An amazingly creative and inspirational fellow blogger over at Fractured Faith posted a Flash Fiction Challenge. Fiction is not something I write so I felt this would be a fun and challenging way to stretch my imagination and writing.
I have no clue where this will go but thanks for the challenge!
Her Name is Helena
When I hike I like to be at the trailhead before sunrise, today that is 5:15am and I’m on the Cliffs of Fairhead.
The cliffs have been around forever, truly one of the most iconic locations of Northern Ireland. Access to some of it hasn’t always been easy until a little more than a year ago when a new hiking trail was created near Ballycastle. It quickly became one of my favorite walks with breathtakingly beautiful views from the top of Ballycastle, Murlough Bay, Rathlin Island and the Scottish isles
I love this time of day for many reasons and often find myself at sunrise visiting trails around my hometown of Dunmurry, just outside of Belfast.
I usually hike alone. Not because I’m a loner, but because nature is the place where I truly feel closest to God. To smell the fresh air and feel the crispness of the pre-dawn dew on my skin; to witness the magnitude of his creation and hear the sounds of the birds and the scurry of the badgers, rabbits, and hedgehogs or maybe even catch a glimpse of a small Red Fox in the brush or the wild goats on the cliffs below.
Some of my favorites hikes have been the Mourne Mountains in early winter when the first dusting of snow sticks to the highest peaks yet the warmth of the morning sun quickly silences the bitter chill of pre-dawn.
Or the Tollymore Forest Walk in early summer when the temperatures rise and the river is at full flow.
Or the Polygonal Basalt Columns along the Causeway Coastal Walk. Some days it’s only the 2-mile walk from Windy Gap but if you can afford the 2-days off work during mid-week you must try the longer 33-mile treck from Portrush to Carrick-a-Rede to Ballycastle.
And along the way, a highlight for me is a must-see stop at the Dunluce Castle.
But I digress, this day was to be something special, something different. This day I believe God Himself introduced His beauty of creation to me in a very personal and extraordinary way. This day I would meet Helena.
This trek started as most others. A short uphill climb gets the heart pumping and muscles attuned to their task ahead. This is another reason why I like early morning solitude, I always find myself breathing a bit labored (ok, gasping for air) in the first mile.
As I crested the first hill I saw the silhouette of what appeared to be a woman or young man in the distance walking the same direction I was toward the cliffs. I remember thinking that was odd being that I didn’t see another car parked at the trailhead.
Due to the distance between us, I lost sight of him/her as the trail rounded a bend up ahead. And anyway, my pace slowed as I once again connected with the peacefulness and majesty of God’s handiwork.
I distinctly remember feeling expectant this day as I had earlier petitioned God for a Divine Encounter. Whether it be witnessing something spectacular or rare in nature, or working out some pressing problem that incessantly rattles around in my head. I was even open to having the opportunity of sharing Jesus Christ with someone.
Mind you I’m not an outwardly Evangelical kind of person, but my story is a very crooked path and I am truly grateful to be just a broken man plucked from the ashes by a gracious Savior, so any opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus is welcomed.
As I resumed my journey up the hill and around the corner I could now clearly make out that the person ahead was a woman. She was standing on the bluff and I recall thinking to myself how much she must be enjoying the spectacular view.
As I drew closer however something didn’t seem right. She was standing alarmingly close to the cliff’s edge. Mind you these are rocky and crumbly cliffs and not considered the most stable; enjoying the view from a safe distance is always the best plan.
And she didn’t seem to be looking out at the horizon, or up and down the coastline, but instead staring, somewhat intently, down at the crashing surf some 120 meters below.
As the trail neared her location it made a sharp right turn into the valley. She hadn’t noticed me yet and I realized I had a decision to make; go toward her or move on.
“Clearly, she wants her solitude,” I thought to myself. But something was drawing me to her. A feeling, a sense of urgency, a calling if you will. It’s that voice that tells you to do something far outside your comfort zone, the one that urges you to stick your nose in places that it many times doesn’t seem to belong. I hate that voice oftentimes, however, I recalled praying for a Divine Appointment earlier that morning and clearly, this had His earmark all over it.
