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I sat on the forest floor. The color of the wilderness engulfed me, leaving nothing to see but my eyes, dark and round. I was covered in leaves and fronds, as was my bow, long and lean. I was a panther stalking her prey – stealthy and silent. Time is slow to pass, but I didn't mind. I kept watch, thinking of nothing but the hunt.
Suddenly, I heard a small twig snap to my left. I turned my head, not fast enough to call attention, but not slow enough that I missed my chance. I strained my eyes farther into the lush forest, searching for my kill. And finally I spotted it – a graceful deer, loping through the trees, oblivious to its near end. I quietly arched my weapon and aimed right at her heart – a quick kill. I released my arrow and watched it soar with amazing speed right to my target. The deer, as if falling asleep, fell to its side and landed on the ground about twenty yards away. I gathered my belongings – a bow, a few arrows, and a container of water – and walk toward my prize. As I approach, I kneel to the ground, bowing my head in prayer, thanking the animal for providing us nutrition. Then I yanked the arrow from her heart and grabbed hold of her feet, dragging her back to camp.
Bahadura Mafa, my little brother, sat cross-legged around a smoldering campfire, sharpening a long stick to a point. He looked up at me as I approached, but once he realized that I wasn’t a threat, he continued what he was doing silently. I gently laid the leopard down in front of him, proud of my work. He looked at the dead animal and his lip twitched in disgust.
“Your turn or mine?” he asked, his oily black eyes pleading with me. I sighed and picked the leopard up again, ready to haul her into the forest. He visibly relaxed. “I got it next time, Nira. I swear.”
Even though I did hope he would live up to his promise next time, I knew he wouldn’t. Neither one of us liked this part of our life. Before living in the forest, we were vegetarians. Our mother and father respecting living things too much to kill and eat them. “Animals are our friends, Child,” my mother would always tell us whenever Baha or I would ask why we ate so differently then our friends. After the accident, we had to hunt to survive. But that didn’t mean we enjoyed it.
I laid the animal out on the grass in an opening not far from our camp, sucking in a deep breath. Then I took out my knife, silently prayed thanks for the second time, and plunged the blade deep into her rib cage, yanking downward. A quiet tear escaped from my eye, blurring my vision. No matter how much I did this, I knew I would cry every time. Killing is not something anybody should enjoy doing.
I bit down into a hunk of roasted meat, watching my brother copy my actions. Although he'd aged about four years since the accident, he looked the same – long shiny black hair, over-emotional dark eyes, and clear, dark skin. “You two are identical in looks, but polar-opposites in personalities,” Father always said. And it was true. While Baha cried openly to anyone who would listen when he was feeling down or got hurt, I kept my emotions pent up inside, willing them to stay silent until I was alone. I didn’t like feeling weak.
When we were little, Mother would read us stories of soldiers. The one that I begged her to read over and over again was of the girl whose father wouldn’t let her fight in the war, so she ran away, cut off all her hair, and pretended to be a man. She was the best soldier in the war. I always wanted to be like the girl, strong and independent.
Baha and I sat up against the back of our shared twin bed, close enough together that every inch of our sides touched. Mother sat on the edge of the mattress, her face highlighted by the oil lamp she held.
“Get under the covers, darlings. It’s story time.” Baha and I jumped up and under the covers in one fluid motion, giggling. Father wasn’t home tonight, which meant that Mother would read us my favorite story. I was practically shaking with excitement.
“Mother, where is Father?” Baha whined, stretching out his long, long legs. Mother reached over to smooth his always-unruly hair, which was beginning to fall into his eyes. Her expression was pained, as it always was when Father wasn't home at night. I don't think she liked being alone.
“He's away, darling. He'll be home tomorrow morn. But do not fret. Tonight, I have a very special story planned.” Baha scooted closer to me, and I wondered how that was possible. We were practically conjoined now, but I didn't care. As long as I got to hear my story.
Mother cleared her throat, smiling at me. “Long, long ago, in a country not far from our home, lived a girl. Her name was Hathila.” Every time Mother told this story, she used the name Hathila, meaning strong willed.. “She was a beautiful girl, tall and strong. She was also very, very stubborn. Just like a beautiful girl I know.” She poked me gently on the nose and I giggled. Baha made a disgruntled noise, mad that he wasn't being coddled by Mother. “Hathila was the daughter of a very important man, General Nafarata.” Every time she told the story, the name of the General was always the same, too – General Hate. “He didn't let Hathila do anything she wanted to do – play with her friends, run outside, or even read her own choice of literature. He dictated everything she did so that she would grow up to be a proper girl for an emperor to marry. But this wasn't what Hathila wanted to do. She didn't want to get married to an obnoxious man who didn't appreciate her, she didn't want to be taken for granted. So she decided to ask her father an important question.
