From the mountains of the north and the forest of the east, a flock of birds soared along a little village. With the gusts of their wings, the houses, the shops, and the temple quaked and swayed. Seeds of dandelions and tulips circulated throughout a network of cobblestone streets, waiting for nature to provide its growth. The sun radiated its warmth and sparkled the smiles and laughter of the villagers. They roamed about the corners and sidewalks and chatted with one another about their lives and jobs. The baptism of the heavens had blessed the village as something special.
Located in the eastern district, the tower on top of the school building chimed its bell. The sound harmonized with the gentle winds from the north, causing the ringers to feel dizzy. Soon enough, the school released the minions of youth. The front doors being ajar, the students stormed the school grounds. Their faces beamed grins and winks, they thanked the clocks for going fast. As they headed to the flagpole, which was in the center of the grounds, the kids and teenagers conversed. They held onto their satchels and tote bags with strained faces. The teachers gave them a pile of books and papers as homework; it was the third week of the school year in August after all.
Wearing loose tunics with short pants, the breezes flowed into the boys and tickled them. Refined silk made up their uniform, and it withstood the chance of developing wear and tear. As for the girls, they donned a white dress that reached all the way to the top of their shins.
Artistic designs they were, the flowers and vines, sprawled about their uniforms and glimmered in gold. The patterns twisted and overlapped each other as though the grace of human imagination decided to create disorganized scribbles.
All the students showed up to the flagpole. They then divided themselves into three sections: elementary, intermediate, and high schoolers. Two girls, Neha and Sachen, cluttered their presence with their classmates in the fourth grade. Short hair with bangs, also with a red blush on both of her cheeks, Neha loosened the tension from her muscles. Sachen, having long hair that reached to her calves, drummed her chest and huffed as hard as she could.
“What a fantastic day Neha! Did you see how I turned out during that test in the fitness class? I was on fire when it came to running around the tracks!”
“T-the tracks?” Neha tilted her head and rubbed her chin. “Wasn’t that the time when you were tripping the other sprinters in order to get to first place?”
Sachen grabbed Neha’s shoulders. Her eyes kindled. “You actually remember?! You fell asleep for the test…”
“I had my eyes wide open.”
“Well then, at least you only saw it. It’s not like the teacher kept her eyes to every one of us.”
“Sachen, you shouldn’t keep it to yourself you know? You might get in bigger trouble if you are going to hide it for long… you should tell the teacher, then you can get a minor punishment.”
Her eyes glowing, Sachen sprang forward. She hugged Neha and rattled her head. She might as well reserve the gesture for the teacher.
“D-don’t even consider that! You know I won’t do it!”
“But you’ll be in-”
“Trouble? It was a mere test, it wasn’t that significant! Besides, none of our classmates are approaching us about the matter, so let’s leave it at that!”
Neha sighed. “You want to get away with it don’t you? It’s like that time where you made an excuse for not bringing in the homework, like you said…”
“I remember! I said, ’A cloud of thunderstorms zapped it!’, and it got the class cracking up. The teacher almost believed it, but she made me clean the whole classroom after school! How stressful, and you weren’t there to help me.”
“Silly girl you are!”
The duo chuckled and patted each other’s backs.
Along with the two, the students filled the air with an endless exchange of words, burdening their throats and mouths. They stomped and sweated from the ticking clock upon the tower. From the flagpole, a large group of classmates in sashes and ribbons arrived. They separated into three sections. None other than the Young Guards, a student organization, their job was to promote the unity and strength of the school, so as to not let the school loose in chaos.
The high school section of the Young Guards then presented a flag. It contained in the middle of the fabric, a symbol of a dove with a bundle of spears upon its talons. Wind passing by, the flag flapped and moved the dove as though it was flying. With the time running close to two in the afternoon, the group tied the left end of it with a rope, hoisted it to the top, and wrapped the rope around the pole.
From the elementary section of the group, a boy emerged and jagged his way to the front of the masses. His dashing black hair and his starry eyes wooed the little ones.
Sachen jumped to see him. “Is that Kuraizang? I never knew he is in our group.”
“You didn’t hear from the beginning of the school year? Our grade, along with the whole section, elected him as vice-president to let him represent the elementary students.”
“I guess I forgot.” Sachen grazed her nails on the back of her head.
During the first and second week of school, each section had to elect their own president and a vice president. Grades and extracurricular work mattered a lot, and people like Kuraizang would obtain an easy chance of winning the elections. As it came with stress, few people dared to run.
