The painted bird, p.12
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       The Painted Bird, p.12

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  After each train had passed I saw whole battalions of ghosts with ugly, vengeful faces coming into the world. The peasants said the smoke from the crematories went straight to heaven, laying a soft carpet at God’s feet, without even soiling them. I wondered whether so many Jews were necessary to compensate God for the killing of His son. Perhaps the world would soon become one vast incinerator for burning people. Had not the priest said that all were doomed to perish, to go “from ashes to ashes”?

  Along the embankment, between the rails, we found innumerable scraps of paper, notebooks, calendars, family photographs, printed personal documents, old passports, and diaries. The pictures were of course the most desirable to collect, since few in the village could read. In many of the pictures elderly people sat stiffly in peculiar clothes. In others, elegantly dressed parents stood with their arms on the shoulders of their children, all smiling and wearing clothing of a type that no one in the village had ever seen. Sometimes we found photographs of beautiful young girls, or handsome young men. There were pictures of old men, who looked like apostles, and old ladies with faded smiles. In some, one could see children playing in a park, babies crying, or newlyweds kissing. On the reverse of these were some farewells, oaths, or religious passages scribbled in handwriting obviously shaken by fear or the motion of the train. The words were often washed off by the morning dew or bleached out by the sun.

  The peasants eagerly collected these articles. The women giggled and whispered to one another about the pictures of the men, while the men muttered obscene jokes and comments about the pictures of the girls. People in the village collected these photographs, traded them, and hung them in their huts and barns. In some houses there was a picture of Our Lady on one wall, of Christ on another, a crucifix on the third, and pictures of numerous Jews on the fourth. Farmers would come upon their hired hands exchanging pictures of girls, staring excitedly at them, and playing indecently with each other. And it was said that one of the more attractive village girls fell so hopelessly in love with a handsome man in a photograph that she would not look at her fiancé afterwards.

  One day a boy brought back news from the mushroom fields of a Jewish girl found by the railroad tracks. She was alive, with only a sprained shoulder and some bruises. They surmised that she had dropped through a hole in the floor when the train slowed down on a curve, and thus escaped more serious injuries.

  Everyone turned out to see this marvel. The girl staggered along, half carried by some men. Her thin face was very pale. She had thick eyebrows and very black eyes. Her long, glossy black hair was tied with a ribbon and fell down her back. Her dress was torn, and I could see bruises and scratches on her white body. With her good arm she tried to hold up the injured one.

  The men took her to the house of the village head. A curious crowd assembled, looking her over carefully. She did not seem to understand anything. Whenever any of the men came near her she joined her hands as though in prayer and babbled in a language no one could understand. Terrified, she stared about her with eyes that had blue-white eyeballs and jet-black pupils. The village headman conferred with some of the elders of the village, and also with the man nicknamed Rainbow who had found the Jewess. It was decided that, in accordance with official regulations, she would be sent to the German post the next day.

  The peasants slowly dispersed to their homes. But some of the bolder ones stayed on, watching the girl and cracking jokes. Half-blind old women spat thrice in her direction and, muttering under their breath, warned their grandsons.

  Then Rainbow took the girl by the arm and led her to his hut. Though some thought him odd, he was well liked in the village. He took special interest in heavenly signs, especially rainbows, hence his nickname. In the evenings when he entertained his neighbors he could talk for hours about rainbows. Listening to him from a dark corner, I learned that a rainbow is a long arched stalk, hollow as a straw. One end is immersed in a river or lake and draws the water off. It is then distributed fairly over the countryside. Fishes and other creatures are drawn up with the water, and that is why one finds the same kind of fish in widely separated lakes, ponds, and rivers.

  Rainbow’s hut adjoined my master’s. His barn shared a wall with the barn in which I slept. His wife had died some time ago but Rainbow, still young, could not decide on another mate. His neighbors used to say that those who stared at rainbows too much could not see an ass in front of their faces. An old woman cooked for Rainbow and looked after his children while he worked in the fields and got drunk once in a while for recreation.

