The stars twinkling, the comets splitting the darkness of the sky, the students of the fourth grade elementary section were behind the temple of what people called it the ‘domain’. It was an expanse of grass that stretched all the way to the southern gate, to which the grasslands lied beyond the wall. A metal fence enveloped the domain, so as to prevent the attendants from running amok.
Right now, the kids formed a circle around a pile of logs, where the fire was blazing and crackling. It warmed them so much that some of them tempted themselves to come closer to the inferno. It was then that they held each other’s hands and huddled as close as they could.
Neha and Sachen joined in the circle. The latter gazed at the fire in awe.
“It’s so warm!” Sachen said. “I want to get close to the it!”
“T-that’d be dangerous.” Neha said. “Besides, I wonder how long this is going to take… the sacrifice I mean.”
“I hope it lasts for a minute – otherwise, I’ll get bored.”
“If you do get bored, then you’ll fall asleep in no time.”
Sachen smacked her lips and slanted her shoulder. Neha let out a yawn, her eyes remained open from the brightness of the blaze. The kids were tired; they went to the temple right after school under the decree of the High Order. The officials explained nothing in regards to why they only chose the fourth graders. Perhaps because bringing in the whole school might cause a frenzy in the domain. Regardless, the classmates showed a lot of enthusiasm in this to-be sacred night.
With the Young Guards of their section uttering lyrics to a hymn, the students began to sing along. In unison, they swayed their bodies. At the same time, they moved the circle in a clockwise manner. Some of them kicked their feet and bobbed their heads, as though something spontaneous had infested their minds. Their voices harmonizing in the hymn, the fire grew large. It released a storm of heat, and it caused the students to sing from the bottom of their lungs. In light of this thriving climate, Neha and Sachen kept their mouths shut, they stood still.
“Oh the Dove, the messenger of the gods, please come to us and grant our sanctity to heaven, so that we may live in Paradise. Oh the Dove, please smite the enemies and traitors of our entity, so that we can eternally prosper for the rest of our mortal lives. Oh the Dove, how much your wings flap and how serene your voice is, please grant mercy on our very own soul, so that we may be purged of our wrongdoings. Oh the Dove, Oh the Dove, praise the Almighty!”
“I’m getting dizzy, ugh…” A force punched Sachen’s stomach. “Get me a pillow so that I could sleep.”
“We can’t do that now, we have to let them finish the hymn.”
“Well you can join their sing-along. I could care less.”
“B-but I don’t know the lyrics at all.” Neha tried to spur her legs into moving alongside her classmates, but the inertia grounded her.
“Neither do I.”
The girls dropped their glances towards the grass, they stood as the students continued their hymn. No zeal within them, they desired to go home, for they saw this event as something banal. Hours ago, their parents forced them to go, under the premise that they might learn a lot of things, even if it meant they had to miss their school assignments and dinner time.
From the hymn, veins and floaters filled the eyes of the students.
They suppressed the urge to blink whenever the tails of the fire were whipping the air. No sooner did their movement drag Neha and Sachen off the ground; they flew as though wings had formed on their backs.
Their hands stiffening, their shoulders aching, they struggled to kick their feet upon the ground.
The Young Guards stopped singing. At once, the kids stood in place and zipped their mouths, with Neha and Sachen bouncing. The president of the group then announced the start of the sacrifice. From the entrance of the fence, a platoon of the Holy Army opened the locks and marched into the domain. No gossips, complaints, or grunts, the men arrived at the middle of the expanse.
“Hey hey, they have come!” said Sachen. “And look at what we have there! It’s your crush, Tulisen!”
“I-I don’t want to see him!” Neha tightened her lips and looked back on her shoulders. It seemed that running away was possible at this time.
Sachen grinned from ear to ear. “Haha, you’ll get him someday.”
In the moment, the soldiers heaved a large organism to the site of the fire; the kids discovered it to be a pig. A bundle of ropes tied up its legs and arms, veins pulsated along its pink, fleshy skin. On the snout area, where Tulisen was holding, there was a mask that looked like a crow’s beak. It concealed the pig’s squeals into muffled. No matter how powerful its sounds were becoming, the mask cancelled it out, giving the students the time to observe it without interruptions. In agony, the animal thrashed its body, its hooves scratched the metal armor of the soldiers, its tears dripped through the mask, and it knocked its head against Tulisen’s shoulders. One could sense the distress in its plight; as for the people in the domain, no objections occurred.
The soldiers then brought the swine before the fire. Laying the animal to the ground, the men gagged a series of sighs. A carpet of wind rushed over the students, they shivered. The sight of the pig sheered their enthusiasm even more, they imagined the event ending quick as a snap of a finger.
Tulisen flicked his hair, his dark-brown eyes were shining as luminous as the stars. He knocked his knuckles against his chest, and he then put his hand down.
