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7 Short Stories: From Petrograd to Rostov-on-Don

 

7 Short Stories: from Petrograd to Rostov-on-Don

 

By Kārlis Kadeģis

Copyright 2016 Kārlis Kadeģis

Shakespir Edition

All rights reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The people, places, events, conversations and incidents described in this book might or might not be true. This is a blend of author’s imagination, knowledge of history and assumptions. Frankly, any further speculation on the matter would be missing the whole point of the book.

Table of contents:

 

I: The Musts and Must Nots

II: Sapphire, Bright and Full of Colour

III: Two Dimwits and One Tall Story

IV: Three-card Monte

V: The Prize of War

VI: The Old Hag

VII: Irony of Circumstance

 

Bonus:

Tale of A Hunter and Its Prey

 

 

 

I

The Musts and Must Nots

March 14, 1918

Petrograd

 

 

 

 

 

 

“So, does the father ever visit him?”

“Once in a while he sends a letter… but we shouldn’t discuss it now.”

“A letter?! What a joke! I doubt the boy even comprehends that he has a father.”

“Nevertheless…”

“I mean… that pig left a day after his child’s fourth birthday. Just like that,” Nina snapped her fingers. “Unbelievable!”

“Grisha. Hand,” Arina extend her sturdy left hand to the child before they were to cross the street. “Before he vanished, he was a good man, you know. Sure, he liked drinking, but it was usually my fault, when he raised his hand against me. But that’s just how men are, right? After all, when he was sober, he was so gentle and caring. And he brought sweets for the child.”

“I still think you could’ve done better. No, I take that back; you still can! It’s been two years now, why haven’t you already?”

“We’ve been over this a hundred times!”

“… And I still don’t get it.”

“… And as I’ve told you over and over again, Grisha has special needs, and he requires my full attention. I can’t afford to have my thoughts elsewhere.”

“Yes, but he will always need someone. Are you really ready to spend your whole life like this? Constantly on the edge, fighting?”

For a moment Arina stayed silent. “I don’t know.”

The trio approached the train station. Its vaulted entrance hall amplified the buzzing sound made by people, who marched in every possible direction. Arina again grabbed Grisha’s hand, but this time squeezed it much tighter. They were quickly absorbed by the crowd and were forced to squeeze through it.

Grisha felt people brushing against him from all directions as they hurriedly passed. It made him increasingly uneasy. He tried to see the faces of everyone near him, but they all changed so hastily, he could not follow. The fact made Grisha even more alert, and soon he began to lose breath. His mother, however, was too busy paving way towards their train platform. Even frantic pulling of her arm couldn’t get her attention. Grisha’s legs began to shake and he felt that he was about to faint.

“Arisha, you child’s not well,” Nina finally got Arina’s attention.

О Боже!” She quickly kneeled and wrapped her arms around her child. “It’s okay, all is well…”

Mother’s soothing voice calmed the boy down. He could again inhale and exhale properly. But his legs were still slightly shivering.

“The platform is right over there,” Nina gestured with her head to a place behind Grisha’s back.

“I can’t carry you anymore; you’re too heavy. Will you be able to walk?” Arina asked.

Grisha nodded.

“My brave little boy!” Arina cleared a few drops of tears from the boy’s cheeks and stood up again.

“How often does that happen?” Nina asked.

“Whenever we’re in a crowed place and I haven’t calmed him beforehand.” Arina explained.

“I see…”

“Gosh, I was so stupid. It’s been a while we’ve been in a place this crowed, and in the rush I forgot!”

“It’s alright.”

There were only a handful of people on their particular platform.

“The time is now…” Nina looked at her watch, “seven thirty-three.”

“Train leaves at five minutes to eight. We’re a bit early.”

All the benches were taken, therefore the trio found a spot slightly away from others to stand. Relieved, Arina leaned against one of the platform’s bearing columns

“Are you certain this Voronezh witchdoctor will be able to heal him?” Nina resumed their conversation.

“I’m not, but what other choice have I got? The doctors say that the situation is becoming dire and soon the anxiety will be uncontrollable. They say he might soon lose it completely.”

“But why Voronezh? Why couldn’t anyone in Petrograd help?”

“I was told he had cured many people. Plus, he was ready to take a look at my child without pay. He doesn’t take money from children.”

“Sounds like a decent man. Maybe try to get to know him better while you’re at it.” Nina teased her friend.

“He’s seventy-nine. That’s more than twice my age!”

“Oh, never mind then.” Nina laughed.

“Thanks for giving enough money to get there by the way. Even though I doubt I can ever repay you.”

“Don’t worry about it. We are practically sisters, and I know that the situation outside the city is tough.”

“So, how was the ball…?”

Grisha was observing the railroad workers and semi-attentively listening to the adult conversation. Then he saw something that made him lose any interest in what mom and her skinny friend were blabbering about. It was a man. Tall, with big arms and even bigger belly. Initially, his face was hidden behind the crates he was carrying, but as the man put them down, Grisha became aware that it was the same face he had seen in so many pictures at his home.

Papa?” Grisha’s voice was barely audible.

He loosened the hand his mother was holding and it easily slid out of her grip. Freed, Grisha began to march in the direction of the man he had just recognized. He would not let him out of his sight.

“Papa!” This time his voice was much louder.

But the man did not turn his head in the boy’s direction. Grisha figured he needed to get much closer. Papa sat down on the edge of the platform and lighted up a cigarette. A few seconds later, Papa promptly raised his head and it seemed like he was looking directly at Grisha.

Yet, before the boy could be certain about it, a group of women passed between Grisha and his father. When they had cleared, Papa was nowhere to be seen. The only indication that he was ever there was a tiny line of smoke rising from Papa’s unfinished cigarette, which was dropped on the rail tracks.

Baffled, the boy made two more futile attempts to call out to his father, and tried to find him amongst the distant crowds.

Disappointed, Grisha glanced back at the place where his mother was chatting with Nina a minute ago. It took him a couple of seconds to realize that they too were no longer there. Another wave of panic sent shivers down Grisha’s spine. His legs went numb and he had trouble inhaling air. Unable to find a familiar face, Grisha tumbled down on the cold, concrete floor and pulled his knees towards him, thus curling into a ball. Not one of the passers-by paid any attention to Grisha, who felt tears running down his chin.

The whole of eternity was passing by…

 

“There you are you little dimwit!” Grisha heard Nina’s voice. Never before had he felt so happy hearing it. “Arisha! I found him. It looks like he had it again.”

“I literally can’t let you out of my sight!” Mother’s soothing sound calmed the boy entirely.

“Let’s get him up on this bench here. You still have a bit more than ten minutes.”

Nina not-so-politely ordered some of the people to make room for the kid and his mother.

“This is weird. He never ever leaves my side. He is always too scared to wander off. What’s the matter?”

Papa.” Grisha mumbled.

Papa? What are you talking about? Papa’s not here.” Arina released a brief, hysterical laugh.

Papa.” Grisha mumbled again. This time he pointed to the place, where his father had been smoking his cigarette.

Arisha looked at the pointed direction, but did not reply. Instead she made eye contact with Nina. “See? I told you we shouldn’t be talking about his father.”

.

 

 

II

Sapphire, Bright and Full of Colour

March 14, 1918

Petrograd – Moscow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally found his seat, Petrov hoped he would get some sleep on the train since he did not have any the previous night. His neighbours were having a massive quarrel in the room next to Petrov’s with a lot of shouting and a lot of item-bashing. Because the walls between their rooms are thin, Petrov could hear every single word yelled by the two. Apparently, the husband had squandered some of their savings in a dodgy gambling den, whose owner had vanished when it was time to collect the winnings. The wife was furious because the money was supposed to be spent on things for their firstborn. Even husband’s promises to gather his friends and find the bastard did not calm the woman down. Her beef was with the fact that the man actually risked with their hard-earned money.

The argument lasted for about two hours and was sealed by indulging in a juicy intercourse. Helpless, Petrov lied on his back, eyes wide open, and listened first to the bursts of anger and then to a sound of an old bed banging against the wall. Meanwhile he also decided that he should rearrange the furniture in his room so that his bed is as far away from that damned wall as possible.

Other than that, Petrov was satisfied with his place. Frankly, it was the only somewhat decent house he could afford to rent a room in. And he did not want to leave Petrograd since he had grown fond of it in the twenty (of his sixty) years living there.

As a matter of fact, it was this desire to stay that Petrov was now on a train to Moscow. There he had arranged a meeting with one of publishing houses to discuss printing his poem collection. Everyone in Petrograd had rejected publishing Petrov’s work; however the Moscow publisher sounded keen in his letters so he had to take the chance.

 

Petrov had dozed off, but he was not sure for how long. After looking through the window, he deduced that it must have been merely a couple of minutes for he could still see the outskirts of his beloved city. Then he looked around to see what had startled him. Two men, who looked like the train personnel were going through the carriage passionately discussing someone else.

