Welcome to TRB Lounge. Today, I’d like to welcome author Teri M. Brown who’ll be sharing an excerpt from her latest release Sunflowers Below The Snow.
About the Book
Sunflowers Beneath The Snow
A Ukrainian rebel. Three generations of women bearing the consequences. A journey that changes everything.
When Ivanna opens the door to uniformed officers, her tranquil life is torn to pieces – leaving behind a broken woman who must learn to endure the cold, starvation, and memories of a man who died in the quintessential act of betrayal. Using her thrift, ingenuity, and a bit of luck, she finds a way to survive in Soviet Ukraine, along with her daughter, Yevtsye. But the question remains, will she be strong enough to withstand her daughter’s deceit and the eventual downfall of the nation she has devoted her life to? Or will the memories of her late husband act as a shadow haunting everyone and everything she loves, including Ionna, the granddaughter that never knew him?
In Sunflowers Beneath the Snow, Teri M Brown explores the tenacity of women, showing that even in grueling circumstances, they can, and do, experience all the good things life has to offer – compassion, joy, love, faith, and wonder.
You can find Sunflowers Beneath The Snow here:
Author Website | Amazon | Atmosphere Press | Goodreads
Chapter 1: 1973
Lyaksandro was aware of just three things. The slit of sun sneaking through the hurriedly closed curtains in an otherwise claustrophobic room. The air sucking into his lungs only to escape again in uneven gasps. And the unsympathetic, unyielding metal pressed against his temple awaiting his decision.
How had he gone from a simple man – Lyaksandro Hadeon Rosomakha – a university employee, a son, a father, and a husband – to a man facing a decision at the end of a gun? What had pulled him into a life littered with secret meetings, men with no names, and information passed in the hours between darkness and dawn?
Undoubtedly, the state police would slap an informant label on his forehead despite the mundane activities he was called upon to perform. His treachery was not the kind to find its way into the banned spy novels still wending their way through the eager hands of boys wanting to prove they were men. No, rather than the high-tension, clandestine meetings of books and movies, he merely passed along innocuous information on loose pages of lined notebook paper carefully taken from the university library that employed him.
Sometimes he was asked to provide a list of those visiting the library on any given day. Other times, he would be asked to provide the names of those who checked out certain books or inquired about specific topics. He’d even been asked to photocopy pages from manuals. He didn’t know what they were looking for. The link between a man named Bodashka Kravets and an interest in 4th century Ukrainian history, for example, was never explained. Nor did he truly know who was asking. His place in the resistance machinery was minor at best, and deadly at worst.
In this moment, though not for the first time, he wondered if the information was actually worth dying for. He was simply a small gear in a huge network of informants. Yet, despite the inconsequential nature of the information he passed, he understood, if caught, he was unlikely to survive. Informants – spies – regardless of their importance, were not tolerated. At best, he might face permanent imprisonment in a psychiatric facility. At worst, he would be killed and unceremoniously dumped into the nearest ravine, never to be heard from again.
The cold metal pressed more urgently against his skull. Would he die here? The choice was his to make and his to live with or die from. Would he say yes? No? Beg for a different option, like a small child hoping to get a treat for lunch rather than carrots and beets?
Pictures from his life flashed into view, each one an arrow pointing toward the path leading him to this place, this time, this decision. Although he had no memory of his father choosing a strong name for a strong son, his naming had become a personal folktale with Lyaksandro as the hero. His father would hold his young son in his thick arms, smelling of sweat and freshly cut wood, explaining each part of his name in considerable detail.
“You, my son, are no ordinary boy, and you have been born into extraordinary times. I’ve given you a name to guide you – to show you what you are meant to be. You are Lyaksandro Hadeon Rosomakha.
“Lyaksandro. Defender of man. A protector and guardian of mankind.
“Hadeon. Warrior. But not merely any kind of warrior – impetuous warrior. I want you to be willing to complete your mission without concern for the consequences as you seek after your cause.
“Rosomakha. Wolverine. Ferocious and wild, yet intelligent. Connected to family. Willing to be alone but longing to be part of a community – preferably like-minded souls longing for something better in life.”
By the time he entered school, he recognized who he was and what kind of man he would become. His name said it all.
A name, however, wasn’t enough fuel to propel someone forward if they weren’t willing to go. He was one Lyaksandro among many, and to his knowledge, they were all waking in their homes this morning while he drew in, what had the potential to be, his remaining breaths.
Although he had been born under communist reign, his father never let the stories of the Ukraine he experienced as a boy die. In the same way he could recite the story of his name, Lyaksandro could narrate the stories of his home as it had once been before communism and the USSR. The community traditions, the dances, and the songs, even the acres and acres of sunflower fields fading into the horizon.
