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Hallowed Be Thy Train

A group of Soviet prisoners are offered an escape, but should they trust it?

By Jack HarrisonPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 23 min read

When the biting and snarling cold of the air finally woke Pyotr, he found himself lying at the top of a mound of corpses, each frozen and blue, wrapped in their winter coats, all rumbling in unison as the room shook in time to the ‘ka-chunk, ka-chunk’ drumming steadily underneath. He was on a train. Even as his memory drew blanks, he could be sure of that.

‘Father! We thought you were dead,’ came a voice from the other end of the carriage, somewhere in the darkness. He heard the murmuring and shuffling of many people, but he could see little. With great effort he scrambled to get away from the bodies, lifting himself, his arms wobbling, his hands pressing into lifeless chests, until his feet touched the floor. But his legs were weak, and he collapsed into the arms of a woman who’d rushed over and reached him just in time. Together they fell to their knees, as she was weak and wobbly too. He wondered where they were all going on this cold, dark train. And why was he so hungry?

‘Father, please. Come, sit.’ Her breath was fog in the air.

She helped him stand, and guided him to the other end of the train car, where two dozen men and women, old and young, frail and shivering, huddled together. She helped Pyotr onto the metal floor, and she sat next to him. There were no seats. It seemed to be a freight train, hauling humans. It squealed along steadily, and the group sat in silence, their faces haggard and hopeless in the dim light coming through a gap between the doors. They all stared at Pyotr with surprise, as well as something that seemed like pity, like they thought he’d have been better off dead. Pyotr touched his head, which throbbed along with the rhythm of the train. He returned his hand to his lap and let it sit on his black robe, the robe of a priest. He remembered who he was now. He crossed himself and thanked God for being alive.

‘I thought I knocked the prayers out of you, Father,’ spat a man from the other side of the carriage. He was a conjugation of gristle, scars and burns, with a bald head and blurry tattoos. Mary, mother of Jesus, poked up from his collar, inked in blue. When he grinned, the curtains opened on just one front tooth, abandoned by the other. No one said anything in response, and the train chugged along.

‘Where are we going?’ Pyotr asked the woman quietly.

‘You don’t remember?’

‘I don’t remember anything…’

‘We’re prisoners, Father. We’re going to a labour camp.’

Nausea. Pyotr’s breath shortened and a frozen sweat crept across his forehead. This news may as well have been a death sentence. He steadied himself. If that’s the path God had chosen for him, then so be it. He must be brave. He must be a leader to these freezing, hungry souls.

‘Why was I arrested?’ He asked the question knowing that to end up in a labour camp you didn’t really need to do anything.

‘Nothing more than being a priest.’

‘I see. What did you do?’

‘I questioned things.’

‘And what is your name?’


‘It’s nice to meet you, Alina.’

‘We’ve met before, Father. I was a member of your church.’ She smiled.

‘Why don’t I remember anything?’

‘You must have lost your memory when Tolenka struck you.’

‘Why did he strike me?’

‘The guards gave us a hunk of bread, stale mind you, and you wanted us to share it evenly. Tolenka argued ‘survival of the fittest’, and he knocked you out and took the bread for himself. Two men attacked him for it and he killed them both. We thought you'd died too.’

Pyotr looked at Tolenka who was staring at him in the dark. They watched each other for a while. Everyone was silent. A blizzard’s wind whipped against the train car, howling and whistling through gaps in the metal. Alina touched his arm.

‘Perhaps you could lead us in prayer, Father? We haven’t felt the touch of hope in a long while.’ And that he did, and even the twisted, toothless Tolenka joined. Only an old Bolshevik named Roman sat out. He spat on the floor when he was invited to join, and his spit froze on the metal. For the rest of the shivering procession, Pyotr led Mass as night fell and the train went dark. He ended it with words of hope.

‘Brothers and sisters. The future will be painful, and it may seem insurmountable. But if we go with God, then we go with strength.’ His words seemed to sooth the prisoners, who huddled together as the night became bitter, and the carriage grew even colder.

