I must have been five or six.
As children, we do not really remember the time lines or realise the effect of the imprints caused by our environment and people. Our training and what we do becomes our nature. Thus, our identity is shaped by the way we live.
Something had happened to my parents. When I look back I do not remember them clearly. I do not remember what they looked like. I remember the warmth, and the feeling of safety. Perhaps I was carefree because that was the only time I could do what I wanted and adults were not only forgiving but often took delight in my errors. Perhaps that was love. While the memories were.distant and faded, I longed for that life. I longed for human warmth and belonging. I longed not to have to prove myself every day, and justify why I deserve to live. Every day could be the last day. Everyday there was a war and every day an elder judging and sorting us into the deserving and the burdensome. Humility was a virtue of the elite, but I suspected that it was often a cover. Arrogance, superiority and pride often lurked in the shadows of their person. Our focus was on the moment and the practice was akin to zen. The word that was used can roughly be translated as “one mind”.
I was starved after I lost my parents who were killed in a raid. Our village was raided often for supplies. After several raids and riots, villagers had learnt that it was best to offer least resistance. Raids in my village lasted for a few hours. Even though there was no reason for lives to be lost, they still were. It was a happy day when my parents died. I had gone the furthest I ever had, and when I came home I found blood. My parents were asleep, sometimes they did that and they trusted me to look after myself because I was a big girl. They would wake up in an hour or two if they were asleep, but that day, I thought that maybe they were very tired because they would not wake up. The next day when my fathers friend came he started to scream. I didn’t know what to do, so I was playing waiting for my parents to wake up. I had gotten very hungry. He continued to scream, and at some point started to shake me. All I could do was blink. His wife behind him pulled me away from his grasp, leaned down to face me and asked what had happened. I told them if they could wait with me, my parents would wake up soon. She asked me why I had dried blood on me. I had heard of blood. It was unseen. When it was seen, it was bad. Very bad. That is when I started to realise that something was wrong. Something was wrong with my parents. I asked the lady if she could wake my parents up. She shook her head looking sad.
I didn’t know how to live without my parents. They were dead, and that meant that they went to sleep and never woke up. The lady, who insisted I call her aunty, was less like a mother and more like a master. I was put to work in their house. If I did not work I was kicked. After a few seasons, when I had grown, I schemed to run away. I had learnt to look after myself, and learnt the works well. Gathering courage and prayers to God, I slid outside the house. I heard that girls whose bodies were developed were not safe. I had not reached there yet. I disguised myself in many layers of clothes. I managed with whatever I had.
It had been a week since I was on the streets. The only thing I could think of was food, and shelter in the night to rest. Villagers in the area got to know me as a beggar girl, and appealing to their sympathy no longer worked. It had been 3 days since I had proper food. I could no longer walk. Soldiers were out searching for vandals, so the word was on the street. I just wanted to rest. I decided to think about what I needed to do to survive after a little rest. I sat down near the door of an abandoned structure, a place I felt was my shelter. As I sat down I saw two men looking in my direction seemingly asking for directions. Normally, I would have been alert but my eyes closed and I passed out.
Someone slapped my face. Although I could not react, my body did. My eyes jerked open and figures were swimming in front of my eyes. My mouth was forced open, and water was poured into it gently. Instinctively I drank, and passed out again. When I came to, it was dark and I could smell food. I could move, so I ate the food that they had left. I don’t remember such good food. Over a few days, I rested, ate and drank. When I was cleaned up I don’t know. As they saw me up, they took me for a bath. There seemed to be no shame in the place and I was not the only child my age. I was astonished and then drew comfort from seeing that I was not the only child in my condition and I was being cared for. No one offered words of comfort or even conversation. There were no questions asked, there was nothing told. Everything I needed was taken care of.
I was moved into a dormitory with children and teengers. Teenagers had duties in the dormitory. Children my age were entrusted with our own self care. There was silence and no talking. No one seemed to disobey the rules. Things were orderly, consistent. I had started to attend classes much like a school. When we were in school, there was laughter and play. There were children from the dormitory but also other children from the village. We were known as the little one’s from the orphanage.The only difference between us and the other children, was that all orphanage children, esp. My orphanage learnt martial arts. Not being good at it was not an option. So, life went on day after day. With age and qualification our responsibilities increased.
