Shuffling around the hallways, the students polluted the air with their conversations, and giggled under their breaths. It seemed as though they let nothing bother them. The attack of the barbarians remained fresh in their minds, they could not neglect the horrors and bloodshed they had endured. Losing their friends and families, it still broke their hearts. The witnessing of the accused from the service depleted much of their energy, from their oohs and ahhs and their little screams. Nevertheless, they meandered about their academic troubles more than anything else at this moment. It came to a point where they could forget about the events in the past.
The students going to the flagpole area, Neha and Sachen were still in the hallways. Neha followed her friend. Like Sachen, she felt ill from the event of Usheniko’s execution. It happened in a flash, but it left a scar within her. How could they do such a thing to a woman like her?
Where did they base their accusations from? The emotions and cries of the people that had radiated the temple back then, it shuddered Neha, it punched her in the face.
“If Usheniko was accused of all those charges, then what had led the Lama to make those claims? What had happened before then?” Before she tried to find an answers, she lamented. A pang went through her heart and she stuttered. Usheniko being on the stage and letting the people insult her became too much to remember. Perhaps to her, the accusations against Usheniko was more painful to Neha than her death; she wondered how her friend was able to go through the injustice in spite of the uproar.
Sachen brisking faster than usual, Neha called her many times. She paced close to her. Her hands clenched into fists, her eyes pried upon the wall beside her. Since that day, Sachen was quiet. In the neighborhood, in the classroom, and at the flagpole, she said nothing to Neha, not even a hello or a goodbye. The silence, Neha could permit – but it lasting too long began to make her feel guilty.
Her chest drumming, Neha raised her voice.
“S-Sachen! Please, do you want to hang out at the end of the day?”
No response from her friend, Neha’s face deflated. She turned herself around and leaned against the wall. Staring at the bulletin board, she pondered about what she had to say even further for Sachen to notice her. Neha glanced at her hands. Pale they were, they could become transparent. She might turn into a ghost at this point in time.
But, as luck had it, Sachen ran to her side. Neha faced her, and saw a smile that seemed too good to look like one.
“I’m sorry Neha. I am going to be busy all day, and possibly every day. I might put a burden on you regarding this, but it’s all right. Let’s hang out another time, okay?”
Before Neha could say anything, Sachen walked off. Neha lifted her own hands and hovered them around Sachen’s shoulders. The latter burst to the front door and went to the flagpole, leaving Neha open. She sighed. There was no way that she could get her back. She smiled for a bit when she got a response from her friend. But it sent throbs to her head, and she pouted. Neha then considered that it was better to give Sachen time for herself; maybe Sachen would feel well. How could she think that though, when the loss of their friend afflicted the both of them? In her somberness, Neha tilted her head upward and prayed to the gods that they would be okay.
Using the gold coins that Tulisen gave her a day ago, Neha picked up medicine from a local pharmacist. Since Tulisen was busy with the matters of war, with his responsibilities as a junior officer, Neha needed to help her mother in whatever ways possible. She strolled to the western district without Sachen by her side. It had been three days since they last met in the hallways.
As people walked along the streets, Neha dropped her gaze down and nodded to herself. The presence of the villagers suffocated her. She wanted to run off as fast as she could, but there were too many of them around her vicinity. Their cheers and laughter weighed her shoulder, she went into a slump.
Returning home, she glanced at Sachen’s house. The place was devoid of noise. As she knew it, Sachen would come back to the neighborhood late in the day, even near midnight on some occasions.
Her parents scolding her every time this happens, intervention was not an option. Yet their voices were loud to wake Neha up sometimes in the dead of night.
She walked to the doorsteps, holding onto the medicine bag with the tips of her fingers. She dangled on the edge, and looked back.
Regaining her balance, she let out a huge exhale of breath. She surveyed the area around her, and confirmed that nobody was approaching her. A stranger or an acquaintance, Neha wanted to go inside the house regardless and shut herself from unwarranted contact.
Everything was safe so far. She only needed to enter and get over it, that was all. She then took a breather.
A force then whooshed the air. Feeling it, Neha once again tipped herself on the edge. From behind, somebody straightened her body and poked the back of her shoulders. She thought that it was the will of the gods that prevented her from falling down. But it wasn’t so. The poking persisted. Neha then trembled and called for help. Nobody was there to the flanks of her personal space. Neha dismissed it as a figment of her imagination.
The poking happened again and again. With much of her apprehension, Neha spurred to the rear. Her eyes melted, her fingers spasmed on their own. Her voice crackled, the person before her made her want to bawl. She shifted her gaze away.
“W-what are you doing here Azukunika?”
