In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. His sister traced the first words of the Quran with her soft fingertip. The boy held the book while she held Manel, rocking the infant in her small arms. It was the season one felt the soft embrace of in-between time, when summer's ribs rested on the swelling bristles of winter. The courtyard had tall walls, outstretched by a fertile persimmon tree that had met Uncle's ancestors. The children sat here amidst the red stains of already fallen fruit. That was before Al-Adha when the sheep was murdered, before the twins turned eleven.
On Al-Adha God spoke out loud to Ibraham. He said, Kill your Son Ismael. The father told his boy and the boy accepted to be slaughtered. As Ibraham raised his knife Allah stopped him, sparing the boy, and instructed him to sacrifice an animal in Ismael's stead.
In the beginning there was light, there was never Uncle or Abba, only Emah. Amir and his twin Amira gamboled within the boundary of the terraced shelf overlooking the village far away. They had both inherited Abba's hazel eyes, Amir's like the green flash of sunset after the dusty twilight, his sister's the color of the jasper pebbles in the dusty gravel underfoot. The sunbaked walls of their shelter were safe, and Emah kept them warm. That was before they belonged to Uncle.
Emah's parents lived many miles away. She was the seventh daughter of thirteen children. Her mother was not from the Tanoli tribe like her father and his first wife. Emah was a half-breed with little merit, thus her union modest. The fare of her transport to her new home was her sole bride price. Abba, Emah's betrothed, was pure Tanoli, but a fifth son without inheritance save a small plot of isolated land above the village. Her first marriage to Abba had been short lived, but happy. And she was his only wife.
Abba was handsome, his beard was sparse and soft against Emah's cheek, and his physique lithe and efficient. When Emah spoke, he listened and heard. She had become pregnant right away with twins, praise Allah, while Abba left to work in the oil fields of Saudi. He was far away but safe and loyal. Many of the Tanoli men were gone to fight and never return. Meanwhile, Abba's relatives ignored her; she was not one of them. Many unmarked sunsets bowed over the new bride as she grew heavy with pregnancy.
The Hindu Kush showered icy crystals onto her homestead, forcing the woman inside. Labor hit her like a slap. Emah birthed the twins alone in a pool of blood on her tidy mud floor. With only a blanket and a small pile of cooking wood, she thought she might die as the twins suckled her cold breasts. Drops of melted snow fell as she cried for her mother only to be chased away by Allah's icy hail pounding her rooftop.
Emah had disappointed Abba and his family. Girls were considered someone else's garbage to the Pashtun clan. There would be no greeting of gunfire, circumcision or name day. No one had brought her Letai, the porridge for good milk. There would be no celebration or sheep sacrificed. One daughter was already a burden, but she had brought two to Abba, two beautiful worthless girls. Allah would not have wished the curse on him, she knew. Emah would be blamed for the perfect babies.
Her stomach had fallen empty of the babies and hung like tangled rope. The older twin was chubby and dark and the other a tiny porcelain doll. At home she stayed, away from the others, holding her perfect infants, and watching them grow. They nursed voraciously and would sleep entwined, cooing to each other in a language of their own.
The rich Khyber spring nourished them, green with new life. With eyes open, Allah watched as Emah grew stronger than before. Her skin shown he color of ground tahini, and she wore the beauty of motherhood. Alongside her the twins thrived, with the gentle mountains as their companions.
Emah wouldn't raise them like wild dogs. The sacks of dry beans and couscous were almost exhausted, and the twins needed proper clothing. A small flutter of Afghani bills remained in the glass jar and she hoped for a letter containing more. The last time she had traveled to the village she was with Abba as his new bride, young and unhindered, now she would be a wife alone, with her baggage. Abba was gone far away in another country from which the money came.
The morning sun lay in splashes on the hillside as Emah prepared to journey to the village. The big twin giggled, milk dripping from her pink mouth, while the small one cried weakly. Perhaps she was sick and would die. Emah's heart hurt with worry. She wrapped her tightly against her breast. The healthy one she carried on the outside of her burqa, her wide eyes eagerly reflected the vast sky.
Keeping her hijab off, she walked down the gravel path to the stone road that led to the village. Her arms were already tired from holding the big twin while the small one melded under the black protective robe like she was back in the womb. Cheered by the thought of a letter from Abba, she plodded on. Soon Emah put on her hijab feeling anxious about traveling without a male protector.
