Ten days passed before the first ragged constellations of men set out for the northwestern ranges and a dozen more before Ziar came to her tent, ignoring the Yemeni boy sleeping beside her, and whispered that the time had come to go. She rolled her few possessions into her kilim and tied it loosely closed and that was all. She never saw the boy or the Orchard or the Arabs she’d trained with again.
After so many weeks of presenting arms in formation and saluting a makeshift podium and marching in place she’d expected to be sent off with a speech, or at least some perfunctory blessing, but Nazir and his lieutenants seemed already to have left. There were forty men in Ziar’s company and they fell in groggily behind him as he threaded his way through the tamarisk grove with the cliffs and hilltops blazing to the west. In time she would come to see the genius in so large a body of men moving in small groups through enemy territory but on that first day it simply seemed undignified. Ziar himself joked that the company looked like a ragpickers’ guild, or a stray herd of goats, or a congregation of drunks who’d misplaced their last bottle. But he said it with an air of satisfaction.
For two days they followed the river, fording and refording it times without number, picking their way across it daintily where stones broke the surface, stumbling like mules through the current where circumstance left them no choice. The gorge grew wider and greener as the river descended and she passed the hours looking for songbirds along its banks, stopping and peering into the rushes whenever any movement caught her eye. She counted sixty magpies between the Orchard and the plain of Nangarhar and countless smaller passerines besides. She often found herself wishing for her father’s clothbound U.S. field guide, though she knew it would have been no help to her: no creature they encountered on all that long march to the front could have been found with-in its glossy, dog-eared pages.
The ancient terraced valley through which the Kabul River ran sedately eastward was so verdant and well-tended as to seem a vestige of some lost and temperate age. They kept well clear of Jalalabad but she could make out its walled gardens and the minarets of its mosques and she thought of the old Pashtun merchant she’d met on the flight to Dubai, the dealer in fabrics, and of the pride with which he’d told her of that valley. It shamed her now to think of that kindly pious man sitting across from her in the dimly lit cabin, listening to her self-important talk about the war that still raged in the land of his birth. Nangarhar, she recited as they marched in single file across the floodplain. Cradle of Peace. Forever Spring.
An hour into the foothills they came to a scattering of mud-and-wattle cottages in front of which a crowd stood four men deep around a ring of beaten earth. Thus far in each village heads had appeared in doors and window frames to watch them, emerging smoothly and spectrally out of the dark, but in that place not a single head was turned. Scattered about in the grass were wicker domes half the size of a man, covered in patterned blue cloth, like field tents for a host of tiny soldiers. She could no more imagine what purpose they served than she could guess what the villagers stood watching so intently. Ziar gave them a wide berth and so did the others. It had just struck her that certain of the domes looked like castaway burqas when the cover was lifted from one of the baskets and she caught sight of an oblong silver body and a blood-colored bill.
—Chukar, Ziar said, gesturing toward the basket. —The fighting birds of Laghman Province are well-known.
She bent down for a moment and watched the partridge strut and forage, making gurgling noises, metallic and fluid. —They’re beautiful.
—They’re expensive, he said without slowing. —And expressly forbidden. In Kandahar these men would be in prison for gambling. Or taken out and beaten in the street.
Above the village the road narrowed to a cattle trail and climbed in grassy switchbacks to a pass. As they reached the first turning a cry went up below them and she looked back to see two villagers poised like dancers with their arms outstretched and baskets at the ready. A brother whose name she hadn’t learned stood spellbound a few steps ahead of her, neither moving nor blinking, and Ziar struck him good-naturedly on the nape as he passed and cursed him for a profligate and sinner. She could make out nothing of the fight itself but a cloud of silver feathers and the ring of ruthless faces and she was grateful when the sight passed out of view. There seemed little difference between that circle of men and the one that had drawn itself around her ten weeks earlier, at the cemetery gate, when the guide had been dropped hog-tied at her feet.