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The Winter Station
By Jody Shields
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1910: people are mysteriously dying at an alarming rate in the Russian-ruled city of Kharbin, a major railway outpost in Northern China. Strangely, some of the dead bodies vanish before they can be identified.
During a dangerously cold winter in a city gripped by fear, the Baron, a wealthy Russian aristocrat and the city’s medical commissioner, is determined to stop this mysterious plague. Battling local customs, an occupying army, and a brutal epidemic with no name, the Baron is torn between duty and compassion, between Western medical science and respect for Chinese tradition. His allies include a French doctor, a black marketeer, and a charismatic Chinese dwarf. His greatest refuge is the intimacy he shares with his young Chinese wife – but she has secrets of her own.
Based on a true story that has been lost to history, set during the last days of imperial Russia, The Winter Station is a richly textured and brilliant novel about mortality, fear and love.
There is no brushstroke that is not a detour.
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 two hundred 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.
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.
When Baron von Budberg had first arrived, Kharbin had no history. It was a camp. The first child had not yet been born. There had never been a wedding or a funeral. No eye had looked at the landscape through a curtained window. No shadow had been cast by a church tower. Kharbin was established in the Manchurian wilderness in 1898 by order of the czar, a Russian city built in China, an arrogant stake of empire.
A hereditary aristocrat, a Russian diplomat’s son, a doctor, the Baron traveled from St. Petersburg to Manchuria in 1904 to serve as a medic in the imperial army after the disastrous war with Japan. He worked, partially protected from heat and stinging blackflies, under a makeshift canvas tent. The pay was poor, the conditions primitive, the weather insufferable, and the silence absolute.
During his first year, the Baron learned to forget what made a city—the streets sealed with paving stones, vertical pressure of buildings, the shifting pattern of pedestrians and vehicles. He suffered a constant feeling of oppression from the flat land and the enormousness of the sky. There was an ocean overhead. Could a man’s bones splinter under the pressure of this weight?
The wind was a constant harsh presence, sweeping the scent of primeval forests down from the immense northern territory, the ancestral home of the Manchu rulers. In the summer, the wind was weighted with yellow sand that filled cracks in buildings, silted up windows and the railroad tracks.
* * *
Kitayskaya Street was impassable with vehicles stuck in the snow. The droshky stopped and the Baron and Andreev began to walk, their impatience slowed to caution as they stepped carefully, struggling for balance on the frozen surface. Andreev clutched his arm. The sidewalk in front of the luxurious dress shops, the corsetiere Louvre Atelier, the German store Kunst and Albers, had been swept to a glittering eggshell-thin layer of ice. Long thin spears of ice, yellow with embedded dirt and grit, barred the windows of Churin’s department store.
Something, a rough piece of ice, fell at their feet and Andreev glanced up at the windows. “See? The sand never leaves us. Frozen into the ice. Then it melts. Then it blows back at us in the summer. There’s either sand or snow in the air.”
“Mercifully, the snow only lasts for half the year.”
“More than six months. It slows down my import business.”
The Baron was amused by the seasonal nature of Andreev’s smuggling. “Yesterday I became lost on Mostovaya Street. So many new buildings had been constructed in two weeks that the place was unrecognizable.” He gestured at the saplings thickly wrapped in coarse fabric, barely visible above the snow. “Russian grandeur. They dream of transforming the street into the czar’s garden. It’s folly.”
The proprietor of the Volga restaurant lifted the Baron’s heavy coat from his shoulders and ushered the two men through the overheated space to a table in the back. The Baron sat down, wiped his damp face, waited until the cold air in his lungs was exchanged for the dense tobacco smoke in the restaurant. Andreev watched him silently. He looked as if he needed a shave, although it was just past noon.
“Early cold.” The Baron coughed.
“Reason enough to drink until the dwarf arrives.” Andreev had promised to introduce a friend of his, Chang Huai.
“A friend or a business friend?”
“Friend. He’s famous in the city. And deserves the acclaim. It’s cold work standing in front of Churin’s department store smiling at rich women.”
The warmth returned to their feet after half an hour in the restaurant. The Baron ordered zubrovka, vodka flavored with buffalo grass. He brought up the matter of the equipment ordered in July, two months ago, now certain to be held up by early snow in Hailar. He was expecting an examining table, optical equipment, Braun photographic apparatus, medicine, and sterilizing solutions from Berlin, everything destined for Kharbin’s hospital. Andreev had been paid to secure the shipment, since railroad employees routinely plundered crates during transportation, seldom bothering to cover up evidence of their tampering.
“Which month do you believe our shipment will arrive?”
“I never predict. But I’ll ask the stationmaster about the delay.”
“He always has an excuse. Possibly your bribe wasn’t generous enough.”
Andreev corrected himself. “I will pay the stationmaster to fix the delay.” He worked inside his circle of contacts to smooth transactions.
