He spits at them viciously, calling them the filthiest names he can think of. They are incensed at first, and retaliate by abusing him in their garbled tongue, but after a while, they begin ignoring him, maybe giving him a furtive kick or two when their superiors aren’t around.
He hates them from the very depths of his soul, these white jackals, sons of mangy dogs who probably roamed the streets in unwashed clothes back home – a place he believes is nightmarish in its very pristine condition. His friends had filled his ears day after day, before his capture, about how these fat Americans did nothing but loll around on squishy sofas and eat, how their politicians were all liars, how they had wives but always, always lied and cavorted with other women, who happened to be married to their own friends.
His bonds make his wrists itch, and he goes crazy trying not to scratch himself. Any sign of weakness now would only make those soldiers laugh, those loathsome cockroaches who seem to have nothing to do other than play with cards all day, smoking their cigars, and making lewd jokes to each other. He quickly suppresses a longing to do the same. What wouldn’t he give now, to sit in a circle with his friends, eating dry bread and hunks of lamb, reminiscing about their childhood days in various parts of Afghanistan – Kabul, Herat, Kandahar…
A white woman suddenly appears to his left. She is greeted by loud, raucous laughter and yells from her masculine companions, but she shushes them quickly and kneels in front of him. Her hair is very neatly combed back, her blonde ponytail down her right shoulder. She is wearing a white lab coat and stethoscope around her neck.
The fact that she is a doctor barely registers in his mind, as he takes in her uncovered face, her openly friendly movements as she feels his legs for any injury. A woman! A white woman at that, and with a face that any modest, God-fearing woman would have covered with a heavy burqa! When she looks up at him, a concerned look in her eyes, and opens her mouth to speak, he summons up all the phlegm in his throat and spits directly in her mouth. She gags and recoils; the men at the far end of the room rush to her aid. By the time the scuffle is over, and the woman stops screaming at the men to desist, he is hunched over the cold stone floor, blood streaming from the corner of his lips as a broken canine tooth tumbles out of his mouth. His eyes are puffed and purple, but he doesn’t care. They will prevent him from seeing that abomination to all womankind in the world. Why, back home, if he’d had his way, her carcass would be stinking up the alley.
He feels cold hands on his face, gently turning him around. Then, to his immense astonishment, a rather sweet, hesitant voice speaks in Farsi. “Are you alright?” she asks him. What audacity! He wants to strike her, but suddenly feels wonderful relief from pain as she begins applying some sort of soothing salve on his face and his legs.
He still struggles, but it is a rather lethargic gesture. When the cold prick of a needle suddenly disturbs him, he kicks out and is satisfied to feel his foot connect with something soft, followed by a sharp ‘Oof!’, but soon, sleep steals over him and pulls him down into that deep abyss where nothing is tangible and everything is blissfully blank and black.
For over a week or so, he is attended to by the female doctor, whose name, he learns from overhearing a whispered conversation between her and the major, is Mary. Every day, she gently lifts his face, cleans it and bathes his swollen, wounded legs. Every minute, when she tries to converse with him in Farsi, he tries to hit her. Every night, he is assaulted by the men for his behaviour. And every day, she continues to forgive him and tend to his wounds received from the night before.
Gradually, he develops a grudging respect for her and admiration for the way she withstands his insults. He stops trying to injure her, and instead concentrates on listening to her advice about his health. When she brings him his food, he mumbles a barely heard tashakor. Slowly, he begins answering her questions about his home, his childhood and his time in the Taliban, although his replies are curt and monosyllabic. His bonds are untied, and although he is kept under close watch, he is able to move around, stretch his legs and finally breathe, without blood dripping out of his nostrils or his ribs contracting in pain. He manages to develop a kind of kinship with his jailers, a relationship that he is thoroughly ashamed of, but somehow cannot tire of.
He learns that the men who are constantly made to watch him are Jack Kingston, Adam Pollard, Jensen Padalecki and Luke Fallow. He understands that Luke and Mary are engaged and will marry in a rather hurried ceremony the following week. Sometimes, when they are especially jovial, Adam and Jensen play cards with him and tease him mercilessly, but not maliciously. In a way, he reluctantly comes to care for them.
One day, as he is resting on the floor, he hears gunfire in the distance. Jack, who is reading and frowning over a newspaper article, looks up. “Damn,” is all that he says, before he rushes out, followed by Adam and Jensen. He thinks nothing of this, but continues to lay face down, slipping in and out of sleep.
And then the world trembles and suddenly blazes into nothingness around him.
