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|Chapter 4 (Freed from Fire)|
September 3rd, 2013
|"The Avatar can commune with the Spirit World directly, because the Avatar is the reincarnation of a spirit. Every time the Avatar passed on, the spirit of the earth is reincarnated into a new body."|
|— Monk Suiyan|
Slowly, but surely, Sayuka's awareness returned to her as she awoke. She opened her eyelids, which felt extremely heavy, to find herself in strange surroundings. The sun was up, but she was inside an open-air building. It was short, made of wood, and smelled of the forest. Blinking a few times, she tensed her body to try and move. She was surprised to find that, contrary to what state she was in before, she felt little pain as she moved. Sitting up, she was able to look more carefully around. She was indeed in an open-air home. While the home had a roof, it had no walls and was supported by a simple scaffolding at the four main corners. There was little furniture in the small home, just a bed, a few surfaces, and very little in the way of anything else. It was very minimalist. Far different than what she was used to.
"Ho there! You are awake now, child?" a voice said from some distance away. She turned her head to see a man, an old man, making his way towards the home. He was walking from, what she took as some sort of indoor shrine. Was he a monk? He reached the threshold of the room and entered, taking the time to study her from a distance. "Well, you seem awake enough now, at least." He smiled warmly. "How do you feel?" Sayuka blinked in confusion. How did she feel?
"Um..." she stammered, not quite knowing how to respond. The old man reached his hand out for her head, and in a pure and simple reflex, Sayuka backed away on the bed her eyes wide and her hands out in front of her. She whimpered slightly in fear.
The old monk's face took on a look of concern. "I will not hurt you, child." His voice was soft, warm and sincere. Sayuka sat still, her hands out as if to protect her. The monk lowered his hand and held it out in front of her quietly. Sayuka looked from his face, to his hand, then back to his face. He was certainly old, much older than any of the servants at her home. His wizened face was sharp, and his bald head was round. What caught her eye was the blue arrow tattooed on his forehead, and seemed to travel to the back of his skull. She had seen that in a picture, and something her father had said.
"You are an airbender," she whispered quietly. The old man smiled and nodded.
"Why, yes, I am. I am called Monk Suiyan. I am from the Eastern Air Temple originally. I live here now because I am the caretaker of this shrine." His smile was warm, and seemed to be lessening the fear that Sayuka was feeling. "Might I know your name, young one?"
While her father had been very adamant about keeping with Fire Nation traditions, he also taught Sayuka about the different nations. The Earth Kingdom and their stalwart earthbenders. The Water Tribe and their adaptable waterbenders. And finally the Air Nomads, and their wise airbenders.
"I am Sayuka," she said, still not smiling. The monk didn't seem to mind.
"May I?" He gestured with his hand. Sayuka considered for a moment, and then nodded. Suiyan smiled again and reached slowly for her head. At his touch, she whimpered, but didn't retreat. The monk gently felt around the top of her head and, to Sayuka's surprise, something seemed to be wrong. Her head felt lighter. Her hands darted up to her head and- she choked out a gasp.
The monk's eyes seemed apologetic. "Yes, I am sorry. Your head had some very bad wounds. I had to cut off your hair to properly treat it." He pulled his hand back and sighed. "In all honestly, I wasn't sure you were going to pull through. You were very badly hurt." He seemed to hesitate. "But I am very happy you did." He finished with a smile. Sayuka breathed deeply for a few moments, taking in the fact that she, like the monk, now had no hair. But she understood. There was a few times in her life when her father had burned off some of her hair. She felt a bandage on the side of her head. It was numb, but she knew it must have been bad.
"Thank you." She murmured.
The monk's eyes twinkled as he smiled. "You are most welcome, child."
Sayuka wanted to ask more; where she was, how she got there, what was to become of her. But she knew better than to ask questions. Asking questions was not approved of, and only served to hurt her more. She sat there, motionless, staring at her hands as the monk observed her.
"Are you hungry?" Monk Suiyan asked softly. Sayuka's stomached growled in response, causing her face to warm considerably. The monk laughed, louder than she was used to, which startled her. "It seems you are! Well, wait right here. I shall prepare something for us." He stood up, and went about gathering ingredients.
