When I was a little girl back home in Russia, my parents didn’t have much money. I could spend hours recounting the tragedy of not having birthday cakes – to a child, that really is what defines tragedy – or the time I snuck out of my bedroom in the middle of the night to look for Blackie, and saw my mother crying quietly to herself as she opened the mail. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with that, though; not until I started school. I thought everyone had those problems, and I thought everyone rationed sugar, wore second-hand clothes and mended toys until there was almost no part of the original toy left.
I didn’t know not to love my toys, so I did. I loved them. And I want to tell you about one of them: my Klara, a ragged hand-me-down patchwork doll given to me by my mother.
I was four or five when I was given her. I didn’t have many toys, so a new one – even an old new one! – was especially exciting for me. She had lots of colours and smelt like my mother’s best Sunday perfume, the one that she only wore on special occasions. I would often sit on the balcony of our tiny, cluttered apartment with Klara to my nose and think of parties and dinners and Church and my mother sitting me on her knee to brush my hair and make me look nice. When, years later, I asked my mother about the smell, she confessed she’d had Klara in her underwear drawer for twenty years, and one of her perfume bottles had leaked. She’d tried to wash the doll, but ‘unfortunately the stench remained’. As a child I hadn’t minded the ‘stench’ at all.
Of course, still being that young child, I hadn’t minded lots of things about Klara, things my mother would constantly apologize for. Klara was probably once a normal cloth doll with glass eyes, for example, but over the years the eyes had fallen off and been replaced with two different sized, different coloured buttons. One of them had a chip on it, and my mother would warn me periodically not to accidentally cut myself on it (but I did anyway). Also, her hair was made of out of frayed garden twine. This made it extremely durable – and washable, on that one occasion when I thought the Klara should have black hair like my best friend – but it was scratchy and irritated my skin. Finally, her body still had some of the beautiful silky cloth it would have once been made of, but now was held together with patches of pantyhose, school uniform cut-offs and darning thread. She was also dressed in something that looked like the floral cushions in our living room. My mother would promise to replace the fabric when father finally got a new job, but it never happened. I didn’t care at all, though. She was colourful and wild like the glossy pictures I’d seen of foreigners from the south.
My fairytale ended when I started school.
On my first day, my mother let me pack Klara safely in my schoolbag and warned me that dollies weren’t allowed at school, so I shouldn’t take her out. Naturally, caught up in the excitement of meeting lots of new people, I completely ignored her advice. I still remember the expressions on the faces of the three girls I was introducing Klara to. One of them laughed; she didn’t mean to be nasty, she was a lovely girl, but I think Klara took her by surprise.
“That’s a doll?” she asked me, in complete seriousness.
I was confused. “Yes, of course,” I told her, not thinking anything of her question at the time. “Her name is Klara. She’s a Cossack Princess!”
One of the other girls’ faces piqued in excitement at my description. For a moment, I thought Klara and I might have a new friend. I was mistaken. “I have a Princess!” she told us, reaching into her own bag. “She’s from the Royal Collection of Moscow!”
The doll she pulled out of her own bag was truly the most beautiful and magnificent toy I had ever seen. She had pristine white porcelain skin, molded joints and on each of her hands little, and individual cherubic fingers extended from her palms. Her face was like that of baby Jesus in the Church nativity scene, with plump rosy cheeks, pouting glossy lips and long doe-like lashes. Her royal blue eyes blinked when my friend lay the doll across her lap, and ringlets of silky gold hair spread across my friend’s knees.
I looked down at Klara’s garden twine hair and button eyes.
“Oh, you have Anastasia!” One of the other girls shrieked, clapping her hands and turning away from me. “Mummy said if I’m nice to my little brother she’ll buy me one for Christmas!” One by one, the other girls in the class all came to see what the fuss was about, and one by one they all lavished praise on the real princess doll.
I stuffed Klara into my bag, and immediately hated the girl with the Anastasia doll. I remember sitting quietly at my desk while the teacher lectured us on something or rather, fantasizing about hurting Anastasia.
I thought indulgently about smashing that delicate angelic face against the table, of snapping off those little fingers. I thought about taking big kitchen scissors to her stupid hair. At the end of the day, my mother asked me what I thought of my school. I told her I hated it, and I didn’t want to ever go back. She had the gall to pat me lovingly and ask me what I wanted for dinner. I tried to stomp all the way home, but it hurt my feet so I gave up once I was sure the other girls were out of sight.
