THE BOY DIED.
He had been dead almost an hour when Jane arrived, hot and dusty and exhausted to the point of collapse. The father was waiting for her at the mouth of the cave, looking numb and reproachful. She could tell from his resigned posture and his calm brown eyes that it was all over. He said nothing. She went into the cave and looked at the boy. Too tired to feel angry, she was overwhelmed by disappointment. Jean-Pierre was away and Zahara was deep in mourning, so she had no one with whom to share her grief.
She wept later as she lay in her bed on the roof of the shopkeeper's house, with Chantal, on a tiny mattress beside her, murmuring from time to time in a sleep of contented ignorance. She wept for the father as much as for the dead boy. Like her, he had driven himself beyond ordinary exhaustion in trying to save the boy. How much greater his sadness would be. Her tears blurred the stars before she fell asleep.
She dreamed that Mohammed came to her bed and made love to her while the whole village looked on; then he told her that Jean-Pierre was having an affair with Simone, the wife of the fat journalist Raoul Clermont, and that the two lovers met in Cobak when Jean-Pierre was supposed to be holding a clinic.
Next day she ached all over, as a result of having run most of the way to the little stone hut. It was fortunate, she reflected as she went about her routine chores, that Jean-Pierre had stopped - to rest, presumably - at the little stone hut, giving her a chance to catch up with him. She had been so relieved to see Maggie tethered outside, and to find Jean-Pierre in the hut with that funny little Uzbak man. The two of them had jumped out of their skins when she walked in. It had been almost comical. It was the first time she had ever seen an Afghan stand up when a woman came in.
She walked up the mountainside with her medicine case and opened the cave clinic. As she dealt with the usual cases of malnutrition, malaria, infected wounds and intestinal parasites, she thought over yesterday's crisis. She had never heard of allergic shock before. No doubt people who had to give penicillin injections were normally taught what to do about it, but her training had been so rushed that a lot of things had been left out. In fact the medical details had been almost entirely skimped, on the grounds that Jean-Pierre was a fully qualified doctor and would be around to tell her what to do.
What an anxious time that had been, sitting in classrooms, sometimes with trainee nurses, sometimes on her own, trying to absorb the rules and procedures of medicine and health education, wondering what awaited her in Afghanistan. Some of her lessons had been the opposite of reassuring. Her first task, she had been told, would be to build an earth closet for herself. Why? Because the fastest way of improving the health of people in underdeveloped countries was to stop them using the rivers and streams as toilets, and this could be impressed upon them by setting an example. Her teacher, Stephanie, a bespectacled forty-ish earth-mother type in dungarees and sandals, had also emphasized the dangers of prescribing medicines too generously. Most illnesses and minor injuries would get better without medical help, but primitive (and not-so-primitive) people always wanted pills and potions. Jane recalled that the little Uzbak man had been asking Jean-Pierre for blister ointment. He must have been walking long distances all his life, yet because he had met a doctor he said his feet
hurt. The snag about overprescribing - apart from the waste of medicines - was that a drug given for a trivial ailment might cause the patient to develop tolerance, so that when he was seriously ill the treatment would not cure him. Stephanie had also advised Jane to try to work with, rather than against, traditional healers in the community. She had been successful with Rabia. the midwife, but not with Abdullah, the mullah.
Learning the language had been the easiest part. In Paris, before she ever thought of coming to Afghanistan, she had been studying Farsi. the Persian language, with the object of improving her usefulness as an interpreter. Farsi and Dan were dialects of the same language. The other main language in Afghanistan was Pashto, the tongue of the Pushtuns, but Dan was the language of the Tajiks, and the Five Lions Valley was in Tajik territory. Those few Afghans who traveled - the nomads, for example - usually spoke both Pashto and Dari. If they had a European language, it was English or French. The Uzbak man in the stone hut had been speaking French to Jean-Pierre. It was the first time Jane had heard French spoken with an Uzbak accent. It sounded the same as a Russian accent.
Her mind kept returning to the Uzbak during the day. The thought of him nagged her. It was a feeling she sometimes got when she knew there was something important she was supposed to do but could not remember what it was. There had been something odd about him, perhaps.
At noon she closed the clinic, fed and changed Chantal, then cooked a lunch of rice and meat sauce and shared it with Fara. The girl had become utterly devoted to Jane, eager to do anything to please her, reluctant to go home at night. Jane was trying to treat her more as an equal, but this seemed to serve only to increase her adoration.
In the heat of the day Jane left Chantal with Fara and went down to her secret place, the sunny ledge hidden below an overhang on the mountainside. There she did her postnatal exercises, determined to get her figure back. As she clenched her pelvic-floor muscles, she kept visualizing the Uzbak man, rising to his feet in the little stone hut, and
the expression of astonishment on his Oriental face. For some reason she felt a sense of impending tragedy.
When she realized the truth it did not come in a sudden flash of insight, but more like an avalanche, starting small but growing inexorably until it swamped everything.
No Afghan would complain of blisters on his feet, even in pretense, for they had no knowledge of such things: it was as unlikely as a Gloucestershire farmer saying he had beri-beri. And no Afghan, no matter how surprised, would react by standing up when a woman walked in. If he was not Afghan, then what was he? His accent told her, though few people would have recognized it: it was only because she was a linguist, speaking both Russian and French, that she was able to recognize that he had been speaking French with a Russian accent.