“It was weird how he took off,” one of them said.

“I understood that he saw his child on the platform, but didn’t want to be spotted by the mother.”

“He has a child?”

“I believe so.”

Then the two moved to the next carriage and their voices faded. Petrov hoped that he would be able to fall asleep again, but could not. The train was rattling and shaking too much as it rushed forwards. Sensing that a good, long nap was out of question, Petrov sighted and took out his notepad. He began scribbling. He figured that if sleeping was not meant to be, perhaps he could at least write a decent poem.

The first attempts were absolute rubbish and he always ended up crossing the lines out as soon as they were put on paper. It was the usual practice, though, so he was not alarmed – it was, after all, the process of stringing together lines that he enjoyed. However, when Petrov turned a new page for the sixth time, he decided to take a different approach. He raised his head and carefully observed all the people in his carriage.

There were not that many: Two full families, one with three children and another with five; three middle-aged men, all reading newspapers; a couple of single moms with one or two kids, and a couple of women all by themselves. It was the last bunch that caught the poet’s eye. One of them, to be more precise. A woman, age between fifty and fifty-five. Petrov thought that she did not belong in the train’s economical class. Yet, there she was, sitting with her back straight, legs tight together and a purse on her lap. The odd creature was dressed noticeably better than all the other passengers. Her clothes were bright, tidy and ironed, but her nails were groomed. She was not earning her living by doing manual labour, that was a given. Petrov began to wonder how she ended up on the cheapest seats inside the train. Perhaps, she was lost? These thoughts gave Petrov an idea and he began to write.

When he lifted his head again, the woman was starring right at him. For a brief moment they held each other’s gaze, but Petrov again dived in his notes.

“Are you a secret agent?”

Petrov almost jumped. She had come up to him and sat in the seat right next to him. “No,no. I’m just… well, spending my time.”

“I saw you looking at me and then writing something down. I figured that it must be something about me.”

“Well… No, never mind… I was just… Oh, it doesn’t matter.”

“Come on, tell me.”

“I’m a poet and I was writing a poem when I noticed you and…” He began to frantically colour off all the words he had written about her. “It’s nothing, really.”

“O, hang on!” She stopped him. “I would have liked to see. I have never had someone write a poem about me.”

“It’s just that I find it strange that someone who looks so well-off rides among the regular people. And that gave me an idea for a poem.”

“Do you think many of the other passengers think the same?”

“I really don’t know.”

“Those men in the back have been keeping their eyes on me, I had noticed that,” she remarked.

“Really?”

“Which is why I came to talk to you before one of them decides to make a move.”

“So you don’t think I’m a secret agent after all?”

“No,” she shook her head. “You said you are a poet, did you not?”

“I am.”

“So we are alright. We can chat. Where are you going?”

“Moscow.”

“Me as well. What brings you to Moscow?”

“I have a meeting with people from one of the publishing houses there.”

“Oh? So you are basically a celebrity.”

“No, I don’t think so. If I were I wouldn’t have to go to Moscow to get published.”

“Will this be you first publication?”

“Fifth. But I also work in a theatre.”

“Then you are a celebrity!” The women vigorously stated.

Petrov chuckled.

“What’s your name? Maybe I have heard of you.”

“Petrov. It’s my last name, but I prefer to be called by it.”

“Agnieszka. Nice to meet you.”

“That’s a strange name. But, I guess everything about you is odd.”

“It is Polish. I am Polish,” she explained.

“Oh, interesting. So what brings you to Moscow?”

“Let us not discuss me. I would much rather want to know about someone who does poetry. It must be so exciting! What does your wife say about it?”

“My wife died five years ago from a disease.”

“I am so sorry,” Agnieszka apologized.

“It’s alright. She always said that it’s borderline depressing.”

“What is?”

“Being a poet. You just asked…”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I am like that.” She chuckled.

“Basically, that’s it. There really isn’t much else I can say about myself.”

“You could tell me the lines you deleted from my poem.”

“I don’t think they were very good anymore,” Petrov explained. “Sometimes I’m like that.”

He put an emphasis on ‘that’ to make this sentence like a little retaliation to her saying exactly the same thing earlier. Petrov had started to enjoy her company. He even forgot that he had wished to sleep. All the while, he became increasingly curious why she was in that darn train carriage.

For a while they did not say a single word to each other. She had resumed her gracious pose with her purse on her lap and Petrov was looking outside the window.

“So, why are you in the poor man’s carriage if you could afford a better one?” Petrov tried asking again. “If you’ll tell me, I’ll finish the poem about you.”

Agnieszka looked at Petrov with an analysing stare. “Will the poem be a good one?”

“I’ll try my best.”

“Then okay. I am running away from my husband in Petrograd. He is a high-ranking army general or something, with a lot of influence and money. He is also a cheap prick, rude and likes to humiliate me. He treated me like a cow. So I decided to leave. My cousin lives in Moscow so I will stay with her for a while. As for why I am in this carriage – this was the only ticket I could afford. My husband would never leave me money.”

“It’s unfortunate when such things happen. But I admire your courage.”

“Thank you. During the war when he was away, I finally felt free and even happy. When he returned, all of that – puff – gone,” she illustrated her point by lifting her hands above her head. “I was not ready to bear it anymore. So that is how I got here.”

“Many wouldn’t understand leaving all that wealth and good life behind. But it wasn’t good, now was it?”

She nodded. “And you know what is the strangest? I still, for some reason, feel heartbroken!” She took out a napkin and pressed it under her left eye.

“Perhaps it’s not an aching heart, but courage’s cries of triumph?”

“Spoken like a true poet now.”

“I think that in circumstances such as this people wouldn’t know the difference between the two.”

“Would you?” She asked.

“I doubt it. I suppose one is characterised by an action, the other – by the lack of it. But it’s only a philosophical guess because I’m not sure. This all only just popped in my mind.”

“Well, I will try looking at it like that anyway. Yes, I think it gives me a sense of satisfaction. Thank you, Petrov.”

“I’m glad I could help.”

“Are you staying in Moscow? I am thinking I should hereby keep a poet by my side, just in case.” The woman giggled.

“Sorry, but no. I plan to go back as soon as I can.”

“Pity,” she sounded disappointed. “I do not want to return to that place.”

“I understand that.”

“Now,” she began with a renewed vigour. “You owe me a poem! It better be a good one.”

“True. I’ll do my best.”

“And, in the meantime, I will try to convince you to move to Moscow.”

As a reply, Petrov simply flashed a smile at her. Then he once again opened his notebook and began writing. Line after line, then crossed some out and rewrote them again. Once in a while Agnieszka would look over Petrov’s shoulder and make remarks about the parts she liked as well as those she wanted out. In between those checks, they would just talk, laugh and enjoy a very good time.

Even though she did not persuade Petrov to stay in Moscow, he did promise to visit her within a month. And secretly he started to believe that he might actually move as long as Agnieszka was around. Or perhaps she would travel back to Petrograd? Either option was on the table as far as Petrov could figure.

By the time they reached Moscow, the poem was finished.

 

I saw a sapphire,

still bright and full of colour.

 

Howsoever the vile and horrid

tried to taint it

with heartbreak and sorrow.

 

Then another seven lines followed. Agnieszka loved it, and Petrov thought it might be one of, if not the best poem he has ever written. It was definitely going on top of others in the meeting with the Moscow publisher. Deep down, he felt that his travel has already been successful, but there was more to come. Mostly because of the poem which was still hot from the oven. All the nervousness and stress was gone. Suddenly, the world felt alright.

The poet’s mind once again crawled back to the sentence he had said to Agniezska.

“It’s pain when we do nothing about it, it’s courage when we don’t dwell but take action.”

“Sorry?”

“Oh, never mind. I was thinking out loud.”

“We will soon have to get out. Tell me again, will we see each other again?”

“Absolutely!”

 

 

 

III

Two Dimwits and One Tall Story

March 14, 1918

Yelets

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gleb and his brother Yegor knew all there was to know about the task they had set out to do. Their uncle had told them all about it. As far as they were concerned, their uncle was an expert – he had done it countless times and had never been caught. Surely that indicated that the man knows what he is talking about. Whenever the two brothers visited their relative, he told them stories about how he had once again stolen bunch of nice things from a train carriage.

“It really is that easy,” their Uncle had told time and time again. “You just got to keep your ears sharp and your eyes open. If you don’t mess about, they won’t care to notice until it’s too late.”

 

Both adolescents were hiding in bushes just across the station and waited for a train to arrive at the Yelets station. Every day there were two trains stopping at Yelets, but neither Gleb nor his brother knew exactly when.

