The painted bird, p.13
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       The Painted Bird, p.13

           Jerzy Kosiński
 
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  Suddenly a small, stout priest leapt out of an unprepossessing house as we were passing by. He wore a torn, faded cassock. Flushed with excitement, he burst into the crowd brandishing a cane, and he began to strike at them on the hands, faces, and heads. Panting, perspiring, trembling with exhaustion, he scattered the mob in all directions.

  The priest now walked alongside the cart, slowly regaining his breath. With one hand he wiped his brow and with the other clasped mine. The wounded man had evidently fainted, for his shoulders grew cold as he swayed rhythmically like a puppet tied to a stick.

  The cart entered the courtyard of the military police building. The priest had to remain outside. Two soldiers untied the rope, took the wounded man off the cart, and laid him down at the wall. I stood nearby.

  Soon afterward a tall SS officer in a soot-black uniform sauntered into the courtyard. Never before had I seen such a striking uniform. At the proud peak of the cap glittered a death’s-head and crossbones, while lightninglike signs embellished the collar. A red badge bearing the bold sign of the swastika cut across his sleeve.

  The officer received a report from one of the soldiers. Then his heels drummed against the flat concrete surface of the courtyard as he strode to the wounded man. With a deft movement of the tip of his shining jackboot he flipped the man’s face toward the light.

  The man looked hideous—a mangled face with a rammed-in nose and a mouth hidden by torn skin. Shreds of ivy, lumps of earth, and cow dung were sticking to his eye socket. The officer squatted close to this amorphous head which was reflected in the smooth surface of his boot tops. He was questioning or saying something to the wounded man.

  The bloody mass moved like a thousand-pound load. The thin, mutilated body pushed itself by its tied hands. The officer edged away. His face was in the sunshine now, and it had a sheer and compelling beauty, the skin almost waxlike, with flaxen hair as smooth as a baby’s. Once before, in a church, I had seen such a delicate face. It was painted on a wall, bathed in organ music, and touched only by light from the stained-glass windows.

  The wounded man continued rising until he was nearly sitting. Silence lay over the courtyard like a heavy cloak. The other soldiers stood stiffly, gazing at the spectacle. The wounded man breathed hard. Straining to open his mouth, he swayed like a scarecrow in a gust of wind. Sensing the nearness of the officer he listed in his direction.

  The officer, disgusted, was about to rise from his squatting position when suddenly the wounded man moved his mouth again, grunted, and then, extremely loudly, uttered a short word that sounded like “pig” and fell back, striking his head on the concrete.

  On hearing this the soldiers quivered and looked at each other stupefied. The squatting officer rose and barked a command. The soldiers clicked their heels, cocked their rifles, approached the man, and pumped rapid shots into him. The shattered body shuddered and grew still. The soldiers reloaded and stood at attention.

  Nonchalantly the officer approached me, beating a swagger stick against the seam of his freshly pressed breeches. The instant I saw him I could not tear my gaze from him. His entire person seemed to have something utterly superhuman about it. Against the background of bland colors he projected an unfadable blackness. In a world of men with harrowed faces, with smashed eyes, bloody, bruised and disfigured limbs, among the fetid, broken human bodies, he seemed an example of neat perfection that could not be sullied: the smooth, polished skin of his face, the bright golden hair showing under his peaked cap, his pure metal eyes. Every movement of his body seemed propelled by some tremendous internal force. The granite sound of his language was ideally suited to order the death of inferior, forlorn creatures. I was stung by a twinge of envy I had never experienced before, and I admired the glittering death’s-head and crossbones that embellished his tall cap. I thought how good it would be to have such a gleaming and hairless skull instead of my Gypsy face which was feared and disliked by decent people.

  The officer surveyed me sharply. I felt like a squashed caterpillar oozing in the dust, a creature that could not harm anyone yet aroused loathing and disgust. In the presence of his resplendent being, armed in all the symbols of might and majesty, I was genuinely ashamed of my appearance. I had nothing against his killing me. I gazed at the ornate clasp of his officer’s belt that was exactly at the level of my eyes, and awaited his decision.

