- phases of bereavement -
The blasted storm was starting up again.
Grateful to some deity that the heater was not broken this time, she shuffled her cotton slippers on the linoleum, the cold still seeping to her feet in needle-like pricks. Her sad excuse for a brother was still snoring up a ruckus, even if his face was buried in a tattered pillowcase from the couch. Honestly, listening to that monstrosity is worse than the squeal of steam from the protesting, soot-covered kettle.
"Ebizo," Cracking up a cough, she gave a quick shove, precisely hitting his arthritic, swollen knee, "Open the TV. I want to watch the news."
"But it's five in the morning," The lazy old codger croaked, squirming at the sudden assault of kitten-patterned mittens.
Chiiyo, still suffering from her weak ears, stopped listening in the middle of her brother's incessant whining. As Ebizo was the frequent receiver of her wrath, he grumbled while flailing his hands to ward off more of her assaults. The plaid-patterned rocking chair creaked as he moved, searching for the remote somewhere in between folds of the magazine rack.
When she finally shut the stove off with a click, she picked up the last of her neat, peppermint tea bags on the pantry and settled them in the ceramic cylinders. Knobby fingers grasped the strainer with ease, faltering a bit when the cups were a bit hot to hold. But still, her deliberate movements were precise and efficient, no effort wasted.
Armed with a tray of three cups filled with steaming tea, she eased herself on cushions, mood more pleasant as the warm scent enveloped her. Slapping a reaching, sneaky hand, her dark eyes glared at the clumsy old fool, who gave up, sighed and stood in defeat in order to fix the antenna. As the continuous sporadic spitting of the screen prompted her younger brother—by two years, though, he's still old—to slam a hand on the side of the nearly broken down monitor, the speakers finally blared the first notes of Nachtstücke.
When the screen showed a decent, clear picture, it was focused on an unusual scene in national programs: There were multicolored flags lowered in half-staff. A multitude of soldiers were marching in rhythm with the slow beat of the muffled drums. Four sharply-dressed representatives, each from the branches of the Imperial military, stood beside the four corners of coffin draped with the ornate red-white fan emblem. There were clips of cannons being fired in the afternoon and twenty-one bullets from polished rifles were shot in the air by unyielding privates, giving an eternal salute.
There were supporters and detractors, in all walks of life, glancing at the riderless castandardbred with tears and with disdain; but nobody could deny that his death bought enough tributes from their lips, frivolous praises that the dead cannot hear.
These dramatic footage were already overplayed as the opinionated hosts and scathing critics, seated on a long horizontal glass table, gave their commentaries.
—as the remains of the youngest ruler of the Nippon-koku is now being brought to its final resting place, we have been informed that Lady Uchiha is now under a protective custody. Suffering from a recent illness, a life-threatening attack, and also considering that she witnessed the murder of her husband instigated by her brother-in-law, we cannot hold it against her if she was given the option to hide, more so that the Palace is trying to guard her—
—but why is the "queen" hiding? In this time of great mourning, she should be out here asking for justice! Sources have searched through the possible hospitals she could possibly be confined and her medical records were kept secret. They were not allowed to divulge any intimate details of her condition as it was under the jurisdiction of hospital protocols and the right of patient confidentiality. And though she was in the scene—
Ebizo cried out, when their young charge made a noisy commotion as she fell on the wooden stairs, tumbling on the steps, and was making small, painful gasps as she covered her face.
Her brother at least had the half of his deteriorating brain functioning to turn the program off.
Chiiyo brushed the long pink locks away and prodded her limbs, checking for any injuries. To her great relief, there were no building bruises or broken bones, there were no persistent tears or wailing screams; but her green eyes stared at the dark screen in wide-eyed disbelief. Her pale, pale lips were mouthing a name repeatedly while helplessly shaking her head as if in denial.
