The arrival of home from school couldn’t get any worse. Upon Tulisen coming up to Neha and stating something about her having to go on a mission, Neha immediately thumped her feet and flashed her eyes. She moved a couple of steps back and snagged the bottom of her uniform. Between them, sparks flew in the air, they seemed to be preparing themselves to maul one another like animals. Only the heavens knew what would come from this.
Tulisen folded his arm and let his eyes twitch. “Neha, you must understand. It is very important that you should undertake the spiritual mission.”
“W-why should I?!” Neha kicked against the edge of the table. “I don’t want to go, and I don’t have to! I need to continue my education, you know?”
“Don’t be stubborn my dear. This morning, the Lama ordered for me to tell you about this. You should not ignore the priority that is given to you, no matter what. It is for the sake of the whole village.”
“No it’s not! The spiritual mission seems like a phony, a bad thing to participate in!”
“And why do you assume that?” Tulisen tilted his head. “You don’t mean to say such a thing because of Usheniko-”
“No no! It’s not about her this time!” Neha fumed, and she pranced across the main room before she arrived at the couch. “It’s because… goodness, I can’t explain it well!” She plopped onto the cushions. It was already difficult to look at Tulisen without getting into heat.
“So you don’t know much in regards to it,” Tulisen replied. “The Lama believes in you. You remember when he said that you hold great potential, due to the kindness in your own demeanor. He admires that from you, and concludes that you are the right fit for the task. Besides, there is nothing much to change his mind – the Lama is known for not betraying his ideas. Just listen to me Neha, so we can make things easy for the two of us.” Tulisen opened his arms and tried to hug Neha, but the girl slapped his hands away.
Neha curled herself into a ball and rocked. More than a week since the incident at school, she had exhausted her mind into learning everything she could from the re-education classes. The words of the teacher, the posters with prophetic messages, and the ever increasing enthusiasm of her classmates, all was pushing her to collapse. But she would rather attend school than to do what the Lama wanted her to do.
It was more safe that way, and it would guarantee Neha a clear future.
She knocked her face on her knees and heaved her breath. Her heart clobbered itself. The face of Tulisen, even though it was out of sight, struck a nerve within her.
“I don’t want to! You can’t force me to do it!” Neha said. “Go tell that to the Lama!”
Tulisen crunched his eyes, he threw his hands up and sighed. “It is mandatory. You are the female candidate, the one other piece.”
Through the gap of her legs, Neha glanced at him. “…What if I refuse?”
“Then the village will succumb into the darkness of human corruption. We will cease to exist as a civilization… or more terrifying, we will be conquered by the barbarians.”
Her head shaking, she growled and felt fire boiling her blood. Tears filmed her eyes, she squinted. It felt convincing to hear such a statement from the guardian. Although skirmishes made up the majority of the struggle here and there, the war against the barbarians was still in swing. To Neha, the ‘darkness of human corruption’ sounded too exaggerated to be true; everybody contained flaws from the start, the darkness was nothing more than one’s misfortunes and sorrows. She could have laughed it off. But Tulisen’s tone of voice shuddered her to the fullest.
In spite of that, Neha continued to hug herself like a pillbug. She then released her form and planted her face on one of the cushions. She folded the cushion as to block out the continuous ramble of her guardian, who seemed to never catch a break.
“You see Neha, the gods are still not happy with the way things are going lately. They are becoming more angry about the recent chaos of the school. Countless students had rioted against a battalion of the Holy Army since somebody had pinned the documents in the hallways. Such rebellious youth we have these days, but I can’t wrap my head around to how the documents got there. They are important, although I do not know what they contain… but you know something about it right?”
Tulisen only received the muffles of Neha. “Of course, being a busy man I am, I can’t help but think much about the perpetrators of the incident. It must have been some spy or something, I am not sure. But anyways, those students need to study, and pledge their allegiance to the High Order! Throwing fists and spitting on people’s faces are no good!”
The moment she heard that, Neha swiped her arm across the air. She thrust forward the bottom of her lip and froze her shoulders, her face still concealed.
“This has nothing to do with the mission you were talking about a second ago,” Neha said. “And I don’t know the reasons behind that chaos.”
