By: D.L. Karabin
Great Aunt Kristina and Great Uncle George
came from different sides of my family.
Although they never met in real life,
they could have.
Both came to America around 1912.
This story is based on the history of the world
they lived in, but is also generously laced
by the artful hand of fiction.
—D. L. Karabin
Strašín, Czechoslovakia, 1911
Kristina had been looking forward to house-sitting for her sister Anna and husband Václav. Their country home was the grandest in the entire village and was adjacent to the large apple orchard they owned. The view from the guest room on the second floor was idyllic— heavenly— except on one moonlit night when Anna saw something that would change her life forever.
Václav was a prominent businessman in the wooden match industry that was burgeoning in Czechoslovakia. He owned the biggest factory in Bohemia and employed dozens of the locals. Several times a year he and Anna would travel to Prague for business. It was during those times, they would ask Kristina to live in their home and take care of things while they were away.
Kristina never refused, not even once.
In fact, instead of thinking of house-sitting as a job, she considered it a vacation, a getaway—a sojourn in the lap of luxury. Kristina was happy for her younger sister. She had married well. No jealousy, but perhaps a little regret that she herself hadn’t met the right man. Marriage wasn’t for everyone. Independence had its merits, too.
Kristina, 35, was a realist, sensible— the capable sister. Unbeknown to her or anyone then, she was on the cusp of creating her own notoriety. Soon she would stop being defined only by her kinship with Anna and Václav.
Kristina’s own star was beginning to rise.
She was a talented seamstress, albeit—an artist, whose fashion sense was admired by the women in the village. Often they would seek her advice or even commission her to make a garment for them. This foreshadowed when ready-to-wear apparel would replace bolts of fabric and women would go shopping instead of sewing.
Kristina was passionate about her work. It was always on her mind— the design, the fabric. In fact, one of her blouses was on her mind just before she fell asleep. It was also what woke her up from a sound sleep a few hours later.
“A touch of lace at the collar—that’s what Mrs. Novotny’s blouse needs!”
After that revelation she tried to fall back asleep but after a few minutes, threw back the down comforter and got out of bed in the dark. She fumbled around for slippers, grabbing her robe. It was 1:45 a.m.
She pulled open the heavy brocade draperies and raised the window, letting in the fresh, woodsy breeze. Chilly but welcome.
Kristina took in the setting that unfolded before her. A full moon cast the entire orchard in a silent, blue-white aura—
amazingly clear. She stood there for several minutes, alone in her thoughts. Then she saw a man walking among the trees.
Seeing this shadowy figure made her cringe as she remembered a legend from her childhood that always terrified her—the Tale of the Bubak.
The Bubak was the Czech bogeyman— a creepy scarecrow made of bones and dressed in black. Under a big, heavy coat, he hid the children he kidnapped then later, he would busy himself by weaving cloth from their tiny, little souls.
Bubak’s evil work was always done under a full moon. A night like this very one. Kristina shook off that childhood fear and focused on reality. Yes, it was a man out there!
It looked like he was carrying a shovel and dragging a large sack behind him. Kristina squinted—what she needed was Anna’s opera glasses! Luckily she had seen them just the other day in the hall closet outside her bedroom door.
She didn’t bother with a candle or gas lamp, the light of the moon was all she needed. She grabbed the mini binoculars by their slender pink leather strap and returned to her post.
There she focused on the shadowy figure below like someone in the audience of an opera house desperate to see what the lead tenor looked like.
It was no lead tenor.
It was Emil, her brother-in-law’s best friend and general manager of the match factory. A cad and violent bully. Kristina detested him. He tried courting her several times and never could take no for an answer. He turned a little too angry the last time grabbing her by the shoulders. She forcibly wiggled out of his grip and spoke to him in no uncertain terms.
“I’ve told you many times before, Emil. I said it nicely then, but now I’m saying it this way: I’m not interested in being courted by you. Leave me alone!”
She complained to Václav, but he brushed her off, defending his friend as an honorable gentleman. It put a rift in their family— even Anna scolded her. So Kristina vowed never again to bring up his name. Why bother—Emil was blameless in the eyes of her family.
