The view outside of my window was better than the one outside of her window, at least. She was a large girl with blonde hair, tight lips, and small, mean eyes. Somehow Veyal managed to be charming anyway.
But I had better things to think about as the matron of our ward strode down the halls clapping a birch rod against our iron bedsteads. She looked rather like Veyal, except her eyes were softer. (Some whispered that Veyal was the matron’s niece).
"Orphans!" Matron said in an authoritative way. "Orphans!" She always called us orphans, as though to bore this sad fact into our memory and make it even sadder. "Get dressed!" We pulled our gray flannel dresses over our heads and pulled our white long underpants over our legs and waited expectantly for Matron to birch somebody.
"Faster!" Matron hissed to Olivia in the First Corner. The First Corner was reserved for exceptionally stupid youngsters, so all of us regarded Olivia rather well. "The rest are waiting for their oatmeal." Well, we had never waited for it. Either the oatmeal came at seven in the morning, or we went to embroider our aprons. Olivia pulled her flannel over her head in a panicked fuss and quickly lined up with the rest of us. Miss Cekztiov handed out some bowls of cold, bland oatmeal, and we bit and gulped it down as fast as we could.
"Tata," Tonya nudged me. Tonya was my friend, a plump, generous girl who liked to eat potatoes, if we had them. Tata was my nickname, short for Tatiana, but only minor acquaintances called me Tatiana. "You’ll drop your oatmeal, your hand’s shaking."
"Everybody’s hands are shaking. It’s freezing," I said. I didn’t think much of a shiver or two. "Have a bite of mine. I’m not hungry any more." Honestly, I was as hungry as a wolf, but Tonya was always far hungrier than me and she had scraped her bowl clean. Tonya grabbed my spoon eagerly and shoved some bites into her mouth before Miss Cekztiov shooed us into the hall.
Three wrinkled ladies sat rocking in their chairs in front of a small fire. They wore richly embroidered shawls and looked up briefly at our arrival.
"Ay, Tonya, you’ve grown!" one exclaimed, and patted Tonya on the shoulders. "Did you embroider your apron last night?"
"Yes, Grandmother," Tonya said, beaming. We called all of them Grandmother, but Tonya’s "grandmother" we called Grandmother Tiktricovich. Tonya was by far the best embroiderer of all of us, and had managed to sew a dove on her apron. Of course, she had stained it with some vinegar from dinner, so the thin threads were hard to see.
"Olivia? That’s no Russian name. Are you from Italy?" one of the grandmothers inquired sharply to Olivia. We privately called this formidable lady Grandmother General for her crabby ways.
"My mother was from Florence," Olivia said, quivering, looking as though she would have liked to disappear.
"Those Italians," Grandmother General sniffed. "Pickpockets, all of them. Keep away from my embroidery. I don’t want to see it spirited off to Italy."
"Yes, Grandmother!" Olivia said vehemently, edging away.
"Italians are liars, too," Grandmother General began, but thought better of it and rocked her chair zealously, glancing significantly at Olivia. Grandmother Tiktricovich began talking on the quality of thread and color choices. I did not really pay attention. Instead, my eye was focused on Veyal. She was pulling at Olivia’s hairpins and Olivia was wincing, trying to free herself from Veyal’s grasp without attracting too much attention.
"Can’t you Italians even pay attention? You’re writhing like a snake!" Grandmother General spat out contemptuously.
"She’s always causing one disturbance or another," Veyal said loftily. "I was just cooking an egg yesterday when she—"
"Shut your mouth!" Grandmother General said viciously. Veyal, looking stung, sat back down, and kept her hands to herself. Tonya sat enthralled by Grandmother Tiktricovich’s talk, not noticing anything. The rest of the girls scratched at their elbows and gossiped about the romantic life of the matron in Third Ward.
"Tata!" Tonya whispered in my ear. "Matron wanted a girl to help her with the mathematics class today. She isn’t feeling so well. Has a headache."
"Mathematics? Alexandra might be better than me," I said, shrugging.
"Alexandra did not receive as high marks as you on the exam last week," Tonya frowned. "Don’t you want to help Matron, besides?"
"Oh, fine," I sighed. I would do anything to get away from the drone of Grandmother Tiktricovich’s voice, but Matron was always cantankerous in the morning, and would be even more so with a headache.
"Tatiana," Matron intoned from behind me.
"Yes, Matron? I may help you with the mathematics now," I said, biting my lip.
"Don’t bite your lip," Matron said, prodding me with her birch rod. "You look unattractive so."
"Yes, Matron," I said, wishing more than ever that I hadn’t said yes to helping her with mathematics. Matron handed me her birch rod with a grand expression on her face and rummaged in her reticule for her eyeglasses.
A giant porcelain vase lay in shards on the floor.
"Who did this?" Matron demanded, clenching her teeth so that her skin was stretched tightly over her cheekbones. "What simpleton did this?"