As I left the trail and move towards her I remained almost shocked at just how close to the cliff’s edge she was standing. I actually felt afraid that if I startled her the slight jump and turn would be enough to send her plummeting over the edge to her untimely demise.
I was also close enough now to see that she appeared to be a beautiful woman, well, in my estimation anyway. Long flowing auburn hair wearing a sundress and cowboy boots; neither of which seemed appropriate for a sunrise trail hike.
As I neared her I made an intentional effort to drag my feet, scuff a rock, clear my throat… anything to let her know she wasn’t alone up here before I got too close to be considered a space invader.
She did eventually hear me and thankfully safely turned toward me. I could tell she had been crying and I stopped my forward progress about 10 meters from her and called out “good morning”.
She replied, “if you say so”.
It didn’t take a spiritually tuned psychologist to put the pieces together, this was a woman who was out of place and clearly hurting.
“Well” I said cautiously, “by the looks of the scenery and weather this morning it seems like a good morning”. She replied, “I hadn’t noticed”.
Without thinking (I do that allot btw) I blurted out “how could you not notice?”
She gave a half-hearted smile and paused as if to consider whether to end this conversation or sacrifice a few minutes in pleasantries.
I have become very accustomed to this situation of waiting on another person’s decision to engage in conversation or not. And as I always did at this moment I simply prayed silently to myself “God, if you have something for her then open her heart and ears and take control of my thoughts and words”.
To my somewhat surprise (I don’t know why I am often surprised by God’s intervention) her entire body seemed to soften; her shoulders dropped and she took a deep breath and let it out in an almost ghostly sigh.
“I suppose you are right” she responded, “it is a beautiful morning and I do love this place”. “That is why I came up here I suppose, I’ve come up here often in happier times and I guess I went on autopilot when I got the news”.
Cautiously I replied, not wanting to give the impression I was wanting to pry into her personal life “what news is that if I may ask”.
She again paused, clearly mulling over the reality that her decision to engage in small-talk has quickly run its course and now is her last opportunity to reply that she would rather not talk about it and go back to the solitude she came up here for.
I again silently prayed, “Your will not mine be done Father” and I was at peace with the silence that filled the space between us.
It felt like something out of a Star Trek episode, her scanners were looking me up and down, assumably checking the expression on my face, the posture of my body, who knows maybe the clothes I was wearing and the wrinkles at the corners of my eyes and leathery brown skin; she had to quickly discern, friend or foe.
She then softly replied in a voice that was barely audible “I was given the news yesterday afternoon that I have cancer”. I remained silent, just looking at her with a pain in my heart. I understood what she was going through, I lost my mom to cancer, it is a horribly vicious disease and everything about her being here made sense at that moment.
She continued, “I left the doctors office yesterday and just began to drive, and drive and drive. No specific destination in mind, I just needed to not sit still. I ran out of gas somewhere and then just began to walk, and walk, and walk”.
She again paused, gave me another glance and then continued returning her gaze downward at the ground. “I believe God has a plan for us all, but this was not anything I was prepared for” she confided. “I didn’t set out to do anything drastic but to be perfectly honest, just before you walked up I was considering how much easier it would be to just take one small step of faith off this cliff and not have to go through whatever lies ahead”.
All I could muster through my welling up eyes and crackling voice was a mutter, hardly audible, the words: “I totally understand”.
We locked eyes at that moment, she was all-in. She wasn’t going to have to share this burden alone, at least not in this moment. She began to cry and I moved closer and she fell into my arms sobbing.
We cried together for what seemed like an eternity. I was reliving the heartache of the loss of my mother and I’m sure she was painting a picture of the worse to come in her mind.
It became clear to me at that moment why I was there; why God had me hiking that trail on that day.
I asked her if she had family in the area and she shared that she was an only child and that her dad passed away many years ago. And that her mother married a not-so-nice man several years back and they were living in Manchester England but that they don’t speak much anymore. “I couldn’t call her with this news out of the blue” she said, “it would tear her apart”.
“How about friends,” I asked. “I have a couple girlfriends but their work has them traveling all over the world at times, neither of them are home at the moment and I haven’t wanted to say anything to them yet”.
There was a breeze coming up over the cliffs as the sun got higher in the sky and the prevailing ocean winds began to pick up. I took off my windbreaker and placed it over her bare shoulders. She looked at me appreciatively and snuggled into the jacket.
