Shaista knows that she hasn’t gone to heaven. The Holy Qur’an teaches that heaven is a place of plentiful water, of gurgling streams and cool clear pools. Instead she sees only Najeed Rawdah, the village where she lived and died. Patches of mud, made of her own blood mixed with the parched soil, stain the village courtyard. A village well stands in front of the stone-walled mosque, an oasis in a desert of ash-white dust.
Rocks litter one end of the courtyard. Some are small enough to fit a child’s hand. A few are so big that a strong grown man would need both hands to lift them.
Her own hands, her real hands of flesh, are now battered almost beyond recognition. She had raised them at first, trying to ward off the stones smashing into her. Then a rock the size of a melon crushed her right thumb backward in a lightning stroke of agony, leaving the thumb dangling uselessly and held on only by her skin. She’d been so horrified by her ruined thumb that she held her hand in front of her face and stared, even as another stone struck the side of her head and knocked her down on her knees in the dust. When her oldest brother Faisal scooped her lifeless and mangled body into his arms, her blood soaking the front of his shirt, Shaista’s soul awakened still unable to look away from her hands.
As she raises her hands and looks at them again, now that her soul is no longer joined to a body, they appear intact. Yet they fade the more she studies them, and they cannot feel the hot dry air smothering the courtyard.
Not long ago she’d hoped to use her hands to heal the sick and the injured. She’d been accepted for admission by the same university in England that Qareeb, the schoolteacher, attended before Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union.
Qareeb had tried to help. His studies in England had been of law. After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan they’d forbidden him to practice law anymore. Nevertheless, when the village mullah Shamas summoned the religious police to decide Shaista’s fate, Qareeb risked himself and his family to defend her. “Shaista is obedient and modest in school,” he told the religious police. “It is not in her nature to give herself to a man not her husband. It is not in her nature to lie. If she says a man took her against her will and against the laws of Allah, she speaks the truth.”
But the religious police demanded four eyewitnesses to the rape, all of them men, to testify Shaista was blameless. Nor would they consider any other kind of evidence under the sharia law of Islam. There had been no eyewitnesses – only Allah the all-knowing, her rapist, and Shaista herself. So the religious police declared Shaista guilty of sexual acts outside the sanction of marriage, and they sentenced her to die.
It’s her own blood staining the dust of Najeed Rawdah, and Shaista hasn’t gone to Heaven. Unsure where to go or what to do, she looks at the patches of mud and the heaps of stones, and she waits for a sign.
In her family’s house, Shaista knows that her mother and sister must be washing her battered remains and wrapping them in a shroud for burial. She wonders if they will cover her with the same stones that killed her.
There will be no marker. Before the war Shaista’s father could have afforded a gravestone inscribed with her name, back when he worked as an archeologist. He’d been part of a team studying and preserving the Zoroastrian temple of Surkh Kotal north of the village, as well as searching the area for other ruins. But ever since the war and the rise of Taliban, he’d only been able to find work as a day laborer, barely earning enough to feed their family. Without Shaista to feed, she hopes her parents, brothers, and sister won’t be so hungry anymore.
In the western sky the sun is sinking, and the men are returning from the fields and pastures. Shaista sees her cousin Athir stop when he reaches the courtyard. He, too, gazes solemnly at the patches of blood darkening the dust that Shaista can no longer feel, gritty between her toes.
She wonders if Athir is thinking of the night he asked her father to let him speak with Shaista alone. They walked out into her family’s small vegetable garden, to talk in private, yet still under her father’s supervision. Athir urged Shaista not to go to England, because he wanted to marry her. She refused him, telling him she wished to be a doctor more than anything else in the world. In a blur Athir clamped one rough hand over Shaista’s mouth and pushed her down among the pungent onions, tangling her in her own veil. He spilled her blood on her dress and the earth under her hips. Then he left her, abandoned her to gasp for enough breath to cry her pain. Maybe Athir was remembering that night, as he gazed at Shaista’s blood in the dust.
Shaista doesn’t make an effort to remember. Ever since that night, she can think of nothing else.
Parvez, her cousin’s dear friend since they were small children together, goes to Athir and takes his hand. With his right hand over his heart, Parvez says in a hushed voice, “Shaista is gone, my friend. But you will find a good woman and marry her. Inshallah.”
If Allah is willing. Inshallah.
Athir nods, but says nothing. Parvez hugs him and walks on, going home to his parents and his wife. With a deep breath, Athir turns away and goes to the mud brick home where his mother is cooking the evening meal. Shaista can’t smell the flat bread baking in the clay ovens of the village houses, but she knows its aroma must be drifting out from the doors all around her.
This is not Heaven. And it can no longer be her home.
North of the village of Najeed Rawdah, in the dimming light of the sinking sun, the ruins of the Zoroastrian temple can be seen on the horizon. Surkh Kotal, at first, appears to be an odd-shaped hill, with peculiar grooves carved into it in bands.
Shaista moves toward the temple, prodded by a memory of her father carrying her there on his shoulders when she was still a little girl. He told her about his work there, where King Kanishka dug a well to please the gods and earn their blessing on his household. An inscription promised the gods that, because of the well dug in their honor, “fine, pure water should not be missing.”
The Holy Qur’an teaches that heaven is a place of plentiful water. Leaving the dust of the village behind her, Shaista sets out for the Zoroastrian temple. Maybe, if she finds the water promised there, she will also find peace.