...Stories of Forgotten Places
By Randy Stahla
Illustrated by Richard Bennett-Woods
Ukraine Consultant - Tiffany Carlsen
The characters and events depicted in this story are fictional, and any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
This story is about three young women who went to high school together and then decided to meet each other a few years later for a reunion at a resort area in Eastern Europe. It is there that the real struggles of life meet them head-on and they try to grasp the meaning of life itself. The story begins with a woman named Anya (pronounced “Awn-ya”).
Anya woke up, startled by a telephone ring down the hall. There were only 40 phones per one thousand people in Ukraine, so it was somewhat unusual to hear that sound. Perhaps one of her neighbors managed to find a way to get a phone installed in their residence.
She got up, and tested the sink. She had enough water pressure that morning to take a bath. She lived in a five-story building, and sometimes the heat worked and sometimes not. Her place was a small flat. It had a tiny kitchen, a bathroom with a leaky faucet and a frosted window that let cold air in when taking a shower. The tiles had come off of part of the wall, but they had never been repaired.
Silence was hardly ever the case in this building because the walls were paper thin. There was another room that served as the dining room, living room, and her bedroom. She had a big old couch to sleep on with a few pillows and a couple of warm blankets that didn’t match anything.
It was a cold February morning in Kiev. Shades of gray enveloped the streets and buildings outside her window. The frost built up on the glass, and she drew a smiley face on it. She hoped the sun would make things warm up later on and melt away her artwork. She couldn’t wait till winter was gone and warm summer days were here again.
She got dressed, and put on her winter coat and Shapka. She went downstairs on a stairway that was old and worn. The plaster had long furrows just beneath the surface of the paint where water had come in through the leaky roof and then down the wall during rain storms.
Outside the front door of the building, there was an old man selling pens and paper. His face was wrinkled from standing outdoors for long periods of time in the cold winters. Anya walked past him, and met several others selling various things - clothing, bread, chocolate bars, and magazines. Many of the businesses and factories had closed in the past few years, and people had to do whatever they could to earn some money.
There were kids running in the street wearing ragged clothing, with seemingly nowhere to go. The government used to make sure they were in school, but now no one really cared.
Anya walked several blocks more to the bus stop. She hoped they would show up today, and that they were on time. The bus, like the government, was unreliable.
The bus finally came, and it was very crowded - like always. The seats were cold vinyl, and some were missing. The fare was 30 Kopecks.
Some people were going to work or back home. Others were going to school at Kiev State, the main university. The front window of the bus kept icing up because the defrost fan couldn’t keep up with the cold humid air. The roads were in poor condition, and it was a bumpy ride. Anya was glad that her trip wouldn’t be very long.
Anya had left home to try and make it on her own. She wanted to go to the university, but so far things hadn’t worked out. Her dad was a mechanic, and did odd jobs around town whenever he could. Her mom did laundry (by hand) at home for other people to try and earn some extra money. Sometimes her mother traded work for food (or whatever people could spare.) Anya felt badly about this, and didn’t want to be a burden to her parents anymore. Besides, things had never been very peaceful at home.
Then, a strange man waded his way through the crowd toward her. He wore a tie, and showed her a badge. He wanted to see her identification. She gave it to him, and then the bus came to one of the regular stops. While people were getting on and off the bus, he quickly slipped off with her billfold and ran away. Anya suddenly realized that he had been posing as a policeman in order to get her billfold.
Anya tried to get to the door and screamed, but it was too late. He had taken her I.D., her money, and everything else. She started crying, and gritted her teeth.
“Why do things have to be this way,?” she cried.
All Anya could think of was trying to get her billfold back. And then she remembered that two of her long-time friends from high school had called her and wanted to meet her in Odessa this summer for a reunion. Marie, who now lived in Poland, was going to meet Anya in Kiev and then ride the train with her to Odessa, Ukraine. Lena (pronounced “Len-ya”) lived in Romania and would ride the train from there to meet them in Odessa.
That thought seemed to comfort her at least a little bit. She had many fond memories of going there on vacation. Odessa was south of Kiev and was situated right by the Black Sea. You could ride an overnight train and then spend lots of time on the beach. The beaches were a beautiful off-white and the waters navy blue. The coast stretched out as far as you could see.
But till then, she had to get to work now and try to get the police to help her recover her billfold. She cringed at that thought. She knew they probably wouldn’t do much unless she could bribe them.
At any rate, she wouldn’t have much for supper tonight. Her billfold contained the money she was going to use at the market. She got off the bus, and the cold wind bit into her face. She ran over to the side of a building, hoping that it would block some of the freezing air. Hopefully, the heat would be working properly today in the store where she worked.
Anya worked in a clothing store. She was a check-out clerk and stocked shelves whenever goods came in. At the end of the day, she helped with some of the book work. The hardest part of her job was turning away families who needed clothing or shoes but didn’t have any money to pay for them. These were hard - working families, but it had been months since they had been paid.
Anya went into the entrance of the store and soon she was checking out customers who were purchasing some clothing articles that they had just received. She felt a sense of satisfaction being able to sell goods that were available to people who really needed them.
Inventory in the store wasn’t always available. People had to wait for specific items they were looking for. And even when certain items (like shoes) came in, there was no guarantee that they would have the selection of colors, sizes, or styles that people wanted.
