Recalibrating

Just finished a “short” story I started writing last fall. It’s a lot different than my usual writing voice, a bit on the dark side, and one of the longer stories I’ve written. Here’s a short excerpt that seems to resonate with current world events.

My editor friend suggests, quite gently, that there is no point in setting this story in eastern Europe if I don’t describe it. You have to give a story a sense of place, he says. Do the travelogue thing, you know. I’m happy to oblige him, though for me, the external landscape was  more of an afterthought these last few years. I was obsessed with the terrain inside my own heart, or soul, of course. That’s one reason why I won’t name the countries and cities; it’d just be a distraction from the internal journey. My editor friend hates it when I use that phrase.

The places are beautiful, it’s true. They have a sense of age we Americans just don’t experience in our country. The rolling green hills, the snow-capped mountains, the multi-hued forests, the wide rivers and lakes; even these natural elements seem somehow older than their American counterparts. And the buildings – everything from gypsy huts to grand cathedrals – speak the stories of their residents; the cities, towns, and tiny villages, the cobblestone streets and squares, the sidewalk cafes, the clock towers and castles, even the expensive stores and the tacky tourist souvenir shops, all conspire to make you feel as if you’re in an old fairy tale, until you see the McDonald’s or Starbucks on the corner. Oh, even then, those places are really just the warts on the frog, pretty much. I can’t describe it all, so I’ll settle for one view and hope to do it some justice.

There’s a place where two rivers meet, one intersecting the other to form a border for three countries. They’ve not always been three separate countries, of course, even in my lifetime those borders have shifted. This is another experience we Americans find mysterious, opaque – our borders have been set for generations and we do not have families separated or reunited by the whims of dictators or international defense treaties. But they are three countries now, and the two deep blue-grey rivers form a beautiful y shape separating their rolling green terrain. An old decrepit castle reigns over the spot; the hike up is steep but quite manageable, and the sense of peace there feels eternal.

Until you realize there is a place quite close to where you are standing where communist border guards shot those trying to swim across one of the rivers to the other shore and freedom. During your own lifetime, this happened. Thousands dying to get a few hundred metres away from where you stand. Then the peace seems far less eternal, far more transient, and you wonder what it is that humans can possibly do to earn their way back to deserving such beautiful places.

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