Azukunika cast her hood away. She snickered. “How goes your friendship with Sachen? Was the event so painful that you two are quiet towards each other? I jest! Good thing she is gone. Otherwise, the whole village might be a cesspool of sin and darkness. So it was right that the High Order executed her, rather than let her live long.”
“What are you laughing for? Shouldn’t you be ashamed of yourself, for hurting your mother like that?”
Azukunika crumpled her eyebrows, and she bent her grin. “Why should I feel such shame? Is it because we are just related, that I should have remorse and sadness for her death? It’s all foolish! I saw her all right, in that forest hanging out with the enemies and leaking information. And she did the same thing to other barbarians around our civilization in her spare time, in order to escalate the war. She did the crime, now she is serving her time in oblivion. No matter what, I cannot help but ignite my disgust and contempt for her; her existence alone kept bothering me for almost an eternity. She is vile, immoral, and heinous, just like everybody else in her family!” She slapped her own knees. “The family, including her, killed the one I cherished the most… and I will never forget the day I saw blood from him. Horrible.”
“I thought you came to visit your mother… but I never knew that it led to this. All along, did you have the intention of hurting her, of wanting her to die, to which your wish was granted? What is the matter?” Neha parroted those questions countless times, but Azukunika zipped her mouth from such things. Neha’s muscles tensed themselves and burned like fire. Her voice straining, she released a small squeal.
A hunch on her back, Azukunika leaned close to the child’s face. Her hair and skin fumed a bitter, peppermint scent, as though she had gotten herself into a farmer’s field.
“I don’t need to give a reason to a squirt like you. My hatred is mine alone. To be honest, if I had the opportunity to, I would have killed Usheniko right in her slumber! But being close to her upon my return to the village, I could not do much but complain and ignore her words, for everything she talked about was bugging me to the fullest! I swear, under the gods and the abode of heaven, that I will fulfill the tasks given by the Lama and the High Order until I go back to prison.”
“You would kill her?” Neha growled and held her fists. “How terrible of you; the more I think about it, the more I realize that you are not a good daughter after all. Turning your mother in under false charges, that’s what you wanted to do the whole time?”
“Yes! It’s because of the fact that Usheniko was posing a threat, that the High Order had begged for me to come back and watched over her, so that she wouldn’t do anything stupid. But sadly, much to my overconfidence, I let her loose under my own neglect. She continued to work on witchcraft, drank blood out of children’s skin, and much more crimes that one cannot bear to hear. It’s my fault, but to say the least, the village is grateful for her death. It is a sacrifice to the gods.”
“I am not a jerk. I am merely an honest person. Do you believe me?”
“Of course I don’t. Why should I believe you if you had hurt the one that took care of you?”
“You’re still hung up about that? Fine with me.” Azukunika shrugged. “All that matters is that I have done the job – which adds more to my resume of wrongdoings.”
A crimson wave crashed upon Neha’s face. She chucked her tote bag to the doorsteps and pointed at Azukunika.
“Go back to prison, where you can serve for your own crimes. I hope that the dove will forgive you with all its heart.”
Azukunika laughed, making Neha squirm. Soon swelling her chest, Azukunika coughed over and over, and she caught herself choking. She regained her original composure, and cast a grin.
Azukunika diverted her attention to the house adjacent from Neha’s.
She dragged her arms down and slanted her shoulders. At first it looked like she was tired from the temple service. She then heightened her voice and beat her chest. Letting out one more cough, she purred.
“Finally, the day has come… no more do I have to see their faces, just like two years ago in the revolution against Ozughen’s administration, no more do I have to thirst for vengeance. Usheniko, you are so naive. Now your bloodline, excluding me, is completely wiped away from the face of the earth! Goodness, I feel so liberated, that I don’t want to go back to my old, lonely jail cell! Oh, I have vanquished the corrupted ones! Can you hear me from there? I have done the deed for you, and now you can rest in heaven. I know, I know, that you haven’t gotten the chance to witness the results; but I will continue to uphold your honor, for what they did to you was abhorrent. I shall never forgive them, even if I am to die right now.”
Her pupils became knives. She staggered to Neha and billowed her breaths in front of the kid’s face.
“Look at me, young one. What do I look like to you? A murderer? A spy? Something more evil than those things? I could be one of those things. Well if so, then I am glad that you think that way; the sins of the mother and father are passed down from one generation to the next. However, not everything is what it seems, little one. As a warning, you should stay cautious of everything around you; I am not the person you want to be talking with, for I will give you agony. It’s better if you forget everything. But, the most important is to pay attention to yourself; I heard that the Lama has taken an interest with you.”
“W-what does he want with me?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that.” Azukunika widened her grin. “It’s a secret.”
