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#3: The Burning Statues
“Are you fine? Did you absorb much smoke?” an impassive voice asks, coming from deep inside the prison room.
Apart from a diagonal strip of moonlight cutting across the room through a small window, the whole room is just cold black. I glance around to find the speaker but I can’t see anything.
His pronunciation is a bit off, and his word choices seem weird. Is he a Lcorian? Having just been imprisoned, my mind is still scattered, so I just reply reflexively. “Who are you?”
“I am father of Naki, the girl you put on fire.”
I feel my stomach tighten. “I didn’t kill her!”
“Do not worry. She burn to death before too.”
I don’t understand what the hell this man is talking about, but he doesn’t seem to care. A huge silhouette slowly appears from beneath the window.
My throat goes numb when I see the burly man. His right arm is horribly burned and his left is tattooed with one of the lion-like beasts that caused my imprisonment.
This morning, I went to the center of town with the kids to get supplies.
The war had cooled down a bit, and the fighting had become less dire. The enemy had lost the advantage of surprise, allowing the defense force to rally. Under great leadership, they were starting to win. Even so, after the heavy losses on both sides, everyone had become more careful and reluctant.
Relief efforts were increasing all over. Apart from the supply counters, there were many programs that directly took care of people in distress, worked to clean up and helped the community recover from the consequences of the war. We had received a lot of support before, so I wanted to personally join some of these programs as a means to give back to the community.
Kira came along too. The local authority had been supplying milk and eggs for children since the previous week, but I’d wanted Kira to be in perfect health before she went outside, so we’d had to wait. This time, it had taken six days before she’d fallen asleep again, but we’d had no choice. While the soldiers were usually calm, the townspeople tended to be noisy and frenzied. The outside was too overwhelming for her when she was that drained. It was sad to see how tense she got when we left the lab. Her brother was as joyful as ever. He pointed out just about everything we found on the way, from the mud under our feet to the clouds in the sky.
We had lunch right after receiving our supplies. From our spot underneath an old banyan tree, we watched the Lcorians on the street. It was already time for midday break, but they were still working together to transport supplies and repair the street. In the distance, a boy helped an old man push a scrap cart. Despite their unorganized working style, the way they helped each other reminded me of my own people.
After the short break, we helped with the cleaning operation and lent our assistance in taking care of the patients at the biggest temple in town. With its spacious area and tranquil setting, it had become the gathering spot for more and more people since the enemy had pulled back. A huge temporary clinic had been set up inside, and it needed a constant stream of volunteers. Wounded soldiers were also being treated there, so the whole temple was well-secured.
That was where we met Naki. She was the one who showed us the ropes. During our tour, Naki told us that she was 17 years old, and that she and her aunt had come to this border town to volunteer with the relief efforts. She had smooth skin with no burn scars to be found.
In the cold air of the prison cell, the man speaks again. “I am called Eno. What about you?”
What the man said about Naki sounds ridiculous, but the fact that he knows her name and my situation makes me nervous.
“Just tell me who you really are.”
“I just say. I am Eno.”
I stare at the man for a little while before sitting down heavily. I put my head on my knees. The only thing I can feel now is my own heavy breath.
“You are very lucky. They trick you to steal your children, like they steal my daughter long ago. But do not worry, our people bring the kids here and look after them. You are free tomorrow and after that, you can get your children back.”
I stay silent.
“You do not understand anything yet, right?” A pause. “That is right, how can you know? That is the way our world is since the beginning. We only know what we are allowed to know. How horrible.
“What do you think of this war? The town people must be flaming mad, but we are not. If this sudden war did not come, then horrible civil war come instead. Some say that some government bosses begged neighbor countries to attack us so they gain more control over national army. This war is also used to hurt evil organizations with great international relationships, since lots of critical border gates are closed now.
“The prison boss has higher rank in government than town’s mayor. He is informed of wars through his relationships, and told to leave Lcori for some time. But he stay here to build up army and fight to protect home town. He is respectable and likeable man. He visit each prison cell and talk to every single prisoner here. Some are angry or insane, but everyone is treated well.
“Everything is still done good on paper: they write who comes in, who goes out. It is all carefully done to keep up the pretend. But truth is that prison has become small army camp for last six months. We are taught how to use weapons, basic fight plans and groupings. There are many tough guys here, for this is one of biggest prisons in country. Because of them, small-time brats are starting to shape up too. We have fearless tough guys, but no good weapons or group fighting experience. Prison boss is trying his best to establish more relationships with army groups close to here to fix it.”
The man pauses for a second. Seeing my impassive reaction, he continues.
