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Words in the Dust

Chapter 4

An Daral was a large village, full of winding streets lined with walls of stacked rocks or mud brick. With so many walls, I had to always be walking around a compound or a garden to look for my brother. The soccer field was an empty stretch of packed dust. Little whirlwinds of sand were all that played there. He was not swimming in any of the three popular deep spots in the river, though the crushing heat made me envious of those who were. And even though finding the Americans might have helped me find Khalid, I was glad when there wasn't a single soldier anywhere.

By the time I reached the bazaar, several shop owners were lowering their shutters to close up until it cooled off a little. I was lucky to have made it before everything was closed. I couldn't wait until evening for the shops to open again. By that time, Khalid would have gone home on his own, if he wasn't there already, having a good laugh about making me run all over town in this heat.

I haggled forever with the man selling fruit. He must have thought I was dumb and didn't know how much the other women paid for oranges. By the time I'd argued my way to a fair price, most of the shops were locked up behind their shutters. Carrying my purchases in the small plastic sack from the rice man, I set off for the last place I might hope to find Khalid.

Part of me hoped I would not find him there.

I had to go through the butcher district. The bees and flies buzzed all about the cuts of beef and mutton that had swung from hooks since this morning's slaughter. The blood that stained the ground cooked in the glare of the sun and let off a sour-sweet stench that stung my eyes and nose. At the end of the street, I stepped out into the empty space that surrounded the Citadel.

The Citadel loomed twice as tall as the tallest building in An Daral, a colossal mudstone castle that had baked under the Afghan sun since before time. It might have been home to kings once, but it now housed only old Russian war junk. Provincial police supposedly kept watch to make sure people stayed away, but they must not have tried very hard, because kids often played in, around, and on top of the walls of the giant fortress.

Being a girl, I had never been to the Citadel, but years ago Najib had gone to play there and he'd told Zeynab and me all about it. When Baba found out, he beat Najib's bottom. If the old Russian guns and bombs that were left there from the war weren't dangerous enough, Baba said there were cracks in the walls and plenty of steep places to fall from.

It would have taken a very long time to circle the whole Citadel. I was grateful, then, when I found Khalid quickly. I was not so happy with where he was. Or who he was with.

He was crouched on a large mudstone boulder fifteen or twenty meters up one of the giant fissures in the ancient wall. Anwar and his cousins stood under a date tree at the bottom of the wall, looking up at him. "Come on, you little baby," Anwar shouted. "It's an easy climb. If you want to play with us, you need to make it all the way to the top."

I was not surprised to see Anwar involved in this. Why couldn't he just leave people alone? I slid down to hide in the bottom of a dried-out irrigation ditch where I could watch the boys without being seen. Khalid was high above us all and he wasn't even to the top of the wall yet. My legs shook and my hands sweated as I watched him. But what could I do with Anwar and his cousins out there?

"What are you waiting for?" Anwar shouted. He picked up a rock and threw it at my brother. It struck the wall over a meter below Khalid, who turned and looked down. His face looked pale against the darker mudstone. His bottom lip quivered. He wiped his eyes. Anwar picked up another rock. "Oh, little baby going to cry?" He laughed. "You're as scared as Donkeyface!"

"I am not!" Khalid turned back to the wall and reached a shaky little hand for a hold above him, making his way up again. "I just . . ."

Omar threw a rock so that it hit the wall even closer to Khalid. "Keep climbing, baby. Hurry up."

"Please." Khalid began to sob. "Please . . . stop it."

Salman and Anwar threw more rocks. One hit Khalid in the leg. He jerked so much that I feared he would fall.

For a moment, I thought maybe Khalid deserved what he was getting. His cruel words had hurt me worse than anything Anwar had ever done. But when I saw the tears rolling down his little cheeks, I remembered how I had fed, cleaned, and comforted him when he was a baby. Whatever he had done, he was still my brother, and I couldn't let him get hurt over some stupid dare. I put down my sack of food and tied my chador on tight. Then I gripped a tree root and climbed up out of my hiding place. I ran to the wall as fast as I could. "Khalid, come down from there!"

Anwar and his cousins whooped when they saw me. "Oh, look, who's come to save the little baby! Well, go on, Donkeyface, see if you can climb up there and rescue your stupid brother."

I scrambled up a steep path within the crevasse. Then I found a handhold and a small ledge. I had to pull my skirt up unthinkably high, almost to my knees, in order to climb up to the next small landing where I could look for another path.