The food, while not as much as she was used to, was delicious. Sayuka wondered if that was because the food was actually good, or she was just too hungry to care. She wolfed down was the monk gave her and, much to her embarrassment, ended up eating Monk Suiyan's portion as well, earning another bout of laughter from the elderly man. His laugh was different from hers, she noticed. He laughed as though he were happy; as though he felt good. She laughed to feel better. He laughed because he was happier. The difference made her frown. Monk Suiyan looked at her, smiling, while she ate.
"You do not talk much, do you?" he probed gently. Sayuka faltered her eating momentary, looking at her hands.
"No sir," she mumbled after swallowing her food.
"Something learned at a young age, I imagine." He smiled and shrugged. "We Air Nomads also do not talk much. We lead very quiet lives on top of our mountains, meditating on the goings on of the wind... the air..." He gestured with his hand. "Life, the universe..." His eyes twinkled. "The spirits."
That caught Sayuka's attention. Something about the way he said spirits begged her attention. She wasn't sure why. Something... from a dream she had? She wiped her mouth with the cloth Monk Suiyan gave her. "The spirits?"
"Why yes," the monk replied. "The Spirit World is just as important as the world we live in right now. I for one have spent my whole life meditating on the meaning of the Spirit World, and how it influences our world here." He gestured with his hand back toward the shrine he had first emerged from. "That is why I am the caretaker of this shrine."
Sayuka looked over at the small shrine. It didn't look very big. "Why this shrine?" she asked the monk.
"Because," he said. "There is something about this particular shrine that makes it easy for me to commune with the spirits." He shrugged, holding up his hands in defeat. "What I wouldn't give to be the Avatar... ah well..."
"The Avatar?" Sayuka blinked. She certainly had heard of the Avatar. Who hadn't? The Avatar was supposed to be someone who could not only firebend, but also waterbend, earthbend, and airbend. A bender of amazing power and skill. "What does the Avatar have to do about the Spirit World?" The monk thought for a moment, then nodded.
"Well, the Avatar is more than a person who can bend all four elements. The Avatar is a spirit incarnated in human form." Sayuka blinked in confusion. The monk shook his head. "I mean, the monk is a human, but also a spirit. The simplest way to explain is to just say the Avatar is the spirit of the planet, in the form of a human. The Avatar can commune with the Spirit World directly, because the Avatar is the reincarnation of a spirit. Every time the Avatar passed on, the spirit of the earth is reincarnated into a new body." The monk held up four fingers. "Because the Avatar is the spirit of the planet, the Avatar is capable of bending all four elements." He ticked off one finger. "Fire..." Another. "Earth, water and air." He ticked off the final finger and clapped his hands together. "Well, it's interesting to me because I have spent my life meditating on the Spirit World."
Sayuka nodded, feeling numb. The Spirit World. There was something about the Spirit World that seemed...
"So," the monk started, getting to his feet. "Would you care to join me for a trip into the shrine?" He held out his hand to her. "Only if you feel up to it, of course." He winked, smiling. Sayuka stared at the old man's hand for a few moments, and then nodded. She reached out to his hand and, starting to tremble as her hand came close to his, pulled back. The monk's eyes seemed apologetic. "I'm sorry, would you like to get up yourself?"
Sayuka nodded again and, with some strain, stood up and followed the old monk outside.
The shrine was as small as it had looked from the outside. Only a couple alters around the enclosed room, and besides a few different places to prostrate and pray, not that much room to maneuver. Monk Suiyan sat down in front of the main altar and, crossing his legs, closed his eyes in meditation. Sayuka stood behind him awkwardly, looking around the small building. Sure enough, like the old monk had said, something about this shrine felt strange. She felt like, if she allowed herself to, she could go somewhere else. Determined, she sat down at the other alter, mimicking the monk's posture. The small pain in her back screamed at her at the unfamiliar position, but she ignored it.
Taking a deep breath, Sayuka willed herself to calm down and quiet her nerves. She made herself be as still as possible. She forced every question she had out of her head. She had no way of knowing what she was doing was right or not but... she would try something new. At once she noticed it, the sense of relaxation that washed over her. It wasn't very noticeable, but it was very different to her. There was none of the fear that she usually felt with something new or unfamiliar, there was no pain that she could tell. She just felt... relaxed. She suddenly felt tears roll down her cheeks. Keeping her eyes closed, she reached her hands to her face, covering it from sight. She choked out a sob, and pulled her knees to her chest, wanting to disappear into herself. She didn't know how the feeling she had suddenly felt made her cry, but it wasn't bad. She wasn't crying from pain, or fear. She was crying because she wasn't scared or hurt. She cried louder and hugged her legs tightly in front of the altar.
