• M. K. Stelmack

Oranges at -40

“Mind getting me one, mademoiselle?”

Anna teetered on the ladder she’d found to climb into the waxy canopy of an orange tree, the round fruit coming away in her hand. No one ever snuck up on her. She bent a branch and past the leaves she made out a wide smile, hair the color of a rye harvest and a red tunic. Him, her instincts screamed. The man who spied on you at the graveyard.

How had she not heard him? The conservatory door hinges sounded like quarreling cats; no one could’ve slipped in undetected. All was blooms and greenery and statuary, everything as before. What did he want?

His smile broadened.

Something loosened inside her, like string snipped from a parcel or laces giving way on cursed stays. She reached for a second orange.

“No,” he switched from French to English. “That one is too green. The one there.” He pointed above her head.

It was much superior to her. Bigger, darker and, cupping it in her hand, heavier. She saw no other its equal.

An excerpt from my historical, The Tsar's Little Angel

Here in cold Canada, the only way we can eat a fresh orange is to get them shipped from our trading partners to the south sell them. So I was amazed to learn that in Russia—at our latitude and subarctic climes—oranges were grown in botanical conservatories centuries ago.

The first conservatory in Saint Petersburg (the setting, in part, of my story) came in 1714 under the dictates of Peter the Great. Determined to upgrade his country to European standards, he decreed that his new city needed a place to grow medicinal plants. The resulting greenhouse became much more than a pharmaceutical depository. In 1824-25, at the time of my story, twenty-five greenhouses were constructed to house flowering bushes and cacti. Yes, cacti.

But the growing of plants was by no means confined to the government. Nobility, some families of which were as well-heeled as the ruling Romanovs, also had their own conservatories. The inspiration for my conservatory comes from the famous Oranienbaum built in 1723 by Count Menshikov.

There, oranges were grown for the first time in Russia, just west of St. Petersburg, where human flesh can freeze within the half-hour during winter. Oranges! The heated orangeries were an extravagant status symbol among the esteemed nobility, not surprising given the massive stoves and imported glass required to keep the plants from shriveling to death.

As the setting for the first meet-up between Anna and Gavril, the conservatory in my story is much more modest, but hopefully blends together the exotic and domestic, the fanciful and the practical—exactly what Anna sees in her handsome fella. Then, oh my, he peels the orange…

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