“Welcome young ones, to this very important night. Clearly to all, you are the only one to attend this first sacrifice – because of course, the young should be the first to participate. Here we have a pig, a healthy one to be perhaps, that the Lama and his clergy had chosen for tonight. This pig is throwing itself around and struggling to break free – but no matter, we shall end its suffering. To us, this abominable swine represents the accumulation of filth, of all the sins that we have committed; you see how fat it is? It goes to show that we have done much wrongdoings to place ourselves in a precarious position; but it’s not too late. By killing the animals, all of our sins will be forgiven by the gods. Also, we have become too hungry, not just for war, but for salvation itself. Now we must repress our hunger.”
Tulisen’s fellow soldiers applauded, along with the students. Among the noise, the junior officer bowed before the pig, kissed it on the head, and ordered one of the men to remove the mask. Later on, the entire platoon drew forward their rifles. The resin of their weapons emitted a stinging, but fragrant odor of pine cones. Grooves and cuts muddled the woodwork and frames, such marks they had accrued from past conflicts. Chills swallowed the barrels of the guns, and the night became warmer than before.
With Tulisen, the soldiers pointed their firearms at the swine. They at first, poked its skin, from its head to its buttocks. They started to taunt the poor animal with every insults they could come up with. The pig responded with fading squeals. It scraped its hooves against the soil.
The animal then bashed its head upon its arm, mercy was at the end of the tunnel. No longer did it try to survive.
Tulisen raised his right arm. He widened his eyes.
The soldiers pulled the trigger. Rings and bangs echoed the air and blasted the students’ eardrums. They shook themselves as a result.
Fumes welled from the barrels, it plowed the air and obscured the presence of the pig. From the swine, blood geysered, bringing the grass and soil into a crimson bath. The iron smell of the blood ripped open the stomachs of the kids, the last thing they desired to do was to vomit.
Not more than a minute later, the fumes dissipated. It revealed the pig itself. For the worst of the faint-hearted, its snout was pouring out blood. Bullet holes scattered throughout its body, it resembled a collection of beehives, a skin crawler for sure. Soon, critter such as worms and ladybugs roamed about the holes, about to infest them in great numbers. Such a sight licked imaginary, cold breaths around the people’s neck.
The sacrifice was close to being over. A couple of soldiers giving a long piece of lumber to Tulisen, the officer wrapped the pig’s feet and arms onto the wood. His companions then installed a pair of logs onto the ground, by the flanks of the fire. Tulisen lifted the pig and put both ends of the lumber onto the standing timbers. Then the fire began to skewer and consume the dead animal. Blackness colored the pig’s skin, it could blend into the night sky. Soon with the blaze taking over the carcass, the soldiers finished the first sacrifice. The kids cheered and at the same time, loosened their tongues and mouths in disgust.
“Hurrah, we have finished,” said Tulisen in a nonchalant tone. The men clapped again, and they began to dance. Once more, the students and the Young Guards created their circle and sung a new hymn.
Arising from them were smiles and laughter, they felt grateful that it was over. As for Neha and Sachen, they muttered random strings of words as to emulate their peers.
“Oh the Dove, the messenger of the gods, the pig has been slaughtered for the greater good. Oh the Dove, please enjoy the smell of the smoke and the fat of the pig from the fire, and eat the meal that is free of its corrupt blood. Oh the Dove, how much your wings flap and how serene your voice is, please grant mercy on our very own soul, so that we may be purged of our wrongdoings. Oh the Dove, Oh the Dove, praise the Almighty!”
Among the joys of the kids, Neha and Sachen winced as they looked at the dead swine upon the fire. By now, it became unrecognizable from the charring.
“This is sick, my stomach hurts,” Sachen said, rubbing her belly.
“Neha, are you okay?”
“Y-yeah… I’m just feeling queasy like you.” Neha’s face went pale, she almost tipped to the ground. “I’m sorry.”
Sachen pulled Neha out of the circle, and the duo went near the back door of the temple. Sachen wiped the sweat from her friend’s forehead.
“You seem hot,” Sachen said, “but at least it’s not going to be a fever.” Soon the duo sat down. Neha laid her head upon Sachen’s shoulders.
From afar, the fire fuzzed and softened. The voices of the students gurgled.
“How can they bear such a horror?” Neha asked. “I have never seen this in my life, and if I had the capability, I’d have saved the pig.”
“Unfortunately, it’s too late to do anything. By the way, did you see blood gushing out like a river? Nasty, nasty! I was about to vomit when that occurred. It’s so weird that our classmates can stomach this, but not us.”
Neha giggled all the sudden. “Probably because they have sang the hymns, so that kept them into a lull of their senses. To be honest, we are kind of clueless when it came to those hymns.”
“I can’t agree more. But I thought that you wanted to join them, because you are kind of a bright student Neha.”
“Yeah. I am bad at memorizing the lyrics however, that I feel like a cat is pulling my tongue.”
“Haha, I am bad too. There was this one time in music class, when as a class, we were trying to sing this song and perform it in the temple. I was one of the only students going to sleep and slacking off, you couldn’t believe the look on the teacher’s face!”
