Assef motioned with his hand, and the other two boys separated, forming a half circle, trapping Hassan in the alley.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Assef said. “I’m letting you keep the kite, Hazara. I’ll let you keep it so it will always remind you of what I’m about to do.”
Then he charged. Hassan hurled the rock. It struck Assef in the forehead. Assef yelped as he flung himself at Hassan, knocking him to the ground. Wall and Kamal followed.
I bit on my fist. Shut my eyes.
Did you know Hassan and you fed from the same breast? Did you know that, Amir agha? Sakina, her name was. She was a fair, blue-eyed Hazara woman from Bamiyan and she sang you old wedding songs. They say there is a brotherhood between people who’ve fed from the same breast. Did you know that?
“A rupia each, children. Just one rupia each and I will part the curtain of truth.” The old man sits against a mud wall. His sightless eyes are like molten silver embedded in deep, twin craters. Hunched over his cane, the fortune-teller runs a gnarled hand across the surface of his deflated cheeks. Cups it before us. “Not much to ask for the truth, is it, a rupia each?” Hassan drops a coin in the leathery palm. I drop mine too. “In the name of Allah most beneficent, most merciful,” the old fortune-teller whispers. He takes Hassan’s hand first, strokes the palm with one hornlike fingernail, round and round, round and round. The finger then floats to Hassan’s face and makes a dry, scratchy sound as it slowly traces the curve of his cheeks, the outline of his ears. The calloused pads of his fingers brush against Hassan’s eyes. The hand stops there. Lingers. A shadow passes across the old man’s face. Hassan and I exchange a glance. The old man takes Hassan’s hand and puts the rupia back in Hassan’s palm. He turns to me. “How about you, young friend?” he says. On the other side of the wall, a rooster crows. The old man reaches for my hand and I withdraw it.
I am lost in a snowstorm. The wind shrieks, blows stinging sheets of snow into my eyes. I stagger through layers of shifting white. I call for help but the wind drowns my cries. I fall and lie panting on the snow, lost in the white, the wind wailing in my ears. I watch the snow erase my fresh footprints. I’m a ghost now, I think, a ghost with no footprints. I cry out again, hope fading like my footprints. But this time, a muffled reply. I shield my eyes and manage to sit up. Out of the swaying curtains of snow, I catch a glimpse of movement, a flurry of color. A familiar shape materializes. A hand reaches out for me. I see deep, parallel gashes across the palm, blood dripping, staining the snow. I take the hand and suddenly the snow is gone. We’re standing in afield of apple green grass with soft wisps of clouds drifting above. I look up and see the clear sky is filled with kites, green, yellow, red, orange. They shimmer in the afternoon light.
A HAVOC OF SCRAP AND RUBBLE littered the alley. Worn bicycle tires, bottles with peeled labels, ripped up magazines, yellowed newspapers, all scattered amid a pile of bricks and slabs of cement. A rusted cast-iron stove with a gaping hole on its side tilted against a wall. But there were two things amid the garbage that I couldn’t stop looking at: One was the blue kite resting against the wall, close to the cast-iron stove; the other was Hassan’s brown corduroy pants thrown on a heap of eroded bricks.
“I don’t know,” Wali was saying. “My father says it’s sinful.” He sounded unsure, excited, scared, all at the same time. Hassan lay with his chest pinned to the ground. Kamal and Wali each gripped an arm, twisted and bent at the elbow so that Hassan’s hands were pressed to his back. Assef was standing over them, the heel of his snow boots crushing the back of Hassan’s neck.
“Your father won’t find out,” Assef said. “And there’s nothing sinful about teaching a lesson to a disrespectful d&111nkey.”
“I don’t know,” Wali muttered.
“Suit yourself,” Assef said. He turned to Kamal. “What about you?”
“It’s just a Hazara,” Assef said. But Kamal kept looking away.
“Fine,” Assef snapped. “All I want you weaklings to do is hold him down. Can you manage that?”
Wali and Kamal nodded. They looked relieved.
Assef knelt behind Hassan, put his hands on Hassan’s hips and lifted his bare buttocks. He kept one hand on Hassan’s back and undid his own belt buckle with his free hand. He unzipped his jeans. Dropped his underwear. He positioned himself behind Hassan. Hassan didn’t struggle. Didn’t even whimper. He moved his head slightly and I caught a glimpse of his face. Saw the resignation in it. It was a look I had seen before. It was the look of the lamb.