“Mommy? Where are you?” Neha opened the door and led herself to the main room. The couch was still in its tattered state, the bitter scent had yet die, and the room seemed to be shifting back and forth. The front door hung wide open, allowing the cold air to swirl in. “She must be running an errand. Why didn’t she bother to close the door?” Going to the kitchen, Neha stumbled upon an open cabinet, and to which it surprised, there was an assortment of kitchen knives. She stood back.
“Did she open this? Why…” Something seemed off. Pots and pans sat quietly on the stove. Her little feet creaked the floors. If her mother walked in and heard the noise, then she would have complained about it. Neha headed to the couch and scuffled her hands through the cushions. She tried to find traces of her mother; her footprints, the schizophrenic evidence of her physical outbursts, and her hair strands, anything she could deem as acceptable. If there were to be scratch marks or broken boards, then it might be that her mother had left not too long ago to possibly cool down her rage. Neha might notice it right away, but nothing of that sort existed at this hour. No voices or shouts echoed the house. The world floated naked without a single sound.
Soon it dawned on her that her mother had been out for a long time.
Her brain ached more by the seconds. Neha bolted to the front door, and for a moment the stars were shining towards her feet, as though they were ready to whisk her away from all her problems. With a burst of energy from her nap, she then left the house. Along the way, instances of words like ‘angels’ and ‘happiness’ fleeted along her mind, her mother that recited such words soothed her heart. It spurred Neha that she had to retrieve her back before something bad could happen.
She traveled to the center of the village. A sparse number of people roamed around, talking to themselves. She approached them and asked an endless amount of questions; nobody had an idea of where her mother was, and they claimed to have never noticed her during the day.
It left Neha dejected, but she continued her pursuit. She went north, and shifted her eyes side to side. The moonlight illuminated the streets and smoothened the cobblestones. The darkness dissipated, and for a brief time, glitters floated. When she reached the end of the northern district, she halted and saw from afar the western gate. A dead end it was.
Turning around and seeing an empty space among the row of buildings, Neha trembled. In tears she whimpered. The abode that used to be there for a while, it had vanished from the village. Where Usheniko once lived, inside her tent full of wonders and mysterious things, and where Usheniko once provided a time of comfort and solace for Neha and Sachen, the military had extinguished every trace of Usheniko’s existence, so no one could say anything about her, or even mention one sentence about her, but the girls continued to carry memories of her.
Within the empty spot, there was a dirt mound. Flowers wilted upon it and a twig stuck outwards. “Sachen must have put them here. I didn’t get a chance of doing the same thing. I will soon.” On the gap between her feet, a lavender flower glistened and swayed. Neha wished for this flower to survive, so that tomorrow she could pluck and bury it into the spot.
Neha left the northern district, and made her way to the south. She fancied that her mother might be getting herself in a minor trouble with the officials of the High Order. Strange to think about, since Aijin would normally dwell in the house most of the time, the possibility was great. Neha had within her mind, no doubts or denials that it was most likely true. She hurried forth, burning her calves and spending her breath.
Neha’s legs were falling apart. At any moment could she snap and fall to the ground. “I’m so tired.” But she made it to the temple. There, the towers gleamed a light fainter than the dying stars. A wave of light brightened the interior of the building and blinded the windows.
“What’s going on?” Neha crept up to the front side. “The temple shouldn’t be operational this late. Goodness, my mother must be getting confrontational with someone.” Neha grew hesitant. To step into the temple without notice gave a guarantee of trouble. Disturbing the officials would provide her the back of their hands, and for sure, nobody wanted that. Neha lurched and her heart palpitated. She began to worry more about her safety, about her own life more so than her mother’s. Was it better to return home, leaving the events to their course? Neha constantly shook her head and dug her nails on her palms, such a thought made things so difficult for her that she considered running away.