The elementary students hushing their mouths and standing with arms straight to the side, Kuraizang started speaking.
“The school day has ended. Since today is Thursday, I can tell that all of you are looking forward to the weekends. However, before you take off, we must commence a minute of silence in honor of this flag… do not groan! We do this every time, as a way to show our respect for the forefathers that had built this village for our sake! You see the flag? What do you think the dove represents?”
The students cocked their heads, and at once did they raise their hand.
“Salvation for all of us!”
“Indeed!” Kuraizang said. “The dove is the pathway to the heavens. We must be diligent and good-hearted in order to get to such place. Now, I will shut my mouth, so that we can start.”
Kuraizang then stepped aside for the president of the elementary section. Straight hair and narrow eyes, she snarled. The students fell quiet. Without greetings, she shouted for the commencement of the ceremony.
Along with the intermediate and high schoolers, the kids formed columns of their own. They straightened and numbed their arms and legs once they got into position. Nobody swung or leaned to the side.
All at once, the students placed their hands over their hearts. The flag still drifting, silence ensued. For a moment, Neha and Sachen cut off their breaths, stiffening their lungs. Sachen fidgeted her body every second or so, and she tried to maintain her balance. Dandelion seeds scattering about the air, Neha blinked, her eyes became watery. Good thing they said nothing; the gods above them were relishing in such serenity.
The clock struck two, and the students relaxed from their postures.
The Young Guards thanked them for their time, and they headed back to the school for their extracurricular. Once again, the kids fired words and laughter out of their mouths. They went home through the gates.
Breaking away from the masses, Sachen tailed the Young Guards. Neha followed her.
“Where are you going Sachen?” Neha clasped her chest, and panted.
“I’m going to see Kuraizang! Because you know… I want to get to know him! Even though we are in the same grade, we have never interacted with him. Isn’t that strange?”
Sachen reached for the doorsteps, and as she opened her mouth to call Kuraizang, Neha snatched her arms. By this time, the Young Guards were gone. “Sachen, don’t be so hasty. I mean, Kuraizang must be busy.”
“Yes. I heard from the classmates that Kuraizang is preparing for something important. All I could recall was this: ‘Kuraizang is going to impress the High Order by his willingness to cooperate with them.’”
Sachen shrugged, she removed Neha’s grip from her arms. “Sounds boring to be honest. Oh well, if the High Order wants him, then I’m not willing to bother. The High Order after all, is a powerful group.”
Sachen gazed back at the flagpole, and pinched Neha’s elbow.
“Come on, let’s get out of here. I want to go to bed.”
“You should have slept earlier.”
“I know! But my brother kept waking me up.”
Walking towards the gates, the girls left school for the day. They cheered upon the three-day weekend, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Amidst the assignments that they had to do, they wanted to enjoy themselves for now.
They arrived at the center of the village, the villagers there coasting and flooding the place. A group of quarry workers hauled minerals and stones on a wagon, and they signaled people to move out of the way.
The stack of the haul was sinking the vehicle slowly to the ground, its wheels were squeaking.
The sparkles and transparency of the minerals took Neha’s breath away. “Wow, look at those shiny stuffs. They must be diamonds or some sort.”
“Diamonds?!” Sachen cast her eyes at the wagon and ran towards it.
She tried to grab the most shiny diamond, but the workers passed on to the southern district. If she had succeeded in doing so, then the wagon might fall apart.
“Oh man, I was about to get one for you…”
“It’s okay. Besides, those minerals are important, so we shouldn’t tamper with them.”
“Shucks.” Sachen kicked the dirt, and the dirt tainted her toenails. “I bet they will use them for decorations or something.”
The girls then continued their strolls. They observed along the way, all walks of life and flesh, from lumberjacks, to seamstresses, to blacksmiths, to much more. Everybody regardless of age and gender had a place in the community. They were willing to work hard for the sake of a good reward – that was, salvation. The High Order of the Celestials, the administration of the village since the beginning, started to preach such salvation when long ago they received a divine vision from the gods. It was the ultimate prize, the pathway to eternal happiness. Hearing that in service every Sunday, the villagers would crack their necks and break their backs for it.
Traversing around the center, the duo was about to go home. Before they could, Neha’s stomach growled. Neha grabbed her dress and colored her face red. It burned her cheeks. Sachen let out a grin.
“Ah, poor Neha, you must be hungry! The lunch you had is not keeping you full?”
