Then it was on to taste, and from that room they ascended to the highest place in the house: it contained and combined all that had gone beforean interior dedicated to love, the ultimate human wonder, and that was where she said yes.
The imagery was there on the walls still but, out of the fear of the Ta- liban, all depictions of the living things had been smeared with mud by Marcus. Even an ant on a pebble had been daubed. It was as though all life had been returned to dust. Consolation of a kind could be had from the fact that most of the rest of the images had survivedthe inanimate things, the trees and the skies, the streams. And since the demise of the Ta- liban, Marcus had begun slowly to remove the swirled covering of mud. The highest room stands completely revealed now.
Marcus took Lara to one corner and pointed to the foliage painted there. When she looked closely she saw that a chameleon was sitting perfectly camouflaged on a leaf. She leaned closer to that lovely fiction and touched it. The Taliban would even burn a treasured family letter because the stamp showed a butterfly, said Marcus. But I missed this, and so did they.
Roaming the house at night, her shadow trembling in accordance with the candle flame, Lara had entered the topmost room. The walls were originally a delicate faded gold, painted with scenes of lovers either in an embrace or travelling towards each other through forest and meadow. They were badly damaged by bullets. When the Taliban came to the house they had proceeded to annihilate anything they considered un-Islamic within it. What they had heard about this room had enraged them the most. This they wanted to blow up, even though the lovers had been made to disappear behind a veil of earth by Marcus.
Laras eyes moved across the shattered skin of the walls, the candle picking up hints of gold here and there. This country was one of the greatest tragedies of the age. Torn to pieces by the many hands of war, by the various hatreds and failings of the world. Two million deaths over the past quarter-century. Several of the lovers on the walls were on their own because of the obliterating impact of the bulletsnothing but a gash or a terrible ripping away where the corresponding man or woman used to be. A shredded limb, a lost eye.
A sound originating in one of the other rooms startled her where she stood, her heart speeding up at the possibilities.
It was not a thief, she reassured herself, nor a Taliban fighter looking for somewhere to hide. Nor an Arab, Pakistani, Uzbek, Chechen, Indonesian terroristseed sprouted from the blood-soaked soil of Muslim countries. On the run since the autumn of 2001, al-Qaeda appeared to be regrouping, to kidnap foreigners, organise suicide bombings, and behead those it deemed traitors, those it suspected of informing the Americans.
What fool drew this? the Tsar had demanded to know of a fortress that a student at the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg had drawn inadvertently without doors. The young man was Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Lara wished this house was similarly devoid of entrances as she slowly moved along the corridor, the drops of molten wax sliding down the side of the red candle in her hand.
No one came near the house, Marcus had told her, because the area around the lake is said to contain the djinn. Lake wind, mountain wind, orchard wind collide in the vicinity, but to the Muslims the air is also lastingly alive with the good and bad invisible tribes of the universe. If that was not sufficient, a ghost said to be that of his daughter, Zameen, had appeared in one of the rooms the day the Taliban came here, the apparition putting them to flight.
After the sound, she was aware of the completeness of the nights silence.
Perhaps Marcus, fumbling, had dropped an object. The word lame described what happened when a foot or leg became damaged or was missing, but she could think of no specific term for when an arm or hand became unavailable, though the body was just as out of balance.
Excerpted from The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam Copyright © 2008 by Nadeem Aslam. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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