Sometimes people became very impatient with her because they couldn’t find what they needed. Somehow, Anya had always been able to calm them down. She knew they were frustrated, but there was usually nothing that could be done. All she could do was try to get the items on order and hope they came in when she told them they would.
It was crazy. When people had the money to spend, they couldn’t always find what they needed. But when the goods finally came in, the same people didn’t have the money. And there weren’t any government assistance programs. They just didn’t exist right now.
She was grateful to have a job. But sometimes she couldn’t take it when people left the store empty - handed. It was especially hard on her when they had children who needed a blanket or something.
At times like that, she took a break, and went out the back door and stared up at the clouds. Her mind went past the store, past the city buildings, beyond the problems she could do nothing about, and beyond the present into the future. She had so many dreams, and wanted them to come true.
When she lived at home, her parents criticized her because she would daydream so much. They would tell her,
“What dumb ideas. You may want all these things you dream about, but you’ve got to come back to reality. If you expect all these things to come true, you’re going to be very disappointed. You know how things are right now. You’re in a dream world, and you’ve got to wake up. ”
Right. She shouldn’t dream. Just wake up. Just go to work every day, and never imagine that things could be better. Not this girl. No way.
When Anya saw the clouds move through the sky, her thoughts would travel with them to other places and times. Her imagination went wild when she saw the sky.
When clouds move in I dream within,
I see the white, my heart is light,
And I pretend the clouds reveal,
Whatever I see, whatever I feel.
Moving past my eyes I see,
Anything I want to be,
Floating in the sky so blue,
My wishes are all coming true,
Life can’t take away my dream,
It tastes good like ice cream,
I imagine I can float away,
My desire will come true today.
When clouds move in I dream within,
I fly away from everything,
My heart is light, my heart could sing,
I see the good that life could bring.
Daydreams... stories of forgotten places...
I’m living in a forgotten place,
A far off land in the human race,
I’m waiting for the sun to rise,
And give the light to my eyes,
My daydreams are my hope so far,
I’m reaching for them just like a star,
But will my hope simply go away?
Will my eyes see a better day?
Several months later, in Warsaw, Poland ...
Marie stood before a control panel mounted to the wall. Behind her was a laser set-up along with numerous cabinets and benches having scientific equipment. She was a research chemist working in the city of Warsaw, Poland, for a nanoelectronics company.
Three laser beams pierced through the darkness of the laboratory, bouncing back and forth between small mirrors, forming a tapestry of red, blue, and yellow light. The lasers were mounted to a large table and several people in different parts of the room were busy working. The hum of various instruments and machines could be heard in the background.
The countdown on the numeric readout began... Three, two, one...beep! The system had sent an ultra fast pulse into a layer of protein molecules, and the reaction time of the molecules was measured. Marie’s boss exclaimed from across the room,
“Two hundred fifty femtoseconds. Not bad.”
The lasers automatically shut down. Marie took off her protective goggles for laser radiation, and she went over and turned the overhead lights on. Her boss came over to her and asked her to go to lunch.
“Not today. I’m taking off early for a trip to Kiev to visit my parents. Then I’m going to Odessa to meet some of my friends from high school. Remember?”
“Oh, that’s right, you wanted two weeks off,” her boss responded. Well, we’re making good progress on our experiments. Have a great vacation.”
‘Thanks,’ Marie responded.
Marie’s dad was really her step-father. Her real father died of cancer when she was ten. Marie was born in Warsaw, and her real father was a chemist at the University. He named her after the Nobel-prize winning Polish chemist Marie Curie.
Marie used to go to the laboratory with her real father when she was little, and decided that she, too, would someday become a chemist like him. Losing her father was very traumatic for her, and she carried a great deal of anger for a long while. It was difficult for her mother to make ends meet, and to care for the needs of her daughter.
Marie was 13 when her mother remarried. She met a Ukrainian, and they decided to move to Kiev, where he was a factory worker. Over the years Marie accepted him as her new father, and he was promoted to a managerial position in the company. This helped them to send Marie back to the University of Warsaw where she earned a graduate degree in chemistry and computer science.
She couldn’t wait to see her family in Kiev again, and left for the airport right away. As the plane took off, she remembered the times when she was young and she used to ride the train from Kiev down to Odessa. Her grandmother (on her step-fathers’ side) lived there, and she would visit her every summer for two weeks. Her grandmother used to take her to a small grocery store down the street and buy her candy or other treats. She made wonderful bread, and they took walks along the shore of the Black Sea. Her grandmother helped Marie to deal with her real father’s death. She really understand her.
Marie’s parents met her at the airport in Kiev, and they all rode the bus home to their apartment. Marie was glad to be home again, and to sleep in her bed. She was also glad that it was summer. The heat wasn’t always available during the winter because Ukraine had shortages of natural gas, and she had spent some cold nights at home in the past.
Marie and her parents sat down to the table, and her mother fixed her some warm Borshch soup and home-made bread. The kitchen was small and simple, with little knickknacks filling the shelves around the counter. Her dad tried to fix things as much as possible, but it was too expensive for them to repair some of the wiring and replace the old worn-out drapes that had been in the apartment since they moved in. And there was no use in waiting for the landlord to do any of that. You were fortunate if they would make any kind of repairs.
Her dad looked tired and his hands were worn and chapped.
Marie looked at him and asked,
“How’s work going?”