“Oh? Don’t lie Neha, for you really want something to eat for now. Tell you what, let’s go to the northern district and grab a bite, okay?”
“But I don’t want to burden you.”
“Don’t worry about it!” Sachen slapped her back. Despite Neha continuing to refuse her gracious offer, Sachen snatched her friend’s hand and led her north from the center.
They arrived at the northern district. At the left row of the buildings, the aroma of cuisines from various restaurants undulated the air. The places slapped high prices on their dishes due to the methodical and delicate nature in their preparations, so it tend to steer away the common folk. The girls lacked money to afford it for their satisfaction.
When they pulled their own pockets, dust bunnies puffed.
Across the streets from the restaurants, commotions flooded the local markets. At the moment, buyers were quarreling with the shop owners over fruits and vegetables. From quality, to prices, to edibility, they never caught a break. Throwing insults and bringing fists upon their faces made things more tense. Neha and Sachen avoided such a place. It was better for their parents to shop there on their own.
Near the end of the markets, the girls went up to a fence that contained a vast group of livestock. Sheep, pigs, chickens, and cows, they waddled towards the crowd. A pig huddled to Sachen’s side, catching the girl off-guard.
Sachen stared at the pig and snorted her nose. The pig leering, it scraped its hooves. Sachen stretched her cheeks, opened her nostrils, and wagged her hands. Neha laughed from such a display. Soon the pig cowered to the corner, shaking.
The duo turning left towards the end, they entered the street full of food stands. To many people, this was the spot where they could fill their bellies with a quick bite. From pork dumplings, to caramel apples, to kalach breads, and more fares, the place left the girls in wonder.
Their mouth gaped, allowing their drool to leak out.
A succulent, sugary aroma from afar magnetized them. The girls hurried to the food stand at the very end of the street, their lips and tongue drying up. An old lady at the stand was serving custard tarts.
From the oven by her side, she pulled out a fresh tray of the products.
When Sachen went up to the counter, the lady welcomed her.
“Greetings you two. What can I get you today?”
Sachen leapt and ogled her eyes at the food. “I’ll get two tarts please!”
“One for you, and one for her? All right. That will be four gold coins.”
“Four gold coins!”
Sachen then rummaged through her tote bag in search of her precious coins that her parents gave her as allowance. Licking her lips, she couldn’t wait to eat it. Her hands excavated along her books, eraser, and pencils. They reached the bottom. No sooner did she stop and wince.
She found only three gold coins.
“Rats, I am broke.”
“I’m afraid I can’t accept that my dear,” the woman said. “You can come next time.”
Sachen grumbled and sulked to the side. Looking at her with sympathy, Neha foraged her own tote bag. She pried her hands inside, school supplies were scathing her fingers. Neha felt determination to find at least a glimmer of gold for her friend. To leave Sachen like this pained her head a little. She quickened her search by pushing her supplies out of the way.
But despite her efforts, she reached the end. Neha lowered her shoulders.
“I’m sorry Sachen, I don’t have a single coin.”
Sachen stuck out her lower lip. “Don’t apologize. I should be the one saying sorry, because you are hungry.”
“Please, I am fine.”
They sighed and dangled their arms. The old woman prepared another batch of custard tarts. Upon the presence of her finished products, people flocked to her area with watering mouths. They slammed their coins at the table and took a large bite as soon as they bought the food. Those tarts were humongous as two hands combined, enough to swell one’s belly. The mere sight of them lengthened the hunger of the girls, to the point where they could beg on their knees for the food.
They billowed their breaths. They turned away from the food stand, squeezing their way out of the growing crowd. A woman had passed by them; she poked their shoulders. The girls bounced, they turned to her with beady eyes. Rolling up her sleeves and wiping the dust from her maroon robes, the woman adjusted her pointed hat. It bore stars and comets as a design, giving off the impression that she might have gotten it from the galaxies somewhere in space. The emerald from her necklace shimmered, and it caught the girls in wonder.
The woman brought herself down to their heights, and patted their heads.
“Oh dear, what do we have here. Two little sparrows, Neha and Sachen! It has been a while since I’ve seen you guys, and it is quite a miracle from the sky for me to meet you out of all places! Come to me, for the people are getting rowdy and animalistic over the most simple concoctions made by a random old hag!”
“Usheniko! The witch!” Sachen shielded Neha and opened her arms.
The woman gasped, slapping her own chest.