  The courtyard was silent again. The soldiers stood about obediently waiting for what would happen next. I knew my fate was being decided in some manner, but it was a matter of indifference to me. I placed infinite confidence in the decision of the man facing me. I knew that he possessed powers unattainable by ordinary people.

  Another quick command rang out. The officer strode off. A soldier shoved me roughly toward the gate. Regretting that the splendid spectacle was over, I walked slowly through the gate and fell straight into the plump arms of the priest, who was waiting outside. He looked even shabbier than before. His cassock was a miserable thing in comparison with the uniform adorned by the death’s-head, crossbones, and lightning bolts.

  11

  The priest took me away in a borrowed cart. He said that he would find someone in a nearby village to take care of me until the end of the war. Before reaching the village we stopped at the local church. The priest left me in the cart and went alone to the vicarage, where I saw him arguing with the vicar. They gesticulated and whispered agitatedly. Then they both came toward me. I jumped off the cart and bowed politely to the vicar, kissing his sleeve. He looked at me, gave me his blessing, and returned to the vicarage without saying another word.

  The priest drove on and finally stopped at the far end of the village at a rather isolated farmhouse. He went in and stayed there so long that I began to wonder if something had happened to him. A huge wolfhound with a sullen, downcast expression guarded the farmyard.

  The priest came out, accompanied by a short, thickset peasant. The dog tucked his tail under his hindquarters and stopped growling. The man looked at me and then stepped aside with the priest. I could hear only snatches of their conversation. The farmer was obviously upset. Pointing to me he shouted that one look was enough to tell I was an unbaptized Gypsy bastard. The priest quietly protested, but the man would not listen. He argued that keeping me might expose him to great danger, since the Germans often visited the village, and if they found me it would be too late for any intervention.

  The priest was gradually losing his patience. He suddenly took the man by the arm and whispered something into his ear. The peasant became subdued and, cursing, told me to follow him into the hut.

  The priest came closer to me and looked into my eyes. We stared at each other in silence. I did not quite know what to do. Trying to kiss his hand I kissed my own sleeve and became confused. He laughed, made the sign of the cross over my head, and departed.

  As soon as he was sure that the priest was gone, the man grabbed me by the ear, almost lifting me off the ground, and pulled me into the hut. When I yelled he jabbed me in the ribs with his finger so hard that I became breathless.

  There were three of us in the household. The farmer Garbos, who had a dead, unsmiling face and half-open mouth; the dog, Judas, with sly glowering eyes; and myself. Garbos was a widower. Sometimes in the course of an argument neighbors would mention an orphaned Jewish girl whom Garbos took as a boarder from her escaping parents some time ago. Whenever one of Garbos’s cows or pigs damaged some of the crops, the villagers would maliciously remind him of this girl. They would say that he used to beat her daily, rape her, and force her to commit depravities until she finally vanished. Meanwhile, Garbos renovated his farm with the money he received for her keep. Garbos listened angrily to such accusations. He would unleash Judas and threaten to set him against the slanderers. Each time the neighbors locked their doors and watched the evil beast through their windows.

  No one ever visited Garbos. He always sat alone in his hut. My job was to look after two pigs, a cow, a dozen hens, and two turkeys.
r />   Without saying a word Garbos used to beat me unexpectedly, and for no reason. He would steal behind me and hit me on the legs with a whip. He would twist my ears, rub his thumb in my hair, and tickle my armpits and feet until I shook uncontrollably. He regarded me as a Gypsy and ordered me to tell him Gypsy stories. But all I could recite were the poems and stories I had learned at home before the war. Listening to them would sometimes infuriate Garbos, for what reason I never knew. He would beat me again or threaten to turn Judas loose on me.

  Judas was a constant menace. He could kill a man with one snap of his jaws. The neighbors often reproached Garbos for having unleashed the beast on someone stealing apples. The thief’s throat was torn out and he died immediately.