He looked away, and was silent. It was an awkward moment.
Marie’s mother tried to change the subject, and said,
“Your friend Anya called yesterday, and wanted to know when your plane would arrive. She’s really anxious to see you again, and is looking forward to riding the train with you to Odessa. She lives over in the Kreschatik apartments and...”
Marie broke in and said,
“Mom, I’m glad to hear about Anya, but I would like an answer to my question.”
Her mom sighed with regret.
“OK - your dad has been laid off.”
Marie was shocked.
“Why? He has a good position. Why would they lay him off? Isn’t he still a manager?”
Her dad stood up, and walked away from the table, looking out the window. With desperation in his voice, he said,
“They’re shutting the whole thing down. We used to supply Russian military plants with parts and supplies for their operations. But the Russian factories are manufacturing anything they can get their hands on now, and they can’t use what we make. They’re making refrigerators instead of tanks and airplanes, and skilled engineers are now building ice makers. Who knows - they may be shutting down the Russian factories, too. It’s a very tough global market now, and we can’t compete like we need to.”
Marie was devastated. She looked down at the table and took another bite of soup. Her mother broke the silence.
“But we’re doing OK. Your dad is doing odd jobs for people, and I am selling baked goods at the market. On weekends we try to sell things out on the sidewalk as people go by. Anyway, we’ll make it somehow. We always have. We don’t want you to worry about us.”
Marie knew that her mother was trying to calm her fears, and she had always done a good job of it. But it was difficult for Marie to understand all the changes that had come about in Ukraine since she left for school. Corruption in the government was rampant, and Marie wondered what would happen next.
Her dad came over behind Marie and patted her shoulder gently.
“Let’s take a walk after supper tonight. You can see a few of the places you haven’t been to for a long time.”
Marie smiled and looked up at him. Having her dad near again meant a lot.
“OK, that sounds good.”
A couple days later after Marie had gotten a chance to visit with her parents for awhile, she called her friend Anya. They decided to get together and make the arrangements for their vacation. When the weekend came, they boarded an all-night train for Odessa.
Meanwhile, in Bucharest, Romania ...
Lena drove her car up to the intersection and slammed on the brakes. Her car skidded several feet before stopping just in time to miss the side of a bus. Other vehicles and people on bicycles moved out of her way as she sped off in search of another house that was hard to find.
Her tires squealed as she took another corner at break-neck speed. This 30 minute delivery was ridiculous, she thought. Can’t be cold. Can’t be old. Can’t arrive too soon. Be courteous. Smile and be pleasant. Deliver the pizza, and hope that they will give you a tip. Lena knew that she could lose her job for driving this way. But right now she didn’t care.
People in Romania would take a bouquet of flowers or a package of cigarettes to “coax” someone into signing a paper, getting them a phone line installed, or whatever. But no one in Romania had ever heard of tipping a tired, frustrated driver.
Lena had worked in Bucharest for about two years since she came there to attend the University. She wanted to become a petroleum engineer. She had grown up in Simeria, a small town in Transylvania. When she graduated from high school, she wanted to get away from a farming community and start an exciting career.
The rest of the world had a lot of opportunities for an engineer. Just the other night, she delivered a pizza to a couple of Americans from California who were in Bucharest on business. She talked to them about the possibility of getting a job in the states when she graduated, and they told her to look them up.
They asked her where she was from in Romania, but she didn’t say. Every time she mentioned Transylvania, she was asked about Dracula, dark castles, or monsters. She was fed up with all that dribble from the movies.
The house finally came into Lena’s view. She grabbed the pizza box, and ran up to the door. They couldn’t believe that their pizza was really on time. Other things in Romania weren’t all that dependable. Thankfully, it was the last delivery for the evening. Lena was tired, and glad to go back to the shop and get her paycheck. What a busy week this had been! Between working and school she had very little time, but it was the end of the semester and she was looking forward to a short break.
She went home, packed her bags, and drove down to the train station. A short while later she boarded a train and headed off to Odessa, Ukraine. Her other two friends were going to meet her there for a long - awaited vacation.
It would be a long ride, but Lena was very tired and didn’t care much about anything right now. She kept her belongings close by and tried to get as comfortable as possible. The train’s whistle echoed in the distance as it started down the tracks through the night. Power poles and buildings passed more and more quickly by her window as the train went faster. The moon was shining over the peaks of the mountains off in the distance, and with the constant rhythm of the train’s motion Lena went to sleep.
Later in Odessa ...
The train station in downtown Odessa had tall stone walls and columns that stood out majestically over the cobblestone streets. It was built in the 19th century, and was busy most of the time with travelers.
Marie and Anya had arrived from Kiev a couple of days ago. They rented a car, and drove to the station to pick up Lena. When they met each other, it was a great event. They hadn’t seen each other since high school.
They found a little restaurant, and then checked in to the Passage Hotel. All three had a great time reminiscing, and planned to go site - seeing and then to the beach.
Marie’s favorite place in Odessa was the Odessa Drama Theater. Inside it had beautiful architecture and a stairway that was something like you would see in a dream. The next day they went all over the city, and went up the Potemkin steps until they were exhausted from climbing them. Marie used to come here with her grandmother and thought it would take forever until they got to the top of the stairs to see the monument. The next stop was the Odessa seaport to see all the ships, and finally they dug in to some nice warm sand on the beach.
