Aijin’s hair rustled. “My God! Am I in heaven? This is the worst day ever!”
“Mother, you are in your bedroom,” said Neha. “B-but before, you were lying on the floor! Can you tell me what had happened? I’m so worried, that I am willing to call the doctor!”
“On the floor? The only time I’d be on the floor is when I would clean and scrub the whole place up. By the way, why do I feel so dizzy and light? And why have I just awakened? This is certainly a strange occurrence. I was dead asleep on my bed before then; and screw the doctor, I ain’t shelling out some gold.”
“I-It might be that you fell to the floor while you were sleeping.”
Neha rubbed her mother’s hands, which the latter squeezed the delicate palms of the girl.
“Nonsense! Ah… I think I remember now – just vaguely. Before I came to, I was talking to somebody who was visiting me. She was a very fine young lady, with a pearly face and eyes that I can’t even imagine that it could resemble anybody else. The only thing that irked me was that she was wearing poor-quality robes, and that ruined her beauty! Anyways, we were talking about my condition, and she claimed that she had known of my plight through Tulisen. That rascal of an officer, always revealing things right behind my back! But it doesn’t matter now; the lady said that she had a cure for me, and she had somebody working very hard to get the ingredient. At first, I was skeptical, since such a thing only exist in the heavens; but she proved it by giving me a bag containing some weird plant. Later on, she shifted the subject to talk about you Neha.”
“Wait? Me? What did I do?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just that the lady admired you for your kindness and consideration of the people around you. She had taken quite a fancy of you; from her, the High Order, especially the Lama, really liked you for some reason, and I must say, it feels so great for you to get recognized! She said that time is close for the High Order to have something for you, as a gift of gratitude, for being a good citizen.”
“Good citizen? Why I can’t accept it, mother. I am just a kid. I don’t understand why they picked me. There are a lot of good kids here too.”
Aijin shifted her eyes side to side. “Then my conversation with the lady ended there. She departed, right before you show up; and she left a good impression on me. I don’t remember anything afterwards, except for the fact that I slept, and that I consumed the plant that contained the cure. But, I hope that the lady can meet you in the future..” Aijin smacked her lips and tongue, she winced from tasting the sharp aroma in the air. Her stomach growled. “Say Neha, when you arrived, have you eaten my fried rice? I cooked it this morning! I bet it’s delicious right? Please compliment me.”
“Mother, there’s nothing to compliment about it. The food was in fact, burnt, and I disposed of it in the trash.”
Aijin jerked her head to the side. She frowned. “W-what? Why did you throw it away? I made that for you, with blood and tears. Then I shall eat it for myself! But Neha, we could have eaten it together.”
Sighing, the parent shadowed her face. “I knew it, I am a terrible person. I can’t cook without letting you down. I’m so sorry sweetie.”
“It’s okay, we can eat later.” Shaking her head, Neha turned her face away for a moment. Aijin clawed her cheeks, continuing to lament about her food. Her heart throbbed so loud that it tore apart her chest, and she seethed. It made Neha worry more and more.
Aijin sprang up the bed, before she plopped back down. “Neha! I just remember something also!”
“What is it?”
“It’s not really important, but I feel like I should tell you.” Aijin clasped onto Neha’s hands, and her fingers bred goosebumps. “Would you mind listening? About the dream… the nightmare that I had before waking up?”
“Nightmare? I’m sure that it’s too scary for me to handle. But I don’t mind.”
“Fantastic!” As she was going to recount her dream, Aijin coughed.
Droplets of saliva and blood stained the blanket. Neha opened the medicine sack and gave her mother a pill. She swallowed it without drinking water. She then hummed. “Thank you sweetie. I might have died if you didn’t run the errand of getting the medicine. You got it from the pharmacist right? Not the witch’s place, I presume. She is long gone.”
Neha sulked. “Yes… Usheniko is not here anymore.”
“Do you miss her? You should forget her all together though, or else you’ll be stressed out.”
“I do miss her very much.” The remembrance of Usheniko struck her nerves. Neha groaned, begging to herself to not remember anymore.
But the memories prevailed in her head.
“Something the matter?” Aijin asked, stroking her daughter’s cheeks.
“You look more sick than me.”
“It’s nothing. A-anyways! How about that nightmare you had a moment ago?”
“Oh I almost forgot!” Aijin stretched her fingers. Casting her gaze to the blanket, with dark clouds palling her pupils, she clutched herself.
“That nightmare, I couldn’t believe that I was in the void of darkness. I was the only one present; I walked for a while, hearing only my footsteps, and as I did, I couldn’t help but get angry for some reason, I am not sure. When I grew tired of walking, I cursed and insulted myself. Then there was this ball of light that manifested before my eyes; it came from a random lady that popped up from the surface. She disappeared as the light began to radiate and blind me; the next thing I knew it, I was witnessing something of an event. I thought that I came to a fairy tale, but it was all true… when I… when I found out that the event had my husband in it!”