  The Jewess was to spend the night at Rainbow’s home. That evening I was awakened by noises and cries from his barn. At first I was scared. But I found a knothole through which I could see what was happening. In the middle of the cleaned threshing floor the girl was lying on some sacks. Next to her an oil lamp was burning on an old chopping block. Rainbow sat close to her head. Neither moved. Then Rainbow, with a quick movement, pulled the dress off the girl’s shoulders. The strap gave way. The girl tried to escape, but Rainbow kneeled on her long hair and held her face between his knees. He leaned closer. Then he tore the other strap off. The girl cried, but became motionless.

  Rainbow crawled to her feet, wedging them between his legs, and with a deft jerk pulled off her dress. She tried to rise and hold on to the material with her good hand, but Rainbow pushed her back. She was now naked. The light of the oil lamp threw shadows on her flesh.

  Rainbow sat at the girl’s side and stroked her body with his big hands. His bulk hid her face from me, but I could hear her quiet sobbing broken occasionally by a cry. Slowly Rainbow took off his knee boots and breeches, leaving on only a rough shirt.

  He straddled the prostrate girl and moved his hands gently over her shoulders, breasts, and belly. She moaned and whined, uttering strange words in her language when his touch grew rougher. Rainbow lifted himself on his elbows, slipped down a little, and with one brutal push opened her legs and fell on her with a thud.

  The girl arched her body, screamed, and kept opening and closing her fingers as though trying to grasp something. Then something strange happened. Rainbow was on top of the girl, his legs between hers, but trying to break away. Every time he hoisted himself, she screamed with pain; he also groaned and cursed. He tried again to detach himself from her crotch, but seemed unable to do so. He was held fast by some strange force inside her, just as a hare or fox is caught in a snare.

  He remained on top of the girl, trembling violently. After a while he renewed his efforts, but each time the girl writhed in pain. He also seemed to suffer. He wiped the perspiration off his face, swore, and spat. At his next try the girl wanted to help. She opened her legs wider, lifted her hips, and pushed with her good hand against his belly. It was all in vain. An invisible bond held them together.

  I had often seen the same thing happen to dogs. Sometimes when they coupled violently, starved for release, they could not break loose again. They struggled with the painful tie, turning more and more away from each other, finally joined only at their rear ends. They seemed to be one body with two heads, and two tails growing in the same place. From man’s friend they became nature’s freak. They howled, yelped, and shook all over. Their bloodshot eyes, begging for help, gaped with unspeakable agony at the people hitting them with rakes and sticks. Rolling in the dust and bleeding under the blows, they redoubled their efforts to break apart. People laughed, kicked the dogs, threw screeching cats and rocks at them. The animals tried to run away, but each headed in the opposite direction. They ran in circles. In mad rage they tried to bite each other. Finally they gave up and waited for human help.

  Then village boys would throw them into a river or pond. The dogs tried desperately to swim, but each kept pulling away from the other. They were helpless, and their heads only emerged from time to time, frothing at the mouth, too weak to bark. As the current carried them away an amused crowd followed along the riverbank, shouting with joy, throwing stones at their heads as they bobbed out
of the water.

  On other occasions, people who did not intend to lose their dogs in this manner brutally cut them apart, which meant mutilation or slow death from bleeding for the male. Sometimes the animals managed to separate after wandering around for days, falling into ditches, getting caught in fences and brush.

  Rainbow renewed his efforts. He appealed loudly to the Virgin Mary for help. He panted and puffed. He made another big heave, trying to tear himself away from the girl. She screamed and started to hit the bewildered man’s face with her fist, scratch him with her nails, bite his hands. Rainbow licked the blood off his lip, lifted himself on one arm, and dealt the girl a powerful blow with the other. Panic must have dimmed his brain, for he collapsed on top of her, biting her breasts, arms and neck. He hammered her thighs with his fists, then grabbed her flesh as if trying to tear it off. The girl screamed with a high-pitched steady cry that finally broke off when her throat dried up—and then it started again. Rainbow went on beating her until he was exhausted.

