The Orphanhood



The Orphanhood

I am here, at her request, to tell you about a young woman. I haven't known her for long – we spent less than a week together, quite by chance – and all the information I have about her I got directly from her.

My purpose in writing is that this young woman has asked me to record and comment on the tumultuous period she had just lived through. I call her a young woman, but till just recently she was very much a girl, and it is this recent change that has prompted her to ask for my help in reviewing who she is and how she has come to be that person.

I won't say exactly what from city this girl is from, but I will say that it is in the West, that it has some big buildings, a lot of people, and an unreliable transportation system. I will also refrain from saying exactly in what country she is now, in what city she lives, and in what countryside we met, along with in which language she and I communicated. I will, however, give you one vital bit of information, with which you may do as you please: her name is Katerina.

In the middle of her teens, Katerina declared herself an orphan. She made this declaration only to herself. She did this not because she did not love the mother with home she lived or the father whom she sometimes visited, but because she felt there were many things she needed to learn which she wasn't learning in her daily life. She arranged visits at that time to a number of extended family members in different locations for different amounts of time. She kept up her orphanhood for three years, and has now decided that, though she is thoroughly done being an orphan, she is not returning to her mother: she is going to continue living on her own. I had the fortunate occasion to meet this young woman at the moment when she became aware of this resolution.

Katerina and I met during her second stay with her great-aunt Alla Sikovskaya. I own the cottage


nearest to her aunt's, and vacation here in the spring and autumn. I come for fairly short visits, two weeks at the most, if I stay any longer all the budding and dying wildlife begins to act adversely on my mental well-being.

I won't dwell on sumptuous geographical descriptions, but I'll spare a few words: our springs as well as our autumns are equally green. We have a forest of dark pines less than a kilometer away, and rolling light green grassy hills as far as anyone needs to see. The grocer from the nearest town sends his delivery boy three times a week, and for our bodily business we use simple septic-tank systems. We have a little pond-lake that we can walk to in five minutes, ten minutes from Mrs. Sikovskaya's cottage, and that's about all.

Here's a general idea of what the scene looked like:

As mentioned, Katerina's parents did not live together. The two had settled in cities far away from each other, in different parts of our finite globe, with an ocean in between them. In a sens, it was her father's absence in her life since the age of six that, when she needed to, helped Katerina think of herself as an orphan. When the time deemed it necessary, she would concentrate only on the fact that she had no active father in her life while shutting out any awareness of the mother near her. The presence of her mother, who had cared for Katerina for so long, was not ever totally ignorable, but the effect was close enough to serve Katerina's purpose: to make possible the feeling of parentlessness which sent Katerina off into the world alone.

Katerina first went to live with a distant aunt on her mother's side. The aunt was someone neither Katerina nor her mother knew very well, and yet Katerina managed to call this woman, who had sixty-three years of life behind her, and ask her to let Katerina stay with her through the spring term. It wasn't hard – the woman had an empty bedroom where her son had lived until the age of thirty, when he found a girlfriend and moved into her apartment. Aunt Lila, a healthy woman who looked like she was still in her fifties, didn't mind the extra company. She had a husband, but Katerina didn't say much about him, only that it was impossible to bother him, since he liked to spend his retirement days fishing, leaving early in the dark of morning for the local creek, and his retirement nights drinking, leaving early in the dark of evening for the pub.

Enrolling in the local school was simple: "Hi, I'm staying with my aunt, I've just moved here, I'd like to attend the school."

The reply was wholly disinterested: "Take these papers, sign here, here, here, have your aunt sign this and this, and these two, bring it all to your teacher tomorrow, school started last week."

And like that she was enrolled in secondary school.

It was during this period that Katerina lost her virginity for the first time. It was quite by accident and Katerina is still unsure whether she really received her partner's member in her. The boy and place are not of utmost importance: he was the son of a local waitress who brought Katerina to his mother's two-room apartment while the mother was at work. The boy had been repeatedly asking Katerina if she wanted to come over and see his art books – he said he wanted to be a painter – and she decided to reward his insistence by accepting the invitation to his house. Katerina had on a loose skirt, which the boy, with her permission, pulled up. Her panties were somewhere, she didn't specify where, but not on her. The boy was kissing her, lay on top of her, pressed his chest on hers, she felt pressure only on her upper torso, and a few seconds later, when she looked down, she saw a wet sticky spot on the underside of her skirt. The boy was pulling his wee-wee, as she called it, from that spot, and though she hadn't felt anything, she had to assume that there was a reasonable possibility that it had been inside her.