The idea to try and rob a train was spontaneously born right before dinner. Based on what their uncle had told them, it really seemed like the sort of thing which can be done whenever one feels like it. When they were done eating, Gleb packed some bread and water while Yegor had ventured inside their father’s liquor cabinet for something stronger ‘in case it was getting too cold and they need something that warms them up.’ Then they set out to find a good spot for observation. As soon as they settled in, Yegor opened one of the two bottles he had taken with him and offered the other to his brother, but after seeing Gleb shaking his head, put it back and began emptying his.

Three hours in, Yegor was moderately drunk. Sensing that his brother was not following the only rule their uncle had told them, Gleb hid the remaining alcohol while his brother slipped off to relieve himself and convinced him that they were out. Even though a bit confused and disappointed, Yegor did not ask any more questions and dozed off soon after. Gleb sighted. He began hoping that his brother has enough time to sleep some of the stuff off before the train arrives.

When dawn approached, Gleb felt that his eyelids were becoming heavier and heavier as well. Constantly being on a look-out, keeping all his senses sharp and body ready to react however the situation unfolds had worn Gleb out.

Yet, the moment Gleb spotted a locomotive coming out of a bend, all the exhaustion evaporated. The massive, black metal beast began squealing as its speed gradually dropped. Gleb began counting how many carriages was the locomotive pulling. The wait seemed to have paid off, for there were as much as two dozen carriages, if not more. Some of them were passenger, but most were for cargo which was now at Gleb and Yegor’s mercy.

Gleb frantically shook his brother’s shoulder to wake him up. At first Yegor was slightly startled, but the moment he saw the pray in front of him, his eyes widened and he promptly jumped to his feet, ready to approach the treasure. Yegor was so sudden, in fact, that Gleb had to grab him by his arm and pull him back down.

“Careful,” he whispered. “Remember to be careful!”

Frankly, Gleb was starting to regret that he had brought Yegor along. His eyes were still floating and his breath reeked like cheap alcohol. It was not uncommon for Yegor to borrow a bottle from their father, but generally Gleb could count on his older brother to pull his act together when it was necessary.

“Relax. This is going to be easy, easy. Very easy.” Yegor’s voice was full of liquor-induced confidence.

Gleb vaguely smiled. He knew that his brother is much stronger and will be able to carry the heavy goods. Also, Gleb did not want to do this alone, so leaving his brother behind was out of the question.

“Uncle repeated time and time again, the key to success is being cautious. You are not cautious!”

“You are right. We should be quiet,” Yegor agreed.

“Concentrate. Stay down and follow me.”

Crouched, they moved in though the line of bushes. Gleb was keeping his eyes and ears open, expecting to hear or see either a station worker or someone from the train staff. But it was all calm, lifeless even, without a single unwanted circumstance. Gleb was not sure whether that was a good or a bad thing as he was inching forwards, trying to be absolutely noiseless. Even the slightest sound would feel like a dropped bomb.

Yegor burst out laughing.

“Shut up!” Gleb felt waves of panic and alarm rush through him.

“I can’t. This is so exciting.”

“Concentrate,” Gleb put his hands on his brother’s cheeks. “You hear me? Concentrate!”

“Alright, alright.” Yegor calmed down a bit.

As they draw nearer to the train, Gleb could finally hear people from inside the train, chatting and muttering; totally unaware of the two thieves, who were mere meters away from them; possibly stealing something that belonged to one of the passengers. Such thoughts made waves of adrenalin rush through Gleb.

On the sober brother’s command, the duo started to move a bit more to the left, so they would exit the bushes closer to the cargo end of the train. Meanwhile, Gleb was also looking at the carriages, trying to figure out which to choose. Uncle had advised to look for the older and more run-down ones as they would be the easiest to get into. So he did.

“This one’s it, don’t you think?” He asked his older brother.

“Does that dumpster has anything good inside?”

“Come on, let’s have a look.”

The pair approached the old, run-down carriage. It really seemed like an easy target as its wooden structure was barely holding together. Not only was it rotten, but there were a few holes large enough for a cat to fit through. Gleb tried to peak in, but the holes were blocked by crates.

“I think this is a score,” he said to his brother.

“O! Let’s go, let’s go.”

Gleb quickly made sure they had not been spotted yet and proceed to grab a lever, which would unlock the carriage door. He tried to push it; then pull it. However, the darn thing would not budge.

Давай!” Yegor too had become impatient. “Somebody will spot us.”

“I’m trying, I’m trying. This thing is stuck!”

“Maybe there’s something else blocking it?”

“No, it’s just this lever,” Gleb confirmed. He had released it and made half a step backwords. “You try. You are much stronger than I am.”

“Yes, let me.”

Yegor firmly gripped the metal, took a couple of deep breaths and pulled it with all his might. For a couple of seconds the lever did not move one bit, but then, with a somewhat loud thud, it jumped out of its place.

“That’s how it’s done.” Yegor was proud of himself. His face was tomato red.

“I had already loosened it,” Gleb retorted.

“No you didn’t. This is why you should eat all the porridge, not leave some to me.”

“Whatever. We need to slide the door open.”

This time both did it collectively since it was extremely heavy. With a couple of hard pushes, they managed to slide the door wide enough for them to get inside. However, their efforts made a considerable screeching sound. Gleb felt that this sound had made its way to someone at the station.

“Let us hurry up, Yegor.”

“It’s full of food. All food,” Yegor sounded disappointed.

“Grab something and let’s get out of here.”

But Yegor, still fairly boozy, was not to be rushed. He slowly looked at each crate and ignored his brother’s pleas.

Gleb had already chosen a couple of crates filled with grain products that he could carry, when he heard Yegor cry in excitement.

“Look what I found!” Yegor had opened a crate and pulled a glass bottle out of it. “This will turn out to be a good raid, hah! There are eight bottles in this crate, and there are three other crates just like this one! Come on, let’s get these.”

Gleb did not like it, but his brother was right. Vodka could very well have the most value of everything that was inside this particular carriage.

“Alright. We each take two. Hurry.”

Gleb could hear some distant buzz outside. Or, perhaps, it was his imagination – he was not sure. Hurriedly, they moved the crates by the door. Yegor jumped out and Gleb passed them down to him.

The first went out, then the second one. The third, however, slipped from Yegor’s grip and its contents fell to the ground with a sound of shattering glass. The noise was massive, amplified by Yegor’s juicy cursing since some of it fell on his right foot.

This time Gleb would not have to question whether they had been spotted or not, for there were six or seven passenger heads peering out of their windows. Immediately afterwards, Gleb heard loud and raging shouting from the station and the sound of boots jumping down on the loose, rocky surface below the train platform.

“Grab these two, I’ll get the third crate!” Gleb franticly instructed his brother.

“What about the fallen ones?”

“Forget it!”

Gleb jumped out of the train, grabbed the crate and dashed towards the bushes. Yegor was three paces in front of him. Just before he was away from the tracks, Gleb quickly looked behind and saw three men in uniforms going after them. The brothers had about two-carriage-length handicap on their chasers. It was not much, and Gleb knew it. The crate slowed him down considerably. He figured, they had to hide in the bushes again if Gleb and his brother were to escape. Yet, he was already out of breath, and he could not close in on his brother, to tell him the plan. Yegor was sprinting straight, without even as much as changing his direction. He absolutely ploughed his way, leaving enormous signs on the direction he was heading.

He did not really want to do it, but Gleb decided that his best bet was to turn away from Yegor’s forged path and hide, hoping the uniforms would continue chasing his older brother. Therefore, Gleb turned left and dived beneath the nearest shrub. Fifteen seconds later he saw the three uniforms running past his hideout, without as much as a glance in his direction. Seeing how the distance between him and the uniforms increased, Gleb released a relieved sigh and rested his head on the back of his hands.

Not wanting to risk being exposed, Gleb stayed motionless in his hiding place for at least ten more minutes. His heart was racing and he could feel the vein on the left side of his head pulsing. On top of that, he felt anger towards his brother and, even more, his uncle. This did not go as he had expected. At all. The job was supposed to be a formality – he and his brother merely had to show up and the loot would jump in their hands itself. Only now, with his face deep in dirt and the whole deed deep in shit, Gleb started to question the credibility of his uncle’s stories. And the absurdity suddenly seemed obvious. If someone would do this as often and as easily the uncle claimed, wouldn’t the train crew do something about it? This was one of the more pushing questions Gleb had begun asking himself while hiding.

The thief stayed in his hideout for another fifteen minutes, listening to the sounds around him. He hoped that his brother would manage to get away and, based on the silence, he was beginning to believe that to be true. However, just as Gleb had finally decided to move out, he heard a group of voices. They sounded stern and demanding. He once again ducked for cover.