Just as she knew it, her feet shuffled. Neha, gaining control of herself, walked to the front doors and knocked. A bout of silence sailed to her ears. She swiveled the door knobs and entered inside. The chandeliers on the ceiling shined on the flowers and grooves of the balcony. The incandescence deepened the colors in the Lamas’ portraits, making the faces of the Lamas more lively. On the ceiling contained unfinished sketches of the gods. It was halfway done. From its radiant glimmers, it wowed Neha and drowned her eyes. She then retained her attention.
Going through all the aisles and all the seats, Neha sifted. Her mother might be hiding under the chairs, either crying to herself or sleeping. Neha guessed that her parent must have went to the wrong place at night, it could stem from her exhaustion.
She ran her fingers through the carpets of the aisles, and the armrests and the cushions of the seats. She found nothing. No hair, no blood, no body. Neha then headed to the stage and combed over the entire place.
The curtains, the steps, the chairs she picked her hands on, she went from one side of the stage to another. Her feet clamored the floor, and its sound bounced around the walls and resonated the air, as though somebody was singing. Then going to the jade statue, she knocked on it a few times, quite a disturbance to the still monk. She held an expectation that her mother was residing there, a silly thing to consider.
Again did Neha fail to find her. She slapped her legs and hyperventilated. She swished her hair, her neck throbbing. Where could she be? It was becoming more possible that her mother was not in the temple; she could be in the forest or the grasslands, places that made Neha’s skin crawl if she went in alone.
Neha took a deep breath. Once her chest fluttered and her ears opened, she heard something from the back door. She stood up and ambled there. What seemed to be a faint noise at first, turned boisterous. From the other side, a commotion stormed the silence of the air. Neha sweated and rattled, her shoulders slumped. Planting her ears against the door, screams and curses invaded her eardrums. It was coming from a bunch of people. Neha leaned towards the statue, she wanted to get away from the cauldron of their voices. But her body could not budge an inch. Now it was to her that escaping from this circumstance was impossible; she had to know what was happening.
With shaky hands, Neha opened the door. Before her was a square room, small enough to walk to the opposite side in a few seconds. On the floor, the chairs and tables splintered in halves. On the far side, the curtains from the window plunged into tatters, revealing smudges of fingerprints. Adding to the mess, claw marks occupied the walls, it seemed to be that a cat could have done damage, but large and deep those marks where, it held no place for a creature.
Neha diverted her glance to the left corner of the room. Only when she realized it, a dozen soldiers were attacking and seizing a woman.
Blood and spit were everywhere. Neha dropped herself to the floor.
“Mommy!” Her voice fell upon deaf ears. At the moment, Aijin resisted against the might of the soldiers. She smashed her fists on their armor, bit one of the soldier’s fingers, and spitted on their faces. Fire consumed her face, a huge contrast to the time where she tuck Neha to sleep. Her eyes becoming bloodshot, Aijin scowled at a clergyman that hung about the window area. Without warning, she broke away. She charged onto the man, and the man opened his hands and shielded himself. Then Aijin brandished a kitchen knife. In a flash, she buried the blade onward the man’s left hand, and blood fountained from his palm. He rolled around the broken furniture with a shattering scream.
Three soldiers tackled the mother from behind. They grabbed her arms and kicked the back of her legs, and they threw her to the corner.
But Aijin did not waver just yet. She headbutted a soldier’s jaw, and drew the knife towards another soldier’s throat. She yelled louder than the clergyman. One of the soldiers snatching her weapon away, the dozen lunged at the woman. They restrained her with handcuffs. From the side, a pair of men escorted the clergyman to the stage, and they wrapped a cloth around his wound.
Watching this on the sidelines, Neha was at a loss for words. She wanted to cry, she wanted to force herself to pray that everything should turn out all right; but the reality of the situation did not grant her to such wishes. Before her eyes, as it unfolded, the situation became so terrifying that perhaps, Neha didn’t need to wake up from this nightmare – because she was living through it. It was not only that, but the sudden nature of this instance made Neha think otherwise of what could have happened if she had not entered this room. Her skin bursting in goosebumps, her voice quivering, Neha groveled.
