The dirt track unfurls through the desert northward: unbroken, straight, infinite. Patches of drought-shriveled cotton fields daub the blanched plains. Ascensions of larks tumble out of sunflowers, spilling fine clouds of husks and dust, and, dipping in unison, wing toward some other field. On the horizon, where the road seems to bend downward with the world's curvature, two motorcycle riders clear out of the quivering sky. The man driving my car reaches for his 9-millimeter Luger.
Northern Afghanistan's roads project a sense of constancy. Their appearance is biblical: unmarked and unpaved stretches coursing past villages of crumbling cob, traversed by donkey-drawn carts and camel caravans laden with almonds and hay. Hardly anyone has ever maintained their surface. Every pothole to slow down for, every chunk of sharp rock to swerve around, every roadside hollow where iridescent sewage pools has probably been there for decades, maybe centuries.
But in this systematically violated land, no road ever remains the same. Each is a treacherous route of the latest invading army or insurrection, suppurating with wounds old and new. On the northbound track from Mazar-e-Sharif, tomb raiders sift through the sands of Askar Qaleh for treasures left two millennia ago, but no one can tell me whether they were left by the invading army of Alexander the Great or the Kushans, who colonized Bactria after him. In Siogert, teenage goatherds play lonesome flute tunes in the sandcastle ruins of a bazaar: The mujahideen shelled it as they wrenched the village from Soviet hands in the 1980s. A mile or so away, there is an abandoned wheat field -- don't go there! -- planted with POMZ-2M land mines, a remnant of the ethnic wars of the 1990s. A green flag flutters from a stake driven into a nearby rocky shoulder: Someone attacked a car carrying ballots for the 2009 presidential election here, killed the driver, and set the car ablaze.
But as always, Afghanistan's palimpsest of violence is being scrawled over with fresh iniquities. In recent months, the ancient road has become the instrument, and the witness, of the Taliban's steady creeping advance through the Khorasan.
Here is the spot, as yet unmarked, where in June the Taliban killed Sober, a teacher from Siogert. Several people have pointed it out to me; Sober was well-loved by many. Half a mile to the north, a crater scoops out the road's shoulder; a homemade bomb detonated here three weeks ago near the car of a Siogert village elder, Malah. (Malah, a hard man with cold eyes, was unharmed. He doesn't like to talk about it.) A few hundred yards further is the sooty chimney of the Shahraq brick factory. Two dozen Taliban, armed with Kalashnikovs, showed up there two weeks ago to demand a donation of $2,000 to their holy war coffers.
Nameless, limbic angst hangs over stretches of the road. "If you and I go to Shahraq we won't come out alive," a taxi driver tells me one morning. Later, he clarifies: "If you and I go to Shahraq they won't even find our bones."
(We drive past Shahraq twice that day. The road runs through it.)
A year ago on this road, at dawn and at dusk, day laborers from villages clung to the doors and roofs of overcrowded buses headed to and from Mazar-e-Sharif. During the day, pack animals moseyed from village to village. Women in blue burqas jounced in the flatbeds of zaranj motor-rickshaws bound for hospitals and shrines. There was little other traffic. Often my car was the only one on the road all day. Children would crawl upon hand-slapped clay walls and squat to stare.
Then, last spring, during the wheat harvest, motorcycles appeared on the road. Motorcycles are the fastest mode of transport on the rutted Bactrian tracks; they are the Taliban's vehicle of choice. The riders were usually men, their faces wrapped in the kerchiefs most Afghan men wear as turbans or around their necks. Was it to protect the riders from inhaling the omnipresent vapor of atomized clay and dung? Or to conceal their faces from the inquisitive eyes of others? Both?
In March, near the blooming almond orchards of Khairabad, I saw a motorcycle parked by the side of the road. As our car passed, two men scrambled out of the irrigation ditch next to it and ran after us. One of them reached his right hand inside his striped chapan coat. You've seen this gesture in movies. The driver floored it. The car veered to the left. I looked back, but all I could see was a big cloud of ocher dust between us and the men.
I never found out who they were.
"On that road, you can't tell who's an enemy and who's a friend," says Amin Bai, an elder from Oqa, a village farther north. "All my life the road has been like this: now it's safe, the next day it's not."
After the March encounter, the driver started carrying the Luger. He inherited both the pistol and the ammunition for it from his grandfather. He keeps it by the handbrake, wrapped in a brown scarf. He doesn't remember when he last fired it.
We are passing Shahraq this month when the two men on a motorcycle materialize on the road. For the first time in years, the driver cocks the trigger.
The motorcyclists are about three hundred yards away when they tack suddenly and drive off the road into the desert. A few seconds later they vanish among the silver spiny tufts of cousinia.
In their place appears a rider.
He is wearing a white shalwar kameez. A white kerchief is wrapped in a turban around his shaved head. His feet are bare. His beard is silver, like desert thorns.
He is riding a white donkey. I think he has been riding on this road forever.