The next day the train was scheduled to terminate at a Gulag in the far, far north - a mining camp, churning and heaving in the ancient ice and tundra. Rumours that had crept from the Gulags whispered of endless work and endless cold, and thin soups that didn’t silence the endless hunger that ripped at the brain. It was said that to die on the train was a blessing, a blessing that touched one of the prisoners during the night. Roman threw him onto the pile after Pyotr had said a prayer over the body. He sat back down against the wall. Meanwhile, Tolenka stared at Alina for a while. She pretended not to notice. He spoke to her loudly, so that everyone could hear. Pyotr sensed poison on his tongue.

‘Do you have a husband?’


‘Oi!’ He clanged his boot on the metal floor. ‘Do you have a husband?’


‘Is he here?’


‘Good. I'm your husband now.’

Alina’s face ruptured into disgust. ‘How dare you?’

Tolenka leaned forward. ‘You realise these camps aren’t just full of priests and dissidents? There are killers, and worse, living among the writers and engineers. Women don’t last long - unless they have protection. I will be that protection, and you will be my wife. And as my wife, well, you’ll do what wives do. Yes?’

‘Go to Hell.’

Tolenka launched to his feet and Alina flinched. Pyotr, Roman and some of the other prisoners who were brave enough or had enough energy stood too. Tolenka smiled, and they all stood for a moment swaying with the train. He hoisted up the clothes that were falling around his thinning body, and he sat back down. He'd been weakened by hunger and cold, and even though the others were the same, he didn’t risk making a move.

‘Suit yourself. I’ll find you at the camp then. For our wedding.’ He grinned, and his missing tooth howled like a dark void, like the mouth of a cave that no one's ever escaped.

Pyotr could hear Alina’s breathing quicken, and he felt her body tense. Here, fear was a cunning lapdog who never strayed far.

For the rest of the day the prisoners all sat huddled, conserving their energy, pooling their warmth. Some would sleep for a moment, until the pain in their stomachs woke them again. Later in the evening they began to feel the train slow, and they could hear clanging and voices outside - the sounds of hard labour. The dread in the carriage was noxious and pure. Panic crept along Pyotr’s skin. He was about to suggest leading the group in prayer again before they all saw Hell, but suddenly the train sped up, and moved faster, and then faster again, and a number of the bodies from the pile rolled onto the floor under the strain of the acceleration. The prisoners all held on as the force in the carriage grew. Outside they could hear shouts. Tolenka stood and looked out the crack of the door. He saw guards running after the train, and they heard gunshots. But still, the train sped on past the Gulag, and out into the wilderness. Soon daylight abandoned them and they sat in near pitch darkness. Only the moon granted them an ounce of light, so that they could see each other’s outlines, slouched and wrapped in coats. The speculation began.

‘Have we been reassigned?’

‘Maybe a prisoner took control of the train!’

‘Maybe something happened to the driver.’

There was optimism and fear in the air, but overpowering everything was their own fatigue, their hunger, and their thirst, ever-present. What they did know was that there was nothing they could do. After all, the door was still locked. They fell into disturbed sleeps. Occasionally someone would wake, and peek outside to see if they could see anything. All through the night, stomachs cried out in pain.

The next day the train continued to run away into a fate unknown. In the hopelessness of the carriage, standing out from the gaunt, blue portraits of tortured faces in the morning light, was Alina’s glowing smile.

‘We’re saved.’ She said quietly.

Everyone shuffled in and held their breath to hear more. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I had a vision last night. Something out there is saving us. I… don’t know what it is exactly. They said they come from the Cosmos. They watch us. Humanity, I mean. They said they can’t take the cruelty anymore. They’ve taken control of the train, and they’re bringing us to them… to save us. And… they said they’d help keep us alive until we get there.’ She began to cry, and some of the other women crowded to comfort her. ‘No, no. I’m okay. These are tears of joy. We’re going to be okay.’