"Sit down, don't overdo it," The elderly lady admonished as the distraught woman tried to stand valiantly, even if she only wore a patchy maroon duster and a thick quilt over her shoulders that hid her feverish shivers. "Don't stand too quickly. The blood rushes—"
"I-I…" Her protest was weak, but the desperation was clear as she clung at the edge of the rails, with her arms bent in an awkward angle. "…ne-need to go. Please."
"Sakura." Chiiyo tried to capture her wandering attention, holding the sides of her cheeks and making her focus. "Sakura. Listen to me."
Leaning a bit, her own mouth a fraction of an inch away from the younger one's face and she said the kindest words she had ever said in twenty years. It was too quiet, too soft to be even heard by her brother as the wind continued to rattle the shutters.
"You'll stay here."
She still did not cry. She still had that broken, yet determined, facade. "I have to go."
"There's nothing you can do." Being old, she was frail, withered and more broken than her. But she was wiser, more empathic and hardened. Sakura would learn in time that it was better to heal if the blade was nowhere near the wounds.
Her green, clear, sea eyes—that made Chiiyo wonder how on earth this child inherited them—was still blinking rapidly, admiringly dry.
Ebizo, who was feeling out of place, raised an almost cold cup near their huddled forms.
"Uhm," He hovered over them, his bushy silver eyebrows twitching, "tea?"
"No." The answer was abrupt, forceful.
The old man wilted in disappointment.
"Thank you, though," Sakura added, taking in a deep, cleansing breath. "I just want to sleep."
(and never wake up? Chiiyo knew the young one would like to add that. She knew it very well.)
As the woman stood up, stormed up the stairs with wobbling legs and the door on the far left shut with a soft tinkle of chimes, the old lady could not help but deck the mumbling Ebizo (I was trying to help!) in frustration as she tried to find another thing to do than to watch TV.
It had already been a week since she had seen Sakura emerge from the room, either barricaded by pillows or curiously glancing at the down-turned pictures on the decade-old desk. Chiiyo would not mind these, or the long bout of silent conversations, for she never preferred to interfere in anyone's business.
But then, it was already the sixth day since she gladly housed her, that was before she heard the shattering of glass and an ear-piercing shriek that jumpstarted her sluggish heart.
Chiiyo dropped the knitting needles on the rocking chair that Ebizo favored often without any hesitation. As her aging joints protested, she was again reminded that her body was not capable of carrying her weight as smoothly like in her younger days. Yet, though this was a disadvantage, she quickly hobbled towards the bathroom in the impromptu guest room with a frightened vigor, something that adrenaline could only provide.
What greeted her seemed barely salvageable.
Long, long curls of roseate swirled on the sink. Clumps of pink lay scattered on the white tiles, dotted with bright splotches of crimson. They were sprinkled in tiny silver slivers, the remains of the wonderful vanity mirror in the bathroom. The image was almost beautiful, if it were not for the cowering woman in the tub, drenched by the shower. By the stray, large drops that sprayed lightly on her skin, she could tell that the water was lethally cold.
And here Chiiyo was, standing beside the open doorway, looking at the child with her hair too short—cut in a boyish length—for such lovely features. It exposed her small ears, her too wide forehead, a pair of lips that were still pallid, and the tense veins on her pale neck.
Sakura almost hit her head on the brass knob, when the anxious woman heard her cautious approach, her viridian horrified gaze meeting the old calm stare.
She was in the middle of scrubbing the ghostly cicatrices, traces of scars long gone, on her arms and the stains of dark blood from the accidental cutting of her hand.
"I don't...I don't—" Sakura scrubbed the streaming thick crimson away from her arm, unaware that she was only aggravating her cuts. "Take it off. Please." She was in near hysterics, her voice rising, almost a scream.
There was only her mouth opening in closing, dry sobs squeezing out of her as she looked at her blood-filled hands.
"You should have told me." Clucking her tongue in reproach, she approached the shears that sunk in the middle of the tub still stained with long strands of pink. "What if you got yourself injured? That was too close to your face."
