The painted bird, p.14
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       The Painted Bird, p.14

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  I came to the conclusion that Garbos’s seemingly unmotivated fits of rage must have some mysterious cause. I recalled the magic incantations of Marta and Olga. They were meant to influence diseases and such things that had no obvious connection with the magic itself. I decided to observe all the circumstances accompanying Garbos’s attacks of fury. Once or twice I thought I had detected a clue. On two consecutive occasions I was beaten immediately after scratching my head. Who knows, perhaps there was some connection between the lice on my head, which were undoubtedly disturbed in their normal routine by my searching fingers, and Garbos’s behavior. I immediately stopped scratching, even though the itching was unbearable. After two days of leaving the lice alone I was beaten again. I had to speculate anew.

  My next guess was that the gate in the fence leading to the clover field had something to do with it. Three times after I went through that gate Garbos called me to him and slapped me when I approached him. I concluded that some hostile spirit was crossing my path at the gate and inciting Garbos against me. I decided to avoid the evil one at the gate by scrambling over the fence. This hardly improved matters. Garbos could not understand why I took time to climb over a high fence instead of taking the short route through the gate. He thought I was mocking him on purpose and I got an even worse beating.

  He suspected me of malice and tormented me ceaselessly. He amused himself by jabbing a hoe handle between my ribs. He threw me into beds of nettles and thorny bushes, and afterwards laughed at the way I scratched the stings on my skin. He threatened that if I continued to be disobedient he would hold a mouse on my belly as husbands did to unfaithful wives. This terrified me more than anything else. I visualized a mouse under a glass cup on top of my belly button. I could feel the indescribable agony as the trapped rodent gnawed its way through my navel and into my entrails.

  I pondered various ways of casting a spell on Garbos, but nothing seemed feasible. One day, when he tied my foot to a stool and tickled it with an ear of rye, I recalled one of old Olga’s stories. She had told me of a moth with a death’s-head pattern on its body that was similar to the one I had seen on the uniform of the German officer. If one caught such a moth and breathed on it three times the death of the oldest member of the household would shortly follow. That is why young married couples, awaiting their inheritance from living grandparents, spent many nights chasing after these moths.

  After that I made a habit of wandering about the house at night when Garbos and Judas were asleep, opening windows to let the moths in. They came in swarms, starting an insane dance of death around the flickering flame, colliding with each other. Others flew into the flame and were burnt alive or stuck in the melting wax of the candle. It was said that Divine Providence had changed them into various creatures and in every new incarnation they had to endure the sufferings most appropriate to their species. But I was little concerned with their penance. I was looking for just one moth, though I had to wave my candle in the window and invite them all in. The light of the candle and my movements startled Judas and his barking woke up Garbos. He sneaked up behind me. Seeing me, candle in hand, jumping all over the room with a swarm of flies, moths, and other insects, he was convinced that I was practicing some sinister Gypsy rite. On the following day I received exemplary punishment.

  But I did not give up. After many weeks, just before dawn, I finally caught the desired moth with the strange markings. I breathed on it carefully three times and then let it go. It fluttered around the stove for a few moments and then vanished. I knew that Garbos had only a few days to live. 1 looked at him with pity. He had no idea that his executioner was on the way from a strange limbo inhabited by disease, pain, and death. Perhaps it was already in the house, waiting eagerly to cut the thread of his life as a sickle cuts a frail stalk. I did not mind being beaten as I stared intently at his face, looking for the signs of death in his eyes. If he only knew what was awaiting him.

  However, Garbos continued to look quite strong and healthy. On the fifth day, when I began to suspect that death was neglecting its duties, I heard Garbos cry out in the barn. I rushed there, hoping to find him breathing his last and calling for the priest, but he was only bending over the dead body of a small turtle he had inherited from his grandfather. It had been quite tame and lived in its own corner of the barn. Garbos was proud of this turtle because it was the oldest creature in the whole village.