The afternoon sun felt wonderful, and they were really starting to enjoy their vacation when someone came over and disrupted it.
Lena felt sand hit her arm. She sat up, and whisked the sand away.
She looked up, and saw a man standing near her, holding a bag. He had grubby clothes on, and was unshaven. He wore an old, beat-up white hat with a dirty black band around it.
“What in the world do you want?,” Lena asked in an irritated voice.
At this, Anya and Marie sat up, holding their hands over their eyes to block the sun. All three stared up at this stranger and wondered where on earth he had come from.
“Would you and your friends like to purchase some Sosiski (pronounced saw-si’-ski) ?”
He opened up his bag, and pulled out a hot dog in a piece of bread. He held it out to Lena, and some red sauce slid off the hot dog onto her shoulder. Lena jumped up and scraped the sauce off. She was livid!
“Would you get out of here? We don’t want any hot dogs!”
Lena pushed him away from her, grabbed her towel, and backed away from him. This made his bag tip over, and several hot dogs fell out onto the sand. The man scrambled to save whatever he could.
“What am I going to do now? I paid good money for these hot dogs and I need to sell them.”
Anya was irritated with this intrusion, and took Lena’s side.
“No one asked you to come over here. You just barged in on us when we were trying to relax. We’re sorry about the food, but it really wasn’t our fault.”
The man picked up his bag, and started to walk away. He looked back at the three of them.
“I got laid off from my job, and I’m trying to make an honest living. Sorry I ruined your day.”
Marie thought of her dad’s work situation. She couldn’t turn away someone struggling to survive. She grabbed her beach bag, and looked for some hyrvnias.
“How much are the hot dogs,” Marie asked.
The stranger turned around and was surprised at her response. Lena and Anya looked at Marie like she was crazy, but Marie wouldn’t change her mind.
“They’re on sale today -- I’ll let you have 3 hot dogs for 2 hyrvnias.”
Marie asked the stranger to come back, and He handed her three hot dogs. She held two of them out to her friends.
Lena looked at Anya, hoping she would refuse Marie’s offer. But Anya caved in, took a hot dog, and started eating it.
“I’m hungry,” Anya said to Lena, and looking at the stranger Anya said, “Have you got anything to drink with this?”
Lena placed her towel on the sand and plopped down in disgust. She wouldn’t take the hot dog from Marie, but Marie wrapped it in a napkin and put it on Lena’s towel by her feet anyway. Then she gave the stranger 10 Hryvnias.
“Keep the change,” Marie said, and looking at Lena’s sullen face Marie started kidding her and said, “They may not do much tipping in Romania, but that isn’t the case here.”
Lena looked over at Marie’s smiling face and calmed down. Then she looked at the red sauce on Anya’s mouth and started laughing.
“Thank you very much,” the stranger said, putting the money in his pocket.
“That’s OK,” Marie answered, “But maybe next time you sell to people on the beach you need to improve your sales technique.”
They all laughed, and the stranger held out his hand to shake Marie’s. His hands were worn and chapped, and his complexion brown from the sun.
“My name is Alex,” he said, “and I live in Odessa. Where are you three from?”
Marie’s mouth was full and she couldn’t respond at first, but she shook his hand. Then she pointed to herself and her friends as she introduced them to Alex.
“I live in Warsaw, Poland; Anya is from Kiev, and Lena lives in Bucharest, Romania. We’re here on vacation.”
Alex was surprised that they were from three different countries, and they told him about going to school together in Kiev and having a reunion here in Odessa. Alex sat down opposite them and soon a lengthy conversation ensued.
“So what did you do before you got laid off?,” Lena asked Alex.
“I was an engineer.”
“Really? I’m going to school to be a petroleum engineer. I’m hoping to find a job in the west when I get out of school.”
Alex looked away momentarily. He seemed uneasy, and then opened up his bag, looking for something. He brought out some papers that were slightly wrinkled. It was obvious that he didn’t want to talk about his career.
“One of my hobbies is poetry. Would you mind if I read you some of the things I’ve written?”
“Go ahead,” Lena responded.
Alex stood up, walking around, reading them his poem.
Eyes of steel at the gate,
Met us there so filled with hate,
Guns so real were at the wall,
Stopped us cold from towers tall,
Scared to death for what you said,
Say what’s wrong and you might be dead,
Iron hands kept you in step,
At the gate kept you in check.
But those days are gone,
At the crossroads.
United once we had a plan,
To liberate our fellow man,
But now the trust has gone away,
We can’t believe what others say.
Oh in the past we fought the fear,
We stood as one; freedom was near.
We’ve got to change,
We’ve got to change right now,
We’re at the crossroads,
We’ve got to change,
We’ve got to change right now,
We’re at the crossroads.
When Alex was finished reading, Anya spoke up right away.
“That’s so true. When we didn’t have freedom, we all fought for it. But now that we’ve got what we wanted, no one seems to know how to handle it or what we should do next.”
“I still remember how scared I was when I was a little girl and we had to cross a border. They searched our car, and I had to get out with my mom and dad. They all had guns and I was afraid of what they would do to us. But after awhile they let us pass.”
Anya looked at Marie and noticed the puzzled look on her face.
“Tell us your thoughts, Marie.”