Khalid turned and looked down. He wiped the tears from his eyes. "Zulaikha, what are you doing? Go away!"

"He's going to give up! Just because his ugly sister has come to make him get down." Omar laughed.

Anwar had stopped paying attention to Khalid. "Put your skirt down, dirty girl!"

As much as I hated him, Anwar was right. Good Afghan girls did not climb. But I blew a strand of hair out of my face and kept going after Khalid. Maybe proper Afghan girls were not to be seen climbing with their skirts to their knees, but since birth, I have never looked like a proper Afghan girl.

I moved quickly, sometimes scaling straight up, sometimes finding a path that would take me up a few meters. Soon I made it up to the place where Khalid was stuck.

"Come on," I said. "There's a place to hold on to just above you." I leaned against the mudstone and begged Allah to keep me from falling. Then I slid my leg out along the small outcropping where we both stood. "We're almost to the top. Step on my leg and boost yourself up to the next ledge." I put my hand on Khalid's back. "I'll hold you to the wall. Come on. You can do it. We can't go back the way we came. Not with those boys down there."

Slowly he put his foot up on my thigh. I did my best to press him to the wall as he climbed. When he was up on the ledge, he found another path and scaled some small boulders until he finally reached the top of the Citadel. He stood and pumped his arms in the air, strutting around like he'd just won a big race or something. "You can see far from up here!" he shouted.

I sighed with relief. Khalid had made it to the top without falling. For the moment, he was a little safer, but there were still plenty of ways for him to be hurt. Now I just had to get up there myself, then find a safe way back down.

Finally, I came up out of the fissure into the hot, bright sun. I blinked in the glare and marveled for one moment at the sheer enormity of the fortress. High walls, more like mountains, ringed a scrub grass field far below, which was speckled with Russian junk and more ruins. The entire castle covered a square kilometer at least. When I looked back toward town, I was relieved to see that Anwar and his gang had gone. Hopefully Khalid thought it worthwhile to risk both our lives for a monster who ran away and forgot about him.

Now where was Khalid?

The wind blew against my face. Its heat felt good whipping through my sweat-damp hair. My brother stood on a narrow strip of ancient mudstone no wider than the length of my arm. It was a sort of land bridge to the next enormous tower, huge sections of the wall having collapsed long ago. He was shaking with fear and looking down to the ground far below. "I...I can't move, Zulaikha."

"Khalid, just calm down. I'll help you." But I had no idea what to do. The thin mudstone bridge wasn't really big enough for both of us. I'd fall, or I'd scare Khalid and he'd fall, taking me with him. My legs shook as I took small steps toward the land bridge, reaching out my hand. "Come on, Khalid. Come to me. Take my hand."

"Stop right there!" a man shouted.

Khalid jumped at the unexpected voice. He wheeled his arms to keep his balance before crouching down low on the narrow strip of wall. His eyes welled up with fearful tears. As soon as I knew he wasn't falling, I turned to see a policeman three towers away, rifle in hand, coming toward us fast.

So that was why Anwar and the boys had fled. They must have seen the policeman coming and run away, to leave Khalid and me in trouble.

"Khalid," I said. "You've got to run! Run or you'll be caught!"

"I can't," he cried, shaking his head. "I'm stuck! Help me."

"You two get over here!" The policeman shook his rifle in the air.

I clenched a fist. Slowly, I made my way out onto the tiny strip of mudstone. Walking sideways, I slid my right foot forward, and then trailed my left foot behind it. Bit by bit, I made my way closer and closer to Khalid.

At home, Zeynab was always nervous whenever she was near the edge of the roof of our house. I had never had any such fears. But now my palms were sweaty and my knees shook as I looked straight down. Below me was empty space all the way to the hard ground, where a shepherd boy and his little grazing flock looked like small white dots. A wind gusted against my back.

"We're going to fall," Khalid whispered.

"No, we're not," I managed to whisper back. Then I realized I'd barely made a sound. "We're not going to fall," I repeated, louder. The policeman clambered toward us along the uneven top of the wall. "Khalid, we have to go. If we don't, we'll be arrested."

"I can't. I can't move, Zulaikha. I can't."

I pulled my bottom lip up tight over my teeth, took a deep breath, and with a prayer to Allah, ran several quick steps to my brother. Another gust of wind tried to push me off the wall as I bent down. "Khalid, there is no difference between where you're standing and the front courtyard back home. This is just higher up. Now you will stand up right now or I'll pull you up."