After about a minute four men emerged from behind a thin treeline. One was marching in front and two other were each holding the fourth by his arms. They had caught Yegor. Gleb saw a number of bruises on his brother’s head and neck, his shirt was thorn and an occasional drop of blood dripped from the back of his head. The uniforms, however, were not without their fair share of injuries as well. The man leading the group was limping, but the one on the left side of Yegor had a cut over his right eyebrow and a black eye. The third one seemed to be injury-free.

“His companion disappeared somewhere around here,” said the limping uniform. “Where is that tosser, eh?”

“I don’t know,” Yegor replied.

“Should we look for him?” Asked the healthy uniform.

“What’s the point? He must be halfway to Moscow by now.”

“Besides, I’m not ready to have another idiot throwing bottles of alcohol at me,” added the third uniform.

“Come on, let’s get this one to the station. There we will make him talk.”

“No you won’t,” Yegor shot back.

The limp one stopped, turned towards the captive and made a step in his direction. “Do you know whose bottles you stole and smashed on trees and our heads? Soldier’s. The train has already left towards Rostov, but if you won’t talk, we will send you to them with the next one. They will skin you alive. Do you understand that?”

Yegor did not reply. For a brief moment they just stared at each other, until the limp uniform turned his back towards the captive and resumed his way back.

Yegor’s brother barely dared to breathe during the exchange which took place in front of him. There was nothing he could do, at least that was what Gleb was telling himself. He looked on as the whole lot disappeared from his sight. He then waited for another five or six minutes before leaving his spot and hastily going in the opposite direction.

Roughly three hundred meters from his hiding place, Gleb found two empty liquor boxes, pieces of glass, blood stains and a reeking smell of cheap alcohol. It looked like Yegor had been fighting like a mad bear, but three grown men had ultimately been too much. After all he was just sixteen.

Only one of the four crates the brothers found in the train carriage had survived and it was in Gleb’s wet hands.

It might be said that it was all over now, but there was one question that still loomed over Gleb’s head. Frankly, it was more horrifying than anything he had experienced today. Even if it could somehow be postponed, it would still need to be addressed. Therefore, the sooner Gleb could decide on the next course of action, the better he will be off. As he marched through the woods and bushes, he pondered many possible scenarios, words, sentences and actions he could use. Yet, whatever ideas he had, none of them made him any less frightened than he was. Gleb understood that no man can ever prepare for what he was about to face.

 

How am I going to explain my brother’s absence to our mother?

 

 

 

IV

Three-card Monte

March 14, 1918

Yelets

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Good day, my friend.”

“Hello,” the train operator returned the greeting. While his ride was stuck and the station personnel were sorting out their problems with the thieves, a slender, smiling man had approached him at the waiting area of the station.

“Something’s wrong with the train, eh?”

“No. Two thieves got in one of the carriages and took something. I’m not sure what exactly. Now I’m on standby to see how this develops.”

“Is that right?” The man said, scratching his thick, grizzled moustache. “These things do happen, don’t they?”

“It’s not the first time, yes. I am twenty minutes behind schedule already, though. That’s not good.”

“Not your fault, friend, not your fault.”

“Tell that to my boss. He requires precision. We sometimes laugh that he probably sets his dinner table with a ruler,” the train operator explained. “Ha, ha!”

“What’s your name, friend?”

“Dubow.”

“Please, friend. Let’s be proper. Full name?”

“Miron Germanovich Dubow.” The train operator reluctantly obliged.

“Miron Germanovich, nice to meet you.” The man extended his hand.

The train operator shook it.

“Listen, friend, since you are stuck here, perhaps you wish to play a game of cards?”

“What kind of game?”

“Oh, it’s an easy one, friend. I’ll show you three cards, one of them will be the queen. If you can pick it out from the other, you win. If not, I win.”

“Okay.” Miron Germanovich loved playing cards. Usually, he got quite competitive as the games went on.

The man took out a deck, found the queen of clubs and also took a three of diamonds and nine of hearts. He showed them to Miron Germanovich, then he put them all face-down on a chair. “Ready, friend?”

Miron Germanovich nodded. The man quickly shuffled the cards, but the train operator believed he was able to follow.

“Which one, eh?” The man asked.

Miron Germanovich pointed to the middle one – correct.

“Congratulations, let’s play again.” Again the man shuffled the three cards.

Miron Germanovich pointed to the one on his right. Spot on!

“You are good at it, friend,” The train operator’s new friend sounded impressed. “Again?”

They played the game for five more times. Miron Germanovich won the first two, then lost third and fourth, then won the fifth again. He felt that this man, whose name he did not bother to ask, was quite a sucker.

“Hey, how about we spice it up, friend? Want to place a bet?” The man asked.

“Yes, sure. Here, I’m betting this,” Miron Germanovich put six coins between him and the man with cards.

“Oh, sorry. I don’t have that much money with me right now. How about we start with two?”

“As you wish,” Miron Germanovich said. “This might be the only game then.”

The man did not reply. Instead he again shuffled the cards and put them between them on the chair.

“That one,” Miron Germanovich pointed at the middle one.

It was not the right one.

“Bad luck there, friend,” the man comforted the train operator.

“Shuffle again,” Miron Germanovich felt that he must at least get his money back before they depart. He put another two coins on the chair.

The man shuffled. Miron Germanovich paid close attention to where the queen was put.

“Which one?” The man asked.

Miron Germanovich pointed at the card in the middle again.

“Wrong again, friend. It seems that your lucky eyesight has left you.”

“Again,” Miron Germanovich put four coins on the chair. This time he tried concentrating even more. He had a bad feeling about this all, therefore he had decided to quit when he gets his money back.

The cards were shuffled, Miron Germanovich closely followed the queen: middle; left; middle; right; left; middle; still middle; still middle; left; still left; right; stayed right… He felt quite confident that this time he knew where the queen was. It was almost a relief. Carefully, he pointed to the card on his right. The man flipped it.

“I’m so sorry for you. You are out of luck, perhaps it is time to end?”

“No!” Miron Germanovich growled, in sheer desperation that he was wrong again.

They played the game for another three times. Miron Germanovich lost all of them. At one point, he asked the man with the cards to let him flip the other two, which he allowed. The queen was among them.

“How about, I mix the cards and you try to guess?” Miron Germanovich suggested.

“I’m sorry, friend. I am really bad at this game. I know that I would lose for sure.”

“How do you do it?” Miron Germanovich was seething. He lost all money he had on him.

“Do what, friend?”

“Cheat, of course,” Miron Germanovich explained. “How?”

“I don’t cheat, my friend. The cards are all there, you saw it. It’s not my fault you lose.”

“I know you cheat, I know it! Come here, I will knock the truth out of you!” Miron Germanovich tried to grab the man by his neck, but he was ready for it and dodged Miron Germanovich’s grip.

“I think it is time I leave you, friend.” He stood up and took four quick steps back.

“What is your name… friend? ”Miron Germanovich’s face was red from anger. “I demand you tell me your name!”

“Monte,” the man said. “Three-card Monte. Ha, ha, ha!”

Miron Germanovich was getting up from the chair, but Monte, if that was his name, dashed away without looking back. The train operator was not particularly athletic and could only follow Monte’s movements with his eyes.

“This damned town,” Miron Germanovich said, and launched a juicy spit towards the concrete pavement. He then cleaned his lips with the back of his hand and walked back to the train.

 

 

 

V

The Prize of War

March 15, 1918

Zadonsk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fyodor had not been himself all day. Anna was not sure what to make of it. She had tried asking him about it, but Fyodor would just shrug and pretend he had not heard the question.

“I’m your wife,” Anna had tried to appeal to their marriage. “You can tell me what’s up.”

But to no avail.

She did not try to push for it though. Considering the years they have been living together, she was certain that he would eventually talk. Usually after he had mulled over whatever it was that bothered him.

This time was no exception. Late in the evening, when Anna was just about to finish up the dishes, Fyodor came into the kitchen and grabbed her by her hand.

“Come,” he muttered.

“Wait, let me finish.”

“You are practically done. Leave it.” He slightly pulled the hand.

“Where?” Anna asked.

“Outside,” he was not keen on talking just yet. “I want to show you something.”

“Alright.”

They both put on their coats and boots. Fyodor was quicker and had to wait for a bit before Anna was ready. As soon as she was done dressing up, he again grabbed her by the same hand and steered both them outside. Slightly confused, Anna let him.

Normally, Fyodor would invite Anna to their living room, offer her a drink and a chair before leaning against the fireplace and telling what bothered him. She could recall three instances when such an interaction had taken place. Twice before the war and once after it. The first two had to do with him enlisting in the army and them having children. The third – about some of the nightmares he has been having since the end of fighting. These conversations were never discussions. They were always statements. Anna wondered if this was one of these interactions again.

