Read an Excerpt

Tallinn, Estonia

June 1941

Madli yearned to eat the candy. Again her hand slipped into her skirt pocket. The wrapper crinkled. Inside was a delicious orange-flavoured hard sweet. The kind with a chewy centre. A year ago — a lifetime ago — she would’ve eaten two, maybe three in a row. She would’ve sucked until the hard candy coating dissolved, then sunk her teeth into the sticky sweetness.

Today, she’d toss the candy into the garbage.

Candy from Stalin.

At the special school assembly in the morning, recruiters for the Komsomol and Little Oktoberists had spewed propaganda to entice students to join the Communist party. Tomorrow, classmates would come with red scarves looped tight around their necks and take their place at the front of the class.

Like good comrades.

Like hell.

Not her. Not with Papa in jail and Kalju of age to be conscripted into the Soviet army.

In the last year, words like arrestdeportationjail, and torture slipped off people’s lips every day. Words like Britaintravel, and movie were rarely heard unless someone dared to reminisce about the past, and then only at home in the quietest of whispers.

Tears brimmed and threatened to slide down her cheeks. Madli blinked rapidly, as she adjusted her brown leather schoolbag across her chest. When would life be normal again?

Maybe, just maybe, life would be ordinary in the summer. In a few days, after school ended, she and her brothers would leave for her grandparents’ farm on Hiiumaa Island. She brushed the tears away.

Madli raced up the stone steps of Lühike Jalg and through the long dark passageway that had connected the Upper and Lower Town of Tallinn in medieval days. As she stepped onto Pikk Jalgthe June sun blinded her. In the corner of her eye, a figure loomed. Despite Madli’s shuffle and sidestep, they collided with a bone-jarring thud.

“Oh!” a strange voice said. A heavy parcel hit the ground. “Oh, no.”

Madli squinted. A girl stood on the sidewalk, empty handed, mouth open, dark eyes wide. Thin, as everyone was these days, and dressed in a flower-print blouse and plain blue skirt. A bit older than Madli. Sixteen or seventeen. At first glance she seemed familiar, but Madli focused on the white box labelled Alpertson Candy on the ground beside her feet. Worry churned in Madli’s stomach. What if she insisted on payment for the damage? Their money in the bank had been seized by the Soviets and Russian rubles had replaced Estonian kroons.

Tuhat vabandust,” Madli said, apologizing to the girl in Estonian. Her schoolgirl Russian was adequate, but she refused to speak it unless absolutely necessary. “I should’ve been watching where I was going.” Her finger flew to her mouth and she gnawed the side of the nail.

“It’s not your fault,” the girl replied, also in fluent Estonian. Kind brown eyes examined Madli. “I was lost in thought and didn’t see you.” She continued to stare. “Don’t you recognize me, Madli?”

Madli tried to focus even though her pulse still galloped. The girl looked familiar, but from where?

“Piano. Your lesson was after mine. Remember Madame Prideaux?” Imitating the teacher, the girl wagged her finger in mock earnestness. “It seems like ten years ago, not one.”

The vision of Madame Prideaux with her scarlet, manicured nails clutching a ruler, tapping out rhythm made Madli’s lips twitch. She mimicked the gesture as she examined the girl.

“Sarah.” In the past year, Sarah’s face had grown gaunt and her bony shoulders now poked through her blouse. Madli hoped only her appearance had changed and not her politics. These days, neighbours turned in neighbours for ridiculous reasons to gain favour with the Soviets. Communism was a contagion, passed quickly from person to person

The lump in Madli’s stomach softened. “I’m so glad you’re all right. What’s in the box? Is anything broken?”

Sarah kneeled down and opened the lid. Colour exploded out of the box. She picked up one of the objects and gave it to Madli.

A tiny perfect strawberry rested in the palm of Madli’s hand. It appeared so real she was tempted to pick off the leaves and pop it into her mouth, sure its juices would dribble down her chin. “Is it made of marzipan?”

“Yes.” Sarah nodded and her dark curls bounced. “I’m delivering them to one of our customers.”

Madli kneeled down and peered into the box. “They’re works of art.” Exquisite marzipan fruit nestled together in the box. Velvet peaches, gleaming red apples, shiny limes, radiant oranges, and even bananas. “Nothing broken.” Relief coursed through her. It could have been much worse. “Who are they for?”

“These are decorations for a Soviet officer’s wedding celebration,” Sarah replied.

Madli’s shoulders relaxed. “I’m sorry I made you late.” Sarah seemed unchanged despite the many months of Soviet occupation. “Are you still taking piano?”

Ostanovites!” a deep voice boomed out in Russian. Boots pounded on the pavement behind her.

Madli’s heart jumped into her throat. Instinct begged her to run, but common sense insisted she turn around. Two soldiers strode toward them with rifles slung over their shoulders. Khaki uniform shirts hung on their lanky frames.

Would they be arrested? And for what? The Soviet army never needed a good reason. Countless people had been killed or deported. Picked off like apples from a tree.

The stairs of Lühike Jalg. The door to Pikk Jalg can be seen at the base of the tower in the centre of the photo.

The stairs of Lühike Jalg. The door to Pikk Jalg can be seen at the base of the tower in the centre of the photo.

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