She looked away, far from the shards of her reflection that were scattered on the floor. There were rose-stained suds on her cordiform face, with fresh cuts stark against the paper-white skin. Her white nightgown clung to her body, dangerously thin.
"You impulsive child." Cleaning up the mess, her gnarly hands managed to settle on the large, green shears. However, Chiiyo was disturbed when she saw the razors out of the medicine box, scattered and water-stained. But they were unused, thrown carelessly in a heap at the distant corner of the rim of the tub; as if the woman had contemplated at the sharpness of those blades long enough if she should use them.
Foolish the young girl may be, she was not weak.
She would survive this.
"Take everything off. I'll help you wash yourself."
The young woman obliged, mechanically sliding the cloth away from her body as she refused to stand.
Then Chiiyo's eyes caught a small glint on Sakura's hand.
"And your ring."
Sakura trembled even more, her hands shaking so terribly in fear that the expensive little trinket might fall off in the tub and get lost in the drainage, but she managed to get a good grasp and held to it tightly, a near droplet of tear slid off from the shivering cheeks.
Chiiyo did not raise any questions: Why Sakura kept on shielding her belly from her hands. Why Sakura feared the sight of blood.
The last thing widows needed were questions.
(Why is my husband dead? Why? The image of the pink-haired woman merged with that of another young widow, with rust colored hair and black eyes, as she lay broken on the tiles, succumbing to the onslaught of grief.)
Every Friday evenings, Chiiyo always made it a point to check each and every pocket before dumping them on the rickety washer, when that stupid Ebizo forgot to pull out his check from his pension which resulted in a week without heated water.
When she visited Sakura, the sleeping lady was grasping the ring from the chain of silver that Chiiyo gave her. The rough pads of her fingers intertwined through the curves and planes of the stone with closed lids, bent limbs and hunched back. She was tossing and turning after a few seconds, her mouth murmuring the words, It was me it was me god it was me you should have killed me bastard whywhywhy, in between drowning gulps of breath.
It was not as worse as the first night, where she had screamed for about two minutes, with strangled, choking sobs but the nightmares were still taking a toll on her.
Grasping both of her shoulders, the resigned old nurse shook her awake.
Pink lashes fluttered slowly, as if dismissing phantom tears from her eyes.
"Sorry." The soft intonation was rough, her movements sluggish. "I woke the whole neighborhood again?"
Her apologies were almost out of her mouth when Chiiyo procured the mobile device on the pale hands. Sakura almost jerked off the bed, holding the cold object and turning it side-to-side, checking for damages.
"Where did you get this?"
Flip. Flap. She flicked the cell appendage, the monitor only blinking the time. Flip. Flap.
The rhythm continued, her actions becoming a little bit rapid.
"In the laundry." Chiiyo sensed some hostility in her gaze. "Is it broken?"
"No." There was a cold smile, on that froze up sinews of her chest, impaling the frost deep into her ribs. "Thank you very much."
The next day, she found out that Sakura exhumed all the books from the sealed boxes, hidden underneath her bed.
It was filled with still pictures of people being cut-open, and stitched up, those books that were certainly kept away, never to be seen again. They were from a forgotten Akasuna S.---old abandoned books of Anatomy Proper and Handbook in Surgery, and that alarmed the old grandmother as the young woman rattled off potency of gas anesthetics and uses of second-generation, broad-spectrum cephalosporin antibiotics while staring absentmindedly on the ceiling.
"Sakura," the Akasuna woman started seriously. Her voice might be raspy, hoarse, and aged, but those things were definitely off-limits. Chiiyo had to make it clear. "What are you doing?"
"To get my mind off things."
"But those books," Chiiyo glared at the stubborn lass, "I kept them for a reason."
Sakura flipped the mobile open and faintly discerned the digital numbers. "And it's lunch. Are there any riceballs? I want to finish studying these procedures before I go down." She then added a disarming smile. "Uncle Ebizo told me he went fishing. You're supposed to go with him, right?"