Encumbered with the weight of the two infants and the bulky burqa, Emah's progress to town was a slow march. Mahmoud, the old man, sat on a flat rock at the roadside like a snake warming its blood. Through a stained beard he greeted Emah, "Praise Allah, may you sacrifice two sheep." He spoke properly, to the cobblestones out of respect. The words washed over her as she continued on. He had mistaken the big twin for a male and bearing tradition, she could not correct him. Meanwhile the small baby slept against her undetected, but one did not announce the birth of a girl anyway.
In town she shared eye language with the women but spoke not a word. Abba had many cousins here, and they recognized her identity from the white seam of her burka, a wedding gift. Emah heard the same blessing from many of the villagers that crossed her path. She heard the male blessing repeatedly and her eyes shined proudly. Though the villagers weren't warm, Emah's heart flushed. She had brought her husband a son, and a daughter too. A double blessing: her son came with a caregiver, his sister.
There was money, but no note, but as Emah had never learned to read it didn't matter. She bought staples and climbed back up to her terraced homestead. From here she could see the valley below and the sun rise and lower every day. Amir was the first to walk, but when Amira spoke for the first time even the breeze stopped to listen.
Because Uncle was Kabir, old—fifty-three years and she was just twenty-seven—Emah had not wanted to marry him, but Abba died in an accident and she had no choice. Abba's family owned her.
One day, a relative of Abba's arrived. Cousin Jamilah was fat and brusque. Her husband was smoking impatiently, not looking at the women. These were the ones who lived in a brick house.
"Here is money." The woman said thrust a stack of Afghanis towards Emah. The bills were sour in her hand, but still she gripped them tightly. Abba's cousin uttered the words of the Du'a from memory. "Praise Allah…purify him." Why the prayer of death? "Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family…Admit him into the garden and protect him…" she recited without feeling.
Emah lowered herself onto the bare earth. Bored, cousin's husband crushed the butt of his cigarette into the fine dust of Emah's clearing and lit another. The woman continued, "You are remarried." In one short visit she became a stranger's wife. Unspeakable words were stifled as the young mother sucked in the news. Abba was gone forever, sweet husband of her own, and now she was Uncle's, his eldest brother from far away.
For a long while nothing changed except money came from Uncle not Abba. The family of three lived clean under heaven. Emah called her "boy" Amir and the little girl, Amira. A Prince and Princess. All was as it should be. The boy child didn't mind one bit, he didn't notice. Anyway, the family needs a man, thought Emah. This way one of them could be truly free. Perhaps she would live here forever forgotten, but she knew a boy would be remembered. Amir was truly Allah's son. She dreamed that one day Amir would fly to a better place and take Amira and Emah with him.
Days turned to months and years. Then they moved far away to Uncle's.
The Madrassa was modest and teacher was smart with a gentle hand. Amir could read, run, shout and wrestle. His voice was pure, and he was often called upon to read out loud. During lessons Amir lost himself in his studies, with dreams of boundless futures. Perhaps one day he could go to university in Peshawar, Kabul, or maybe even America.
Uncle could sign his name and recite verses from the Holy Book, but nothing more. School was not a given for the village boys. Emah had asked Uncle for the fees and he had assented. Amir wondered why Uncle sent him to study. Perhaps he just wanted Amir away from the house.
Like doves, the Pashtun boys wore white Shalwar Kameez uniforms in various degrees of wear and bad fits. Amir donned the uniform to mosque on Fridays as well where he joined the other males as they sang Allah's praise. Undergarments for cold weather and a clean white skullcap or pakol was required, as Mohammed had worn. Even on warm days Amir put on the undershorts and shirt that Emah always had ready, smelling like laundry soap. The set was a soft protection. The loose cotton of the boxers between his legs made for a worthy guise.
A classmate, Boukine, was particularly handsome and Amir felt drawn to him. Sometimes the boys held hands. Boukine's hands were large and warm. He had nice shoes and a cell phone. At recess the two boys would huddle over it watching music videos.
One day Boukine told Amir he had received a photo of an American girl. He held the phone just out of reach as Amir chased him to the far corner of the fenced schoolyard. Amir jumped for it tripping the bigger boy. They tumbled as Boukine overpowered his friend, pinning him from above. The cell phone lay in the dirt next to the boys. "You wanna see? You wanna see?" taunted Boukine as he held Amir's wrists, pressing him into the hard ground. Using his bodyweight, he lowered onto Amir releasing one wrist to grab the phone. Boukine's heart was loud, beating against Amir's. Amir wanted to push Boukine off and draw him in at the same time. On the phone was a photo of an orange haired girl. "See!" shouted Boukine. "See!"