“Excuse me if I been rambling, but I am always passionate when talking about things I care about, and they ask me to explain situation to you. Thing we want to tell you the most is to be careful. From children to old people, not trust anyone right away. Children you are taking care of are not normal, they can be target of many different organizations. Each has its own reasonings, but most are run by bad people. It is religious organization that targets you, and my family back then. We still not know what they really want. Lab that you three live in maybe product of other highly dangerous organization. We can look after you for while but I not know how much we can help. When war ends, we can get you three to Quaseria. For now, you have to be more careful. With current crazy situation, we not have people who can act outside of prison. We also cannot do whatever we want to. We cannot follow you all day, so you have to be careful not to be tricked by child like Naki again.”
“I’ve been investigating these organizations myself, you know,” I answer, a little annoyed. Eno raises an eyebrow and I sigh. “Look, it seems like you have good intentions, but how do I know you’re not lying? How do you know so much about us? How can Naki be your daughter? And you said that she burned to death before, but she was still fine when I saw her.”
“I am really the father of Naki. And I see her burned corpse after our house burn down three years ago.
“Me and my wife had daughter. She was called Reena, before she died in fire and got reborn into name Naki. We also lived in northern part of Lcori, but not so close to border as this place. I was miner working so far from home that I travel on train. But our little family was happy back then.
“One day, group of strangers visit our mine. They represent huge corporation, which want to buy industrial zone. They say that deal was made in single night. Two days later, they order us to return home, so specialists can inspect systems. Our new boss give us one month money as bonus and promise to raise our money if we work hard. We hand mine over to specialists in morning and go drinking in afternoon. We only stop when sun go down, so drunk that we lean on each other to get to train station.
“Despite sleeping whole way home, I still feel dizzy when I leave train. Neighborhood very noisy. I find out fast that there is big fire. And it start at my house.
“I not even care about neighbors nearby, I just hurry inside my burning house. There is no one in living room, just huge fire. Furniture disordered, and staircase to second floor blocked. I feel even more dazed. I scream my wife name, my daughter name. I think I hear voice calling back, so I turn and see our two Cenghon statues burning. They stare at me with bitter eyes. Then wooden pillar fall over, hitting my back. I think I hear words come from the burning beasts before I pass out.
“When I wake up, I am outside and doctor is working on arm. I have horrible head pain, and pain on right side of body. When I turn my head I see burned bodies of wife and daughter. I want to die. That I still live today is miracle. Pain still feels same.”
His voice cracks every time he mentions his wife. After a longer pause than usual, he continues.
“I check dead bodies very carefully. Bodies and face shapes are very well known to me. Doctor also say that they are wife and daughter. But my friend disagree. He say that there is hair left in head of wife, but no hair in head of Reena. He say dead body of daughter is fake, with pretend details.”
“I remember every detail of Naki’s corpse,” I say. “It didn’t have any hair either. So that wasn’t really her?”
“Probably not,” he says, shaking his head. A pause. “There are mystery fires everywhere in country at that time. Most victims are religion followers, especially bigger ones like our family. We had many statues and closet-big altar in house. Only result of horrible actions is death of our religion. The underground world know what organization is behind fires but even they not know their motives. Our religion is very good and young. We are taught to value family, friends and giving back to people who help us. There is no good reason to kill it. Once I find truths, I rebuild our religion with Reena. Religion is only thing that can help me live with death of wife. I still pray for her every day. I might not be very smart, but after my struggle life, maybe I can continue work of my fathers one day. I mark this Cenghon onto left arm to remind myself every day. They are sacred beasts in Lcorian legends. They help us look after homes and temples. Our religion reveres them and pray for blessings. It is sad that they seem to be responsible for deaths of so many innocent people. But I still believe that one day I can show them to be innocent. They hold bitter eyes when they burn that day. But you know, you can get very angry when you are sad and desperate.”
“I still don’t understand,” I say. “How do you know that Naki is your daughter, Reena?”
“I meet her in this town. She recognize me too and then run away. When I chase after her, some kid stop me. He must be working with some powerful people if he is happy to attack man my size with bare hands. I so unsettled that when boy hit me in face, I nearly kill him when I hit back. When I am done with him, Naki is gone and people bring me to this prison.
“Reena is very nice and gentle girl, I cannot understand why she run away from me, or why she is involved with horrible organization. I ask one of the men here to watch her for me. He approach her more and more now. They must suspect something and now use this incident to send her somewhere else. I lose her tracks again, but I am happy to know she is still safe and sound. I pray for her safety every day. And I will punish anyone who use her for their own plans.”
The man hesitates before showing me a small photograph of his family. The girl in the picture is definitely Naki. Even though she has grown a lot in the last three years, she still looks just like her mother.
“Why did you guys help us?” I ask, as I hand back the photograph to Eno.
“We are good people and we hate the evil powers that control country out there.”
“Can I trust you?”
“We help you without any conditions.”
“I’m still not sure I understand. Are you saying there is a bunch of evil people targeting the children?”
“Yes, we investigate your kids. They come from orphanage. No legal papers or family. No one even know how they get to orphanage or if they even Lcorian. If they do not have any relationships here, they should go and start better life somewhere else.”
“We can't just leave right away. There are still things to be done here.”