Tulisen groaned. “It does matter! Thanks to the students’ protest, the village is heading for instability. If information about the letters had been leaked out to the world, there would have been a chance that many villagers would jump the gun and fight against the temple, and it would compromise the Lama and his followers. Good things the papers had been retrieved and stored for good. But regardless, the consequences will be disastrous, and soon, the village will look like a cesspool. I don’t want that to happen, and neither do you. So Neha, you should do what is required and expected of you. The Lama is instilling trust in you, and with your cooperation, you can at least help!”
“No! I said no!” Neha pummeled her fists on the couch and lifted herself. “I will not do it! I believe that it is absolutely wrong! I am just a little child, and they want me already? This is dumb! I want my mom and dad back… they will understand my pain! Go to the Lama and tell him that I have declined the offer! Let him find somebody else better, somebody more loyal and strong.”
“Neha.” Tulisen came close to the couch and flicked the girl’s hair.
“You are growing defiant. I have never witnessed you acting like this. I should conclude that you are becoming rather disobedient. Do you want to continue upholding your tantrums? Do you want to look like this for your mother, who soon, will be going to prison? I don’t think so, and as your guardian, listen to me!”
Her cheeks scorching, Neha glared at the man. The more he lingered in the house, the more she wanted to pack her belongings and set off for any destination she had in mind. Had Neha mustered every ounce of courage to do so, the outcome could be more alarming than expected.
“I don’t want my mommy to go to prison… she is a kind person.”
Neha rustled her hair.
Tulisen scowled. “You call her kind, after what she had done to one of the members in the High Order? After she attempted to commit a murder? How pitiful.” The sharpness of his tone cut Neha in the chest.
“W-what, she had the right to do that! They hurt my daddy long ago, so she had to fight back!”
“And you’re going to defend such an action? Regardless, she needs to serve time for her crime.”
Neha grazed her lips with her nails. In her mind did she consider her mother as someone she should cherish forever. But for Tulisen to utter his remarks hurt Neha well enough to tip her over.
Neha seethed, and with all her heart, she burst to the front door. “I refuse. Now, I am going to see my mom.” The door still open, Neha stormed out. She then dragged herself to the middle of the neighborhood.
“What in God’s name are you doing? Come back here, this instant! I demand for you to do so! Damn, this rat.” Tulisen couldn’t help but sigh a million times over.
When Neha reached the village center, she breathed so hard that her lungs could explode. She glazed around her surroundings. Soldiers were marching and inspecting everything in their way, and their presence caught the villagers in shouts and tears. More of them came than the usual, as there had been a surge in the activities of the Holy Army lately in the village. They would stop random passerby and check their possessions, to make sure that the people would not plot any actions that might destabilize the village even further. Neha would see them every morning and every night; no matter how much she tried to ignore them, guilt would bring a pang to her heart. From the guilt, she felt that she should apologize to the school for partaking in Sachen’s plan – but her timid nature got the worst of her. The first and only attempt that she tried one time during Ms. Laozina’s literature class, the classmates laughed at her and dismissed her as a soothsayer. In turn, she drowned herself in her own sweat, wetted her underwear, and ran off to the lavatories. Sachen repeated the things she had said; but she couldn’t convince the classroom in the slightest.
Neha said to herself that she might never try it again. The embarrassment, she still remembered it clear as day.
As the soldiers infested the center, Neha stiffened her arms and shook the numbness of her legs. She went to the northern district.
“I wonder if my mother is well today.” Her feet cut along the space between the stones and gravels on the road. Without regards to the people around her, she bumped onto them. She almost fell flat to the ground – that would have been something else. With her chest pounding and with the air drying her eyes, she picked up her speed. She had enough energy to at least meet her mother again; she came into a fuzz when she thought about her interactions with her. They would talk about many things; Neha’s father, her education, the weather, the flowers, food, and much more, and it seemed to the both of them that they would never get bored of each other. Her mother would give kisses on Neha’s cheeks, and that was one of the only things that made her melt.
Neha didn’t want such times to end. She’d cry forever if her mother were to be in prison right now. The mere thought of her being in a lonely, cold jail cell was unimaginable. Nonetheless, she could wish such things all she wanted.