“M-my father? He was there?”
“Yes yes! I couldn’t deny it. My husband was standing in the desert, and I tried to talk to him, but at first he couldn’t hear me. I yelled out even more, only for my voice to dissipate. Eventually, he reached out to my hands, and grabbed it with might; I almost died! It was then that he mentioned something about him doing something righteous, and next he said that he was going to get in trouble. I asked to him of what he had done that made it righteous. Allegedly, he had helped a poor, desolate person escape from the shackles of oppression, which I thought that was a noble, good-hearted thing to do. But he showed an ounce of regret upon saying that; it’s like he didn’t want to do it, but he had to since he felt terrible for the person.”
“He wouldn’t feel that way. It’s because my dad is kind and brave. There’s no way otherwise.”
Aijin snapped her fingers and grumbled. “Sadly enough, he said to me that he had to take a punishment as a result of his trouble with the runaway. The Holy Army assigned him to a military expedition in the desert, where he was right in the moment of the nightmare. When I opened my arms and tried to embrace him, wanting him to come back to us, his whole body melted! I was horrified; his eyeballs and face were gone first, and his whole body… my goodness… I just can’t think about it any longer.”
Shuddering under her skin, Neha hugged her once again, only for the pain to persist. She never considered once in her life that something bad had happened to her father. Even if Aijin’s nightmare was real, Neha lacked the guts to stomach it all together.
Neha buried her face upon her parent’s chest. “Mom, you don’t have to mention it anymore. It’s scaring me.”
“Oh, I am most terribly sorry! It’s just that it felt so real… from there, I started to believe him. God knows what kind of punishment he is dealing with right now. And maybe, just maybe-” Aijin shivered and rubbed her eyes. “-the nightmare could be the reason that I fell down! I am such an idiot for not realizing it until now. No wonder it ended in a thud.”
“Hehe. At least the dream was over. No, I shouldn’t laugh; I hope that my dad is okay. Apart from that, you’d have been more injured if you got up from the floor on your own. Luckily I came in time didn’t I?”
“Luck is in good hands. I was about to turn into an angel, flying to the afterlife. I mean, I was not ready to live with those pesky, talkative gods! Good grief, I’d turn my back on them and say that I should go back to cleaning up my house!”
Both of them laughed. Aijin squeezed her daughter within her bosom, and injected her with warmth. It soon comforted the girl. It had been so long since she had the chance to hold her own child. From this, Neha felt grateful for this to happen. She grew a smile that caused her mother to squeal.
“Neha,” Aijin said to her in a soft tone, “how often do I have to take the medicine?”
“One pill every twelve hours,” Neha replied. “And you have to drink the water along with taking it also, so that you won’t choke on it.”
“Not to worry my dear, I can get through it by breaking the pills in half. Hopefully, along with the plant provided by the lady, the medicine will finally erase my condition – for I have been suffering for too long. I don’t want to live like this, I don’t want to burden you. If you want to be a charity worker, then I will support you along the way. Although I want you to get marry and become a housewife, you working for your dreams is enough for me. At least you can make a difference in this world. You are a sweetheart, you know? I believe in you, and whatever you want to do, or what you have to do, I will be there by your side. Your father will be there for you too. Moreover, if I am to be cured right now, then I should take the time to spend my days with you, the days you want for to happen.” The mother sneezed. “I’m fine now. Say Neha, if you want, you can go play with your friend nearby.”
Neha glanced at the candle, and the flame conjured an afterimage of Sachen; she seemed to be waving at Neha in this instance. “About my friend. Lately, we haven’t talked to each other. I know this might seem strange, but I am feeling under the weather right now, so I don’t have the energy to meet her.”
“That’s odd. It’s the weekend, and you don’t want to see your beloved friend? I understand.” Aijin caressed her daughter’s shoulders.
“You want to make room for her personal space, so you don’t want to bother her. Friendship can be two-sided, that’s what I think! On one hand, you trust your friend that she’s going to be all right – but on the other, you get worried and sick to your head that your friend might do something reckless to hurt herself. You don’t know what side to choose, and you would feel nothing but concern. But that is okay, as it shows that you really care about your friend. Well what do I know? I don’t have many people to talk to, and even in this neighborhood, people think of me as a lunatic.”
“I don’t think you are a lunatic. You are a beautiful person to me.”
“Ah!” Her mother puckered her lips. “Y-you really mean it? I am flattered. Your dad never once said that I am beautiful and graceful. He called me a neanderthal or a dragon all the time, it’s so humiliating!”
