14 February 1918
South of Rostov-on-the-Don, Ukraine
The sky hung heavy over the steppe. It pressed through the man’s coat, and his horse shivered with each gust of the frozen wind. Blowing snow stung his face and blinded him. The only sound was wind in his ears. The horse trudged through snow drifts, dragging its hooves, leaning into the gale. Frozen claws gripped the reins, and the man wondered how long the horse could continue.
And then what? He supposed he would freeze to death. No, he must go on. The memory of his Katya demanded it. If he could not do this one small thing, why had God spared his life?
The images from that day still sat—a carrion crow feeding on every beautiful memory, devouring every reminder of the happiness that went before it. He had dismissed his morning French class early and headed home to surprise Katya. With a small bouquet in one hand, he whistled a little tune as he walked along the cobbled street. He had been a professor of languages at the University of Lviv for three years, and it was the first anniversary of his marriage to the beautiful Katarina Nikolaevna Piotrowski. The bright autumn day was golden.
Approaching his house on Nalyvalka street, he heard a commotion; several young men ran past him.
“What is happening?” he called.
“Cossacks!” returned a boy, his eyes wild. “They’re killing people!”
The young professor, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Piotrowski, walked faster, then ran as he caught the scent of smoke. When he came to the bottom of his street he could hear the screams. Chaos unfolded before him. Houses were burning and women were running hunched over as they tried to protect their children. Soldiers on horseback ran them down, shooting and slashing and impaling people indiscriminately. Soldiers on foot went from house to house raping women, slaughtering children and setting what they did not steal alight.
Aleksandr found Katya in a pool of blood just outside their house. Her dress was shredded. Her throat was cut. Her mouth and eyes were open, and blood stained her beautiful hair.
“Katya, Oh my God! Katya.” Aleksandr ran to her and cradled her in his arms. The flames from his burning house singed his hair as he sat rocking her on the steps. The flowers he carried lay in a crimson pool, and he wept as he waited for one of the horsemen to thunder past and impale him. None came.
Through frozen eyelashes he saw a smudge in the clouds ahead and stared at it, unsure if he could trust his eyes. He prayed that it was smoke, and then he prayed that it was not smoke as he imagined the smoldering ruins of yet another village waiting up ahead for him to bear witness. The horse made a rumbling sound deep in its chest that vibrated up through its body. The exhausted animal threw its head up and tried to dance sideways. The snow was too deep and all the beast could manage was to bounce up and down, but the horse’s hope gave the man hope, and he leaned forward in the saddle, pushing his hands forward to encourage the animal to try harder. The promise of warmth pulled them on.
Cresting a small hill, Aleksandr was able to look down on a small dacha with a stand of bare trees to the northwest; it was just a shepherd’s cabin, with a small sheep pen and some outbuildings. Someone else was there. The snowy ground around the buildings had been pounded to mush. Fresh snow had not yet reclaimed the muddy earth. No one was outside, and the path leading in from the north was beginning to frost over. They must be inside. At least it was not a burning village.
This was a land of confusion and suspicion. Sometimes only a small strip of color on a hat or sleeve marked a person as friend or foe. He had no way of knowing who waited, but he must warm up, trade for a fresh horse, then get underway again as quickly as possible. The message he carried from the French general could be vital to the Red Army. He had been riding for three days from the southern tip of the Ukraine, and he could afford no delays.
As Piotrowski trotted into the space between the buildings, his breath formed a cloud around his head. A wolf-sized dog barked a warning from the end of its chain. The horse shied, and Piotrowski leapt off its back, stumbling on frozen legs. He somehow managed to calm the spooked horse and tie it to a post at the northern end of the muddy space between the buildings. Sheep bleated from the pen to the south, while a barn and some sheds blocked the cold east wind. The cabin with the smoking chimney squatted in the lee of the barn, it’s porch in shade as the weak sun approached the western horizon at its back. Piotrowski knocked on the door of the cabin where he could see the dirty boot prints of the men who must still be inside. The barrel of a gun greeted him as the door opened. He backed up, looking above the gun to a pair of Cossack blue eyes and a dirty scarf. The woman was short and stout, her creased face stern.
