catherine the great

Growing up in the home for orphaned girls,
I whiled my days away playing a toy piano
to her portrait on the wall.
She was a gondolier in a gilded boat,
ever constant against the flowing wallpaper.
She told me of things called corsets, taught me
that the necks of kittens and girls
were made for ribbons. She showed me
the map of the world and what parts of it
belonged to us Russians. Meanwhile the Mother Superior
taught me to respect my elders, the church,
and the Grand Duke most of all,
though he was at the time only a boy
and younger than I. When Lazy Lizaveta
fell asleep at the stove and set the house on fire,
I saw her portrait disappear in white smoke.
The purple wallpaper turned black, curled
like a witch’s fingers. The Mother Superior
went up in flames, wimple and all.
Now I am thirty and married.
No sugar castles cloud my vision.
My neck, ribbon or no ribbon, is still
an orphan’s neck; my fingers never learned
to persuade the keys of real pianos into music.
I wear white linen dressing gowns when receiving guests.
And on the wall of my study hangs her portrait.

published in the spring 2019 issue of jabberwocky (umass amherst)

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