She helped her sister with the dishes (okay, Meredith did most of the work), then she kissed her good-bye and went into Dad’s study, where she got on the Internet. She ran searches on everything she could find about Leningrad in the twenties and thirties. She found a lot of information but no real answers.
Finally, at almost two in the morning, she pushed back from the computer in disgust. She had pages and pages of anecdotal information but no facts—other than what she’d known already. The story was taking place in Leningrad under Stalin.
She tapped her pen on the table and talked out loud, going through what she knew. Again. As she went through it all, she glanced at her notes.
The envelope from the professor stuck out from underneath her pad. She picked up the letter and read it again, studying it word by word. Leningrad. Participation. Study. Understand.
Her mother knew something, had seen or experienced something important enough to have been the subject of a professorial research project.
The Great Terror? Stalin’s repression? Or maybe she’d been a prima ballerina. . . .
“Stop it,” Nina said aloud, turning her attention to the dusty green file folder marked BepaΠeTpoBHa. Then she stared at the letter. “What did you want to know from her, Vasily Adamovich?”
That was when she saw it, when she said his name out loud.
Nina sat upright.
It was in his signature.
When he signed his name, Vasily, the first letter looked like a B.
Nina’s heart was pounding as she reached for the file. Was there a space after the a? Could it be a first and last name? She broke the word at the second capital letter and was left with Bepa.
She ran an Internet search for the Russian alphabet and compared the letters.
Bepa was Vera.
Then she translated the rest of the letters. ΠeTpoBHa.
A little more research, and she understood Russian names. First was the given name, then the patronymic—a male or female identification of the father—and then the surname. So this file contained two of three names—-ovna was the suffix for a daughter. Vera Petrovna meant Vera, Petyr’s daughter.
Nina sat back in her chair, feeling the adrenaline rush that always came with nailing a key part of a story. Vera was a real person. Real enough to put her name on a file, and important enough to keep that file for twenty years.
It wasn’t a complete answer; it didn’t answer the big question about Mom’s identity, and unfortunately, without a surname, she couldn’t locate anything more online. The research study could be about Vera, and Mom could have known her or something about her. Or, of course, she could be Vera. Or Olga. Those answers Nina would have to find somewhere else.
This Vasily Adamovich—Vasily, Adam’s son—knew the connection between Mom and Vera, and that connection was important enough to include in a research study.
And with that, Nina came up with a plan.
At 5:47 Meredith went for her run. The dogs raced along with her, eagerly vying for attention.
By seven o’clock, she was out in the orchard and walking the rows with her foreman, checking on the new fruit’s early progress, noting frost damage, and assessing the workers’ careful hand-wrapping of the apples, and by ten she was at her desk, reading crop projections.
But all she could really think about was the fairy tale.
I’m just going to ask it: Is she Vera?
The idea of that was like a budding apple; it flowered, grew, and gained mass. It seemed impossible that something you’d heard all your life and deemed irrelevant could actually be of value; it was like finding out that the painting above your fireplace was an early Van Gogh.
But it was true; she’d heard the words for years and simply accepted them at face value, never questioning, never looking deeper. Maybe all kids did that with family stories. The more you heard something, the less you questioned the veracity of it.
She put aside the crop reports and turned to her computer. For the next hour she ran random searches. Leningrad, Stalin, Vera, Olga (if she had been looking for Russian mail-order brides, the names would have been pay dirt), Fontanka Bridge, Great Terror. Bronze Horseman statue. Nothing of real value came up, just more and more evidence that the backdrop of the fairy tale was largely real.
She found a long list of Vasily Adamovich’s published works. He’d written about almost every facet of Russian and Soviet life, from the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution, through the murder of the Romanovs and the rise of Stalin and the terrors of his regime, to Hitler’s attack during World War II, to the tragedy at Chernobyl. Whatever had happened to Russians in the twentieth century, he’d studied it.
“That’s a lot of help,” Meredith murmured, tapping her pen. When she added RETIREMENT to the search, she came up with an unexpected link to a newspaper article.
Dr. Vasily Adamovich, a former professor of Russian studies at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, suffered a stroke yesterday at his home in Juneau. Dr. Adamovich is well known in academic circles for his prolific publishing schedule, but friends say he is a master gardener and can tell a mean ghost story. He retired from teaching in 1989 and volunteered frequently at his neighborhood library. He is recovering at a local hospital.
Meredith picked up the phone and dialed information. The operator had no listing for a Vasily Adamovich in Juneau. Disappointed, Meredith asked for the library’s number instead.
“There are several listings, ma’am.”
“Give me all of them,” Meredith answered, making note of each branch’s phone number.