Olivia sat shaking miserably in the dress that was too big for her.
"Olivia did," Veyal said accusingly, pointing her finger in Olivia’s face. "Everyone saw her." I longed to say, "Can’t you just give her a break?" but I kept my mouth shut and nodded weakly.
"Clumsy girl! That vase was touched by Tsar Nicholas himself!" Matron said, grabbing the birch rod from me and whapping Olivia on the shoulder. We all knew that the Tsar would never touch a single thing in a lowly orphanage like ours, but it did not matter what we knew—just what Matron said.
"Miss Cekztiov! Bring the girl Olivia to the disciplinary unit!" Matron said with a vigorous thump of the birch. Miss Cekztiov hurried up, looking pale. I let out a little groan. All of us girls had been in the "disciplinary unit" before—a cold, gray building the size of a closet in the yard of the orphanage. It was too narrow to move much at all and damp and moldy inside. While inside, you were bidden to reflect upon your sins, a hard thing to do when you wanted to curse the Matron. Olivia was hurried off by Miss Cekztiov, and I was hurried off to help Matron with mathematics.
After we had rinsed our mouths we put on our nightgowns and jumped into bed. We were all looking forward to lights-off time because Tonya’s friend Alexandra had stolen walnuts, candied figs, and dried fish from Matron’s personal pantry for a midnight party. Matron complained of earache, headache, and stomachache, and Miss Cekztiov was visiting relatives, so we did not have to worry about our misbehavior being discovered.
At first we gossiped about the Grand Duchesses and the Tsarina, then about the Matron of the Third Ward’s latest romance, and then about a wart on Matron’s hand. Alexandra described (in great detail) the contents of Matron’s pantry, to our utter delight.
"That witch has thousands of things us poor things can’t eat," Alexandra said with a righteous sigh. "I swear I saw breadsticks from Holland. Can you imagine that, girls? And you know that Matron condemned foreign things. And there’s a great loaf of pumpernickel bread. I tore off a bit from the bottom, you know, I just couldn’t resist."
"But did you see Matron’s room?" Tonya asked excitedly.
"Pfff! Of course I did!" Alexandra said with a wave of her hand. "Carpets. Curtains. Canopied bed. And girls, would you believe what I saw in her wardrobe? Silken gloves."
"Ohhhhh," we sighed.
"That’s not all. She had a fur, too," Alexandra said proudly. "But you’ll have to go sometimes. Pretend to be sick, like I am, and go to Matron’s room when Matron’s busy! It’s great fun, girls."
"Ay! What’s that?" Tonya nudged me urgently. We all heard it—little footsteps in the hall. "Quick! Hide the figs!" We thrust them under Alexandra’s bed in a hurried frenzy and knocked over the jar of walnuts. We could hear walnuts thud onto the floor and roll across the room, and jumped under our own blankets.
"Hello?" came Olivia’s timid voice.
"Ay! You simpleton! You’ve ruined it! Go back to your own bed, you baby!" Veyal hissed. "Now we’ll all be punished because of you. Italians always ruin things. Can’t you just shut your mouth?" Olivia tiptoed to her own bed and we ate the walnuts and dried fish and candied figs. But nothing really tasted so sweet, for I could hear Olivia crying in her bed all alone.
Thanks to Matron’s woes and worries about the state of her health, we had no class that day and talked amongst ourselves instead. Somehow the subject turned to Olivia, and Veyal was quick to pounce.
"That girl is nothing but trouble," she said knowledgeably. "Some people are just born like that. Always clumsy and bothersome. Can’t memorize, can’t reason, can’t do this, can’t do that.
"And the worst thing is, she doesn’t even admit it. She keeps trying. She asks too many questions. Now Anya—" (Anya was a solemn girl of twelve who did not talk much) "—does not chatter or waste time like Olivia."
"And Tata—Tatiana, I mean—doesn’t ask too many questions either," Tonya said loyally. Veyal shrugged.
"I think we should do something about Olivia," Natasha said. Natasha was Veyal’s friend, a smart girl and the Matron’s favorite. I grimaced. From some of the things Natasha and Veyal had done to me, I knew that "something" meant something bad.
"Like what?" Veyal asked, interested.
"We need to show everybody the simpleton that Olivia is," Natasha said smugly. "We don’t need to think of it now. Our chance will come sometime."
"Sometime" did come soon. Matron wanted us to put on a play to raise money for the orphanage, and all of us First Ward girls had to make—and sell—tickets to the townspeople. Tonya folded paper into ticket-size squares, Alexandra tore the paper along Tonya’s lines, and Anya wrote the name of the play and the ticket number in her stiff and perfect print. Veyal grabbed them as soon as we made them and handed them to eight girls who took turns blowing on the ink to make sure it was dry. One of the eight handed the tickets to the ticket-sellers—namely, Natasha and I. It was quite a tedious process.
