Today's Reading

The girl's mother trembles, her face contorted as she spears me with her gaze. I take a step back, walking into the person behind me. I turn around and tell the young man I'm sorry. He stares at me, unmoving. All around me, I see menace painted on men's faces. Their knives and guns fill my vision; I fight back the stories I grew up
with.

"Where were you traveling to?" Taj says.

"Herat."

"From Kabul?"

"Yes."

"Of course."

"I'm so sorry." A voice inside me says I should not have come into the desert among these men. I know I don't want to die here. But there is another kind of knowing, one that rests deep in my bones like fossils in shale. My father used to tell me, 'The rich world has rules and regulations. The poor world has rituals and traditions. These worlds weigh the same.'

Taj raises his hand and stops me before returning to the elders. They whisper things I am not meant to hear, shaking their heads as they speak, gesturing in turn to the road and the desert and the tents. "Yes," one of the elders says loudly. "That's fine."

Taj shakes his hand and stalks toward me, grasping my arm without stopping. He jerks his chin toward the road. "We are going to the police."

I am ashamed at my relief. I want to get away from here, even if this man is the only way out. As we pass the girl's parents, Taj gestures toward the road and they fall in step with us. Baseer is still holding the corpse, but I feel the child's weight as if she is back in my arms. I know that she will always be in my arms.

The trek back to the car feels shorter than the walk into the desert. Soon, we will be at the police station, where I will again have to confess. They will know who I am. It may save me. But Taj is watching me like the wind watches the leaves, knowing it may toss them as it likes, loosen them from trees at will.

Rebecca's arms are wrapped around her, her hair whipping in the breeze, face pale and eyes swollen. Today is our anniversary, but it seems small now, too. I had hoped to see her as she used to be, to find even a trace of joy. Instead, I have added to her grief from three months ago.

She has moved the car to the edge of the road. She sees no one but me, her clouded eyes searching my face. I can scarcely glance at her, much less meet her gaze. I am crushed by the weight of Telaya's death and further by the weight of my wife's love because at this moment, I do not deserve it.

No words are exchanged, no introductions made. The girl's parents wedge into the backseat with Taj, Telaya slumped across their laps. I see Taj gently pry the shard of glass from her face and I feel that stabbing pain above my eye again. Taj asks if I know the station north of here. I do.

I dig my hands into the scalding leather of the steering wheel. It comforts me, one pain making another recede. The radio, now warped with indentations, is mercifully silent. On the floor are ordinary tools I usually keep in the trunk.

"I had to make it stop," Rebecca whispers.

But I'm not staring at the tools. Under her seat is a mop of yellow wool. The tousled locks of the broken doll. The car is spangled with pastel rainbows cast by the mirrors on Telaya's dress. It must have been the finest one she owned. The mirrors on the doll's are making rainbows, too, smaller ones that dance across Rebecca's ankles. I turn the key and the engine comes alive. High above us, a bird of prey soars into view, shuddering against the burning blue dome.


1

On that scalding August day, Sergeant Najib sat behind his desk, polishing the barrel of his gun. He liked being a sergeant, despite the fool of a constable they had given him and the discomfort of his starchy uniform in the heat. Outside, there was nothing but a two-lane highway and the beige, boundless desert dotted with the occasional grungy bush or approaching mass of a nomad migration. Najib was proud to be king of this solitary mud box perched on the Kabul-Kandahar highway. From his station, he proudly served the young republic, proving that it was a serious entity. So serious that there were outposts of law and order even in places where the only real laws were those of nature, and the only real orders those of a warlord. Najib had loyally served the king, too, before the coup that had sent him packing four years ago.

Slipping the gun into his holster as noisily as he could, Najib stroked the cover of his well-thumbed Koran, then cast a glance at his young underling. Najib liked to think that the boy was a dedicated servant. It was an accepted fact that Kochi nomads were up to all sorts of trickery, and soon he would catch one of them in the act of something expressly forbidden, like passing off tin as silver or riding mules loaded with the remains of harvested poppies in the hope of starting their own field.
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