Authors: Jennifer Blake
hloe Madison first saw the tall American at the Kashi stadium after a public execution. It happened as the throng, most of them Taliban militia officers, was leaving the sports arena.
The program had been a full oneâthe removal of the right hands of two thieves, the whipping of a woman who had refused the marriage arranged by her father, and finally the hanging from the goalpost of a man who had struck a holy mullah. The few women present were huddled together near the segregated section where they'd been seated while waiting for their men to push their way through the crowd to collect them. Chloe, waiting with her stepsister, heard her stepbrother's harsh call. Sickened by the barbarous spectacle and also by the suspicion that she'd been brought here expressly to see the woman punished, she was off balance as she swung around to locate him.
It was at that moment that the stranger shoved into her. She stumbled, caught her sandal in the hem of the voluminous burqa that covered her from head to foot and fell to one knee.
Immediately the stranger was beside her, grasping her cloth-covered elbow as he spoke in English. “I'm so sorry. Are you hurt? Let me help you up.” Then in a lower, almost inaudible rumble, he added,
“Your dad sent me to get you out of this hellhole. Meet me tomorrow in the Ajzukabad bazaar.”
It was a shock to hear her own language spoken after so many years in Hazaristan and amid the babble of Pashtu that was the lingua franca of a country with several different tribes and their dialects. Chloe lifted her eyes and met the man's gaze from behind the small rectangle of crocheted mesh that allowed her to see. It was an act of outright provocation according to all the precepts drummed into her these past few years, but she couldn't help it.
He looked down at her with clear, steady purpose, this American in his jeans, neatly pressed white shirt and engineer's boots. His broad shoulders filled her view. His chiseled, hickory-tan features, clean-shaven so they appeared ridiculously easy to read compared to the bearded males around her, were set in lines of determination. Shadowing the mint-tea-brown of his hooded eyes was an unnerving concern.
Seconds ticked past, stretching endlessly. The last time Chloe had been this close to a male person not of her stepfather's family, the last time she'd known casual male contact of any kind, was as a California teenager almost twelve years ago. His nearness was overwhelming, his grasp searing in its intimacy. She could catch the almost forgotten scents of American deodorant soap, warm denim and clean male. The combination touched some powerful chord of mem
ory, bringing the flashing images of loud music with a hypnotic beat, dune buggies in unlikely colors, hot sand, cold ice-cream cones, coconut-scented suntan oil and clean ocean breezes. It was a vision from a time when she had been young and free. So young, so incredibly free. Before she could stop them or even guess they would come, tears rose into her eyes.
“Chloe! Imbecile, get up at once.”
That command in the harsh, unmistakable voice of her stepbrother struck like a lash across Chloe's nerves. She snatched her exposed foot back under the turquoise blue cloth of her burqa and lowered her gaze. Wrenching from the American's loose grip, she struggled to her feet within the hot, cumbersome folds. The American put out a hand again as if to steady her, but she stepped away from him. Moving swiftly, she rejoined Ahmad and her family. Her stepsister Treena reached to draw her nearer to where she stood with her husband, Ismael. A shiver for the close call rippled along Chloe's nerves. She could have been beaten for the exposure of skin above her ankle, might still be for appearing to encourage male attention.
The American took a hasty stride after her, as if he meant to insist on an answer to his suggestion.
“Be gone, infidel,” Ahmad said with a growl in his voice, blocking the way with a hand on the knife in his belt and his turbaned head set at an arrogant angle. “You are not wanted here.”
“I was just apologizing to the lady,” the American said. “Didn't mean to knock her down.”
Ahmad's English was rudimentary since he scorned
to learn the language of a people he considered to be demon-ridden aggressors. Without so much as a glance in Chloe's direction, he answered in his own tongue. “She does not require your apology as she received no injury beyond the filth of your touch. You will not know because you are a foreign dog, but it is forbidden to look upon our women, much less lay hands upon them. Do it again, and your ignorance will not save you.”
“Even a catâor a dogâmay look at a queen.”