“No! I have the right to know!”
“Soon enough girl, soon. Well then, bye bye.” Azukunika departed.
She left Neha in jitters. She never knew from Azukunika talking to herself in a sharp tone, that the woman held resentment towards Usheniko and her family. There was nothing Neha could do about that.
She shrugged and whimpered. The residue of the woman’s scent still lingering about, Neha rubbed her face. More than ever did she want to stay inside her house.
Still in a slump, Neha picked up her bag and latched onto the doorknob. In a single twist, she opened the door. “That’s strange,” she said, entering inside. “My mom would always lock the door. I wonder if she has forgotten already.”
One foot in the house, and the peppermint scent ransacked the air. It fluttered and punctured her lungs. She covered her nose and mouth with the collar of her uniform, and she stiffened her shoulders. The smell occurred from the kitchen. Walking there, she saw on the stove, a pot that contained fried rice. She opened the lid, and found that the food was burnt to the core.
“Yuck.” Neha opened the trash can containing a black bag. She grabbed the pot and poured the inedible product in there. She closed the trash lid as the stench of smoke was about to overpower the peppermint.
“So it wasn’t the fried rice that created this weird smell.” She scratched her arms, worrying even more. She headed to the couch and saw that the cushions were out of place. Dust bunnies and strands of black hair covered the armrests. The springs under the couch squeaked.
A few days ago, Neha’s mother tasked her daughter to clean up the furniture, to which she did with the utmost effort. For herself to find the couch being the way it was now, she assumed that her mother must have been doing something reckless.
Removing the collar from her face, Neha grabbed the medicine sake and hurried herself to her mother’s bedroom. She knocked a few times, but there was no response from the other side. Twisting the knob, the door moved by itself.
“Mother, why must you be forgetful?” Neha entered the bedroom.
On the drawer to the left side of the bed, a flame on a candle sparkled and heated the area. Every spot was hot, and it warmed Neha. Scratch marks and holes occupied the pillows on the bed, all of them came from her mother’s random acts of hysteria. Neha recoiled upon remembering one instance. Her mother hit her chest in a cloud of rage. She apologized for putting her hands at her, but Neha didn’t know whether to feel forgiving or fearful of her. Neha’s muscles contracted even more.
Neha perspired from the heat. It bloated her lungs, itched her head, and stabbed her skin. How long had this flame been alive? Every morning, her mother would always extinguish it. To see it on the candle, Neha felt the compulsion to scold her parent.
Crossing her feet through the floor, numbness stung Neha for a moment. She soon went forth to the bed and looked under the blanket.
Her parent wasn’t there. She turned her attention to the closet and opened the doors. Digging through the hanging clothes, Neha gritted her teeth when only seeing the darkness. She moved back to the bed. To the right side of it, something was twitching, something was moaning.
She eyed on the floor. Her mother was lying there, with her eyes closed and her breath dissolving. Neha jumped and screamed.
“Mom!” Neha rushed to her side and held her. Aijin’s head bobbed back, her eyelids were transparent enough to see the dullness in her pupils. No signs of blood anywhere on her body, Neha lifted her body to the bed. She almost sprained herself. With Aijin plopping onto the pillows, Neha dashed to the kitchen and fauceted water to a flask. She retrieved a cloth near a set of crates from the corner, she then returned to the bedroom. At the moment, her mother groaned and rolled her eyes. Her lips clefted.
“D-don’t worry mother, I am here!” Aijin’s throat parched, and Neha put the flask to her mouth and let her take sips. Aijin coughed blood and water. Neha wiped the sweat from her face with the cloth, and her mother’s body convulsed all the sudden. She flung her arms and legs into the air, and gurgled her saliva. Touching her cheeks, her parent bellowed, straining her chest. Neha sniffled, she thought that her mother’s outburst might last forever. It didn’t come as severe as this as she expected.
It was soon that her mother dropped her limbs to the bed. She rustled through her blanket. Her lips were glowing, and her eyes drew themselves to the candle. A sigh coming from her, Aijin tossed to the left side, and did not take notice of Neha. She then mumbled gibberish, and her voice curdled.
Her breaths becoming laborious, Neha hopped on the bed. Slithering to her mother, she hugged her. She pulled her head towards her mother’s chest and patted her head. She whispered that this should stop once and for all; how much could she withstand this any longer? Being her daughter after all, it was Neha’s job to be by her side, no matter what might happen later on. She loved her parent, and it was that love rather than rashness that led her to this embrace. As of now, Neha tightened her arms and locked her hands. Her heartbeat rippled.
A couple of minutes passed. The dark-brown color in Aijin’s eyes glistened. Seeing her daughter below her, she sniveled.