  Garbos always incited Judas against me. Gradually the dog must have become convinced that I was his worst enemy. The sight of me was enough to make him bristle like a porcupine. His bloodshot eyes, his nose and his lips quivered, and froth dripped over his ugly fangs. He strained toward me with such force that I was afraid he might break the guard rope, though I also hoped that he would strangle himself on his leash. Seeing the dog’s fury and my fear, Garbos would sometimes untie Judas, lead him only by the collar, and make him back me against the wall. The growling, sputtering mouth was only inches from my throat, and the animal’s big body shook with savage fury. He nearly choked, frothing and spitting, while the man urged him on with hard words and sharp proddings. He came so close that his warm, moist breath dampened my face.

  At such moments life would almost pass out of me, and my blood would flow through my veins with a slow, sluggish drip, like heavy spring honey trickling through the narrow neck of a bottle. My terror was such that it nearly transported me to the other world. I looked at the beast’s burning eyes and at the man’s hairy, freckled hand gripping the collar. At any moment the dog’s teeth might close over my flesh. Not wanting to suffer, I would push my neck forward for the first quick bite. I understood, then, the fox’s mercy in killing geese by severing their necks in one snap.

  But Garbos did not release the dog. Instead he sat down in front of me drinking vodka and marveling aloud why such as I were permitted to live when his boys had died so young. He often asked me that question, and I did not know what to reply. When I failed to answer he would hit me.

  I could not understand what he wanted from me or why he beat me. I tried to keep out of his way. I did as I was told, but he continued the beatings. At night, Garbos would sneak into the kitchen, where I slept, and awake me by yelling into my ear. When I jumped up with a scream, he laughed, while Judas struggled on the chain outside, ready to fight. At other times, when I was sleeping, Garbos would take the dog quietly into the room, tie its muzzle with rags, and then throw the animal on top of me in the darkness. The dog rolled over me while I, overcome by terror, not knowing where I was or what was happening, fought against the huge hairy beast that was scratching me with its paws.

  One day the vicar came in a dogcart to see Garbos. The priest blessed us both, and then he noticed the black and blue welts on my shoulders and neck and demanded who had beaten me and why. Garbos admitted that he had to punish me for laziness. The vicar then admonished him mildly and told him to bring me to the church the next day.

  As soon as the priest had left, Garbos took me inside, stripped me, and flogged me with a willow switch, avoiding only the visible parts, such as my face, arms, and legs. As usual, he forbade me to cry; but when he hit a more sensitive spot, I could not stand the pain and let out a whimper. Droplets of sweat appeared on his forehead and a vein started swelling on his neck. He jammed some thick canvas in my mouth and, passing his tongue over his dry lips, continued flogging me.

  Early the next morning I started on my way to church. My shirt and pants were sticking to the bloody patches on my back and buttocks. But Garbos warned me that if I whispered a word about the beating, he would set Judas on me in the evening. I bit my lips, swearing that I would not say a word and hoping that the vicar would not notice anything.

  In the brightening light of dawn, a crowd of aged women waited in front of the church. Their feet and bodies were swathed in strips of cloth and wraps of odd sorts, and they babbled endless words of prayer while their cold-benumbed fingers shifted the rosary beads. When they saw the priest coming they rose unsteadily, teetering on their knotty canes, and rapidly shuffled to meet him, contesting for priority in kissing his greasy sleeve. I stood aside, trying to remain unnoticed. But those with the best sight stared at me with disgust, called me a vampire or Gypsy foundling, and spat three times in my direction.

  The church always overwhelmed me. And yet it was one of the many houses of God scattered all over the world. God did not live in any of them, but it was assumed for some reason that He was present in all of them at once. He was like the unexpected guest for whom the wealthier farmers always kept an additional place at their table.

  The priest noticed me and patted my hair warmly. I grew confused as I answered his questions, assuring him that I was now obedient and that the farmer did not have to beat me any more. The priest asked me about my parents, about our prewar home, and about the church which we had attended but which I could not remember very well. Realizing my total ignorance of religion and church observances, he took me to the organist and asked him to explain the meaning of liturgical objects, and to start preparing me for service as an altar boy at morning Mass and vespers.

