The painted bird, p.10
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       The Painted Bird, p.10

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  I stepped back and urged him to walk with a gentle tap of a twig. He swayed, lifting the injured leg high. He hobbled, but finally I persuaded him to move. Progress was slow and painful. The horse occasionally stopped and slumped motionless. Then I would put my arm around his neck, hug him, and lift the broken leg. After a while he would start walking again, as if moved by some recollection, by some thought that had temporarily slipped from his mind. He missed a step, lost his balance, stumbled. Whenever he walked on the broken leg the splintered bone emerged from under the skin, so that he walked in the snow and mud almost on this stump of bare bone. Each of his pained neighs shattered me. I forgot the clogs on my feet and felt for the moment as if I were walking on the jagged edges of my shinbones, heaving a moan of pain with every step.

  Exhausted, covered with mud, I reached the village with the horse. We were immediately surrounded by a pack of snarling dogs. I kept them at bay with my comet, singeing the fur of the most vicious ones. The horse stood by impassive, sinking into a torpor.

  Many peasants came out of their huts. One of them was the pleasantly surprised owner of the horse, which had bolted two days previously. He chased away the dogs and examined the broken leg, after which he declared that the horse would have to be killed. His only use would be to provide some meat, a hide for tanning, and bones for medicinal purposes. Actually, in that area, the bones were the most valuable item. The treatment for a serious illness consisted of several daily draughts of an infusion of herbs mixed with ground horse bones. Toothache was treated by a compress made of a frog’s thigh with some powdered horse teeth. Burnt horse hoofs were certain to cure colds within two days, while the hipbones of a horse, placed on an epileptic’s body, helped the patient to avoid seizures.

  I stood aside while the peasant checked the horse. My turn came next. The man looked me over carefully and asked me where I had been before and what I had done. I answered as cautiously as possible, anxious to avoid any stories which might arouse his suspicions. He wanted me to repeat what I had said several times and laughed at my unsuccessful attempt to speak the local dialect. He asked me time and again if I were a Jewish or Gypsy orphan. I swore on everything and everybody I could think of that I was a good Christian and an obedient worker. Other men were standing nearby watching me critically. Nevertheless, the farmer decided to take me on as a workhand in the yard and in the fields. I fell to my knees and kissed his feet.

  Next morning, the farmer took two big, strong horses out of his stable. He hitched them to a plow and drove them to the crippled horse waiting patiently by a fence. Then he threw a noose over the crippled horse’s neck and tied the other end of the rope to the plow. The strong horses twitched their ears and looked with indifference at the victim. He breathed hard and twisted his neck, which was being squeezed by the tight rope. I stood by wondering how I could save his life, how I could convince him that I had no idea that I would be bringing him back to the farm for this . . . When the farmer approached the horse to check the position of the noose, the cripple suddenly turned his head and licked the farmer’s face. The man did not look at him, but gave him a powerful, open-handed slap on the muzzle. The horse turned away, hurt and humiliated.

  I wanted to throw myself at the farmer’s feet and beg for the horse’s life, but I caught the animal’s reproachful look. He was staring straight at me. I remembered what would happen if a man or animal about to die counted the teeth of the person responsible for his death. I was afraid to utter a word as long as the horse was looking at me with that resigned, terrible look. I waited, but he would not drop his eyes from me.

  Suddenly the farmer spat on his hands, grabbed a knotted whip, and lashed the rumps of the two strong horses. They bolted forward violently, the rope grew taut, and the noose tightened on the neck of the condemned. Wheezing hoarsely, he was dragged down and fell like a fence blown over by the wind. They pulled him over the soft ground brutally for a few more paces. When the panting horses stopped, the farmer walked up to the victim and kicked him a few times on the neck and on the knees. The animal did not stir. The strong horses, scenting death, stamped their feet nervously as though trying to avoid the stare of the wide-open, dead eyes.

