The Benghu Tank War II (30.1)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School

Aarya returned from the cafeteria carrying a stack of boxed lunches.

They were meant for the children in her charge, waiting for her in one of the second floor classrooms of Chanda’s auxiliary school building. She hurried to return to them.

Though she did not like leaving them alone, she had told them to be good while she braved the rains and winds to get them all something to fill their stomachs.

Whistling a song as she climbed the steps she wondered what mischief they must have caused while she was away. They were well-behaved, but still rambunctious.

When she arrived at her classroom she was surprised to find them all in a corner.

They hid away from the windows, their heads down and their arms over their hair.

After seeing the soldiers running hither and thither downstairs she feared the worst.

She felt her chest tighten and her knees shake. Were the imperialists this close?

She dropped the boxes on top of her desk and furtively approached the windows.

Outside she saw only the meadow’s undisturbed fields of red and yellow cosmos flowers, gently swaying and brilliantly glistening from the rain and flashes of lightning.

An exhausted sigh escaped her lips. “Children, don’t worry! I’m here now. Come here.”

Gently, with a warm smile, she urged the children to approach the windows.

Not all of them did — only a few were brave enough. Mostly the older kids. Many of the smaller children stayed in the corner, seated with their backs to the wall and their arms around their knees, looking down at the floor as if to make themselves smaller. Other kids walked a few steps but kept their heads firmly below the aperture of the windows.

“We saw a star flying across the sky Ms. Balarayu!” one girl explained.

“We thought it would fall on the town so we went to hide!” added one of the boys.

Aarya looked out the window again, this time craning her head to the rainy sky.

It might have been artillery fire from Benghu. She had been told that there was a battery stationed there. She didn’t know how many guns that was, and she didn’t know what they were capable of. She supposed if they fired skyward it would be visible on a dark day.

Aarya was not a soldier. She was a teacher. To these children, maybe even a mother.

“Follow me, back to the corner. We’ll turn it from a sad little corner to a happy one.”

She took a little girl and a little boy in hand and the rest followed her. She sat down among those children still pensive on the floor, gently wedging herself in, and extending her arms as far as she could like the wings of a mother bird. All of the children accommodated themselves near her. When everyone was settled, she cleared her throat, and sang a little la la la as if to test her voice, to excite the children. They looked at her suddenly with wide and aware eyes, and clapped their hands in anticipation. She then started to sing actual verse.

Whenever the children seemed bored or anxious, Aarya sang old songs to them.

Almost all traditionally Ayvartan songs had a religious origin. When Aarya sang she often sang the Spirit Stories, because as an Arjun it was what she knew. She sang of the beautiful Kanpa whose dancing gathered the wind and clouds and brought rain. She sang of the great calmness and patience of the hero Bakti who sat through the flame of the demon Karna and with his devotion and will survived the onslaught and turned away the beast.

Today she sang the song of Bakti again so they would endure this fire patiently.

Until she became a teacher, Aarya only sang these songs a few times a year in festivals in Benghu, where the temple chorus would open and close the festivities with song.

She never sang alone. There had always been Darshan; and her. She had been by her side too. Today when she sang, she thought she heard her voice in accompaniment.

Current events had brought that remembrance screaming back into her mind.

Of late she had been singing to the children, all by herself, every day.

For many reasons she fretted about doing so.

Innocently the children gathered around her skirt and watched with wide-drawn eyes.

She felt those little eyes and little smiles hanging on every second of her voice.

They loved the stories, and they loved her voice. They started clapping as soon as she stopped. After every song they asked questions. She answered as best as she could to maintain the innocent fancy she saw in their eyes. She answered as if there was a Bakti who withstood a demon or a Kanpa who danced for a king, in this day and age.

Aarya fretted because her singing gave them hope in completely immaterial things.

In real life they could not rely on spirits or magic to turn away Nochtish guns.

It also brought back bittersweet memories. Memories of things undone, incomplete.

But it was all she could do to make the children happy and to keep them healthy.

So she sang. She sang like a genuine prayer. She sang as if to the Spirits themselves.

Aarya had become a teacher because she loved children and loved working with them. Even as a student herself, at this very school, she always helped out with the smaller kids. It was a blessing to be able to protect and nurture them. But it also unsettled her at times.

