A flood of sweat drowned Neha. She woke up, with her heart jittering. For a moment, she thought that she was still in her imagination. She blinked rapidly, and the floaters in her eyes dissolved.
She squirmed on the couch, she then took a look at everything around her. The table before her had stains of water, uncleaned since the beginning of the week. Torn fabric coasted across the carpet, and it descrecated the simple design of a flower with four petals. Everywhere on the floor, crumbs of bread and dust bunnies dwelled and rolled around. It started to pile up on the crevices and corners. Neha gave nothing but endless sighs. From the kitchen area, a blistering scent of blueberries invaded her lungs – and she hugged herself in relief. What could there be over there? Getting off from the couch, Neha knocked her feet against her tote bag, and the bag spilled loads of papers and books. She trembled.
“Oh my… I must have forgotten to do my homework.” Neha scrambled and organized the clutter, and put it back in her bag. Due to the increasing difficulties and demands of Ms. Laozina and her class, Neha deemed it impossible to finish all her assignments by the end of the week. But she said to herself that she had to, or else she would get bad marks.
She wiped off the drool from her mouth just as she smelled again the blueberry scent, but it came as if a phantom was rubbing her nostrils.
When she heaved, it faded away. Then her stomach rumbled.
“I haven’t eaten since noon. I wonder what Tulisen made for today.”
Brushing her hair straight, she tiptoed to the stove and laid eyes on the open pot. Inside, dices of potatoes and beef were submerging into the brown stew. Neha took a step back, then rubbing her eyes and nose – she couldn’t be certain that this food was emitting the succulent aroma.
But now that she smelled the air again, there was no trace of it. She wrapped her chest.
“W-wow, this is new.” From the cabinet, Neha grabbed a spoon and a porcelain bowl. Using a ladle that was next to the pot, she scooped the stew and put the ladle down when the portion came in halfway. She sat down on the rug, and gave her prayers. She then chowed down. The flavor packed more of a soothing, tingling punch than the typical blueberry soup that she would eat. The stew streamed along the gaps of her teeth, and the potatoes and meat pacified her tongue; she sucked in her lips as to obtain the savory flavor. Constellations of stars covered her eyes. She could rocket herself out of this house, for the flavor sparked her.
“It’s so good!” Neha ate the last of the food and slurped the stew. She put the bowl down, about to do her homework and get it over with.
Then the front door slammed wide open. Neha shrieked, she bounced back to the couch. Somebody entered the house. Neha stared at him dead in the eyes, wanting to stay calm as much as possible. She held her breath, her face being inflated.
Walking with a hunchback and with his arms dangling, Tulisen shriveled. His skin grew pale, his hair was falling out, and much to the surprise, his stubble thickened his cheeks and chin. He rolled his eyes.
“Neha, good afternoon,” Tulisen said in a grave, creaky voice. “So you have finished the stew I have prepared for you. I made it with great effort in the early morning.”
“Y-yeah, it’s really tasty.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Tulisen wandered to the kitchen and took his own portions of the stew. He yawned. Neha retreated back to the table, she set her eyes on the spoon next to her bowl; she wondered to how Tulisen was progressively looking worse as the days fleeted by. Tulisen had been like this since the day he designated himself as guardian.
Since then, he would come in late in the evening without reminding Neha of his arrivals. Often, he presented himself in a ragged fashion, like he had transformed into a homeless man. From the looks of his worn, resigned expression, Neha could tell that at any moment, Tulisen would collapse from constant stress.
Tulisen arrived at the table, and he sat across from her. The dark circles glinting more than his eyes, Neha cringed. He picked up the utensil, then he slowly ate the food; every now and then his jaws slacked, the spilling of the stew dirtied his prussian-blue uniform. His eyes wandered, while he managed, on purpose, to avoid the presence of Neha. When he finished, he laid down on the floor and let the bread crumbs itch his skin. He burped, no apologies from him. To Neha, he might as well pack up his bags and sleep outside of the house.
Tulisen got up quickly. Straining his back and his belly, he flicked himself. He scowled at the girl, and under his breath did he mutter something ill of himself. He then scratched his neck.
“Neha, do you think I am doing a good job? Sorry if I have been rather neglectful of things. I have to work overtime, you know? Because of the war and such, I have to procure and evaluate provisions on the frontiers.”
“Oh really? I didn’t know. But to be honest, you need to do more in the house.”
“But I have cleaned the floor, organized the dishes, and tucked you to sleep. Is that not enough?”
Neha pointed to the rack near the sink, where the plates, bowls, and glasses muddled. Fingerprints colonized the dishwares. “You promised that you will do it as soon as you wake up, or come home.”
“I’ll do it later – right after I take a nap.”
“Neha!” Brushing his hair, he wiped the residues of the stew from his lips. Tulisen widened his eyes. “That’s the first time you said my name.”
“I-It’s not that important,” Neha said, she blushed. “Anyways, I have to do my homework, okay?” Neha took hers and Tulisen’s bowl and spoon, and set them to the sink. Walking back to the table, she stopped.