Teenagers were not allowed to fornicate and engage romantically. The punishment was so severe on being found out, the suffering from abstinence was preferable to many if not all. Beyond a few unbreakable rules, and extremely high expectations of performance, we could do what we wanted. While I wished things could be better sometimes, this was the first time I felt safe after my parents died. There were odd things in how the orphanage was run, and several unseemly rumours that reverberated through its walls.
In school there were harsh words spoken but never in my orphanage. We all started with menial tasks, however, as time went by a sorting happened. We were told that we were the creators of our own destiny. As we learnt more, we felt just. And from that sense of being treated justly we gave everything we had. Once in a while there were children “transferred” out. Over a period I started to notice that these were either children who were weak and could not meet the standards or those who did really well. Those who caused mischief were left 24 hours without food, clothing or shelter. Children were never punished, but teenagers were. Everyone could endure. Surviving 24 hrs of brutality was worn as a badge. Although it could be something to boost someone's ego, it never did. It was so harsh that we would never wish that on our enemy.
I graduated at nineteen years of age. I was neither late nor early. I fell into the comfortable middle. This made me feel belonged. It was the day when I would take a march to the temple to be judged and placed, wherein I would undertake my life's work. I could not have been prouder of myself for having made this far, I even smiled to myself.
The temple was not what I expected. Instead of being peaceful, the atmosphere was ominous. The place was active yet activity was minimal. I couldn’t help thinking of a funeral home when I entered the temple.
Tired from the travel, we were not allowed to rest and neither were we fed. There was a warning that things would be different, hence it was not a complete surprise. We had been told since we were children that to get the privilege to serve the temple, we will have to be warriors of the mind and the body; warriors who could weather the harshest. We held our heads high and our bodies erect as we were ushered into the elders chambers.
If there was a gasp no sound was heard. The grace of the elders was captivating. They did not move. The eyes of the three elders seated on the table followed us. We were signalled by them to gather around. If we expected a throne there was none. They were dressed in subtle richness, and each was different. The lady was beautiful, and strong. The two men were calm and composed. None of them let on any expression from their face.
The shorter of the two elders spoke first. He quietly welcomed us, and gathered us to be seated. The three elders seated themselves facing us. In what looked like a cave, we all sat on the ground. No one dared show a response to the chill that had gathered within. Each elder addressed a different matter about us. One assigned us our day to day duties, one told us the names of our guides in the coming days, and the last one introduced us to what we were going to do.
We were not allowed to show any response, and were educated to merely accept. Non-acceptance was not an option. Surprisingly it was not something that was told to us, we just knew. If I wasn’t as scared as I was that night, perhaps I could have seen a pattern of their interaction.
We no longer lived in the dormitory. We were given our separate rooms. Food, water and shelter were ours. We were also given clothes, enough for every occasion and we were allowed to now have our own personal lives. As adults if we wanted to satisfy our carnal desires we were free to do so. Love and human attachment was banned.
That night, I willed myself to sleep even though my body and my mind were exhausted.
We were a creed of assassins. We had already been trained in the code, and it was now time to pay back with our lives. Such was the requirement for the care and the education we received.
Every entrant had runaways. I wanted to run away, but fear had kept me safe, and by nineteen I was enslaved. I did not know my age, it was merely a guess. I could have been 21 for all I know. We did not have separate birthdays. Our presence was acknowledged once every year, and that was the same for everyone, entrant and elder alike.
Next day in the morning, there were four body’s on the stakes outside for display with ravens and vultures feeding on the flesh. The stink was almost unbearable. Everyone went about their business as usual almost as if nothing had changed. In months I came to learn that we were no longer going to be left out without food, water, shelter for 24 Hours. If we failed to live to the code, we would be a meal to the vultures.
Thus my new life began.