The soldiers lifted Aijin, and the woman thrashed herself. The moment she saw her daughter, she gasped. “Sweetie, why are you here?!”
Neha stood. “Mom! I-I was worried! What are you doing in the temple?!”
“What am I doing… exactly what?” Aijin growled and clenched her teeth. “They lied to me! Serial liars, they are ruining our lives! They killed my husband, Yesun, and no wonder he is gone since then! They killed him, and I must slaughter every single one of you! Die die die!”
From the door, the clergyman frowned. “How dare you say that? There is no concrete evidence that your husband has been murdered!”
“Shut the hell up! You arrested my husband for a crime, and sentenced him to execution in the desert, where by now, his body is buried under the dunes! Why do you have to kill such a man?!”
“I do not have any knowledge of that. But it is clear that you are insane.”
“Insane?” The mother chuckled, her voice fluctuated like a chirp of a bird. She chucked the knife towards the man. “I wouldn’t be like this if my husband had came back. Just look at my poor daughter right here, alone and fragile, for I have provided her nothing but suffering! And what is the reason for you being here Neha? Didn’t I tell you to sleep in my bedroom? Naughty girl, go away! I command you!”
Neha pouted, she squeal. “I-I was afraid that you got hurt, since you were out for a long while. But for you were trying to hurt this person, I cannot tolerate it. However, please come home with me mommy! I don’t want you to do this anymore! You can tell me more about dad!”
“I cannot come home, for I feel immense shame. I am sorry Neha.”
As she finished her words, a soldier slapped her. Her cheek bones cracked. Aijin welled up in tears, she sobbed.
The soldiers stowed the woman to the stage area. Bringing her next to the jade statue, they interrogated her a lot of questions that she might or might not understand, each with a progression of difficulty that the woman could barely answer. Aijin hissed and snarled. Her eyes stabbed their faces, and it put the soldiers in astonishment. They then decided to transport her to prison in a matter of hours, so that she would be gone for good.
The clergyman came forth to Neha. He clicked his teeth.
“Such an unfortunate one you are. You must have been suffering under the wrath and madness of your own mother – and still, you are here for her, in spite of that. Is it that you are blinded by parental love? Or it must be that you are desperate to come here and make a fool of yourself? Hurry up, and get out of here now little one.” A company of abbots and clergymen came to the man’s aid, and they soon stood in paleness as his blood darkened the cloth. “Don’t worry about it fellas, it’s going away in no time. At least the ludicrous woman over there didn’t stab my heart, haha!” His fellow men laughed, they then strolled to the left side of the stage.
Butterflies flew in Neha’s stomach. She dashed to her mother’s side and wrapped her arms around her. With her strength, she started to pull her away.
“Neha, what in God’s name are you doing?”
“I’m trying to save you from them! Let’s go home together, please!”
“What did I say? I cannot do so. I have committed a crime, and I will pay for it.”
“E-even so, I can’t accept it!”
Neha could not get an inch of her mother. Aijin glued herself, and it frustrated the girl. Due to her efforts, the soldiers huddled to the opposite side of Aijin and snagged her arm. Neha grounded her feet.
She hardened her hands, squeezing Aijin’s wrists and veins. With the collective power of the men, they yanked the woman. In such a struggle, a network of nerves pinched themselves on Neha’s elbows; and her arms convulsed. Without control did she fall to the floor. The troops fished Aijin, and they giggled like schoolboys.
As it happened in an instant, one grunt ambled to the girl and aimed his rifle. He scoffed upon the innocent eyes of the young one, and said that the child did not deserve to live any longer. Aijin bellowed.
“Stop! Don’t you even point that piece of junk at my daughter! Stop it!” She got up and headbutted the grunt. The group wrangled the woman, she was still livid. “If you kill her, then I shall curse you in the afterlife! Neha my darling, please run off. It’s not worth staying here!”