So Jean-Pierre had met a Russian disguised as an Uzbak in a stone hut at a deserted location.
Was it an accident? That was possible, barely, but she pictured her husband's face when she had walked in, and now she could read the expression which at the time she had not noticed: a look of guilt.
No, it was no accidental encounter - it was a rendezvous. Perhaps it was not the first. Jean-Pierre was constantly traveling to outlying villages to hold clinics - indeed, he was unnecessarily scrupulous about keeping to his schedule of visits, a foolish insistence in a country without calendars and diaries - but not so foolish if there was another schedule, a clandestine series of secret meetings.
And why did he meet the Russian? That, too, was obvious, and hot tears welled up in Jane's eyes as she realized that his purpose must be treachery. He gave them information, of course. He told them about the convoys. He always knew the routes because Mohammed used his maps. He knew the approximate timing because he saw the men leaving, from Banda and from other villages in the Five Lions Valley. He gave this information to the Russians, obviously; and that was why the Russians had become so successful at ambushing convoys in the last year;
that was why there were so many grieving widows and sad orphans in the Valley now.
What's wrong with me? she thought in a sudden fit of self-pity, and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. First Ellis, then Jean-Pierre - why do I pick these bastards? Is there something about a secretive man that appeals to me? Is it the challenge of breaking down his defenses? Am I that crazy?
She remembered Jean-Pierre arguing that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was justified. At some point he had changed his mind, and she thought she had convinced him that he was wrong. Obviously the change had been faked. When he decided to come to Afghanistan to spy for the Russians, he had adopted an anti-Soviet point of view as part of his cover.
Was his love also faked?
The question alone was heartbreaking. She buried her face in her hands. It was almost unthinkable. She had fallen in love with him, married him, kissed his sour-faced mother, got used to his way of making love, survived their first row, struggled to make their partnership work, and given birth to his child in fear and pain - had she done all that for an illusion, a cardboard cutout of a husband, a man who cared for her not at all? It was like walking and running so many miles to ask how to cure the eighteen-year-old boy and then returning to find him already dead. It was worse than that. It was, she imagined, how the boy's father had felt, having carried his son for two days only to see him die.
There was a sensation of fullness in her breasts, and she realized it must be time for Chantal's feed. She put on her clothes, wiped her face in her sleeve and headed back up the mountain. As her immediate grief receded and she began to think more clearly, it seemed to her that she had felt a vague dissatisfaction throughout their year of marriage, and now she could understand. In a way she had all along sensed Jean-Pierre's deceit. Because of that barrier between them, they had failed to become intimate.
When she reached the cave, Chantal was complaining
loudly and Fara was rocking her. Jane took the baby and held her to her breast. Chantal began to suck. Jane felt the initial discomfort, like a cramp, in her stomach, and then a sensation in her breast which was pleasant and rather erotic.
She wanted to be alone. She told Fara to go and take her siesta in her mother's cave.
Feeding Chantai was soothing. Jean-Pierre's treachery came to seem less than cataclysmic. She felt sure his love for her was not faked. What would be the point? Why would he have brought her here? She was of no use to him in his spying. It must have been because he loved her.
And if he loved her, all other problems could be solved. He would have to stop working for the Russians, of course. For the moment she could not quite see herself confronting him - would she say "All is revealed!" for example? No. But the words would come to her when she needed them. Then he would have to take her and Chantal back to Europe -
Back to Europe. When she realized they would have to go home, she was flooded by a sense of relief. It took her by surprise. If anyone had asked her how she liked Afghanistan, she would have said that what she was doing was fascinating and worthwhile and she was coping very well indeed and even enjoying it. But now that the prospect of returning to civilization was in front of her, her resilience crumbled, and she admitted to herself that the harsh landscape, the bitter winter weather, the alien people, the bombing and the endless stream of maimed and mangled men and boys had strained her nerves to the breaking point.
The truth is, she thought, that it's awful here.
Chantal stopped sucking and dropped off to sleep. Jane put her down, changed her and moved her to her mattress, all without waking her. The baby's unshakable equanimity was a great blessing. She slept through all kinds of crisis - no amount of noise or movement would wake her if she was full and comfortable. However, she was sensitive to Jane's
moods, and often woke when Jane was distressed, even when there was not much noise.
Jane sat cross-legged on her mattress, watching her sleeping baby, thinking about Jean-Pierre. She wished he were here now so she could talk to him right away. She wondered why she was not more angry - not to say outraged - that he had been betraying the guerrillas to the Russians. Was it because she was reconciled to the knowledge that all men were liars? Had she come to believe that the only innocent people in this war were the mothers, the wives and the daughters on both sides? Was it that being a wife and a mother had altered her personality, so that such a betrayal no longer outraged her? Or was it just that she loved Jean-Pierre? She did not know.
Anyway, it was time to think about the future, not the past. They would go back to Paris, where there were postmen and bookshops and tap water. Chantal would have pretty clothes, and a pram, and disposable diapers. They would live in a small apartment in an interesting neighborhood where the only real danger to life would be the taxi drivers. Jane and Jean-Pierre would start again, and this time they would really get to know one another. They would work to make the world a better place by gradual and legitimate means, without intrigue or treachery. Their experience in Afghanistan would help them to get jobs in Third World development, perhaps with the World Health Organization. Married life would be as she had imagined it, with the three of them doing good and being happy and feeling safe.