“If the train was overpacked, my crates were likely sacrificed to make room for cases of vodka.”
“Drink is more precious than medicine in this place. I once knew a missionary who successfully smuggled in vodka under Methodist Church literature. No one could bear to inspect his dull crates.”
How Andreev came to Kharbin was a mystery. One trader claimed he was a Russian army deserter. Another man, a Hungarian, swore Andreev was a mercenary who had sold exotic animals, Siberian tiger cubs and bears, at a market in Dairen on the Yellow Sea. His skin, weathered brown even in winter, contrasted with his eyes, the pale green of celadon. Andreev rarely spoke about the past but his hands were marked with scars. The Baron had recognized the slashes were originally bone-deep, perhaps made by an animal or a knife.
They’d known each other for years but even when eased by vodka, they rarely discussed anything personal, never shared a meal at the Baron’s table, although Andreev was frequently invited. How old are you? the Baron once asked, and Andreev, startled, blinked as if threatened and didn’t answer. The Baron wasn’t certain the man was literate.
Did Andreev enjoy women? Did he have a lover? The first time the Baron had introduced Li Ju to Andreev, he’d noticed the other man’s calculated gaze. Was it envy, sympathy, measured judgment? If it was criticism, perhaps it was directed at him. He couldn’t interpret his reaction. Maybe Andreev sensed the Baron’s loneliness, his hunger for approval, for dismissing authority.
Although he called Andreev a friend, he had no idea where he lived. Messages for him were left at a restaurant on Novotorgovaya Street near the French embassy. He fully expected that Andreev would simply disappear one day. Their friendship had its risks, and the Baron was careful not to reveal gossip or details about his patients. It was useful for Andreev—and others who might pay for this information—to know who among the Kharbin elite was in frail health or troubled by sleeplessness, pregnancy, melancholy, violence.
He scrutinized Andreev’s face to see how far he dared to proceed. “Did someone give you new information about the bodies at Central Station?”
Andreev was coldly dignified. “No. Who would be interested?”
“You tell me.”
- "Based on real events, this is the kind of fiction that fascinates with its power to evoke time and place, morality and mortality, tenderness and love."—Bookpage
- "Shields writes movingly of the human cost of this forgotten epidemic. She reminds us that, to an imperceptible enemy, the lines dividing nations are only a mark on a map."—Shelf-Awareness
- "Shields presents her novel with the detail and fluidity of the early Russian novelists... THE WINTER STATION offers much for readers of historical fiction."—Bookreporter
- "Like a delicate calligraphy, Jody Shields paints a starkly moving picture of our elusive humanity, as ephemeral and beautiful as snowflakes falling from a frozen sky. The images are unforgettable, and the book highly recommended."—Historical Novel Society
- "Shields has transformed the scantly recorded memories of the Manchurian plague into a rich narrative, factual in its details and vitalized by the moral complexities of prejudice, politics, honor and responsibility."—Lincoln Star Journal
- "If you love historical fiction, you don't want to miss The Winter Station.... the perfect moody book to read on a chilly winter day."—Hello Giggles
- "What Shields evokes in her greatest passages...is a fear that pours from the temples: the recognition that we can be set against a swift and terrible force majeure."—Paste Magazine
- "The true gift of this remarkable novel is its lyrical portrayal of the Baron and his few allies...Shields (The Fig Eater) joins the high echelon of Boris Akunin and Sam Eastland in re-creating a time when science and reason vie with superstition and prejudice to protect the helpless subjects of the tsar."—Library Journal
- "The slow growth of the horror and helplessness of those who can really see the crises growing is beautifully drawn"—STAT News
- "[Readers will be] captivated by the atmosphere and the various, essay-like ruminations, which evoke Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow (1993)."—Booklist
- "The outbreak of plague in Manchuria during the winter of 1910-1911 tests a Russian doctor's physical, emotional, and moral stamina in Shields's accomplished third novel...This fictional portrait of a man caught in a real-life medical crisis proves affecting and timely in its exploration of conflicts between cultures and classes, ambition and mortality, science and politics."—Publisher's Weekly
- "The Winter Station is a novel set in Russia that to its great credit reads like a Russian novel. Set early in the 20th Century, it is a story of courage, love, resilience, loyalty during a season of absolute terror. Jody Shields is a fearless writer, with the integrity of a worthy creator, and this novel won't be easily forgotten."—Daniel Woodrell, author of The Maid's Version and Winter's Bone
- "In The Winter Station, Shields imagines a new season, one vibrant with intrigue, longing, and history... This book bears a distinct pulse; its beats are tender, evocative, and full of mystery."—Affinity Konar, author of Mischling
- "perfect for readers of historical fiction and lovers of thrillers."—Signature
- On Sale
- Dec 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Back Bay Books