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Ann Power

St. Petersburg, Russia: January 1740
In a creamy damask gown, trimmed with gold lace
and ornaments, with accents of sulphurous yellow,
a heavy gold cross breathing on her full bosom,
the Tsarina held court. 
Graceful, imperial, and fat, thought Golitsyn of
Anna Ivanovna.
Only last week, in the royal hall, settled in a basket,
he had flapped his arms,
resigned to clucking—
a chicken for the royal amusement
And yesterday, mounted on a dwarf, he had
jousted with another unfortunate, balanced
on the back of a court clown, until all four
were flailing, grabbing, gouging each other’s
eyes, bloody.
Prince Golitsyn drew in a long breath,
listened politely as the Spanish ambassador
addressed the Empress in Russian with
an accent that inhaled the final letters of each word.

Orange trees, myrtles, and palms lined
walks on either side of the Grand Hall while,
behind potted screens of trees and flowers, courtiers
and ladies fanned themselves and whispered.
Gobelin tapesties depicted scenes from
a primitive world, lush, filled with
tigers, monkeys, Indian geese, and cranes.
Along the walk, caged nightingales sang
as the scent of perfumes circled and re-circled
the expansive room.
Servants in yellow-and-black livery served
fruity wines and vodka in abundance, though
drunkenness was never allowed. 
In one corner, dancers in brightly colored domino—
orange, green, blue—
ruffs at the neck, with tiny hats sporting
gold and silver cockades, danced a quadrille played by
an Italian orchestra.
Near the Tsarina a pair of enormous leopards, in
embossed silver and flat-chased work, their collars
encrusted with emeralds, their faceted eyes brilliant
in the reflected light, watched fiercely.
Enchanting as any mid-summer’s dream,
Golitsyn sighed. 
Only the porcelain stoves and the windows staring
glassy-eyed at the frozen Neva below betrayed
the atmosphere of summer solstice—the black earth
invisible beneath the snowy landscape,
the sun pale, winter’s blue-white chill transformed
by magic and rubles.

Prince Golitsyn shivered, respectfully welcomed
the address of the Tsaritsa.
She was seemingly gracious, double-chinned,
her skin swarthy, her features coarse.
Dark hair fell across her shoulders, her eyes sparkled
with pleasure, wine, and conversation. 
The prince listened as she spoke.
He knew Anna, her history:
niece to the imperious Peter the Great, and a
childhood that could scarcely avoid beheadings,
hangings, cruelty that left heads on pikes, bodies
dangling from beams or gallows;                                                                                                               
marriage at seventeen to the Duke of Courland, a
miserable wretch, who died a week after the wedding;
nineteen years, alone, unhappy, seemingly banished
from Russia to Mitau in a remote German duchy;
then, ascendance to the throne of all the Russias after
the deaths of Peter, his wife, Catherine, and
the boy Tsar, Peter, the Second;
the scale of excess, the magnificence:
the 10,000 dresses, the palaces, the silver, the glittering jewels;
the exotic animals that roamed the gardens,
fair target for the Tsarina who took aim from palace
windows at the unsuspecting beasts;
the dwarfs, the hunchbacks, the giants, the fools who
pleased Anna’s less obvious deformity of spirit.
the 2000 dissenters each year exiled to Siberia; the
secret police who exposed and executed traitors;
and, of course, the Tsarina’s unpopular alliance to
Ernst Biron, a brusque German with no fondness for
Russians, a man Anna shared with his wife.
Golitsyn focused on the eyes of the Tsaritsa,
noticed again her left eye slightly flecked in lighter violet.
Then the announcement.
Anna had arranged a marriage and festivities;
he was to be the groom to an unknown wife.
The music temporarily ceased; outside Golitsyn
heard the honking of a goose.
Skybend….all in grays.  Birds froze, fell out
of the sky.
Cathedral bells splintered the icy air.
Golitsyn was to marry Avdotya,
a Kalmuck serving woman.
Nicknamed “Buzhenina” for the Tsarina’s favorite
dish, roast pork with spiced vinegar and onions,
she was pink, plump, thoroughly peasant.
Golitsyn’s first marriage, disapproved of,
had made him an object of vengeance, court buffoon.
Now he was riding in an iron cage, swaying atop an
elephant as it lumbered along to the wedding reception.
No more precarious than any day at court, he mused.
Bride and groom were barely visible under fur coats,
muffs, and hats.
Behind them followed costumed natives, Tartars and
Lapps, Finns and Cossacks, Bashkirs and Kalmucks on
horses, camels; members of the court rode next in sleighs
drawn by a menagerie of  reindeer, rams, bears, wolves,
and pigs.
At midnight another procession.
The ice palace was lighted with torches.
Hundreds of candles shown from within, radiating
their soft brilliance through transparent walls.
A tribute to Palladio, the edifice stood eighty feet
long, thirty-three high, and twenty-three deep;
surrounding the house, a balustrade topped with balls
of ice, and cornices, columns. 
Six niches in the façade held statues, while over the entrance,
four-winged putti flew; ice dolphins, an elephant,
cannons, and marvelous fountains adorned the exterior. 
Trees and plants, sculpted from winter’s resources, bloomed
amid their surroundings.
Inside….all crystal ice….bottles, boxes, candlesticks, an
elaborately carved ice mirror, benches, shelves,
dishes, goblets, tea sets, a clock whose inner works of
moving, interlocking wheels were clearly visible, a deck of
playing cards, their suits realistically painted, and an ice
bed for the newly wedded couple.
The Tsarina dressed in brown, with only pearls for
decoration, standing beside Biron, laughed a dark laugh.
Golitsyn suddenly remembered words he had heard
from Timothy Arkhipovich, long ago a tutor and houseguest at
Izmailov, Anna’s childhood home:
“We Russians need no bread; we devour each other and are satisfied.”

Ann Power is a retired faculty member from The University of Alabama where she worked as a coordinator for the Bibliographic Instruction Program, University Libraries.  She enjoys writing historical sketches as well as poems based in the kingdoms of magical realism. Her work has appeared in The Pacific Review (CSU San Bernardino), The Puckerbrush ReviewLimestone, Spillway, Gargoyle Magazine, The Birmingham Poetry Review, The American Poetry Journal, Dappled Things, and Caveat Lector.   

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