“Her face was red right? And she was very angry.” Neha tightened her face as to imitate the teacher.
Sachen nodded. “Indeed! I couldn’t stand my classmates singing anyway, so I annoyed them instead! I sang the wrong words, coughed every minute, and scratched my legs! Oh goodness, the teacher scolded me so hard, that I had to carry a bucket of water around school. I really want to forget that, it’s too humiliating.”
“I recalled that you almost cried-”
Sachen pinched Neha’s lips. “I did not certainly cry. I sucked up my tears, and went along with the punishment.” Sachen then released her grip. “Plus, the punishment lasted for a couple of hours, so I was let go so early!”
“They should have made it longer. That way, you might have learned your lesson.”
“Hmph, then you should be better than me! You were the one who’d keep messing up the pronunciation and tones of the hymns, and it’s so bad that the devil could run away in tears! You should improve though… you have a nice voice, and I can listen to you all day.”
The duo laughed. Their conversation relaxed the tensions in their bodies, of all the awe that the sacrifice had shown for tonight. Then holding hands, they gazed at the stars and comets, more interesting than anything else for tonight.
Meanwhile, the inferno had fully cooked the swine. Grabbing a bucket of water from the side, Tulisen extinguished the fire; it sizzled into nothingness. From the fence door, the soldiers hauled a bag full of paper plates and opened it. With a machete knife, a trooper sliced the skin and meat of the pork. Blood draining from the flesh, it was safe for kids’ consumption.
“You kids can now feast on the swine,” Tulisen said, winking. “It’s very delicious, don’t you wait!”
“Thank you!” the students said together. Like flies, they hoarded to the pig. The soldiers handing them the plates, they gave the kids a piece of juicy meat. Without the energy to sit down and talk, the kids chowed to their content. In seconds, most of them were done with their portions, they left nothing on their platters but charcoal marks. Begging for more, the soldiers provided them servings again, as the pig was large enough to sustain their bellies.
When one of the soldiers offered Tulisen a plate, he refused. Instead of eating, he made two platters, and walked away from the fire. He arrived at Neha and Sachen, the girls vaulted and shrieked upon the officer’s presence.
“What’s the matter you two? A bit scared of the way things went? How about some pork to help you get full?”
Sachen stood up, she grinded her teeth. “No, we are not hungry, thank you. And we were not scared!”
“You were shaking when the circle was formed Sachen,” Neha said.
“So did you!”
Tulisen chuckled, he kneeled down to Neha and offered her the food.
“Now now, let us eat, for it’d be bad if you starve.” Neha pushed the plate away, her face flushed in redness. “Come on Neha, your mother won’t be happy if you come home with an empty stomach.”
“I-I don’t really want to eat sir! P-please, you must eat it yourself!”
“Well then, I guess I can’t help my appetite.” Tulisen slapped his stomach. He then ate the two pieces of meat from the plates; when he was done, he threw the plates into the trash bag and came back to the girls. “That was delicious… you should have tried it, you know?”
Sachen pouted at the man. “I ain’t going to eat something you put bullets in! That’s cruel of you!”
“It was necessary to do so. Otherwise, the clergy might get mad at me. The Lama, although he is not here, expected that the sacrifice would go without any interference, and it went well. The pig’s soul now lies in the hands of the gods…” Tulisen closed his eyes, he released his breath through the gap of his teeth. “It seems that the gods are appeased, just for a bit; but we need to do more.”
“And what will you guys do next?” Sachen asked. “As a matter of fact, what will it take to win this stupid war?”
“Sachen!” Neha jabbed her friend’s arm. “Don’t say it’s stupid!”
Tulisen laughed it off. “Based on the threatening letters that we have received from the eastern and southern frontiers, it is apparent that the war will come in just a month. In order to spur our pathway to victory, we must accumulate many of our resources. We are low on rifles, canteens, and armor, so we’ll have to cooperate with the industries. The village will be surrounded by enemies of all sorts, so we must be prepared. When we go out the gates, you kids will have to stay either at school or at home; you cannot go out under any circumstances. And lo, don’t even try to sneak out again, I heard that there were some guards sleeping when you two were going to the forest.”
“Y-you knew?” Neha gave a bashful smile. “I knew they were going to find out.”
“You two are naughty little ones, hanging out in the forest without any supervision. But the guards there should have reported something, or at least stayed on their toes. Never mind that, it’s in the past.” Tulisen stood up, he folded his arms. “The war is coming to our backyard. Neha, please protect your mother if war comes even tomorrow. Lately, she has barely spent any money on the medication, even though I keep telling her to do so.”
“Okay, I will remind myself of it.”
“And Sachen, don’t be reckless. In this current climate, there is no room for fun and games.”
With a thumbs up, Tulisen returned to the platoon. Neha and Sachen yawned, they shut their eyes. They let their imaginations loose, distracting themselves from the subject of war. The only thing that worried them was their own lives… a chain of events would then change such worry.