In the end, Neha loved her mother as well as her father.
The girl then arrived at the northern gates. The officers that she had encountered at school from the riot were absent today, which lifted the burden off her shoulders. The sky grayed and the clouds hung near the hills and valleys. Flowers and plants near the gates wilted. The winds from the north blanketed people into chills, and most of them gathered around one another for warmth. At the gate, a pair of guards ambled about in circles.
Neha stopped. She eyed on the doors that stood ajar, and it led her to see the environment beyond the gate. The winds brushed over the fields and hills, as if Mother Nature was giving herself a massage. The flowers there bloomed among the bleakness of the day. The colors of the petals glistened the earth and the eyes of the young girl. It pulled her heart forward, so much so that she felt driven to frolic through them and get a feel for the flowers. There was a large cabin nearby the gates that housed resources, medical needs, and bedding for people working there.
Further north, the mountains stood above the heavens, and that was where workers and soon-to-be prisoners labored deep in the quarry for the extraction of minerals. Serene to her sight, it seemed that it could wash her problems away for a day.
“Wow…” Neha strided to the doors and took a long look at the place.
“There are so many people here these days. N-never mind that, I have to go see my mommy-”
A guard from the side pushed Neha. The girl jumped. She bit her tongue and pushed her eyes back.
“Hey girl, where do you think you’re going? The damn weather is too cold for you. Scram!” that guard said. He burrowed his eyes towards Neha’s face, making her uncomfortable.
“I just want to visit my mom…” Neha fidgeted, and she moved away from him. Then another guard walked to her side.
“Ah, you’re that kid again,” the second guard uttered. “Well if you want your mother to be here, then you should have came earlier.”
“But I just went home from school…”
The first guard shrugged. He scowled at the mountains. The winds chapped his lips and frosted his cheeks. From his face, Neha shivered.
“You really want to see her today?” the first guard asked. “You might regret it.”
Neha pouted. She jogged in one place. “I do! Why else am I here?”
The second guard winced at the girl. “Well, if you want to… then be prepared.”
The guards parted for Neha, and the girl walked a little bit through the doors. She widened her eyes and wiped her ears as to ignore the words of the guards; she thought that they were trying to trick her again.
Every time she came to the gate for visitation purposes, people like them would make tall tales about how there would be a dragon or a giant snake coming forth the mountains and fields. Of course, Neha would take a giggle. It humored her, even if they seemed serious.
But at this point, the guards and the people around the gate did not look so well. They caved their eyes towards their feet, rather than the mountains. They walked stiff as though they had something in their pants and sleeves. With a bout of silence, Neha’s body tensed. She gawked at the mountains for so long that her eyes could wilt like the flowers. Dryness occurred in her throat, and it left her no room to say anything.
She heard a scream. It came from the field near the cabin. Slowly did Neha shift her attention to that area. Her heart dropped.
From afar, a pack of workers and troops were transporting somebody on a gurney. Neha saw an ocean of blood upon the blanket and sheet that covered the wheeled vehicle. At once, the group headed for the cabin. One of the workers knocked the door for help. Then a medical team emerged from the building, and they rushed into intensive care upon the increasing agony of the afflicted person. Whatever materials they had, the team got to work.
Neha clutched her chest. She drew her breath and squinted, the coldness tickled her nose. She asked herself many times of who could the person be. She might guess a thousand times all day and night, and she would still be here. Curiosity constantly nailed her head; Neha had to know, even if the person might be a stranger to her, so that she could do something to help. That would be a stepping stone to her future as a charity worker.
But such a suggestion fleeted in her mind as she knew it. It then became nothing more than dying sparks and clouds. Only an innocent person like her would take measures without considerations. Who could blame Neha from this point despite that?
Then it all came. Her heart tightened and her stomach churned.
Before Neha could take a step forward, she saw the person in details – she completely lost herself without words. Blood ran through the worker’s head, and it soon soaked its clothes. Its cheeks turned paler than the clouds and they sunk deep into its face. The eyes of the person remained open and allowed the winds to dry up the reservoirs of tears.