Her first experience with sex, however indistinct it may have been, made her curious about subject of pregnancy. Just a few days after the incident, Aunt Lila and told Katerina that she had spoken on the phone with Katerina's cousin Irena, whose belly was getting bigger and who was expected to give birth within a month or two. What just a short while ago would have casual news was now such a relevant development for Katerina that she up and left Aunt's Lila's place before the spring term ended and made arrangements to go and stay with Irena.

On the train, riding east, from the little town to the big city, Katerina could feel that she had grown.

She didn't think about the rush of unknown people, she was utterly unconcerned with school. She thought about something totally new and got a rush from the prospect of only one thing: Irena's big belly.

With a single train she arrived at the central train station, and caught sight of Irena, whom she recognized from a photo at Aunt Lila's, standing outside in the late-spring morning cold, sipping at a steaming liquid in a paper cup, probably tea. Katerina remembered this moment quite well: seeing Irena's blank eyes as she scanned the train windows for Katerina's face without being able to locate her, and yet Katerina having watched her from the first moment she was within eyeshot, watching and not being watched, enjoying the sight of Irena resting her cup and hands on her own beautiful big belly, enjoying the calm moment of suspense.

Jumping down the train's metal steps, her little suitcase dragging just a little on the floor of the platform, Katerina ran to Irena and tried to squeeze her arms around her. Katerina expressed the sensation with great emotion: to wrap her arms around that infinite belly, her face bouncing back against its tautness, her ears queued in to the gurgling inside. Katerina even told me that wondered whether Irena could tell that it was her belly she was embracing with such affection and not her.

The ten-minute walk from the train station to her new home was full of wonder. Katerina was now more independent than ever, with no old adults around, only her cousin who was barely ten years older than she, and not even a mother yet! Irena and Katerina had met only once before, when Katerina and her mother had still lived in the east, when her father was still sharing the house with them. And now, after almost ten years, they were all hugs and kisses, no awkwardness whatsoever. Such warmth, as if the two were always together and had been apart for only a few weeks, and Irena's manner, on the one hand matter-of-fact, and on the other joyous. "How is school? How is Aunt Lila? What have you been studying?" – this way on and on as if had always been together.

Irena took Katerina's suitcase in one hand, laughed when Katerina insisted Irena was in so state to carry heavy things, and put her other arm across Katerina's shoulders. Katerina swung her arm around Irena's back, and, her little purse swinging from side to side, walked in ecstasy through the big city that was her new home.

After they strolled the central shops and markets, Katerina and Irena took home the day's groceries and prepared a wonderful meal. When Irena's husband Marik – a wonderful man, Katerina said, who took care of Irena, worked long hours at a prominent bank, and was never too tired to express his continuous love and adoration for Irena – came back from work at seven in the evening that first day, he brought with him a white box tied with string: a cake to celebrate Katerina's arrival, to welcome her,

and to impart to her his own excitement over the event, as if this way they were celebrating not only her arrival, but their kindness in accepting her too.

Katerina became an integral part of the household almost immediately upon her arrival at Irena's, receiving true gratitude and appreciation from her host. And she deserved it: she spent most of her summer vacation in the little apartment, helping Irena with the triple duties of recovering from what had been a difficult birth, caring for baby Masha, who was not completely healthy, and keeping up with the chores of keeping the little apartment livable – all while making sure everybody was fed. To witness the transition from a young pregnant woman to a first-time mother was not without its magic, I guess, and it likely filled Katerina with hope.

The imposition of school nevertheless helped wean Katerina off the constant feeling of being needed. Time also did its part: another birthday had passed and Katerina was now a girl in the thick of her mid-teens, on the approach to that age when she would be considered a woman without a doubt.

Having vicariously experienced childbirth and early motherhood, she entered the new secondary school with what felt to her like an adult's disposition. She treated her studies with new dedication, devoting herself to the notion that she could be, and perhaps had already become, a girl with a committed resolve, a serious countenance, and a sensible disposition.

She began spending her evenings – after she'd finished her homework, of course, and did some personal studying besides – reading and socializing at a café where young artists and writers hung out.

She had gone out on a few dates with one of the writers from the group, Mikolas, and became part of the café community. Having survived three months of being totally dedicated to others, she was now most concerned with her own growth.