I noticed that Olivia was sitting in the corner, looking as though she would have liked to help. Every time she rose Veyal said something like "Don’t bother" or "You’ll ruin it" or "Why don’t you just stay there for now." I knew perfectly the reason—Matron had said that whoever did work would get an apple and a place in the play, and whoever did not would get birched.
Just as Natasha and I stepped outside to begin selling tickets, Matron came into the room to inspect our work.
"Passable, Tonya. Goodness, be careful, Alexandra! Good handwriting, Anya. Good speed, Veyal. What are you doing blowing on the paper like that? Go and sell some tickets with Natasha and Tatiana. Where’s Olivia?" Matron demanded.
"Oh, she’s lounging in the corner," Veyal drawled. "I asked her if she would like to work, but she just sat there." Olivia did not dare to defy Veyal’s lies and sat quivering under Matron’s sharp glare.
"No apple for you," Matron said, wagging her finger. "Lift up your skirt." Olivia did so, and Matron gave her two sharp thwacks on the leg with the birch rod. We could hear it hissing in the air. "And you’ll get no part in the play, either." Olivia gave a little gulp at this and I could see her eyes tearing up a little.
"Oh, Matron, do let poor Olivia have some part in the play," Veyal said sweetly. "I know she’ll do better next time." I knew that whatever Veyal’s reasons were for letting Olivia have a part, they couldn’t be out of pure goodness.
"Oh, fine," Matron sighed. "I expect her to be on her best behavior, however." Veyal nodded, discreetly winking to Natasha, and I knew that, whatever their plot was, it wouldn’t be good at all.
Matron had decreed that the Third Ward be used for the play, so the whole orphanage was busy moving beds and sheets and pillows and chamber pots out on Tuesday. We crammed these into First and Second Ward. Peter Ivanovich the carpenter made for us three folding boards of thin wood to use for a background, and Alexei Vlorov, who helped the priest and painted well, came to paint it.
"Cows here, Alexei! Is that a cow? Oh, that’s a sheep. Please make the grass on the hill greener! Draw the shepherdess. Don’t you think she should be wearing a nicer dress than that? Oh, what a perfectly adorable nose!" Alexandra hovered over Alexei as he added some final touches to the background. Everybody could tell Alexei rather liked it.
"How many tickets did you sell?" Tonya asked me breathlessly.
"All I could. There’s two left," I said.
"Have you decided what part you’d like to be?"
"No. Which are there?"
"Allochka the lovely shepherdess; Ekaterina, the haughty princess; Marya the loyal serving maid; Feodora the lady at the train station; Grisha the fishwife; Lyudmila the kindly old woman," Tonya recited. "There’s some more, but those are the best."
"Ekaterina the haughty princess," I said immediately.
"Tata," Tonya said nervously, "Veyal wants Ekaterina too."
"That doesn’t matter," I said recklessly. "Veyal wouldn’t memorize lines in a century. How are we chosen for the parts?"
"You deliver a few lines to Matron and she decides," Tonya said. "Ay! Anya! Where are Ekaterina’s lines?" Anya handed them to me silently. I scanned them through. It would be easy—a monologue, a few lines long, some loud complaints, a desperate call to my horse, a few other things, and lying dead "as cold as ice." For the next twenty minutes I practiced with Tonya until I got it just right.
"Matron?" I asked respectfully when Matron was not busy. "May I try for the role of Ekaterina?"
"Try as you wish," Matron said shortly. I delivered the monologue and ended with a dramatic clasp of my hands.
"Good, good. Even better than Veyal," Matron said heartily. I could see Veyal’s scowl from out of the corner of my eye, but I paid no attention; I was too happy.
"Your costume is simply gorgeous!" Alexandra declared. Looking at myself in the mirror, I did think that I looked rather attractive, myself; my outer gown was a pale, shimmering blue with a sweeping train, low neckline, and golden embroidery by Grandmother Tiktricovich. My inner gown was white. Of course, my inner gown was just a nightgown, and my outer gown one of Miss Cekztiov’s old dresses; but it was certainly the nicest thing I had ever worn. My hair was pulled back and I wore a paper diadem. It was two hours before the play, but we all had to get our costumes on and make sure that we had memorized our lines. Veyal played Allochka and wore nothing like my costume. I could not help from gloating a little.
"Look! Even the old notary came!" Alexandra whispered excitedly from behind our makeshift curtain. "With his wife and dogs, too."
"There’s—" and at this point Tonya went off on such a long list of names of all the older people in the town that I completely forgot all of them.
