“What, me walking?”
“No,” he stammers, “I meant …” and then he grins when Masooma bursts out laughing.
Outside, Nabi passes Parwana the cash. He leans one shoulder against the wall and lights a cigarette. Masooma is inside, taking her afternoon nap.
“I saw Saboor earlier,” he says, picking at his finger. “Terrible thing. He told me the baby’s name. I forget now.”
“Pari,” Parwana says.
He nods. “I didn’t ask, but he told me he’s looking to marry again.”
Parwana looks away, trying to pretend she doesn’t care, but her heart is thumping in her ears. She feels a film of sweat blooming on her skin.
“Like I said, I didn’t ask. Saboor was the one who brought it up. He pulled me aside. He pulled me aside and told me.”
Parwana suspects that Nabi knows what she has carried with her for Saboor all these years. Masooma is her twin, but it is Nabi who has always understood her. But Parwana doesn’t see why her brother is telling her this news. What good does it do? What Saboor needs is a woman unanchored, a woman who won’t be held down, who is free to devote herself to him, to his boy, his newborn daughter. Parwana’s time is already consumed. Accounted for. Her whole life is.
“I’m sure he’ll find someone,” Parwana says.
Nabi nods. “I’ll be by again next month.” He crushes his cigarette underfoot and takes his leave.
When Parwana enters the hut, she is surprised to see Masooma awake. “I thought you were napping.”
Masooma drags her gaze to the window, blinking slowly, tiredly.
When the girls were thirteen, they sometimes went to the crowded bazaars of nearby towns for their mother. The smell of freshly sprayed water rose from the unpaved street. The two of them strolled down the lanes, past stalls that sold hookahs, silk shawls, copper pots, old watches. Slaughtered chickens hung by their feet, tracing slow circles over hunks of lamb and beef.
In every corridor Parwana would see men’s eyes snapping to attention when Masooma passed by. She saw their efforts to behave matter-of-factly, but their gazes lingered, helpless to tear away. If Masooma glanced in their direction, they looked idiotically privileged. They imagined they had shared a moment with her. She interrupted conversations midsentence, smokers mid-drag. She was the trembler of knees, the spiller of teacups.
Some days it was all too much for Masooma, as if she was almost ashamed, and she told Parwana she wanted to stay inside all day, wanted not to be looked at. On those days, Parwana thought it was as though, somewhere deep inside, her sister understood dimly that her beauty was a weapon. A loaded gun, with the barrel pointed at her own head. Most days, however, the attention seemed to please her. Most days, she relished her power to derail a man’s thoughts with a single fleeting but strategic smile, to make tongues falter over words.
It blistered the eyes, beauty like hers.
And then there was Parwana, shuffling next to her, with her flat chest and sallow complexion. Her frizzy hair, her heavy, mournful face, and her thick wrists and masculine shoulders. A pathetic shadow, torn between her envy and the thrill of being seen with Masooma, sharing in the attention as a weed would, lapping up water meant for the lily upstream.
All her life, Parwana had made sure to avoid standing in front of a mirror with her sister. It robbed her of hope to see her face beside Masooma’s, to see so plainly what she had been denied. But in public, every stranger’s eye was a mirror. There was no escape.
She carries Masooma outside. The two of them sit on the charpoy Parwana has set up. She makes sure to stack cushions so Masooma can comfortably lean her back against the wall. The night is quiet but for the chirping crickets, and dark too, lit only by a few lanterns still shimmering in windows and by the papery white light of the three-quarter moon.
Parwana fills the hookah’s vase with water. She takes two matchhead-sized portions of opium flakes with a pinch of tobacco and drops the mix into the hookah’s bowl. She lights the coal on the metal screen and hands the hookah to her sister. Masooma takes a deep puff from the hose, reclines against the cushions, and asks if she can rest her legs on Parwana’s lap. Parwana reaches down and lifts the limp legs to rest across her own.
When she smokes, Masooma’s face slackens. Her lids droop. Her head tilts unsteadily to the side and her voice takes on a sluggish, distant quality. A whisper of a smile forms on the corners of her mouth, whimsical, indolent, complacent rather than content. They say little to each other when Masooma is like this. Parwana listens to the breeze, to the water gurgling in the hookah. She watches the stars and the smoke drifting over her. The silence is pleasant, and neither she nor Masooma feel an urge to fill it with needless words.
Until Masooma says, “Will you do something for me?”
Parwana looks at her.
“I want you to take me to Kabul.” Masooma exhales slowly, the smoke twirling, curling, morphing into shapes with each blink of the eye.
“Are you serious?”
“I want to see Darulaman Palace. We didn’t get a chance to last time. Maybe go visit Babur’s tomb again.”
Parwana leans forward to decipher Masooma’s expression. She searches for a hint of playfulness, but in the moonlight she catches only the calm, unblinking glitter of her sister’s eyes.
“It’s a two-day walk at least. Probably three.”
“Imagine Nabi’s face when we surprise him at his door.”
“We don’t even know where he lives.”
Masooma listlessly sweeps her hand. “He already told us which neighborhood. We’ll knock on some doors and ask. It’s not that difficult.”
“How would we get there, Masooma, in your condition?”
