By Liam Connell
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 37th contest was Apocalypse.
The sky fell so beautifully.
Russia began dying at Borki, the priests said later. Safiya had just been a girl when the news came about the crash; it was said that when the bodies of the royal children had been recovered, they had been found sheltered beneath Aleksandr. The great father had died holding the metal of the carriage above them- but the rescuers had failed him, had not got to the children in time. Only young Prince Mikhail had still breathed, and it was said that his injuries were severe.
The village elders had cried, Safiya remembered, and so had their priest. The women had wailed, and Safiya and the other children had asked why this had happened, who would do this? And the men had drunk, and the elders had asked that too. Trains crashed. But the Tsar’s? The favoured of God? Surely it was not fate or providence. Someone had done the devil’s work. Socialists. Radicals. Or… yes. It was not long before the villagers had looked out across the horizon at their neighbours, with their strange and secretive ways, their lack of faith, their whispered prayers in a hidden language. Wasn’t it true that one of them had left for Kazan five years ago, and been hanged since?
Safiya would always remember the shtetl burning, black smoke over the muddy fields. She supposed she should have been happy, should have been proud of her family and her village. But the Jewish women cried too, and their holy man hadn’t looked so different from a priest, trying to keep his dignity as they shaved him and beat him, and bundled him into the synagogue before they barred the door….
A few days later, Safiya had trudged through the mud to one of the outbuildings and found some of the children sheltering there. She had brought them some food, and bundles of clothing, and sent them down the road to the big town. It was a long walk, especially for children. A walk of days. The first snow came the day after they left. They might have made it.
There must have been others like little Safiya, others who had been kind, others who had wondered if any of the killings and burnings would help the dead Tsar. God could see into her soul, could she didn’t hate. Maybe that’s why he kept punishing her and the others; maybe if they had not had been so kind, Russia would have been spared.
The famine came first. Hunger was not new, hunger was constant, more faithful than any lover. But in 1891, three years after Borki, hunger met drought and how it danced. First the autumn was dry, and the crops were late planting. Then when winter came, and came so cold, the drought meant that there was no snow to protect the seedlings from the frost. In spring came the wind, and the dry topsoil blew away over the fields. Summer came early, the summer that Safiya was being sent to the gymnasium in town to study, the first girl, the first child of the village to leave to study. She walked down that long road, over cracked earth this time, and in her heart knew that she would not return.
She was not in the village when the cholera came. Her mother and father, she was told later, had not suffered too much.
That was the summer her older brother Vasily had heard God. He and Anna had four children in autumn, three at Christmas and none by the summer. They had walked off the farm after the last burial, had followed an itinerant preacher down that long road to town. Safiya met them, in a small chapel.
Safiya was not a philosopher; she liked languages, and she knew the sciences, but abstract thinking held little appeal. But there was a Greek she had read about once, Plato, who had said that the name of an object exists before the object does; before the warmth, the idea of fire is there. Before the snow, the name of the snow. She didn’t expect her brother Vasily, peasant Vasily, simple Vasily to tell her about Plato.
But if all the names of the universe existed before the universe, so too for the things outside it. The preacher had explained it to them, Vasily said, and Anna nodded excitedly. Grigori had a way of explaining things. The name of God existed before God; and if you knew the secret name of God, then you could do great things. For simple folk like Vasily and Anna though, untrained in such matters, there was no path to salvation through such wisdom. Only deeds. There could be no salvation until you freed yourself from sin, the sin that had been swallowed at Eden and that marked itself on the body. It took devotion. It took knives.
Safiya saw them once more, as they were put on the train to Siberia. They’d put Vasily in women’s clothes; he’d cut his balls off, the police said, he wasn’t a man. Anna had been stripped to the waist, her chest an awful mass of scabs.
Vasily did not see her in the crowd, and she did not want the townsfolk to think she was one of the believers. Safiya did not share their faith. Few did.
And God kept punishing Russia.
By 1900, Safiya was at the Technical Institute, far away from her little village in the mud. Kiev was a strange place, and there were things she hated; some of it was new to her, like the crowded rooms, and the watching police. She hated other things that were the same: men were men anywhere ad everywhere. But she was in the city now; she had learned to read- a peasant girl who had learned to read!- and first at the gymnasium, and now at the Institute, she was going to be something that her mother and grandmother had never been.