The war had not spared Anna’s husband. He lost his ear in one of the battles and suffered severe burns in another. It was after the burns that he was finally sent home for good. Unable to lift his right arm above his shoulder and with an impaired hearing (Anna was accustomed to speaking directly in his left ear) he was no longer of use to them. Or any other employer for that matter. Since the end of war the family had been living on Fyodor parent’s fortune. They had bought them a small but cosy cottage and were regularly sending enough money for them to get by.

“How far are wo going?” Anna wanted to know.

“Not too far.”

“What about the kids?”

“What about them?” He asked.

“They are at home all by themselves.”

“Aren’t they asleep?”

“Yes, but…”

“They’ll be fine then. We won’t be away for very long.” Fyodor’s face remained stern. She was walking a third of a step behind him. He was still pulling Anna by her hand. The grip was not firm, but she did not want to release it anyway. On the contrary, she squeezed his hand stronger and increased her pace so they would walk side-by-side. She felt that whatever it was that was on her husband’s mind must be important.

The evening was chilly and it was already dark. Only after a couple of minutes of walking, Anna noticed a satchel over Fyodor’s shoulder as it was illuminated by the moon. She did not know what was inside it, but she knew that it must be something to do with his behaviour.

For a while they remained silent. Anna let Fyodor steer them in his intended direction.

“There’s something I want to tell you,” Fyodor finally broke the silence. “It’s something I haven’t shared with anyone, but it’s been increasingly bothering me.”

Anna did not say a word, so Fyodor continued.

“It’s a story about these injuries and the battle in which I got them,” Fyodor pointed to his burned neck and shoulder. “So, it was my last battle. And it was a fierce one. That much you know, of course.”

“I do. I know how brave you were. It couldn’t have been otherwise.”

“Me and my men were tasked to take control over a Hungarian command post because our general believed that they might have important documents or their strategic plans up there. The fighting went on for a week, thirty seven of our men were killed and as many – injured. In other words, a third of our company was immobilized.”

“You included?” Anna asked.

“Not yet,” Fyodor corrected. “We were promised reinforcements, but they never arrived. Those bastards were beginning to outflank us. We had to make a quick push or we’d be surrounded. So we charged directly at them. Thirteen more died, I got a piece of an explosion, but in the end we took that bloody command post. But you know what’s funny?”

“No, what?” Anna indulged him by asking.

“They had cleared everything out! The desks were empty. Without a single piece of paper left! Their goal must have been to hold us back until they cleared out the post. So, there I was, in the middle of that empty shelter, barely conscious.”

“I’m so sorry…”

“The only thing left was a jar with raspberry jam. Homemade. It had fallen under the desk. I wanted to pick it up, but fainted when I bent down.”

Anna and Fyodor made another turn and were now heading inside a forest. He continued his story.

“When I regained consciousness, I was in a hospital bed, with the jar on a bedside table right next to me. It also had a note signed by men from my platoon that encouraged me to use it to forget the war. I decided that I would save the jam for a special occasion since it came by such a sacrifice. And herein comes the thing that has bothered me ever since.”

Fyodor took a pack of smokes out of his pocket, lighted one up and offered it to Anna. She took it. Then he took another one for himself.

“So, is the jar in that satchel with you?” Anna asked.

He nodded.

“It was two years ago, and since then it is becoming increasingly harder to get rid of it.”

“How so? Never have I ever as much as seen it. You’ve kept it hidden all this time.”

“Not that I didn’t want to. There have a number of instances when I considered opening it. My brother’s wedding, our third child, birthdays, getting our house…”

“Indeed, we’ve had plenty of things to celebrate since you returned…”

“Yes, but at first I always questioned whether an occasion is so significant that I can empty a jar of such value. Frankly, the jam felt more important than the celebrations because of the scathe of those battles. Later on it got even worse. As time passed, the bloody thing became even more valuable to me because it also had the added burden of the times that I didn’t deem significant enough to open it.”

“What do you mean?” Anna felt she did not follow.

“I mean, every time I consider opening it, I end up thinking that this time is no more significant than the previous ones I skipped. Hence, the present occasion is not significant enough… again.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“Of course,” she lied. Actually, she was not entirely sure she understood what her husband was on about.

“The longer I have it, the more unlikely it is ever going to be opened. Remember last Saturday when you went to bed and I stayed to chat with three of my comrades who came to visit?”

“Yes.”

“Well, they asked me about the jam. Whether I had emptied it. And know what I said? I said that it’s gone because I didn’t want to open it then, as they would’ve certainly liked!”

Anna sighted. “Why didn’t you tell me about it sooner? I would’ve eaten it empty without much thought. Honestly, I can’t see why you are attaching the war, the battles, deaths and injuries to something so insignificant. The jam was not your target, it’s just something that was left behind by an enemy. It has nothing to do with the war.”

“It’s the only tangible thing that the war ever gave me. All else is loss. You’re right. It is merely a jar with food, but what else has the war given me? I fought, I saw my comrades die for nothing. Except for this thing,” he patted on his bag. “That’s what I actually got amid all that I lost. As far as I’m concerned, my war was for the possession of this jam.”

Anna did not know how to argue that.

“Where are we going?” She asked him.

“I don’ know. I want to get rid of it. Leave it in a place where I can’t find it anymore.”

“Isn’t this place good enough? I’m not feeling comfortable in the forest at such an hour. And the kids are at home alone.”

“Wait,” Fyodor silenced her.

Not far from them, in the distance, both could hear a loud rattling noise. It became increasingly louder.

“Come,” Fyodor pulled his wife by her hand again.

They were marching towards the train tracks which were only some ten meters away. When they approached the tracks, the locomotive was just about to pass them.

“Perfect,” Fyodor mumbled as he pulled the jar out of his satchel.

It was made from a transparent glass with a red lid on top. There were no shapes or forms on the jar – it was as simple as they come. Fyodor took one last look at it before raising it behind his head and, with all his strength, launching it against the train. The sound of broken glass was barely audible in the midst of the train noise.

“Take it as far away as possible, please. Ha!” Fyodor screamed at the train. “Ha! Ha! Ha!”

The train dashed ahead, as if nothing happened. Anna did not know what to say.

“I feel so much better already! Come on, we are done here. Let’s get back to our children.”

 

 

 

VI

The Old Hag

March 14 – 15, 1918

Undisclosed Location

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed like it was going to rain. Heavily. The air had become stale, the wind was picking up and the clouds were turning from pale grey to dark blue.

Marya began folding and putting the dry tablecloths in a basket quicker than before. If they would get wet again, her mistress would not be pleased. Even though it was merely Marya’s first day at work, she knew that even the slightest of mishaps will be expressively frowned upon. She had already been subjected to a five-minute lecture when the tea, which Marya had served at noon, was too hot and the mistress burned her tongue. Afterwards, she was ordered to pour the tea out the window and make a new cup. With that in mind, it would not be hard to imagine that the spotless, white tablecloths would have to be done all over again should drops of rain fall on them.

Thankfully, she did not have to find out what would have happened because she managed to get inside moments before the rain came pouring down. The maid was about to release a little cheerful giggle, when she saw the mistress on top of the staircase, quietly observing her employee. The mistress was a gracious, elderly woman, whose pale skin was first carved in stone, and then covered in wrinkles. As she looked down on Marya, a thought came to the maid’s mind that this – looking at people from above – was the woman’s natural habitat. They looked at each other until the mistress turned to her right and went inside her bedroom. Marya stayed motionless for a little while longer, looking at the door behind which the mistress disappeared. Then she shrugged and went down to the basement to do some ironing and sorting. While at that, Marya was thinking about the many oddities that she had been exposed to at her first days at the estate.

 

To sum up, everything about the woman felt dark and cold. Firstly, the house was an old, six-bedroom, two storey stone mansion surrounded by a large garden, with train tracks and a road on the west and a forest on north, east and south. Secondly, the mistress never revealed her actual name. Instead, she explained that Marya must call her ‘the mistress’ and there was no point bothering with names. Thirdly, she told her new maid that the rest of her family died from the plague. Frankly, Marya had no idea what that was – she never went to school and did not know many things. Yet, she did not ask anything further to seem smarter. She did, however, notice that there were no portraits or pictures of people anywhere in the house. Fourthly, since the evening of the previous day, when Marya arrived, the woman has been barefooted, wearing nothing but a long, black dress and a silver necklace with a cross.

Even the list of housekeeping guidelines Marya must follow can be described as cold:

 

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Fireplaces must not be used, regardless of the weather. Except for the one in the maid’s private room, but she must gather the wood for it herself,

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Regardless of weather, a window must be opened if both the maid and the mistress are in the same room.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. No guests are allowed at the premises when the mistress is at home,

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Under no circumstances can the maid enter the mistress’ bedroom,

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Any dusting or housekeeping chores must be done before breakfast,

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A new, fresh tablecloth must be laid on the table before every meal,

 

But, with the salary seven times higher than in any other place Marya had previously worked, she figured the owner had the right to demand whatever order they want and the servant is at no place to question it. Marya was not married yet and she did not keep close contact with her family, so there was no one, who would visit her, and the other rules seemed simple enough. Besides, the old witch would die sooner rather than later and, without any inheritors, Marya saw an opening if she plays her cards right.

