The following is from Jody Shields’s novel, The Winter Station. Based on a true story in Russian-ruled China, people are dying from a deadly plague and disappearing before the city commissioner can investigate. Jody Shields’s previous novels include The Fig Eater and The Crimson Portrait.
When Andreev said two bodies had been discovered outside the Kharbin train station, the Baron had an image of the dead men sprawled against snow, frozen in positions their bodies couldn’t hold in life. His focus sharpened on Andreev’s face, faintly pink, only the triangle of his eyes, nose, and lips visible surrounded by the rough hood of his sheepskin coat. It was noon and the sun already cast the faint blue haze of twilight that was particular to this place in September. The sun would set in less than three hours and the temperature would hover near zero.
The Baron’s breath exploded into a cloud in the freezing air. “Exactly where were the bodies found?”
“Alongside the train tracks.” Andreev’s arm waved in the direction of Central Station just behind them. “Somewhere between the tracks and the train station.”
“Who told you?”
“A contact who works for the railroad. He traveled here on the last train from Mukden to Kharbin.”
Mukden was 200 verst away, a walled city, once the ancient imperial capital of Manchuria, since eclipsed. “Is your contact reliable?”
“When did he see the bodies?”
“A day ago.”
Frozen solid and covered with snow, the bodies could have remained undetected for weeks. Or until May, when the snow melted. Or until discovered by wild dogs or wolves.
“He watched soldiers put the bodies on a cart at night. Their lanterns were covered. No witnesses but my Mukden informer.”
“Strange.” If Andreev’s report was true, some official had given orders to the lowest-level police about the bodies. He built the scene in his imagination to block the dark chink of evidence that the investigation had happened in secret. Why hadn’t he been notified? He was the city’s chief medical examiner and a doctor at the Russian hospital, only two streets away from where the bodies had been found. He should have been consulted or signed a death certificate. He was self-conscious about his lack of information as Andreev watched him, measuring his response. It was necessary to keep up a façade in front of Andreev, to maintain the tinsel appearance of a link to powerful General Dmitry Khorvat, the czar’s administrator. The general ran the city like a private business, with absolute authority over all Russian military and civil matters in Kharbin. The Baron owed his appointment to Khorvat and kept it only at his pleasure.
“Why two dead men near a crowded train station? A bold gamble. A risk of witnesses. There were easier places to leave bodies.”
In medical school on the Universitetskaya Embankment in St. Petersburg, the Baron had learned a methodology for diagnosis: the dissector must learn to discern order. First, establish the facts of how the Russians had managed the deaths. “No bodies were brought to the hospital. Nothing reported in the newspapers Molva or Russkoe Solve.” He made a dismissive gesture. “So I assume the dead were Chinese?”
“Yes.” The hood of Andreev’s jacket jerked up and down in confirmation.
“That explains the lack of official interest.” A dead Russian would have left an investigation, a vigil, memorial candles at St. Nikolas Cathedral. Unidentified Chinese were ignored in death. Kharbin was a divided city, laid out like a game board between the Chinese and the Russians. Perhaps the Chinese authorities had retrieved the bodies? Perhaps the dead were prominent Chinese, assassinated for a political motive? “Tell me, had clothing been stripped from the bodies?”
“Were they stripped? No. He didn’t say the bodies were naked.” Andreev’s voice revealed that he was puzzled by the question, but his answer was quick, information traded for a grain of praise from the older man, an aristocrat and son of a diplomat in the czar’s service.
Why two dead men near a crowded train station? A bold gamble. A risk of witnesses. There were easier places to leave bodies, as Kharbin was surrounded by the wilderness of the Manchurian plains. “The murderers must have a good alibi.” The Baron shifted his weight to keep his feet from becoming numb on the snow-covered ground.
“Or an alibi from soldiers who took the bodies.”
“What’s your picture of the crime, Andreev?”
“The men were tricked or forced onto the tracks. They fought the robbers who assaulted them. Later, their bodies were removed so as not to alarm other travelers and the Chinese authorities.”
You would choose an answer that was crooked, the Baron thought. There was no point in a search, as the exact location of the bodies was uncertain. The corpse movers would have churned the snow, added their own tracks, obliterated evidence. Two deaths marked only with words. He felt an obligation to continue the questioning.
No one else would bother. There were no trained police or investigators in Kharbin, only soldiers and veterans who stayed after the war with Japan and were drafted into the Zamurskii District Special Border Guard Corps. They served Russia, the occupying power in Manchuria. The Russian soldiers coexisted with the Chinese and Japanese military, all waiting for an incident that would allow them to expand their presence in Kharbin. Perhaps the dead Chinese men would be that incident. “How close was your witness to the bodies?”
“He watched from the train window.”
“Did he notice blood by the bodies?” The Baron’s voice was neutral, but he began to wonder if Andreev himself had actually witnessed the discovery of the two corpses.
“Blood? No, it would have been too dark for him to see blood on snow. It was after three o’clock.” He exhaled.
