Authors: Alice Walsh
Millie had insisted that Rabia and Karim move upstairs with the family. “I don't want you and your brother staying alone,” she told Rabia.
Now Rabia was curled into a tight ball in the middle of the large bed. All she could think about was Mama, alone in a strange hospital not having the language to communicate with anyone. She would get to see Mama tomorrow; Kevin and Millie had promised her that. Still, Rabia felt more alone and more uncertain than she had in her life.
What would they do if Mama did not recover? A host of possibilities passed through her mind, none of them good. No one in America would want to be burdened with two orphans. They would be put on a plane and sent back to Afghanistan. Rabia swallowed to ease the tightness in her throat.
You must not think such hopeless thoughts,
she chided herself.
Mama is going to recover. Soon we will all be on a plane to America.
Father often told her that when life got rough she should think of something she could be grateful for.
I have a lot of things to be thankful for,
Rabia reminded herself. Kevin and Millie had shown them so much kindness. Tomorrow they were going to take her to her mother at the hospital. Kevin was taking time off work so he could drive her.
Poor Mama. She had not been well for some time now. Bit by bit, her world had fallen apart until her spirits were as shattered as the Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley.
Through the open bedroom window, Rabia could hear talking and laughter. Jason and his friends were having a sleepover in the backyard. How simple Jason's life was. Never having to worry where his next meal was coming from. He went to school and had plans to go to university. Life had never been so easy for Karim and Rabia.
One by one, Rabia had lost the people she loved: Father, Yousef, Amir. She could not bear to lose Mama too.
At least Amir is safe in Iran,
she told herself.
â she could only hope her father was still alive. The memory of his arrest still lingered at the dark corners of her mind. Most of the time, she could keep it at bay, but now, images played in her head like a home movie on fast forward. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the horror if it:
Early February. The streets and rooftops of Kabul are blanketed with freshly fallen snow. Father has cancelled his poetry workshop. He has a feeling something bad is about to happen. Father has a keen sense about such things.
Yousef and Amir are both at their jobs. Karim is running through the house, arms outstretched, making noises like an airplane. Mama is staring out the window at the street. When the Taliban took control, they ordered all windows to be boarded up or painted black. Mama had insisted they keep one window clear. “I will go crazy without sunlight,” she complained. Father allowed her to have her window even though they could be severely punished for such an offense. Around mid-afternoon, Mama announces that the Taliban are coming toward the house.
Father scrambles to place a board over the window. He grabs a couple of his poetry books from the table and frantically pulls up the floorboard. He has just put the board in place when two Talibs burst through the door, eyes wild. Mama, Karim, and Rabia have retreated to the far corner of the room.
“Can I help you?” Father asks, his voice calm.
One of the Talibs, the bigger of the two, does all the talking. “Your beard is not long enough,” he says.
Father wraps his fist around his beard. About half an inch of fuzz shows at the bottom. That is the Taliban rule regarding beards. Mama and Rabia give a collective sigh of relief, although they know the Talibs are not there because of Father's beard. Most likely they have found out about the poetry workshops. In Kabul, neighbors often spy on one another. Someone must have reported them.
“You have spent time in America,” the Talib says.
Father nods. “I went to school in Boston.”
“You have spent time with the enemy.”
“I wanted only to get an education.”
“Don't argue.” The Talib hits him in the stomach with the butt of his rifle. Father bends over in pain. Rabia puts her hand over her mouth to keep from crying out. Karim's eyes are wide with fright. Mama looks just as scared.
“Western morals have corrupted you,” the Talib continues.
“I am a good Muslim,” Father says. “I pray five times a day. I go to mosque. I am saving to take my family to the holy land of Mecca.”
“Shut up!” The Talib roars. He hits Father again, this time on the head. Blood spurts from the wound.
Rabia rushes forward, fists clenched. She wants to kick the Talib, beat him with her fists. But Father's eyes plead with her. It is clear he does not want her to get hurt. “Soldier on,” he mouths. It is something he says to her whenever things get rough.
She watches in horror as Father is dragged from the house.
Please do not let them harm him, she prays silently. Even though, she knows she can get into serious trouble, Rabia removes the board covering the window. She watches as the Talibs drag Father down the street. Bright red blood flows from the wound on his head, dripping onto the white snow.
Rabia wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. That day was the last time she had seen Father. She had no idea where he was, or if she would ever see him again. But she had to take care of things. She must encourage Mama to get well. Make sure Karim is safe. For Father's sake, she would soldier on.