  They lay, one on top of the other, motionless and silent. The flickering flame of the oil lamp was the only thing that moved.

  Rainbow started crying for help. His shouts brought first a band of barking dogs, then some alarmed men with axes and knives. They opened the door of the barn and, uncomprehending, goggled at the couple on the floor. In a hoarse voice, Rainbow quickly explained the situation. They closed the door and, not letting anyone else enter, sent for a witch-midwife who knew about such things.

  The old woman came, kneeled by the locked couple, and did something to them with the help of others. I could see nothing; I only heard the girl’s last piercing shriek. Then there was silence and Rainbow’s barn grew dark. At dawn I ran to the knothole. Sunshine was coming in through the slots between the boards, lighting up sparkling beams of grain dust. On the threshing floor, close to the wall, a human shape lay stretched out flat, covered from head to foot with a horse blanket.

  I had to take the cows to pasture while the village was still asleep. When I returned at dusk I heard the peasants discussing the previous night’s events. Rainbow had taken the body back to the railroad track, where the patrol was due to pass in the morning.

  For several weeks the village had a lively topic of conversation. Rainbow himself, when he had taken a few drinks, would tell people how the Jewess had sucked him in and wouldn’t let go of him.

  Strange dreams haunted me at night. I heard moans and cries in the barn, an icy hand touched me, black strands of lank hair smelling of gasoline stroked my face. At dawn when I took the cattle to pasture I looked fearfully at the mists floating over the fields. Sometimes the wind would push along a tiny shred of soot, clearly heading in my direction. I shivered and cold sweat poured down my back. The bit of soot circled over my head, looking me straight in the eye, and then drifted high into heaven.


  German detachments began to search for partisans in the surrounding forests and to enforce the compulsory deliveries. I knew that my stay in the village was reaching its end.

  One night my farmer ordered me to flee at once to the forest. He had been informed of a coming raid. The Germans had learned that a Jew was hiding in one of the villages. He was said to have lived there since the outbreak of the war. The entire village knew him; his grandfather used to own a large tract of land and was greatly liked by the community. As they said, though a Jew, he was a decent enough fellow. I left late that evening. It was an overcast night, but the clouds began separating, stars sprang out, and the moon revealed itself in all its eminence. I hid in a bush.

  When dawn came I moved toward the waving ears of grain, keeping far from the village. My toes were stinging from the thick scraping blades of grain, but I tried to reach the center of the field. I had to proceed carefully; I did not want to leave behind too many broken stalks that could betray my presence. Finally I found myself fairly deep in the grain. Shivering from the morning cold, I curled into a ball and tried to sleep.

  I woke to hear rough voices coming from all directions. The Germans had surrounded the field. I clung to the earth. As the soldiers strode through the field, the crackling of broken stalks became loud.

  They almost stepped on me. Startled, they aimed their rifles at me; when I rose, they readied them. There were two of them, young, in new green uniforms. The taller one grabbed me by the ear, and both laughed, exchanging remarks about me. I understood that they were asking whether I was a Gypsy or a Jew. I denied it. This amused them even more; they kept on joking. All three of us walked toward the village, I ahead and they, laughing, directly behind.

  We entered the main road. Terrified peasants spied from behind the windows. When they recognized me they disappeared.

  Two large brown trucks stood in the center of the village. Soldiers in unbuttoned uniforms squatted around them drinking from canteens. More soldiers were returning from the fields, stacking their rifles and sitting down.

  A few of the soldiers surrounded me. They pointed at me, laughed or grew serious. One of them walked up close to me, leaned over, and smiled straight in my face with a warm, loving smile. I was going to smile back when he suddenly punched me very hard in the stomach. I lost my breath and fell, gasping and groaning. The soldiers burst into laughter.

