Through Brno: An expat holiday story
Sometimes we find ourselves uncomfortable and even scared in a place far, far away. Sometimes it is hard to be the new guy in that new place. But, sometimes, we find exactly what we were looking for anyway.
For my children, Zoe and Benjamin, and anyone else who enjoys a holiday season fairy tale at bedtime.
* * *
Once upon a time there was a boy squirrel. Squirrel was smart and crafty and adventurous. He knew how to find nuts and build a nest, but he had not yet become a man squirrel. He was an adolescent: he thought that he knew the ways of the world, but he didn’t know anything. Really, he just wanted a girlfriend.
Squirrel lived in a beautiful forest with lush trees. He had a nice family and great friends. He liked some of the girl squirrels and some of the girl squirrels liked him.
But Squirrel was restless. He climbed higher on trees than was practical, just to prove that he could do it, and he jumped from one towering branch to another, just to show that he could land under control. One day, a friend squirrel dared him to touch the top of the very tallest tree in the forest. The girl squirrels begged him not to try.
The tree was a thick green spruce. It was so perfectly round that it would make a perfect Christmas tree for a giant. It would be his ultimate ascent. So, Squirrel climbed and climbed and climbed. When he got into the thin upper branches, the December wind bent the tree top wildly back and forth. He almost fell twice. He struggled to keep his balance. Finally, he pulled himself up and touched the very tip top.
Around him, he saw the world, big and expansive. He turned to the ground to celebrate. His friends were all gone.
Instead, there were humans.
A loud, mechanical whine blasted through the forest. Birds burst into flight. Deer and wild pigs startled. The tree rumbled and shook. The trunk began to list. Squirrel dropped down to a thick bough. Then, the tree was falling. When it slammed against the ground, Squirrel’s head bounced violently.
* * *
Slowly, Squirrel opened his eyes. Branches poked into his body. He stretched his neck and all four legs worked. He wasn’t sure how long he had been knocked out. He came to realize that humans were speaking a strange language nearby. He had no idea where he was.
The tree was standing again. He crawled to the edge of the branch and peaked out. There were buildings all around and humans below, moving around on a gray ground. He recognized some snow, but nothing else looked like the forest.
The sky was dark, with large snowflakes fluttering down. In the distance, between two of the buildings, he saw a castle, lit up against the night.
Suddenly, the face of a human man appeared less than a meter away. “Whoa!” the man yelled. “There’s a squirrel in the tree!”
Squirrel scampered up to a different branch. The man was in a small box. He was putting large glittering balls on the tree branches. He levitated closer, and Squirrel could see that he had a bag and he was preparing to throw it.
Squirrel went higher and higher. He had nowhere else to go. He went all the way to the top, to where he had been before when he was showing off for his friends — but now it was not to impress the girls; now it was to escape a human.
Squirrel looked around, he looked up, he looked down for a spot to land. He had no choice. Squirrel jumped.
* * *
Squirrel aimed for and landed on the snowy top of the manger of the Nativity Scene. It was soft, but the impact knocked the wind out of his lungs. His momentum carried him over the edge and onto a pile of straw. His left hind leg screamed with pain when he rolled to a stop.
He was in the back corner of the animal enclosure. Two sheep, who were the main actors of the living Nativity Scene, came to him.
“They’re trying to kill me!” Squirrel wheezed. “Can you help me?”
The sheep looked at each other. “Baaa,“ one said. “The castle,” the other added.
A man yelled from nearby :“There’s the squirrel!”
Squirrel ran. He didn’t have a plan. He just ran. Whenever a human was in his way, he turned. If there was a patch of snow, he leaped. Kids shrieked. Others jumped. Fathers protected the front of baby carriages. Mothers waved bags filled with gifts. One woman tried to slap shot him with a large sausage. Squirrel was almost trapped against a small wooden hut that sold soap. At another hut, a man waved a red-hot piece of metal at him and singed some of the fur on his back. Squirrel scampered under a tall table and the people tried to stomp him. A woman threw her drink, and the hot peppermint-scented liquid plastered his fur against the right side of his body.
Finally Squirrel broke free and sprinted between two buildings to where there were less people. Ahead of him, in the glistening snowy sky, he saw the castle again. It was surrounded by beautiful trees.
Squirrel found a burst of energy. He jumped off of a small ledge and onto hard cold ground. A car whizzed past him and splashed him with freezing slush. He kept going. A tram was coming from the other direction, but he kept his concentration moving forward, toward the castle, toward the trees.
Somehow, he made it. In a few jumps, he was up the hill and into the park. He found the biggest spruce, ran up the trunk, found a comfortable limb, and tried to catch his breath. The bark of the tree made him feel safe.
* * *
Squirrel heard singing, a lot of singing. He crawled to the edge of the tree branch. The castle was right in front of him and it looked like a beautiful cake. Humans were singing carols. The melodies flowed over the castle walls and into the park and through the tree.
Humans were slowly coming out of the castle and grouping in the clearing below him, all singing. Squirrel was amazed. Humans — the same creatures who had been trying to and stomp and slap shot him — were singing together underneath the beautiful trees.
Then, the fireworks started. The singing stopped and everyone — the little boys and little girls, the fathers and mothers, and even the workmen — looked to the heavens to watch. Squirrel had never seen such beautiful colors before. It was like a springtime meadow full of flowers, but with explosions and blooming patterns. He was in awe.
Behind him, a movement shook the branch. He turned with a fright.
It was a squirrel, a girl squirrel.
“The people can see you,” she said. “Come back into the tree.”
Squirrel looked at her. She was a beautiful girl squirrel, and the exploding colors of the moonlit sky made her fur glow.
“I have never heard such beautiful melodies,” he said, “or seen such beautiful lights.”
The girl squirrel studied him, and carefully crept forward. She gazed up into the sky for a few explosions, then looked at him.
“You’re so brave,” she said. She put her paw over the top of his paw and that is how they watched the fireworks finale, paw in paw…
…and, after that first holiday season, Squirrel and Girl Squirrel lived happily ever after.
* * *
If you would like to make your own Brno holiday memory there will be fireworks in front of the new Brno town hall (Dominikánské náměstí) on Friday, Dec. 23, at 7 p.m.