Its lips that Neha should have expected them to form into a smile faded, it flattened and grew small. By the seconds, the condition of the worker turned pallid as the medical team tried to squeeze every last bit of effort, and within their power, Neha hoped that the person would come back to life. It wouldn’t be so.
One more look at the face, and Neha screamed from the bottom of her lungs. It shook the flowers and the guards and the mountains and the earth. Tears blurred everything before her eyes.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Neha walked further to the fields, only for the guards to seize her arms. They dragged her back to the gate. She tried to pass through the doors, but couldn’t get her hands an inch over the gap.
“Please, I have to see her up close! Let me go!”
“I’m sorry lass, you can’t,” said the second guard. “We heard the news an hour ago that the woman got into an argument with another laborer, and struck the latter with a brick. She groveled to the ground and began to bellow something about her husband. Right as the soldiers were going to restrain her, she hit her head on the quarry cart – then she fell unconscious. Be that as it may, there is a miniscule chance that she will recover.”
The first guard laughed all the sudden. He choked on his saliva. “A pretty nasty wound, and she spouted blood like she was a fountain! She’s definitely a goner!” The two of them then laughed together.
“It’s not funny!” Neha clawed her nails on the guards’ bare arms and loosened herself from their grasps. Again, she took off for the fields as fast as she could. In a flash, she thought that she could make it to the cabin. But the personnel managed to catch up to her before she even bring a foot in.
With fire on their faces, they tightened their restraint on her wrists, aching and wrenching her. They tossed Neha back to the doors. The pair whistled at her and shook their hands.
Neha got up. Desperation welled up in her chest. Her train of thoughts shuttled faster through her head ever than before. She raised her voice and dropped herself to the soil. Groveling, her hands knotted into fists, she pounded the earth.
“I want to see her, I want to talk to her one more time! Please please, let me come to her side! Mommy, can you hear me?! Your daughter is here again, and I want to listen more to your lullabies and tales! I don’t want things to be like this… not anymore! I need her, I have to see her! Why won’t you let me?!”
The second guard snickered. “Beat it kid! There’s nothing much to see here!”
Neha wept. The moment that she saw the quaint, lifeless nature of her parent’s face, her heart snapped into half, It annihilated all her hopes and dreams. Had this been the results of the sins from her mother, and from herself also? Could it be that the woman had lost the will to live under the condition possessing her every single minute of her life? If only Neha had the aid of the dove and the angels, then at the mercy of the heavens, she would have been the one to bring her parent to the end.
But to see her dying in the gurney and out of reach from her vicinity, there was nothing she could do. The only thing that remained fresh in her mind from this point was the body of her mother, which the medical team had just shipped into the cabin for further care. Without the possibility of knowing what would happen later on, the situation further deepened the agony. Her face numbed from releasing too much tears.
She wailed and wailed many times until she lost her voice for a moment.
Her desire for her mother soon extinguished itself. She laid herself open in her reality as a person with little to nothing inside her. The one she loved for all these years, the one that took care of her in the death of her father, all that was supposed to be in the future became lost fragments of imagination. Neha ran off from the northern gate and went back to her neighborhood.
She arrived at her house, and with Tulisen gone for work, she sat on the doorsteps. Nobody being around, she sobbed to somehow sober the pain. The leaves flew by and the winds continued to coast along the air.
The sky blackened, it obscured the sun. It left her in the darkness of her reality. Then in the brief pondering of her dream involving Usheniko, she lamented and blamed the woman for leading her to such a bad place in her words. To be patient for the truth meant to suffer – and Neha was suffering more and more now.
It was then that she heard footsteps. They came in gallops. Neha hid her face by concealing herself against her lap. She suspended her breath. The footsteps then stopped. Neha took a peek, and before she knew it, someone began to talk.
“Hey Neha, how are you?” Sachen asked, she huffed her breath. “I just came back from school, after I had to do more of those dreaded re-education classes, whatever you call it. You are here early today, so it must have been that the teacher let you go early. I guess that you are too smart for your own good. And also, I don’t think anybody will believe what we did… you know, about the plan to expose the High Order and the Holy Army? It failed the very moment I took you to the shed, didn’t it? What a bummer. At least they won’t be attacking us the second time, that’s great!” Sachen moved her eyebrows upwards when Neha said nothing. She stroked Neha’s head and poked her ears. “Huh? You must be tired. You should go inside your house.”