Lots of things that had never happened were happening now; the child Tsar had ministers who believed in Progress and Modernity. No one liked Progress and Modernity. When the first unions were legalised, the left papers denounced it as meaningless reformism. When the Poles were allowed to speak Polish, the right papers thought it was cutting away at Russia itself. Both sides should have been happy with the new press freedom, but that too was just weakness.
When the plague came from the east, that was God’s punishment too. The Tsar had let Russia grow weak, it was said, and spent too much time looking east at the riches of Asia, dreaming of China and Japan when he should have been strong at home. So it was no surprise that the plague rats had travelled on the trains out of Vladivostok and Manchuria into the degenerate court at St Peterburg.
Mikhail Romanov had been a weak child after Borki, and he had grown into a weak man. How did the plague reach him at the heart of court? God willed it, that was how.
Now instead of one Tsar now there were two. The old general in Moscow with his Life Guards and his promise to restore the empire; no more zemstvos, the bankers to be put out of court, the ministers with their French ideas, their masonic ideas, their Jew ideas to be brought to heel. The peasants on the land, and women in their place.
Safiya, naturally, hoped for the other Tsar at St Petersburg- the young one, handsome, who said he would honour Mikhail’s reforms. He danced very prettily, and rode very well, and if he was not said to be a wit, those French masonic Jew loving ministers had come to his side, and so had some of the newer regiments, and if he moved quickly-
He didn’t move quickly.
There was a boy in her class at the institute who thought he was a man. Maxim. He had a nice smile, and peered through thick glasses at her. He tried to woo her with love poetry and with smuggled literature, and earnest discussion of the life of women in the New Russia. Safiya liked him, and read his books, but she wished he was more careful. He believed the moment had come when the old ways were falling; the bourgeoisie would rise up around the young Tsar and sweep away the feudal vestiges, and then eventually they would fall in turn. Come to a meeting, Safiya, and listen to our speakers- I have good wine, we could talk afterwards…
She did not come to the meeting. The police did.
The trains to Siberia did not run now, so there were no more sentences of exile. Just a necktie.
But there were aren’t as many student radicals as there used to be, anyway. The young doctors and nurses were at the front; the plague still raged, and in the slums and the villages the people who sat by the dying and the sick were the holy men and holy women. New ideas came and went, but the church had been there since before Russia was Russia, and it would be there still.
There was an archpriest who came to Kiev, a very holy man indeed. The governor, loyal to the St Petersburg court, kept an eye out for officers and nobles from St Peterburg, but why stop a holy man from Kronstadt? Ivan walked the streets, and healed the sick with his prayers; well, perhaps he didn’t, but he stood in the same room as the sick, and that was more than most would. And he preached about what Russia truly needed, what it would take to heal the country, to save it from the Jews and the Masons. By the time the governor realised the danger, it was too late. The day Kiev was retaken for God and the Tsar, Safiya stood in the courtyard of the institute and heard the bells ring out from every church.
Synagogues burned the same in cities as they did on the plains.
It was 1908, and Safiya was in Tblisi. She would have to marry soon, she knew; the days of women learning had ended now, with barely a moment for a few thousand people like her to graduate. It was suspicious that she had wanted an education at all; so now she was in Georgia as a governess to a German merchant, wondering if she could save enough for a ticket to Paris or London. She was good with languages; she had German, and French. A little Polish, and the Yiddish she didn’t tell people about. It was not a good language to speak. Herr Semmler and his wife were kind, and she in turn praised Frau Semmler’s piano playing. You learnt to lie in the Russia of the Holy Truth.
The press was back to the old ways too. The old newspapers hadn’t gone, but now they were either shadows of themselves, or a crime to read. Safiya still read them anyway.
The new Tsar had died only months after his victory; his son was, they whispered, one of those worldly young nobles his father had hated. He was afraid of his supporters. Afraid of the Patriarchs, afraid of the steely-eyed young officers who his father had replaced the old fools in the army with, afraid of the Okhrana. He was afraid, especially, of the groups of angry men who hunted his enemies- the Black Hundreds, they called them. They acted for God and the Tsar; what mattered the law?
The word came out from court to tame them; easy to order, harder to do, especially when half the senior police were members.
Christ had been crucified by Pilate in Caesar’s name, and been betrayed by Judas, but the Tsar was Judas and Caesar all at once.
God had put him on the throne to save Russia from the sins of its people, from the sins of his family, and now the Tsar renounced Him.
So a holy man made the sky fall.
Nilus, they named him before they shot him.