On the fourth call, she got lucky. “Hello,” she said. “I’m trying to find a Dr. Vasily Adamovich.”
“Oh, Vasya,” the woman answered. “No one has called for him in a while, I’m sad to say.”
“This is the library where he volunteered?”
“Two days a week for years. The high school kids loved him.”
“I’m trying to reach him. . . .”
“Last I heard he was in a nursing home.”
“Do you know which one?”
“No. I’m sorry. I don’t, but . . . are you a friend of Vasya’s?”
“My mother is. She hasn’t spoken to him in a long time, though.”
“You do know about the stroke?”
“I heard he was in pretty bad shape. He has difficulty speaking.”
“Okay, well. Thank you for your help.” Meredith hung up the phone.
Almost simultaneously, Daisy walked into her office.
“There’s a problem down in the warehouse. Nothing urgent, but Hector wants you to stop by sometime today if you can. If you’re too busy, I’m sure I can solve it for you.”
“Yeah,” Meredith said, staring down at her notes. “Why don’t you do that?”
“And then I’ll go to Tahiti.”
“On the company credit card.”
“Uh-huh. Thanks, Daisy.”
Daisy crossed the room in a burst of energy and sat down in the chair opposite Meredith’s desk. “That’s it,” she said, crossing her arms. “Start talking.”
Meredith looked up. Honestly, she was surprised. What had Daisy been saying? “What?”
“I just told you I was going to Tahiti on the company dime.”
Meredith laughed. “So you’re saying I wasn’t listening.”
“What’s going on?”
Meredith considered that Daisy had been around the Whitsons for as long as anyone could remember. “When did you meet my mom?”
Daisy’s overplucked eyebrows lift ed in surprise. “Well, let’s see. I guess I was about ten. Maybe a little younger. It was all the buzz. I remember that. ’Cause your daddy was datin’ Sally Herman when he went off to war and when he came home, he was married.”
“So he barely knew her.”
“I don’t know about that. He was in love with her, though. My mom said she’d never seen a man so in love. She took care of Anya.”
“My mom. For most of that first year.”
Meredith frowned. “What do you mean?”
“She was sick. You knew that, right? I think she was in bed for a year or so and then one day she just got better. My mom thought they’d be friends, but you know Anya.”
It was stunning news, really. Stunning. She didn’t remember her mother ever having so much as a cough. “Sick how? What was wrong with her?” What caused a woman to spend a year in bed? And what made her suddenly get better?
“I don’t know. Mom never said much about it, really.”
“Thanks, Daisy.” She watched Daisy leave the office and close the door behind her.
For the next few hours, Meredith managed to get a little bit of work done, but mostly she was thinking about her mother.
At five o’clock, she gave up the pretense and left the office, saying, “Daisy, will you run the warehouse check for me? If there’s a real problem, I’ll be on my cell. Otherwise I’m gone for the day.”
“You bet, Meredith.”
Ten minutes later, when she walked into her mother’s house, the smell of baking bread greeted her. She found her mother in the kitchen, draped in her big, baggy white apron, her hands sticky white with flour. As she had always done, she was making enough bread for an army. The freezer in the garage was full of it.
“You are here early.”
“Business was slow, so I thought I’d come here and do some more packing for you. When I get it all organized, you and I should probably go through the giveaway piles.”
“If you wish.”
“Do you care what I keep and what I get rid of?”
Meredith didn’t even know what to say to that. How could nothing be of importance to her mom? “Where’s Nina?”
“She said something about errands and left an hour ago. She took her camera, so . . .”
“Who knows when she’ll be back.”
“Right.” Mom turned back to her dough.
Meredith stood there a minute longer, then took off her jacket and hung it on the hook by the door. She started to go down the hall toward Dad’s office, but as she approached the open door, she paused. The last time she’d packed up Mom’s things, she hadn’t looked for anything, hadn’t gone through pockets or felt back in the drawers.
Glancing back at the kitchen, seeing Mom still kneading dough, she eased toward the stairs and went up to the master bedroom.
In the long, wide closet, her mother’s black and gray clothing lined the right wall. Almost everything was either soft merino wool or brushed cotton. Turtlenecks and cardigans and long skirts and flowy pants. There was nothing trendy or showy or expensive here.
Clothes to hide in.
The thought came out of nowhere, surprising her. It was the sort of thing she would have noticed before, if she’d ever really looked.
This telling of the fairy tale was changing their perceptions of everything, of each other most of all. With that thought came another: what was it about the play—and about the fairy tale—that had upset Mom so much all those years ago? Before, Meredith had always assumed that her mother’s Christmas play anger had been directed at Meredith, that in choosing to do the fairy tale as a Christmas play, Meredith had done something wrong.