The thing is, I really wasn’t expecting her to go. Because when you’re ten years old and getting ready for bed, on a night that’s just like any other night, no darker or starrier or more silent or more full of smells than usual, with the familiar sound of the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer from the tops of the minarets just like anywhere else … no, when you’re ten years old – I say ten, although I’m not entirely sure when I was born, because there’s no registry office or anything like that in Ghazni province – like I said, when you’re ten years old, and your mother, before putting you to bed, takes your head and holds it against her breast for a long time, longer than usual, and says, There are three things you must never do in your life, Enaiat jan, for any reason … The first is use drugs. Some of them taste good and smell good and they whisper in your ear that they’ll make you feel better than you could ever feel without them. Don’t believe them. Promise me you won’t do it.
The second is use weapons. Even if someone hurts your feelings or damages your memories, or insults God, the earth or men, promise me you’ll never pick up a gun, or a knife, or a stone, or even the wooden ladle we use for making qhorma palaw, if that ladle can be used to hurt someone. Promise.
The third is cheat or steal. What’s yours belongs to you, what isn’t doesn’t. You can earn the money you need by working, even if the work is hard. You must never cheat anyone, Enaiat jan, all right? You must be hospitable and tolerant to everyone. Promise me you’ll do that.
Anyway, even when your mother says things like that and then, still stroking your neck, looks up at the window and starts talking about dreams, dreams like the moon, which at night is so bright you can see to eat by, and about wishes – how you must always have a wish in front of your eyes, like a donkey with a carrot, and how it’s in trying to satisfy our wishes that we find the strength to pick ourselves up, and if you hold a wish up high, any wish, just in front of your forehead, then life will always be worth living – well, even when your mother, as she helps you get to sleep, says all these things in a strange, low voice as warming as embers, and fills the silence with words, this woman who’s always been so sharp, so quick-witted in dealing with life … even at a time like that, it doesn’t occur to you that what she’s really saying is, Khoda negahdar, goodbye.
Just like that.
When I opened my eyes in the morning, I had a good stretch to wake myself up, then reached over to my right, feeling for the comforting presence of my mother’s body. The reassuring smell of her skin always said to me, Wake up, get out of bed, come on … But my hand felt nothing, only the white cotton between my fingers. I pulled it towards me. I turned over, with my eyes wide open. I propped myself on my elbows and tried calling out, Mother. But she didn’t reply and no one replied in her place. She wasn’t on the mattress, she wasn’t in the room where we had slept, which was still warm with bodies tossing and turning in the half-light, she wasn’t in the doorway, she wasn’t at the window looking out at the street filled with cars and carts and bikes, she wasn’t next to the water jars or in the smokers’ corner talking to someone, as she had often been during those three days.
From outside came the din of Quetta, which is much, much noisier than my little village in Ghazni, that strip of land, houses and streams that I come from, the most beautiful place in the world (and I’m not just boasting, it’s true).
Little or big.
It didn’t occur to me that the reason for all that din might be because we were in a big city. I thought it was just one of the normal differences between countries, like different ways of seasoning meat. I thought the sound of Pakistan was simply different from the sound of Afghanistan, and that every country had its own sound, which depended on a whole lot of things, like what people ate and how they moved around.
Mother, I called.
No answer. So I got out from under the covers, put my shoes on, rubbed my eyes and went to find the owner of the place to ask if he’d seen her, because three days earlier, as soon as we arrived, he told us that no one went in or out without him noticing, which seemed odd to me, since I assumed that even he needed to sleep from time to time.
The sun cut the entrance of the samavat Qgazi in two. Samavat means ‘hotel’. In that part of the world, they actually call those places hotels, but they’re nothing like what you think of as a hotel, Fabio. The samavat Qgazi wasn’t much a hotel as a warehouse for bodies and souls, a kind of left-luggage office you cram into and then wait to be packed up and sent off to Iran or Afghanistan or wherever, a place to make contact with people traffickers.
We had been in the samavat for three days, never going out, me playing among cushions, Mother talking to groups of women with children, some with whole families, people she seemed to trust.
I remember that, all the time we were in Quetta, my mother kept her face and body bundled up inside a burqa. In our house in Nava, with my aunt or with her friends, she never wore a burqa. I didn’t even know she had one. The first time I saw her put it on, at the border, I asked her why and she said with a smile, It’s a game, Enaiat, come inside. She lifted a flap of the garment, and I slipped between her legs and under the blue fabric. It was like diving into a swimming pool, and I held my breath, even though I wasn’t swimming.