"You hate blood," Chiiyo said bluntly, remembering the incident where even the sight of blood would make her tremble.
"I'm scared of blood," Sakura responded, as if she was only talking to herself. She lay sprawled on the bed sheets, feet propped in the air and head buried on the tomes with a determined look as she flicked another page. "But one day, I won't be."
"I'm going to be a doctor."
"Because you want to defeat death," Chiiyo responded coolly, "I heard that before, chi—"
"Yes," was the girl's response, "Death can try to claim me, but not my loved ones. Not again."
(Grandma, Grandma, I won't die like mama and papa. I won't leave you like them, I promise.)
"Stupid girl." Chiiyo had to turn away, relieved that she had to stop comparing Sakura to him. "Eat first before you read another chapter. Nothing will go to your head with your stomach empty."
Then there was a small laugh. It was an obvious effort, but at least Sakura tried.
"Boy," Her throat was parched, voice raspy by the darn cold. "Stop standing at the doorstep. The cold's getting in. And your granduncle's out of town so yes, you're safe from the snores."
Her greatest regret and secret pride, her grandson, probably gave a small nod before entering the threshold.
Some forgotten three (or two and a half? she mused) decades ago, before the Uchiha Empire had ensnared the lands, her only son and his wife died in a bloody territorial skirmish between two neighboring countries, leaving their sole child in her care. She might be going senile, but her memory remained as clear as day when she remembered Sasori with his beguiling large brown eyes and rust-colored mopped hair. The eight year old had held her hand as they traversed the country, to a safe haven in the quaint little village. It always rained in this seemingly fog-enshrouded place, but her small little boy grew up here as he learned his craft, until he entirely forgot to pursue medicine to share his masterpieces to the world.
"You have a guest." The deep baritone was smooth, with a hint of amusement and bewilderment.
Chiiyo stepped back to the living room carrying the sweets that he usually preferred. "Is there any problem with that?"
Outwardly, her grandson seemed unaffected at the sight of the woman sprawled on their antique sofa, but there was something amiss. His shoulders tensed, obviously taut beneath the black leather coat and the fact that he stared far too long at the sheared coral hair made her wary. Carefully, he sat on the side-arm, an arms-length away from the younger one's red-socked feet.
Hazel eyes—so much like his mother, Chiiyo thought tenderly—flickered to the old periodicals scattered on the messy brown carpet, where the proceedings of the deceased Overlord was documented religiously last year. The case, however, had already collapsed after two years of deliberations. However, just this last week, they had issued a subpoena to one of the crucial witnesses to the scene, who did not appear on court.
Uchiha Itachi was still guilty, because of the sufficient evidences (the last canned phone call when the supposed witness called the name of the murderer, a res gestate, before three shots were heard), the testimonials of others and the motive was very obvious for all in the court.
(he was supposed to be the ruler, revealed by the cross-examination of the persecutor.)
But the murderer still escaped the capital punishment and was now imprisoned to some unknown facility.
Sakura, during these days, slept deeply. There were no disturbances in her slumber, but it was still troubling the old woman.
"Obstinate child. When you were gone," Chiiyo made a tsking noise as she set the cups on the coffee table. "Sakura sleeps in your room, with one of your textbooks under her head."
An almost smirk twitched on his lips. "Homeless?"
"Someone asked a favor." Giving an aggravated sigh, she wanted to appear as if taking the girl was a burden. "The girl is polite. Said her apologies and took the couch when I told her that you're staying for a week."
"Is she sick?"
"Yes." He probably took note of the ludicrous amount of blankets on her form. "Already stick and bones. You should've finished your med school, so you can at least say that she's recuperating."
"I'm surprised that you're housing patients." The boy—even if he was already thirty two, he would always be her young boy—turned to her grandmother with a petulant glare, protesting. "I'm not going to sleep in my room if that's—"
There was a loud ring, slicing their attempt of hushing voices.
