The painted bird, p.11
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       The Painted Bird, p.11

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  No one knew that I had hidden a time fuse and three soaps in the barn. I had found it in the woods while picking wild thyme for the farmer’s wife. The fuse was almost new and had a very long wick.

  Sometimes, when there was no one around, I would take out the soaps and the fuse and balance them in my hand. There was something quite extraordinary about these bits of strange substance. The soaps did not burn well by themselves; but when the fuse was placed inside and lit, it did not take long for the flame to crawl along the wick and produce an explosion that could wreck a whole farmhouse.

  I tried to visualize the people who invented and made such fuses and mines. They were certain to be German. Didn’t they say in the villages that no one could resist the power of the German because he gobbled up the brains of the Poles, Russians, Gypsies, and Jews?

  I wondered what gave people the ability to invent such things. Why were the village peasants unable to do it? I wondered what gave people of one color of eyes and hair such great power over other people.

  The peasants’ plows, scythes, rakes, spinning wheels, wells, and mills turned by sluggish horses or sickly oxen were so simple that even the dullest man could invent them and understand their use and working. But the making of a fuse capable of injecting an overwhelming power into a mine was surely beyond the capacity of even the wisest farmer.

  If it was true that the Germans were capable of such inventions, and also that they were determined to clear the world of all swarthy, dark-eyed long-nosed, black-haired people, then my chances of survival were obviously poor. Sooner or later I would fall into their hands again, and I might not be as lucky as in the past.

  I recalled the spectacled German who let me escape into the forest. He was blond and blue-eyed, but he did not appear particularly wise. What sense did it make to stay at a small, derelict station and chase after tiny fry like me? If what the head peasant of the village had said was true, then who was going to make all the inventions when the Germans were busy guarding the little railroad stations? It seemed that even the wisest man could not invent very much at such a miserable station.

  I dozed off thinking of the inventions I would like to make. For example, a fuse for the human body which, when lighted, would change old skin for new and alter the color of the eyes and hair. A fuse to place in a pile of construction material that could build a house in a day that would be finer than any in the village. A fuse which could protect anybody from an evil eye. Then nobody would fear me and my life would become easier and more pleasant.

  The Germans puzzled me. What a waste. Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?

  One Sunday a group of village boys returning from church spotted me on the road. Too late for flight, I feigned indifference, and tried to conceal my fear. Passing by, one of them swung at me and pushed me into a deep, muddy puddle. Others spat straight into my eyes, laughing with each good hit. They demanded some “Gypsy tricks.” I tried to break away and run, but the circle tightened around me. Taller than I, they closed over me like a living net trapping a bird. I was afraid of what they might do. Looking down at their heavy Sunday boots, I realized that being barefoot, I could run faster than they. I singled out the largest boy, picked up a heavy stone, and smashed it in his face. The face crumpled and sagged under the blow; the boy fell down bleeding. The others recoiled with shock. In that moment I leapt over the boy and fled across the fields to the village.

  When I reached home I looked for the farmer to tell him what had happened and to seek his protection. He had not yet returned from the church with the family. Only the old toothless mother-in-law was wandering around the yard.

  My legs went weak under me. A crowd of men and boys approached from the village. They waved clubs and sticks, coming closer with increasing speed.

  This had to be my end. The father or brothers of the wounded boy were surely in the crowd and I could expect no mercy. I dashed into the kitchen, shoveled a few glowing coals into my comet, and rushed to the barn, closing the door behind me.

  My thoughts were scattering like scared chickens. The crowd would take me into its hands at any moment.

  Suddenly I remembered the fuse and the mines. I dug them up quickly. With trembling fingers I stuck the fuse between the tightly lashed soaps and lighted it with the comet. The end of the fuse hissed, and the red spot started crawling slowly along the wick toward the soaps. I pushed it all under a pile of broken plows and harrows in a corner of the barn and frantically pried off a board in the back wall.

