A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman Read Online (FREE)
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Antimachus was a friend of Paris
Who put the case for war
He opened a door in the earth
And a whole generation entered
—Alice Oswald, Memorial
AS SOON AS SHE SAW THE ROAD, SHE UNDERSTOOD HOW IT had seduced him. Unmarked and unpaved, it rose up between mauve foothills, then slipped through them. If you were bored, as Gideon Crane had been—by your traveling companion, by the very journey (to where, exactly?) that you’d insisted on undertaking—the mouth of the road would have leaped at you like a spark. You would’ve ordered the driver, as Crane did, to leave the highway, and when he refused to risk either his truck or his payload of melons to satisfy a foreigner’s curiosity about a shit road to nowhere, you too would have climbed from the truck and taken the road by donkey.
Parveen Shams was being carried onto the same turnoff in a white Land Cruiser, which made her admire Crane’s grit all the more. She was giddy at retracing his steps, six years after he’d first made this journey. In his memoir—the book that had propelled her here—Crane had written of the “hunger for adventure” that had thrust him onto this road and of his conviction that going deeper into Afghanistan would take him deeper into himself: What we think of as comforts are buffers, ways of not knowing ourselves, not becoming ourselves. I wanted to turn myself inside out, to empty my pockets and so to learn what I contained. At twenty-one—roughly half Crane’s age then—Parveen believed herself similarly fashioned. She was traveling to a remote village to join Crane’s crusade to save Afghan women from dying in childbirth; she would live with a family there and share its privations. Clearly she was hungry too.
But that self-conception soon jolted against the rocks littering the way. Crane had described the road as a “wretched rutted hell,” a condition that felt less romantic beneath the axle than it had sounded on the page. The surface was an obstacle course of pebbles to jog over, boulders to ease around, craters to gingerly traverse. Mud bogs sucked at the wheels as if trying to draw marrow from bone. All of this slowed the car to a walking, lurching pace, and time seemed to slow too. As the minutes crept by, as her apprehension mounted, Parveen began to question her own fortitude. She’d been born in Afghanistan but left at the age of one and hadn’t returned until now. She’d lived a sheltered American life—just how sheltered she saw only as its comforts receded. She’d consciously tried not to drink too much tea before they’d set out four hours earlier, but the Land Cruiser’s jerks still sent unwelcome tremors through her bladder.
They left the foothills behind. Taking hairpin turns, they wound along a canyon lined with towering cliffs of schist, and amidst the powerful sensation of being constricted by these mountains, Parveen briefly forgot her physical torments But then she noticed that the so-called road had dwindled to nothing more than a one-car-wide dirt lane hewn from the rock face. When she dared to look out the left window, she saw nothing; it was as if they were aloft. In fact, they were inching above a crag that fell steeply to a river below. She gripped the armrest, envisioning the car plummeting off the edge and tumbling down to the water. It was a sullen green, the canyon in gloom even though the day was sunny. Only over the opposite cliff face was there a startling strip of blue sky. She was chilled, hungry, and stiff. Knots ridged her back. As the road twisted, she scanned for signs of the village, but the only evidence of habitation she saw was, high on a pinnacle of rock, a nest.