“You don’t love me do you? So love me at this time, and listen to me for once. Go away. You don’t need to deal with this.”
“This is my problem okay?! You have done so much for me – and I have to repay you back! Mother, let us forget all of this, and I want to be by your side!” She blamed herself that she should have been attentive and warm towards her parent, the one who cared for her, the one that loved her child no matter how heavy her burdens were. Neha believed it was not too late for the both of them to reclaim each other.
Yet, the situation right now became too much to handle. Neha could only cry and lament with all her heart.
Groaning from the woman’s sudden header, the grunt massaged his back. With his rifle, he jabbed the barrel to Neha’s forehead. He laughed and slapped his knees; he barraged insults about her parents, and the man said that her father would feel much humiliation if he were alive. Neha shivered. Black blotches discolored her scleras. The grunt held his finger close to the trigger. He grinned and hacked a ball of saliva. From the barrel of the rifle, chills funneled upon Neha’s forehead. Leaving her with no choice, she shut her eyes and prayed for some miracle to get herself and her parent out of this as soon as possible.
She then heard nothing. It seemed as though the commotion of the people was gone. The chills from the rifle disappeared, it ran a pang through her chest. She thought the gods and the angels had finally came to her aid. But in reality, the thought begged nothing but desperation.
It couldn’t be anymore surprising at this point in time. The heavens had revolved the doors of fate. It just so happened that the quietness of the air fell apart. The grunt clammed and groaned. He bumped his firearm against his sides, and withdrew it.
“W-what’s going on?” Neha revealed her eyes to the world. In front of her, the soldier crunched his eyes and brows towards somebody from afar. Everybody at the altar stood as rigid as the statue. Footsteps breached the aisles, and arrived upon the stage.
Walking alongside Tulisen, Yebuka emerged. He narrowed his eyelids.
“Woe to the gods, what is going on here? One minute, I was trying to take a stroll with this candid man, and the next minute, I have received a call from a guard that there is trouble here! Why, can’t I get any rest? And is there a reason that this little one is here, late at night?”
The clergyman with the wound replied, “My Lord, the girl burst into the temple and went to the meeting place without permission. She was trying to take away her mother, who had attempted to murder me.”
Yebuka nodded. He chewed his lips and relaxed his gaze, it made everybody uncertain of his next move. He sauntered past Neha and approached Aijin. He muttered something to her ears, something along the lines of repent and confessions. Aijin screeched, she almost bit his cheeks. The soldiers apologized for not controlling the woman enough with their strength, but the Lama pardoned them. Meanwhile, Tulisen came to Neha and stroked her head. The child blushed.
“Did your mom take the medicine?”
“Only one pill a day, I have to remind you. Since I cannot afford to give allowance to her, she might have to tolerate her condition. She also needs to preserve her medicine, so as to not abuse it so much.”
“You should go home,” Tulisen said. “You know it’s not good to stay up at night for too long. You don’t want to get caught by the soldiers on the streets, although there are a sparse number of them this night.”
Neha vaulted from him. “I just can’t leave her here! I have to take her home, no matter what. I have to.”
“But your mother tried to kill somebody, out of rage. We cannot let her go that easily. We must give her punishment in accordance to the law.”
“No no no, it should not be like this. I want her back, right now.” She turned herself away and reddened her face even move. When Tulisen grabbed her hands, she squirmed to the floor. “I’m not going without mommy! No way can I leave her like this! She is sick, and I must take care of her!”
“Don’t be so stubborn-”
“If you lock her up, then I will run away from the village! I swear to myself that I will!”
“Neha.” Tulisen brought his hands over her shoulders. “Don’t say such ridiculous things. I know that you are frustrated, and since you must be tired, you need a good rest for the night. Don’t worry about this anymore, I beg you.”