“Hehe, I know very well that my dad was only telling jokes about you.”
“But still! Never mind, what is there to worry about?” Out of the blue, Neha let out a yawn. She coated her lips with saliva and began to see blurs from her vision. The girl drooled. She lurched on the edge of the bed. “My my, are you going to fall asleep here? Well it can’t be helped. You can sleep in my bed, cozy and safe with me. If you want to get well-rested, then mind if I sing a lullaby?”
“A lullaby? That’d be nice.”
“Haha, it’s been long since I sang something for you, my darling. I got one that you might like. It’s called, ’Orchestra of the Angels.’ How about that?”
“Yeah. I want to listen, mommy.” Neha’s voice drifted. She left one eye open; she drew herself to the candle, to which the flame had consumed half of the object.
“Be prepared! Now I shall start.” The butterflies in her stomach guttering into nothingness, Aijin’s eyes twitched and her toes were dancing. Before she could commence, she flushed crimson when hearing that her daughter said ‘mommy’ to her. The mother came close to crying. She fanned herself, her blush vanishing.
Aijin hummed as she peered at the afternoon clouds. There came nothing but affection within her soul. “Go to sleep my dear… for the angels will save you from your burdens… the angels will help you go to the place you want… so that you can be happy. What use would it be… if there happiness didn’t exist… that is why the angels will provide you with everything they can… for the heavens will form a smile in liberation for your angst. Not to worry, not to cry, not to suffer… so just forget the things that are hurting you… nobody knows what the future will bring… so try your best and live. The angels echo the orchestra of the divine… when are you are one with them… all sins will be conquered by the light, by the will of everybody… and in the end, the sun and moon is smiling at you.”
She lulled this lullaby five times. It was then that Neha closed her eyes. She fell into a slumber. Wriggling her lips, a smile from Aijin toasted Neha’s entire face. The mother blanketed her body up to her shoulders. Aijin bended down to the floor and picked up the wreath that Neha had almost forgotten, and placed the wreath on the cabinet. She then put a pillow under her head, and kissed her for good dreams; once Neha turned away from the candle, the mother opened the door, and left with the medicine sack.
Moments later, a clang occurred on the other side. The front door seemed to slam by itself.
She did not know how she led herself to this. For all that mattered right now, her heart was racing and her lungs were shriveling. Within the depth of Neha’s mind, there seemed to be no destination for herself.
It drove her to worry about whether she would get out of this or not.
The air frosted her skin, and the winds swirled along the gaps between her arms and sides. Being in a blank, colorless world, all alone, Neha held onto herself. The cold winds bit on her skin, deep enough to create goosebumps on her bones. What was this place she was in? It seemed so sudden, that Neha wanted to run to the end of the world, if there were an end.
Walking a couple of inches forward, the whiteness of the area melted. The surface crumbled into shards, strings of cracks and faults connected each other like a puzzle. Soon occurring everywhere, Neha rushed in circles. She then hopped away from the cracks, trying to maintain her momentum. She couldn’t have known that this would happen. In the wake of the world around her falling apart, she panicked.
Mustering the courage she tried, throbs languished her heart.
After wearing herself out from her constant hopping, Neha stuck herself on the surface. The shards throughout the world dissipated. The ground then transformed in a flash. Neha closed her eyes and gurgled her voice. She looked below her feet. She was standing above a mountain.
“W-what is this?!” Clouds surrounded the mountain from top to bottom, masking everything below the girl. A white cloth cloaked the elevation, and it glued onto Neha’s feet. The cloth somewhat resembled a spider’s web, with spirals and ripples defining the fabric. Neha shrieked. If she had the willpower, then she might jump. But she had no knowledge of what was beneath the clouds. Possibly, it could be her village, or a dragon’s lair. The latter consideration unnerved her.
As seconds clocked in, her skin paled and became transparent. She could blend into the clouds at this point. A sharp pain cutting her ear lobes, she heard pops and crackles. The growling of the gales blew her body, she tipped on her feet and leaned back, almost plunging herself from the peak. She muscled against such a force, it left her struggling.
She stood straight when the gales were subsiding. She glanced at the distant sky; over there, birds and dragonflies flew alongside each other, taking their flights to wherever they wished to go. The sight of them, it excited her. She closed her eyes and imagined that she was a part of their flocks, free and boundless from the confines of the mountain.
When she returned to being, she saw something coming among the animals.
That something, a person in fact, surged onwards, splitting the clouds. Neha yelped. She blinked twenty times in one second. Right as it seemed that it was gone, the person showed up before her.