Fara came in. Siesta time was over. She greeted Jane respectfully, looked at Chantal, then, seeing that the baby was asleep, sat cross-legged on the ground, waiting for instructions. She was the daughter of Rabia's eldest son, Ismael Gul, who was away at present, with the convoy -
Jane gasped. Fara looked inquiringly at her. Jane made a deprecatory motion with her hand, and Fara looked away.
Her father is with the convoy, Jane thought.
Jean-Pierre had betrayed that convoy to the Russians.
Fara's father would die in the ambush - unless Jane could do something to prevent it. But what? A runner could be sent to meet the convoy at the Khyber Pass and divert it onto a new route. Mohammed could arrange that. But Jane would have to tell him how she knew the convoy was due to be ambushed - and then Mohammed would undoubtedly kill Jean-Pierre, probably with his bare hands.
If one of them has to die, let it be Ismael rather than Jean-Pierre, thought Jane.
Then she thought of the other thirty or so men from the Valley who were with the convoy, and the thought struck her: Shall they all die to save my husband - Kahmir Khan with the wispy beard; and scarred old Shahazai Gul; and Yussuf Gul, who sings so beautifully; and Sher Kador, the goat boy; and Abdur Mohammed with no front teeth; and Ali Ghanim who has fourteen children?
There had to be another way.
She went to the mouth of the cave and stood looking out. Now that the siesta was over, the children had come out of the caves and resumed their games among the rocks and thorny bushes. There was nine-year-old Mousa, the only son of Mohammed - even more spoiled now that he had only one hand - swaggering with the new knife that his doting father had given him. She saw Fara's mother, toiling up the hill with a bundle of firewood on her head. There was the mullah's wife, washing out Abdullah's shirt. She did not see Mohammed or his wife, Halima. She knew he was here in Banda, for she had seen him in the morning. He would have eaten with his wife and children in their cave - most families had a cave to themselves. He would be there now, but Jane was reluctant to seek him out openly, for that would scandalize the community, and she needed to be discreet.
What shall I tell him? she thought.
She considered a straightforward appeal: Do this for me, because I ask it. It would have worked on any Western man who had fallen in love with her, but Muslim men did not seem to have a romantic idea of love - what Mohammed felt for her was more like a rather tender kind of lust.
It certainly did not put him at her disposal. And she wasn't sure he still felt it anyway. What, then? He did not owe her anything. She had never treated him or his wife. But she had treated Mousa - she had saved the boy's life. Mohammed owed her a debt of honor.
Do this for me, because I saved your son. It might work.
But Mohammed would ask why.
More women were appearing, fetching water and sweeping out their caves, tending to animals and preparing food. Jane knew she would see Mohammed shortly.
What shall I say to him?
The Russians know the route of the convoy.
How did they find out?
I don't know, Mohammed.
Then what makes you so sure?
I can't tell you. I overheard a conversation. I got a message from the British Secret Service. I have a hunch. I saw it in the cards. I had a dream.
That was it: a dream.
She saw him. He stepped from his cave, tall and handsome, wearing traveling clothes: the round Chitrali cap, like Masud's, the type most of the guerrillas sported; the mud-colored pattu which served as cloak, towel, blanket and camouflage; and the calf-length leather boots he had taken from the corpse of a Russian soldier. He walked across the clearing with the stride of one who has a long way to go before sundown. He took the footpath down the mountainside, toward the deserted village.
Jane watched his tall figure disappear. It's now or never, she thought; and she followed him. At first she walked slowly and casually, so that it would not be obvious she was going after Mohammed; then, when she was out of sight of the caves, she broke into a run. She slithered and stumbled down the dusty trail, thinking: I wonder what all this running is doing to my insides. When she saw Mohammed ahead of her she called out to him. He stopped, turned and waited for her.
"God be with you, Mohammed Khan," she said when she caught up with him.
"And with you, Jane Debout," he said politely.
She paused, catching her breath. He watched her, wearing an expression of amused tolerance. "How is Mousa?" she said.
"He is well and happy, and learning to use his left hand. He will kill Russians with it one day."
This was a little joke: the left hand was traditionally used for "dirty" jobs, the right for eating. Jane smiled in acknowledgment of his wit, then said: "I'm so glad we were able to save his life."
If he thought her ungracious he did not show it. "I am forever in your debt," he said.
That was what she had been angling for. "There is something you could do for me," she said.
His expression was unreadable. "If it is within my power ..."
She looked around for somewhere to sit. They were standing near a bombed house. Stones and earth from the front wall had spilled across the pathway, and they could see inside the building, where the only furnishings left were a cracked pot and, absurdly, a color picture of a Cadillac pinned to a wall. Jane sat on the rubble and, after a moment's hesitation, Mohammed sat beside her.
"It is within your power," she said. "But it will cause you some small trouble."
"What is it?"
"You may think it the whim of a foolish woman."
"You'll be tempted to deceive me, by agreeing to my request and then 'forgetting' to carry it out."
"I ask you to deal truthfully with me, whether you refuse or not."
Enough of that, she thought. "I want you to send a runner to the convoy and order them to change their homeward route."
He was quite taken aback - he had probably been expecting some trivial, domestic request. "But why?" he said.
"Do you believe in dreams, Mohammed Khan?"