That night, I tried to give Klara a makeover.
I tiptoed into my parent’s bedroom while they were fussing over something that had come in the mail and examined the pharmacopoeia of nearly-empty cosmetic tubes and hair ointments my mother had on her dressing table. There was also a silver brush (which I now know was pretend) which I’d seen my mother run through her hair. Since my mother’s hair was quite silky and soft, I decided that the silver brush was what was missing from Klara’s hair. Unfortunately, when I tried to run it through the garden twine, it wouldn’t even drag an inch without catching. After a short while I became extremely impatient with it, and ripped it very hard. Something gave, and for a moment I felt a sort of triumph… until I saw that half of Klara’s hair and a wad of stuffing was now trapped in the bristles of the silver brush. I threw the silver brush on the ground, and Klara after it, and stomped violently on her.
The commotion caused my mother and my father to come running into the room. I thought they would be very angry that I’d used my mother’s brush without asking, but they just smiled at me. It made me even angrier. “Stop smiling!” I shouted so loudly at my mother that my voice grated. “Stop smiling at me!” When my mother went to dust off Klara and try to give her to me, I threw her across the room. “I hate her!” I yelled towards where she’d fallen. “She’s stupid and I hate her!” Then, I ran back to my tiny little room and buried myself in my blankets and cried.
By the following day, I had formulated a plan. I wasn’t going to break Anastasia, I was going to have her. At lunch, when the teachers were supervising the students outside, I pretended I needed to go to the toilet, but went into the classroom instead. Predictably, Anastasia was lovingly packed in the girl’s brand new schoolbag. I took her out, very cleverly putting some blocks in the bottom to make sure the bag would feel the same. I couldn’t believe my own genius.
I felt smug all day. We weren’t allowed to go to our bags during lessons, so the girl wouldn’t know Anastasia was gone until I was safely home with her. It was all so perfect!
When I got home, I pretended that I was feeling sleepy, and my mother nodded in understanding and made some remark about how tiring the first days of school were. She then left me alone in my room. I waited until her footsteps disappeared down the hall, and then hurriedly opened my schoolbag and took Anastasia out.
She was even more beautiful in the lamp-light than she was in daylight. Her face was so pretty and gentle; truly, she must be a real princess. Mum had put Klara back on my bed, so I lifted her up, too. Side by side, it was like Beauty and the Beast. Klara’s big eye stared at me, her lopsided mouth frozen in a garish smile. Anastasia’s smile, by comparison, was so forgiving, so serene.
I heard my mother walk up the hallway, and panicked for a moment, shoving Anastasia under my thin blankets. The lump was unmistakable. Looking around my barren little room, I realized that I would have nowhere to hide Anastasia. Fortunately, the footsteps walked straight back to the kitchen. I exhaled slowly, but was still faced with the same problem. I couldn’t hide her in my bedroom, and I couldn’t take her back to school in case I got caught. Throwing her away seemed almost blasphemous, and I wanted to cry at the thought.
In my childish wisdom, I came up with a great solution: I would use her to fix Klara’s ugly bits.
I had some knowledge of what surgery was, and I’d watched my mother darning socks and fixing hems so many times that I reckoned I was qualified to do the job myself. I looked in the top drawer of my table, and reached all the way to the back where I’d seen my mother hide the sewing kit from me.
With the two dolls spread on my blankets, I set to work.
Firstly, I needed to get rid of Klara’s horrible, scratchy hair. I used the big scissors to cut it out, and I threw it on the floor. Cutting Anatasia’s beautiful hair was satisfying; the scissors glided through the locks like a knife cutting butter. I stuffed the hair into the seam I’d cut Klara’s twine from, and closed the seam as best I could. I thought Anastasia’s arms might be a little too big for Klara, so with some effort, I broke off her hands and wondered about how to fix them to Klara. I decided I should do a hand-ectomy (I learnt that word because my Uncle had needed a splenectomy, and a spleen was a body part somewhere), so I took the scissors and cut Klara’s ugly mitten hands straight off. I felt surprisingly exhilarated by the activity, and decided I should tear all the stuffing out of the old hands, too, so I did. I then put the new hands in the sleeve holes, and just wrapped cotton around them until it seemed as if they would stay. The piece-de-resistance, Anastasia’s beautiful eyes, proved the hardest to transplant. It took me ages to pop the eyes out of the sockets and I cracked her face in the process. I was impatient to finish by the time it got to unpicking Klara’s eyes, so I just took the scissors and cut around the buttons, discarding them somewhere, and shoved the round glass eyes into each cavity.