Colin took the newspaper from the grocery bag and spread it out on the kitchen table. The front page carried the story about the unidentified man in Corner Brook. “Listen to this,” he said, reading aloud. “Police are still trying to learn the identity of a man taken to the Western Memorial Hospital in Corner Brook on Wednesday. They believe the man, estimated to be between 40 and 45 years of age, had been robbed and left in a ditch. The man has blond hair and a scar on his left leg. Anyone with information about his identity is asked to come forward.”
“Sure, that's old news now,” Leah told him. “I was talking to Mom a little while ago, and she told me the man's family contacted the hospital. They've arranged to have him flown back to the United States as soon as he's well enough.”
“An American?” Colin said. “Did your mother find out his name?”
“I didn't ask. I doubt she even knows. What difference does it make?”
“That man could be Dad,” Colin said. “It all fits, his age, the hair color, the scar on his leg. And he wasâ¦is American.”
Leah stared at him. “But wouldn't your mother go to see him? Corner Brook is only a couple of hours away.”
“Things have changed between them,” Colin said, a catch in his voice. “I don't think they care about each other anymore.” He told Leah about the fight his parents had before Dad left for Kenya. “I think they may be getting a divorce.”
“I'm sorry.” Leah lightly touched his arm.
“What's worse is not knowing if it's Dad in that hospital bed.”
“It does seem like a weird coincidence,” Leah said. “The description fits. The scar on his leg is the most telling. Mom said it was strange that no one came to see the man after his identity was revealed.” She furrowed her brow, as if trying to remember something. “I think Mom said he was some kind of government official.”
“Dad's a diplomat,” Colin said. He turned so he was facing Leah. “Is there a bus that goes to Corner Brook?”
Leah stared at him. “You're not planning toâ”
“I need to see my father and make sure he's okay.”
“They won't allow you on the bus without a parent's consent.”
A few moments of silence passed between them. “We'll go to Corner Brook together,” Leah said with determination. “It's not fair that you don't know where your father is. And I need to see Mom.”
“But how will we get there?”
“We'll go with Uncle Eli. He's heading for Port-aux-Basques tonight.”
“Will he mind?”
Leah grinned. “He can't mind if he doesn't know we're traveling with him, now can he?” She pointed to the window where a half-ton truck was parked in the driveway. “We'll stow away in the back of his truck.”
“But how will
get away?” Colin asked. “I can't very well sneak out of the academy in the middle of the night.”
“Wait here,” Leah instructed. “I'm going to speak to Aunt Flo and your mom.”
“Trust me,” she said, heading for the door.
No one seemed to notice Leah as she walked across the yard. John, their neighbor, was strumming softly on a guitar. Eli was busy minding the barbeque. Granny was talking to an American couple who were staying with some neighbors. “I still thinks the election of 1949 was all a sham,” Leah heard her say.
Leah sat down next to Aunt Flo. Colin's mother sat across from them. “Leah, my love,” Aunt Flo said. “I was wondering were you went.” She looked around the yard. “Where's Colin to?”
“You left him inside by his own self?”
“Is he okay?” Catherine asked.
“Just tired.” Leah looked from Aunt Flo back to Catherine. “That's why he didn't go camping with Jason and Brent. He knew they'd be awake half the night, and he's worn out from lack of sleep.”
“Oh, the poor youngster,” Aunt Flo said.
“He says it's noisy at the academy,” Leah continued. “Colin finds it hard to sleep.”
“He didn't mention anything to me,” Catherine said. She looked concerned.
Leah shrugged. “What good would it do to complain? It's not like he can go home. Can't even check into a motel, sure.”
Catherine frowned. “There's a little girl in our room who wakes up two and three times a night. Some of the other kids wake up too.” She shook her head. “It's starting to take its toll on me. I should have realized it was affecting Colin, too.”
“He'll probably be worn out by the time he gets back to New York,” Leah said.
“No reason why he can't sleep in Brent's bed tonight,” Aunt Flo said. “Brent and Jason are sleeping in a tent.”
“We don't want to put you to any trouble,” Catherine said. “You've already been so kind to us.”
“No trouble at all, my dear,” Aunt Flo said. “A good night's sleep will do wonders for that poor youngster.”
Leah grinned. It was exactly what she had expected Aunt Flo to say.
Unable to sleep, Rabia turned on the light, and reached for her envelope of photographs. She found it comforting to look at the pictures of her family. She was glad now that she had smuggled them out of Afghanistan. As long as she had their pictures, she would never forget what Amir, Yousef, and Father looked like. She would take the photos down to the kitchen, she decided, where she could spread them out on the table.