“Brother, awaken.” Groggily, he complies. A thick matting of grey, ashy dust covers him from head to toe. He coughs violently for about a minute or so, before he is able to catch his breath. There is a strange whistling in his right ear. When he straightens up after retching a little, he is disconcerted by the sight of a young man with a bushy beard and a blue turban, watching him intently. “Bhai, celebrate!” the man says, and grins suddenly, his dark eyes dancing in the dim light of the room. “We’d received the news of your capture only last week, and see, we have already managed to get you back!”
He cannot breathe. Gasping, he manages to thank the major and stumbles out. Cold sweat beads his forehead, as he leans against the wall, trying to digest the news calmly. By all rights, he is a Taliban soldier.
He can only stare blankly. The other man sighs. “Of course. Bebakhsh. I must fill you in. My name is Mohammed Rahim Jabbar, by the way. I also serve in the Taliban army, brother. Like I said, a week ago, we had received news of your capture by radio. Those Americans…” he emits a disgusting bubble of saliva from his paan-stained mouth, “had no right to even touch you, my brother. So, we managed to figure out where you were kept hostage, and by launching a surprise attack, we blew up the entire place. Haha, you should have seen the body parts that were flung around! My superior, Kareem Abdul was actually knocked unconscious by somebody’s foot!” Rahim Jabbar roars with laughter.
He is conscious of something suspiciously like grief stealing over his heart. Curtly, he asks Rahim Jabbar a question. “Were there any survivors?”
“Indeed, brother! A woman, actually. I’m surprised she managed to survive the explosion, but la illah u ilillah, it would have been better if she had died then! For the fate she faces now is worse, and indeed, less merciful!”
Immediately, he strides out, ignoring Rahim Jabbar’s cries, “Uncovered face! Man’s garb!” He almost runs down the corridor, and arrives, slightly out of breath, at the major’s office. The major, who is busy feasting on aush soup and bread, starts, “Why, it’s Jalil Sharif! Good to see you up and about!” Stammering a little, he says, “Sir, who is it that you are executing today? When and where is it going to be held?”
The major grins. “Ah! Ready to see the show already, eh? Well, don’t let me keep you much longer. The woman’s name is Mary, I think, Mary Johns. She is being readied, at the moment, to die by stoning today at noon,” he grunts, shifts and burps loudly. “Although, I would have preferred to flay her skin layer by layer myself. Can you believe it, Jalil? A woman, living like an equal amongst those men!”
He cannot breathe. Gasping, he manages to thank the major and stumbles out. Cold sweat beads his forehead, as he leans against the wall, trying to digest the news calmly. By all rights, he is a Taliban soldier. It is, and was his own choice to join the army. And one of the requirements of assuming such an occupation is to propagate the will of Allah. It is his job to create a ‘secure environment where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct’. And for those who throw stones at the windows of God’s house, they themselves deserve to die by stoning. Everyone in Afghanistan knows this, whether they support the Taliban or not.
And yet, the memory of her cold, gentle hands surfaces in the sea of his disturbed thoughts. He remembers how kind and forgiving she’d been when he’d once butted his head against hers so hard that she’d actually gone cross-eyed for the moment. He remembers the food she’d insisted on serving him, no matter how angrily the soldiers protested, in spite of his abuses and rants directed at her. She’d behaved exactly like his sister. No, like his mother. Ammi jaan.
Quickly, he rushes to the prison. The coast is surprisingly clear, and then he remembers that all the guards have gone out for lunch. This strengthens his resolve. Ignoring the wails and pleas from the other prisoners, he strides purposefully down the long corridor till he reaches the last cell. Mary is sitting in the corner of the damp, dark room. When she’d been captured, her face, bruised from the explosion, had roughly been forced into a black mask, now lying on a stool nearby. Her blonde hair is limp and dirty, covering her battered face and her nose, which drips continuously now. She does not move at all. His stomach tightens when he suddenly realises that Luke Fallow is dead, killed during the blast.
He whispers her name for the first time since their meeting, “Mary jaan.” She starts, turns around and stares at him. Wide-eyed, she watches as he picks the lock and enters her cell. He does not speak further, but looks over his shoulder again and again, as though fearing discovery. Then he pulls out an automatic from his pocket. She understands instantly. “Mary,” he says, and she looks at him sullenly. “I cannot save you. Please forgive me. But I can grant you a merciful death.”
God help me! “I just want to say tashakor for everything. For being so kind to a brute like me.” She does not reply, but closes her eyes and nods, almost imperceptibly. “Forgive me, Mary jaan,” he whispers again, thickly. Then, he points the barrel of the gun to her head, and fires.
Five minutes later, following yells and screams from the other prisoners, the guards find him standing in the cell, immobile, drenched in blood and bits of brain. The body at his feet continues to bleed, forming a dark, sticky pool around his feet.