Pyotr watched silently.

‘Father.’ Taunted a grinning Tolenka. ‘Looks like you weren’t chosen as God’s messenger. Bad luck, friend.’

The urge to hit him boiled inside Pyotr.

‘This wasn’t God.’ Alina interjected. ‘They were Beings from outer space.’

Tolenka shrugged, nonplussed.

Pyotr sat separate from the group that crowded Alina, peppering her with questions about the vision. He thought for a long while, then he spoke.

‘If… if these Beings are not God then… then they aren’t our saviours.’ The carriage went quiet, leaving only the sounds of a train’s relentless push, until Alina spoke.

‘They’ve already saved us, Father.’

‘We shouldn’t trust this vision. It could be the Devil’s tricks. It could be a mere dream!’

‘It wasn’t a dream.’ Alina snapped. Then she calmed herself and spoke again. ‘And the Devil? The Devil lived in the labour camp we were saved from, Father. The Devil lives in every Official's closet. The Devil lives in every act of cruelty rotting Europe, rotting the world. The Devil lives in man.’ She looked at Tolenka. His eyes bulged back at her with a sheen. ‘This was no dream, Father. It was crystal clear. It was a message.’ She stopped and thought for a moment. ‘And where was God when we needed Him? I don’t know, but I know where these Beings were. They were saving us.’

Pyotr was steadfast. ‘No. We mustn’t go. God will show us the way.’

Another pale soul interjected with foggy breath in the cold, a man named Bolodenka, his beard long and brown, his brows heavy, and his teeth chattering. ‘Whether we believe the vision or not, we’re stuck on this train, and there’s no way off.’

Pyotr orated towards him, his own beard trembling. ‘But if you could choose between God or the being in the vision, you would choose God, no?’ Pyotr asked him with despair. The man thought long and hard. ‘I… don’t know yet. I just want to live.’

The debate had wiped them all of their energy. They sat low and weak under their own starvation, and under the invisible boot of the regime, and they shivered. Later, as they kept plummeting toward the unknown, Pyotr held another Mass. Some of the group had been excited by Alina’s vision, and others were sceptical, but they all still joined to pray. All but Roman, and now also Alina.

In the afternoon, something strange happened, and it happened so gradually that for a while no one even noticed. The train was warming up. At first their shivering subsided, but their near-starvation dwarfed their other senses, and dominated every waking thought. But soon, when they felt the urge to take off their jackets, they realised they were no longer freezing. Alina laughed joyously and thanked the Beings in her vision, and many joined her.

Soon after, water began to drip into the train from cracks somewhere above, presumably from melting snow. The group clambered to drink from the many spots that water trickled. Pyotr joined them. Whether he believed the visions or not, his thirst was a possessing spirit. Even Roman, as stoic as he seemed, could be seen underneath a steady stream of water, filling his hands and drinking from them like a cup, the ends of his moustache dripping. They all agreed that the water had dulled their hunger as well - more than it reasonably should have, and so the cult around Alina’s visions grew stronger.

Although still trapped in the steel belly of a runaway train, the prisoners raced on into the night in a better mood than they’d felt in a long time. A cold wind still raged on outside, but the carriage was somehow being warmed, their thirsts were quenched, and as far as they could tell, they’d slipped through the talons of the Gulag. The group slept deeply on beds of coats, rocked gently left and right. Ka-chunk. Ka-chunk. When everyone slept, Pyotr couldn’t. He was troubled. He sat awake, looking out the crack of the door, watching the Northern Lights dance like silk in the sky. He’d never seen them before, and he felt his breath stumble on their beauty.

The next morning, Alina’s face was stern. She’d had another vision.

‘We’ll arrive tonight. But… there’s something we have to do if we want them to save us. They said they won’t take him.’ She was looking at Tolenka, who stared back. He was always staring at Alina, like a stray cat watching a mouse.