And, for the months of September through December, grow she did. And as a young child grows into an overcoat that was too big just a few months before, Katerina grew into the city she was living in and found that it fit her well. She began taking what she called "weekend trips" to different quarters of the city where she hadn't yet been, strolling, sitting at a café or a park, reading. Coming into the feeling of being her own person and having a place for that person to be.

It was during this period that Katerina lost her virginity for the second time. She had gone to the exhibition opening of an artist that was part of the social group of the café where she spent her evenings. He was young, it was his first exhibition, and owing to his general popularity, the reception was crowded. He enjoyed people's company and handled the crowd well. Though she had never discussed his paintings with him at the café, since Mikolas was often around, but Mikolas had been unable to come to the opening, and she was now interviewed the artist about his painting, urging him to discuss them. She asked so many questions, requested so many details, that soon the artist had no words with which to answer, and asked her if she wouldn't be interested in seeing the works for herself, particularly a drawing of a girl he thought looked like her. She said she was eager to see the drawing, and he offered to meet her at his studio in a few hours, after the reception was over.

The studio was in another part of the city, a remote area where a few artists were scattered amongst scooter repair shops and small factories. The busses didn't run directly to that area, and so Katerina had had to get off in a nearby area and walk. She had left for the place soon after the two had set their rendezvous and by the time she got there the artist was already riding up on his scooter, giving her a momentary scare. He pulled off his helmet, and underneath it the tips of his hairs were wet from perspiration. Within a very short time his sweaty hair was brushing against her, and within a few seconds Katerina unequivocally said goodbye to her teetering virginity.

That next evening everyone was at the café celebrating the young artist's first show, which had been a total success.

"To Janos, for his ugly paintings, and all the stupid money he receives for them! Cheers!"

"Cheers!" "Cheers!" "Cheers!"

Everyone was in a good mood, bottles of wine were opened and spread out on the four outdoor tables that had been squeezed together for the celebration. Katerina recalled the weather on that day: the sky was clear, and the wind was freezing cold, and despite that everyone sat outside on the sidewalk, bundled up, enjoying the freedom of celebrating out on the street, feeling like their little group owned the whole block. All the women of the group were congratulating the artist with kisses, and Katerina did the same, only hers was a kiss on the mouth, and a passionate one. The group whooooed Katerina and the artist, and Katerina distinctly remembered blushing because it made the cool of the evening more pronounced against the warmth the blood brought to her cheeks.

Embarrassed, she excused herself and went to the bathroom, where she examined her red face in the mirror. She felt a warmth travel out of her cheeks and into her heart. She smiled at this face and lowered her eyes: she's fallen in love. It didn't matter that she'd agree with the artist that they couldn't repeat their escapade – that they couldn't hurt their friend Mikolas. As she stepped out of the bathroom into the low hallway that separated the café from the restrooms, she saw a dark a figure that seemed to have been waiting for her and was now reaching towards her. The warmth in her heart became a fire that was beating audibly. The figure's strong hand grabbed her before she realized it was the artist, and she gave a slight scream.

"What are you screaming about!" his whispered voice commanded authority.

"You were hiding here in the dark. . ."

"Look: we made a mistake, didn't I make it clear when you left?"


"So why did you kiss me like that in front of everyone?"

"I don't know. All the girls were kissing you."

"You're acting like a little teenage girl."

"You would know. You've probably taken enough of them to your studio."

"Mikolas is in love with you. I can't do a thing like this to my friend."

She left the artist in the closed hallway. Outside, she gave some vague excuse and left the café.

It was December, school had let out for winter that week. The next day, having nothing else to do, she went to the café and saw that, because of the cold weather, the tables were no longer set out on the street. She turned around and went home and read in bed. The café interior would get crowded in the winter, everyone would be crammed into the small space, and Katerina didn't want to be so close to everybody, to lose the freedom of her personal space. With the occurrence of a single event, the channels from which she drew her breaths of freedom were cut off. She resolved to go somewhere far away from this stupid, suffocating city, where people lied and pretended to be intellectual when, in fact, they were just prettying up their insincerity.

On the very next day, Katerina decided to make her retreat and spend some time with her grand-aunt Mrs. Sikovskaya out out in the country, where Katerina could breath freely the freezing air that winter was just about to bring. Irena had been surprised by Katerina's sudden decision to leave, but she was more surprised that Katerina had chosen to go to such a place when it was so cold there, when snow covered everything upon which one set's one's eyes, when the little pond-lake freezes over, and the green of the forest only peaks here and there out of its white blanket. I myself, in the three years I've been spending my vacations and some weekends here, have never stayed in this region before April, and so wasn't here to meet Katerina on her first trip to the area.