“Ah, the bechornytsi.” This word would sigh from his father’s lips turned upward into the closest thing Lyaksandro would ever see to a smile. “Once the crops were gathered and put up for the long winter to come, all the young people from the village would gather in a sparse building in the center of town erected specifically for occasions like these.
“Such singing and dancing, Leki! Young men performing the Gopack, alternating between standing and squatting while energetically flinging their legs and feet toward the giggling young women who shyly observed in hopes of being chosen from the crowd for more personal attention. Older women embroidering along the edge of the makeshift dance floor, keeping time with their feet. Older men telling tall tales and laughing too loudly at their rude jokes, secretly wishing they still had the ability to dance at the end of a long day to titillate the ladies.
“And the food. Oh, Lyaksandro, you have never seen such food. Varenyky, borscht, golubci, salo, papukhy. Everyone ate and talked and laughed long into the night. I met your mama at a celebration such as this.”
In spite of never witnessing the glory for himself, he missed it with a fierceness as immeasurable as his father’s – a man who died trying to gain back what had been forcefully taken away.
During the Shelest regime, Lyaksandro believed everything his father wanted for his beloved Ukraine was happening. He believed perhaps his father’s death had not been in vain. Novelists, artists, and film directors created their art with few restrictions. Ukrainian pride – something quite apart from Party loyalty – flourished. Lyaksandro had found, courted, and married Ivanna, and the two of them had a darling daughter. What more did a man need to be content?
Except he had ignored the signs and pretended all was right with the world. He was blinded by the Politburo’s permissiveness and flattery and was unable, or unwilling, to see the truth, until, without fanfare, and more importantly, with very little protest, years’ worth of literature was ripped from the shelves. Any art deemed anti-Soviet or nationalist was burned. Dissidents, once tolerated with a mild slap of the hand, were incarcerated in corrective labor camps – ispravitelno-trudovye lageria, or insane asylums.
Then, one fateful day changed the course of his life and brought him here, a man on his knees, at a fork in the road which would change the trajectory of his life. He realized he could no longer be a bleating sheep, following along with a timid “as you wish” while the Party elite dined on stuffed pheasant. He could no longer tolerate a gradual reformation of society, when all around him, those he loved suffered.
Despite his mother’s heroic efforts to keep him from taking up his father’s sword, Lyaksandro would do no less – could do no less. It was for this cause he found himself with a choice to live or die.
His name. His father. His love. His country. Each played a part that landed him in a dark alley – was it just last night? – instead of lying next to his wife of 12 years under a hand-stitched quilt, her soap-scented hair swirled on a pillow they shared. The pretense that all was well in his beloved country was over. This realization led him to seek out those who were actively making changes, while others only whispered about them, furtively looking around for Party finks. Ultimately, he had agreed to collect information to pass on to unknown carriers to squash communism and bring back the Ukraine his father had taught him to long for.
Last night had been the culmination of two long years’ worth of effort. For months, he had been providing information through coded sentences in the still of the night, each time acutely aware that this could be the last time – each time lying to himself that this would be the last time. And yet, he ventured into various alleyways throughout the city on scheduled nights, again and again, delivering bits of information to further the cause despite these promises he made to himself while lurking in alleys in which he didn’t belong.
Three hours ago, maybe four, he had been standing in a pitch-black alley, fear wrapping itself around Lyaksandro like a jaded lover’s arms ready to administer another round of arsenic in the wine. Had he somehow known he would end up here, like this? His skin pricked on the back of his neck again, precisely as it had then, the small hairs standing at attention. He recalled the small sound, a distance away that had caused his breath to halt in his throat, fearing any sound might give him away. He had flattened himself against the doorway and listened intently, once again hearing the small but deafening noise.
Such a minuscule sound would have been swallowed up in the bustle of the day, but there, in the inky darkness, it became ominous and menacing. Though he had willed it to be his contact, his sense of foreboding suggested otherwise. Never had he heard the approach before. In fact, he was often disconcerted at how swiftly and silently the contact arrived, asking for a light before Lyaksandro fully comprehended someone was at hand.
The sound, like soft scraping of metal against stone, happened again. Then again. More regularly. And closer.
Lyaksandro carried no weapon, and though he was officially a spy, he had no training. Until this very moment, he had never considered what he would do if things didn’t go as planned. Nonetheless, some instinct, or perhaps the hand of God, had him drop to his haunches, seconds before a bit of brick where his head had been moments earlier burst into fragments and rained shards into his hair.
Whether he yelled out or not, he did not know, but it wouldn’t have mattered either way. A cacophony of noise instantaneously erupted in the once-silent night. Men’s voices mixed with explosions and the tinkling sound of broken glass. Running footsteps. The squeal of tires. And then silence again.
