It’s fall 1999, and Mariam and Laila take turns digging a hole, which is more demanding than it should be, since it’s the second year of a devastating drought. Mariam, now almost forty, has lost two front teeth, one knocked out by Rasheed when she accidentally dropped Zalmai.
Mariam’s loss of two teeth reflects both the general struggle of daily life and the active brutality of her husband, for whom he has no use other than in the service of his only son.
Zalmai is two now, plump with curly hair and rosy cheeks like Rasheed. When Laila is alone with him, he’s sweet and playful. Her stomach turns when she thinks about the afternoon lying with a bicycle spoke between her legs. She loves Zalmai just as much as Aziza. But when his father, whom he worships, is around, he turns mischievous and is easily offended, and Rasheed rewards him, saying it’s a sign of intelligence. He dotes on Zalmai and buys him clothes, toys, and gadgets they can’t really afford. He takes him to his store, returning home grinning as if they share a secret. Rasheed scowls at Laila if she asks to hold him or play with Zalmai.
Laila has learned that a mother’s unconditional love for her children can transcend the circumstances around their birth. Nevertheless, it is disturbing how Rasheed’s authentic love for Zalmai can be twisted and perverted. For Rasheed, in fact, love is selfish rather than generous—though Laila, too, has in the past acted in the interests of herself and her unborn child and against those of Mariam. Love, it seems, is powerful but not necessarily always a force for good.
Aziza is now six, and is quiet and even-tempered. She loves taking care of Zalmai. One day Rasheed comes home with a TV. Aziza presses the power button, and Rasheed snatches her wrist out of the way, saying it’s Zalmai’s TV. She crawls into Mariam’s lap—they’re inseparable, and Mariam has been teaching Aziza Koran verses. The Taliban had banned television, but Rasheed knows he can find cartoons in underground bazaars—even though they can’t really afford it.
Rasheed’s love for Zalmai now makes his attitude towards his daughter even more of an affront. Rasheed is even willing to go against his formerly benign attitude towards the Taliban just to buy cartoons. It is Mariam, instead, who becomes the closest thing to Aziza’s second parent.
That night, in fact, Rasheed tells Laila he’s decided to send Aziza into the street to beg at a corner—many families in Kabul are doing the same. Laila says she won’t allow it, and when Rasheed slaps her, she punches him back. Rasheed walks out of the room calmly, and she feels a momentary triumph. But he soon returns, putting his hands around her throat and slamming her against the wall, and sticks the barrel of his gun into her mouth.
Though she rarely feels able to stand up for herself, Laila will face Rasheed if it’s a question of defending her daughter. Ultimately, though, Laila must come to terms—vividly—with the power that Rasheed continues to hold over her thanks to both his physical force and the legal norms backing him up.
Mariam and Laila are now digging in the yard to hide the TV for awhile, since the Taliban has been conducting raids lately. Laila has a dream that they’re digging again, but this time lowering a screaming Aziza into the ground, saying they’ll dig her back up when things are better.
While Rasheed has flouted Taliban norms by buying the television, it’s Mariam and Laila who must work together to ensure that their family remains safe—even if, as Laila’s dream shows, she isn’t confident she can keep Aziza safe.