 

“I assume, you will do a better job in the future,” the mistress said after dinner was served and eaten. She was wearing the same black dress and the same necklace.

“I’m sorry about today,” Marya apologised.

“Like I said – do better.”

“Sorry.”

“You must think I’m an old hag,” the mistress stated.

“N-no, of c-course not!” Marya’s voice was shivering.

“Liar,” the mistress raised her voice. “If you think you can gain my affection and get my fortune when I die, forget it!”

“I… I was never intending to…”

“I’ve lived long enough to know how people think.”

“I…” Marya was not sure what to say.

“Oh, Заткнись,” the mistress interrupted her. “Shut up!”

Marya was barely holding back tears. Her lips and hands were shaking. But the old hag pretended not to notice as she was drinking her wine and looking outside the window.

“I think I should hire a gardener soon. Summer is not that far away and the garden needs to be freshened up,” the mistress was thinking out loud. “What do you think about it?”

“I? I saw the pictures in the library. I think it’s very lovely during summer.”

“It is magnificent during summer, that’s what it is. I will spend all my fortune on the garden before the reaper gets to me.”

The mistress grabbed the cross on her neck and squeezed it. Then she mumbled a few words, stood up and left the room.

“Goodnight,” Marya managed to say before the woman left.

The mistress did not say anything back.

Marya heard the mistress climb up the stairs and, with a squeal, shut her bedroom doors. Then the maid began cleaning up. First she closed the window because it was freezing cold, then she removed the tablecloth and took the leftovers to the kitchen, and washed the dishes.

When she was done, it was past eleven o`clock and Marya felt exhausted. Not that much physically, but mentally. Only when she was inside her room, Marya realised how tense she had been all day.

The previous evening she made sure her room is as cosy as possible, so that it would contrast the massive, dreary estate and she was glad she did – it made it easier for her to relax.

“If age doesn’t get her, I will,” the maid jokingly said to herself.

Somewhere in the corridor a floorboard squeaked. Marya rose up from her bed and held her breath, attentively listening. There was no other sound, apart from wind gusting on the other side of her window. The rain had stopped.

Slowly, Marya calmed down. The house was old. Of course it would make creepy sounds. She had bolted the door to her room shut and she felt as safe as a woman can be in a house as large and empty as this one.

Marya dropped few more pieces of wood inside the fire and bundled up in her blanket before falling asleep.

 

Something startled Marya. She opened her eyes, but could not at first see anything in the pitch black room. All was silent. Then she noticed a silhouette. It was sitting on a chair next to her desk, completely motionless. A few seconds passed until Marya noticed that the silhouette was wearing a shiny necklace with a cross. It reflected the light of the moon. Moments later the moon illuminated the rest of the grinning old hag.

Marya was petrified. She just starred at the invader, unable to utter a single syllable. They looked at each other, without saying anything, without moving a single muscle. The maid quickly glanced at the door. Only then did she notice a little gap between the door and the doorframe.

“You didn’t think you could lock in my own house, did you?” The old hag asked.

“How did you…?”

Marya could not finish the question. As soon as she opened her mouth, the old hag launched herself towards the maid and swiftly pressed her down on the bed. Marya tried to push the woman off of her, but could not muster enough strength. Suddenly, Marya felt a sharp hit to her groin which took all wind out of her sails. Moments later the old hag already had her whole bodyweight on top of the maid and had pinned down Marya’s arms with her knees. Out of nowhere, Marya noticed that the woman was still wearing the same dress.

Certain that the maid was pinned down good, the old hag reached for something on the edge of the bed. It was a piece of rope.

“I wasn’t going to wait for you to make the move and kill me. I told you downstairs that I know people. And I was right about you.”

“I… wasn’t…” Marya struggled to say something.

“Silence!” The old hag cried. “I heard you, when you just finished working and came to the room. I knew it before then, but that was the last piece of evidence I needed.”

“No, I…”

The old hag wrapped the rope around her hands and pressed it against Marya’s neck. The maid struggled for breath. The rope squeezed deeper and deeper into Marya’s throat. Desperately she shook, pushed and pulled every limb, every muscle she could.

“The older I get the more greedy people become. I see girls like you and I smell greed like a pile of horse shit coming from you. That’s why I want windows open, that’s why I want no fire – shit smells more in heat.”

Marya continued to struggle. She felt that the old hag was starting to lose strength as well. However, she was still feeling that she could not get any air.

“I shan’t give up without a fight,” the old hag cried and pressed the rope tighter again. “I pay everyone who comes here well and yet everyone who comes has only one thought in mind. Kill the hag, get the money. Not a single maid, who has worked here, has been decent. But don’t worry, you will meet the others soon enough.”

Marya was starting to give up and loosened under the old hag.

The moment she did that, Marya felt that she gained space for her to slightly flex her hips. It was enough for her to be able swing her knees upwards and drive them inside the old hag’s spine. Repeatedly. Unable to withstand the blows, the hag released her grip on Marya’s throat and one of her knees slipped off the maid’s arm. The moment it happened, Marya swung her palm towards the old hag’s head. The blow stunned the hag and made her tumble down on the floor.

After taking a few deep breaths Marya grabbed the rope. Then she rolled out of the bed and on to the old hag, and pressed the rope against the hag’s throat. Her struggle for survival did not last long. Soon enough the old hag was lifeless, but Marya kept pressing the rope for quite a while longer for good measure.

 

The sun was already rising when Marya left her room and headed downstairs to the kitchen. She needed a glass of water and she was hungry. While eating a pair of boiled eggs and a piece of bread, she tried to figure out what to do next. By the time she had finished her meal, she knew that she wanted nothing to do with the house or the fortune. Therefore, she decided to head to the nearest town and report what had happened.

By the time she reeled out of the house, it was proper morning. The sky was slightly grey, no wind, no rain. Just a wee morning dew.

She went to the west, across the rail tracks and was almost hit by a train which was just passing by. Marya did not notice it until it blew past her, arm’s-length away from her nose. Her mind was still racing from one thought to another and two hours later, when she reached the nearest town, she was not sure there ever was a train, or the house, or the old hag.

The reality hit her only after she had taken the authorities to the scene of the crime.

“So you want me to believe that this old lady got through a bolted door, attacked you and you barely got out alive by killing her?” Asked a middle-aged man in a uniform.

“That is what happened, sir.”

“And she ate a bit of early breakfast before she decided she had enough of you?”

“Yes…” Marya agreed. “No, wait. I ate the breakfast.”

“When?”

“After I…”

“After you did this?”

Marya nodded.

“You killed a person and then decided to have a meal? And you want me to believe that she is the sick one?”

“The old hag is… she thought I am going to steal her house.”

“Her house? Right.”

Marya looked at the man with a puzzled stare.

“It’s not even her house. The real mistress drowned in a nearby pond six years ago. I was there and documented the poor mishap. This is… was Miss Julie Makarina, the maid and good friend of the real mistress. She was tasked with taking care of the house until the estate’s rightful heir claims it, whoever he is.”

“What?” Marya could not believe what she was hearing.

“Here’s what I think. You saw the old lady and thought she was the owner of the house, figured you could kill her, fool everyone and get some money out of it. But I see through you, you wicked witch.”

“But what about other maids, other women who she hired and killed?” Marya was desperately trying to prove her truth.

“What other women? I know nothing about other killed women.”

“She, she – the old hag – she killed other maids because she thought that they are taking her house!” Marya practically screamed at the man. “She was hiring women without close family or spouses. That’s why they were never reported!”

“Alright, alright,” the man said, unconvinced. “That’s enough. You are coming with me.”

 

 

 

VII

Irony of Circumstance

March 14 – 15, 1918

Rostov-on-Don

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 14, 1918 promised to be a wonderful day. The soldiers were supposed to receive a supply train from Petrograd, full of edible goods – all of which was wonderful, but what the 3. Kurzeme’s Latvian Riflemen regiment was looking forward the most was the arrival of vodka. Their supplies of the drink had been running low for the last few days, but on an unclouded mind this war felt absolutely senseless. On top of that, sobriety made the surroundings seem very bleak and dreary.