He had stood before the Winter Palace and invoked the Name of God, the secret Name of God, and called for justice, called for punishment, called for a miracle.
Heresy, said the Tsar’s pet priests, but the miracle came.
It was June, in 1908, and summer was about to end.
Safiya had wandered in the park with a doctor she was fond of- Oleg Ivanovich was fond of her too, and if he was fonder of men then that suited her as well. It was difficult to make an arrangement with that great unspoken truth between them, the truth that would kill them if it was ever spoken. But a doctor and a governess could save, and get out, and perhaps find ways to be happy.
As they whispered to each other, a star burned up above them. That was good luck, some said. Then another. A third. Bright and white and beautiful; when God brought his greatest punishment, he killed his people with a sight that brought them joy first.
Then something vast and fiery came overhead, and was gone. And, a good minute later, the sound of a thousand thunders.
In the months after, when the harvest failed and the sky stayed black, it was the priests who announced that the Tsar had betrayed God and country; the throne was vacant, would be vacant, until the true Lord of Nations rose. Until then, Patriarch Hermogenes was regent.
The first command was that, to survive the great winter, the hoarders must be punished.
Everyone knew who the hoarders were.
The young priest who had seized Tblisi was one of Hermogene’s old seminary students, so they said; Djugashvili never claimed a formal appointment, he just began giving orders after the local bishop’s heart had given out, and people obeyed the man with the steel eyes.
Safiya and Oleg found a boat on the Black Sea, but no amount of bribes would open the straits- the Turk was not minded to help his old enemy, and the thousands, the hundreds of thousands coming south across the sea and through the Caucasus could not expect help there.
So it was to Odessa, then, and a train across the Ukraine. The papers were fragmentary. A holy man out of Siberia had been shot and stabbed by some princeling in the pay of the Jews, but had, miraculously, risen from beneath the ice. Finland had broken away, but in this winter it was an open question if there would be any Finns alive in a year to enjoy their freedom. The Danube had frozen, and the Balkans were aflame.
That last one decided Safiya. They could not go south or south west, and north and east there was only ice and the mystics. Safiya did not want to know how many people they would burn to keep their congregations warm.
So it was west.
The trains did not run all the way to Warsaw now, let alone further. They slept in huge clumps of people, under what shelter they could find, and every morning someone did not wake. Oleg did what a doctor could, and in this winter a doctor could do nothing.
The Kaiser’s men had pushed east into Poland, had installed some chinless fool on the vacant throne. The further east the border, the easier to stop the refugees from getting to Germany. Poland was not yet lost, but it was certainly still hungry.
Warsaw would have been a beautiful city in the summer, but it was not summer now. There was more food here than in the east- which was to say there was some food, a little food, grain from across the Atlantic bought with what gold the Kingdom had seized from Tsarists, cans of rotten beef that tasted like caviar.
They would not have made it that far if Oleg was not a doctor. They would not have made it that far without Safiya’s languages. In the end, despite all that they had fled, it was a Church that found them sanctuary.
She had never spoken to a Roman priest before, and this one looked the part. He was a young man, but he had a beard like a renaissance cardinal, with the silly moustache to match. But he spoke to her in better Russian than she had Polish, and had a disconcerting air of amused detachment from the white hell outside.
Herr Semmler’s firm was well known in Warsaw, said Father Felix, and the reference Safiya had got before the Germans had evacuated Tblisi was a kind one. And Oleg’s skills were needed.
So a place could be found.
Safiya lived through the winter, somehow. Even as it became spring, she lived through it, and the briefest of thaws and the long winter that came after, she lived through it.
Her teeth were loose in her gums, and her ribs stuck out. Oleg had not returned home one evening. She hoped he had found a way to run and took it, but she feared she would find him soon as the snow thawed.
The news was bad in the south, and in the west, and in the north, but there was news at least; famine and pestilence, but life to be lost. East of the Dniepr, there was only a terrible silence.
She taught at a church school now, and Father Felix never asked her about the catechism. Most of the teachers had died, but so had most of their students.
Eventually the sun returned.
Felix stood with her, once, watching the sun rise.
‘I wonder when we’ll hear of what has happened in the east,’ he said. ‘Some might have lived.’
‘No,’ said Safiya, ‘It would take miracles.’
‘God, in his kindness, does miracles.’
Safiya watched the morning come, and thought.
‘No,’ she said again, and then more decisively: ‘No.’
‘God does not do miracles?’
‘God does many miracles. But in Russia, they are not kind.’