Chloe stifled a gasp at both the American's apparent understanding of Pashtu and the challenge in his reply. Ahmad would not recognize the English saying, but would understand the defiance all too well.
“And a dog may be blinded!” Ahmad began.
“Please,” Treena said as she leaned toward Ismael, a slight figure with bowed head, drooping under the weight of her burqa. “The heat, the dust, theâ¦the terrible things seen have been too muchâ¦I am unwell. Take me home, I beg you.”
Ahmad's sister, pregnant for the fourth time in six years, should not have been present at this ugly spectacle at all. The Taliban government required every able-bodied citizen of Kashi to attend, however, and encouraged those from outlying areas to view the proceedings. It had been Ahmad's pleasure that his family make the drive from Ajzukabad for it today. Since he had become the nominal patriarch after his father, Chloe's stepfather, had been conscripted into the Taliban militia and sent to guard the northern frontier, his wishes must be obeyed in all things.
Ismael nodded at his wife's request, then squared
his shoulders and looked toward his brother-in-law. “Ahmad, brother of my wife's heartâ¦”
“I heard,” Ahmad said shortly. “Very well. Chloe must do the chores of my sister for the next week as punishment for her clumsiness. Come.” Shouldering his way past the American as if he didn't exist, he led them all toward the exit.
Chloe did not dare look back at her countryman as she followed with Treena behind Ahmad and Ismael. It was Treena who turned her head. Her eyes mirrored both apprehension and satisfaction as she glanced toward Chloe once more. In a voice that was little more than a breath of sound, she said, “He watches.”
“I care not,” Chloe answered in the same whispery mouthing of air that women had perfected out of necessity in male-dominated Hazaristan. “Though I am grateful for your intervention just now.”
“So was my brother, I think. These are troubled times. To take revenge against an American in some dark alley is one thing, but to do so in a public brawl would have been foolish.”
Chloe, discovering that her hands were still shaking, closed them on the inside folds of her burqa as she walked. “Just so,” she agreed. “But still.”
“Yes, my brother has more pride than wisdom, more thought of his rank and consequence than of diplomacy.”
“I would not say such a thing,” Chloe murmured.
“Which is why I speak this truth in your stead. Ahmad hides behind his importance like a small boy using the shield of his father's legs to make himself brave.” Her stepsister's voice held tired resignation.
Then her eyes flashed behind the mesh of her burqa. “Was your American not handsome?”
“I failed to notice.”
“Of course you did. He was like the movie stars I saw as a child, I thought. Before the Taliban, before the theaters were closed, beforeâ¦Well, before.”
“It is a matter of indifference to me.”
“You lie before Allah, and for what? Your dreams cannot be controlled, and the only time you will ever see this man again is when you sleep.”
Was it possible that Treena had overheard and understood? It seemed unlikely. She'd had no formal education, had never studied English. Yet she had lived for years with Chloe and her mother, the woman Treena's father had married after going off to the States following the death of his child bride with Treena's birth. Chloe had even tried to teach her a few words and phrases until the lessons were forbidden.
“If I never see him again, it will be too soon,” Chloe said with hard emphasis. “He could have gotten me whipped or even killed.”
“True.” Treena looked away and was silent.
The cleansing, strengthening anger came then, banishing Chloe's shakes and the chill of horror from around her heart. It felt good, familiar, like the return of an old friend. She had been consumed with rage for so long that she thought she might be lost without that lodestar to point her way.
It had begun when her mother, a professor at UCLA, had told her she was marrying the Hazari lecturer she'd recently met, a man in the States as part
of a special foreign exchange program during the Soviet infiltration of his homeland that coincided with their occupation of nearby Afghanistan. Chloe had liked Imam well enough but never expected her mother to become serious about the quiet, scholarly Hazari with the gentle smile. The divorce of her parents three years earlier had been a tragedy to her. She'd never quite given up hope of her mother going back to her engineer father.