  I spent the rest of the day helping the farmer skin off the hide and cut up the carcass.

  Weeks went by and the village left me alone. Some of the boys said occasionally that I should be delivered to the German headquarters, or’that the soldiers should be told about the Gypsy bastard in the village. Women avoided me on the road, carefully covering the heads of their children. The men looked me over in silence, and casually spat in my direction.

  They were people of slow, deliberate speech who measured their words carefully. Their custom required them to spare words as one spares salt, and a loose tongue was regarded as a man’s worst enemy. Fast talkers were thought devious and dishonest, obviously trained by Jewish or Gypsy fortunetellers. People used to sit in a heavy silence broken only infrequently by some insignificant remark. Whenever speaking or laughing, everyone would cover his mouth with a hand to avoid showing his teeth to ill-wishers. Only vodka managed to loosen their tongues and relax their manners.

  My master was widely respected and often, invited to local weddings and celebrations. Sometimes, if the children were well and neither his wife nor his mother-in-law objected, I was also taken along. At such receptions he ordered me to display my urban language to the guests, and to recite the poems and stories I had learned before the war from my mother and nurses. Compared to the soft, drawling local speech, my city talk, full of hard consonants which rattled like machine-gun fire, sounded like a caricature. Before my performance I was forced by my farmer to drink a glass of vodka at one gulp. I stumbled over feet which tried to trip me and barely reached the center of the room.

  I started my show at once, trying to avoid looking at anyone’s eyes or teeth. Whenever I recited poetry at great speed, the peasants opened their eyes wide in amazement, thinking that I was out of my mind and that my fast speech was some sort of infirmity.

  They were entirely convulsed by the fables and rhymed stories about animals. Listening to stories about a goat traveling across the world in search of the capital of goatland, about a cat in seven-league boots, the bull Ferdinand, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Mickey Mouse, and Pinocchio, the guests laughed, choking on their food and sputtering vodka.

  After the performance I was called to one table after another to repeat some poems, and was forced to drink new toasts. When I refused, they poured the liquor down my throat. Usually I was quite drunk by the middle of the evening and hardly knew what was going on. The faces around me began to take on the features of the animals in the stories I recited, like some live illustrations in the children’s books which I still remembered. I felt as though I were falling down a deep well with smooth, moist walls coated with spongy moss. At the bottom of the well, instead of water, there was my warm, secure bed where I could safely sleep and forget about everything.

  The winter was ending. I went every day with my farmer to fetch wood from the forest. Warm moisture filled the air and swelled the woolly mosses hanging from the boughs of great trees like graying, half-frozen rabbit skins. They were soaked with water, dripping dark drops over the sheets of torn bark. Small streams spilled in every direction, gamboling here and diving there under swampy roots to emerge and playfully continue their erratic childlike scamper.

  A neighboring family held a big wedding reception for their handsome daughter. Peasants, dressed in their Sunday best, danced in the barnyard, which had been swept clean and decorated for the occasion. The groom followed ancient tradition by kissing everyone on the mouth. The bride, dizzy from too many toasts, wept and laughed in turns, paying little attention to men who pinched her buttocks or rested their hands on her breasts.

  When the room emptied and the guests started dancing, I rushed to the table for the meal I had earned by my performance. I sat in the darkest corner, anxious to avoid the jeers of drunks. Two men
entered the room with their arms over each other’s shoulders in a friendly hug. I knew them both. They were among the more prosperous farmers in the village. Each had several cows, a team of horses, and choice pieces of land.

  I slid behind some empty barrels in the corner. The men sat on a bench by the table, still loaded with food, and talked slowly. They offered each other portions of food and, as was the custom, avoided each other’s eyes and kept grave faces. Then one of them slowly reached into his pocket. While picking up a piece of sausage with one hand, he slid out a knife with a long pointed blade with the other. Then he plunged it with all his strength into the back of his unsuspecting companion.