She waited for the man to state his business.
“Please, Missus, is there a seat at your fire? A stable for my horse? I will only trouble you for a few hours.” The old woman stepped back and allowed him to enter before too much precious warmth escaped.
The room had a fire, a stove, and a long table with benches on either side. The men at the table turned wind-burned faces and suspicious eyes on him. They wore the tall fur hats and long coats of the Don Cossacks with short sabers at their waists. Their ammunition was sewn across their breasts beneath badges of honor and gilded ribbons. The silent question on each man’s lips was plain: “Who is this? Who does he fight for?”
The Dons were White Army, and Piotrowski’s heart skipped a beat. He had hoped to avoid them on this journey, but the unexpected storm had slowed his progress.
“You have something to bring to the table?” the old woman demanded.
He pulled a bottle of vodka and a loaf of frozen bread from his pack, and the men at the table relaxed and resumed their conversations.
“I can pay,” he said. “I just need a bite to eat and a chance to warm up. Then I would trade for a fresh horse if you have one.”
“Humph, you and all the rest,” she said, letting him know that the men at the table were travelers too. Her face creased in what passed for a smile. “Maybe one of them will trade his horse for yours.” And she laughed. The soldiers laughed. A Cossack’s horse was dearer than his wife. There would be no horse swapping this day.
The man took his time arranging his greatcoat near the fire before he walked over to the table and took the only empty seat.
A bowl of porridge, a cup of weak tea, and a vodka sat waiting for him. He tossed back the vodka and began on the porridge. His mind raced, and he kept his head down making a production of eating while he rehearsed his story. The questions would begin as soon as he looked up from the food. He had been lucky up to now, but if these men discovered that he was a Bolshevik, he would die before he could stand up again. He poured a second vodka and drank it before he leaned back letting the tea mug warm his hands. The leader of the group, with the bars of a Kapitan, addressed him.
“Where do you travel in such a hurry?” he asked. The man scowled beneath his black fur papakha.
“I might ask you the same thing,” the newcomer replied.
“We were in Novocherkassk when the Reds took it two days ago,” the man said. “We got separated from our regiment in the storm. We will rejoin them in the morning once the storm has passed.”
“I am riding from Pavlovskaya, south of here,” Piotrowski lied. He hoped he had chosen a town far enough away that he would not be questioned too closely.
“And what is so important that you ride in this weather?”
“I carry a message to Alexei Maximovich Kaledin. It must get through.” The lie rolled easily off the messenger’s tongue.
“Well. . .” The Kapitan leaned back and gave the man an appraising look. “Kaledin himself. You must be special,” he said. “I had not heard that the command had moved so far to the south.”
“No, you misunderstand my mission, Kapitan. It is not a message from the command that I carry. It is a message of a personal nature. I am no soldier.”
“And yet you ride as if it were a matter of life and death. Is it a matter of life and death?”
“It may be, Kapitan. It may be.”
“What is your name?”
“Aleksandr Nikolayevich Piotrowski.”
“And your papers?”
The messenger extracted the documents from his coat. They showed him to be a teacher from the southern Ukraine.
“A teacher. Who sends you on this crazy ride?”
“It is a woman, Kapitan. I cannot say anymore.”
“A woman!” The Kapitan laughed and slapped the table. His men laughed with him. “Of course, some woman believes herself to be as important as the fate of Mother Russia! Ha, ha, ha! I suppose this woman offered you some very special payment, did she?”
Piotrowski made no reply, just stared at the floor trying to appear embarrassed.
Turning to a young cavalryman who had yet to acquire braid or medals, the Kapitan barked, “Volodymyr, show this very important messenger to the stable with his horse.”