  Eventually I exhausted all the possible means of bringing about his end. Garbos in the meantime invented new ways of persecuting me. Sometimes he hung me by the arms on a branch of the oak tree, leaving Judas loose underneath. Only the appearance of the priest in his dogcart caused him to discontinue that game.

  The world seemed to close over my head like a massive stone vault. I thought of telling the priest what was going on, but I was afraid he would just admonish Garbos and give him a chance to beat me again for complaining. For a while I planned to escape from the village, but there were many German outposts in the neighborhood and I was afraid that, if I was caught by them again, they would take me for a Gypsy bastard, and then who knows what might happen to me.

  One day I heard the priest explaining to an old man that for certain prayers God granted from one hundred to three hundred days of indulgence. When the peasant failed to understand the meaning of these words, the priest went into a long exposition. From all this I understood that those who say more prayers earn more days of indulgence, and that this was also supposed to have an immediate influence on their lives; in fact, the greater the number of prayers offered, the better one would live, and the smaller the number, the more troubles and pain one would have to endure.

  Suddenly the ruling pattern of the world was revealed to me with beautiful clarity. I understood why some people were strong and others weak, some free and others enslaved, some rich and others poor, some well and others sick. The former had simply been the first to see the need for prayer and for collecting the maximum number of days of indulgence. Somewhere, far above, all these prayers coming from earth were properly classified, so that every person had his bin where his days of indulgence were stored.

  I saw in my mind the unending heavenly pastures full of bins, some big and bulging with days of indulgence, others small and almost empty. Elsewhere I could see unused bins to accommodate those who, like myself, had not yet discovered the value of prayer.

  I stopped blaming others; the fault was mine alone, I thought. I had been too stupid to find the governing principle of the world of people, animals, and events. But now there was order in the human world, and justice too. One had only to recite prayers, concentrating on the ones carrying the greatest number of days of indulgence. Then one of God’s aides would immediately note the new member of the faithful and allocate to him a place in which his days of indulgence would start accumulating like sacks of wheat piled up at harvest time. I was confident in my strength. I believed that in a short while I would collect more days of indulgence than other people, that my bin would fill quickly, and that heaven would have to assign me a larger one; and even that would overflow, and I would need a bigger one, as big as the church itself.

  Feigning casual interest, I asked the priest to show me the prayer book. I quickly noted the prayers marked with the largest number of indulgence days and asked him to teach them to me. He was somewhat surprised by my preference for some prayers and indifference to others, but he agreed and read them to me several times. I made an effort to concentrate all the powers of my mind and body in memorizing them. I soon knew them perfectly. I was ready to start a new life. I had all that was needed and gloried in the knowledge that the days of punishment and humiliation would soon be past. Until now I had been a small bug that anyone might squash. From now on the humble bug would become an unapproachable bull.

  There was no time to lose. Any spare moment could be used for one more prayer, thus earning additional days of indulgence for my heavenly account. I would soon be rewarded with the Lord’s grace, and Garbos would not torm
ent me any more.

  I now devoted my entire time to prayers. I rattled them off quickly, one after another, occasionally slipping in one that carried fewer days of indulgence. I did not want heaven to think that I neglected the more humble prayers completely. After all, one could not outwit the Lord.

  Garbos could not understand what had happened to me. Seeing me continuously mumbling something under my breath and paying little attention to his threats, he suspected that I was casting Gypsy spells on him. I did not want to tell him the truth. I was afraid that in some unknown manner he might forbid me to pray or, even worse, as a Christian of older standing than myself, use his influence in heaven to nullify my prayers or perhaps divert some of them to his own undoubtedly empty bin.

  He started to beat me more often. Sometimes when he asked me something and I was in the middle of a prayer I would not answer him immediately, anxious not to lose the days of indulgence which I was just earning. Garbos thought I was getting impudent and wanted to break me down. He was also afraid that I might get bold enough to tell the priest about the beatings. Thus my life was spent alternately praying and being beaten.