Mrs. Sikovskaya, too, warned Katerina about the cold, the lack of activities, the days spent cutting wood, baking bread, and sewing. There would be little occasion, she warned Katerina, to go out, to socialize, to do anything more than stay in or go out and for a walk in the snow. Katerina assured her that she didn't need anything more, and Mrs. Sikovskaya made arrangements for her to get from the train station of the nearest town to her house out in the country. Katerina was instructed to arrive in three days, on Tuesday, on the 13:04 train, and to quickly make her way to the grocer, whose delivery boy left promptly at 13:15 to make his deliveries to the cottages outside of town. She was to join him on his snow-mobile, and he would bring her, along with the groceries, to Mrs. Sikovskaya's cottage.

And by the end of that third day, Katerina was eating chicken soup in the cottage just five minutes walking distance from my own.

Katerina brought with her, besides the single suitcase of clothes that she had been carrying since she'd left her mother's, a small second bag, filled with second-hand books she'd purchased just before her departure from the city. At the cottage, her main activities included chopping wood, cooking, and reading. She went into town twice, early on, with the grocer's delivery boy, but had been unable to interest herself in small-town pub socializing and didn't bother trying a third time. She spent a lot of time talking to Mrs. Sikovskaya, too, and learning about her life: her escape from the ghetto during the war, her years in the capital, then in the small town, then finally her complete retreat to the little cottage. She'd married Mr. Sikovsky, a man outside her religion, because she wanted to insure asylum in the country to which she escaped. He'd died only a few years after their marriage, and left her some money, along with what had been his summer cottage. They had lived in an industrial city, and, being an expert seamstress and embroiderer, she worked for twelve years as the manager of a dress manufacturer. Now she earned money by doing small expert jobs for the local population, jobs that were brought to her by the grocer's delivery boy. Katerina asked whether Mrs. Sikovskaya would teach her embroidery, and added that fourth activity to her small list. Katerina was a fast learner, and, with amount of time she had for practice, was soon able to help Mrs. Sikovskaya with some of her work.

It was during one of their early-afternoon practice sessions that Katerina's previous adventure suddenly resurfaced.

"Katya, here, a letter for you," said Mrs. Sikovskaya when the grocer's delivery-boy made his

Tuesday delivery.

The letter, from the artist, shocked Katerina into understanding that leaving a place didn't mean never having been there.

Dear Katya,

Please forgive my harsh words. If I had known they would be the last words I said to you, I never would have allowed them to escape. Why didn't you tell me you were going to visit your aunt out in the country? I could have tried to make plans to go with you.

Mikolas now knows about us. I kept harassing him to give me your home address, since he walked you home a few times, and finally he said he wouldn't give it to me unless I told him why I wanted it so much. I didn't want to tell him but getting in touch with you was more important than that. Please, Katya, I ask you to forgive me, and to give me a chance. Your sudden disappearance has driven me crazy, I didn't have a clue how important you were to me as part of our little group. I'm bored with the others, you were the only reason I kept going down to that café every day, and I didn't even know it. You shifted into the group so noiselessly, and added to it so subtly, that I had no way of knowing. I imagine you every night back in my studio. Please come back, I mean it, you can move in with me here, I would love it, we can live together, you can model for me.

Forgive me, Katenka, for not having the clairvoyance that you seem to posses, and please come back.

Very truly yours,


What made Katerina most nervous was the fact that her first inclination was to go back. She was holding in her hands the first written testament by anyone that requested her presence somewhere. Even her mother, who probably wanted Katerina to come back, only said on the telephone that she wanted Katerina to be happy and that she hoped she would see her soon. No one had ever said in so many words that they wanted her back.

Katerina did not return to the city until spring began to approach and the iced-over pond began to crack. She parted from Mrs. Sikovskaya and within a matter of a day was hugging baby Masha and sleeping on a foldout bed in the home office of Irena's new single family house in the suburbs. Katerina resolved to take responsibility for herself the very next morning, to start looking for a job that would make use of her newly learned skills – both as seamstress and embroiderer – and, within a month, to rent herself a little room back in the city. She knew this would not be easy but set the goal for herself and was prepared to stick to it until it had been met.

To get to the city from Irena's new house, Katerina had to take a bus that let her off at the end of the metro-line and then take the subway into the center of town. Once there, she had to get off and take a tram to the other side of the city, where she decided she would live, because the metro did not cross the river.