Feeling suitably purged, I held my new, beautiful Klara up to admire my work.
Her new eye fell out.
Frowning, I put it back in the hole, pushing it to make sure it was lodged there. It stared at me in frozen horror, looking unnaturally wide now that it wasn’t nested in a socket. Her arms were bent backwards at an odd angle, new hands dangling heavily like a sinker on the end of a fishing line. I tried to fold them in her lap, but one of them slid off, slipping out of the cotton and falling off the side of the bed. I watched in agonizing slow motion as it smashed on floorboards.
I looked back at Klara to see if she would look alright without it, absently moving to stroke her lovely new ringlets. They pulled out in my hands, the beautiful curls pulling apart and falling like hay on my blankets.
I could feel my throat catching as I tried to quickly gather them all up and stuff them back in. In front of me, Anastasia’s violated body peered at me through empty sockets, bald head and dead-end arms like something out of the black and white zombie movies my father watched when he thought I was asleep. With sudden horror, I felt like I was looking at a dead baby, one that I’d killed myself. Klara hadn’t fared much better; while I was trying to stuff her new hair back in, her other hand had fallen off, and I’d pushed one of the glass eyes into her neck.
I lay them together. Klara had no hands, an open skull with no hair, and no eyes. Anastasia – beautiful, magical Anastasia – was destroyed. I had started with two whole dolls, and ended up with two ugly monsters. Around the broken dolls was a sea of fabric carnage.
I felt tears spill from my eyes. Scooping up both of their corpses, I hugged them close to my chest. What had I done?
Even though I’d tried to cry quietly, my mother heard me and came into my room. I was filled with a sense of horrible, shameful tragedy, and didn’t even try to hide the dolls even though I expected I would be fiercely punished.
Peeling my arms away from me to see what I was holding, my mother took the two dolls and guessed immediately what had happened. I expected at her to shout at me for stealing, or shout at me for hurting Klara… but her eyes softened, and she simply put them aside and hugged me.
I sobbed freely, loudly into her loving arms.
Finally, she pulled away from me, and inspected the cuttings. “You know, honey, I think we can stitch Klara back together.”
That brought a fresh bout of tears. “I’m sorry I cut her up,” I told her. “I’m sorry I cut her. You must have loved her. You must have taken such good care of her and been very kind to her when you were a little girl.”
My mother smiled knowingly, and unexpectedly, her own eyes swam with tears. “Honey, why do you think she already had so many patches when I gave her to you?”
That night, my mother and I sat on the living room floor and mended Klara. She was much better at sewing that I was, and by the time the News was on, Klara had all her pieces back on her. She’d even managed to use a bit of Anastasia’s dress to fix the holes in Klara’s head. When she handed Klara bad to me, I inspected the seams and stroked poor Klara’s body.
“I won’t do it again.” I promised my dolly, gazing down at her as she smiled absently back at me.
Mother and I decided that I shouldn’t take my toys to school again, and she especially made me promise that I wouldn’t tell anyone I’d stolen Anastasia. I didn’t understand straight away, because Father Peter always told us we should apologize to people we’d sinned against. However, it all made sense when I arrived at school the next day and saw that girl showing everyone her brand new princess dolly. Mother later told me it was probably all part of God’s plan to get the girl a brand new, even better dolly.
Since that year, bits and pieces of Klara have fallen off and been reattached; every time it happened, I got a little better at replacing the broken parts and mending split seams by myself.
Several years later my father actually did get a better job, and took me to a big department store to buy me the new dolly as he’d always promised. I’d dreamed of this: my father saying to me, ‘You can buy any one you want!’ and showing me up aisles and aisles of beautiful dollies.
All the dollies there were very beautiful, but they all looked the same. In the end, I decided that I would just buy Klara a pretty new dress.
When I make my bed now, I put Klara on display right in front of my pillow. Visitors have commented on her, and I often hear the word ‘ugly’ said in passing; to me, that word couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, she’s covered repaired rips and her seams have been fixed so often they’re rock solid. Her eyes are lopsided and look like they’re staring in opposite directions. Her clothes are also usually either too big or too small and clash horribly with her mismatched patches. She even still stinks of my mother’s old fashioned potpourri perfume.
But none of those things matter at all, because she’s my Klara, my beautiful Klara, and she’s absolutely perfect exactly the way she is.