‘What do you mean?’ A voice from the crowd asked quietly, hesitantly.

‘We have to kill him,’ she said. There were some gasps, then everyone was silent. Alina and Tolenka stared at each other. Tolenka’s face showed no reaction. She continued. ‘Our own cruelty is what they’re saving us from, and they won’t offer refuge to a man so bankrupt of morals.’

Bolodenka spoke. ‘Did they say to kill him? Can’t we just leave him behind when we stop?’

At this, an incensed Tolenka lunged at him and grabbed the scruff of his shirt, shoving him against the metal wall. The train cart rocked at the force of the two clashing into the side of the carriage, and the sound of his head smashing against steel was only challenged in volume by the screams that erupted from the prisoners. Tolenka landed two punches on the man’s head before he was tackled by the group, which writhed with arms and legs and shouts. Bolodenka lay unconscious on the floor, shifting lifelessly with the train’s movements.

‘Stop it! Stop!’ cried Pyotr. Alina said nothing, but her eyes were wide.

The crowd kept Tolenka pinned down through their sheer numbers. Everyone was breathing heavily, and Tolenka spat obscenities. People looked between Pyotr and Alina. Pyotr pleaded with them.

‘Friends, please. It is not up to us to take another man’s life.’ His voice was soft, gentle, like someone cajoling a cat on a sidewalk. ‘Please…’

‘And what do you think he will do if we let him go, Father?' Alina countered. 'Do you think he’ll get down and pray? No, he’ll kill me. In fact, he’ll do worse than kill me.’

Pyotr knelt by Tolenka's head. ‘Tolenka, do we have your word you won’t hurt anyone if we spare you?’

Tolenka’s face was twisted, and veins bulged in his head. After a moment, he agreed. ‘Fine.’ The pressure released slightly.

‘If you let him go, we all die!’ Alina cried, and the group, who had almost pulled away, pressed down on Tolenka again. ‘We starve in this train, or we get out and die in the cold, or we get caught and we die in the labour camp, or if Tolenka has his way, I live a fate worse than death. But we won’t be saved! To be saved, he has to die!’

‘This is madness!’ cried Pyotr. ‘We cannot murder because you had a dream!’

‘They took control of the train, they warmed us, they gave us water. And I’ve seen it two nights in a row. Two beautiful visions! At the end of the trip we will be saved. I want to be saved, not to die, or be a slave. We have to kill him. Now!’

The group did nothing at first. Then very gradually, like suggestive fingers piled on a Ouija board, the mass of prisoners began to press their weight onto Tolenka, who cried out.

‘No! Please!’ Then his lungs were empty and unable to refill, and the weight on them continued to grow as each prisoner allowed themselves to press down a little more, all the while convincing themselves they were playing no part. Pyotr went to run over to try and stop them, but Roman grabbed his arm. He’d been standing and watching, saying nothing.

‘We have to stop them,’ begged the priest to the Bolshevik. The old revolutionary just stood and watched, and bode with a firm grip that Pyotr did too. And then just like that, Tolenka lay lifeless next to Bolodenka, the man he’d killed just moments before, and his killers stood around stunned, swaying like flowers in a light breeze off the Black Sea. Alina walked among them, whispering words of comfort. Pyotr slumped against the wall. Roman moved the two bodies to the pile.

‘Father, we are saved now. But not by God.’ Alina said to him, without malice or cruelty. His eyes were heavy and his gaze would rise no higher than the floor.

‘Did your vision actually say he had to die?’ He asked her.

Alina looked at him for a moment, and then turned away.

‘What have we done?’ he said to no one, watching the frail group of starving prisoners in their old grey clothes sitting around, stunned. When he shut his eyes and felt the gentle motion of the train, he felt like he could have been on a passenger train across Europe, holding a cup of tea and watching villages and mountains blur past like oil paints. He stood.