Andreev’s breath wreathed around his head, and the Baron silently noted this indication of tension. In Manchuria’s harsh, cold climate, the breath was a visible sign that betrayed emotion more immediately than words. “True. We lose the light early these days.” He scrutinized the other man’s face for a moment too long and Andreev looked away, breaking eye contact.
The Baron would never have associated with Andreev in St. Petersburg, as he was lower class, a worker. It was unlikely they would ever have met. But in Kharbin, Andreev was a fellow Russian and necessary as a servant. He located anything for a fee. The man was flexible as curved script, with barbs that extended across the city, from the furriers on Kitayskaya Street to black marketeers, suppliers for potatoes, kerosene, Krupp pistols, silk for dresses, lanolin, French wine, writing paper. Andreev bartered, bought, and occasionally stole goods. There were always shortages, as everything was imported from Moscow, St. Petersburg, south from Beijing, Shanghai, west from Vladivostok and Port Arthur on the Pacific coast.
It was rumored that Andreev was a government informer, one of the numerous double and triple agents who served Russia in Manchuria, likely paid twice over for the same information about scandal and crime.
Self-possessed, Andreev had the guarded single-mindedness of a missionary or someone who had witnessed great cruelty. He divined the compass that others used. “The desire for possessions, for ownership, is the glue holding us together here in Kharbin. Not courage or love of the family or the czar or freedom,” Andreev had once explained. “Even the missionaries count the Chinese in church. The number of souls saved.” His voice had been scornful. Yet he had located frankincense for St. Nikolas Cathedral to replace a lost shipment and was deeply moved when the archimandrite blessed him for his work.
The Baron patiently returned to his questioning. “And your Mukden contact. Does he have a name? Or is his identification also an impossibility?”
Andreev shook his head. “He’s safely returned to Mukden.” He looked over his shoulder nervously, although they were alone, bracketed by ridges of empty train tracks.
“Your mysterious contact had no other information?”
“I told you that there wasn’t enough light for him to see.”
“But he recognized the soldiers.”
Andreev laughed. He appreciated the joke, as Russian soldiers in their huge fur hats and stiff-skirted coats were unmistakable.
His feet were numb on the uneven ground. It was useless to try to provoke Andreev into revealing more information. It was too cold. It had been a mistake to interview him outside.
“You claim there are two bodies that cannot be located or identified. And your source of information about the bodies is absent and anonymous. If you were younger, if you were a child, I would dismiss you without kindness for wasting my time.”
“That’s all the information I have for you, Baron.” Nothing fazed Andreev. The conversation had been concluded.
“Can I offer you something in exchange for your generous information? A token of appreciation?”
“You owe me nothing, sir.” Andreev grinned. “Situations change. Someday I may need a favor from you.”
This question and answer of Andreev’s pretended graciousness was a ritual between them. The Baron’s sheepskin mittens were thick as a towel and he fumbled, pressing several rubles into the other man’s outstretched hand.
He watched Andreev’s bulky silhouette vanish into the blue shadow of Central Station. Although shivering with cold, he was unwilling to walk into the building, as the heat would dissolve his clarity of thought. He needed time to collect himself.
A few minutes later, he slowly walked through Central Station, suddenly aware that he stank inside the closed animal skins of his clothing. He watched two soldiers fidgeting with the guns slung across their chests and approached them cautiously, as they were probably already drunk, though it was barely past noon. The soldiers, from habit, did not pay attention until he introduced himself as a doctor. Everyone has a complaint for a medical man.
The younger soldier was disheveled, sweating in his thick coat. He managed a lopsided grin along with his name, Shklovskiy. “We’ve been standing here for days.” He shuffled his boots. “Mother of God, my back aches.”
The Baron made a sympathetic noise. “Your gun is heavy.”
“We can manage.” The second soldier, Rakhimanov, scowled.
“You soldiers hardly need my advice. I see all the beggars are gone from the station thanks to your good work.”
“Gone for the moment. But trouble arrives with every train. No undesirables allowed here. Move along!” Rakhimanov slapped his gun.
“Difficult to push so many undesirables from the station.” Rakhimanov glanced around, clearly enjoying his ability to intimidate. “We watch everyone who walks in the door. Some pretend not to see us. Some move away too quickly. Chinese beggars. Army deserters. Smugglers. We lock up anyone we please. Anyone suspicious.”
“That could be everyone here.” The Baron offered a flask of vodka.
The soldiers laughed and greedily shared swallows from the flask.
“Who gives you orders?”
“Diakonov. General Khorvat’s deputy.” Shklovskiy volunteered more information. “We stopped five passengers last week. Four men and one woman. Russians and Chinese.”
“Did you register their names?” The Baron let his eyes wander to the door, allowing his distraction to soften the question.
“No. We don’t carry paper and pencils. Others do the petty work.” Rakhimanov scratched under his hat and thick blond hair fell across one eye. “But I could do without the sick.”
“Anyone who looks weak. Has a cough. Stumbles. Or maybe they’re just drunk. It’s hard to tell the difference.”
“What happens to them?”