He shrugged. "Dreams are dreams," he said evasively.
Perhaps that was the wrong approach, she thought; a vision might be better. "While I lay alone in my cave, in the heat of the day, I thought I saw a white pigeon."
He was suddenly attentive, and she knew she had said the right thing: Afghans believed that white pigeons were sometimes inhabited by spirits.
Jane went on: "But I must have been dreaming, for the bird tried to speak to me."
He took that as a sign that she had had a vision, not a dream, Jane thought. She went on: "I couldn't understand what it was saying, although I listened as hard as I could. I think it was speaking Pashto."
Mohammed was wide-eyed. "A messenger from Pushtun territory ..."
"Then I saw Ismael Gui, the son of Rabia, the father of Fara, standing behind the pigeon." She put her hand on Mohammed's arm and looked into his eyes, thinking: I could turn you on like an electric light, you vain, foolish man. "There was a knife in his heart, and he was weeping tears of blood. He pointed to the handle of the knife, as if he wanted me to pull it out of his chest. The handle was encrusted with jewels." Somewhere in the back of her mind she was thinking: Where did I get this stuff? "I got up from my bed and walked to him. I was afraid, but I had to save his life. Then, as I reached out to grasp the knife ..."
"He vanished. I think I woke up."
Mohammed closed his wide-open mouth, recovered his poise and frowned importantly, as if carefully considering the interpretation of the dream. Now. Jane thought, it is time to pander to him a little bit.
"It may be all foolishness," she said, arranging her face
into a little-girl expression, all ready to defer to his superior masculine judgment. "That's why I ask you to do this for me, for the person who saved your son's life; to give me peace of mind."
He immediately looked a little haughty. "There is no need to invoke a debt of honor."
"Does that mean you'll do it?"
He answered with a question. "What kind of jewels were in the handle of the knife?"
Oh, God, she thought, what is the correct answer supposed to be? She thought to say "Emeralds," but they were associated with the Five Lions Valley, so it might imply that Ismael had been killed by a traitor in the Valley. "Rubies," she said.
He nodded slowly. "Did Ismael not speak to you?"
"He seemed to be trying to speak, but unable to."
He nodded again, and Jane thought: Come on, make up your bloody mind. At last he said: "The omen is clear. The convoy must be diverted.''
Thank God for that, thought Jane. "I'm so relieved," she said truthfully. "I didn't know what to do. Now I can be sure Ahmed will be saved." She wondered what she could do to nail Mohammed down and make it impossible for him to change his mind. She could not make him swear an oath. She wondered whether to shake his hand. Finally she decided to seal his promise with an even older gesture: she leaned forward and kissed his mouth, quickly but softly, not giving him a chance either to refuse or to respond. "Thank you!" she said. "I know you are a man of your word." She stood up. Leaving him seated, looking a little dazed, she turned and ran up the path toward the caves.
At the top of the rise she stopped and looked back. Mohammed was striding down the hill, already some distance from the bombed cottage, his head high and his arms swinging. He got a big charge from that kiss, Jane thought. I should be ashamed. I played on his superstition, his vanity and his sexuality. As a feminist I ought not to exploit his preconceptions - psychic woman, submissive
woman, coquettish woman - to manipulate him. But it worked. It worked!
She walked on. Next she had to deal with Jean-Pierre. He would be home around dusk: he would have waited until midafternoon, when the sun was a little less hot, before starting on his journey, just as Mohammed had. She felt that Jean-Pierre would be easier to handle than Mohammed had been. For one thing, she could tell the truth with Jean-Pierre. For another, he was in the wrong.
She reached the caves. The little encampment was busy now. A flight of Russian jets soared across the sky. Everyone stopped work to watch them, although they were too high and too far away for bombing. When they had gone the small boys stuck out their arms like wings and ran around making jet-engine sounds. In their imaginary flights, Jane wondered, who were they bombing?
She went into the cave, checked on Chantal, smiled at Fara and took out the journal. Both she and Jean-Pierre wrote in it almost every day. It was primarily a medical record, and they would take it back to Europe with them for the benefit of others who would follow them to Afghanistan. They had been encouraged to record personal feelings and problems, too, so that others would know what to expect; and Jane had written quite full notes on her pregnancy and the birth of Chantal; but it was a highly censored account of her emotional life that had been logged.
She sat with her back to the cave wall and the book on her knee, and wrote the story of the eighteen-year-old boy who had died of allergic shock. It made her feel sad but not depressed - a healthy reaction, she told herself.
She added brief details of today's minor cases, then, idly, she leafed backward through the volume. The entries in Jean-Pierre's slapdash, spidery handwriting were highly abbreviated, consisting almost entirely of symptoms, diagnoses, treatments and results: Worms, he would write, or Malaria; then Cured or Stable or sometimes Died. Jane tended to write sentences such as She felt better this morning or The mother has tuberculosis. She read about the early days of her pregnancy, sore nipples and thickening thighs
and nausea in the morning. She was interested to see that almost a year ago she had written /'m frightened of Abdullah. She had forgotten that.
She put the journal away. She and Fara spent the next couple of hours cleaning and tidying up the cave clinic; then it was time to go down into the village and prepare for the night. As she walked down the mountainside and then busied herself in the shopkeeper's house, Jane considered how to handle her confrontation with Jean-Pierre. She knew what to do - she would take him for a walk, she thought - but she was not sure exactly what to say.