This could not be happening. He wanted to help his country, to provide a place for his wife and child to thrive. Nothing more. Certainly not this. He wanted only to be home with his wife and child, and tears flooded his eyes as he crouched against the wall, immobilized by fear.
Before he comprehended what was happening, someone grabbed Lyaksandro under the arm and hauled him to his feet. He threw his arms wildly toward the hand that gripped him, desperate to get away. He wasn’t a spy. He was merely a man. “Please, please. I don’t know what you want. I…” But before he uttered another word, a man in perfect Ukrainian said, “Come. Now. Quickly. We don’t have much time. They followed you here, hoping to catch two birds with one stone, but ended up with nothing to show for their night’s adventure, eh? Are you hurt? No? Come.”
One foot quickly followed the other as the man, carefully concealed under a cap and scarf, weaved in and out of streets and alleys, bringing him to a fourth-floor flat in a run-down, nondescript building. He threw some clothes in Lyaksandro’s direction. “Change. Quickly. No! Don’t use the light. Hand me your things.” Then, they were off again, this time, more slowly but not without purpose. Two more times, they ducked into buildings, changed clothes, and emerged again, the final time as others were beginning their morning routines.
Lyaksandro realized with a joyful clarity that, unlike his father, he had lived. His joy, however, was fleeting as the man who saved his life said, “Here. Enter here.” As they moved inside, he gave Lyaksandro specific directions which seemed foreign and impossible to understand, consonants and vowels hobbled together but providing no meaning. “Sit here, in this chair so I can cut and dye your hair. We procurred documents for you. We will have you in London by this time tomorrow.”
“But…” Lyaksandro sat down heavily in the proffered chair, his mind reeling as he tried to take in the events over the past hour. Leaving his beloved Ukraine? Everything he did was to save this country, not leave it. And his family? What would Yevtsye think about leaving her homeland with a child in tow? It would make no sense to her. He needed to speak to her, to help her understand. “What about Ivanna? Yevtsye? When will they arrive? Where are their papers? They will be so frightened, so confused. I must explain everything to them.”
The man’s hand reached out and held Lyaksandro’s shoulder. “мій друг, my friend, the deal is for you. You, alone.”
Lyaksandro jerked away, wild eyes darting around the room. He would never leave his wife and child. They were the reason he did what he did. They were the reason for the risks he took. Without them, the midnight rendezvous made no sense. With a mixture of panic and resolve, he shouted, “No! No! They go, or I stay.”
Bending at the waist, bringing his face level with Lyaksandro’s, the nameless man who had saved his life hours before whispered slowly, as if speaking to a small child. “No. It is too late for ultimatums. We cannot get your wife and daughter. Your home is under surveillance. They watched you leave tonight. They followed you to the alley. They wanted to kill you. Your wife and daughter…they are…it is hard to say…where they might be?”
A wild, animal-like guttural groan escaped from Lyaksandro’s throat. His beautiful Ivanna. His beautiful Yevtsye. He had killed them. He regarded his hands, realizing they were capable of both stroking his wife’s cheek and effectively signing her death certificate. Had they started trembling in the alley, or only as he became aware of his new role as executor?
More urgently, the man said, “Now. You must go now. We cannot permit you fall into your government’s hands. Doing so would cause far too many problems for us. Get up. Now.”
Mere seconds had passed. The man shifted his stance to stare directly into Lyaksandro’s eyes, the two men merely a gun-length apart. “Are you going? Or are you dying here?”
Twenty-four hours later, a shattered man, stripped of his Ukrainian name and his family, landed at Heathrow.
About The Author
Teri M. Brown
Born in Athens, Greece as an Air Force brat, Teri M Brown graduated from UNC Greensboro. She began her writing career helping small businesses with content creation and published five nonfiction self-help books dealing with real estate and finance, receiving “First Runner Up” in the Eric Hoffman Book Awards for 301 Simple Things You Can Do To Sell Your Home Now, finalist in the USA Best Books Awards for How To Open and Operate a Financially Successful Redesign, Redecorate, and Real Estate Staging Business and for 301 Simple Things You Can Do To Sell Your Home Now, and Honorable Mention in Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award for Private Mortgage Investing. In 2017, after winning the First Annual Anita Bloom Ornoff Award for Inspirational Short Story, she began writing fiction in earnest, and recently published Sunflowers Beneath the Snow. Teri is a wife, mother, grandmother, and author who loves word games, reading, bumming on the beach, taking photos, singing in the shower, hunting for bargains, ballroom dancing, playing bridge, and mentoring others. Teri’s debut novel, Sunflowers Beneath the Snow, is a historical fiction set in Ukraine.
Learn more at www.terimbrown.com
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