For the past few weeks Aarya had been a surrogate mother more than a teacher to her small gaggle of kids. There were a dozen kids with different stories. Little Lakshmi had parents but they were helping evacuate industry from Shebelle. Because Shebelle was a combat zone the children were sent further north, to Benghu, to Chanda; there was the oldest boy, ten years, named Zaheer. His father was a soldier, his only parent after his mother passed a year ago. She had not heard from him recently, but she assured Zaheer he was fine.

Several of the children were orphaned, and they essentially lived in school — they slept in a tiny hostel in Benghu and spent most of their day in Chanda. Lately the hostel was requisitioned for use as a barracks for Battlegroup Rhino, and the children spent the nights with Aarya in a classroom with a view of the meadow. For fun she had everyone pitch in and put up big tents indoors. They “camped out” in the classroom with the windows open.

Two of those big tents currently took up the opposite side of the classroom.

They spent their days this way in the classrooms of the school’s auxiliary building; in the lunch room once or twice a day, and if not, then eating boxed lunches together; and in the field whenever possible, reading under the cloudy sky. Whenever the children asked about the school’s main building she gently turned away the question. Whenever they asked about the soldiers, she told them they were friends — “comrades!” — and working to help everyone.

Aarya had to be strong and gentle and almost god-like to the children. She had to be perfect for them because she was the only thing in the world that could be perfect for them.

So she sang and played and fed them, cleaned them, clothed them, taught them arithmetic and reading and as much of the curriculum as she could teach by herself — her specialty was arithmetic. There were a few other teachers with their own specialties, but nobody could handle hosting a real semester under these circumstances. Everyone was just taking care of the children as best as they could under the duress of this historical moment.

She sang for them. That was all that she could do. She was a teacher, not a soldier.

She was not their real parent either, but perhaps that was the least concern right now.

Whenever she sang, Aarya put a lot of passion into her voice. She wanted to drown out the mental voice with the physical voice. Her thoughts wavered toward those close to her.

Her fiance, Darshan; he was a teacher too and was certainly not a soldier either.

Her students, now like her children; they barely knew that there was a war. They didn’t know the scope of it. Soldiers kept information from her and when she found out things that perhaps she should not know she kept them all from the children. Perhaps in the future they might have to become soldiers. To Aarya that was the worst tragedy of them.

But Naya– Naya was apparently a soldier now. Perhaps she had been for a while.

She didn’t know how to square that with everything that was happening right now.

What should one think of a beloved friend who flitted, ghost-like, out of one’s reach?

When she heard of her again she felt a mixture of relief, hope, trepidation, bitterness–

Aarya sang, silently praying that the voice would carry away all of this evil in the world.

In the midst of singing however a soldier, weapon in hand, charged into the room.

The soldier’s eyes darted around the room then settled on the windows. She shouted.

“Please close the windows Ms. Balarayu! They’ll offer some protection from enemy fire!”

Aarya grit her teeth and gave the soldier a nasty look and hugged some of the smaller children close — everyone had been startled when she barged in. How tactless of her!

She was about to respond when Darshan followed in behind the soldier. Despite having almost a head’s worth of height over the soldier he looked demure in her presence.

“You’re scaring them.” He said softly, his hand hovering over the soldier’s shoulder.

“Apologies, but that’s not really my priority right now. Close the windows.”

At once the soldier turned around and ran out the room. They heard the door open to the adjacent classroom, and the one after that. She was checking for vulnerabilities.

Darshan looked at Aarya and gave her a helpless little shrug. Aarya smiled at him.

“Children, me and Mr. Puri have to discuss something. Why don’t you try singing the song among yourselves? You all know the words.” Aarya said. Most of the children nodded. Many of them kept their eyes on Aarya and Darshan as they left the classroom together, smiling mischievously. She had told them before that he was special to her.

They started gossiping about “Ms. Balarayu liking Mr. Puri” as soon as she left.

Out in the hall Aarya kissed Darshan briefly on the lips. He held her by the waist and then pulled her into an embrace, head over shoulder. He was so strong — she felt like she could lose herself in his arms. He had gotten big since they first met. Even dressed in his unassuming button-down shirt and tie she thought he looked big and burly.