“Hathila worked up her courage for weeks, practicing what she said into her mirror. She didn't want to mess it up. She knew that she would only get one chance to get this right. So, one day, after her father had his afternoon drink, she walked into his study and cleared her throat. ‘Yes, Hathila?’ her father boomed, and she curtsied to him. He motioned to one of the plush chairs in front of his, and she sat down.
“'Father, I have an important question. I know that you have told me that I am to be married to the emperor in one year's time, but I do not want this life. I want to fight. I know that if I am allowed, I would be one of the best soldiers the army has ever seen. I could be of good use, Father. Please. Just give me a chance.' Hathila's father’s face was blank for almost a minute, and it was the longest minute of her life. General Nafarata kept his face blank as he spoke.
“'Go to your room, Hathila. I have no time for your silly questions. Women have no place in a war. You need to be at home, cleaning and caring for children.' Hathila was outraged at her father's words and lost her temper.
“'You have no right to tell me what to do Father. I will be eighteen very soon. You do not control me!' General Nafarata lost control. He shook with anger. And then he reach out with an open hand and smacked Hathila hard across the mouth. This was the last straw for her. She stormed out of his study, packed a bag, and ran out of the house, praying to God for protection. She took out a knife she had stashed in her bag once she was a while away from her father's home and cut off her pony tail without any hesitation. She wiped off her make-up and started for the military grounds, never looking back once.” Mother looked at Baha and I, allowing us time to ask questions. Baha, of course, had one.
“But Mother, wouldn't they know she was a girl? Girls look different from boys. Even ugly ones. Like Nira.” I sucked in a shocked breath. I smacked him hard on the back of the head. Mother gave us both a stern look and we mumbled apologies.
“Now where was I?” Mother asked, but we knew it was a rhetorical question. She knew this story by heart. “Once Hathila reached the military grounds, she was astounded. Men were everywhere, practicing for combat. Some rode horses around, checking on soldiers. Some were shouting orders. A man, tall and strong, approached her. ‘What is your name, civilian?’ the man asked her, and she panicked. She hadn't thought of a name. So she picked the first one that came to mind.
“‘Nayaka, sir,’ Hathila told him, deepening her voice. This would take some practice, Hathila thought. The man studied her, and she puffed out her chest, imitating the look of some of the boys who would come to her house to conference with her father. Apparently, this tactic worked.
“‘You looking to join the army?’ he asked her, and she smiled a close-mouthed grin. This was actually happening! She was practically jumping for joy.
“‘Yes, sir, I am.’ The man nodded and gestured toward the camp. He began walking, and she followed, ecstatic.
“'You look a little scrawny, but we can fix that. You can never have too many men.' Hathila nodded, trying not to speak. She was afraid her voice would be too high from her excitement and would blow her cover. The man led her to a small room filled with beds and lanterns. 'This will be your bunk, soldier,” he said, pointing to a small grungy looking cot. But she didn't care how bad the living conditions were. This was her dream! Fighting in a war! She nodded to the man, and he clapped her on the soldier. “We begin at four o'clock every morning. Be ready.” Hathila nodded once again and the man left. She could hardly believe this! She decided it would be wise to sleep, but she wondered if she could. Tomorrow was going to be the best day of her life.
“Hathila trained tirelessly until the day to fight came. And her relationships with her men were strong; they praised her for her work. They were lined up, ready to protect their country. All the soldiers were praying; for strength, for courage, for safety. Hathila didn't care if she died fighting. She would die doing what she had always wanted to do. They enemy approached the horizon, and all the soldiers charged, screaming obscenities and rants. The battle lasted two days and two nights, but on the third morning, the opposing army surrendered. They knew they were fighting a loosing battle. Victorious, Hathila's army cheered. They gathered around Hathila, picking her up on their shoulders, praising her. She would always keep her secret. Nobody needed to know. She would die a hero.”
Mother ended her story with a sigh, and I yawned. She kissed my brother and I on the top of our heads, bundling us up under our blankets. “Goodnight, sweet children. I love you forever and always. Tuma meri jindagi ho. You are my life.” With that she walked out of our small room, carrying the lamp with her. I fell asleep that night, not knowing it would be the last time I'd ever sleep in my bed.
The fire was almost out, it's remaining flickers barely giving off enough light to see. I felt my way into my hammock, settling into the weaved fronds. Baha sighed, and I yawned. He reached across in the dark of midnight to grab hold of my hand. He squeezed tight.
“Love you, Nira. We will get out of here someday. I promise you.” I squeezed his hand back, again wishing he would live up to his empty promises.
“Love you too, Baha. Sweet dreams, baby brother.” With that, he dropped my hand, and we drifted off into unconsciousness.
Baha and I lay together, tangled up in our sheets. His snoring had woken me up for the second time that night, and I groaned, frustrated. I was getting ready to settle back into my peaceful sleep when I heard a noise. A muffled cry. I shook Baha, waking him. Even in the darkness I could see his annoyed look. “What?” he hissed, and I put my hand over his mouth. Something was wrong.