“Well, I was just wondering...I don’t understand why people have such lofty ideas of what they could do if they just had freedom, and then turn around and hurt others who had the same ideals. The people who once marched in the streets with each other are now stealing from one another. I don’t understand why people can’t have the same dream, get along with each other, and work for a common goal.”
Alex thought for a moment, and then said,
“I guess it depends upon whether you believe in a limited or an unlimited system.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“In a limited system, you rely only upon the resources, wisdom, knowledge, and power of humans who are limited in what they can do. They may have lofty ideals, but they don’t necessarily have the means or the power to make their ideals a reality. When their ideals don’t work out as expected, disillusionment sets in. Expectations are not realized, and a struggle ensues based upon fear. At that point, it turns into a situation where individuals try to take advantage of one another.”
“OK, I think I see what you are saying. So now explain an unlimited system.”
Alex drew a circle in the sand with a stick. He cut small openings into the top of the circle, and drew flowing lines into the circle as he explained:
An unlimited system allows for the resources and power to come from God according to his will to provide what is needed to change a society. Just as these lines are flowing into this circle from above, so God’s power comes into our society as we pray. It doesn’t depend entirely upon the limited ability of human beings to bring about significant change in a society. It requires that people pray together for divine intervention to save their nation.”
Marie gulped. She was short on words.
“Oh... That’s interesting.”
Lena and Anya were taken back also. They didn’t know what to say. Alex broke the silence.
“I’ve got another poem. Want to hear it?”
Marie, Anya, and Lena all agreed. They weren’t sure what else to do at this point. So Alex continued by reading to them.
What can I do, Where can I go,
I'm looking for peace of mind,
Who can I see, And do they know,
The answers I cannot find,
I'm looking for, A kindred soul,
Who will be my friend, The road is long,
When you're alone, I wonder how life will end...
(God's answer : )
Cast all your cares upon Him,
For He cares for you, He walked this road before you,
And knows the way you need to go.
Fear not I'm with you, don't be dismayed,
I am your God, don't be afraid.
Look in the white, of falling snow,
His purity cannot lie, if you come near,
And lend your ear, he'll never say good-bye,
He died for you, and lives now, too,
He walks with you in the rain,
He's always there, he's everywhere with you,
In the Ukraine.
Alex looked up from reading the poem. There was only silence. No one knew exactly what to say. He turned the other way, looking at the waves rolling in. Then a small plant, floating on top of the water, grabbed his attention. He walked over and picked it up out of the waves. The three women watched him as he brought the plant near so that he could identify it.
But Lena just had to speak up. By this time, everyone knew it was nearly impossible for her to keep from expressing exactly how she felt.
“How can you say that ‘God is always there?’” Just look at the mess Ukraine is in. Just look at all the crime, and... all that stuff in your poem is easy for you to say. I’m sorry, but I didn’t like it.”
Anya spoke up. She stammered a bit, looking down at the sand.
“I work in a clothing store. Every day is a struggle. People steal from you, take advantage of you, and sometimes I don’t feel like there’s any hope. I see parents and their children come into the store who have next to nothing. All they want is a blanket, but either we don’t have one, or else they don’t have the money. I hate it!”
Alex just kept looking at his plant, walking around, looking down at the waves rolling in over his feet. He didn’t say anything. Marie broke the silence.
“Ukraine is a very well - educated country. We have some of the best natural resources in the world. Ukraine once made goods for the space program, for submarines, and for computers. But this country is being strangled by a few people who are making tremendous fortunes off of an unfortunate situation. Why doesn’t God intervene in all this?”
Lena spoke up again.
“You can’t even hardly buy a home or anything in Romania. The interest rate on mortgages is something like 73%. What a joke! Maybe you’ve never been in that situation. It looks like all you do is walk around down here on the beach and live in a dream world.”
Marie reprimanded Lena.
“That’s enough. It’s OK to disagree with his poem, but don’t put him down.”
Alex just stared at the plant. He said,
“Ah, yes - a bit of Chornobyl” (Pronounced “Share-know’-bul”).
No one knew what he was talking about.
“What do you mean?,” asked Anya, “I’ve seen that stuff growing all over the place. What does it have to do with Chornobyl?”
Alex handed the plant to her. He said,
“The name of this plant is called ‘Wormwood.’”
Lena looked at Marie with bewilderment. She retorted,
Alex looked away for a moment. He was holding back the tears.
“Wormwood has a pleasant odor, when the breeze blows through patches of it in the open country. But it is full of bitter extract that is noxious to people if they drink it. The Bible talks about Wormwood, and describes it as a bitter poison that can spread everywhere. It also speaks of a star named Wormwood that fell from heaven and poisoned a third of the waters of the earth, causing many people to die because they were made bitter.”
“What does that have to do with Chornobyl?”
“‘Chornobyl’ means ‘Wormwood.’”
Alex turned the other way, wiping the tears from his eyes. Anya, Lena, and Marie felt very awkward, and didn’t know what was coming next. Alex was able to speak again after a few moments and continued,
“I was an engineer at Chornobyl when the No. 4 reactor blew up. I managed to get away, and went home to our village nearby. Our family evacuated from there to Kiev, but it was no use. My wife and daughter died of radiation poisoning a short while later. It’s just a matter of time for me till I die of cancer or some other disease. No one knows why I lived this long - no one knows...”