Masooma pulls the hookah hose from her lips. “When you were out working today, Mullah Shekib came by, and I spoke to him a long time. I told him we were going to Kabul for a few days. Just you and I. He gave me his blessing in the end. Also his mule. So you see, it’s all arranged.”
“You are insane,” Parwana says.
“Well, it’s what I want. It’s my wish.”
Parwana sits back against the wall, shaking her head. Her gaze drifts upward into the cloud-mottled darkness.
“I’m so bored I’m dying, Parwana.”
Parwana empties her chest of a sigh and looks at her sister.
Masooma brings the hose to her lips. “Please. Don’t deny me.”
One early morning, when the sisters were seventeen, they sat on a branch high up the oak tree, their feet dangling.
Saboor’s going to ask me! Masooma had said this in a high-pitched whisper.
Ask you? Parwana said, not understanding, at least not immediately.
Well, not him, of course. Masooma laughed into her palm. Of course not. His father will be doing the asking.
Now Parwana understood. Her heart sank to her feet. How do you know? she said through numb lips.
Masooma began to speak, words pouring from her mouth at a frenzied pace, but Parwana hardly heard any of it. She was picturing instead her sister’s wedding to Saboor. Children in new clothes, carrying henna baskets overflowing with flowers, trailed by shahnai and dohol players. Saboor, opening Masooma’s fist, placing the henna in her palm, tying it with a white ribbon. The saying of prayers, the blessing of the union. The offering of gifts. The two of them gazing at each other beneath a veil embroidered with gold thread, feeding each other a spoonful of sweet sherbet and malida.
And she, Parwana, would be there among the guests to watch this unfold. She would be expected to smile, to clap, to be happy, even as her heart splintered and cracked.
A wind swept through the tree, made the branches around them shake and the leaves rattle. Parwana had to steady herself.
Masooma had stopped talking. She was grinning, biting her lower lip. You asked how I know that he’s going to ask. I’ll tell you. No. I’ll show you.
She turned from Parwana and reached into her pocket.
And then the part that Masooma knew nothing about. While her sister was facing away, searching her pocket, Parwana planted the heels of her hands on the branch, lifted her bottom, and let it drop. The branch shook. Masooma gasped and lost her balance. Her arms flailed wildly. She tipped forward. Parwana watched her own hands move. What they did was not really push, but there was contact between Masooma’s back and the pads of Parwana’s fingertips and there was a brief moment of subtle shoving. But it lasted barely an instant before Parwana was reaching for her sister, for the hem of her shirt, before Masooma was calling her name in panic and Parwana hers. Parwana grabbed the shirt, and it looked for just a moment as though she might have saved Masooma. But then the cloth ripped as it slipped from her grip.
Masooma fell from the tree. It seemed to take forever, the fall. Her torso slamming into branches on the way down, startling birds and shaking leaves free, her body spinning, bouncing, snapping smaller branches, until a low, thick branch, the one from which the swing was suspended, caught her lower back with a sick, audible crunch. She folded backward, nearly in half.
A few minutes later, a circle had formed around her. Nabi and the girls’ father crying over Masooma, trying to shake her awake. Faces peering down. Someone took her hand. It was still closed into a tight fist. When they uncurled the fingers, they found exactly ten crumbled little leaves in her palm.
Masooma says, her voice shaking a bit, “You have to do it now. If you wait until morning, you’ll lose heart.”
All around them, beyond the dim glow of the fire Parwana has stoked from shrubs and brittle-looking weeds, is the desolate, endless expanse of sand and mountains swallowed up by the dark. For nearly two days they have traveled through the scrubby terrain, heading toward Kabul, Parwana walking alongside the mule, Masooma strapped to the saddle, Parwana holding her hand. They have trudged along steep paths that curved and dipped and wound back and forth across rocky ridges, the ground at their feet dotted with ocher- and rust-colored weeds, etched with long spidery cracks creeping every which way.
Parwana stands near the fire now, looking at Masooma, who is a horizontal blanketed mound on the other side of the flames.
“What about Kabul?” Parwana says.
“Oh, you’re supposed to be the smart one.”
Parwana says, “You can’t ask me to do this.”
“I’m tired, Parwana. It’s not a life, what I have. My existence is a punishment to us both.”
“Let’s just go back,” Parwana says, her throat beginning to close. “I can’t do this. I can’t let you go.”
“You’re not.” Masooma is crying now. “I’m letting you go. I am releasing you.”
Parwana thinks of a long-ago night, Masooma up on the swing, she pushing her. She had watched as Masooma had straightened her legs and tipped her head all the way back at the peak of each upward swing, the long trails of her hair flapping like sheets on a clothesline. She remembers all the little dolls they had coaxed out of corn husks together, dressing them in wedding gowns made of shreds of old cloth.
“Tell me something, sister.”
Parwana blinks back the tears that are blurring her vision now and wipes her nose with the back of her hand.
“His boy, Abdullah. And the baby girl. Pari. You think you could love them as your own?”
“I could try,” Parwana says.
“Good. Then marry Saboor. Look after his children. Have your own.”
“He loved you. He doesn’t love me.”
“He will, given time.”
“This is all my doing,” Parwana says. “My fault. All of it.”
“I don’t know what that means and I don’t want to. At this point, this is the only thing I want. People will understand, Parwana. Mullah Shekib will have told them. He’ll tell them that he gave me his blessing for this.”