“Thank you. That will be good,” Piotrowski said. He threw back one last shot of vodka and passed the bottle to the nearest man.
Volodymyr pulled the barn door closed as Piotrowski turned to his horse.
“Sorry for leaving you out in the cold, old fellow. I had to introduce myself.” He unsaddled the horse and gave him hay while the soldier carried a bucket and an axe outside to the water trough. The axe was necessary to break through the surface and reach the water beneath. The messenger took the opportunity appraise the other horses before Volodymyr came back.
After holding the water bucket while the horse drank, Volodymyr walked to the other side of the animal and joined in the rubdown.
“You must not be a Cossack. We would not leave a horse in the cold after such a hard ride. This poor beast is exhausted.” He reached down and lifted one of the animal’s hooves and began cleaning it with a small hooked knife he produced from his pocket. “Where did you say you came from?” The horse tried to jerk his hoof away as Volodymyr touched a tender spot.
Piotrowski wasn’t listening. He looked around the barn as he worked. There was a big black stallion that looked fit and rested. He imagined sneaking back out here and riding silently away on that strong horse. It might be several hours before anyone missed him. The wind and the snow would work to his advantage, and they would never catch him. That assumed, of course, that he could make it back to the barn without alerting the Cossacks. He would have to leave before the wind died down so they would not be able to follow his trail in the snow.
“Don’t answer, then. I like talking to myself,” Volodymyr said.
The messenger brought his distant gaze back to the face of the young soldier who was looking at him across the horse’s back. “Sorry. I was lost in thought.”
“How long were you riding in this storm to wear this poor horse out this way?” His tone of voice had grown rougher.
“I started at first light. I was told this message could not wait. What town is near to us?” Piotrowski made half-hearted swipes at the horse’s side while he tried to visualize the map of the region. He should have been in Rostov-on-Don already.
“Poor horse. He’s lame, and half frozen to death,” Volodymyr mumbled. “Should have been seen to immediately.”
“We must be close to Rostov,” said the messenger, thinking out loud.
“You say you rode for six hours in this storm? From Pavlovskaya?”
“What is the nearest town? Zemograd? Kirovskaya?”
“Where are you trying to go? General Kaledin? Where did they say you would find him?”
“Rostov. On the Don. I am supposed to find him in Rostov-on-the-Don.” Of course, it was not Kaledin that Piotrowski was to meet, but rather the Red Army Lieutenant Golubov. He was in control of the Red Army in this region.
“You missed him. Maybe we will find him when we meet up with our troops tomorrow or the next day. You should ride with us.”
“Yes, maybe then. That is a good plan.” Piotrowski knew that his only hope was to leave before the storm was over.
As darkness fell, the men settled down to get what rest they could before returning to the fight. But, as the Cossacks began to snore around him, the messenger lay waiting. He watched and listened until all was quiet around him, then he eased up and made his way out as if he was going to the outhouse. Volodymyr woke the Kapitan as the door closed.
His heart racing, Aleksandr Nikolayevich threw his saddle onto the large, black horse. It was a powerful animal, and he worked to hold it back as he ducked to ride out of the barn. He thought he was clear when the damned dog rushed out at him. This horse also reared up in response to the challenge of that demon beast, and this time Aleksandr landed on his back. The horse jerked the reins from his hands, but Volodymyr caught them.
Volodymyr pointed his handgun at the messenger and said in a jovial voice, “Ah, there you are. I came to pry your frozen ass off the seat, but I see you were just trying to do the Kapitan a favor and give his horse some exercise.” At that, the Kapitan strolled over and led Piotrowski back into the building while Volodymyr tied the horse.
“It seems our new friend was trying to leave us in a hurry,” he announced to his men. He forced the stranger to take a seat and walked around to confront him face to face, “Where have you come from?” he demanded.
Someone had lit a lantern that hung above the table, and the Cossack soldiers stood just beyond the pool of light it cast growling like a restless pack of wolves.