I silently crept out of bed, and Baha followed clumsily, tripping over his own feet. I gave him a stern look and he stopped moving. What? He mouthed again, and I tiptoed over to him.
“I heard something. I'll be right back. Go back to bed. But do not go back to sleep.” He gave me a sullen nod, disappointed that he was not allowed to come. I stealthy moved from my room to the Great Room, not making a sound. I leaned around the wall to get a good view of the front door, and there I saw Father and Mother, cloths in their mouths and twisted around they limbs, being held at knife-point by two raggedy-looking men. I was frozen into place, and, without consent from my brain, my mouth let out a small whine. What were these people doing? Before I could finish thinking this, their wild-eyes were searching for me in the darkness. My heart was beating so loud I was shocked it didn't jump out of my chest and yell out to the intruders, “Here I am!” I tried to pretend like I was a statue from the park, silent and still. But I am not a very proficient statue, apparently. They men threw my parents to the ground and ran up to me, grabbing me by the silk of my nightdress.
“Where do you think you're going, you stupid child?” one of the men sneered, and I whimpered. The other man laughed.
“What are you doing to my parents?” I cried, and the laughing man put a knife to my throat. I gulped, frozen. Is he going to kill me? The man made a small mark on my neck, which was now stinging. I could feel tears dripping down my face. I thought back to Mother's story. Be a warrior, Nira! Seizing all the courage I could muster, I wriggled free of the men and ran to my mother and father. But the men were too fast for me. One grabbed me by my nightdress again, holding the knife up to my throat. The other pulled out a small hand gun. He cocked it and aimed the end at me. I gulped, seeing my life flash before my eyes.
“If you know what's good for you, you won't make a noise,” the man with the gun told me, stroking his pistol. He then switched aim from me to the center of my mother's chest. Her eyes pleaded with him. He laughed. I struggled on a cry.
“Please, no! Not my mother!” The man sighed, like I'd disappointed him. He shook his head at me, a smile playing on the corners of his lips.
“I told you not to make a noise!” he exploded, firing the gun. It hit my mother directly in the chest, and blood poured from the wound. I felt light-headed. Mother was gone. My protector, the person I looked up to most in this world. I wish he would turn the gun on me next. But he didn't. “I wish I didn’t have to do this, beautiful,” the man said, sounding sincere. But I knew he wasn't. He then took aim at my father and shot, staining his shirt with blood. Both my parents were gone within seconds. One minute I had everything I could ever hope for, and the next my world was shattered. I let out a loud cry, and the man with the knife to my throat make a small cut vertically down my neck. I sobbed silently, shaking.
“If you tell anybody about this, I'll find you. And I'll kill everyone you know. Starting with your brother.” He inclined his head toward the Great Room, and there I saw Baha standing, his eyes wide with terror. “I suggest you run away. Deep in the forest. Never come back.” Then the man dropped me, and I slumped to the floor, speechless. They gathered their belongings and left, leaving me to deal with my dead parents and now-weeping little brother. How could this happen to me?
The sun was starting to rise, and without a better plan, I packed bags for Baha and I, full of food, clothes, and supplies. I grabbed his hand and drug him out the back door, walking toward the expanse of the West Bengal Forest, our new home.
I woke up to bright sunlight and tears streaming down my face. Absently, I fingered the three inch scar running up my neck. Baha was still sleeping quietly. Today would be the day, I decided. Four years was too long to hide in fear. We would seek out civilization. Bring justice to the evil men who killed our parents. And finally live like we were intended to.
I rolled out of my hammock, trying not to wake Baha. Walking around the campsite, I gathered the few belongings we possessed and shoved them into our bags. Then I walked over to Baha's hammock and shook it, startling him. He screamed and fell out of the hammock, smacking the ground with a loud thump. I didn't even laugh like I normally would have. I just grabbed a bag and began walking north.
Baha scrambled behind me, trying keep up through the haze that is sleep. “Where are you going?” he asked, grabbing my shoulder.
I didn't even turn around. “Grab a bag, Baha. We're leaving.” I could feel his grip tightening on my arm.
“But, the men, and --” I didn't want him to finish, because I didn't want to think about bad things that could happen. I needed the mental image of good things that could happen. Reuniting with my family. Sleeping in a bed. Watching the men who killed Mother and Father be put to justice.
I turned around to face him, my mind made up. “Grab a bag, Brother. We're leaving.” I could see the skepticism in his eyes, but he listened to me. He picked up the remaining bag and we began walking towards freedom, not knowing how things would turn out, but knowing that we had to do this. And in that moment, I felt like Hathila, a brave warrior, marching toward the enemy, knowing that whether I came out victorious or not, all that mattered is that I fought for what I believed in.