  Without looking back he left the room munching the sausage with relish. The stabbed man tried to rise. He looked around with glassy eyes; when he saw me he tried to say something, but all that came out of his mouth was a half-chewed piece of cabbage. Once more he tried to stand up, but he wobbled and slid gently between the bench and the table. Making sure that there was no one else about, and trying in vain to stop trembling, I scurried out of the half-open door like a rat and ran to the barn.

  In the dusk, village lads were grabbing girls and pulling them into the barn. On a pile of hay a man showing his buttocks had a woman spreadeagled on her back. Drunks stumbled across the threshing yard, cursing to each other and vomiting, harassing the lovers and waking the snorers. I pried off a board in the rear of the barn and squeezed through the opening. I ran to my farmer’s barn and quickly scrambled onto the heap of hay in the stable which was my sleeping quarters.

  The body of the murdered man was not removed from the house immediately after the wedding. It was placed in one of the side rooms while the dead man’s family assembled in the main room. Meanwhile, one of the older village women had bared the left arm of the corpse and washed it with a brown mixture. The men and women suffering from goiter entered the room, one by one, the ugly sacks of inflated flesh hanging under their chins and spreading over their necks. The old woman brought each of them to the body, made some involved gestures over the afflicted part, and then lifted the lifeless hand to touch the swelling seven times. The patient, pale with fright, had to repeat with her, “Let the disease go where this hand will be going.”

  After the treatment the patients paid the dead man’s family for the cure. The corpse remained in the room. The left hand rested on his chest; a holy candle had been placed in the stiff right hand. By the fourth day, when the odor in the room became stronger, a priest was summoned to the village and burial preparations started.

  Long after the funeral, the farmer’s wife still refused to wash the bloodstains from the room of the murder. They were clearly visible on the floor and table, like a dark rust-colored fungus embedded in the wood forever. Everyone believed that these stains, testifying to the crime, would sooner or later draw the murderer back to the spot against his will and lead to his death.

  However, the murderer, whose face I remembered very well, frequently dined in the same room where he had murdered, gorging himself on the ample meals served there. I could not understand how he could remain unafraid of these bloodstains. I often watched him with morbid fascination as he walked over them, imperturbably smoking his pipe or taking a bite of pickled cucumber after a glass of vodka downed in one gulp.

  At such times I was as tense as a drawn slingshot. I awaited some shattering event: a dark chasm that would open under the bloodstains and swallow him without a trace, or a seizure of St. Vitus’s dance. But the murderer trod fearlessly over the stains. Sometimes at night I wondered if the stains had lost their power of vengeance. After all, they were somewhat faded now; kittens had dirtied them, and the woman herself, forgetting her resolution, had often mopped the floor.

  On the other hand, I knew that the workings, of justice were often exceedingly slow. In the village I had heard a tale about a skull which tumbled out of a grave and proceeded to roll down an incline, in between the crosses, carefully avoiding beds of blooming flowers. The sexton tried to stop the skull with a spade, but it evaded him and headed toward the cemetery gate. A forester saw it and also tried to stop it by shooting at it with his rifle. The skull, quite undaunted by all the obstacles, rolled steadily down the road leading to the village. It waited for the opportune moment and then threw itself under the hooves of a local farmer’s horses. They bolted, overturned their cart, and killed the driver on the spot.

  When people heard about the accident they were curious and investigated the matter further. They discovered that the skull had “jumped” out of the grave of the older brother of the accident victim. Ten years earlier, the older brother was about to inherit the father’s property. The younger brother and his wife were obviously envious of his good fortune. Then one night the older brother died suddenly. His brother and sister-in-law decided on a hasty burial, not even allowing the relatives of the deceased to visit the body.

  Various rumors about the cause of such a sudden death circulated in the village, yet nothing definite was known. Gradually, the younger brother, who eventually took over the property, prospered in wealth and general esteem.