  I muttered prayers continuously from dawn to dusk, losing count of the days of indulgence I was earning, but almost seeing their pile constantly rising until some of the saints, stopping on their strolls through the heavenly pastures, looked approvingly at the flocks of prayers soaring up from earth like sparrows—all coming from a small boy with black hair and black eyes. I visualized my name being mentioned at the councils of angels, then at those of some minor saints, later at those of major saints, and so closer and closer to the heavenly throne.

  Garbos thought that I was losing respect for him. Even when he was beating me harder than usual, I did not lose time but continued collecting my days of indulgence. After all, pain came and went, but the indulgences were in my bin forever. The present was bad precisely because I had not known earlier about such a marvelous way of improving my future. I could not afford to lose any more time; I had to make up for lost years.

  Garbos was now convinced that I was in a Gypsy trance which could bring no good. I swore to him that I was only praying, but he did not believe me.

  His fears were soon confirmed. One day a cow broke through the barn door and went into a neighbor’s garden, causing considerable damage. The neighbor was furious and rushed into Garbos’s orchard with an ax and cut down all the pear and apple trees in revenge. Garbos was sleeping dead drunk, and Judas was helplessly straining at his chain. To complete the disaster a fox got into the henhouse the next day and killed some of the best laying hens. That same evening, with one stroke of his paw, Judas massacred Garbos’s pride, a fine turkey he had purchased recently at great expense.

  Garbos broke down completely. He got drunk on homemade vodka and revealed to me his secret. He would have killed me long ago had he not been afraid of St. Anthony, his patron. He knew, too, that I had counted his teeth and that my death would cost him many years of his life. Of course, he added, if Judas should kill me accidentally, then he would be perfectly safe from my spells and St. Anthony would not punish him.

  In the meantime the priest was sick at the vicarage. He apparently caught a cold in the chilly church. He was lying in a fevered and hallucinatory state in his room, talking to himself or to God. I once took the vicar some eggs, a gift from Garbos. I climbed on the fence to see the vicar. His face was pale. His older sister, a short, buxom woman with her hair piled in a bun, was fussing about the bed and the local wise woman was letting his blood and applying leeches which grew plump as soon as they fastened on his body.

  I was astonished. The priest must have accumulated an extraordinary number of days of indulgence during his pious life, and yet here he was lying sick like anybody else.

  A new priest arrived at the vicarage. He was old, bald, and had a very thin, parchmentlike face. He wore a violet band on his cassock. When he saw me returning with the basket he called me and asked me where I, with my swarthy looks, had come from. The organist, seeing us together, quickly whispered some words to the priest. He gave me his blessing and walked away.

  The organist then told me that the vicar did not want me to make myself too conspicuous at church. Many people came there, and although the priest believed that I was neither a Gypsy nor a Jew, the suspicious Germans might take a different view and the parish would suffer severe reprisals.

  I quickly rushed to the church altar. I started reciting prayers desperately, and again only those with the greatest number of days of indulgence attached to them. I had little time left. Besides, who knows, perhaps prayers at the altar itself, under the tearful eye of God’s Son and the motherly gaze of the Virgin Mary, might carry greater weight than those said elsewhere. They might have a shorter route to travel to heaven, or they might possibly be carried by a special messenger using a faster conveyance, like a train on rails. The organist saw me alone in the church and reminded me again about the new priest’s warning. So I bade farewell regretfully to the altar and all its familiar objects.

  Garbos was waiting for me at home. As soon as I entered he dragged me to an empty room in the corner of the house. There at the highest point of the ceiling two large hooks had been driven into the beams, less than two feet apart. Leather straps were attached to each as handles.

  Garbos climbed on a stool, lifted me high, and told me to grab a handle with each hand. Then he left me suspended and brought Judas into the room. On his way out he locked the door.

