The Scent of Wild Thyme

Guergana Radeva
The Scent of Wild Thyme
She had reached the top, she thought, as her gaze flew over the snowy peaks of the Dolomites, it was impossible to get higher than this. Deep down, however, she knew that the climb had only just begun. To look at her, with her state-of-the-art winter gear and the skis on her feet, you would have thought she was a picture of nonchalance, but it was all a bluff, to fool the holiday-makers.

The business trip to Italy had proved more arduous than expected, the meetings dragged on until late in the evening, and she found it exhausting. Not that she let it show of course. She strutted about on her heels with her perfect English, she would never trust other people’s translations. At this level, trust was equal to naivety, the jackals were always there, lurking.

Her visit to Bolzano had lasted longer than expected, but yet again it had been a triumph. The agreements with the Italian company had been secured, all that remained now was the signature on the contract and, to pass the time between now and the following fateful Monday, a well-deserved weekend in the mountains. All rivalry forgotten, they were friends now with this bit of entertainment. She laughed at the tired old joke of one of her colleagues, but only her mouth was laughing, the eyes behind those mirrored lenses remained alert, cautious.

She was the last to tackle the descent, deliberately so that she might savour the look on the others’ faces when she overtook them. She beat the men on the slopes too, but this didn’t make her happy, just fiercer. Competitiveness was in her blood, and so when the group decided to call it a day, she announced she wanted to do another slope. She wasn’t tired, she was in top form, like always! They left her to it without saying anything, they were only united in appearance and they had dismissed those childhood memories, of playing at the Three Musketeers, now it was very much every man for himself.

There was still a full hour until sunset, and she allowed herself a small bar of chocolate, confident she had the time. But she hadn’t counted on the fog. In just a few minutes those harmless grey wisps had knotted together into a thick grey blanket, engulfing everything. It was when she felt the skis on her feet weighted down by fresh snow that she realised she had ended up off piste. She searched in vain for the marked track, slipped and fell face-down in the fresh snow. She picked herself, damp and stiff, wiped her glasses and put them on, before nervously taking them off again. It was so hard to get her bearings. She cried out, but there was no answer. The forest was silent under its heavy quilt, settling down for the night. She would have to hurry, avoid getting caught in the dark at any cost. She continued her descent, through the trees which emerged from the fog at the last minute, blocking her path, lashing out with their long, hostile branches. She fell, got back up, tried again and again until eventually darkness cut her off, trapped her beneath the branches of a majestic fir tree. Every ounce of strength gone. Alone.

She checked her phone. Nothing. She tried phoning anyway, but it was as though the world outside the forest had simply ceased to exist. She thought of her colleagues, behind the warm glow of the windows at the hotel. In the warm foam of the bathtub. The would reconvene for dinner, the wait for her a perfect excuse to indulge in a second aperitif, then they would start without her. Would any of them be worried? Would they look for her? She wasn’t one for confidants, counterproductive in her opinion, a waste of time. Whilst they were toasting the results they had attained, her mind was already on the next task. In their eyes she was different, and she was too, not just because she was “an Easterner”.
Raised in communist Bulgaria, shielded from any glaring social inequality, and after the collapse of the regime she had found herself catapulted into a system of such contrast, one governed exclusively by the power of money. And she had adapted splendidly, as attested by her professional renown and bank account.

But what was someone as rational and strong she to do, stranded in the middle of the snow. At the mercy of forest predators. The terror of the night was compounded by the gloomy call of an owl. She shivered, pull her coat closer about her and sobbed. In utter despair.

They found her some hours later. Bearded highlanders with deep, gruff voices. They wrapped her up in a blanket, loaded her onto a snowmobile and took her to the refuge hut. She couldn’t understand their guttural dialect, and her English seemed to catch in her throat, but it didn’t matter. They understood each other perfectly, because she was no longer a successful manager, but merely a little girl, grateful for human warmth, for the bright yellow flame in the stove, and for the wild thyme tea, which she instantly recognised by its smell, the same as she used to drink with her father once they finally reached the hija at the top of Mount Vitosha, tired but contented. Four hours on foot without once succumbing to the temptation of the cable car. Under the beech trees, erect as candlesticks, they would climb in the tenuous light of the sun’s filtered rays, through the pastures where they stopped to gather St John’s wort, wild strawberries and, when autumn came, rosehips too. The path would continue under the dense shade of the firs, before winding steeply up amongst the twisted juniper shrubs.

And as they walked the mountain would teach, and the little girl would learn. Respect for her travelling companions. For nature. Beauty. Love. The sediments of ancient lessons, washed away by the currents of life, re-emerging now to bathe her heart in clear waters. A high mountain spring.

She breathed in the nostalgic aroma of the tea, and smiled at her bearded guardian angels, happy to have been welcomed into this big mountain family. Grateful to have found herself again.
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