to kneel before the tree and whisper it. And if the tree agreed to grant it, it would shed exactly ten leaves upon your head.
When the swing slowed to a near stop, Parwana turned to tell Saboor to keep pushing but the words died in her throat. Saboor and Masooma were smiling at each other, and in Saboor’s hand Parwana saw the notebook. Her notebook.
I found it in the house, Masooma said later. Was it yours? I’ll pay you back for it somehow, I promise. You don’t mind, do you? I just thought it was perfect for him. For his stories. Did you see the look on him? Did you, Parwana?
Parwana said no, she didn’t mind, but inside she was crumpling. Over and over she pictured how her sister and Saboor had smiled at each other, the look they shared between them. Parwana might as well have winked out into thin air like a genie from one of Saboor’s stories, so unaware had they been of her presence. It cut her to the bone. That night, on her cot, she cried very quietly.
By the time she and her sister were eleven, Parwana had developed a precocious understanding of the strange behavior of boys around girls they privately liked. She saw this especially as she and Masooma walked home from school. School was really the back room of the village mosque where, in addition to teaching Koran recitation, Mullah Shekib had taught every child in the village to read and write, to memorize poetry. Shadbagh was fortunate to have such a wise man for a malik, the girls’ father told them. On the way home from these lessons, the twins often came across a group of boys sitting on a wall. As the girls passed, the boys sometimes heckled, sometimes threw pebbles. Parwana usually shouted back and answered their pebbles with rocks, while Masooma always pulled her elbow and told her in a sensible voice to walk faster, to not let them anger her. But she misunderstood. Parwana was angry not because they threw pebbles but because they threw them only at Masooma. Parwana knew: They made a show of the ribbing, and the bigger the show, the deeper their desire. She noticed the way their eyes ricocheted off her and trained themselves on Masooma, forlorn with wonder, helpless to pull away. She knew that behind their crass jokes and lascivious grins, they were terrified of Masooma.
Then, one day, one of them hurled not a pebble but a rock. It rolled to the sisters’ feet. When Masooma picked it up, the boys snickered and elbowed one another. An elastic band held a sheet of paper wrapped around the rock. When they were at a safe distance, Masooma unrolled it. They both read the note.
I swear, since seeing Your face,
the whole world is fraud and fantasy.
The garden is bewildered as to what is leaf or blossom.
The distracted birds can’t distinguish the birdseed from the snare.
A Rumi poem, one from Mullah Shekib’s teachings.
They’re getting more sophisticated, Masooma said with a chuckle.
Below the poem, the boy had written I want to marry you. And, below that, he had scribbled this addendum: I’ve got a cousin for your sister. He’s a perfect match. They can graze my uncle’s field together.
Masooma tore the note in half. Don’t mind them, Parwana, she said. They’re imbeciles.
Cretins, Parwana agreed.
Such effort it took to plaster a grin on her face. The note was bad enough, but what really stung was Masooma’s response. The boy hadn’t explicitly addressed his note to either one of them, but Masooma had casually assumed that he’d intended the poem for her and the cousin for Parwana. For the first time, Parwana saw herself through her sister’s eyes. She saw how her sister viewed her. Which was the same as how the rest of them did. It left her gutted, what Masooma said. It flattened her.
Besides, Masooma added with a shrug and a grin, I’m already taken.
Nabi has come for his monthly visit. He is the family’s success story, perhaps the entire village’s too, on account of his working in Kabul, his driving into Shadbagh in his employer’s big shiny blue car with the gleaming eagle’s-head hood ornament, everyone gathering to watch his arrival, the village kids hollering and running alongside the car.
“How are things?” he asks.
The three of them are inside the hut having tea and almonds. Nabi is very handsome, Parwana thinks, with his fine chiseled cheekbones, his hazel eyes, his sideburns, and the thick wall of black hair swept back from his forehead. He is dressed in his customary olive-colored suit that looks a size or so too big on him. Nabi is proud of the suit, Parwana knows, always tugging at the sleeves, straightening the lapel, pinching the crease of his pants, though he has never quite managed to eradicate its lingering whiff of burnt onions.
“Well, we had Queen Homaira over for tea and cookies yesterday,” Masooma says. “She complimented our exquisite choice of décor.” She smiles amiably at her brother, revealing her yellowing teeth, and Nabi laughs, looking down at his cup. Before he found work in Kabul, Nabi had helped Parwana care for their sister. Or he had tried for a while. But he couldn’t do it. It was too much for him. Kabul was Nabi’s escape. Parwana envies her brother, but she does not entirely begrudge him even if he does—she knows that there is more than an element of penance in the monthly cash that he brings her.
Masooma has brushed her hair and rimmed her eyes with a dash of kohl as she always does when Nabi visits. Parwana knows that she does it only partially for his benefit and more for the fact that he is her tie to Kabul. In Masooma’s mind, he connects her to glamour and luxury, to a city of cars and lights and fancy restaurants and royal palaces, regardless of how remote this link might be. Parwana remembers how, long ago, Masooma used to say to her that she was a city girl trapped in a village.
“What about you? Have you found yourself a wife yet?” Masooma asks playfully.
Nabi waves a hand and laughs her off, as he used to when their parents asked him the same question.
“So when are you going to show me around Kabul again, brother?” Masooma says.
Nabi had taken them to Kabul once, the year before. He had picked them up from Shadbagh and driven them to Kabul, up and down the streets of the city. He had shown them all the mosques, the shopping districts, the cinemas, the restaurants. He had pointed out to Masooma the domed Bagh-e-Bala Palace sitting on a hill overlooking the city. At the gardens of Babur, he had lifted Masooma from the front seat of the car and carried her in his arms to the site of the Mughal emperor’s tomb. They had prayed there, the three of them, at the Shah Jahan Mosque, and then, at the edge of a blue-tiled pool, they had eaten the meal Nabi had packed for them. It had been perhaps the happiest day of Masooma’s life since the accident, and for that Parwana was grateful to her older brother.
“Soon, Inshallah,” Nabi says, tapping a finger against the cup.
“Would you mind adjusting this cushion under my knees, Nabi? Ah, that’s much better. Thank you.” Masooma sighs. “I loved Kabul. If I could, I’d march all the way there first thing tomorrow.”
“Maybe one day,” Nabi says.