"Welcome to the Holy Girls’ Orphanage of Mary and Joseph," the Head Matron announced. "We are pleased to present our play, Where the Olive Grows, which was actually written by a person from this very town." Head Matron described this person in some detail. "Now…let us lift the curtain!" Natasha tugged on the rope and the curtain flew up immediately, to general laughter from the audience. The Third Ward girls began serving their homemade teacakes and collecting tickets from the audience. "Boris" the prince (a village boy) sat strumming a lyre (very badly) and singing incoherently.
It went on like this for a minute before Allochka the shepherdess came traipsing along with too much berry juice on her lips to make them redder. They had some conversation and Boris the Prince retreated to the castle "musing deeply." He rang the bell and Marya, my loyal lady-in-waiting (played by Tonya) answered the door. Boris and Marya retreated behind the curtain. This was when I came out.
I threw myself upon the floor with a shriek of bitter laughter and howled about the curses upon my head. I called to the gods for pity before I wept into my hands and clasped them upon my chest. Everybody laughed so hard that "Boris" had to wait before coming out, lest his words not be heard. I went back behind the curtain. Boris walked hand in hand with Allochka down to the market, where Grisha the fishwife (poor Olivia) would spy on them and report them to the king. But Grisha—Olivia—was nowhere to be seen. Boris stared at Grisha’s empty fish stall and looked around, wondering what to do. Without Grisha, the play was ruined.
I dashed into the "dressing room."
"Olivia! It’s your part!" I shouted.
Natasha stared at me coldly, holding tight to Olivia’s hand, who was trying in vain to twist out of Natasha’s grip. I gaped and, without thinking, lunged at Natasha, knocking her off of Olivia.
Olivia darted away and leapt breathlessly into the fish stall. She assumed a wicked look on her face almost immediately and wagged her finger at Allochka and Boris.
The play went on; Boris and Allochka were reported to the king; Boris was forbidden from seeing a lowly shepherdess like Allochka. Kind Lyudmila devised a way for them to communicate without seeing each other, putting letters on the olive tree. This was found, Boris was banished from the kingdom, sent off on a train; Ekaterina (my character) tried to chase her brother on a horse, but grew exhausted and turned back, then died of grief; Feodora, friend of Allochka, who worked at the train station, arranged for Allochka and Boris to meet at the station; they were finally married and lived happily ever after.
It was a mundane play, but the audience loved it. I was nervous, however, for I knew that Natasha and Veyal were smart enough to think of some lies to cover up the fact that they had tried to stop Olivia from going to the fish stall, thus earning poor Olivia extra punishment from Matron. There was no doubt that Matron would inquire about Olivia’s late arrival. And, as we gathered in the dressing room to take off our costumes, she did.
"Why is it that Olivia came in late?" she boomed.
"That Olivia," Veyal sighed. "Slothful creature. She was sleeping in the dressing room. Dear Natasha tried to wake her up, but Tatiana threw Natasha off and said to let Olivia get some rest."
I stepped forward and took a deep breath. Now or never, I knew.
"This is a lie," I said bravely. "From the beginning, Veyal and Natasha have acted horribly to Olivia. Veyal prevented Olivia from working so that Olivia would get birched; then, Natasha tried to stop Olivia from entering the play so she would get further punishment. Yes, Matron, I did knock Natasha off Olivia’s arm, and you may birch me for it; but Olivia is at no fault at all."
"What girl in this orphanage wants to get a birching for ruining a play?" I demanded. "I dare you, girls, to say yes." Nobody did. "You see, Matron, even Olivia, however stupid you may think her to be, would not purposefully ruin the play knowing that she would get a birching and probably a night in the disciplinary unit." Veyal protested weakly, but Matron turned her glare on her and gave her a beautiful thwack on the shoulder.
"Surely you cannot believe this, Matron," Natasha said charmingly, but Matron raised her smooth birch rod and brought it down, hard, on Natasha’s shoulder. And at that moment every First Ward girl cheered.
I found Olivia reading one of Miss Cekztiov’s pamphlets while everybody else was listening to the notary tell stories of his youth. Olivia looked up with a little smile when I entered.
"Thank you for getting Natasha off," she said pleasantly. "Where did you learn such graceful moves?" I was about to say thank you for the compliment when I realized it was a joke—lunging onto Natasha’s arm was anything but graceful.
"Perhaps if I had brought some smelly fish from fishwife Grisha’s stall, Natasha would have backed off," I said. "You know Natasha. She always has so many airs. She wouldn’t use the chamber pot everybody else uses because she thought it wasn’t clean."
"Oh, honestly? An orphanage I was in once had only one chamber pot for all of us twenty girls. It was such a stink. But here there’s chamber pots for every—how many?"
"Oh, I don’t know…" We conversed easily, as though we had been friends for years. I told Olivia about Tonya, and Alexandra, and Veyal and Natasha; Olivia told me about her Italian mother who died when Olivia was five. We talked as much as we could before everybody flooded in and I bid goodbye, for the night at least, and thought about what to say tomorrow.
By Adora Svitak