To Neha, Tulisen could coat his words with gentleness all he wanted; it changed little of the fact that she was suffering through her troubles.
She fell into contemplation of what would have passed on from here if she had not been suffering for so long, if she had her mother by her side; it became only a dream. She shook her head and grunted. Amidst Tulisen cradling her, Neha could not relinquish her anguish.
At this time, Yebuka gathered his posse. Right away did he verse his words. “My fellow ones in the dominion of salvation, we have just witnessed a crime, a terrible one, that could have threatened the stability and prosperity of the temple. This woman, as far as I heard from one of my men, had almost killed a clergyman with a knife. Although he ended up with a deep wound on his hand, this does not change the madness of the woman before us. She is, according to my eyes, a person that is full of insanity, more so than a blind lion. So I heard that this woman did such a thing because of her husband, which I happen to not have much information right now. But your husband was a good man at heart, and there is no reason to why you tried to hurt my men.”
Aijin stared icicles at the Lama. She snarled.
“Because you murdered him.”
Yebuka reacted with only a wink. “Murdered him? That would be a great upset to the gods. Possibly, I know that your husband was once part of a military expedition in the desert. Unfortunately to them, they had died from a plague inflicted by none other than the enemies of the west. Yes, the news were scarce. We haven’t been able to get much out of it, and we declared the case closed.”
“Lies… lies… everything you are saying is full of lies.”
“As it will stand, I hereby warrant the arrest of this woman. For the High Order, all of you will decide her fate – and do not hesitate, since this should end quick. Let us choose quickly, so that we can go to bed.”
“Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies, lies.” Aijin scratched her head against the statue, repeating the word again and again until she lost breath. Her pupils widened. She croaked.
Along with the Lama, the abbots and clergymen deliberated, their voices were muddy and unclear. Neha extended her arms and broke off from Tulisen’s cradle. When she headed to the officials, she bowed down. She then kissed the feet of the Lama. Tears erupted, she wailed for their attention. Yebuka turned his back towards her, looking at the girl with sympathetic eyes.
“What is it my fair lady?” Yebuka asked, he crouched to her.
“Something the matter?”
“Y-yes… please… don’t kill my mommy, please. I implore you.”
Neha’s voice broke, and as humiliating as her position was, she felt that this could be the only option left. To beg before the Lama himself, it might not be possible to hearken her wishes, but at the very least, Neha could try.
Yebuka stopped the deliberation for a moment. He crouched to her height, and winced. From his wrinkled face, Neha stiffened herself.
“Then you must do something. Are you going to put your head on the ground and expect something good to come out of nowhere?”
“Then speak, young one. Speak on your mother’s behalf, of why she should not succumb to harsh punishment.”
From seeing the sly smile his face, Neha at first, lacked confidence in knowing how to convince the highest, most prestigious person in the village. A test she thought, she wanted the dove to come to her. But soon Neha remembered that the Lama complimented the young girl for having a lot of potential and grace in her soul, and she took this to heart with little doubts. Although his compliments might have seemed hasty, it stirred Neha into a surge. At this point, she had to do something.
She stood up. Folding her hands, she gazed at her mother. She then shifted to the Lama. She calmed her voice.
“My Lord. I am just a little child, but I feel grateful that you want to hear my words, for the sake of my mother. Right now, I am kind of confused about the fate of my father. However, I hope that he can come back soon, even if he is dead. I want him and my mom back… I beg with the utmost kindness of my heart. My mom would do nothing wrong if she is normal. She is suffering from her condition. She has lost her job due to a mental breakdown, which forced Tulisen to give her some allowance. But she tries to make the best out of her life. Sure, I had to deal with her tirades everyday, it is exhausting me, and it’d be better if I have a sibling. At the end of the day, I still love her as my mom, simply because she’s the one who is taking care of me. Taking her away would make me sad… because she is a part of my home, I’d have nowhere to return to for my home. I have promised to watch over her from now on, with great caution and regards to her health. By the grace and beauty of the dove above us, I’d rather see my mother get some relief than having to see her die.” Neha placed her hands upon her chest, and prayed to the dove of salvation in such calmness that she at once saw within her eyes, streaks of flames and feathers. They vanished just as she returned to her original composure. After her appeal, she expelled all her breath. If she had talked longer, then she would have collapsed.