  After the accident by the cemetery gate, the skull gave up its wandering and rested quietly in the road dust. Close inspection showed that a large rusty nail had been driven deep into the bone.

  Thus, after many years, the victim punished the executioner, and justice prevailed. So it was believed that neither rain, nor fire, nor wind could ever wipe out the stain of a crime. For justice hangs over the world like a great sledgehammer lifted by a powerful arm, which has to stop for a while before coming down with terrible force on the unsuspecting anvil. As they used to say in the villages, even a speck of dust shows up in the sun.

  While the adults usually left me alone, I had to watch out for the village boys. They were great hunters ; I was their game. Even my farmer warned me to keep out of their way. I took the cattle to the edge of the pasture, far away from the other boys. The grass was richer there, but one had to watch the cows constantly to keep them from straying into the adjoining fields and damaging crops. But here I was fairly safe from raids and not too conspicuous. Every now and then some herdsmen crept up on me and sprang a surprise attack. I usually got a beating and had to flee into the fields. I warned them loudly on such occasions that if the cows should damage any crops while I was away, my farmer would punish them. The threat often worked and they would return to their cows.

  Still, I was afraid of such attacks and did not have a moment’s peace. Every movement of the herdsmen, every huddle, every sign of action toward me filled me with apprehension of some plot.

  Their other games and schemes centered around military equipment found in the woods, mostly rifle cartridges and land mines, locally called “soap” because of their shape. To find a cache of ammunition, one had only to walk a few miles into the forest and forage in the underbrush. The weapons had been left by two detachments of partisans who had waged a drawn-out battle there some months earlier. “Soap” cakes were particularly plentiful. Some peasants said that they were left by the fleeing “white” partisans; others swore that they were booty taken from the “reds,” which the “whites” could not carry along with all their other equipment.

  One could also find broken rifles in the forest. The boys would take out the barrels, cut them to shorter sections, and fashion them into pistols with handles whittled from branches. Such pistols used rifle ammunition, which was also easily found in the bush. The cartridge was detonated by a nail attached to a band of rubber.

  Crude though they were, these pistols could be lethal. Two of the village boys were seriously injured when they quarreled and shot each other with such guns. Another homemade pistol exploded in a boy’s hand, tearing off all his fingers and an ear. The most pathetic was the paralyzed and crippled son of one of our neighbors. Someone played a practical joke on him by placing several rounds of rifle ammunition at the bottom of his comet. When the unsuspecting boy lit his comet in the morning and swung it between
his legs, the cartridges went off.

  There was also the “powder up” method of shooting. One took the bullet from the cartridge case and poured out some of the powder. The bullet was then pressed deep into the half-empty case and the rest of the powder was placed on top, covering the bullet. A cartridge doctored in this way was then placed in a slot in a board, or buried in the ground almost to the tip, and aimed in the direction of the target. The powder on top was lit. When the fire reached the primer, the bullet shot a distance of twenty feet or more. The “powder up” experts held contests and made bets on whose bullet would go farthest and on what proportion of powder on top and bottom would prove best. The bolder boys tried to impress girls by shooting the bullet while holding the cartridge. Often the cartridge case or detonator hit a boy or some bystander. The best-looking boy in the village had such a fuse imbedded in a part of his body the very mention of which started everyone laughing. He strolled around mostly alone, avoiding the glance or giggling women.

  But such accidents never deterred anyone. Both adults and boys traded constantly in ammunition, “soap,” rifle barrels, and bolts, having spent many hours on an inch-by-inch search of the thick undergrowth.

  A time fuse was a prize find. It could be traded for a homemade pistol with a wooden stock and twenty rounds of ammunition. A time fuse was necessary to make mines out of soap. All one had to do was stick the fuse into a cake of soap, light it, and quickly run away from the explosion, which would shake the windows of all the houses in the village. There was a big demand for fuses at the time of weddings and baptisms. The explosions were a great additional attraction, and the women shrieked in excitement waiting for the detonation of the mines.

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