“How are things in your class?” Darshan asked, almost whispering.

“They’re scared. They know something’s wrong, Darshan.” Aarya said.

“My kids are all still sick. They’re getting better but the weather’s not helping. I’ve done everything I could for them short of getting sick with them.” He said, his expression wan.

Due to the sudden change in the country’s fortunes and in the nature of their work, Aarya only saw Darshan a few times a day. Sometimes they contrived to have their classes together, but Darshan’s children were ill and as such their interactions even more limited. They met in the mornings and they shared their nights when they could, very rarely.

“You’re doing the best you can. It’s all anyone could ask of you.” She assured him.

“I left them napping in the room. That soldier nearly woke them up. I followed her back out here hoping I could stop her from scaring every kid in the building.” Darshan said.

“What is happening with the soldiers today? Do you know anything?” She asked.

Darshan broke off their embrace. He could never quite look her in the eyes — he tried to look like he was doing so but he would always gaze just off them as if anxious to meet them. He was big and he looked tough outwardly, but Darshan was a sensitive sort.

“I asked Sharna about it; I wanted to talk with her and see how she knows Naya, but she ended up telling me not to bother with that and that we may have to evacuate soon.”

Aarya nearly winced at the mention of their old friend. It was a too-recurring subject.

“So the Nochtish soldiers are definitely coming this way.” Aarya said heavily.

“Given how all of our soldiers are acting, I think they’re around the corner.”

There was a clanging from a door behind them; the soldier from before ran out of a room and past them, charging down the hall. Holding hands, they walked down the hall and opened the door — the soldier had closed all of the metal shutters on the windows. They were intended for child safety but she supposed they could perhaps take a bullet.

“I keep thinking about her. She could be out there fighting right now.” Darshan said.

Aarya sighed a little. “I pray that she is well. But I have no hopes of meeting her.”

Darshan looked at her with surprise. “She was such a good friend to me, Aarya. I feel I’d be half the man I am without her. Ever since she left I’ve wanted her back. I felt like we could have a chance now!” He looked at the shuttered windows. “If only this wasn’t happening!”

Aarya did not like this conversation, because it was another issue that made her feel helpless and hopeless, ill equipped. She too had thought of Naya as a valuable friend and she thought Naya felt the same. But years back — spirits know how many, it was so many years, she felt — everything seemed to fall apart for Naya all at once. Aarya only pieced it together little by little from the ashes. She didn’t know the whole story. Aarya only knew that a lot of hurt had befallen Naya and it forced her away — and there had been nothing she or Darshan could do to stop it or to help her. As if dust blown by the air, she was swept away from their grasp.

Ever since Darshan got his hopes up a day ago he was obsessed with the subject.

Like her, he probably wanted to smother Naya to make up for perhaps abandoning her.

“I feel the same way Darshan. But this is happening — and we can’t affect it at all.”

“I know. It has really ruined everything, hasn’t it? All of our well laid plans.” He said.

Aarya smiled weakly in response, now averting her own eyes from him. “Someday if everything works out, I know Naya might attend our wedding and hold our crowns.”

“Spirits bless; that would be such a lovely outcome.” Darshan said. “I will pray for it.”

There was a part of Aarya that didn’t want to pray for it — that feared the distance of these intervening years. That feared how everyone had changed from her good memories.

Aarya had thought of work and marriage as the crossroads where the childish tumult of her life would be left behind, and she would finally grasp firmly at meaning, at strength, at the invisible power and certainty that supposedly defined adulthood. Now everything was in a greater disarray than it had ever been. All of the constants were thrown into chaos.

She was not a soldier or a politician or anything; all she could do was sing and pray.

That was what she told herself, because she simply didn’t know what to do anymore.

“Yes. I have to feed the children, Darshan. It was good seeing you.” Aarya said.

She leaned up and pecked him on the lips. She patted him on the chest, and walked around him and back into the classroom. He stood, diffident, back in the hallway, staring out at the shutters that closed their view of the meadow and perhaps Naya’s direction.

Naya had been so special to both of them. Nowadays the absence felt punctuated again. But Aarya feared that the two of them had broken in ways that could not mend, and that meeting again would only tear open wounds that had no chance to heal now.

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