She still had not made up her mind when he arrived a few minutes later. She wiped the dust from his face with a damp towel and gave him green tea in a china cup. He was pleasantly tired, rather than exhausted, she knew: he was capable of walking much longer distances. She sat with him while he drank his tea, trying not to stare at him, thinking: You lied to me. When he had rested for a little while, she said: "Let's go out, like we used to."
He was a little surprised. "Where do you want to go?"
"Anywhere. Don't you remember, last summer, how we used to go out just to enjoy the evening?''
He smiled. "Yes, I do." She loved him when he smiled like that. He said: "Will we take Chantal?"
"No." Jane did not want to be distracted. "She'll be fine with Fara.''
"All right," he said, faintly bemused.
Jane told Fara to prepare their evening meal - tea, bread and yogurt - then she and Jean-Pierre left the house. The daylight was fading and the evening air was mild and fragrant. This was the best time of day in summer. As they strolled through the fields to the river, she recalled how she had felt on this same pathway last summer: anxious, confused, excited, and determined to succeed. She was proud that she had coped so well, but glad the adventure was about to end.
She began to feel tense as the moment of confrontation drew nearer, even though she kept telling herself that she had nothing to hide, nothing to feel guilty about and
nothing to fear. They waded across the river at a place where it spread wide and shallow over a rock shelf, then they climbed a steep, winding path up the face of the cliff on the other side. At the top they sat on the ground and dangled their legs over the precipice. A hundred feet below them, the Five Lions River hurried along, jostling boulders and foaming angrily through the rapids. Jane looked over the Valley. The cultivated ground was crisscrossed with irrigation channels and stone terrace walls. The bright green-and-gold colors of ripening crops made the fields look like shards of colored glass from a smashed toy. Here and there the picture was blemished by bomb damage - fallen walls, blocked ditches, and craters of mud amid the waving grain. The occasional round cap or dark turban showed that some of the men were already at work, bringing in their crops as the Russians parked their jets and put away their bombs for the night. Scarved heads or smaller figures were women and older children, who would help while the light lasted. On the far side of the Valley the farmland struggled to climb the lower slopes of the mountain, but soon surrendered to the dusty rock. From the cluster of houses off to the left the smoke of a few cooking fires rose in pencil-straight lines until the light breeze untidied it. The same breeze brought unintelligible snatches of conversation from the women bathing beyond a bend in the river upstream. Their voices were subdued, and Zahara's hearty laugh was no longer heard, for she was in mourning. And all because of Jean-Pierre. . . .
The thought gave Jane courage. "I want you to take me home," she said abruptly.
At first he misunderstood her. "We've only just got here," he said irritably; then he looked at her and his frown cleared. "Oh," he said.
There was a note of imperturbability in his voice which Jane found ominous, and she realized that she might not get her way without a struggle. "Yes." she said firmly. "Home."
He put his arm around her. "This country gets one down at times," he said. He was not looking at her but at
the rushing river far below their feet. "You're especially vulnerable to depression at the moment, just after the birth. In a few weeks' time, you'll find - "
"Don't patronize me!" she snapped. She was not going to let him get away with that kind of nonsense. "Save your bedside manner for your patients."
"All right." He took his arm away. "We decided, before we came, that we would stay here for two years. Short tours are inefficient, we agreed, because of the time and money wasted in training, traveling and settling down. We were determined to make a real impact, so we committed ourselves to a two-year stint - "
"And then we had a baby."
"It wasn't my idea!"
"Anyway, I've changed my mind."
"You're not entitled to change your mind."
"You don't own me!" she said angrily.
"It's out of the question. Let us stop discussing it."
"We've only just begun," she said. His attitude infuriated her. The conversation had turned into an argument about her rights as an individual, and somehow she did not want to win by telling him that she knew about his spying, not yet anyway; she wanted him to admit that she was free to make her own decisions. "You have no right to ignore me or override my wishes," she said. "I want to leave this summer.''
"The answer is no."
She decided to try reasoning with him. "We've been here a year. We have made an impact. We've also made considerable sacrifices, more than we anticipated. Haven't we done enough?"
"We agreed on two years," he said stubbornly.
"That was a long time ago, and before we had Chantal."
"Then the two of you should go, and leave me here."
For a moment Jane considered that. To travel on a convoy to Pakistan carrying a baby was difficult and dangerous. Without a husband it would be a nightmare. But it was not impossible. However, it would mean leaving Jean-Pierre behind. He would be able to continue betraying the
convoys, and every few weeks more husbands and sons from the Valley would die. And there was another reason why she could not leave him behind: it would destroy their marriage. "No," she said. "I can't go alone. You must come, too."
"I will not," he said angrily. "I will not!"
Now she had to confront him with what she knew. She took a deep breath. "You'll just have to," she began.
"I don't have to," he interrupted. He pointed his forefinger at her, and she looked into his eyes and saw something there that frightened her. "You can't force me to. Don't try."
"But I can - "
"I advise you not to," he said, and his voice was terribly cold.
Suddenly he seemed a stranger to her, a man she did not know. She was silent for a moment, thinking. She watched a pigeon rise up from the village and fly toward her. It homed in on the cliff face a little way below her feet. I don't know this man! she thought in a panic. After a whole year I still don't know who he is! "Do you love me?" she asked him.
