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Devil’s Midnight

By:

Kapralov depicts the desperate struggles of his characters—Yuri’s stubborn military resistance, Nata’s fanatical commitment to guard the mysterious powers of a sacred meteorite, and Alexey’s struggles simply to survive—with a perfect balance of intensity and nonchalance.

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Introduction and Chapter 1 of Devil’s Midnight

A long gray line of several hundred Red soldiers stood silently on the unused railroad track overgrown with weeds, near the charred remains of the water tower. Their rifles and carbines, thrown to the ground just minutes before, were being collected by two elderly railway workers who simply dumped them into a two-wheel cart one of the workers was pushing. They came to the Maxim machine gun, too heavy to lift, and stood, not knowing exactly what they were supposed to do.

No one was guarding the prisoners. A group of them, taking advantage of the situation, cautiously crossed the ditch behind the water tower and ran toward the few houses with boarded-up windows and the apple trees beyond. After they disappeared among the trees, there was a short burst of machine-gun fire and a few rifle shots. Several Cossacks raced by on their small horses.

The sleepy iron monster resembled a giant caterpillar: dark-green, covered with the need of cannons and machine guns. The armored train “Our Homeland,” with the new white, blue, and red banner of the Volunteer Army on its command turret, stood on the main track, suddenly awakened.

Its forward cannons roared simultaneously; flame and smoke filled the air. About half the prisoners, thinking that the firing might be directed at them, fell to the ground. The windows of the tin yellow station house were shattered by the blast, and at least a dozen hens and roosters flew out of it and ran in terror—some toward the armored train and some toward the prisoners. Four very young Volunteers immediately jumped off the armored train and chased and caught most of them. They handed the chickens to their very happy comrades and went to examine the machine gun. No good‹the lock was missing and the feeder was jammed. “Climb back in.” An officer standing under the banner waved to them with his binoculars. “The track is clear, we’re rolling out.”

The monster leaped forward amidst a river of sparks and black smoke toward the city of Kiev, less than ten kilometers away.

*

KIEV AUGUST 1919

“This was a magnificent park before the revolution. So very well kept. The emperor himself walked down this alley in 1914. Shame, shame.” An old man with a battered briefcase shook his head in sorrow as he brushed the broken bottles, empty tin cans, crumpled newspapers, and mountains of sunflower seeds off the bench. He took off his thick glasses and wiped them, put them back on the tip of his red nose, and cautiously sat down.

The shabbily dressed Ukrainian peasant woman to whom he was complaining walked out of the park and crossed the street. So far so good, the old man thought. He opened his briefcase and took out Merezkovski’s Christ and Antichrist. With his thick book, glasses, wellworn blue jacket, and neatly trimmed white beard, he looked like a retired professor enjoying the bright summer morning. At least, he hoped he did. It took Yuri Skatchko over two hours—and all the skill he had accumulated in his brief but memorable career as the leading actor, director, and janitor of a small theater on Podol—to apply the facial makeup alone. But those skills had been acquired in another life, and quite another universe.

Perhaps the professor could not sleep last night because of the artillery fire. His book seemed to close by itself, and he appeared to others to be dreaming. Death. The end. Period. Loss of body, thoughts, feelings. How many times had he faced death during these two brief months? How many of his friends went into that dark void with bullets in the back of their heads? Is there anything beyond this darkness, the river which even the ancient Egyptian kings had to cross in their narrow boats . . . another beginning? Today, tomorrow: another spring. Victory! Resurrection!

On a bench across from him a large sailor and a young woman were locked in a passionate embrace. The sailor wanted more than just an embrace. He tried to drag her toward the bushes, but the woman resisted. He let her go, stood up, and looked around, angry. The woman hurriedly left. The park was nearly empty. Near the pond two Oriental men were arguing. Next to them: another couple, another embrace.

The sailor stretched, took out a pouch of machorka, and rolled himself a Goat’s Leg. He then searched his pockets for matches. No matches!

“Give me a match, Granddad,” he growled at the professor. He walked over and grabbed the old man by the collar. “Wake up, bourgeoisie, or I will cut your throat.”

The professor appeared startled, frightened. “I do not have matches, dear comrade . . . I do not smoke. Perhaps you too should quit, it is not healthy—”

“What? Are you lecturing me?” The sailor swore, and took a shiny Finnish knife out of his boot, then thought better of it. Why kill the old fool? He put the knife back, grabbed the professor’s book and briefcase, and threw both into the pond, where they landed in the murky water and then slowly sank. The professor looked crushed. The sailor walked out of the park. Before crossing the street, he turned around and showed the professor his fist.