Alex sat down again. He covered his face, and wiped his eyes. No one could think of anything to say. Alex finally spoke again,
“I’m sorry. I’m ruining your vacation.”
Marie regained her composure.
“It’s OK. - I’m sorry about what I said before. I just thought that for some reason you didn’t understand what was really happening in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. But I guess you really do understand - better than any of us.”
Anya spoke up,
“Yea. that’s for sure.”
Lena was really embarrassed.
“Well I guess I’m a master at putting my foot in my mouth. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
Alex looked up and smiled at them.
“That’s all right. I’m just glad that I have someone to talk to. The rest of the world has more or less forgotten about the disaster at Chornobyl, but for me it’s a bitter memory. Writing poems is one way I have of reminding myself that the Lord is going to take care of me, and that my wife and daughter are in his presence right now. Lena - you mentioned Romania. I have another poem about that country. Would you like to hear it?”
“Ahhh...sure. Go ahead.”
Alex dug into his bag again, and pulled another sheet of paper out. He introduced his poem,
“Sometimes people come out here on the beach alone, and look out at the waves. They come here to ponder their lives, their hopes, and their dreams. I wanted to write a poem dealing with how they must feel at times. So here it is:
Sunglasses hug me, by the Black Sea,
Hands on my hips, I struggle to see,
The point in dying, the reason for living,
Looking for truth, not lies,
Tired of hope that dies,
Your light will shine,
On you again,
The night will go,
Away my friend,
Just look for Him,
And trust His hand,
Believe His word,
Will heal your land.
Tears running down, by the Black Sea,
I’m searching for God, does He search for me?
The wind is blowing, despair is growing,
Looking for truth not lies,
Tired of hope that dies,
Anya was extremely uncomfortable listening to all this.
“I am very sorry if this hurts your feelings. But I just can’t believe that our light will shine and that our night will go away. It may sound nice, but it isn’t true.”
Marie and Lena shook their heads in agreement. Marie added,
“Where is God, anyway? Very powerful authorities are in control of almost everything that is going on in our countries and our lives. Why isn’t God working to help us?”
Alex stood up and paced around again. He started to say something several times, but he couldn’t verbalize what was on his mind. Feeling very frustrated, he answered,
“I have many of the same questions myself. I am struggling for answers, just like you. But there is one thing that I am sure of. I know that God loves me, and that he is working. He is working in ways that are mysterious, and ways that are higher than ours. Big bosses control the money and power. And they try to control all of us, too. And I suppose, if they could, they would even try to control God. But God is out of their reach. And God doesn’t work from the same motives that they do, because God is after something worth much more than silver or gold - he is out to change our hearts and lives. And that is where the darkness really is. That is where the night is. Before any real changes happen in the government, the individuals who make up the government and the population have to change.
Lena couldn’t stand to hear this.
“Well, maybe I don’t want God to change my heart.”
“That’s your choice. But when you say that, in some ways you are acting just like the people who have made our lives so difficult.”
Anya spoke up, and was on Lena’s side.
“What’s that supposed to mean? We like Lena the way she is. She hasn’t taken any bribes lately or taken advantage of anyone.”
Alex motioned with his hands, trying to calm everyone down.
“I am sorry. I am not trying to put anyone down...please listen to what I am trying to say.
He folded his hands behind his back, pacing to and fro across the sand, his feet splashing through the waves. Then he explained,
“In many parts of the world, the name given to a person at birth is just a label. It is a word used by others to address them in conversation. For example, my label is ‘Alex.’”
“What does that have to do with anything?
Alex answered quietly,
“Just wait. You’ll see.”
Then he continued,
“We get our ‘handle’ at birth. But as we get older, we are given a second name. This name is acquired through our experiences as children. And it is often negative. It hurts us. We might hear certain words over and over, and soon they are burned into our memories. These words form short sentences that echo in our minds almost every time we are called on. Words like, ‘you’ll never amount to anything,’ or, ‘you aren’t worth the trouble I go to.’ And how about ‘you can’t do anything right.’”
Anya looked down and tried to hide her reaction to all this. She remembered the words spoken to her time and again as a child...’What a stupid idea that is...how can you be so dumb?’
Alex looked at them, and explained,
“As children, we have no ability to separate out the lies that are told to us. We believe adults who tell us we are worthless. And we become the kind of people that our second names determine. How about the name, ‘you’ve got to make money,’ or ‘you’ve got to maintain control,’ or ‘you must always win.’” We grow up with these second names, or identities, and they tell us over and over who we are. And we live out these lies because they have been drilled into us.”
Alex sat down on the sand, and drew an “X” where the waves would come up over it. Gradually, the waves erased the “X” and Alex said,
“I drew this letter in the sand, but the waves washed it away. Jesus can wash away the second names, the bad names we have been given, and give us new names. How about the name, ‘loved of God?’ Or ‘very special person,’ or ‘the Lord’s princess?’”
Anya got up, crying, and walked away. Marie and Lena called after her, but she just kept walking and said she wanted to be alone.
Alex asked her to stop for a just a moment more. Anya agreed, and turned around to listen.
“God can give you a new name, and he is always working to try and give people a new name and a new life. You can ask Jesus to come into your heart and life and turn you into a new person. If people did this, things would change. Not instantly, but gradually. Not easily, but assuredly, things would change, because of a new attitude. Until a person’s heart changes, you won’t see a real change in their behavior. That is why we all need a new name that tells us who we are based only on the truth that God loves us. The world can change - one life at a time.”
