Part I
Nine years. No, I can't believe it. Do things really happen like that? Why? Why, though I had committed no crime, did I end up standing at an ironing board for nine years lifting a heavy iron? The first few days I came home and cried all night at the impossibility of fulfilling my own destiny. Then I stopped crying and came to the conclusion that the people around me were right: my work was clean and my job steady; my documents were in order; and my wage was sufficient for me to live in the way I was expected to. After all, I had no education, no looks, and no talent, so what else could I possibly be good for?

And I saved. Never in all those years did I buy myself a single extra or unnecessary item. All the stockings, shoes, dresses, and underwear I wore were the plainest possible, and I went for years without buying gloves or a hat. I brought enough into the house for myself and Father, and the little left over I kept in a thick book on the shelf above my bed, a cookbook that no one had used in a long time. I heard about people putting money away for an operation, for their teeth, for a trip to the seashore, for a new sideboard, or simply for their old age. From the very outset I got the idea of going to Italy one day. I didn't know quite what I was going to see in Italy- paintings, or cities, or just its dark nights and orange groves, the cypresses in its cemeteries. But I had a feeling one day my dream would come true. All by myself I would go to Italy, Genoa, Rome. Why? To see what I had never ever seen.

In all those years only one single time was I able to get away from that life. That was five years ago, when Cavalry Captain Golubenko proposed to me. Captain Golubenko, one of the most valorous of Varvara's visitors, was over forty and owned an electrical supply store. He was a dark, hirsute, lively man, at one time quite the daredevil and dragon slayer, but now his passion was balalaika orchestras, Russian cooking, and singing at the table.

"You can sit at the cash register," he said. "My partner Vasily Karlovich Perlovsky and I will carry you on our arms."

I was supposed to pay for the privilege of sitting rather than standing for the rest of my life, and pay with my freedom.

"Thank you for the honor," I said, as gently as possible, but it still came out rudely, "but I must decline."

Where did I ever come up with that horrible word?

The next day Varvara asked me:

"Answer three questions for me, please. One, why did you refuse Golubenko? Two, what bastard are you sleeping with? And three, do you have any intention of ever settling down with a husband and, if so, what kind?"

"My child Cordelia! Daughter of mine!"

I thought conscientiously for a minute or two.

"One," I said, "because Golubenko is poor. Two, I'm not sleeping with any bastard. And three, I won't marry anyone who's not rich."

That said, I went to the corner and turned my back to both of them, took the cookbook off the shelf, and counted my money. I had 3,370 francs.

Varvara went into the next room and there made that characteristic sound I knew so well: not exactly laughing, but not exactly crying either. It was something she and Father had in common. They looked alike, too. She called to me from the next room. Had I ever experienced any sort of love?

"What's love?" I asked. And suddenly I remembered [my half-sister] Ariadna, and instead of going to Italy I felt like sending her all my savings.

--- From "The Tattered Cloak"
Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz
© 2001, New Directions

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