“Who are you… huh? It’s you!” It couldn’t be anybody else. The woman’s legs were hugging the broom she was flying with. Her hands latching onto the wood, her pointed hat rustled against the gales. She wore black robes, and held a youthful face that Neha could not mistake it as a stranger’s.
“Neha! What are you doing here?”
Neha giggled for a bit. “I-I should be asking you that too, Usheniko. And I don’t know why I am here, but I need to get out of the mountain fast!”
“Have you seeked out for help?”
“No… but maybe you can help me now.”
Usheniko sucked on her own lips, and she glowered at the clouds below the summit. “I can help you – if only my broom can support two people. If you sit on my broom, then both of us would fall down. Not to worry my little sparrow, for I have a solution.” She grabbed a sack from one of her pockets. She opened it and ejected a bundle of sparkles onto Neha’s head. “There you go! Now you can fly!”
“F-fly?! But I don’t know how to!”
“Not to worry! You just have to follow my path, and you won’t get lost! So if you want to come with me, now is the time to do it.”
Usheniko waved her hand, and she stowed herself away from the mountain. “Hurry up. I can’t hold myself in one place for long, I have to keep on moving – and so do you.”
Neha, rocking her body back and forth, couldn’t shimmy her feet out of the cloth. With her hands, she ripped the fabric; but it cemented onto her. At a loss of what to do, she sighed. Usheniko was going further and further into the horizon.
“No! I cannot give up.”
Her limbs beginning to sore, Neha crouched and tried to pull her hands off the sticky fabric. The glue burned her skin, and it was so painful that she sweated. The perspiration instantly skidded her hands away. She gasped, about to go through an elation. Thrusting her body back, in an instant did she plunge away, and she fell deep in the clouds.
The winds lashed her back, splintering her body apart. Neha was falling fast.
Then upon reaching the end of the clouds, and without her control, Neha floated. Sparkles glittered the bottom of her feet, her weight had evaporated. “W-whoa!” She twirled her body and exhaled a sigh of relief. As soon as she returned her sight to the horizon and realized that Usheniko was not there, Neha spurred herself. She soared. She opened her arms and locked her knees, as if she had become a bird. All sudden to her, she accelerated through the sky, she could barely balance herself.
Neha took a breath of fresh air, and it tickled her lungs. When the birds and dragonflies came near, she joined with them. They chirped, it got her laughing. After a brief period, the animals flew off. In a snap of a finger, Usheniko appeared.
“U-Usheniko! It’s me! Where are we going by the way?”
Usheniko snickered as she looked at the girl from behind. “I am not going anywhere but the moon – I will fade away among this world. As for you, my darling, you shall wait for the truth to come to you. The truth to all things, you will probably feel more depressed than shocked.”
“Truth? What are you referring to? I don’t have a clue.”
“You must be patient, or else the truth will never occur. You are a strong girl Neha, and I can say the same to Sachen – I believe in you guys. No matter what, don’t let them get in your way.”
Neha had a lot of questions for her friend. But before she asked, she grumbled, the words of Usheniko were becoming riddles to her. What did she mean by the truth?
Neha’s fingers laced around the fibers of Usheniko’s broom, wanting to come with her as soon as she could. No more than a second later that Usheniko gave her farewell. She smiled and hugged Neha, and tears streamed through the child’s cheeks. Stars then appeared out of thin air.
It engulfed Usheniko – she dissolved from the sky. Just as it happened, an influx of pain jolted Neha. She gnashed her teeth against each other, and shook her body. Then, with her body exhausting all its energy, Neha collapsed. She fell from the sky, like a fallen angel.
Opening her eyes and mouth, Neha wheezed. She touched her chest, feeling nothing but the heaviness of it. She was still in her mother’s bedroom. Beads of her sweat soaked the pillow and blanket. Her hands and legs ached, and her neck creaked. From the side, the flame on the candle withered. It then vanished.
“How long have I been sleeping?” She gazed at the window. The moon shimmered, the flood its light glinted the glass pane. With the stars painting the darkness with its twinkles, they brightened the night.
The aroma of the peppermint still lingered. Neha got out of bed, stretching her body. She looked at the wreath upon the drawer; she wore it. Then rings overwhelmed her hearing, and she thought that a phantom was here besides her. She paced and counted her steps, only for her to retreat back to bed. She put the wreath aside. As the moonlight bathed her, she opened her ears. She heard nothing but the ringings. Something was odd at this moment. What had happened when she fell asleep?
The dream she had and the lullaby from her parent were the only things came to mind. She wondered what was going on. The airlessness and the silence, it bothered her. Her body sinking into the mattress, she then drew herself into a realization. A light bulb shined over her head.
Her eyes reddened, her chest went cold. She hopped from the bed.