  The crowd was already in the farmyard and I could hear their shouts. I grabbed the comet and scrambled out of the hole into the thick wheat behind the barn. I plunged into it and ran crouching under cover, boring my way to the forest like a mole.

  I was perhaps halfway across the field when the ground shuddered from the explosion. I looked back. Two walls sadly leaning against each other were all that remained of the barn. Between them whirled a mass of splintered boards and swirling hay. A cloud of dust mushroomed above.

  I rested after reaching the edge of the forest. I was glad to see that there was no fire at my master’s farm. All I could hear was the tumult of voices. No one followed me.

  I knew I could never go back there. I continued into the forest, looking carefully through the undergrowth where there were still many cartridges, soaps, and fuses to be found.


  I wandered for several days in the woods and made attempts to approach the villages. The first time I noticed people running from one house to another, shouting and waving their arms. I did not know what had happened, but it seemed wiser to stay away. In the next village I heard shots, which meant that either partisans or Germans were nearby. Discouraged, I continued my trek for another two days. Finally, hungry and exhausted, I decided to try the next village, which seemed quiet enough.

  As I emerged from the bushes I nearly walked into a man plowing a small field. He was a giant with enormous hands and feet. Reddish whiskers covered his face, almost up to the eyes, and his long, disheveled hair stood up like a tangle of reeds. His pale gray eyes watched me warily. Trying to imitate the local dialect, I told him that for a place to sleep and a little food I would milk his cows, clean the stable, take the beasts to pasture, chop wood, set snares for game, and cast spells of all kinds against human and animal ills. The peasant listened carefully, and then took me home without saying a word.

  He had no children. His wife, after arguing with some neighbors, agreed to take me in. I was shown a sleeping place in the stable and told my duties.

  The village was poor. The huts were built of logs plastered on both sides with clay and straw. The walls were sunk deeply in the ground and supported thatched roofs crowned with chimneys made of willow and clay. Only a few of the peasants had barns, and these were often built back to back to save one wall. Now and then German soldiers from a nearby railroad station came to the village to take any food they could find.

  When the Germans were approaching and it was too late to run for the woods, my master hid me in a skillfully camouflaged cellar beneath the barn. Its entrance was very narrow and it was at least ten feet deep. I had helped dig it myself, and no one else, other than the man and his wife, knew of its existence.

  It had a well-stocked larder with large lumps of butter and cheese, smoked hams, strings of sausages, bottles of homemade liquor, and other delicacies. The bottom of the cellar was always cool. While the Germans rushed all over the house searching for food, chasing pigs in the fields, clumsily trying to catch chickens, I sat there absorbing the delicious fragrances. Often the soldiers stood on the board covering the entrance to the cellar. I used to hold my nose to avoid sneezing as I listened to their strange speech. As soon as the sound of the army trucks died into the distance the man would pull me up out of the cellar to resume my usual duties.

  The mushroom season had begun. The hungry villagers welcomed it and went into the woods for their rich harvest. Every hand was needed and my master always took me along. Large pa
rties of peasants from other villages roamed the woods in search of the small growths. My master realized that I looked like a Gypsy and, anxious not to be denounced to the Germans, he shaved my black hair. When going out I put on my head a large old cap that covered half of my face and made me less conspicuous. Still, I felt uneasy under the suspicious glances of the other peasants, so I tried always to stay close to my master. I felt that I was sufficiently useful to him to be kept for a while.

  On the way to the mushroom gathering we crossed the railroad running through the forest. Several times a day great puffing locomotives passed pulling long freight trains. Machine-guns thrust out of the roofs of the cars and rested on a platform in front of the steam engine. Helmeted soldiers scanned the sky and woods with binoculars.

  Then a new kind of train appeared on the line. Living people were jammed in locked cattle cars. Some of the men who worked at the station brought news to the village. These trains carried Jews and Gypsies, who had been captured and sentenced to death. In each car there were two hundred of them stacked like cornstalks, arms raised to take up less space. Old and young, men, women, and children, even babies. Often the peasants from the neighboring village were temporarily employed on the construction of a concentration camp and brought back strange tales. They told us that after leaving the train the Jews were sorted into different groups, then stripped naked and deprived of all their possessions. Their hair was cut off, apparently for use in mattresses. The Germans also looked at their teeth, and if there were any gold ones they were immediately pulled out. The gas chambers and ovens could not cope with the great supply of people; thousands of those killed by gas were not burned but simply buried in pits around the camp.