A middle-aged man with a black beard lazily followed the sailor. He stopped by the professor’s bench for a few seconds, looked the old man over very thoughtfully, then walked away. When the bearded man finally left the park, Yuri Skatchko, age twenty-eight, promoted this week to full colonel in Denikin’s Volunteer Army, and the commander of the most powerful White underground organization in Red Russia, sighed a deep sigh of relief.

No more stupid masquerades, no more acting in this life-and-death theater of the absurd. The nightmare, the incredible tension and nonstop work of these last two months—and especially these past three weeks—was almost over.

Possibly as early as this evening, the White army would take the city.

The large sailor who had threatened him, posing as one of the prosecutors of the dreaded Kiev Cheka, was in reality a former naval officer and one of Yuri’s most trusted agents. During their altercation, a folded piece of thin paper had found its way into Yuri’s pocket. On it, in clear hand, were the names and addresses of all Cheka agents the Reds were leaving behind to set up their underground. This was a great victory indeed. Now he, too, should be leaving.

Yet the morning was still so pleasant, so fresh, even the sporadic booms of the artillery fire failed to break the lazy, intoxicating serenity. Yuri closed his eyes.

The past three weeks had been especially difficult, because Yuri’s immediate commander had been summoned across the front by Denikin—an idiotic order that had weakened the organization more than Cheka. Yet the organization had survived, in part due to Yuri’s superhuman efforts. Just yesterday, the planned evacuation of the families of leading Communists via the Dnepr flotilla had been sabotaged. Not a single ship had been able to sail; not one engine was working. And after the chief mechanic had been arrested and shot, the Reds discovered that the boilers were beyond repair. The supply ship loaded with ammunition and four brand new cannons had sailed—right into the Whites’ hands. Almost one thousand officers had been saved in a pre-dawn raid on the Cheka annex. And there had been many more victories, large and small. Yet the losses were heavy. Nearly one hundred members of the organization had been shot in the past two days alone, as well as hundreds of innocent people.

Yuri suddenly opens his eyes. “You fell asleep,” rings the alarm clock in the back of his mind. “You fell asleep and you are not allowed to sleep!” He notices that the quiet park is now in turmoil: screams, whistles, commands. Two Oriental men run past him, hurriedly throwing some packages into the nearby bushes. Soldiers, sailors appear, red armbands, bayonets.

He slides the flat black Colt out of his pocket, and it falls softly onto the uncut grass behind his bench. He walks carefully toward the side entrance, his escape route, a hole in the wrought-iron fence. I must have slept at least fifteen minutes, he thinks, amazed. A few more steps and he is free . . . Not so easy.

“Turn back, Grandpa, right now.” A very young, happy voice. A red-haired lad with a carbine. Smiling.

“Dear comrade, what is this?”

“Cheka. You too must come with us. Don’t ask me why. Orders.”

“But my family, they will be so worried.”

“Relax, you will be home soon enough. We shot everybody who needed to be shot yesterday. Faster, faster!”

About fifty people are being herded to the Cheka, a gray three-story building. At the entrance stands the familiar cream-colored limousine and two armored cars.

Commissar Volkov, Yuri thinks,that smart, dangerous cat. He only has a few more hours and he is still in the game. And why not? Why not spread your net in the last moment and see what swims in. Clever, damn it! The second floor, again so familiar: the long corridor, the uncomfortable wooden benches. Only a question of hours now, perhaps less. And then the dark cellar, blood on the walls, one well-placed bullet in the back of the head. No time to torture anyone today, comrades, you have almost run out of time. And outside so close, so very close. Boom, Boom! Heavy guns from the armored train. Ours must already be in Slobotka.

Yuri sits down in the corner so that he will be one of the last people called into Volkov’s cabinet.

The commissar is very busy and does not waste much time. Three, five minutes a person. Most people are freed. The two Oriental men do not return. Goats and the sheep. One door of Volkov’s cabinet leads back into life, the other . . . forget the other.

Eh, had the White Guard Brigade acted more decisively, we would have already taken the city.

About a dozen women are brought in. They are crying, arguing, begging. They have come to inquire about their husbands and fathers and brothers. One sits down next to Yuri—one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen. She speaks softly about her father who was arrested last night. Some important railroad official and an American citizen. How could they? What will happen to him?

Last night? The red-haired young soldier is now standing near Volkov’s door. Last night? “We shot everybody who needed to be shot yesterday.”

The woman has incredible eyes, the color of ancient gold. She is somehow familiar. Where has he seen her? Has he ever seen her, or has she simply walked onto the wrong stage? This is, after all, still his theater of the absurd and macabre. Nothing matters, except for death. Not even the thin paper with the neat handwriting which they did not find when he was searched for weapons, not the pair of golden new shoulder patches with two red lines and crossed cannons which he had sown into the lining of his blue jacket, not his disguise. Least of all, his disguise. Had the Red soldiers been less drunk, they would have looked at his hands and shot him already.