Something sparkled from one of the officer’s pockets. She ogled her eyes at it. Once more, she encountered the gold chain with a circular-shape object that concealed itself in the compartment. She wanted to touch it, and looked for it herself – curiosity wouldn’t kill the cat right?
“Tulisen still has this in his pants… I wonder what it is.” Neha crouched, and ran her fingers along the chain. Hearing the clinks, the man opened his eyes. He lifted his body upwards, and gasped when he put his hand in the pocket containing the object. Neha scurried to the rug; she burrowed her face upon her knees.
Looking at the watch on his wrist, Tulisen pursed his lips. The paleness of his face had disappeared. Steam and sweat poured out of his skin, it seemed that something was wrong.
“My goodness. I have to go to work Neha – today, the boss wants me to do something important. Huh? What is the matter? Why are you hiding your face like a turtle? Do you want me to stay home?”
Neha nodded. She brought her face up. “It’s not like I want you to. But, I’d feel alone whenever you are gone for the rest of the day. My mommy would stay at home everyday.”
“That’s because she is a homebody, and unlike her, I am nothing but a man destined to work, work, and work for the rest of his life. But my responsibilities have a purpose. Regardless-” Tulisen’s eyes shifted to his legs. “I have to do what is required of me. I’m sorry Neha, for making you lonely.”
The sighs and groans from Tulisen compressed the young girl’s chest. “You don’t need to say sorry. But, being a soldier is not easy isn’t it? I wonder if you get really hurt. Do you share the same responsibilities as your comrades? How much are you eating per day? Are the bad guys weak or strong? What do you think of the deserts and grasslands? Are those places harsh? How heavy is your armor and gun combined-”
Tulisen grumbled, and he slapped his face. He turned to the front door, standing still. “Don’t ask.”
“O-oh, my bad.”
“It’s not wise to ask much, or else you’ll worry about me more than your own mother.”
“Yes… she is at the moment, breaking her back and toiling herself for her punishment. God knows what will happen to her from now on.”
“What will happen?” Neha asked with doe-like eyes.
“I don’t know. Why must you ask anywhere. I am sure she is all right.”
Gazing at the orange sky and leaning against the door, Tulisen puffed his breath. Neha kept her mouth closed. She thought of her mother right away. All the sudden, a reminiscence of the event at the temple began to ache Neha. For Aijin to claim that her husband had died long ago, to find her attacking the clergyman with a knife, and to see her in handcuffs, Neha felt that it was too surreal to be true. As she recalled her words about her appeal, it downtrodden her to the point where she wanted to go back in time and keep her mother in the house for good.
Regardless, there was little remedy to alleviate her woes. Tears swelled her eyes, and all she could see was the fading mirage of her mother’s reflection. She squinted, trying not to blind herself in agony.
Her eyes pushing themselves to her skull, she shedded tears.
Tulisen went away from the front door and faced the couch. His scowl, his expression all together, had yet to fade.
“N-Neha! Are you crying? For goodness sake! You don’t want to look like this at the end of the week, when you are going to visit your mother the second time!”
Neha gurgled her saliva and pinched her cheeks.
“U-Usheniko… mommy… daddy… I want them all back… please dove of salvation, bring them to my side… I want Sachen back too, I cannot let her be sad anymore…” Her wails scratched the air. Snot came out of her nose, and it stained the table even more. No matter how hard she tried to hold back her sorrows, the recall of such people that were dear to her heart throbbed her. She continued to beg for the dove to save them, but it seemed that it wouldn’t come anytime soon.
Neha cleaned her snot and tears with a napkin from her tote bag.
From the blurs of her eyes, she couldn’t see anything at first. Rubbing them with her palms, she came to make out the figure of Tulisen. Her face and body then petrified. She hushed her mouth. Tulisen colored himself red, his eyes sharpened and his lips frowned from ear to ear. He folded his arms and tapped his feet. Tulisen glared at the girl; the latter didn’t know what to do. Her heartbeat accelerated, her fingers seized themselves in cramps. She could right now, run to her mother’s bedroom and hide under the blanket, for she would be safe there. But from Tulisen’s face, she felt certain that he could do something out of the blue.
Still holding the gloom within his eyes, Tulisen shook his fists against his hips. He burst to the table. A stomp from both his feet rattled the dishware on the rack.
“Your father, your father, that’s who you’re still concerned about? Well what do you know, little one? Nothing at all. It’s better if he does not come back.”
“W-why is that?” Neha curled her body, she knocked her head against the edge of the couch.
Tulisen chuckled. From his pocket, he latched onto the object. He threw it to the table. The sudden thud jerked Neha away from the couch. Her heart still clamoring, Neha glanced at the object itself. Her jaw dropped.
“Yes, yes! Now open the darn thing!” Tulisen sat down, and clicked his tongue.
