She never thought much about her name. It was comfortable and suited her. It sounded old-fashioned and made no demands on her personality – she imagined she probably was named for some old great-aunt she’d never met and nobody ever talked about anymore.
She’d never had any reason to look at her birth certificate before. But now, with both her parents suddenly gone and so many legal matters to be settled, her birth certificate was only one of the many papers she had to dig out of her parents’ files.
Their office had always felt like a perfect reflection of them – messy but comfortable, disorganized but full of fascinating bits of information. Bob Walters had been a professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at a small college where he and Emma’s mother, Amanda, were two-thirds of the faculty for the unlikely department.
Bob and Amanda seemed happy in their work. The relatively low-volume demands of Sophia Lyon Fahs College in Emerson, Iowa, allowed them ample time for each other, their daughter, and their many friends and wide-ranging interests. Their library overflowed into every other room in the house with books on history, music, botany, ornithology, poetry, chemistry, ecology, geography, anthropology, textiles, ceramics, religion, philosophy, stagecraft, painting and folklore – some in languages Emma had never seen anywhere else.
Emma turned her thoughts to immediate details to help her cope with the abrupt and final removal of these two precious people from her life. She had just turned eighteen and would be attending the University of Kansas in September. Mom and Daddy had finally decided to spend a summer touring Europe and had invited Emma to come with them. She insisted they consider the trip a second honeymoon, because they hadn’t traveled without her – or out of the country – for as long as she could remember. Besides, she reasoned, she wanted to spend time with friends before they all went off in different directions for college.
The 777 slammed into a sandbar in Jamaica Bay minutes after takeoff. There were no survivors. Years might pass before the NTSB discovered why the plane had gone down.
While the Walters were rich in friends, there was no extended family – no aunts, uncles or cousins on either side. Life was lived in the present, the future or the distant past. Active intellects and generous spirits made up for the lack of grandparents and other family members. One benefit of this arrangement was that Emma grew up without the burden of family feuds and grudges that complicated the lives of many of her friends.
Life was good. Possibilities were endless. Questioning was encouraged. Her mind was nurtured to value freedom and respect individuality. Bob and Amanda taught by example the value of little things and the importance of thoughtful decision-making.
Now they were gone, and she was trying to understand the contents of this large brown envelope.
Friends and love had filled the house as soon as word of her loss arrived. A memorial service had been held at the Fahs Chapel Unitarian Church, where her parents’ lives were celebrated by people who had known and cherished them. Stories were told, poetry was read, and music was played on cello by a member of the music faculty she called “uncle” and on flute by Emma’s friend Trish – their lawyer’s daughter – who planned to study music at Wichita State University in the fall.
Emma had been surrounded by thoughtfulness and spared the polite platitudes that so often disguise the condolences of strangers. The family lawyer was a trusted friend who stepped in gracefully without treating Emma like a helpless child. Bob and Amanda had left their legal affairs in good order, in absolute contrast to their library. Except for this envelope.
After presenting her with a written summary of the details of the estate, Jim Harwood reviewed some key documents with Emma, answered the few questions she had, and promised to be available whenever she needed him.
“I don’t know whether I’ll be able to help you with this, though. But I’ll try,” he said. “I have only the vaguest information about what’s inside it.” Jim kissed her gently on the forehead, handed her the envelope and left.
It was made of heavy brown craft paper, about eleven by fourteen inches and sealed with string, a wax seal and wide transparent tape over the seal. In her father’s bold, open script, it was labeled:
For Emma Walters. To be opened on her twenty-fifth birthday, before her marriage, or upon the deaths of both of us. We love you unconditionally.
It was signed by both Robert and Amanda Walters.
Emma had left it on the library table for two days, not sure she was ready for any drama, and more than a little stunned that her parents would challenge her with a surprise like this. The envelope was thick with papers, a small book of some kind perhaps, and a little box.
She read the label more than a dozen times before she finally opened the envelope.
If she sliced it open at the top of the flap, how could she close it again? She could cut tape around the edge of the flap, but the string that wrapped around the cardboard grommets to close the envelope was secured by the wax seal. Although it was under the transparent tape, the seal seemed to have some kind of insignia pressed into it and she didn’t want to destroy it.
Procrastination strikes again! But the carefully sealed envelope presented a fascinating puzzle, and Emma was usually good with puzzles. “There is always another way.” She had heard this countless times from both her parents during sometimes-heated discussions with friends and other faculty members. Ethical dilemmas, political strategies, contradictory goals – always more than one solution, if a person would only persist in the search.
Cutting the flap between the seal and the fold would preserve both the seal and enough of the flap to close the envelope again. Emma found a small knife in the desk and carefully formed a new flap. Now there was no excuse not to examine the envelope’s contents.
There was a small box inside, two leather-bound journals – quite old –along with a worn child’s ruled-paper notebook with black-and-white cardboard covers, and a sheaf of documents – some single sheets and some joined in a fascinating technique involving tiny cuts and folds in the corners of the pages. In some of the many catalogs her parents got in the mail, Emma had seen several versions of overpriced gadgets that would join papers this way, but these pages were very old and the cuts and folds were uneven, as if they had been made by hand. Many of the documents were handwritten or typed on old manual typewriters, most not in English.
Emma could see strange watermarks on some of the pages. There was heavy vellum as well as the lightweight “onionskin” popular before the advent of fax machines, photocopiers and computerized word processing equipment, when par avion meant high postage rates and people used thin paper so they could spend less on stamps.
There were letters and legal-looking documents. Contracts, deeds, bills of sale, wills, birth certificates, baptismal records? Emma had done well in her French classes, but deciphering old handwriting was very different from reading clearly printed books. Some of the pages looked like German, many were French, and then there was the unmistakable Cyrillic alphabet that she had never learned to read.
The first journal was very old; the top layers of the leather finish came off like dust on her fingertips. Flipping through it, she saw different inks, languages and handwritings. The cardboard-covered notebook was filled with a childish scrawl in broken English. The newer leather bound journal was written in what looked very like her father’s hand. What was she supposed to do with all this?
Emma carefully slid the documents and the books back into the envelope and took a sip of the now-tepid coffee. She couldn’t think. She had no point of reference for this unexpected bundle of obscure information.
Then she reached for the little box. Like the oldest journal, it was very old. It was covered in velvet that had once been wine-colored, and a small mother-of-pearl button was set on one side. She pressed it and the box popped open.
After the chaos of the papers and the confusion of the journals, Emma didn’t think she could be surprised again this morning. But the box contained a ring that glowed in the sunlight like green fire.
Buttery yellow gold held what had to be emeralds. There were three rectangular stones in an antique step cut, a large one in the center flanked by two slightly smaller ones. All were supported by a heavy but open bridge of gold that allowed light to enter the stones from every angle to dazzle the eye. The ring fit perfectly on the middle finger of Emma’s right hand.
She put the empty ring box back in the envelope, which she then hid behind a set of encyclopedias. She sat down and tried to finish her coffee but found she couldn’t swallow. She laid her head on her arms and sobbed until the afternoon sun was low in the windows.