Millie and Kevin were sitting on the sofa in the family room. The television was on, the sound muted. On the screen was a picture of the smoldering rubble at Ground Zero. Firemen and rescue workers were still searching for people who might be trapped in the debris. From the landing, Rabia watched the image change to footage shot in Afghanistan. Women wearing burqas were walking in the street. More and more now, Afghanistan was in the news. Her country had been ignored for years, but now the whole world was paying attention.
“If President Bush goes to war with Afghanistan, it will bring more death and destruction to innocent people,” she heard Kevin say.
Rabia gasped, and Kevin and Millie turned to stare at her. So, it
true. The president
planning an attack. She tried to swallow the panic that rose in her throat.
“Rabia, my love,” Millie said. “Come sit with us. Would you like some tea? A glass of milk?”
“Thank you. No,” Rabia said. She crossed the room, and sat on a love seat across from them. “Will Americans destroy Afghanistan?”
Millie gave her a pitying look.
Kevin got up from the sofa and came to sit beside Rabia. He took her hand in his briefly. “Bush will go to war,” he said. “That much is fairly certain. But I seriously doubt they will bomb the whole country.”
Rabia met his gaze. “No?”
Kevin stroked his gray beard. “The best thing the Americans can do is drive Al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of the country. The president should step up to the plate and help Afghans build a stable government. It would be in the best interest of the Americans to do that.”
Something in Kevin's tone suggested he did not trust the American president to get things right.
But Rabia felt a wave of hope. If the Taliban were driven from Afghanistan, it would be good for everyone. Her eyes flickered back to the television. “Woman would no longer have to wear the burqa,” she said, speaking her thoughts aloud.
“Is that what they calls them outfits?” Millie turned her gaze to the screen. “I can't imagine walking around all day long rigged up like that. Looks like mummers, sure.”
The image on the television changed to towering rugged mountains in Kabul.
“Tis a beautiful country,” Millie said, turning to look at Rabia. “Reminds me of Newfoundland in some ways.”
“Yes, beautiful,” Rabia agreed, feeling a wave of homesickness.
Kevin gave her an encouraging smile. “This could be the beginning of something better for Afghanistan,” he said. “The country could go back to the way it was under King Khan.”
Rabia glanced up at him, surprised he knew about the history of her country. King Amanullah Khan was Afghanistan's first modern ruler. He won independence from Britain in 1919, and started the first school for girls. Like Father, King Khan believed girls should be educated.
Rabia placed the envelope of photographs on a long low table in front of the sofa. “Afghansâ¦we only want freedom.”
Kevin nodded. “It's hard to live without freedom.”
“And we thinks we got it bad here,” Millie said, shaking her head. She looked at Rabia. “What do you have in the envelope?”
“Of your family?”
“I show you.” Rabia took the pictures from the envelope, and spread them out on the table. “Mamaâ¦she took a lot of pictures.”
“Is she a photographer?” Millie asked.
Rabia nodded. “Yes. Photographer.”
Millie picked up a print from the table and studied it.
“Karim,” Rabia said. In the photo, he was about six years old. He was staring into the camera, a mischievous grin on his face.
“Is that Karim?” A look of sadness passed over Millie's face. “Sure, you'd never guess it was the same youngster.” She put down the photograph, picked up another. “And who are these handsome young men?”
“My brothers. Amir and Yousef. And this is my father.” Rabia held up a picture of a smiling man standing in front of a mosque.
“What happened to your father?” Kevin asked.
In a trembling voice, Rabia told them about the day the Taliban arrested him. “We have not heard from him since. We do not know where he is.”
Kevin and Millie exchanged looks of horror. “How did you escape?” Kevin asked.
Rabia explained about the letter that came from her aunt in Quetta. She told them about their journey to Pakistan to apply for the program that would allow them to go to America.
“My,” Millie said, shaking her head. “You're some brave, my dear. I don't think I would've had the courage.”
“Was it difficult to get into the program?” Kevin asked.
“Yes, difficult,” Rabia said, “very difficult. Many, many refugees came to register. It was so crowded, but my foot saved me.” Rabia smiled at the memory.
“I can see why they'd pick a handicapped child,” Millie said.
Rabia shook her head. “There were many worse than me.”
“Oh?” said Kevin.
Rabia told them about her prosthesis falling off, about nearly being trampled.
“It's a wonder you weren't killed,” Millie said.
Rabia nodded. “I thought I would die.”
Kevin was looking at her with admiration. “You were lucky,” he said.
“Yes,” Rabia said. “I am very lucky.” At the time, she felt the way she imagined Jack must have felt when he won passage on the
. But now she could not help wondering if she was doomed to the same kind of fate.