“Pavlovskaya. I told you,” Piotrowski said. He tried to sound exasperated, but he only managed to sound tired. He had accomplished nothing. He closed his eyes and saw Katya.
“And we told you that you might ride with us, but instead you have tried to steal my horse. Why is that?” Steel came into the Kapitan’s voice.
“I apologize for that. I was in a hurry, and I left mine in exchange.”
The men all laughed.
“Perhaps you do not know how these things are done in the Don. It is like arranging a marriage. I think you have not a big enough dowry to take this horse. Maybe you should have traded with one of the other men!” The others laughed. “Why do you try to run away in the night?”
“I have an important message for General Kaledin. It cannot wait until morning,” he said, attempting to maintain the lie.
“A message from a woman. What message from any woman can be so important? There is always another woman in the next village! Let me see this message.”
“I cannot do that. I am under orders that it should be placed in the general’s hands only.”
“Orders? I thought you were not a soldier. What woman commands you?” The men laughed again.
“And she sent you on a horse? Was the telegraph broken? The train?”
“Indeed. The telegraph lines have been cut, and the train tracks are blocked with snow,” he said. Of course, he knew that traveling alone on horseback was supposed to give him the greatest chance of getting through without being intercepted, and here he had ridden right into a nest of the Don Cossacks.
The Kapitan leaned down and considered the eyes of the messenger. “Kaledin is dead. If you were any part of the White Army you would know this.”
“I told you. I am no soldier. Please, I have been traveling night and day,” Piotrowski tried to counter, but the Kapitan kept on talking.
“I can see you are not a Cossack. Are you even Russian? I think maybe you are not one of us at all. Maybe you are a dirty Red sympathizer from Germany?”
The messenger answered with the only plausible explanation he could come up with, the truth. “No, I am from Lviv originally. My father was Polish. I am a teacher for the children in the small villages to the south.” It was almost all true.
The Don Cossacks, now members of the volunteer White Army, had rolled through the old town near the University in Lviv. They had raped and murdered his Katya, and he tasted bile in his mouth as he recalled that day. Maybe these same men had been there. Maybe one of them had raped her and slit her throat. He remembered their flared coats and their tall wool hats. He remembered their sabers and their pikes and their guns.
Aleksandr Nikolayevich Piotrowski had traveled to Kiev and signed on with the Red Army. His gift with languages was prized, and he had been carrying messages between the Red commanders and their foreign allies for months. He had seen villages destroyed and ordinary people slaughtered by both the reds and the whites. He was tired. He had seen too much.
One of the soldiers jumped up and removed his hat. “He looks like a German to me.” The rumbling of chairs on the floor and the hissing of sabers followed. The shepherd woman ducked behind a curtain in a doorway at the back. Best to become invisible. No telling what this pack of killers would do once the blood-letting began.
“Is this true? Are you German?” asked the Kapitan. He had fought the Germans in 1915 and would be happy to send all of them to hell personally.
“No. I am from Lviv.”
“So you said. We know Lviv, don’t we boys?” The Cossacks laughed, but the messenger could contain himself no longer. Now he knew that these were the very men who had destroyed his life.
“You bastards. I saw you there—on my street. You killed my wife.” Two of the soldiers grabbed his arms as he lunged at the Kapitan, who stood his ground, cool and calm. The bench tumbled over as they dragged the messenger outside.
“Your wife. Is that what this is all about?” The Kapitan turned his head to speak to the men behind him. “It’s true then, a woman drove this poor fool out into the storm,” said the Kapitan. “Get my horse out of the way.”
The soldiers led the horse to the barn and tied the messenger to the post. The old woman peered out of the cabin and made the sign of the cross. Her craggy old face softened with silent tears.
The Cossack Kapitan touched his revolver to the messenger’s head.
Aleksandr Nikolayevich Piotrowski gazed on the stars in the frozen black sky that went on forever. .
This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.