  Judas saw me hanging from the ceiling and immediately jumped up in an effort to reach my feet. I brought my legs up and he missed them by a few inches. He started another run and tried again, still missing. After a few more tries he lay down and waited.

  I had to watch him. When freely hanging, my feet were no more than six feet above the ground and Judas could easily reach them. I did not know how long I would have to hang like this. I guessed that Garbos expected me to fall down and be attacked by Judas. This would frustrate the efforts I had been making all these months, counting Garbos’s teeth, including the yellow, ingrown ones at the back of his mouth. Innumerable times when Garbos was drunk with vodka and snored openmouthed I had counted his loathsome teeth painstakingly. This was my weapon against him. Whenever he beat me too long I reminded him of the number of his teeth; if he did not believe me he could check the count himself. I knew every one of them, no matter how wobbly, how putrefied, or how nearly hidden under the gums. If he killed me he would have very few years left to live. However, if I fell down into the waiting fangs of Judas, Garbos would have a clear conscience. He would have nothing to fear, and his patron, St. Anthony, might even give him absolution for my accidental death.

  My shoulders were becoming numb. I shifted my weight, opened and closed my hands, and slowly relaxed my legs, lowering them dangerously near to the floor. Judas was in the corner pretending to be asleep. But I knew his tricks as well as he knew mine. He knew that I still had some strength left and that I could lift my legs faster than he could leap after them. So he waited for fatigue to overcome me.

  The pain in my body raced in two directions. One went from the hands to the shoulders and neck, the other from the legs to the waist. They were two different kinds of pain, boring toward my middle like two moles tunneling toward each other underground. The pain from my hands was easier to endure. I could cope with it by switching my weight from one hand to the other, relaxing the muscles and then taking the load up again, hanging on one hand while blood returned to the other. The pain from my legs and abdomen was more persistent, and once it settled in my belly it refused to leave. It was like a woodworm that finds a cozy spot behind a knot in the timber and stays there forever.

  It was a strange, dull, penetrating pain. It must have been like the pain felt by a man Garbos mentioned in warning. Apparently this man had treacherously killed the son of an influential farmer and the father had decided to punish the murderer in the old-fashioned manner. Together with his two cousins the man brou
ght the culprit to the forest. There they prepared a twelve-foot stake, sharpened at one end to a fine point like a gigantic pencil. They laid it on the ground, wedging the blunt end against a tree trunk. Then a strong horse was hitched to each of the victim’s feet, while his crotch was leveled with the waiting point. The horses, gently nudged, pulled the man against the spiked beam, which gradually sank into the tensed flesh. When the point was deep into the entrails of the victim, the men lifted the stake, together with the impaled man upon it and planted it in a previously dug hole. They left him there to die slowly.

  Now hanging under the ceiling I could almost see the man and hear him howling into the night, trying to raise to the indifferent sky his arms which hung by the bloated trunk of his body. He must have looked like a bird knocked out of a tree by a slingshot and fallen flabbily onto a dried-out, pointed stalk.

  Still feigning indifference, Judas woke up below. He yawned, scratched behind his ears, and hunted the fleas in his tail. Sometimes he glanced slyly at me, but turned away in disgust when he saw my hunched legs.

  He only fooled me once. I thought he had really gone to sleep and straightened out my legs. Judas instantly bounced off the floor, leaping like a grasshopper. One of my feet did not jerk up fast enough and he tore off some skin at the heel. The fear and pain almost caused me to fall. Judas licked his chops triumphantly and reclined by the wall. He watched me through the slits of his eyes and waited.

  I thought I could not hold on any longer. I decided to jump down and planned my defense against Judas, though I knew that I wouldn’t even have time to make a fist before he would be at my throat. There was no time to lose. Then suddenly I remembered the prayers.

  I started shifting weight from one hand to the other, moving my head, jerking my legs up and down. Judas looked at me, discouraged by this display of strength. Finally he turned toward the wall and remained indifferent.

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