Turrets atop the Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi railway station were smoldering in the winter air. Engines of biplanes ripped overhead. A sick feeling that her movements are being tracked by artillery fire. The early fighting has left the steel of the bombarded rails in shreds like coiled zippers. The few armored vehicles like tattered dinosaur carcasses struck by ferocious, antediluvian lightning.
“Government reports are calling us ‘heroes,’” says her brother in English, their preferred language since a childhood of English governesses, and before their father, prominent member of the Directorate, was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
She surveys in the hall the hungry Ukrainian People’s Army volunteer soldiers coughing and wheezing, their mad eyes black without sleep. January freeze on their spines too numb to fear. Lenin had sent the Red Army across the border to back the insurgents, vowing not to pardon any captured volunteer. “They’re saying they’ll never let anyone take our land,” she says.
Every surface not pulverized had been pierced by bullets and shrapnel, every pane of glass blown out. Those without multiple wounds from the first attack on the station had ignored the ultimatum issued by the Bolsheviks to withdraw. There was optimism after a government counterattack had driven the invaders to the far side of the outer tracks. But on the second day of fighting, huddled up against concrete walls, they lost a large portion of the new terminal building.
Her brother lost count of the times he had run supplies and ammunition throughout the tunnel network connecting the rail yard and outbuildings to the new terminal. So accustomed to the constant gunfire ringing in the corridors, he hadn’t perceived its planned absence or his suddenly-audible footfalls. Fewer than twenty of the volunteers had remained holed up in the hall on the first floor when the second floor seemed to evaporate in the silence of their deaf ears. The ceiling came crushing down on them, the unheard sound of their bones crunching like someone biting down on huge ice cubes.
He darted back. Below the surging mass of smoke, little blue flames curled around splintered joists and cinder blocks. Muscle and bone there. Tendons and limbs. He began to dig in the rubble at the spot where bones of a wrist and fingers poked out, shattered and spiked like a broken umbrella. Its chest collapsed, a volunteer’s body emerged. Dead. Yet life there must be: the debris emitted buried, clarion wails. He was nearly deaf.
By luck, or by the extrasensory connection binding families, he unearthed his sister, the excavated lump’s left arm flopping down from her shoulder like a smashed wing. He carried her across a service road to a ditch. Lying there her skin and uniform blended with the dirty snow, and the blood trail from her ears was too small to give her away to the biplanes. When her eyes met her brother’s, she nodded, and in the space of a breath he was gone again.
Enemy cries and orders must have echoed in the corridor. A sudden commotion of shots pocked the buckling floor. He ran on. In the hall, human entrails seemed to bubble up from the rubble in the chaotic heat. Smell of burnt hair and charred skin among the chemical odor of construction materials in this satanic demolition. He dug maniacally, not feeling the skin tear away from his fingers or the nails crack off. He tossed aside armfuls of the muss. Cast off chunks of concrete revealed a torso, then a neck, then a head. Something not right with it.
He dug on in a lunatic’s rage, routing out a fairly whole human. No expression on its face to tell how long it had suffered. The deeper he reached, the hotter the inside of the mound became. As soon as he dug enough to clear an air passage for one, he went on searching for another. Afterwards, he heaved them out and willed them under gunfire to the ditch.
Ignoring the approaching attacker’s shots, he had made no association between jeopardizing his life and saving theirs. The last two he had dredged up and carried died. He went back again. Another body was laid alongside his sister, next to the others. The following one coughed up blood, went fish-gray, and expired halfway to safety. His sister watched as he, panting, set down the last volunteer twice before he made it back. Little hatchet heads of shrapnel buried in this last soldier’s chest. He was dead when the little brother eased him down to his rescued comrades.
A flurry of shells was flattening what remained of the new terminal building. An artillery unit and two armored personnel carriers were moving in. When he had risen to go back into the flying bullets, his sister rolled forward on her good side and wrapped herself around one of his bootlegs. For nearly five meters, he dragged the gnarled barnacle, until he was stayed by the only voice besides his mother’s that could have penetrated him: “Oleksander.”
“Yes, Kateryna?” he asked, lifting his gaze to the station.
“Oleksander,” she rasped through a grating cough.
“Yes, Kateryna?” he asked, without straining his ears at all.
“Brother, let it be,” she whispered, looking into his eyes, suddenly lacquered by tears.
Many of the volunteers Oleksander had dug up lived out their last hours in hellish pain. Some lasted years maimed, a few survived harmed. None forgot.
At dawn, Stalin, his cowcatcher mustache bristling with pride, hoisted a Russian SFSR flag above the wreckage. It flapped before a cold, colorless sun, greeting the fall of Kiev.
Jeffrey Brodsky’s writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and Europe, including El Pais and Barcelona Metropolitan. He has an M.A. from the University of Amsterdam and lives in Barcelona. This is Jeffrey’s debut fiction publication. His brand-new Twitter account: @JeffreyBrodsky5