Lost in the sounds of her sobbing, she barely heard Monk Suiyan retreat back to the house.
After a long time, Sayuka ran out of tears and grew tired. She stood up and walked out of the Shrine, noticing that the sky and grown a deep orange and red as the sun was setting. How long had she been crying to herself? It must have been a long time, she realized, as she walked towards the small open-air house. Monk Suiyan was inside, reading a scroll besides a lantern by the bed. Upon hearing Sayuka's approach, he looked up and smiled.
"Ah, child, you have returned." He gestured to a cup filled with water. "How do you feel?" he asked as she took the cup. It only took her a few moments, and she let out a deep sigh of relief as she drained the water.
"Better..." She murmured and looked around the home. "Do you live alone here?" she asked.
The monk's eyes seemed to sigh and he looked around as well. "Yes, I do. As a monk, I am forbidden to keep family members or acquaintances." Sayuka seemed to consider that for a while.
"Where am I?" she asked.
The monk closed his eyes, thinking. "Well, this shrine is in the Fire Nation. The closest cities to here are the Township of Fuerko and the City of Hearth," he declared; but, added with a wink, "But they are both more than three days away in either direction." Sayuka felt a shiver crawl down her back. Her family lived in the City of Hearth. They were still close by. But surely they were far enough as to not attract attention?
She looked at the monk's old face for a few moments, and then looked away, out into the darkness. She had no idea what to do. The monk seemed to pick up on that.
"What will you do now?" he asked. Sayuka shook her head slowly, she didn't know. After a few minutes of silence, the monk cleared his throat. "Well, it's not like me to throw out a lost lambling into the wild. You are welcome to stay here if you wish." Sayuka's head snapped back to the monk, her eyes wide.
"Here? S-stay here?" She could not believe her ears. What this a trick? Maybe her father knew where she was and was already on his way to get her. She felt a tight ball of fear appear in the pit of her stomach at the thought.
"Yes. Here," the monk smiled. "I do not need to know where you came from or how you came to... be out here," he said delicately. "But if you wish, I could use some help taking care of the shrine." He gestured towards the shrine outside the house. Sayuka's mind raced. Was this really a trick?
"Me? Me? Become a- a..." She faltered. What was the word for a female monk?
"A nun?" The monk answered for her. "If you so wish."
Sayuka shook her head. "But I am not an airbender."
Monk Suiyan shrugged. "The spirits do not care," he said with a guilty smile. The spirits do not care... the spirits... Sayuka blinked quickly and felt the familiar ball of apprehension fill up her stomach. A spirit... something about a spirit begged her attention. But for the life of her she could not remember what it was. The monk's voice pulled back her thoughts. "You do not have to decide now. You are more than welcome to stay as my guest until you decide your life," he said and, with his smile warm as always, he stood up. "I implore you to use my bed here, however. You are not quite recovered yet and it would pain me to see such a youngling not receiving the most comfortable recovery as I could provide."
Sayuka opened her mouth to argue, but fell short. The man's expression, while not stern or cold like her father's... was warm and caring. It was something she had never really seen before, except on other people, used on their family and people they care about. This was the first time Sayuka could ever remember being looked at in that way, and it make the ball of apprehension in her stomach disappear at once.
Nodding, Sayuka sat on the bed and blinked back tears. Monk Suiyan smiled and, reaching out towards her head, faltered as she retreated just noticeably.
"Ah, I am sorry. May I?" he apologized and gestured towards the bandage on her head. Breathing a few shallow breaths, Sayuka nodded. She whimpered as the monk examined her bandage, but she did not retreat again.
A few days later, Sayuka's recovery progressed well enough to remove her bandages. There was nothing she could do about the scars and welts that had been long-beaten into her back and arms, but Monk Suiyan was considerate enough not to mention those, much to her relief. The old monk was extremely gently, caring, and empathetic. All were new things to the young girl, and all were something she was not yet used to. She still refused to speak until spoken to, which was rare. The old monk seemed to not want to probe her. Which, she thought to herself at more than one time, she wasn't sure if she was happy or not about that.