“O-okay.” Neha’s fingers twiddled. From first impression, the locket was in bad shape. Around it, there were grooves and bumps, each of them having a sharp edge. She wrapped her hands along the exterior, and the texture pricked her hands. At the right side of the object, blood coated and corroded the gold, and a small button lingered there. It gave off an iron smell – Neha almost hurled. With Tulisen scratching his nails under the table, Neha pressed the button. Like a book, it flipped. The content inside captivated her attention.
A sketch of her father unfolded; among the yellowness of the small parchment, he held dashing eyes, with silky hair that accommodated the spotless nature of his uniform. His lips parted, and his eyebrows and cheeks were relaxed. He seemed to be staring right into Neha’s heart.
The girl considered her father to be quite handsome, and looking at this sketch affirmed more of her compliment. But it soon resulted in more of the pain within Neha, and at once did she resume crying her eyes out.
“Daddy! Daddy is in this locket! Wah! T-Tulisen,. how did you get this?”
Just as she readied herself for his answer, Tulisen smashed his fist on the table. He opened his mouth and labored his breaths. Putting his head down, he uttered gibberish, he exhausted himself more and more.
It was then that he looked at his watch again.
“Goddamnit, I am going to be late. But I knew it will come to this… she wants to know the truth huh?” He got up, grinded his teeth, and headed to the door. Nothing but the harshness of his words drove himself into more frustration, and for the first time, Neha witnessed Tulisen acting like this. Giving him the locket and forgetting about all this would have made things a little bit better for the two. But by this time, Neha got herself in a bind.
With a large exhale of breath that lasted for half a minute, Tulisen composed himself. He swished his hair, and peeled dead skin from his lips. He stomped again. Tulisen extended his arms to take hold of the winds.
His body cemented itself. His eyes turned lifeless.
“Your father, Yesun, is dead for a long time. He was charged with aiding a runaway. That runaway… is nobody other than Usheniko Ganshipe. She escaped from her spiritual mission that the tyrant Ozughen had assigned her to. Upon her meeting with Yesun, she told everything about the forbidden cave. The things she was not supposed to expose, it came to his ears.”
Neha left her mouth agape. The color of her pupils grayed. Her skin pigmented into white.
Tulisen grumbled. “With fake documents, Usheniko returned to the village with little suspicion, setting up her little shop and corrupting the citizens with her deeds. At the same time, Yesun told me that he intended to deliver the secrets of the cave to the entire village in order to end the antiqued tradition of spiritual missions. As a close friend, I stayed quiet, not willing to stab him in the back. I didn’t want to hurt his reputation, for it would have left a void in the ranks among officers. However, it was then that Yesun was caught by an informant; the Holy Army stripped his rank, discharged him from service, and put him on trial. Yebuka and the others sentenced him to execution – that’s where they sent him to the desert. At first, he was ordered to fight the barbarians with a few hundred men, for the sake of protecting the village.” Tulisen loosened his collar. He coughed from his dryness. “But in a few weeks, he was killed by his own men. His body was discarded… there, is that all you need Neha? Now you know, and now you must suffer with the fact.”
For a few seconds, Neha stared blankly at the walls. She thought at once that the words of Tulisen were perhaps, a joke in order to hinder her sadness. She had a compulsion to laugh and to rub it off her shoulders as nothing other than the cruelty of his jokes and such. But then, something powerful and brutal burdened her mind. Something cut through her, it began to split her apart and bleed her of the sensation.
Once it had settled, Neha screamed. Her vocal cords fractured.
“No… no… no! Why?! Why?! It can’t be like this… you were his friend, so why didn’t you help him?!” A torrent of tears came out, and her heart shattered. Much to the fragility of her mind could she barely comprehend the demise of her father. She had always thought of him as somebody who would put a brave face and do whatever he could to help people. To her, it was impossible for him to get in trouble and face justice as a defendant. But for Tulisen to state the circumstances leading to Yesun’s death, it felt like she was hearing them from the depths of hell. In the wake of this, she folded her ear lobes and trashed her body.
She then poured her tears on the couch.
“Tulisen! Tulisen, you’re not lying, right? I know you’re not!”
Tulisen raised his eyebrows. “No, it is the truth. The truth hurts doesn’t it?”
“I refuse to believe this, and I don’t want to hear it anymore!” Neha’s eyes quaked. She whipped her hands in the air. “Go away!”
“I see…” Going to the doorsteps, Tulisen slowly closed the door. As the gap between the door and the wall closed, he stuck his face inside.
His gloom intensified, he drooped his eyes. “I am terribly sorry Neha, for hurting you with this information. But as a daughter, you need to know this somehow, and this day is possibly the worst to reveal such things. However, your father deserved his punishment – he would have created a lot of instability just with his efforts.”
Tulisen left. The wails and laments of the little girl were the only things she could give to him in turn to the revelations. Bearing the truth anguished her more than anything else, and all hopes and aspirations of Neha being with both her parents died. The pain gnawed everything within her. It lacerated her soul.