Anya walked away, by herself. Anya pondered her life, Ukraine, and the future. She had such a hard time believing anything that Alex had said, but deep inside she knew that what he was saying had touched her like nothing else before. She felt so alone, and tears ran down her cheeks.
She wanted life to change for her. But maybe Alex was right. Before life could change, she would have to change. And only God could do that. Then she prayed,
Dear Lord Jesus, come into my life, and change me. Forgive me of all I have done wrong. I would pray for my family and for our government leaders, that they would ask you to change them, too. And Lord, I want a new name, like Alex was talking about. Amen.
Anya stood by the shore, alone. The wind tossed her hair back. She whispered a question,
“I wonder what my new name is?” Then she thought, maybe now I’m the Lord’s princess.
Meanwhile, Marie had been asking Alex a lot of questions. She told Alex about losing her dad when she was young.
“After my dad died, and my mother and I lived all alone, it was hard for me to leave her and go and play with my friends. I was always trying to make sure that she was all right. If my mom was in a good mood, I felt like I had accomplished something. If my mom wasn’t feeling good, I wondered what I had done wrong. It was my fault. Sometimes I still feel that way.”
“But you are not responsible for your mother’s happiness. It’s important for you to help out whenever it’s reasonable. But to expect yourself to become the remedy for all of her ills is simply not possible. That is a terrible burden for anyone to carry.”
Marie had never heard that before. It was such a relief to hear.
Then Alex shared more from his own life and told her,
“When I lost my wife and daughter, I felt that I was to blame. I couldn’t help wondering where I went wrong. I said the words ‘if only’ over and over. Maybe I could have gotten a job in the west. My education and experience could have taken me to other places. If we had lived somewhere else, my wife and daughter would still be alive.”
“How did you get through all that?”
“I may never get completely through it. I am still tortured by the ‘if onlys’ sometimes. When my daughter’s birthday arrives, I can see her smile, and hear her laughing and see her playing in my imagination. Sometimes I dream about it. I wake up from sleep, and realize that my wife is not beside me, that my daughter is not in the next room safe under her blankets, and that I won’t see them again. The only thing that has gotten me through each moment is a person. That person is Jesus. A friend of mine told me about him one day. I asked Jesus to take charge of my life and fight these battles for me, because they were too big. I used to think that I could handle everything. But now I know that only God is big enough to carry me through these times.”
“How do you get so much out of being religious? I’ve been in lots of churches all my life, but it was all so dry and boring.”
“I know what you mean. But religion isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a friendship with Jesus Christ. He has written down how much he loves us with his own blood on a cross. He rose again and is available every day to help us. When you accept his offer of kingship, you get the help you need from the Creator himself. When we try to live apart from him, we are always looking for approval from those around us, and we try to get what we need from their smile. We live with a fear of rejection and abandonment deep within us. We try to play god, and we fail. We aren’t in control, we don’t know all the answers, and we are powerless in many situations that arise in our lives. I think that Jesus can do a much better job of managing our lives than we can by ourselves. And I also believe that Jesus isn’t just an answer - he’s a friend who is there with you when there are no answers.”
Marie sighed. She brushed her hair back, and thought about her own life.
“I see what you mean about fear. When my dad died, I felt like I had been abandoned. And I blamed God. Why would he take such a wonderful person out of my life? I leaned on my dad, and I fell down hard when he died. ”
“I can’t wave a magic wand and make those fears go away. I don’t know exactly what to say to you. I’ve been angry at God, too. But I do know that he wants me to tell him how I feel. He wants to know my thoughts, and anger is an emotion just like love or joy or anything else. He made me with the ability to feel anger, and that’s not bad. We need to tell him how we feel, and then listen for his voice. He speaks to people through his word, the Bible, and he asks us not to harden our hearts. It’s our choice to turn completely away from him. But he is always waiting for us to return.”
Marie was impatient.
“But that still doesn’t answer my basic question. Why did God take away my dad?”
Alex pondered awhile, and didn’t say anything.
Lena broke the silence.
“To me, that isn’t the main question. I think we are really asking if God is good.”
Alex looked at Lena, and then at Marie.
“Well, Marie, what do you think? Is God good? Or is he bad, or partly bad?”
Marie struggled to find an answer.
“I don’t know.”
Alex looked out at the horizon. A boat moved steadily along its course because the wind had just caught its sails. Alex pointed to the boat.
“The sailors on that ship have chosen to trust the invisible winds to carry their ship to their destination. They have trusted their lives to the reliability of the forces of nature. These forces are invisible and much more powerful than their tiny ship. I, too, have chosen to believe that God is good. I believe that he is good because I see all the beauty of nature and I have chosen to believe in what the Bible says about his character in spite of my sometimes bad experiences in life. I have chosen to allow God to push my sails and carry my life to the destination he has chosen.”
“I guess my sails are down. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh you’re moving. But you’re drifting. The tides of life carry your ship around randomly, and you could end up on any island or reef. A storm could carry you to the wrong place and your ship could be destroyed.
Marie was very uncomfortable.
“It was nice to talk to you. You’ve given us a lot to think about.”