If he had asked her questions about her family, or why she had left... would Suiyan understand? He was an airbender... she remembered with a sick feeling in her stomach. Like my father is a firebender. Would he see her as the same as her father saw her? A miserable failure? A failure that could not firebend when her family could? She hated the fact that Monk Suiyan could be like that. She just wanted to be forgotten about and live out a quiet life now. Maybe, if Monk Suiyan never found out about her past, she could live here. That was possible, wasn't it?
"Good morning, child," the old monk greeted, coming from the shrine. His bald head shined brightly in the morning light, the blue airbender tattoo being swallowed up by the glistening white of the reflection. "How do you feel?" He approached her inside the open-air home but, Sayuka noticed to her relief, did not reach out to examine her head. The day after she came here he had since refrained from touching her. He was sharp, and realized quickly that she obviously had issues with personal contact.
"Good morning, sir. I am well, thank you," she replied dutifully and formally. The monk waved the reply away.
"Oh, please, child. Do not be so formal. It frightens me." He winked in a humorous fashion and held out a sturdy-looking stick. It was not very thick, Sayuka noticed, but about as tall as she was. "Are you up for a walk? It is a lovely morning and I thought I could use some exercise. It would be lovely if you could join me and help me should I keel over." He finished and peered at Sayuka out of the corner of his eye, a hint of a smile on his lips. Sayuka stared at the monk for a few quiet moments, and then realized that he had made a joke. She had never heard anything like that a home. The only times she ever heard something like that was in town. She couldn't help herself. She felt a smile break across her face and a blush warm her cheeks. The monk pursed his lips in amusement. "Ah, so she can smile. I am relieved to see that. Shall we go?"
It was indeed a lovely morning, Sayuka thought as she trod through the thick grass. The bright, warm sun broke through the trees and filled the air with a sweet scent that Sayuka had never smelled before. She heard birds sing as she walked next to Monk Suiyan, being careful to steady herself on the stick he gave her. While much better than it was, the monk had decided to not take any chances with her convalescence. It was another weird feeling, she noticed, having no hair. The sun beat down through the trees onto her head, making it seem warmer than it was. With her hair, it didn't seem that noticeable, but now... She reached up and stroked her skull nervously.
"Will I have to keep my head shaved?" she asked the monk beside her. "If I become a nun, I mean."
Suiyan laughed heartily in response. She felt her cheeks warm again. "No, no, child. Of course not. You can have your hair as long as you want it. My head is shaved because I am an Air Nomad." Sayuka thought about that.
"What about the girl Air Nomads? Do they shave their heads?"
The old monk shook his head. "Only their foreheads. They leave their hair long behind their heads, but they keep their foreheads bald as to signify their mastery over air." He gestured to the tattoo on his own head.
Sayuka nodded. "I see."
Their silence continued as they walked through the forest. They walking in silence, but Sayuka's thoughts were loud and conflicting. There were so many things she could do. She could stay with Monk Suiyan. She could go back home. She could leave on her own. She could do anything she wanted. Maybe... this new freedom to do whatever she wanted was what was so conflicting. She felt her forehead crease in concentration. Well, she might be able to do anything she wanted, but she was sure she did not want to return home. Her parents were already replacing her anyway.
The thought of her mother and father filled Sayuka with something she couldn't quite identify, What was the feeling? Fear? Pain? No... it was something she never felt before. It must have shown on her face, because the old monk stopped walking and called to her.
"What is wrong, child?" His voice sounded sincere... worried even.
Sayuka shook her head. "I do not know. I was just... remembering something." The old monk seemed to consider that, and then nodded.
"I see. I can understand. Sometimes, memories are the spirit's way of trying to tell you something." He nodded back towards the shrine. "Would you like to try meditating on it?" Sayuka opened her mouth to refuse, but-
"Alright," was what she heard come out of her mouth. Strange, she thought. Maybe it was a good idea to think about her parents, her family and her future. The monk nodded and turned around. The two walked slowly back to the shrine, enjoying the rest of the walk in the warm sunshine.
When they were almost back to the clearing with the shrine, the old monk stopped. "Wait, child. We have a visitor."
"A visitor?" Sayuka breathed. No, it couldn't be. Not now. Not here. The feeling of fear crawled into her stomach again, feeling like some kind of hideous insect.