‘I would like to lead everyone in prayer. We cannot follow false prophets, and I urge you all to join me, so we can ask for forgiveness, and we can approach whatever may come next with courage, knowing we walk with God.’

No one spoke. In fact, most looked to Alina for guidance, which upset the priest. ‘Why do you look to her? Think for yourselves! Look to God! Look to me!’ All he saw was the back of heads, and Alina’s eyes watching him through the pack, and then her mouth moving to speak.

‘The visions didn’t say anything about praying. It might be okay. But… perhaps it’s safer to not risk offending the Beings. We’re almost at safety.’

The prisoners listened to the one with the visions, the one who gave them hope of escape, and Pyotr prayed alone. He asked God to give them a sign, although a sign of what he wasn’t sure. Then he asked God if He was the one sending the visions. He heard nothing back.

The day groaned on and so did the train, and the group of prisoners sat in bleak silence, trapped in the sticky corners of their mind, wrestling with an idea that solidified into truth and memory with every passing second, the idea that they’d killed a man. ‘A bad man, but a man all the same’, they might have thought. Some lay on their sides, and one woman cried quietly. No one asked her ‘what’s wrong?’, because the answer could be anything, and really, it was everything. Pyotr looked across the faces chiselled with suffering. Only Alina’s face was bright.

At dusk, the train began to slow, and nervous glances were swapped across the carriage. Alina stood and put her coat on.

‘It will be cold out there.’ She said calmly. Others stood too and began to collect their coats and any belongings they’d managed to sneak with them when they were first arrested. Their wobbly movements and their turning, searching heads made the metal freight train feel like a sleepy, everyday group of commuters pulling into a station on a calm city morning. Pyotr found himself standing too.

Then the train came to a stop. They stood, silent, waiting, listening. Then they heard the door mysteriously unlock from the outside, then silence again. Alina approached the door, and after a moment, pulled it open slowly with great effort, the metal scraping, a frozen wind immediately rushing into the cabin, searching every corner and thrusting icy fingers into every unbuttoned coat. She stepped out, and after a gaping hesitation, the other prisoners followed, each stepping over Tolenka’s body, which had tumbled to the floor and against the door on the final lurch of the stopping train. Pyotr looked at Roman, who did not look back. Pyotr too stepped over the precipice into the deep blue light of dusk, his shoe plunging into a foot of snow. He took a deep breath and relished in the feeling of stillness, and fresh, open sky. Pyotr looked forward and back and saw people stumbling from every carriage. All looked weary and solemn, and even in the half-faded light, people squinted after emerging from the darkness of their cells.

Pyotr noticed the train sat on top of the snow, with no rails in sight. How had it been moving?

They were at the edge of a sparse forest, where the trees met the sea, which was frozen over, and sitting gently on the ice was an enormous, towering metal structure with rows of lights, the likes of which Pyotr had never seen, or could even comprehend. A ramp spiralled out from a doorway, with bright white light pouring from within. It stood tall, vindicating the visions and twisting Pyotr’s stomach into a knot.

Alina moved next to him, and gently touched his chest. ‘That’s their ship. It will take us to safety. Come, Father.’ Then she walked off towards the ice. Soon everyone but him walked slowly towards it, plodding through the snow quietly, as if in a dream. They poured either side of Pyotr, who stood like a rock in rapids, not taking a step.

A woman from another carriage came up beside him, and saw his robes and collar.

‘Are you coming, Father?’ She asked. He said nothing in return. He just stared at the ship, shellshocked. ‘Perhaps you’re confused, or scared. There is no need to be. I’ve had visions in my sleep. They’re here to save us. They’ve watched what people do to each other. The cruel, evil things. They want to take us away from it all. Their vessel looks scary, doesn’t it? But don’t worry, Father. They don’t want to hurt us. Won’t you come?’

‘I can’t.’ That’s all he said. ‘This is not true salvation.’