By this time we moved to a log a few feet back from the cliff’s edge. There were seabirds souring along the tradewinds looking for breakfast and we just sat there watching them for a while, not saying a word.
I broke the silence by commenting that I didn’t see her car in the parking lot. She said she didn’t even recall where she had run out of gas. “It was probably 3 am and I was walking for a couple hours prior to noticing I was close to this place, so I just headed here”.
“Would you like help to find your car” I inquired and she responded, “if it is OK with you, can we just sit here a while longer”. “Of course,” I said, and we sat.
In the silence, I had the opportunity to converse some more with God. I have been a single man for quite a while. Being in my 50’s I’ve pretty much given up on actively dating so meeting women outside of church or work isn’t a regular occurrence. At that moment I assured God that I was VERY aware of her vulnerable position, that I would be there for her for as much or as little as she (or He) needed that day but that I won’t even consider anything beyond that… even though I found her very well spoken and attractive.
I could have sworn I heard God reply, “don’t put limits on what I am doing here”.
My heart literally skipped a beat at the thought of dating her but I quickly put that thought aside believing it to be my own wishful thinking and incredibly selfish considering what she is going through and concluded it clearly couldn’t have been God’s voice.
Looking at my watch I commented that it was 6:30 and inquired if she wanted to find her car and maybe get something to eat. She looked at me with kind soft eyes and said yes, she was ready to go.
It wasn’t a long hike back to my car and being the gentleman I am I unlocked her side first and closed the door. As I walked around the car my head was spinning with what had transpired in the last hour. Life can change in the blink of an eye, we never know what God has in store for us at any given moment.
As we left the parking lot she wasn’t even sure which direction she came in from. We drove around for a few minutes but no matter which direction we went none of it seemed familiar. She then said she had a doctors appoint that morning back in Belfast and asked if I wouldn’t mind giving her a ride. I almost excitedly replied, “I live just outside of Belfast in Dunmurry”. She equally excitedly said one of her girlfriends lives in Dunmurry”. A coincidence?
So we abandoned the hunt for her car and headed southward. It was over an hour drive but conversation came easily as we spoke about jobs, places we lived, the hobbies we enjoy and the pets we have owned. We spoke of past relationships both good and bad. We then both seemingly at the exact same time realized we didn’t know each other’s name. She told me her’s was Helena, what a beautiful name I thought. I replied “my name is Roger, nice to meet you” and we shook hands with a giggle.
It was nice to see that it appeared her mind was taken off her condition for at least a brief moment anyway. Gratefully doctors had discovered her cancer early on, and the prognosis was very good that treatments and a healthy mind, body and spiritual lifestyle could have a great impact on overcoming this.
As we entered the city at rush hour around 8am she commented that her stomach was upset and that she hadn’t eaten since getting the news yesterday afternoon. I asked if she would like to stop at a restaurant but she assured me she wasn’t that hungry.
So I pulled into a local Tesco and asked if she would like to get something small like some fruit and rice. She looked at me almost apologetically and said: “I left my purse in the car” and we both laughed at the notion that it was now nearly 100km away.
I told her that was no problem at all and we went inside. She playfully said that since I’m paying for her that this was officially our “first date”. I was shocked and thrilled at the comment, not even believing I heard her correctly but when I looked at her I knew she was very intentional with her comment. I offered her my arm and she took it and moved in close, and we walked into the store.
This all took place several days ago.
I’m happy to report that she made it to her doctor’s appointment ok and the initial news is that she is a great candidate for biopsy and that chemo should not be necessary initially.
Later that day, we drove back to Ballycastle and found her car. In fact, ever since our fateful encounter, we have been nearly inseparable. I don’t recall ever feeling so comfortable or happy to be around another person. We have plans to continue hiking together, and I’ve committed to going with her to each of her doctor’s appointment to ensure that she doesn’t have to go this alone.
Who knows where it goes from here, but I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to spend a season with Helena.
Oh, and if you think this story sounds too fate-filled to actually be true, we even saved the receipt from our first date!
It may not seem like much but I have a feeling we will be sharing this gem with our kids someday 🙂