But that’s tomorrow. Corporal Ernests Avens looked at his watch, which showed seventeen minutes to midnight, meaning that he still had a bit less than three hours on his patrol. Or, as he sees it, more than two and a half hours in a shelter together with Private Voldemars Francis. It is not that Ernests didn’t like the guy, but after losing to him in the fifth straight round of cards, he could barely contain himself from punching Voldemars in the nose. So he sprung outside to smoke a cigarette. It soothed Ernests’ nerves. The night was freezing and unpleasant, surrounded by complete silence. After a couple of inhalations, the soldier once again felt at peace and could think much more clearly. It wasn’t even the fact that he constantly lost in cards to a kid that frustrated Ernests the most. It was the obvious misery and indifference his companion was in the whole night. He felt that something wasn’t right, but he also had no desire to play someone’s mother, holding hands and telling it’s all right.

Unlike Ernests, Voldemars had not seen the blood of his friends and comrades being poured like wine by the Germans on daily basis. For he joined the regiment only when they were sent off to Southern Russia to fight Alexey Kaledin’s Cossacks two months ago. The battle in Rostov-na-Donu was his initiation. Now the riflemen were stationed in the outskirts of the city for almost a month with very little to do other than drinking and talking about women and politics.

After the Latvian Rifleman divisions had succeeded in their initial task – driving the Germans out of the Latvian territories of the Russian Empire – Ernests, just like many other Latvian Riflemen, decided to aid the Bolshevik revolution against the White Army. After the collapse of the Empire, there were many sides to choose from so Ernests sincerely hoped he had picked the right one.

Apparently, the corporal had been completely absorbed by his thoughts, for he did not immediately notice his companion, who joined him with his cigarette. For a minute they did not say a word. In Ernests’ eyes Voldemars had not changed at all since the recruitment – a thin, scared boy fresh out of mommy’s embrace. Not a single cut or scar, not even from shaving. Just like the rest of the last recruits. How did they manage to remain so innocent this long? Ernests could only guess.

“Was it always this quiet?” Voldemars broke the silence, “I mean… when you were fighting the Germans…”

“No,” Ernests looked at him. “Then you would now be smoking with your face deep in mud, praying to God no part of you appears out of the trenches or is blown up by a mortar shell… You have no idea, boy.”

“Couldn’t we be shot now?” Voldemars wondered.

“There hasn’t been a single rifle shot for days now,” he carefully looked at the horizon, but everything that was further than two hundred meters was covered in a pitch-black darkness. ”Alright, here’s a question for you. What do you think this means? The fact that nobody is shooting anybody anymore?”

“I don’t know,” Voldemars began. “Perhaps the Bolsheviks are about to win the war and we can go home?”

The veteran burst out laughing.

“Oh, is that right? Ha!” Ernests could not get away from his ridiculous smirk. “There is still fighting going on in the Urals and Belarus, Lithuania. Our army is scattered all across the world now. I bet our help will also be greatly appreciated everywhere.”

This wasn’t the answer Voldemars was hoping for. His face became even gloomier (than Ernests thought was possible).

“Will we ever get home?” He finally asked. His voice was slow and quiet.

“Not as long as the motherland needs us. Perhaps you don’t remember 1905, but I do. My father’s brother was shot in his own home by a Tsarist general after local baron’s command. Lenin, at least, recognizes the needs of regular people, and has promised an independent Latvia. Frankly, the best chance we’ve got is if the Bolsheviks come to power. I doubt they can do it without us. You have, of course, heard the stories of Latvian Riflemen?”

“Yes, the legendary Latvian riflemen who have never lost a battle and used to stop in the middle of no man’s land, during the charge, to light up their cigarettes before running forwards.”

“That we did, boy, that we did. No wonder their general Kaledin resigned and shot himself two weeks after we arrived. Ha!” Smiling, Ernests threw his cigarette remains on the ground and stepped on them with the heel of his boot. He was prepared to go back inside the shelter, but midway changed his mind and turned once again towards his comrade. “What’s up with you? You look like you’ve been run over by a Garford-Putilov. Twice.”

“It’s this girl, Liene, she has not written a letter for a month now. Nor does she reply to mine. I’m worried.”

Ernests sighted and light up another cigarette. He knew these types of conversations well.

“I see. Tell me about her.”

“She lives in a nearby village of my family home. Here, I have her picture,” Ernests couldn’t really see her because of the dark, but pretended to take a genuine interest. She did have dark hair, he could tell that much. “We met in dances and, a few months later, I proposed to her and she said yes. A week later I received a letter informing me that I am to report for duty in the army. She promised to wait for me, and that she was going to write me as often as she can. Up until now everything was great, but now I haven’t received anything for twenty seven days. She never needed this much time before. I’m worried something might have happened to her.”

Ernests already knew what had happened – he had heard these stories before. They never differ.

“Want to hear what I think?” Ernests asked. “Had she somehow changed? I mean, the things she wrote about, the way she wrote them…?”

“No! I know what you’re trying to say! No! Sh-she loves me! Look at the last letter she wrote! I have it in my pocket because I re-read it every night!” Voldemars began to violently push the sheet of paper in Ernests’ face, “see? It says that she loves me and can’t wait for the day I finally arrive back!”

Ernests angrily pushed the novice out of his face. Voldemars looked at him, completely paralyzed.

“Alright, alright,” Ernests said. “What else then? What other reasons might she have for not writing?”

“I don’t know! Maybe she’s hurt, or ill? Yes, that must be it. I know her, this sounds like the right reason.”

“Don’t you think somebody, the mother or father for example, would have sent you a message if it was something serious with her health?”

“Is that what usually happens?”

“No.”

They both finished their cigarettes and went inside the shelter.

“Wait. I know what will cheer you up.”

Ernests dropped on his knees and pulled up a loose plank from the floor. He reached for something inside and pulled out half a bottle of vodka.

“We, veterans, always keep a little something strictly for ourselves. But, I think a glass or two in this case wouldn’t cause an outrage.” He poured some of the substance into two self-made metal glasses and promptly drank it dry to pour another glass, which, again, quickly went the same path as the first one. Then another three, four or five followed. Ernests lost count.

“You think she has left me, don’t you? Despite what I had said,” Voldemars resumed their conversation noticeably more relaxed. “If that really were the case, she would have written to me! I know her, she is not like that.”

“I have heard quite a few men saying exactly the same thing. Refusing to believe that the woman, who just promised eternal love, suddenly turns up in another man’s bed. Heck, I caught mine in the act. Ha!”

“And what did you do?”

“I broke his nose, turned around and left. Never heard from either of them since. Look, I have seen fine men doing stupid things because they thought that writing the word ‘love’ in a letter means the same as saying it in the eyes, but it’s not. The word is utterly meaningless. Others, just like you, have pointed to their last letters, saying she loved them. Because not that many have the courtesy to write one last, true letter. Scared of the state they put the men in, when they should be cheering them up,” Ernests paused for a second to gather his thoughts, looking at the fire that kept them warm. “And, frankly, I don’t think writing is the right thing to do. Those words tend to devour from the inside as the men re-read them over and over. Turns soldiers suicidal. One or two, I call them maniacs, have deliberately tried to injure themselves to get back home and see it for their own eyes.”

The last sentence made Voldemars to raise his eyebrows.

“What do they do?”

“Lift a hand with a lighter over the side of the trench, shoot themselves in the leg… all kinds of nonsense,” Ernests suddenly realised where this is going. “I shouldn’t have said that… That’s just stupid! Don’t you think about it.”

“But I have to know! I must know what has happened to her. Say what you want, but she is not like the others. She is kind, loving and faithful. With more inexhaustible positive energy than the whole village combined. No one, ever, has made me happier than she has, and she was happy by making me happy – her words.”

“I won’t stop you, I am not your father. But it is not a good idea, trust me.”

When their shift ended, the bottle was empty, but Ernests put it back where he found it anyway. Not a single word was uttered between the two for the rest of the night. They nodded to each other as they went inside their separate living spaces. Because of the way how the conversation steered towards the end, Ernests felt that he wouldn’t see Voldemars again and his assumptions took a form of concrete knowledge when the silence was interrupted by a thundering rifle blast. The rest of the regiment jumped out of their beds, but quickly enough returned back, laughing about an unfortunate incident with one of the novices, who had injured himself by misfiring.

 

Much to Ernests’ surprise, he did meet Voldemars at the breakfast table, slightly limping on his right leg. In fact, it was Voldemars who came and sat next to the hard-boiled corporal.

“I… I couldn’t do it,” Voldemars eyes filled with tears. “I missed the first shot, it only left a minor scratch. But it hurt so bad and I just couldn’t compose myself to shoot again… I can’t do it…”

Voldemars’ wet eyes looked at Ernests with a stare that indicated not only question, but also desperate need for help.

Without saying a word, Ernests shook his head, patted his comrade on the back, took his breakfast plate and moved to another table to finish eating. The train was pulling in soon and he would not want to be at the back of the line when the drinks are unloaded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading! Which of the stories were your favourite? Please, do tell me what you think about the book – leave a review on the retailer’s website.