  I began coming to church twice a week. I waited at the back until the old women had crawled to their pews and then I took a back seat, close to the holy water font, which mystified me tremendously. This water looked like any other water. It had no color, no odor; it looked far less impressive than, for example, ground horse bones. Yet its magic power was supposed to far exceed that of any herb, incantation, or mixture that I had ever seen.

  I understood neither the meaning of the Mass nor the role of the priest at the altar. All of this to me was magic, more splendid and elaborate than Olga’s witchcraft, but just as difficult to fathom. I looked with wonder at the stone structure of the altar, the finery of the cloths hanging from it, the majestic tabernacle in which the divine spirit dwelled. With awe I touched the fancifully shaped objects stored in the sacristy: the chalice with the shining, polished interior where wine changed into blood, the gilded paten on which the priest dispensed the Holy Ghost, the square, flat burse in which the corporal was kept. This burse opened at one side and resembled a harmonica. How poor Olga’s hut was by comparison, full of its evil-smelling frogs, rotting pus from human wounds, and cockroaches.

  When the priest was away from the church and the organist was busy with the organ in the balcony, I would stealthily enter the mysterious sacristy to admire the humeral veil which the priest used to slip over his head and with a nimble movement slide down his arms and loop around his neck. I would stroke my fingers voluptuously along the alb placed over the humeral, smoothing out the fringes of the alb belt, smelling the ever-fragrant maniple which the priest wore suspended from his left arm, admiring the precisely measured length of the stole, the infinitely beautiful patterns of the chasubles, whose varied colors, as the priest explained to me, symbolized blood, fire, hope, penance, and mourning.

  While mumbling her magic incantations, Olga’s face had always taken on changing expressions that aroused fright or respect. She rolled her eyes, shook her head rhythmically, and made elaborate movements with her arms and palms. In contrast, the priest, while saying the Mass, remained the same as in everyday life. He merely wore a different robe and spoke a different language.

  His vibrant, sonorous voice seemed to buttress the dome of the church, even awakening the sluggish old women sitting in the tall pews. They would suddenly gather their drooping arms and with difficulty raise their wrinkled eyelids, resembling shriveled, heavy, late-cut peapods. The bleak pupils of their dimmed eyes would glance fearfully around, uncertain of where they were, until, finally beginning anew their rumination of the words from an interrupted prayer, t
hey rocked back to sleep like wilted heather swayed by the wind.

  The Mass was ending, the old women thronged the aisles, jockeying to reach the priest’s sleeve. The organ fell silent. At the door the organist greeted the priest warmly and gave me a sign with his hand. I had to return to work, to sweep the rooms, feed the cattle, prepare the meal.

  Every time I came back from the pasture, the henhouse, or the stable, Garbos would take me into the house and practice, at first casually and then more eagerly, new ways of flogging me with a willow cane, or hurting me with his fists and fingers. My welts and cuts, having no chance to heal, turned into open sores, seeping yellow pus. At night I was so terrified of Judas that I could not sleep. Every slight noise, every creaking of the floorboards, would jolt me into attention. I stared into the impenetrable darkness, pressing my body into the corner of the room. My ears seemed to grow to the size of half-pumpkins, straining to catch any movement in the house or yard.

  Even when I finally dozed off my sleep was disturbed by dreams of dogs howling through the countryside. I saw them lifting their heads to the moon, sniffing in the night, and I sensed my approaching death. Hearing their calls, Judas would sneak up to my bed and when he was quite close he would jump on me at Garbos’s command and maul me. The touch of his nails would make rising blisters on my body and the local man-of-cures would have to burn them out with a red-hot poker.

  I would wake up screaming and Judas would start barking and jumping at the walls of the house. Garbos, half awake, would rush into the kitchen thinking thieves had broken into the farm. When he realized that I had yelled for no reason, he beat and kicked me until he was out of breath. I remained on the mat, bloody and bruised, afraid to fall asleep again and risk another nightmare.

  In the daytime I went around in a daze and was beaten for neglecting my work. Sometimes I would fall asleep on the hay in the barn while Garbos looked for me everywhere. When he found me idling, it started all over again.

 
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