  From a nearby hut an officer emerged, noticed me, and approached. The soldiers snapped to attention. I also stood up, alone in the circle. The officer scrutinized me coldly and issued a command. Two soldiers grabbed me by the arms, dragged me to the hut, opened the door, and shoved me inside.

  In the center of the room, in semi-darkness, a man lay. He was small, emaciated, dark. His snarled hair hung over his forehead, a bayonet wound split his entire face. His hands were tied behind him, and a deep wound gaped through the cut jacket sleeve.

  I crouched in a corner. The man fixed me with shining black eyes. They seemed to look out from under his thick, overhanging eyebrows and come straight at me. They terrified me. I averted my gaze.

  Outside engines were being started; boots, weapons, and canteens rattled. Commands rang out and the trucks departed with a roar.

  The door opened and peasants and soldiers entered the hut. They dragged the wounded man out by his hands and dumped him on a seat in a cart. His broken knuckles hung limp as on a swaying dummy. We were seated back to back; I faced the shoulders of the drivers; he the rear of the cart and the receding road. A soldier sat with the two peasants who drove the cart. From the peasants’ conversation, I gathered that we were being taken to the police station in a nearby town.

  For several hours we rode on a well-traveled road bearing the recent tracks of trucks. Later we left the road and drove through the forest, startling birds and hares. The wounded man sagged listlessly. I was not sure if he was alive; I could only feel his inert body lashed by rope to the cart and me.

  We halted twice. The two peasants offered some of their meal to the German, who in return doled out a cigarette and a yellow candy to each of them. The peasants thanked him servilely. They took long draughts from the bottles hidden under the box seat and then urinated in the bushes.

  We were ignored. I was hungry and weak. A warm resin-scented breeze drifted from the forest. The wounded man moaned. The horses restlessly tossed their heads, their long tails lashing out against the flies.

  We moved on. The German on the cart was breathing heavily, as though in sleep. He closed his gaping mouth only when a fly threatened to swoop into it.

  Before sunset we rode into a small, densely built-up town. Here and there the houses had brick walls and chimneys. The fences were painted white or blue. Sleeping doves huddled together on the gutterpipes.

  As we passed the first few buildings, children playing in the road noticed us. They surrounded our slow cart and stared at us. The soldier rubbed his eyes, stretched his arms, hitched up his trousers, jumped down, and walked alongside the cart, oblivious to his surroundings.

  The troop of children increased; children jumped out of every house. Suddenly on
e of the older and taller boys struck the prisoner with a long birch twig. The wounded man shuddered and drew back. The children became excited and began pelting us with a barrage of rubbish and rocks. The wounded man drooped. I felt his shoulders, glued to mine, wet with sweat. A few stones hit me also; but I was a more elusive target, sitting between the wounded man and the drivers. The children were making great sport of us. We were being pelted with dried lumps of cow dung, rotten tomatoes, reeking little cadavers of birds. One of the young brutes began to concentrate on me. He walked alongside the cart and with a stick methodically hit selected parts of my body. I tried vainly to ball-up enough saliva to spit into his derisive face.

  Adults joined the crowd around the cart. They shrieked, “Beat the Jews, beat the bastards,” and egged the children on to further attacks. The drivers, unwilling to expose themselves to accidental blows, jumped off the box seat and walked along beside the horses. The wounded man and I now provided excellent targets. A new hail of stones struck us. My cheek was cut, a broken tooth was dangling, and my lower lip was split. I spat blood into the faces of those nearest to me, but they leapt back adroitly to aim other blows.

  Some fiend tore whole bundles of ivy and ferns growing along the roadway out by the root and lashed the wounded man and me. The pain burned at my body, the stones were striking me with more precision, and I dropped my chin on my breast, dreading that some stone might strike my eyes.

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