When Sasori flipped his phone open, one of those fancy black and red phones that he kept, he answered with a multitude of one-word responses: A yes. A no. A place. A confirmation. She was old enough to know that though her grandson had failed med school to pursue the art conservatory, he was exceptionally talented in what he had chosen to do.
"Tell Kakuzu to pick me up on a helicopter. Thirty four degrees latitude. North point. One three eight in longtitude, Fifteen meters west. I shall notify you for any changes. "
"Yeah, Master Sasori. But he'll rant about gas prices—" And even though Chiiyo was not one to eavesdrop, she still could not help but sneer at sheer volume of the voice emanating from Sasori's mobile.
"Don't make me wait a minute late." Ah, another one of those Akasuna traits that was a contributing factor to their success in any of their chosen endeavors.
"You're not going to stay?" She stated, keeping her face neutral. But her cracked lips were probably frowning.
"Change of plans. Something came up."
If his posture was perfect then his bow was absolute, formal and fluid.
This little pang of pain probably had something to do with old age, but as he left the house without even a single goodbye, something in her cold chest shriveled and died.
"I went to the City Hall yesterday."
For the past eight months, Sakura was recuperating well. Her night terrors and spacing out had decreased drastically when she started on tackling the medical texts that she found in her grandson's room.
"You didn't tell me you already took the medical boards." Releasing a mild chuckle, she also added, "And that you already graduated from med school with full marks in some country I don't know."
She was taken a back with this, her eyes widening which reminded Chiiyo of rippling lakes in the oasis. "Excuse me?"
"It said you only need to complete a few hours in your internship." She made a little snorting noise. "Judging from your scores, I think you'll be fine to start a residency though."
Chiiyo then placed the crinkly, brown envelope near the empty plate.
"I had those picked out for me in the City Hall. Those bespectacled lads in the records section owed me a lot so I told them to gather as many documents as they could about you in the statistical office and your social security files."
Green eyes darted back and forth to the thick bundle of papers, that she gripped hard but not enough to crease them. She scanned through the personal biodata and the black and white profile picture with unmasked astonishment. Her hands hovered over the golden seals on her certificates, the authentication of her board grades and GPAs arranged in a neat graphed box.
"I needed those papers since I was planning to surprise you. Just found out I could get you in that small hospital downtown. Apparently, even old hags like me still have connections. You'll have to attend the orientation on Monday, that municipal med center near that bakery, to be officially listed on their staff."
There was a certain befuddlement on Chiiyo's part at Sakura's confusion. The documents were real, even the serial numbers, when she double checked them at the registration. Leaving the extra two eggs on the plate for their guest's benefit, Chiiyo changed the topic with ease as she felt the surmounting distress on the newly assigned resident. "So, you're twenty-six? Lucky lass, you look younger."
"You did this." Sakura carefully said, sliding them back in the package with an impassive expression. But the attempt to hide her anxiety was evident when she refused to even glance back at the papers. "You shouldn't have."
"I told you, I need them for your recommendation." Taking the cold cup of tea instead, Chiiyo gave a scowl behind the ceramic rim. "Don't be such an ungrateful brat. Now I don't want any bums in my house, do you understand, Haru-?"
"Sakura," She cut in. "Please, Aunt Chiiyo."
And with that statement alone, Chiiyo intentionally ignored her sudden aversion.
Later on, Chiiyo would learn that Sakura never responded whenever being called Haruno.
It took about a week in the presence of others, at work, before the woman realized that she needed to adapt on her name.
When it was almost the start of spring, a Sunday morning, Sakura arrived from the market carrying a bunch of fertilizers and seeds, and Chiiyo was pleased with it. A vigorous hobby to distract the child from those books and work may work miracles on those dismal spirits. And maybe, if she was lucky, it could disrupt those nasty mood swings of hers when the girl needed to clear her mind.
Sakura seemed to be doing better that what she had expected, whistling a happy tune, giving a small chuckle or two, while pruning the stalks and taking off the weeds, little by little.