Even though it has nothing to do with trains, Russia or the twentieth century, also make sure you don’t forget to read the bonus story on the next page – it’s the first one I ever wrote.

 

***

 

Tale of A Hunter and Its Prey

The sun was already beginning to hide behind the mountains as he reached the small treeline he saw nine hours ago from below. The path was hard, with snow reaching as high as his knees which meant that he could not move as quickly as he wished to. The man was exhausted, and his legs would not take him any further for they had begun to shiver two hours ago. Now they would just refuse to stretch after each and every step he took. Even if those strange people are after him, he would not be able to escape them any longer. Therefore, all he could do was to find a larger pine to lean against, light up some fire to warm himself up and hope for the goodwill of gods that he manages to survive the night. His folk were at least a day’s walk away. Two if the snow remains just as thick. Yet, it was essential to report, to explain them what he had witnessed three days ago.

The day when the four men left their tribe behind felt like an eternity ago. The chief’s son, accompanied by his mentor and two guards, set off in the hope of finding a new place to settle after the Helvetii attacked his people, ransacked their storage, kidnapped their boys and a few women as well as drove them out of their homes. Many men died trying to defend their settlement, leaving the community in desperation for food and shelter. The old and the sick had already began to die, as the chief tribesman decided to order his son, and his mentor to go further ahead and scout the lands. Then the chief added two of his best warriors to accompany the two. Meanwhile, the rest of the folk would regroup in a temporary settlement and wait for the quartet to return with the location of a land to settle on. This was a last resort call since the lakes had already began to freeze and the birds had long since flown away, but the Helvetii had deprived them from everything of value in this season.

The man, who was now leaning against a pine tree and warming his hands in a quickly-made fireplace, volunteered to go as one of the guards, for he is the fittest of the men who were not killed by the attackers, and the quickest with the spear. Everybody agreed with his decision. He was given a bearskin coat by the chief himself, provided with five loafs of bread and a leather pouch to gather water in. That was an enormous amount of goods, considering how little the folk had been left with, but they believed that the explorers will soon return and guide the people to a valley near a lake full of fish where to spend the rest of the harsh season.

Needless to say, the group had not found such a place. Instead they ran into demons themselves.

Three days into their quest, the group had come across something extraordinary. Men! So many that their numbers stretched further than the eye could see. But not just ordinary men like the people from the tribe, not even like those of Helvetii. These had shining armour on their chests, and some even had red hair sticking out of the shining headwear. The sight had left the travellers in awe. Never before had any of them seen such people, if they even were people. All four agreed that these were no ordinary men, but possessed something diabolical in essence.

When it became dark, the chief’s son, who was their leader, decided that he wants to go closer and check out the strange enigma in front of them. Even at night the immense numbers of the crowd ensured a constant buzz that overtook every sound of nature at least as far as the horizon goes. Had the other three convinced the boy, who had only just started to grow hair on his face, that it would be better to turn around and leave, they all might still be alive. Yet, as the night grew darker, all four of them were on their way to sneak up closer. Who would have thought that one of those strange men would spot them? And immediately attack them with a sword so tough that it easily broke all their wooden spears?

Only the man, who now lies against the pine tree, managed to be quick enough to run away. He did not look back for his comrades, or whether anyone was after him all together. The only thing he sighted as he fled was a strange writing on one of the pieces of cloth that the demons had attached to a pole:

Res publica Romana

 

It said, but the man had no idea what that meant. Since then the man had made his way back to the tribe, going through the mountain trails. Up and down, up and down, through winds and snows, and blizzards. Not knowing whether his friends are still alive, or if anyone is after him. He did not want to find out. But he did want to report his findings to the chief since it is definitely a new danger to pray the gods divert the people from.

“I am almost there,” he constantly repeated to himself so that he wouldn’t lose hope.

 

The night had quickly turned into pitch black, with the man’s fire being the only source of light. He couldn’t see the stars from under the tree. Out of the supplies he had set out with, he had only a quarter of a loaf of bread left, which he decided to save until morning. For now, it was enough to have some water, which he gathered by melting snow in his leather pouch.

The night was chilling, but calm – without even the slightest bit of wind. There was no sign of imminent danger, so the man tucked himself deeper into the bearskin and let his eyelids become heavier and heavier as the night surrounded him.

The man had not noticed whether he fell asleep or not, but his consciousness was suddenly on an alert, his pulse raised up. He wasn’t sure whether that was a dream or not, but he felt that he was not alone, so he directed all his brainpower to sound. There was utter silence. Ten seconds; fifteen seconds; twenty s… suddenly he heard a growl. Not far from him. The unmistakable presence of an animal! He had gathered enough wood to keep the fire through the night. The man took one of the burning branches and lifted it above his head, hoping to see the perpetrator. This manoeuvre allowed him to spot a long grey tale, which quickly hid in the darkness. Only thing left was a set of glowing green eyes. Not far from him, just outside the light. Those eyes were watching him, the gaze was full of determination. He had seen such a stare before, when the hunter is about to kill his prey. How often had he himself been looking like that at the deer he stalked? Too many to count. Was this his fate the gods had chosen for him? Perhaps…

He knew that the wolf would not approach him while there was fire burning nearby. This meant that it was essential to keep it alive through the night. The animal won’t go anywhere, for it also senses the significance of the moment. This, indeed, was a battle between to equal opponents, each knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the other. And neither is going to budge.

The first three hours of their encounter went by quickly. The man was full of adrenaline and had absolutely no problem with keeping himself awake and able to put more wood into the fire. The fourth and fifth hour possessed the first actual challenges as he became weary again. To compensate that, he put the ice cold snow under his clothes, which immediately sent shivers of shock through his whole body. Yet, that also meant that in these couple of hours he was soaking wet from the inside of his clothes. Now he no longer needed the snow, for the water had begun to freeze, sending another shot of adrenaline throughout the man’s body.

“Just remain calm and awake. It will dry out. Just remain calm and awake. It will dry out…”

His voice was trembling both from fear and from cold.

Even despite the cold, the man suddenly felt extremely tired. So tired, it became hard to move a muscle. Yet, his instincts told him to resist the temptation to give into this new sensation. It wasn’t sleep that had so suddenly taken him over. It was something else, something he had never experienced before. A growing sense of numbness. He remembered about the wolf that was still nearby. Giving into what his mind and body wants would mean defeat. He had to resist it with all his might. He dropped more wood into the fire, and rearranged his position against the tree. The man was full of determination not to concede.

In time, however, it became harder and harder. Once in a while he caught himself out of consciousness, only to quickly regain it. He had to fight through this even though he felt that he was losing. The periods of drifting away became more and more frequent, letting the fire to become smaller and smaller… The man realised that this was his fate – the night was still young. For a time being, though, he dropped more wood into the fire, only to shut his eyes immediately afterwards… and later wake up again to do exactly the same.

 

The man suddenly took a deep breath, as he had done so many times that night as he awoke. It was a brisk morning, with sun shining high above the sky. In the distance he saw a spectacular range of mountains covered by snow that stretched out into the world. Strangely, these peaks reminded him of his tribe – some higher, some lower; some hiding behind others, peaking behind the shoulders – just like in their tribe’s gatherings when men and their women form the same patterns, with children sticking out of the crowd hoping to be noticed. He starred at this view for a while, realising what he had just spotted. It wasn’t the first time he had seen a mountain range, but it was the first time it truly meant something. Only later had he realised that he was alive, and the horrors that transpired during the night were gone. The fireplace still had smoke going up. The man had no idea how long had the sun been up, or how long was the fire out. Yet, he was alive and the wolf – gone. He got up from his position and, through excruciating stiffness, crawled to the place where the two green eyes were standing the whole night. By the impressions on the snow, he saw that the wolf had stood motionlessly the whole time it was there and then just turned around to walk away. Had it lost hope of winning before him? Or was it defeated by sunrise? This is something that will remain a mystery forever. The man smiled, as he realized that the gods were favouring him greatly the previous night. This was a sure sign that his journey had a meaning, and he was destined to finish it. Without further delay, the man gathered his belongings, threw the last piece of bread in his mouth and began to wade through the snow once again.

###

 


7 Short Stories: From Petrograd to Rostov-on-Don

A train that leaves Petrograd on March 14, 1918 at 7:55am towards Rostov-on-Don. A mother needs to get her child to Voronezh. A poet goes to meet a publisher in Moscow. A maid begins work at a new place. Soldiers are waiting for their supplies... This collection of seven flash fiction stories explores how something as simple as a train ride can connect seemingly unrelated stories of adventure, courage, despair, love, sorrow, war and wittiness.

  • ISBN: 9781370661336
  • Author: Karlis Kadegis
  • Published: 2016-08-11 13:05:28
  • Words: 15110
7 Short Stories: From Petrograd to Rostov-on-Don 7 Short Stories: From Petrograd to Rostov-on-Don