He just crouched there, shaking his head and crying. But when I reached for him, he stood up on his own shaky legs. Then he took a step backward. Half of his foot landed on an uneven rock. Off-balance and terrified, he scrambled to get sure footing.

"Khalid, stop!"

His right foot stepped sideways and slipped off the edge. He flailed his arms back, shrieking. I bolted forward, hooked my arms under his, and pulled his little body up as I ran across the mudstone bridge. I threw us both down on the much larger flat top of the next tower.

"You kids come back here!" The policeman was only two towers away and running now. Khalid's eyes were wide and his breathing fast. He looked at the policeman and then at me.

"Come on. We have to go," I said.

We got up and ran along the top of the wall, looking for a way down. Suddenly, Khalid stopped and pointed to another large crevasse in the wall. "Here. Climb down."

"You first," I said.

Khalid lay down on his belly and slipped down to the little pathway below. I didn't waste any time, but hurried after him. Just before my head ducked below the top, I saw the policeman making his way across the narrow strip of wall. My hands shook. Climbing down was more difficult than climbing up. I couldn't always see what was below me.

"Stop!" The man's voice came from above. He was very close now. I tried to move faster, but my dress kept catching on clumps of mudstone. I pulled my skirt up a little and kept going.

"Hurry!" Khalid had reached the ground. He jumped up and down. "Hurry, Zulaikha!"

"Just go. I'll catch up. Run!" When he still waited for me, I shouted again. "Go home! Get out of here!"

Wiping tears from his eyes, Khalid ran off faster than I've ever seen him run before. I brushed the sweat from my brow. Thanks and praise be to Allah, the most merciful. Thank you for saving my brother.

A few pebbles rolled down the steep face of the wall from above. Khalid was safe, but I was not. The policeman was climbing down. If I ever got out of jail, my father would beat me until I was raw. Oh, Allah, be merciful. Please help me.

My hand slipped loose. I skidded down a steep incline, righting myself on a small ledge. But I was moving too fast to get control. The rest of my descent to the ground was a series of slides, scrapes, and rolls. When I reached the gentler slope at the base of the wall, I didn't even take the time to look back. I got to my feet and ran across the dusty clearing toward the nearest houses. Just ahead was the irrigation ditch. Climbing down to the bottom and back up the other side would take too long. The policeman would be on me by then. This section of the ditch was only maybe a meter wide. I pulled my skirt up just a little higher and sped up, snapping each leg down as fast as I could. I reached the trench, and jumped.

Only when my feet hit the ground on the other side did I risk a look back. The policeman was still after me, and he meant to jump the trench too. My legs hurt. I wanted to stop. I knew I couldn't outrun this man. I rounded a corner of one of the walls at the edge of the Citadel yards and cleared the first compound.

Then a hand was on my arm. It pulled me around hard, and I gasped. How had the policeman closed the gap so quickly? I crashed into the wall next to me and struggled to hold on to my filthy chador.

"Come with me, child." It was an old woman. She pulled me back away from the street into a narrow walkway between two walls. Then she dragged a rusted piece of sheet metal over the entry, tying it in place with several old ropes fixed to rusted steel bolts in the mudstone.

"Who --- - "

She turned and faced me, holding a finger to her lips. I opened my mouth wide so that my heavy breathing didn't whistle through my teeth. From the other side of the makeshift scrap-metal door came the sound of heavy boots. They stopped right outside. I was trapped! I spun around, looking for another way out, but the woman put a hand on my shoulder and gently turned me back toward her. I jerked my shoulder to get away. She held her hands back from me and smiled, nodding as if to tell me that I was safe with her. We both stood very still.

It seemed like we waited for a very long time.

From out in the street came a quiet pop and a hissing sound. A moment later, I could smell cigarette smoke. There was a cough and then the sound of footsteps moving away.

When a minute or two had passed, the woman said, "There. He's gone." She looked me over and then reached out to pat my shoulder. "You're still shaking. You've had quite a scare, rushing down the Citadel wall like that. Come with me. We'll have a cup of tea and you can take some time to relax and collect yourself." She squeezed by me in the narrow passage. When I didn't follow her, she smiled. "Really, child. Come along. You can't go out there right now anyway. He may still be looking for you."

There was something strangely comforting in her smile and in the sound of her voice. Maybe I could trust her, at least enough to have a simple cup of tea.

Words in the Dust
by by Trent Reedy

  • Genres: Fiction, Young Adult 9+
  • hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0545261252
  • ISBN-13: 9780545261258