I have spent years of late night hours, cycling through hundreds of images of Russian orphanages in hopes of finding one, just one, that would match my memories of a many-windowed manor home with ballroom-sized rooms, of an image that would at last confirm the truth in a line from family lore: that this building my sister and I had once inhabited had also once been home to a noble family before the Revolution.
I have found none. The closest I’ve ever come is an image whose caption detailed how the building, located 250 miles northeast of Moscow, had been inherited from the Russian Army. The article noted that this building lacked back necessities, such as heat for the winter, air conditioning for the summer, plumbing for toilets, and hot water for showers. My memories don’t match images of any of the other buildings either. My orphanage had not been an inelegant square of concrete, looming five stories high, or a building that had been slapped up on the cheap to accommodate the masses. I don’t remember being squashed into small rooms or lying despondent in a crib, or neglected on my cot.
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Once I woke at night feeling terrified because I needed to use the toilet. Our caregivers took turns sleeping in a very large room that served as a communal bedroom. That particular night, the caretaker we all feared, for various reasons, was keeping a watchful eye. We all knew she hated to be woken, and so, I weighed my options. I could pee in my bed like my sister often did, but then I would be cold and wet and have to face harsher punishments in the morning. I curled up underneath the covers and tried to ignore the burning. It didn’t work. Finally, I pulled all the bits of my courage together, braced against the pinching cold, and dashed across the wooden floor to her bed. She wasn’t there. Fear dissolved into relief. I was about to turn and dash back, when I heard my name being called. I wandered around the door that was being held ajar by her chair. She was knitting. “Do you need to use the bathroom?” she asked. Her voice was surprisingly gentle.
“Yes,” I mumbled.
Her hands never stopped moving. Her hair was down, and it was long and smooth, and I realized she was beautiful.
“Do you think you find the way yourself? You know where it is.”
I knew where it was. All I had to do was follow the room straight down and turn a right into the narrower corridor until it dead-ended into the door. If I followed the wall then I wouldn’t get lost. It was rare that we were allowed to walk anywhere alone, especially at night, but her assertion, you know where it is, made me feel big and brave.
“Promise to go straight there?” she said.
“Promise,” I said.
I kept one finger on the wall as long as I could. When I had to lift the finger off the wall to turn right into the narrower corridor, my stomach fluttered, and yet, I also felt a sudden lightness. I turned right, and for the first time in my life, I was out of sight of any caregivers and any other children. I could, if I wanted, explore a little. But I didn’t abuse my newfound independence that night. Perhaps I didn’t want to break the promise that she had bestowed on me like some magical spell, but it is more likely that I really needed to go.
Afterwards, I stepped onto the stool near the sink. There was a small mirror spotted with dirt and I caught my reflection for the very first time. I blinked. Hazel eyes blinked back and disappeared.
She was waiting for me. As I neared her, she took my still damp hand and led me back to bed. I smiled at her, expecting her to smile back in recognition for a job well done. She ignored my smile, pulling the blanket over my shoulder instead. The frostiness that I had often felt from her had returned and I knew better than to break through it.
Over the years, I often wondered why her face seemed so hard and her lips so angry. When I was younger, I believed she hated me, but now I can think of other reasons. The lines on her face were perhaps evidence of a difficult life, perhaps it also reflected the rocky transition her people were enduring. News reports detail how, in the 90s, the Russian people spent a minimum of forty hours in line a month in hopes of receiving basic commodities. Most had not seen butter or meat in weeks, if not years. Given this, it is likely that our caregivers were not being paid to give---to love, or even care. It was likely that she was watching us at the expense of tending to her own children. It’s likely that she held onto that angry to remain distant. God knows how many orphans before me she had loved and had to watch go.
Katya Cummins earned a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She graduated from McNeese State University with an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English Literature. While there, she served as the Fiction and Managing Editor for The McNeese Review. She is also the Founding and Managing Editor of the online literary magazine called Niche. <www.nichelitmag.com>.