  The peasants listened to these stories thoughtfully. They said the Lord’s punishment had finally reached the Jews. They had deserved it long ago, ever since they crucified Christ. God never forgot. If He had overlooked the sins of the Jews so far, He had not forgiven them. Now the Lord was using the Germans as His instrument of justice. The Jews were to be denied the privilege of a natural death. They had to perish by fire, suffering the torments of hell here on earth. They were being justly punished for the shameful crimes of their ancestors, for refuting the only True Faith, for mercilessly killing Christian babies and drinking their blood.

  The villagers now gave me even darker looks. “You Gypsy-Jew,” they yelled. “You’ll burn yet, bastard, you will.” I pretended that this did not concern me, even when some shepherds caught me and tried to drag me to a fire and toast my heels, as was God’s will. I struggled, scratching and biting them. I had no intention of being burned in such an ordinary camp-fire when others were incinerated in special and elaborate furnaces built by the Germans and equipped with engines more powerful than those of the largest locomotives.

  I stayed awake at night worrying whether God would punish me too. Was it possible that God’s wrath was reserved only for people with black hair and eyes, who were called Gypsies? Why did my father, whom I still remembered well, have fair hair and blue eyes, while my mother was dark? What was the difference between a Gypsy and a Jew, since both were dusky and both were destined for the same end? Probably after the war only fair-haired, blue-eyed people would be left in the world. Then what would happen to children of blond people who might be born dark?

  When the trains carrying Jews went by in the daytime or at dusk, the peasants lined up on both sides of the track and waved cheerfully to the engineer, the stoker, and the few guards. Through the small square windows at the top of the locked cars, one could sometimes glimpse a human face. These people must have climbed on the shoulders of others to see where they were going and to find out whose voices they heard outside. Seeing the friendly gestures of the peasants the people in the car must have thought that they themselves were being greeted. Then the Jewish faces would disappear and a mass of thin, pale arms would wave desperate signals.

  The peasants watched the trains with curiosity, listening intently to the strange humming sound of the human throng, neither groan, cry, nor song. The train went by, and as it pulled away one could still see against the dark background of the forest disembodied human arms waving tirelessly from the windows.

  Sometimes at night people traveling on the trains to the crematories would toss their small children through the windows in the hope of saving their lives. Now and then they managed to wrench up the floorboards and determined Jews might force their way through the hole, hitting the crushed stone track-bed, the rails, or the taut semaphore wire. Slashed by the wheels, their mutilated trunks rolled down the embankment into the tall grass.

  Peasants wandering along the tracks in daytime would find these remains and quickly strip them of clothes and shoes. Gingerly, lest they get soiled with the diseased blood of the unbaptized, they ripped the linings off the victims’ clothes in search for valuables. There were many disputes and fights over the loot. Later the stripped bodies were left on the track, between the rails, where they were found by the German motorized patrol car which passed once a day. The Germans either poured gasoline over the contaminated bodies and burned them on the spot or buried them nearby.

  One day word came to the village that several trains with Jews had passed at night, one after another. The peasants finished their mushroom gathering earlier than usual and then we all went to the railroad tracks. We walked along the line on both sides, in single file, peering into the bushes, looking for signs of blood on the signal pole wires and on the edge of the embankment. There was nothing for a few miles. Then one of the women spotted some crushed branches in a thicket of wild roses. Someone spread the thorny growth and we saw a small boy of about five sprawled on the ground. His shirt and pants were in shreds. His black hair was long and his dark eyebrows arched. He seemed to be asleep or dead. One of the men stepped on his leg. The boy jerked and opened his eyes. Seeing people leaning over him he tried to say something, but pink froth came from his mouth instead and dripped slowly over his chin and neck. Afraid of his black eyes, the peasants quickly moved aside and crossed themselves.