"Loving you doesn't mean I have to do everything you want."
"Is that a yes?"
He stared at her. She met his gaze unflinchingly. Slowly the hard, manic light went out of his eyes, and he relaxed. At last he smiled. "It's a yes," he said. She leaned toward him, and he put his arm around her again. "Yes, I love you," he said softly. He kissed the top of her head.
She rested her cheek on his chest and looked down. The pigeon she had watched flew off again. It was a white pigeon, like the one in her invented vision. It floated away, gliding effortlessly down toward the far bank of the river. Jane thought: Oh, God, what do I do now?
It was Mohammed's son, Mousa - now known as Left Hand - who was the first to spot the convoy when it returned. He came racing into the clearing in front of the
caves, yelling at the top of his voice: "They're back! They're back!" Nobody needed to ask who they were.
It was midmorning, and Jane and Jean-Pierre were in the cave clinic. Jane looked at Jean-Pierre. The faintest hint of a puzzled frown crossed his face: he was wondering why the Russians had not acted on his intelligence and ambushed the convoy. Jane turned away from him so that he should not see the triumph she felt. She had saved then-lives! Yussuf would sing tonight, and Sher Kador would count his goats, and Ali Ghanim would kiss each of his fourteen children. Yussuf was one of Rabia's sons: saving his life repaid Rabia for helping to bring Chantal into the world. All the mothers and daughters who would have been in mourning could now rejoice.
She wondered how Jean-Pierre felt. Was he angry, or frustrated, or disappointed? It was hard to imagine someone being disappointed because people had not been killed. She stole a glance at him, but his face was blank. I wish I knew what's going on in his mind, she thought.
Their patients melted away within minutes: everybody was going down to the village to welcome the travelers home. "Shall we go down?" Jane said.
"You go," Jean-Pierre said. "I'll finish up here, then follow you."
"All right," said Jane. He wanted some time to compose himself, she guessed, so that he could pretend to be delighted at their safe return when he saw them.
She picked up Chantal and took the steep footpath toward the village. She could feel the heat of the rock through the thin soles of her sandals.
She still had not confronted Jean-Pierre. However, this could not go on indefinitely. Sooner or later he would learn that Mohammed had sent a runner to divert the convoy from its prearranged route. Naturally he would then ask Mohammed why this had been done, and Mohammed would tell him about Jane's "vision." But Jean-Pierre knew Jane did not believe in visions. . . .
Why am I afraid? she asked herself. I'm not the guilty one - he is. Yet I feel as if his secret is something I must
be ashamed of. I should have spoken to him about it immediately, that evening we walked up to the top of the cliff. By nursing it to myself for so long, I, too, have become a deceiver. Perhaps that's it. Or perhaps it's the peculiar look in his eyes sometimes. . . .
She had not given up her determination to go home, but so far she had failed to think of a way to persuade Jean-Pierre to go. She had dreamed up a dozen bizarre schemes, from faking a message to say that his mother was dying, to poisoning his yogurt with something that would give him the symptoms of an illness which would force him to return to Europe for treatment. The simplest, and least far-fetched, of her ideas was to threaten to tell Mohammed that Jean-Pierre was a spy. She would never do it, of course, for to unmask him would be as good as killing him. But would Jean-Pierre think she might carry out the threat? Probably not. It would take a hard, pitiless, stone-hearted man to believe her capable of virtually killing her husband - and if Jean-Pierre were that hard and pitiless and stone-hearted, he might kill Jane.
She shivered despite the heat. This talk of killing was grotesque. When two people take such delight in one another's bodies as we do, she thought, how can they possibly do each other violence?
As she reached the village she began to hear the random, exuberant gunfire that signified an Afghan celebration. She made her way to the mosque - everything happened at the mosque. The convoy was in the courtyard, men and horses and baggage surrounded by smiling women and squealing children. Jane stood at the edge of the crowd, watching. It was worth it, she thought. It was worth the worry and the fear, and it was worth manipulating Mohammed in that undignified way, in order to see this, the men safely reunited with their wives and mothers and sons and daughters.
What happened next was probably the greatest shock of her life.
There in the crowd, among the caps and turbans, appeared a head of curly blond hair. At first she did not
recognize it, even though its familiarity tugged at her heartstrings. Then it emerged from the crowd, and she saw, hiding behind an incredibly bushy blond beard, the face of Ellis Thaler.
Jane's knees suddenly felt weak. Ellis? Here? It was impossible.
He walked toward her. He was wearing the loose pajamalike cotton clothes of the Afghans, and a dirty blanket around his broad shoulders. The little of his face that was still visible above the beard was deeply tanned, so that his sky-blue eyes were even more striking than usual, like cornflowers in a field of ripe wheat.
Jane was struck dumb.
Ellis stood in front of her, his face solemn. "Hello, Jane."
She realized she no longer hated him. A month ago she would have cursed him for deceiving her and spying on her friends; but now her anger had gone. She would never like him, but she could tolerate him. And it was nice to hear English spoken for the first time in more than a year.
"Ellis," she said weakly. "What in heaven's name are you doing here?"
"The same as you," he said.
What did that mean? Spying? No, Ellis did not know what Jean-Pierre was.
Ellis saw Jane's confused expression and said: "I mean I'm here to help the rebels."