"She's not your girlfriend?" teased Amir, wishing it was his own picture not that girl on the phone. Teacher called the class back inside, but Amir made his way to the outhouse. There in his underwear were three spots of bright red blood, like three perfect lentils. He thought he might be dying from his tousle with Boukine, that he had been injured. Maybe it was a punishment from Allah. Without a word he slunk home, removed the garment and went to wash it in the yard. Hearing running water Emah came out and took the garment, inspecting it sternly. She then scrubbed out the spots wordlessly and hung it to dry.
Emah showered praise on her favorite son, and his sister treated him kindly. His mother now had Manel, another baby girl, with his Uncle. Since Manel had been born, Amira did much of the shopping, cleaning and cooking for the family with Amir as her guardian. Amira packed her brother's school lunch, always spreading the dal thick on homemade chapattis. Sometimes she put in a hard candy or lollipop for a sweet surprise.
Before Manel came, Amira had worn the simple girl's thobe and headscarf, but now that she was almost eleven, Uncle insisted she wear the proper covering for a woman. Teasing, Amir called her the black blob, her playful eyes the only visible feature. On empty streets, Amir led her to trip on curbs, until they both burst out laughing. Sometimes Amir would try to teach her simple math or how to read the village signs. They talked of the boys in school, or about a new American song Amir had heard on Boukine's cell phone.
Market day was crowded in Uncle's village. People from a large region came here, some Kalash, blond and pale-eyed, and others inky with woolen hair. Women sat in bright veils behind their weekly harvest, while the men fried and boiled with large pots. The twins' favorite was the wok of milk covered with thick cream. The man filled two chipped mugs putting a heavy layer of cream on top. Like a cat Amir sipped contentedly not noticing how difficult it was for his sister to drink beneath her oversized burqa.
Going to market was woman's work, but never unaccompanied by a male family member. Amir became a Pashtun man in miniature, loitering on the corner, smoking and chatting with the other males, while his sister chose groceries. Known for her modesty and delicate beauty, some asked after his sister, or even about his own marriage plans.
Anxiety turned to nausea. In the last year Amir had lived in a jail made of gold. He was free to learn, wander, and chose his own wife. But how could he? He was the same cut as his sister and mother, but a boy. In the house above the village, being a male with the same parts as a girl was innate and natural.
Life with Uncle was lonely like the inside of a cocoon. Uncle's was where the secret was born. Amira and Emah were different here too. In their new home Amir's questions were answered by Emah's hard slap and a hiss-Haram-Forbidden that frightened him into silence. When he tried to talk to Amira, her gravel eyes went wide with fear as she nodded her head with an abrupt no. Why was she so scared? Could it be that mother and sister forged a covenant without him? If only his sister and Emah would carry this heavy truth with him. He dreaded the stones growing on his chest and wanted to cut them off. Why had Emah abandoned him with their secret, the secret he wished he could slice away?
Amir's appetite had decreased as he grew into a woman under his male robes. He was worried that his hands were girlish as he reached for Emah's fresh naan. That none had discovered him was no small blessing. How long could Amir hide in plain sight? Would the Mullah issue a Fatwa against his family? Would they stone him or send him away? Would his mother and Amira perish with him? What of Uncle? Would he stay free to marry another wife? Questions pursued Amir like a wasp ready to sting. Tormented and scared the child locked his secret deep inside his hidden womb.
Uncle's first wife was given back to her parents, as she had never brought him children. Emah didn't like her new Zouj, Uncle was a fierce man with stinging dark eyes like a hornet, and she was afraid. He commanded but never spoke to her. Amira was sent outside of their new house, as he grunted his seed into her mother. Once she saw him over Emah as he forced himself from behind.
The house sat on the dead end of Amir's block and the view spanned the chalky street. Amir lived in a closet size room with just a cot, but it was his own. Uncle had his own room too, and Amir had visited it only one time. Shortly after they had arrived, Uncle took the boy there. It was the only room above the ground floor, and had a short door to the kitchen's roof, making a small private balcony. Traditionally rooftops were women's territory used for drying clothes and exchanging salaams with neighbors. But this was Uncle's house so Emah and Amira used the closed yard instead making clothes lines between its thick walls.
On warm afternoons Uncle sat on the tarpaper roof like a rooster thinking himself into a sultan. Preening in a rusty folding chair above his front door, Uncle would smoke kif and look down the road watching the village flock and its migrations. The beckoning of the vast mountains beyond went unnoticed. It was one such day when Amir went to Uncle's room.