Nothing she said changed her mother's mind. Then, less than a year after the wedding, the Soviets had pulled out of Afghanistan and conditions in Hazaristan stabilized. Imam began to talk of going home. Chloe, barely fourteen at the time, had been appalled at the idea of leaving the States, couldn't believe that she was expected to say goodbye to all her friends and familiar surroundings in California. She'd hated the idea of living in a country so backward that electricity and running water were luxuries, New Year's was celebrated on the first day of spring according to a weird lunar calendar, and nomads traveled the mountains and deserts riding horses and living in tents. That was before she'd even set foot on Hazara soil or met her new stepsister and stepbrother.
Treena had been nice enough. Ahmad was a different story. He'd met them at the airport, but it was plain he'd expected to greet his father only. His face went slack with shock and his eyes filmed with tears as Chloe and her mother were introduced. Then an expression that might have been revulsion or even hatred invaded his face, turning it to stone. Without a word of greeting, he'd turned and walked away.
Imam called after his son in angry reprimand for the discourtesy. When there was no reply, he started after him, but Chloe's mother put a hand on his arm.
“You didn't tell him?” she asked with a frown of concern.
“I thought it best done face-to-face. Apparently I was wrong.”
Ahmad's father shook his head. “My fault. I've made so many mistakes with him.”
“You couldn't have known,” Chloe's mother said with quiet sympathy.
“No, but he blames me anyway. I'm sorry if some of that has now been transferred to you.”
She pulled his arm against her and put her head on his shoulder. “It doesn't matter. I'll live.”
But of course it did matter. And she didn't live.
Ahmad, some seven or eight years older than Chloe and a recent graduate from the university, considered himself a grown man. He made it plain that he had no respect for his father's new wife or her daughter and though he was polite enough in his father's presence, treated them like unwelcome guests in his absence. He seemed to despise women as inferior beings little better than animals. Chloe, in particular, he regarded as spoiled, headstrong and in need of instructions in the proper behavior of a woman. That meant, of course, that she held her head too high, stared men in the eyes too boldly, spoke without proper humility and respect and had an annoying habit of attempting always to walk ahead of men instead of behind them. Correcting her faults and lapses in Hazari manners
and customs was a game he enjoyed, as was sneering at her every mistake in learning their language. Knowing that her mother would serve him in order to keep the peace if Chloe refused, he took pleasure in giving orders that effectively turned them both into servants. The few times that Chloe defied him, accidents happened that left her bruised or else destroyed valued possessions, such as a favorite book or cherished ring or pendant given to her by her father.
Her stepfather was not blind to his son's behavior, but seemed powerless to stop it. Guilt restrained him, as if he felt he'd failed his children by remaining so long in the States, allowing them to be brought up by his wife's parents. The only suggestion Imam had to make for Chloe's relief was an arranged marriage that would allow her to exchange the domination of her stepbrother for that of a husband. Only fifteen by that time, she had recoiled in disbelief. The idea of a loveless marriage to a stranger was horrifying, though she could see no possible way that she'd ever meet anyone with whom to build a loving relationship. Her stepfather sighed and shrugged, but did not press her. It was Treena, instead, who married the man that Imam had in mind. This was Ismael, a cousin she'd seen only from a distance at family gatherings before their wedding day.
In desperation, Chloe wrote to her father, begging him to come and get her or send her the money that would allow her to come to him. She sent letter after letter, waiting each time for an answer that never came. All the while, Ahmad did exactly as he pleased, as if exercising some odd moral authority over the
whole family. Life might have been completely unbearable if he had not been away much of the time, busy on mysterious errands that took him out of the country.
In the meantime, the country that was supposed to be so peaceful and progressive after the end of the Soviet disturbance continued to be plagued by guerrilla warfare. Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban, a name taken from the word Talib, or student, agitated for power, forming a militant organization led by orthodox religious teachers, or mullahs. Youth and dedication to their fundamentalist cause gave them rabid strength compared to the war-weary veterans who had fought the Russians to a standstill. Following their takeover of the government, they began to export their brand of religion-based reform as the previous invaders had exported communism.