She entered a tailor shop her cousin's husband had told her about and inquired about possible vacant positions. They didn't have any available but they suggested another place, a little further down the main boulevard and a little to the left, away from the river. That place had no vacant positions either, but they also knew of another place, and that place of another place, and soon Katerina was inquiring at the homes of local dressmakers that worked on custom orders and had only high-paying private clients.

Katerina finally found a woman that was, according to her, very very old, much older than one would imagine a woman who was still actively sewing and designing dresses could be. She was also the landlord of the little apartment building in which she lived, and part of the pay she offered was a single-room studio in the attic on the fourth and last floor. Katerina happily agreed to the offer and they made arrangements for her to move in that week.

By the middle of April, having accomplished in a day what she thought would take a month, Katerina had a new life: a totally independent one, on the other side of the river, where none of her past was relevant and only the present she was now building mattered. A new era had begun for Katerina.

Her responsibilities were clear and numerable: she had to trim dresses, sew them together, embroider them, all by this and that hour on this and that day. She had directions that were given to her by a manager, she accomplished her duties, and by the time evening came she was so tired that she rested, she read, she sat absentmindedly. These were new sensations for Katerina. She was at peace,

responsible for and to herself – and only herself.

There is no mid-morning activity that I enjoy more than picking berries, and this region is famous for having the most extensive and exquisite forest berries in the country. It is one of the main reasons that I chose this location for my vacation retreat. To get to the forest from my cottage, one needn't necessarily walk by Mrs. Sikovskaya's cottage, but if one were to, one would get to a specific area where all berries grow in greater abundance and wider variety. For the three springs that have passed since I bought the cottage four years ago – a year was spent on renovating whenever I had the chance – I have gone three times per week, at the least, to pick spring berries for my after-lunch snack. Early this week, when I walked passed Mrs. Sikovskaya's cottage and waved to her – she was tending to her vegetables and flowers, as usual – she called me over and invited me to come in for a cup of tea. She wanted to introduce me to her niece, she said. I was instantly suspicious: herself a woman of seventy-five years, Mrs. Sikovskaya's niece could easily have been forty-five or fifty years old.

One will notice a crude, even crass, presumption here on my part: Mrs. Sikovskaya wanted to introduce me to her niece and I automatically presumed it was for matchmaking purposes. And why not? "Come, meet my niece. . ." I've heard this phrase so many times that there has developed in me a cautionary reflex to politely decline such invitations. But on that day I couldn't think quickly enough to find an excuse for why picking berries was so urgent that I didn't have time for a short cup of tea.

My instincts had been correct – I had been brought into the house with romantic intentions – but my arithmetic had been wrong. The niece, who turned out to be a grand-niece, was not fifty-five years old: she was in her later teens, and, if I can be permitted to say so, a very beautiful girl. She had come to spend her birthday with her great-aunt and planned to stay only five days in all.

A strange feeling to be invited by a girl's family-member and flatteringly introduced as a suitor – An accomplished man, so young and already a permanent editor at a prominent cultural publication – to be urged upon this girl, and not to dislike her, to, contrarily, find her an interesting young woman. I'll say it again: young woman.

All through our first meeting I was a little nervous, perhaps justifiably or perhaps unnecessarily. We chatted about some topics, I don't remember what, and her years of traveling were introduced. The next day I set aside my doubts and hesitations and set forth to Mrs. Sikovskaya's cottage with the admission that this young woman was deeply interesting to me, and, though I did not consider the possibility that there may be anything between us, I was eager to know more about her.

And that's just what happened: I got to know more about her than I thought would be possible in five days. I listened to her stories intently – not just because they were amusing and keenly observed, but because she was captivating in telling them, animated and affected, thoroughly entrenched and invested. The only thing that happened was that I listened to her stories.

She was only staying at the cottage for five days, and at the end of that time we parted, sorry to see our time together end. She asked me, as I left Mrs. Sikovskaya's cottage, to help her review all that she had told me, and to send her a letter with my analysis, so that she could have an objective view on her life, and use that view to help her make some upcoming choices. I was flattered, and promised to get started right away, which I did, taking the prose form because the letter form is difficult for me – to write directly to a concrete person is not in my nature – and because it is difficult to address you as you, and tell you what you have done. Hence I have objectified the circumstances by giving your story to another character, with another name, so you may watch her go about the same adventures and mishaps as you. That is why I gave her the name Katerina – I hope it suits you as an alias – and that is why I have been talking about her, and not about you.



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