I had writer status before I joined the ATS staff, but I'm only entering to participate, not to win anything. You have all inspired me to write this.
Over twenty years ago, not long after I arrived in this old land of the Czechs in the middle of Europe, I went to stay at a friend's cottage. Pavel
had a week off from work and offered to show me around the district. It was a beautiful region, with forests and lakes all around, and sleepy little
villages lying half-hidden in quiet valleys. The first two days went by with that magical quickness of seeing the new that is also old and I became
forever more enchanted by the land, its people and its long and often eventful history.
On the third day my friend got a phone call as we had breakfast. His apologetic boss wanted him to come back in to work: they had an urgent order to
fill and needed his help to get it done. As he quickly downed his coffee, he told me to just take a walk in the forest and enjoy the peace and quiet;
he'd be back again in time for dinner.
A couple of hours later I was well into the forest, making my way along one of the little pathways that had been worn by countless generations of
wandering deer. Finding a little brook of crystal-clear water, I sat and rested a while, just enjoying the sounds of the breeze through the treetops
and the chirping birds. A small woodpecker, completely unconcerned by my presence, pecked busily at a nearby soaring spruce.
Then, as I rested back on the grass and watched the bird go about its task, I heard a soft, feminine voice behind me. Sitting up and turning, I saw a
woman of about 25 or so who was strolling in my direction and humming a tune as she walked along.
“Good day,” she greeted me in Czech, smiling and waving as she drew closer.
I replied in the same language. It was one of the few things in Czech that I had learned to say properly since I'd arrived.
Instantly recognizing my unusual accent, she smiled even more and said in English, “Oh, you are British, perhaps?”
“Well, I was born there, but then I lived in Australia. I only arrived in the Czech Republic a month ago.”
She set down the small basket of freshly-picked berries she had been carrying and sat beside me. “Oh, now I understand why your accent is so
unusual. Almost British, but not exactly.”
“I'm a mixture,” I smiled, fascinated that she had picked up on that. Offering my hand, I said, “My name is Mike.”
“Karolina,” she replied, taking my hand.
I could spin a story and say she was my image of the perfect woman and it was love at first sight. But no, although she had a deep beauty, especially
in her incredibly dark blue eyes, I didn't feel that kind of attraction. I just felt – this might sound odd – I felt like I was meeting an old
friend. It was as if we had met long ago then not seen each other for years, and were now taking up where we left off.
After holding her hand for longer than I normally would, I released it. Seemingly untroubled, Karolina began asking me what had brought me to her
country, what it was like in Australia and so on. Time just went quietly by and we simply talked. Her English was incredibly good, and so was her
ability to teach me Czech. In the course of the next hour, she helped me to learn more than I'd managed to pick up in the previous month.
Then the sudden sound of rumbling thunder threatened a fast-approaching storm.
“That's quite a storm,” I commented, trying not to sound too concerned. In truth, I had an almost pathological fear of being caught out in the
open in a lightning storm.
“Yes,” she nodded, peering through the trees and watching the storm clouds roil and roll closer over the nearby hilltops. “It will be here soon.
Five or ten minutes, I think.”
As the thunder grew even louder and more ominous I asked, “Aren't we – aren't we supposed to try and get to the bottom of the hill or
Karolina just smiled, “This is a big hill. We don't have time.” She nodded over in the direction she had come from. “There is a little clearing
close by, just a minute or so away. We should go there.”
We went back down the pathway until we reached the clearing. There, we sat down on the grass side by side, the nearest big trees perhaps thirty feet
Looking quite unperturbed, Karolina said simply, “So, let's just relax and watch.”
She rested back on the grass and I lay beside her. Then after glancing at me, she offered her hand. “Don't be afraid,” she said softly. “It will
I took her hand but as a huge peal of thunder echoed off the surrounding hills, I wasn't even able to reply.
For the next minute or so, we just looked up at the piece of sky directly above us, seemingly hemmed in by the soaring shapes of the trees, our normal
perspective of their vertical, parallel lines now somehow distorted and making it look as if they would meet and merge together if they grew tall
Shredded clouds scudded across as if fleeing the Thor-like thunder.
“It's beautiful, isn't it?” Karolina whispered. “So powerful, but also beautiful.”
“Yes... I guess this is better than trying to – to run away from the storm.”
She turned her head a fraction and regarded me calmly, as if reading my very soul. “Things often take on a different perspective when you face
“I – I suppose they do.”
After a few seconds she asked quietly, “Do you want to talk about it?”
At first I pretended not to understand what she meant, but when Karolina squeezed my hand and said, “Just tell me what happened. It will help
you,” I allowed those hidden fears and old memories to rise up and tried to put them into words.
“It was when I was about 18 years old,” I began. “I was out on a hiking trip with a group of friends and we were walking through a forest. It
was a hot summer's day, just like today. And then a storm came in. Before we knew it, there was thunder and lightning all around us. We needed to get
down the hill as fast as we could, so crouching low as we ran, we headed off. And then...”
I sighed and paused, and Karolina squeezed my hand again. “Go on. Let it out.”
“Then I remember this horrible feeling around me. The air buzzed and then there was the flash and the bang, all together. It was so loud... The next
thing I knew, I was lying there and my ears were ringing and I could barely see or hear anything.”
Karolina gave me a searching look. “Were you hurt badly?”
“No, I was okay after a while. But three of my friends – including my best friend Jim – were badly burned. I'll never forget the way they
looked. They'd lost all their hair, and their faces were all covered in ash and dust. They looked like – like old porcelain dolls' heads.”
[Continued in next post]
edit on 23/4/16 by JustMike because: I fixed a typo.