“Don’t be defensive on me guys! I just want to say hello!” Usheniko said, she twisted her silver hair.
“If we respond to your words, then you might get us into one of your evil schemes from the underworld!”
“But you just responded,” Neha said. Sachen fumed.
Usheniko stretched out her arms. She then yawned. “Gullible you guys are, but I’ll give you a pass! So girls, what is your problem today? Don’t tell me… I got this! Neha, you’re in love with somebody! Love at first sight, indeed it is!”
Redness erupted on Neha’s face. “N-no! I am not in love!”
“Haha, I’m sure you are! Nobody can reject you in your innocence and your kind-hearted nature, and those are pretty good traits for a nine-year old. For Sachen however, she is a feisty one who keeps losing her school supplies.”
“Hey, I heard that!” Sachen flicked Usheniko’s robes, she then stared downward.
“Don’t you fret Neha!” Usheniko said. “I will make your fortunes come true! You shall walk through the laurels of your labors and compassion, only to meet the love of your life at the end of the aisle! But in the end, I am speculating. Of course kids like you don’t understand love yet; someday you will. Back to my serious side… what is your problem for today? Hmm?”
While the girls tried to find the right answer, Usheniko hummed tunes. She then muffled herself. She squirmed her ears and pulled out a set of orbs from her pockets. Wrinkling her cheeks and eyes as though she became a caricature, the woman juggled the orbs. The act broke the girls’ stomachs. They chortled.
“You’re finally having a giggle!”
Her heart shivering, Neha calmed her breath and leaned over to Sachen.
“Y-yeah… we’ll tell you. The problem is that we only have three gold coins, so we can’t afford to buy two tarts over there.”
“Oh? That’s all? Nothing extraordinary or fantastic with your problem, I suppose.” Usheniko twisted her lips into a pout. She knitted her fingers.
“I’m sorry…” Neha said, she sighed. Usheniko whimpered and pinched the Neha’s eyebrows, for it seemed impossible to ignore such an expression from the girl.
Usheniko’s pout went away. The corner of her lips curving, the woman dug her hands through her pockets. To the girls, she could pull anything right off the bat, from a box full of kittens to a giant dragon.
Running away was a viable option.
Usheniko then stopped herself. Sparkles coated her eyes. She swiped out one gold coin and bestowed it to Sachen.
“Voila! My God, I am a witch that is supposed to deal with problems involving the unnatural side of nature – but at the moment, I am giving my precious… my precious coin! The only one I have left for today, its fate lies in your hands! It’s not like I am completely poor or anything, you know! I just happened to spend all my money on a new tent! Never mind me young ones, now go and get the food of your dreams!”
“Thank you so much Usheniko!” Sachen said, she rattled the coins in her hand. “Neha is starving, and I don’t want to leave her like this for the day.”
“Goodness Sachen, you are actually considerate of your best friend! How wonderful of you! Well, what are you waiting for guys? The food ain’t going to eat itself! Or else, do you want the birds to snatch it?”
Hair standing from their napes, the girls shook Usheniko’s hands and gave their gratitude. As they took flight to the custard tart stand, Usheniko shouted.
“In return for my heart giving out a good gesture, you two shall visit my place tomorrow morning! I will provide you… a consultation of your lifetime! And maybe some professional, not-so-fake magic tricks!”
Usheniko departed the place. She guffawed and held her stomach.
The girls bought the food they desired and they left the concession.
Casting their eyes on the fluff of the tarts, it resembled clouds, and were so soft to the touch that one finger could deflate it. The golden glaze glittered like a diamond, and it dazzled brighter than the afternoon sun.
The girls holding their salivas, they started eating. The moment it entered her mouth, Neha shrilled. The egg custard, sprinkles of sugar, and bits of almonds ruptured her palates. The sweetness cast her into moans and swayings of her head.
The duo let out a pillar of exhale. The tarts led them into tingles and goosebumps.
“It’s tasty isn’t it?” Sachen said as she finished up her tart. “I haven’t eaten this in a while! Ah, so good!”
Neha ate the tart crumbs on her palms. “It’s yummy. Thank you Sachen, for being able to pay on your part. I will repay you tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to. Don’t worry much about it.”
“Oh, okay. Well let us go home now, I am tired.”
“Me too, ugh!”
Holding each other’s hands, the girls frolicked through the bustling north and trailed the cobblestone back to the village center. The weekends dawning soon, they would endeavor to make the best out of the coming days.