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A little leaven

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 5

Alison Christy 23 November 2008

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Who could suspect that things existed in the world that can't be seen?

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 5

Microbial population dynamics during continuous yeast fermentation

Frank decides to make blini, thin Russian crepes they can fill with meat and cheese. Clean dry packets of yeast, emptied into tepid water and left for five minutes, have replaced the old dough or yeasty barm that the ancient Russians would have added to the batter. But they too would have left the bowl of batter sitting on the counter, allowing the mixture to ferment without any understanding of the actions of yeast or even knowledge of the existence of micro-organisms, knowing only that this short incubation made their pancakes taste better.

Who could suspect that things existed in the world that can't be seen? Not human-like spirits or gods, but tiny little creatures, animalcules that caused disease or created complex flavors in food. What kind of mind could imagine, before the microscope, that the human body was not an entity but a mosaic of individual living cells? Or that whirling spores of fungus floated around in the very air, searching for a wet piece of dough where they could begin to breed, releasing the carbon dioxide that would lift the dense, flat doughy stuff into a high, light bread with a tender, yeasty taste?

Aristotle believed that aphids were created from the morning dew; only centuries ago scientists were certain that mice sprang into being from mud. It was in the middle of the eighteenth century, almost one hundred years after the development of the microscope, that it became clear that everything living came from another living thing, that nothing could spontaneously become. Now it is impossible to imagine not knowing it.

But people perfected the art of baking bread and brewing alcohol long before they knew that yeast was made up of living cells, that cells were the basic units of life, that enzymes in cells could catalyze chemical reactions. Just as people conceived and bore children long before they knew that wriggling sperm penetrated the waiting egg – or even that the act of sex led to children. Maybe they thought it was magic, maybe they thought it was God; maybe they never thought about it at all. The early brewers and bakers domesticated and bred yeast like dogs, breeding strains that were better for breads and strains that were better for wines, without knowing that genotype leads to phenotype and that offspring inherit the alleles of their parents; just as they looked at their children and saw a seemingly magical combination of the two parents, without any knowledge of how such a combination might take place.

Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. Maybe humans aren’t inherently curious, after all; maybe most people are actually inherently trusting. If it works, it works, and most people don’t worry about it too much.

Anna is a scientist. She worries all the time.


Most of Frank’s books are printed in Russian, the square mirror letters exotic and forbidding, except for a thick book on Stalin, a thicker volume on Lenin, and a slimmer one called Women Poets of the Silver Age. He is on the phone, speaking Russian in a thick, low voice, while Anna leans over his stack of books, balanced on one leg. The blini batter bubbles on the counter.

Towards the bottom of one of the stacks she sees another book in English: The Lights Up North: Indigenous Siberia by Michael Perch.

Inside the front flap of that book is a newspaper clipping. Anna unfolds it and reads:

American Journalist DisappearsThe Moscow Voice, November 25, 1999

By Olga Ivashina

The American journalist Michael Perch disappeared from his apartment almost two weeks ago and is now officially missing, his friends report.

“His phone kept ringing,” said Bella Baleyev, an elderly Russian woman who lived next door to Perch for over three years. “I could hear it through the wall and he did not pick it up. Then his alarm started ringing, in the morning, and it kept ringing all day. This was too much for an old woman like me.”

Baleyev convinced her landlord to let her in to Perch’s empty apartment to turn off his alarm. His phone continued to ring, however, and after two days Baleyev contacted the Moscow police.

Perch’s passport was located in his apartment, along with $200 in American Express Traveler’s Checks.

Yuri Obrezkov, a fellow journalist, was the last person to see the globetrotting author, over drinks at the Golden Ring Hotel.

“Nothing was out of the ordinary,” Obrezkov said of their final meeting. “He didn’t say anything about leaving Moscow.”