Yebuka, he showed nothing but a smile. He restarted the deliberation.
Amidst the complains from his associates, they talked amongst themselves again. They grumbled and flicked their robes, and some of them glared at Aijin. Nothing from their faces could Neha tell what they had in mind exactly. But the looming frustration from them set something in stone, and there was no use ignoring it.
The Lama twiddled his fingers, and whipped his sleeves in the air.
“Again, we have reached a decision. This is the last one, I am certain of that. Well Neha, I am surprised by your appeal. In addition to you walking out of your house to look for your parent, you have shown great courage and perseverance. Such traits are rare in people your age. But now, it’s the time to cut to the chase. Neha, your mother will serve two months working in the quarry. And then, she will serve three years in prison, as the High Order have dictated.”
“Oh… so she’ll be working, then she’ll be in prison. I don’t-” Neha sweated, her train of thoughts scattered into countless bubbles.
“That may be the right choice,” said Tulisen. “After all, Neha is the only child, so I can’t help but feel a load of consolation.”
Yebuka’s lips curled. “I agree too. So that’s that. Soldiers from the back door, please escort this poor woman to the outpost near the north, and get her a cot. She will work starting next week.”
The grunts complied to his orders. Aijin plummeted to the floor, she shuddered and her face sulked from a lack of energy. The soldiers took her away to the door that led to the domain. Yebuka gave his thanks to Tulisen for taking him out on a night stroll, and left the altar. Before he could departed for good, Neha tugged his robes, she sketched a pout.
“What is it my fair lady?”
Neha looked down, letting her hand go. “Will I see my mother during the two months?”
“Of course you will, only one day a week. She will be very busy, mining and extracting the resources for the economy of our village. Don’t worry, if she is hurt, then her insurance will provide her some coverage.”
“Oh, okay. And also… do you know where Kuraizang is? Can you retrieve my father from the desert? I want to see him again.”
Yebuka walked to the aisle, and at first did not respond. But soon with Neha tailing him, the Lama turned back. “I don’t know about your father for now. As for Kuraizang, he is ascending to liberation among the help of the gods. Right now, he is bearing the weight for our souls. Don’t ask much of it.” He beckoned for Tulisen. “Do me a favor, and take care of Neha from now on will you? It’d be a disaster if she lives alone, so you’ll be a guardian to her.”
“Yes sir, I understand.”
“Good.” Yebuka then arrived at the front door. While he gazed at the stars, he smiled to himself. Darkness invaded his face. “Yes… it’s all according to plan. Thank you a lot, young woman who holds the rightful vengeance, for accomplishing the job… I knew that you can do it, with your air of mystery and all. Now that we have her out of the picture, it is time that I will take measures to make sure that she is secured for the mission.” The Lama whisked himself away, heading to wherever he needed to go.
Tulisen went by Neha’s side, and held her again by his arms. “I will be living at your house, providing you with necessities. I will register myself as a guardian, okay? Please don’t hurt yourself Neha.”
Neha could barely comprehend the replacement of her mother with Tulisen. Let alone her shyness towards him, he seemed to be too mellow for her tastes. It came to be that she had to manage this, but deep inside, she was hurting; with both her parents gone, nothing could surpass her experience of having her world snap apart into two halves.
Once it broke, it could never recover. She felt a pang of loneliness, and never before she had felt such a sentiment, and in all worries and anxiety did Neha lose her confidence. Whether she could live like this from now on, only the gods knew; but for now, she would live under the same roof with Tulisen.