“While war is going on, risk is still low. You are fine if careful enough. We not have many people who can act freely outside and there are too many people who need our help. You are still person your children should lean on. I not think organisation attack you directly now, so just make sure not to let them trick you.”
“I see. Thank you.”
We stop talking for a while. Eno returns to his bed, back into darkness. I’m still sitting here, dazed and confused.
“What is Naki like?” Eno asks.
“She is very polite and nimble. Works hard but does not talk much. She has a very beautiful face that I kinda like looking at. When no one is around, she usually has this melancholy and worried expression that I find very attractive.”
The man laughs really loudly. “She has beautiful eyes, does she not?”
“The most beautiful ones I have ever seen.”
“Her grandmother is Quaserian. The first time I met wife, I was speechless because of her beautiful eyes too. It is so unfortunate that Reena also has my ugly blood.” Eno laughs again.
“It’s alright. She does not look like you at all.”
“You are brave young man,” the huge man says, and we laugh again. “Anyway, do you know anything more?”
“She told us that she came from a distant town with her aunt, to help the people suffering from war. We mostly talked about the work. We just met today, so we haven’t really shared anything personal.”
“Does she signal anything unusual? Like SOS?”
“I’m pretty sure she didn’t.”
“I see... I will definitely save Reena from whatever bind her.”
I want to encourage him to continue, but he starts talking again before I can come up with anything.
“Other bed is empty. You should get some sleep. It has been long day for you, has it not? I will lead you to children tomorrow morning, and then have talk with prison boss. I will translate and then you can go home with kids.”
“Can I really leave that easily?”
“Our man plead guilty and get locked here instead of you. Don’t worry about him. He is glad to finally join friends in here.”
“Do not mind, we just follow hearts.”
I gratefully thank him for one last time before finding my way to the bed. It’s very comfortable, too good for a prison cell.
Lying down, the memories of what happened today come back to me.
We did volunteer work at the clinic in the afternoon. Kai and Kira wanted to help too, so we assigned them some easy tasks. They soon finished and then ran off to play somewhere. The rest of us continued to work non-stop until well after sundown. We were invited to have dinner and stay the night at the temple. It was way safer than returning to the lab.
After dinner, we were taken to a small room that we would share with an old nun. Kai was tired after a long day of running around, so he went to sleep early. Kira just sat alone in a dark corner with her favorite doll as always. Instead of going to bed, I spent a while reflecting on some things that were weighing on my mind. Some time later, I felt my body complaining, so I lay down to go to sleep. I really needed the rest after the day's work.
Around an hour later, there were weird noises coming from the door, waking both me and the nun. There was a shadow under the door, but no one knocked or said anything. Maybe it was someone waiting for our reply. With that in mind, I went to open the door. The shadow disappeared when I got close, and when I opened the door, I saw a shadow running off. Feeling both curious and unsettled, I signaled the nun to stay with the kids and then chased after the fleeing shadow.
It moved very fast, but stopped to wait for me every now and then. I had brought my gun and told myself to turn back if the shadow got too far away. I stopped when I reached a courtyard. The shadow was gone. It must have slipped down one of the many halls. In front of me was a gloomy temple room that grabbed my attention. I stared at it from a safe distance. With a flicker, light started coming from inside. I crept a bit closer and found two burning statues. Both of them depicted a creature I had never seen before, looking like a cross between a lion and a dog.
The fire spread quickly. I rushed through the doorway and called out to make sure there was no one inside. Looking back, my actions had been unusually brave. It’s like I hoped that something would happen when I chased after that shadow.
After a few moments looking through the burning room and not getting any replies, I had to get out. I should have called for help, but all I did was stand in front of the temple room, dumbfounded. The burning beasts stared back at me with their fiery eyes. There was something unusual about this flame. It was elegant and mesmerizing.
The inferno roared, and soon there were dozens of people gathered to extinguish it. It seemed to take forever to put out. Afterwards, everyone was tired and angry. They found a horribly burned corpse inside the room.
The coroner who inspected the body declared that it was Naki, and Naki’s aunt burst into tears. A few people came to me and started speaking in aggressive tones. I was obviously being blamed for the fire. I tried to tell them that I was innocent, but they just kept saying words that I didn’t understand and then handcuffed me. As they manhandled me out of the temple, I saw Kai and Kira being dragged by two soldiers following behind us. I was shaking in shock and fear.
Now that I know the kids are safe, I’m flooded with relief. It was a horrible incident but it could have ended up way worse. I should be grateful that these people chose to save us.
I try to avoid thinking about the evil organizations behind all this. It’s all still too frightening and overwhelming right now. I need a good night’s rest.
When I’m finally ready to sleep, I can hear long mumbles from Eno’s bed. I can’t catch any words but he’s probably saying prayers in Lcorian. I hold my breath for a moment.
What a weird country this is. If I ever make it back to Quaseria safely, I’ll have to sue that goddamned travel agency for recommending this place.
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