She sighed. ‘I understand, Father. But perhaps it’s the truest salvation you’ll ever find. If you change your mind, change it soon. They won’t be here long.’ She wrapped her coat tightly around herself, and plodded on.

‘Wait.’ Pyotr said. She turned. ‘Did they ask you to… make any kind of sacrifice?’

She frowned. ‘Of course not.’ She turned and walked again.

Tolenka’s arm had fallen from the train, his tattooed fingers touching the snow. Pyotr scanned the crowd for Alina. He saw her just at the edge of the ice, walking carefully.

A group of three ahead of her, with their arms locked together for stability, slipped on the ice and fell on their behinds. He could hear their faint laughter, an old sound, so out of place, skipping along the ice and into the forest. Some of the first people were reaching the ship now, and they hesitated for a moment, before walking up into the light. They looked calm. He watched as they disappeared. Then Alina reached the ramp. She turned back and their eyes met. The distance between them was far, but she looked serene, and free. And then she was gone.

All of the prisoners from the train were on the ice now, dark silhouettes waddling towards the monolithic tower. Pyotr thought only he was left, until he saw Roman a few metres behind him, watching the ship.

‘Are you not going?’ Pyotr asked him.

‘I don’t know,’ was all he said.

Pyotr found himself walking, and he stumbled to the edge of the ice, where he stopped and watched as the last people reached the ramp. A young man helped an older man up, and they entered into the light together.

‘You must not abandon God!’ He boomed at the top of his voice. He saw the silhouette of the younger man pause and look back, watching for a moment. He gestured for Pyotr to come too, then walked up and out of view.

The ramp stayed open, and a wind swept across the ice. Pyotr shivered and pulled his coat closer. He stared into the ship. What would his fate be if he stayed behind? What would it be if he went? He crossed himself and prayed.

‘Lord. What do I do?’ Nothing happened.

He looked back at the train, lost and stuck in the snow. It looked sleepy, its task completed. Roman sat on the edge of a doorway, not looking at the ship, but out into the forest. Everything was getting dark quickly, and some stars were beginning to twinkle above. Blue was becoming black, and all things were silent but the wind.

He turned back to the ship and now saw that the ramp was soundlessly retracting. He felt his stomach turn. Without much thought, he began to run towards the ship. He slipped on the ice almost immediately. The ship began to whirr, and its lights shut off, except for a series of red lights on its bottom, which lit the ice below with a crimson glow. Pyotr kept running, and he slipped again and again, until he was crawling towards the ship, which showed him indifference.

‘Wait! Wait!’

It rose into the air, and the ice shook underneath him. It hovered for a moment, and the heat emanating from it melted a hole where it had stood before, and then it flew north, and ascended higher and higher, until it was lost. Pyotr lay flat on the ice, and then began to cry. He’d abandoned God at the eleventh hour, with nothing to show for it.

After a long while, he was lifted by the arms of Roman, who slowly helped him back to shore. They sat together on a large, smooth stone and looked out over the frozen sea, as the Northern Lights tip-toed into the sky and began their ballet. Together they watched, Roman quiet and Pyotr heartbroken.

‘We can't know where they went. In staying, we either made the worst decision of our lives, or the best. But we’ll never know which is true, and so we have no choice but to believe it was the best,’ said Roman.

Soon enough, they heard the distant slamming of truck doors and the shouts of confused Soviet officials, who found the runaway prison train from the reports empty and derailed, miles from the nearest tracks. Roman stood, and began to walk out into the ice. Pyotr stood and spoke quietly but sharply.

‘Where are you going?'

Roman kept walking, and the last thing that Pyotr saw before secret police tackled him into the snow was Roman dropping into the hole in the ice, into the deathly waters of the Arctic, never to surface again. Like just days before, Pyotr was struck across the head so that the world went black, which was perhaps a blessing in disguise, so he was blind to the indignity of the policeman’s boot on his face. The Northern Lights saw it all though, and they danced on and on to music unheard.


About the Creator

Jack Harrison

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