Obrezkov also said that Perch did not seem afraid of a negative response to his recent articles about the Moscow apartment bombings and the war in Chechnya. “He always said they would not touch an American citizen,” Obrezkov said. “He said, ‘Who can say these things if not me?’ ”

Perch, born in 1964 in North Carolina, has kept an apartment in Moscow for the last five years. He was a frequent contributor to The Moscow Voice, and became known for his polemic opinion pieces that were often frankly critical of the post-Soviet government. Perch wrote two books about Russia: The Lights Up North: Indigenous Siberia (Transit Press, 1996) and We Will Be Sure To Express Your Concerns To Moscow: A Long Look at the New Russia (Houghton-Mifflin, 1999). Perch also traveled extensively throughout Asia, and wrote articles for American travel magazines about his experiences in Nepal, Thailand, China and Vietnam.

The Moscow police are currently investigating Perch’s disappearance but do not suspect foul play.

A sharp buzzing sound fills the apartment. Anna jumps, folds the article quickly and puts it back inside the book.

She hears a rapid exchange at the door: the visitor is a woman, whose Russian is faster and more insistent than Frank’s. She lowers herself back onto the couch and is adjusting her vodka bottle when a young woman rushes into the room – the thin chain-smoker from the expat table who Anna had thought was French.

“Hello, Anna!” the woman says as if they have known each other for years, bending down to shake her hand in both of hers. “It is so good to meet you! I am so sorry to hear about your accident. You see, this is why Russians don’t jog.” She shakes her head very seriously, then laughs, showing all of her teeth. “I am joking. Do you know there are many gyms in Moscow? It is true!”

“This is Marina,” Frank says. “And the gyms are for foreigners and Mafiosi.”

“Don’t tell her that!” Marina says, playfully slapping Frank’s arm. “We want her to think only the best things about Moscow.”

“Anna already likes Moscow better than Petersburg,” Frank says.

“No!” Marina grabs Anna’s arm, clutching at her heart with her other hand. “Petersburg is so beautiful,” she says. “The heart of Russia. How can you not love Petersburg?”

“I’ve never been to Petersburg,” Anna admits. She has no interest in going to Petersburg. She thinks of Petersburg and Moscow as Milda and herself: Milda, pretty, safe, uninteresting, and herself – the smart one, the challenging one, the deep one. At least Michael Perch understands. If you want Europe, go to Petersburg. If you want a slim, pretty blonde, why not buy a Barbie?

The rail-thin Marina chatters without pause, running her hands through her short, spiky, dyed red hair, stopping only to go out on Frank’s balcony to furiously smoke a cigarette, flicking the butt into the air before rushing back into the room, smelling of fresh smoke. An astonishing energy streams from her body and overwhelms the room, accented by her sharp cheekbones and pointed elbows: it makes Anna feel tired and subdued in comparison.

“Anna is a Russian name,” Marina says suddenly. “Your parents are Russian?”

“It isn’t a Russian name. Actually my mother is Latvian,” Anna says. She expects Marina to react to that, somehow, but Marina tells her instead that she feels names are important, and she begins to talk about her own name, which means the sea, and the connection she has always felt to the sea during her childhood vacations to the seaside in Sochi.

But Frank interrupts and asks Anna if she’s heard anything about the new Latvian language laws that forbid shopkeepers from speaking to customers in Russian or printing signs in any language other than Latvian. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “I mean, half the country is Russian now, and they don’t speak Latvian.”

“It’s not ridiculous,” Anna says. “The Latvians had to speak Russian for fifty years. The language would have died out if they didn’t make a few rules to bring it back.”

“There are better ways to preserve languages,” Frank says. “You could make Latvian languages classes mandatory for everyone. Then at least you’re not making half the population unable to communicate.”

“These are occupiers we’re talking about,” Anna says. “Not immigrants.”

“Occupiers who lived there for decades,” Frank says.

“Okay, okay, don’t fight,” Marina says with a loud laugh. “Anna, I will write down the recipe of blini for you, and when you get back to America you can make real Russian blini for your friends, okay?”

She smiles brightly at Anna and pats Frank’s shoulder. “You Americans and your politics.”

{Continued next week}