"Wait here, out of sight. I will greet our visitor," he bade to her, walking out of the woods to the shrine. Sayuka watched him walk to the shrine, and enter. Swallowing her fear, the crept alongside the trees, making sure to keep out of sight and steady as she made her way on her walking stick, and approached the side of the shrine. She was along the side of the shrine, so she couldn't see inside, and no one inside could see her. But she could hear everything that went on in the small building.
"Good morning, my son." Monk Suiyan greeted someone in the shrine. "How may I help a young man seeking the refuge of this shrine?"
There was a few moments of silence. Then Sayuka heard something that turned her body to ice.
"I am looking for a little girl." There was no mistaking it. It was her father. Sayuka stifled a cry of fear at the sound. It has seemed like ages since she heard the stern, frightening voice.
"A girl, my son?" The old monk asked.
"Yes. My daughter. She went missing not six days ago from our estate. She looks to be about twelve years old. This tall." He must have gestured. "Black hair, black eyes." He stopped the description, saying nothing for a few moments. "Have you seen anyone of this description?" Sayuka shut her eyes tightly, begging the gods to make the man go away.
The monk made a sound, a sound Sayuka now recognized as contemplation. "Your daughter, you say?" he asked slowly.
"My daughter." The deep voice of her father said sternly. "Have you seen her?" His tone indicated that he did not ask a question, but still expected an answer.
Sayuka felt the fear well up inside her worse than she had ever felt before. This feeling of fear was worse than any other time her father had beaten her. Worse than any time she witnessed her mother turn away when she begged her mother to make father stop. Worse than any time she felt her father's fire burn too close to her face. If Monk Suiyan decided to tell her father that-
"I'm afraid I have not seen anyone like that for a long time. I have lived here in this shrine for years, and lead a quiet, solitary life," the old monk explained. Sayuka opened her eyes in shock. What? There was a long silence between the two men, which seemed even longer to Sayuka as she held her breath.
"Are you quite certain, airbender?" her father asked again, a threatening tone in his voice.
"I am quite certain, I'm afraid, my son." He must have stepped aside, Sayuka thought, from his footsteps. "You have my best wishes. I sincerely hope you do find your daughter. She must be very frightened to be out in the world, all alone." There was another long silence between the two men. Sayuka didn't dare breathe, for fear of her father hearing. If her father found that the old monk had lied, he would destroy the entire shrine, kill Monk Suiyan, and take her back home. Maybe even kill her, too. After what seemed like hours, her father's heavy footsteps sounded from the shrine, heading towards the entryway.
"Good day, monk," her father said.
And like that, he was gone.
Sayuka didn't dare move, or breathe. She was too frightened to. She had gotten away with it. Her father had gone. Her father had gone and he would not come back. She would never have to see him again. She could live her own live and... and... She suddenly felt the presence of someone else beside her. Crying out in fear, she made herself as small as she could on the ground, shivering. The presence beside her stood quietly for a long moment then spoke.
"Poor child... he has gone."
Sayuka peeked her eyes open to see the sad face of Monk Suiyan. His wizened eyes looking down on her. He seemed to read what she was thinking and smiled, shaking his head.
"He has gone. Do not worry. No one will hurt you anymore," he said softly. Sayuka whimpered in fear and looked around. Past the old monk, beside him, beside her. He was right, there was no one. He had gone. Another, new feeling uncoiled itself from inside her chest, and in a fast motion, she sprang up from the ground, and embraced the old monk.
Sobbing loudly, she buried her face in the old man's robes. She distantly felt the old man place his hand behind her head, stroking her slowly. She heard him talk quietly to her. His voice was soft, like always. Her body wracked with sobs. She wailed uncontrollably into the monks chest. She couldn't even remember the last time she was able to cry like this. She couldn't even remember being able to cry like this with anyone. But, even as she cried away her pain to the old monk who had been nice to her, she knew it would not last. She did not have enough tears to cry away the pain she felt, and she could not cry forever. But for now, it was enough. Something told her this old monk would let her cry as much as she needed to. And then after, he would listen.
Sayuka pulled her face away from the old monk's chest and sucked in a shallow breath, hiccuping loudly. "Can I- may I stay here? May I stay with you?"
The old monk, Suiyan smiled warmly. The first person she could ever remember smiling like this to her. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she realized this is the way a parent should have smiled to their child.
"Of course you can, child."
To be continued in Book 2...
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