“We bundle up the Chinese, and not tenderly, I can tell you.” Rakhimanov leaned closer and his breath was strong with alcohol. “Men come and pick them up.”
“Who picks them up? The police?”
“I don’t know. They have a cart.” Rakhimanov studied the rifle in his hand.
“Where are they taken?”
“And the dead?”
The soldiers didn’t look at each other, but their hesitation betrayed shared information. Shklovskiy crossed himself. “The dead are respected, sir. But there are no corpses here at the station.”
“Don’t waste your sympathy,” said Rakhimanov. His fingers nervously tapped the handle of his gun.
Shklovskiy poked his fellow soldier. “He’s a doctor.” Rakhimanov ignored him. “Tell me something. Is it true the Chinese have no souls? Everyone in the border guard says that it is so. They do not worship God.”
The Baron’s expression appeared tolerant. No point in delivering piety. “I’m a medical man serving the body. How could I say whose soul is blessed to enter the kingdom of God?”
His evasion disappointed them. For Russian soldiers, the Chinese were faceless dogs, indecipherable pagans who deserved rough treatment. An early name for the first Russians who traveled in China was luosha, a tribe of man-eating demons.
The Baron wished the men luck. Distracted, he moved across the cavernous, dimly lit station, misjudging distances, gently colliding with travelers in bulky padded coats, the physical contact as muted as if he were walking underwater. Heat radiated from the massive white-tile stoves in the corners of the waiting room. A group of Russians stood near a wall, crossing themselves in front of an icon of Saint Nikolas, the city’s patron saint. The bank of small candles below the icon, wavering at every movement, were the brightest spots in the space.
It was against protocol that the sick hadn’t been taken to the hospital where he was in charge. City bureaucracy had been circumvented, but by whom? Someone had given orders to remove the two dead Chinese from outside the station. Were the bodies and the passengers detained by the soldiers linked? Was he the only official who hadn’t been notified? Since this had been deliberately hidden from him, he couldn’t discuss it with General Khorvat. Perhaps the general was also in the dark.
Was the search for sick passengers a screen for another purpose? It reminded him of the secret police in St. Petersburg. After threats were made against the czar, the police searched residences and businesses, supposedly for illegal church literature from Baptists and Old Believers but actually for evidence of bomb-making. His speculation produced nothing but a clumsy half-drawn picture. He left the station and was slammed by cold air. Outside, the snow’s dizzying progress was measured by its sting against his cheek.
Later, he finished a cup of tea standing by the window in his office, purely a habit, as there was no view. The double glass panes were filled with white sand as insulation from the cold and remained opaque until May, when snow first melted from one side of the immense tile roof of Central Station.
At home, he didn’t share the day’s events with his wife. Li Ju turned to him when he entered the room, as always, invariably looking up from her embroidery, a book, or a game of mah-jongg, ready to change the direction of her day for him. He would insist that he didn’t wish to disturb her but was secretly pleased. Other women had turned their eyes to him in calculation or desire but her attention was a bouquet.
Li Ju was polishing a bowl at the table, and he stooped slightly to lift it from her hands. “Let me carry the bowl for you.”
Her face tilted up to him and the water in the silver bowl reflected the curve of her cheek and for a moment the two balanced shapes filled his eyes. An older woman might have whispered an intimacy, but Li Ju simply smiled, transparent, acknowledging his admiration.
As a very young girl, Li Ju had left a missionary orphanage to work as a servant in the Baron’s household. She accepted his care with a child’s straightforward happiness. She lived under his roof, slept on a small mat of wadded silk and cotton for years before they became lovers and shared the k’ang bed. When she became an adult, his expectation was the same. Nothing changed. The habit of days. He didn’t believe devotion was a debt owed to him for providing her with a home but he had become accustomed to her deference.
That night, he was jolted awake and sat up in bed. He was swept with shame. Two men had died violently and he had shaped it into a story about his own authority. His place in the world. “Mother of God,” he whispered and crossed himself.
But he was haunted by another image, dark and jagged. The dead Chinese could easily have been thrown in the Sungari River and their weight would have broken the still-thin ice, the thickness of two fingers. Then he wished that this had been done, that the bodies were in the river, and he imagined this as if he were drowning, looking up at the sky through the ice one last time, his eyes already liquid.
In the morning, the Baron and his wife lit a candle for the dead at St. Nikolas Cathedral on Central Square. Their hands cupped together around the warm candle and the flesh of their fingertips glowed translucent pink. His wife was not a believer but the ritual of contemplation was familiar to her. She tipped her head back and her face was suddenly hidden in the darkness. The building was an immense shadowy height above their heads, its bulb-shaped domes, the lukovichnye glavy, were compact as a hive, made with countless wood shingles overlapped against the Manchurian wind. The entire structure was built without a single nail, joined together with minute wooden pegs so that no pinpoints of reflected metal disturbed its dim interior. Perhaps its peaceful assembly, the lack of violent hammering, was an offering to God.
From The Winter Station. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. Copyright © 2018 by Jody Shields.