Alex didn’t want their conversation to end so abruptly. He dug in his bag again, and pulled out another poem. He handed it to Marie.
“I want you to have this poem. It’s about Poland. Marie looked at the title of the poem, and responded,
“Thanks a lot. But what does this title refer to - ‘Hero’?”
“If you think about it, the people you hear about in Poland lived a long time ago. They were writers, scientists, and national heroes. But what about nowadays? Who are people turning to in this day of upheaval? I think we need a new hero.”
Marie read the poem. She was intrigued by almost anything contemporary written about the country she loved so much.
Your hardly ever find a smile,
And almost never laugh awhile,
You look for heroes every day,
Or someone famous to lead the way.
The glory’s gone far away,
It all belongs to yesterday,
We need a hero - we’re down to zero,
We need someone to lead the way.
We need a hero - we’re down to zero,
We need someone to lead the way.
Let’s not live in the past,
Trying to make a dream last,
That’s gone forever,
Can’t go there ever,
We need a new hero, someone who lives forever,
Someone who will never let us down.
We need a new hero, someone with real power,
Someone who will change us in our heart.
Poland - oh look to him,
Who made the Earth and the sea,
Poland - oh look to him,
And make him King of your heart,
Poland - it’s Jesus - your hero’s there by your side.
We need a new hero, someone who lives forever,
Someone who will never let us down.
We need a new hero, someone with real power,
Someone who will change us in our heart
Just then Anya appeared, walking towards them. Lena stood up and gave her a hug.
“You were gone quite awhile. Are you OK?”
“Where did you go?”
“I just went down the beach a little ways and...”she couldn’t think of a way to explain what had just occurred or how she felt.
Marie stood up. She smiled at Alex, and put the poem in her pocket.
“It’s been nice to talk to you, Alex. We’ll be off now.”
“I hope we’ll see you again. I wish that there were more people like you in this world.”
Alex took off his hat, wiped his brow, and picked up his bag.
“Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say that. I want all of you to be with me in heaven someday. I’m looking forward to living in a new country and a new city. Jesus said he would prepare a place for us, so that where he is, we could be also. If I don’t see you on this Earth, I hope to see you all in the next world.”
Anya smiled. She could understand what he was saying in a whole new way.
“Somehow, I know I will be there.”
They turned to leave the beach. Alex walked off in the distance, carrying his tattered bag.
Marie looked at Anya. She asked,
“What did you mean when you said, ‘Somehow I know’?”
1) Sources of general information upon which this story is based:
- Ukrainian Language and Culture Home Page, http://pages.prodigy.com/ukraine, compiled by Linda Hodges, co-author of The Hippocrene Language and Travel Guide to Ukraine.
- The Open Media Research Institute Home Page, http://www.omri.cz
- The Ukrainian Weekly, http:/www.tryzub.com
- The U.S. State Department, Consular Information Sheet on Ukraine, http://travel.state.gov/ukraine.html
- The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, http://www.usemb.kiev.ua
- Scope Travel, Inc. (specializing in Ukraine), http://www.scopetravel.com, 1605 Springfield Ave., Maplewood, NJ, 07040, 1-800-242-7267
- Hiking guide to Poland and the Ukraine, Adventurous Traveler Bookstore, http://www.gorp.com/atb/europe/g1949.htm
- Rail Europe, Inc., http://www.raileurope.com/prodmp.htm
- Applied Information Services, Inc., TravelFile on Poland, Odessa/Yalta, and Ukraine, http://www.travelfile.com
- Stefan Batory Foundation-Poland, http://soros.org/poland/polafoun.html
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- U.S. Department of Commerce, Poland Home Page, STAT-USA, http://www.stat-usa.go
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 15, section on Romania
- Dudley & Corina Brown, Missionaries to Romania with the Evangelical Free Church of America, firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Kyyeve Myj!, “My Kiev,” Ohio Super Computer Center, Ukrainian Server, (various descriptions of Kiev), all material copyright 1994, 1995, 1996 by Max Pyziur. All rights reserved. Descriptions of Kiev used by permission. (http://www.osc.edu/ukraine_nonpubl/htmls/kiev2.html; or http://www.brama.com)
- Chernobyl Accounts Webb Page, Chernobyl Effects: Children of Chernobyl, http://www.halcyon.com/blackbox/hw/children.html
- The Ukrainian Update, various issues from 1996-1997, published for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and CCX, the Ukrainian Christian student movement, Tiffany Carlsen, Editor-in-Chief.
- Eugenia Travel, Odessa and Ukraine, 12 Suvorov str. Odessa Ukraine, 270026, email email@example.com
- Edwards, Mike, “Living With the Monster - Chornobyl,” National Geographic, Volume 186, No. 2, August, 1994
- Smith, Malcolm, messages from Carefree Living cassette tape series, P.O. Box 29747, San Antonio, Texas, 78229-0747.
- Lilia Webb Page, (all about Ukraine), http:/www.uslink.net/~snoopy/ukraine.html
- Lviv State University, Dmitry Shymkiv, Andriy Kopystyansky, http://www.polynet.lviv.ua/ukraine/eng/ukraine.html
- University of Texas at Austin Library, http://www.lib.utexas.edu
- Romania Insight, http://www.freiheit.demon.co.uk/
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- Lycos Ukraine FAQ Plus, http://point.lycos.com/reviews/countries/_1241.html
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