But that didn’t change Kristina’s feelings. There was just something odd about Emil— sinister, lying there just under the surface. Just thinking about him made her skin crawl.
Now her mind raced to imagine what he could possibly be doing in the orchard in the moonlight. Unfortunately he kept receding into darkness as he walked deeper and deeper into the grove until she could no longer see him.
After awhile, he returned into her line of sight. Yes, it was Emil—his pompous gait and cocky swagger were unmistakable! But this time he dragged no sack behind him, carrying only a shovel on his shoulder.
The silhouette of a grim reaper.
How brazen of him, burying something on someone else’s property she thought. Then she realized why he thought he could get away with it unnoticed—it was because he knew Anna and Václav were away.
Emil had no idea Kristina was there.
When she was certain he was gone, she closed the window and pulled the drapes shut. She needed to feel safe, wanted to pretend she didn’t see him. Like a scared child, she hid under the covers until the warmth of the morning encouraged her to get up.
But, she was not herself. She didn’t know what to do.
Anna and Václav would return by midday. That would give her time to investigate things in the orchard. But should she? Was it worth getting involved?
Kristina started back-sliding a bit. Was as it really Emil or just her imagination? She soon realized that even if it were him, no one would believe her. She got dressed in a trance, then skipped her usual breakfast of rye bread and jam preferring only a cup of tea which she let grow cold.
Distracted, anxious, Kristina knew she had to go into the orchard and see things for herself— look for any traces or telltale signs. Her renewed strength and determination was so powerful that even the sudden downpour didn’t stop her.
Dressing for rain, she pulled on her rubber boots and grabbed an umbrella. Then she walked through the orchard trying to retrace the steps she thought were Emil’s.
The apple orchard covered several acres and its trees were mature, laden with fruit. But Kristina wasn’t looking up at the apples—she was looking down at the ground, at gnarled tree roots and damp earth. Looking for a hole…or dare she even think…a grave.
Suddenly she lost her bearings. Her horizon. Standing in the midst of rows and rows of apple trees, she found it impossible to see things as she had from her window. Was Emil this far in? Shaking her head, she had to admit she didn’t know.
Tears of frustration welled up in her eyes as rain hit her umbrella. She turned to walk back to the house when the toe of her boot hit something metal. She stooped down for a closer look and found an object half-buried in the earth. She dug into the softened soil and pulled it out.
It was an oval charm, crudely forged in metal and attached to a torn ribbon with a row of hand-stitching on it. Kristina stashed it in her pocket and hurried back to the house. Anna and Václav had returned.
“Welcome, home,” she smiled as she greeted them. “How was Prague? Your meetings?”
“All was good. But also good to be home.”
“And here? Everything in order?”
“Yes… fine,” Kristina lied.
She wanted to burst— to tell them what she saw in the orchard. Her suspicions. Instead she kept things to herself squeezing the charm in her pocket tightly. She knew it would be futile to say anything. To accuse Emil of something so bizarre. So she let it go. Her solution was to get away—far, far away.
What she said came as a surprise. Even to herself.
“I’ve been thinking… about going to America. This time to stay. I could see Bozena’s growing family and …perhaps find a new … path for myself.”
“Or a suitable American husband,” smiled Anna.
Kristina frowned. That wasn’t it at all. This need for a change in her life wasn’t just about men—about avoiding Emil. It had been brewing inside her for awhile. Now she was ready to reinvent herself in America. Emil was merely the catalyst. She wouldn’t give him any more credit.
Five years earlier, she had dutifully accompanied their sister and her four young children to Chicago. That crossing was a win-win. Kristina got to see America and Bozena got an extra pair of hands to help her.
This time was different. Anna didn’t understand why her spinster sister would travel to America all alone—much less, live there by herself.
“Are you sure? America? I worry about you. Regardless, we will help you with the finances.”
“I can pay my own way,” replied Kristina a bit defensively. “I’ve been very busy with my sewing. I have the money, and I will find good work there.”
“Yes, yes, of course you will, dear. Maybe just a little gift from us for all you have done. Watching the house, the orchard—“
“—All right then!” interrupted Kristina, the mention of the orchard had hit a nerve. “Thank you. I will prepare my itinerary and let you know the details.”