Would he find out about Jean-Pierre? Jane was suddenly afraid for her husband. Ellis might kill him -
"Who does the baby belong to?" Ellis said.
"Me. And Jean-Pierre. Her name is Chantal." Jane saw that Ellis suddenly looked terribly sad. She realized he had been hoping to find her unhappy with her husband. Oh, God, I think he's still in love with me, she thought. She tried to change the subject. "But how will you help the rebels?"
He hefted his bag. It was a large, sausage-shaped thing of khaki canvas, like an old-fashioned soldier's kitbag. "I'm going to teach them how to blow up roads and
bridges," he said. "So, you see, in this war I'm on the same side as you."
But not the same side as Jean-Pierre, she thought. What will happen now? The Afghans did not for one moment suspect Jean-Pierre, but Ellis was trained in the ways of deception. Sooner or later he would guess what was going on. "How long are you going to be here?" she asked him. If it was a short stay he might not have time to develop suspicions.
"For the summer," he said imprecisely.
Perhaps he would not spend much time around Jean-Pierre. "Where will you live?" she asked him.
"In this village."
He heard the disappointment in her voice and gave a wry smile. "I guess I shouldn't have expected you to be glad to see me. . . ."
Jane's mind was racing ahead. If she could make Jean-Pierre quit, he would be in no further danger. Suddenly she felt able to confront him. Why is that? she wondered. It's because I'm not afraid of him anymore. Why am I not afraid of him? Because Ellis is here.
I hadn't realized I was afraid of my husband.
"On the contrary," she said to Ellis, thinking: How cool I am! "I'm happy you're here."
There was a silence. Ellis clearly did not know what to make of Jane's reaction. After a moment he said: "Uh, I have a lot of explosives and stuff somewhere in this zoo. I'd better get to it."
Jane nodded. "Okay."
Ellis turned away and disappeared into the melee. Jane walked slowly out of the courtyard, feeling a little stunned. Ellis was here, in the Five Lions Valley, and apparently still in love with her.
As she reached the shopkeeper's house, Jean-Pierre came out. He had stopped there on his way to the mosque, probably to put away his medical bag. Jane was not sure what to say to him. "The convoy brought someone you know," she began.
"Go and see. You'll be surprised."
He hurried off. Jane went inside. What would Jean-Pierre do about Ellis? she wondered. Well, he would want to tell the Russians. And the Russians would want to kill Ellis.
The thought made her angry. "There is to be no more killing!" she said aloud. "I will not permit it!" Her voice made Chantal cry. Jane rocked her and she became quiet.
What am I going to do about it? thought Jane.
I have to stop him getting in touch with the Russians.
His contact can't meet him here in the village. So all I have to do is keep Jean-Pierre here.
I'll say to him: You must promise not to leave the village. If you refuse I'll tell Ellis that you're a spy and he will make sure you don't leave the village.
Suppose Jean-Pierre makes the promise then breaks it?
Well, I would know he had gone out of the village, and I would know he was meeting his contact, and I could then warn Ellis.
Has he any other way of communicating with the Russians?
He must have some means of getting in touch with them in an emergency.
But there are no phones here, no mail, no courier service, no carrier pigeons -
He must have a radio.
If he has a radio there's no way I can stop him.
The more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that he had a radio. He needed to arrange those meetings in stone huts. In theory they might have all been scheduled before he left Paris, but in practice that was almost impossible: what would happen when he had to break an appointment, or when he was late, or when he needed to meet his contact urgently?
He must have a radio.
What can I do if he has a radio?
I can take it away from him.
She put Chantal down in her cradle and looked around the house. She went into the front room. There on the tiled counter in the middle of what had been the shop was Jean-Pierre's medical bag.
It was the obvious place. No one was allowed to open the bag except Jane, and she never had any reason to.
She undid the clasp and went through the contents, taking them out one by one.
There was no radio.
It was not going to be that easy.
He must have one, she thought, and I must find it: if I don't, either Ellis will kill him or he will kill Ellis.
She decided to search the house.
She checked through the medical supplies on the shopkeeper's shelves, looking in all the boxes and packets whose seals had been broken, hurrying for fear he would come back before she was finished. She found nothing.
She went into the bedroom. She rummaged through his clothes, then in the winter bedding which was stored in a corner. Nothing. Moving faster, she went into the living room and looked around frantically for possible hiding places. The map chest! She opened it. Only the maps were there. She closed the lid with a bang. Chantal stirred but did not cry, even though it was almost time for her feed. You're a good baby, thought Jane; thank God! She looked behind the food cupboard and lifted the rug in case there was a concealed hole in the floor.
It had to be here somewhere. She could not imagine that he would take the risk of hiding it outside the house, for there would be a terrible danger of its being found by accident.
She went back into the shop. If only she could find his radio everything would be all right - he would have no option but to give in.
His bag was so much the obvious place, for he took it with him wherever he went. She picked it up. It was
heavy. She felt around inside it yet again. It had a thick base.
Suddenly she was inspired.
The bag could have a false bottom.
She probed the base with her fingers. It must be here, she thought; it must.
She pushed her fingers down beside the base and lifted.
The false bottom came up easily.
With her heart in her mouth, she looked inside.
There, in the hidden compartment, was a black plastic box. She took it out.
That's it, she thought; he calls them on this little radio.
Why does he meet them as well?