Her vegetable garden (of tomatoes, tomatoes! And tomatoes are fruits, she laughed with an ironic smile) was always healthy and well-cared for, but they never bore any flora and fruit. Chiiyo explained that the constant frigid weather was to blame, but Sakura thought otherwise.
"I didn't have much skill in gardening, anyway," Her response was airy, trying to conceal the weight in her throat—the pain—because that it truly, dearly mattered
"I wasn't really the housewife type." She was staring at the ground, her gloved hands still on the soil, like she was looking for something.
It was not raining, but there were dew-like drops on the young leaves.
"It's already three in the afternoon, and I'm in the middle of making curry—"
"Miss Haruno is going to stay here for the night," The message continued, an apparent nervousness ran through her veins as the young man stated his report, "We assigned her to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for her last shift. But her duty hours are only for about thirty hours. She hasn't slept for 48 hours when one of her premature patients had RDS, the usual diagnosis. When the seven-month old suffered a respiratory arrest, she kept on resuscitating the baby—It's just…" There was a sympathetic tone, like a suppressed sniff. "Anyway, after calming Dr. Haruno, we told her to rest at the resident's quarters for awhile, and have her next three days filed for a sick leave—"
"No. She'll feel even worse if you say that to her. Just tell her I made some chocolate." There was no need to rub salt on the wound, as the old maxim would say. "Ebizo will pick her up."
"It's better than your vending machine."
"Yes." The man over the line sighed. "We'll tell her."
"I don't get why you're here, girls."
There were a gaggle of nurses, and a few of the younger clerks and residents who sat in the living room, crowding the small space as they tried to be inconspicuous while wearing party dresses and assorted classy heels.
"Ma'm Chiiyo, can you just convince Dr. Haruno, please?"
"There's this party that will be held at the hospital, Professor." One of the brunettes, who must probably be one of her nursing students from the past five or four years, clasped her hands in a sort of plead. "And Dr. Haruno kept on refusing. So maybe if you—"
"I'm not her mother," Chiiyo groused, flashing the 'I'm a grumpy grandma, so don't cross me' card. "If she doesn't want to go, I won't force her."
"We just thought that…" One of the residents, the one with the nice glasses who wore that impractical skirt way past her knees in this freaking cold climate, mumbled. "…she might enjoy the celebration. You know how she always keeps to herself."
"There's a surprise for her at the end of the convention, isn't it?"
All were quiet, automatically closing their mouths shut as their eyes met each other.
It was all the confirmation Chiiyo needed.
"All right," Chiiyo agreed, "But there are no dresses for her here, she might only wear a pair of sensible pants."
"It's okay!" They nodded their heads, trying to keep the bubble of excitement from their expectant faces. "We got it all covered, the office will deal with that."
Grumbling about over-reacting women and losing her touch, Chiiyo walked slowly to the stairs with a frown on her face.
Imagine the reluctant relief that assuaged her frail heart when Sakura was already wearing her best red and black pantsuit under the white professional coat. Her pink hair was still short, barely past the ends of her lobes, appearing like a childish pixie even if she was already twenty-seven. Leaning on the far end of the wall with her arms crossed, the doctor had heard the whole commotion downstairs, and knew that resisting the crowd would definitely ensure a lengthy debate if she refused their invitation.
Good thing Sakura hated to be dragged on her cold ass.
"You should go out." Chiiyo managed to sound stern.
"Fine." Sakura sighed, her smile was sincere. "But I'll still wear my ring."
During the forty-fourth month of her stay in her household, Sakura moved out of the Akasuna residence. Although her small apartment was five blocks away, the young girl would occasionally drop by and acccompany Ebizo in his monthly scrabble get-togethers, Chiiyo still felt the mutual loneliness that only the grieving could understand.
Maybe Sakura would never heal, but the effort to try, at least, and live was enough.
(this is for jawo, adgie & geline, belated happy birthday :D)
Preview for volume five: Setting Traps
"Is there no longer," The question hung precariously, "any attempt on your life?"