Much to the confusion of Sachen, Neha mewled. Sachen swayed Neha’s body back and forth to get her moving. But Neha grounded herself to the point where she could not move at all.
Sachen pouted. “Your skin… it’s pale. You’re feeling sick lately? No wonder you came home early. You can go to my house if you want, I’ll treat you there!” Sachen swiped her friend’s hands, only for Neha to look up. She showed her sullen expression.
“Oh my goodness! Neha, your eyes are puffy and red! You are not okay at all!” Sachen tried to pull her away with all her might. Neha sat still, and gazed away from her. “What are you doing? Let’s go-”
Neha had enough. She rattled her head and let go of herself from Sachen. She walked to the front door and hung onto the knob. For a while, Neha stood and let the darkness eat her raw and alive. Having been through tough times of her own, there was no way that she could confront her dear friend without forcing herself to speak. It hurt her so to stay idle and do nothing of the sort to soothe the worries of her friend; and Neha started to believe that she would pain Sachen even more with the growing gloom around her presence.
She turned to Sachen. Foggy eyes, pale lips, and trembling cheeks, Neha opened her mouth. A force collided to her soul.
“Sachen… please leave me alone. I don’t want to see you ever again.”
Sachen stepped back a little and gasped. With a tingle in her neck, she whimpered.
“Neha? Why would you say that? The sickness must be affecting you isn’t it… isn’t it-”
“No!” Neha stomped and hissed. “It’s not that! I just want to be alone, do you understand?!”
“I don’t understand to be honest, but tell me-”
“Sachen, go away! You don’t know…” More tears came out of Neha’s eyes. “You don’t know how much I have to go through in my life! I lost my father, and now I have lost… oh my heart! I can’t take it anymore! If you continue to be here with me, then I might hurt you and your whole family! I feel like I am a curse upon everybody! I made everybody sad… just by existing in this place and not doing my ‘mission’! Why don’t you go home?! Why are you still here for me?!”
“Because we’re best friends. And you’re acting irrational, for goodness sake! Stop blabbering nonsense!” Sachen went to the doorsteps.
Neha glanced to the side. The air stung her nostrils. “…I think it’s best if you avoid me. Because of my ignorance and sins in my life, my father was killed! I should have stopped him from stepping out the door! How stupid I was! I couldn’t do the same to my mother, and now, and now, she is going to be gone forever! Who do I have now in my house, besides that idiot guardian Tulisen?! Nobody! Just leave me be Sachen… I don’t feel like doing anything anymore. It hurts to be me!”
“Neha…” Sachen grinded her teeth. “How are you able to say that about yourself? You are not like this!”
“No no, I am like this, and I will be for the rest of my life!”
“Stop acting dumb! Look, I can help you solve your problems, all right? Anything, I will do for you. I don’t want to see you so sad.”
“Go away! What’s the use of arguing and standing by me?! Get out of my face!” Neha clicked her tongue. She held her head in her hands.
Just as Neha was about to step into her house, Sachen grabbed her body. She turned her friend around. Neha wheezed and pounded the door. With the palm of her hand, Sachen slapped her. It popped and cracked her bone. A red mark blemished her right cheek. Neha tumbled to the floor, there were no more tears to express the pain that she had acquired from her best buddy, her companion at heart.
Sachen walked back and grimaced. This was the first time that Neha had seen such a face from her, and it further ached her wound.
“I should have known that you were feeling this way… but it’s too late now isn’t it? I never knew that you can be like this! You’re the worst person ever! Fine, I’ll leave alone! Is that what you want? Then so be it!”
Sachen went away, leaving Neha with her last remarks. Those words alone were enough to plunge Neha into her own oblivion. Little could she reclaim her emotions, forever would they vanish within her soul.
Everything inside her splitted into pieces. What she and Sachen had once for each other, it seemed impossible to rebuild their connection again.
Without the will to take Sachen back and apologize to her, Neha slammed the door. Doom would arrive upon her in no time.