Perhaps he cannot tell them secrets over the radio for fear that someone is listening. Perhaps the radio is only for arranging meetings, and for emergencies.
Like when he can't leave the village.
She heard the back door open. Terrified, she dropped the radio to the floor and spun around, looking into the living room. It was only Fara with a broom. "Oh, Christ," she said aloud. She turned back, her heart racing.
She had to get rid of the radio before Jean-Pierre returned.
But how? She could not throw it away - it would be found.
She had to smash it.
She did not have a hammer.
A stone, then.
She hurried through the living room and into the courtyard. The courtyard wall was made of rough stones held together with sandy mortar. She reached up and wiggled one of the top row of stones. It seemed firm. She tried the next, and the next. The fourth stone seemed a little loose. She reached up and tugged at it. It moved a little. "Come on, come on," she cried. She pulled hard. The rough stone cut into the skin of her hands. She gave a mighty heave and the stone came loose. She jumped back as it fell to the ground. It was about the size of a can of beans: just
right. She picked it up in both hands and hurried back into the house.
She went into the front room. She picked up the black plastic radio transmitter from the floor and placed it on the tiled counter. Then she lifted the stone above her head and brought it down with all her might on the radio.
The plastic casing cracked.
She would have to hit it harder.
She lifted the stone and brought it down again. This time the casing broke, revealing the innards of the instrument: she saw a printed circuit, a loudspeaker cone and a pair of batteries with Russian script on them. She took out the batteries and threw them on the floor, then started to smash the mechanism.
She was grabbed from behind suddenly, and Jean-Pierre's voice shouted: "What are you doing?"
She struggled against his grip, got free for a moment and struck another blow at the little radio.
He grasped her shoulders and hurled her aside. She stumbled and fell to the floor. She landed awkwardly, twisting her wrist.
He stared at the radio. "It's ruined!" he said. "It's irreparable!" He grabbed her by the shirt and hauled her to her feet. "You don't know what you've done!" he screamed. There was despair and hot rage in his eyes.
"Let me go!" she shouted at him. He had no right to act like this when it was he who had lied to her. "How dare you manhandle me!"
"How dare I?" He let go of her shirt, drew back his arm and punched her hard. The blow landed in the middle of her abdomen. For a split second she was simply paralyzed with shock; then the pain came, deep inside where she was still sore from having had Chantal, and she cried out and bent over with her hands clutching her middle.
Her eyes were shut tight, so she did not see the second blow coming.
His punch landed full on her mouth. She screamed. She could hardly believe he was doing this to her. She opened
her eyes and looked at him, terrified that he would hit her again.
"How dare I?" he screamed. "How dare I?"
She fell to her knees on the dirt floor, and began to sob with shock and pain and misery. Her mouth hurt so much she could hardly speak. "Please don't hit me," she managed. "Don't hit me again." She held a hand in front of her face defensively.
He knelt down, shoved her hand aside and thrust his face into hers. "How long have you known?" he hissed.
She licked her lips. They were swelling already. She dabbed at them with her sleeve, and it came away bloody. She said: "Since I saw you in the stone hut ... on the way to Cobak."
"But you didn't see anything!"
"He spoke with a Russian accent, and said he had blisters. I figured it out from there."
There was a pause while that sank in. "Why now?" he said. "Why didn't you break the radio before?"
"I didn't dare to."
"Ellis is here."
Jane summoned up what little courage she had left. "If you don't stop this . . . spying . . . I'll tell Ellis, and he will stop you."
He took her by the throat. "And what if I strangle you, you bitch?"
"If any harm comes to me ... Ellis will want to know why. He's still in love with me."
She stared at him. Hatred burned in his eyes. "Now I'll never get him!" he said. She wondered who he meant. Ellis? No. Masud? Could it be that Jean-Pierre's ultimate purpose was to kill Masud? His hands were still around her throat. She felt his grip tighten. She watched his face fearfully.
Then Chantal cried.
Jean-Pierre's expression changed dramatically. The hostility went from his eyes, and the fixed, taut look of anger
crumpled; and finally, to Jane's amazement, he put his hands over his eyes and began to cry.
She gazed at him with incredulity. She found herself feeling pity for him, and thought: Don't be a fool, the bastard just beat you up. But despite herself she was touched by his tears. "Don't cry," she said quietly. Her voice was surprisingly gentle. She touched his cheek.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry for what I did to you. My life's work ... all for nothing."
She realized with astonishment and a trace of self-disgust that she was no longer angry with him, despite her swollen lips and the continuing pain in her tummy. She gave in to the sentiment, and put her arms around him, patting his back as if comforting a child.
"Just because of Anatoly's accent," he mumbled. "Just because of that."
"Forget Anatoly," she said, "We'll leave Afghanistan and go back to Europe. We'll go with the next convoy."
He took his hands from his face and looked at her. "When we get back to Paris ..."
"When we're home ... I still want us to be together. Can you forgive me? I love you - truly, I always loved you. And we're married. And there's Chantal. Please, Jane - please don't leave me. Please?"
To her surprise she felt no hesitation. He was the man she loved, her husband, the father of her child; and he was in trouble and appealing for help. "I'm not going anywhere," she replied.
"Promise," he said. "Promise you won't leave me."
She smiled at him with her bleeding mouth. "I love you," she said. "I promise I won't leave you."