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Carolyn Raphael


                   For Anita Dorn
Black hair flying, you fling your arms and twirl
to gypsy strains, your billowing dress as turquoise
as your eyes. When waiters stare at you, we smile.
Years fall away—it’s 1939—
and you, a student from Estonia,
are summering in carefree, war-free Finland.
In 1940, the last year in your homeland,
you meet Alosha, a soviet sailor with hair
as blond as wheat. He saves you from the Russian
trucks that doom the deported to Siberia.
This is the first of your cat lives, all of them needed.
As Soviet tanks usurp the streets of Tallinn,
you lose your house, move in with Uncle Hans;
suitcases line the walls like honeycombs.     
Friends disappear—the family moves again;
your journey into homelessness begins.

Southern Germany, 1941,
you live in Werneck’s gilded archbishop’s palace,
sardined with thousands of other refugees.
Children, peasants, riffraff, pampered ladies—
all fighting for scraps of cheese that walk away
on maggots. Daily fights and daily curses.
Yet there are evenings in the Himmelssahl—
painted clouds on the ceiling, velvet drapes,
a grand piano played by artists in rags.

Swept to Poland, in 1944,
you share a heatless apartment; greedy old man
reserves his small coal ration for himself.
On Christmas night you find the church door locked
to keep the heat and swollen crowds inside.
Returning to your icy nest, you hear,
Come in, Ninotschka from your Siberian neighbor,
who spites the war with piroshkies, herrings, bacon,
chocolates, cakes, a puffing samovar.
And blessed heat: a fat, potbellied stove.
You sleep there, at its feet—a Christmas gift.
Weeks later, Russian artillery creeps closer;
you join an endless westward line, trudging
with feisty Dora, from Berlin, who kicks you
awake when you fall, exhausted, into the snow. 
A trail of frozen bodies lines the roadside.   
You land at Wurzburg’s Cloister Oberzell,
half a straw sleeping bag against the cold.
Officially dead without papers—no food stamps—
the menu, bread crusts and salted potato peels.
A nun puts newspaper caps on shivering tulip
sprouts to save them from the frost, as Wurzburg
like her sister, Dresden, smokes in ruins.
Dazed victims flee into the woods, clutching
the arm or leg of a husband or a child.

A lifetime later, you make a pilgrimage,
returning to Tallinn in 1996.
Gray and shabby, paint peeling and chimneys crumbling,
the thousand-year-old city is being redressed.
Construction crews demolish the frail wooden houses
while disco music degrades the ancient walls.
Still standing are her medieval ramparts,
tall towers, peaked tile roofs, and linden trees.
Still dazzling, Catherine the Great’s pink summer palace,
Peter the Great’s hunting lodge.  But you are
an outsider now, stray cat searching for home.

Your memories rise and fall like ocean swells:
Estonia, Finland, Poland, Germany.
Flames and frostbite, bread crusts and tulip sprouts.
But always, in my memory book, you chase
away the ghosts in yards of turquoise silk,
dancing, defiantly, the steps of life.


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