He listens attentively to the beautiful woman, nods his head, promises to help.

Commissar Volkov jumps out of his cabinet. “Get these women out of here!” he screams, a high falsetto. “Send them to wash the floor of our barracks. No more talk that we are retreating. Our fortress city will never fall. We are strong, we are winning!” He runs back into his office.

Nerves, comrades, nerves. Yuri shakes his head. Volkov looks like he too has not slept for an entire month. Too much blood, comrade, too much cocaine. A tired-looking soldier enters his cabinet and comes out with an empty pitcher of water. He pauses to talk with the red-haired guard. They are laughing, talking about women.

Yuri listens to a loud and wonderful machine-gun serenade, so close, so very close. Perhaps there’s a hope.

“Granddad,” the tired-looking soldier calls to him, “go next door; they have a barrel of clean water. Fill this pitcher . . . for comrade commissar. Tell them Trofim sent you, and hurry.”

“Certainly, dear comrade.” Anything to escape that familiar room. Cobwebs on the yellow curtains, rusty bars on the long-unwashed windows. A huge oak desk, empty except for a revolver and a shiny metal box filled with cocaine. Behind the desk, an apparition, a snake that is almost dead, its hissing so very, very familiar. One step, two. Is that a blood stain on the stairway? On the white wall? Red on white? Insanity, fantasy, reality, what difference does it make? White on red?

Colonel Skatchko, not the captain, please notice this colonel, the biggest fish, the Moor, is this not your code word for me, comrade Commissar Volkov? And you are letting me swim away. Reality? Fantasy? Death? Life? White? Red?

*

Yuri bites his lower lip and spits out the blood. In the underground, during the most dangerous raid, when Cheka agents burst in the room with their revolvers, he calmly blew out the candle and began shooting them, whistling the old Scottish ballad: “You’ll be the first one . . . to ride out the squall . . . the stronger your nerves are . . . the nearer the goal.” The goal? So easy. Out, out to freedom, to fight, to die perhaps, but not here.

Caution. Nerves. Do not walk too fast, you are an old man.

Down the stairs, every step an eternity, every foot weighs a thousand pounds. In the vestibule another tired-looking soldier is talking to a sailor. Good. Nobody looks twice at the old professor with an empty pitcher who walks hurriedly—a walk of an energetic young man—across the street. The stronger your nerves are. Only the cream-colored limousine and an old truck being loaded with wooden boxes.

Shrill whistles inside the building. Soon, he thinks. The smart cat will realize. Very soon.

*

Too late, comrades, too late! A narrow alley, the familiar boarded-up cellar window. Off with the makeup. A new set of clothing. Worker’s overalls, cap with a red star on it. Heavy boots. Small revolver goes into one of the boots, the Nagan in one of the pockets of the overalls. He tears the lining of the blue jacket and retrieves his two gold shoulder patches. Cannot stay here. The houses will be searched. Another yard and another. The sound of a siren not so far away. The yellow shadow of Commissar Volkov’s limousines in the narrow streets. Soldiers, sailors, bayonets. Too late, comrades, too late.

So close though. Must keep on running. Volkov knows these streets as well as I do. Another backyard, high brick fence. Shouts in the street—aeroplane! aeroplane! A proud steel bird with a three-colored emblem on its wings. A long machine-gun serenade and then another. Behind the tall fence, a small cemetery, a few trees, and a tiny wooden church. Six bullets in his Nagan, five more in the small revolver. Ten for them, one for me.

In the church, a few people, an old priest, and a deacon. Funeral service.

Yuri sits down in the corner, far away from the door, under an icon of some barefooted Russian saint. The floor feels cold and comforting. His eyes are closing; the wheels of some strange train are rolling in his head. The stronger the nerves are . . . He lies down on the floor. They will think that I am distraught, that I am praying. Praying? The stronger . . . The hand around his Nagan is beginning to lose its grip. The nearer the goal . . . The beautiful young woman with her strange golden eyes, so familiar, so far, far away . . . Will she ever find her father? “We shot everybody . . .” Not everybody, you haven’t shot me. Time has run out for you, Volkov, you smart, smart cat. Will your claws reach into this church? Not very likely now—you better run while you can.

It doesn’t matter anyway; this time I am ready. Why does the floor suddenly feel hot as coals, and why am I still trembling? Ridiculous! The giant wheels, the cannons, and the sparks, they must disappear. Sounds? Only the sound of the wind. White clouds moving fast over the flames. So hot. The last cloud gone, the soft gray mist settles over the river. Now it feels comfortable. I can breathe again. Stars. Silence.

The barefooted Russian saint steps out of his icon and leans over Yuri. “You do have strong nerves.” He shakes his head and laughs.



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