Amir returned from school to pass under Uncle's sharp eyes. Emah and Amira were out back with large baskets of linens to pin on the lines. The electric light bulb that hung from the kitchen ceiling was turned off. Uncle waved, forcing Amir before him into his unfamiliar staircase. The stairs were unfinished, but sturdy and well worn. A runner of red woolen carpet had been torn from an old masterpiece to drape the assent, making the climb unheard. At the top Amir took in the strange room, with Uncle stranded behind him halfway up. The walls were made of wood and mud, and the ceiling was corrugated metal. One small window shed cold light into the space. A big bed crowded the room. It was covered with a polyester blanket and pillows made of fluffy sheepskin. Amir wondered if Emah had slept in it. Two unfamiliar bottles were on the nightstand. The small one had a plaid design and read "Burberry" the other "Jim Beam." Amir's lungs tightened, making it hard to breathe.
"Yalla!" Uncle pushed the boy into the room, and he tumbled against the bed. Uncle placed himself in front of the boy. Amir was trapped, bare knees on a rough jute rug. His eyes had only one place to go. Frightened, the child stared at the upright member while his Uncle's gaze drilled into boy's scalp. He froze as Uncle gripped his short hair with his free hand. Commanding his shank with the other, Uncle began prayers…Allah Akbar… A tempest rushed from Amir's eyes drenching his cheeks as Uncle drew him in closer. Thereupon Allah lifted his hand and pardoned the child. Emah stepped into the room.
Uncle's hand hit Amir's jaw ending the trial. His saliva tasted like blood. Emah threw hard words at Uncle, but Amir didn't hear them. Then she censured her own son. Her face was tight with anger and fear, but her caring touch protective. She sent him to his small quarter in punishment, told him never to enter Uncle's room again.
Afterwards Uncle kept Amir because he was Emah's, but otherwise pretended he did not exist. He planned to have Manel as his own first son.
It was Eid al-Adha. A day for merrymaking, and delicious food. Women cooked the fresh meat into savory stews, followed by sweet baklavas and store-bought candy. On this day, Allah told good men to walk to the mosque along one route and away another. Because school was closed, Amir would be allowed to wander freely after prayers.
Amir awoke to the smell of sweet dates and butter, and a spirit of festivity. A beautiful prayer rug sat on the floor with a brand-new outfit spread on top. His mother must have picked it out. The thobe was almost translucent but strong, woven just one village away. A mixed blessing, Amir donned the Kameez made of new white linen. His dark nipples showed through. They had become ultra-sensitive lately. Were they swollen? An undershirt beneath the finery took care of the problem, but for how long?
The sacrifice bleated in the courtyard. Amira and Emah were already up preparing broth for the sheep that was to be made into delicious stew. Uncle would kill it properly and they would share the rich meal with neighbors and those less fortunate. Following orders, Amir gathered his mother and Manel to go to the mosque. Uncle would stay with Amira to sacrifice the frightened lamb. Strange to leave Amira behind; slaughtering was man's work, but the family did as they were told.
Emah*,* the baby, and Amir walked towards mosque, careful to pay attention to the route so as to return differently. The roads had been swept meticulously and many Salaams greeted the small family as they made their way. Amir led them along his friend Boukine's street, his face flushed as he passed the doorway of his friend's home. Suddenly he remembered his new prayer mat left beside his cot. Abandoning Emah and the baby, he rushed back, not passing Boukine's this time. With purpose he ran upstream on different roads, against different Salaams all flowing down to the mosque.
The front door was shut and locked from the inside, the house silent as if in deep sleep. Broken straps from the vacant folding chair floated gently in the quiet breeze. Amir circled around back. The metal gate shrieked as it scratched against Amir's passage. Impressions of his footprints and those that had crossed before marked the private yard. A cicada hummed from the ancient tree, filling all the space with its echoing drum. The boy shivered, trapped inside his form. A scream pierced all that was. It severed the head of virtue and rolled, bleeding. It was Amira's scream, and another sound: the familiar grunting of Uncle.
Prayers were over. Guiding Emah with Manel, Amir returned them along barren alleys, like a good man does. As Allah willed, chaste streets were used. A veil shrouded Amir's heart and it took wing. His breath hung over the vacancy unfelt. Like a crow, it landed on a pile of decaying plastic bags, Styrofoam and waste, its beak pecking around.
At home it was Al-Adha. The sacrifice would be cooked in the yard, near the carnage. The sheep was dismembered—more like ripped apart. Only the head was intact, it's dead eye already turning milky. Dark blood thickened on the carrion, leaking. Mangled flesh would be boiled off its bones. The smell made Amir's stomach turn.
The black burqa made Amira unrecognizable. Her face was wet and closed as steam drenched her from the big metal pot. She did not turn to greet them. A good woman, she piled the dead limbs into the food they were going to eat. Amira reached for the heart and Amir thought he saw it throbbing, but it was dead.