  Hearing voices behind him, the boy tried to turn over. But his bones must have been broken, because he only moaned and a large bloody bubble appeared at his mouth. He fell back and closed his eyes. The peasants watched him suspiciously from a distance. One of the women crept forward, grabbed the worn shoes on his feet, and tore them off. The boy moved, groaned, and coughed up more blood. He opened his eyes and saw the peasants, who darted out of his field of vision, crossing themselves in panic. He closed his eyes again and remained motionless. Two men grabbed him by the legs and turned him over. He was dead. They took off his jacket, shirt, and shorts and carried him to the middle of the track. He was left there and the German patrol car could not miss him.

  We turned to go home. I glanced back as we went. The boy was lying on the whitish stones of the track. Only the clump of his black hair remained in view.

  I tried to think what he had thought before dying. When he was tossed out of the train his parents or his friends no doubt assured him that he would find human help which would save him from a horrible death in the great furnace. He probably felt cheated, deceived. He would have preferred to cling to the warm bodies of his father and mother in the packed car, to feel the pressure and smell the hot tart odors, the presence of other people, knowing that he was not alone, told by everyone that the journey was only a misunderstanding.

  Although I regretted the boy’s tragedy, at the bottom of my mind lurked a feeling of relief that he was dead. Keeping him in the village would do no one any good, I thought. He would threaten the lives of all of us. If the Germans heard about a Jewish foundling, they would converge on the village. They would search every house, they would find the boy, and they would also find me in my cellar. They would probably assume that I, too, had fallen off the train and would kill both of us together on the spot, punishing the whole village later.

  I pulled the cloth cap over my face, dragging my feet at the end of the line. Wouldn
t it be easier to change people’s eyes and hair than to build big furnaces and then catch Jews and Gypsies to burn in them?

  Mushroom gathering was now a daily chore. Baskets of them were drying everywhere, basketfuls were hidden in lofts and barns. More and more grew in the woods. Every morning people dispersed into the forest with empty baskets. Heavily laden bees, carrying nectar from dying flowers, droned lazily in the autumn sun through the windless peace of the thick undergrowth, guarded by the towers of tall trees.

  Bending down to pick the mushrooms, people called to each other in cheerful voices each time they found a rich cluster. They were answered by the soft cacophony of birds calling from the thickets of hazel and juniper, from the branches of oaks and hornbeams. Sometimes the sinister cry of an owl was heard, but no one could see it in its deep, hidden hole in some tree trunk. A reddish fox might scurry away into the dense bushes after a feast of partridge eggs. Vipers would crawl nervously, hissing to give themselves courage. A fat hare would bound into the bush with huge leaps.

  The symphony of the forest was broken only by the puffing of a locomotive, the rattle of cars, the grinding of the brakes. People stood still, looking toward the tracks. The birds grew silent, the owl drew deeper into its hole, draping its gray cloak about itself with dignity. The hare stood up, raising its long ears high, and then, reassured, resumed its leaps.

  In the weeks that followed, until the mushroom season ended, we often walked along the railroad tracks. Occasionally we passed small oblong heaps of black ashes and some charred bones, broken and trodden into the gravel. With pursed lips the men stopped and stared. Many people feared that even the burnt corpses of those jumping off the train might contaminate both men and animals, and they would hastily kick dirt over the ashes.

  Once I pretended to pick up a mushroom which had dropped out of my basket and grasped a handful of this human dust. It stuck to my fingers and smelled of gasoline. I looked at it closely but could find no trace of a person. Yet this ash was not like the ash left in kitchen ovens where wood, dried peat, and moss were burned. I became frightened. It seemed to me, as I rubbed the handful of ash in my fingers, that the ghost of the burned person hovered over me, watching and remembering all of us. I knew that the ghost might never leave me, that it might follow me, haunt me at night, seep sickness into my veins and madness into my brain.

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