The painted bird, p.15
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       The Painted Bird, p.15

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  Time went by and my prayers multiplied. Thousands of days of indulgence streaked through the thatched roof toward heaven.

  Late in the afternoon Garbos came into the room. He looked at my wet body and the pool of sweat on the floor. He took me off the hooks roughly and kicked the dog out. All that evening I could neither walk nor move my arms. I lay down on the mattress and prayed. Days of indulgence came in hundreds, in thousands. Surely by now there were more of them in heaven for me than grains of wheat in the field. Any day, any minute, notice of this would have to be taken in heaven. Perhaps even now the saints were considering some radical improvement of my life.

  Garbos hung me up every day. Sometimes he did it in the morning and sometimes in the evening. And had he not been afraid of foxes and thieves and needed Judas in the yard, he would have done it at night too.

  It was always the same. While I still had some strength the dog stretched out on the floor calmly, pretending to sleep or casually catching fleas. When the pain in my arms and legs became more intense, he grew alert as though sensing what was going on inside my body. Sweat poured from me, running in rivulets over my straining muscles, hitting the floor with regular plip-plops. As soon as I straightened my legs Judas invariably leapt at them.

  Months went by. Garbos needed me more around the farm because he was often drunk and didn’t want to work. He hung me up only when he felt he had no particular use for me. When he sobered up and heard the hungry pigs and the lowing cow he took me off the hooks and put me to work. The muscles of my arms became conditioned by the hanging and I could endure it for hours without much effort. Although the pain that came to my belly began later now, I got cramps which frightened me. And Judas never missed a chance to leap at me, though by now he must have doubted he would ever catch me off guard.

  Hanging on the straps I concentrated on my prayers to the exclusion of all else. When my strength ebbed I told myself that I should be able to last another ten or twenty prayers before I dropped down. After these were recited I made another promise of ten or fifteen prayers. I believed that something could happen at any moment, that every extra thousand days of indulgence could save my life, perhaps at this very instant.

  Occasionally, to divert my attention from the pain and from my numb arm muscles, I teased Judas. First I swung on my arms as though I were about to fall down. The dog barked, jumped, and raged. When he went to sleep again I would wake him with cries and the smacking of lips and grinding of teeth. He could not understand what was happening. Thinking that this was the end of my endurance, he leapt about madly, knocking into the walls in the darkness, overturning the stool standing by the door. He grunted with pain, heaved heavily, and finally rested. I took the opportunity to straighten my legs. When the room resounded to the snoring of the fatigued beast, I saved strength by setting prizes for myself for endurance: straightening one leg for every thousand days of indulgence, resting one arm for every ten prayers, and one major shift of position for every fifteen prayers.

  At some unexpected moment I would hear the clatter of the latch and Garbos would enter. When he saw me alive he would curse Judas, kick and beat him until the dog cried and whimpered like a puppy.

  His fury was so tremendous that I wondered if God Himself had not sent him at this moment. But when I looked at his face, I could find no trace of the divine presence.

  I was now beaten less often. The hanging took up a lot of time and the farm required attention. I wondered why he went on hanging me up. Did he really expect the dog to kill me when it had failed to do so all these times?

  After each hanging I took a while to recover. Muscles stretched like yarn on the spinning wheel refused to retract to their normal span. I moved with difficulty. I felt like a stiff, frail stem trying to support the burden of a sunflower blossom.

  When I was slow at my work Garbos used to kick me and say that he would not shelter an idler, and threaten to send me to the German outpost. I tried to work harder than ever to convince him of my usefulness, but he was never satisfied. Whenever he got drunk he put me on the hooks with Judas waiting patiently below.

  The spring passed. I was already ten years old and I had accumulated who knows how many days of indulgence for each day of my life. A great church feast was approaching and people in the villages were busy preparing festive clothes. The women made wreaths of wild thyme, sundew, linden, apple flowers, and wild carnations which would be blessed in the church. The nave and the altars of the church were decorated with green branches of birch, poplar, and willow. After the feast, these branches would acquire great value. They would be planted in vegetable beds, in cabbage, in hemp, and flax fields, to ensure rapid growth and protection against pests.

  On the day of the feast Garbos went to the church early in the morning. I remained at the farm bruised and aching from my last beating. The broken echo of tolling church bells rolled over the fields and even Judas stopped lounging in the sun and listened.

  It was Corpus Christi. It was said that on this fete day the bodily presence of the Son of God would make itself felt in the church more than on any other feast. Everybody went to church that day: the sinners and the righteous, those who prayed constantly and those who never prayed, the rich and the poor, the sick and the well. But I was left alone with a dog that had no chance of achieving a better life, even though it was one of God’s creatures.

  I made a quick decision. The store of prayers which I had accumulated could surely rival those of many younger saints. And even though my prayers had not produced perceptible results, they must have been noticed in heaven, where justice is the law.

  I had nothing to fear. I started on my way to the church, walking along the untilled strips which separated the fields from each other.

  The churchyard was already overflowing with an unusually colorful throng of people and their gaily decorated carts and horses. I crouched in a hidden corner, waiting for an opportune moment to slip into the church by one of the side doors.

  Suddenly the vicar’s housekeeper spotted me. One of the altar boys selected for the day had fallen sick with poisoning, she said. I had to go immediately into the vestry, change, and take his place at the altar. The new priest had ordered it himself.

  A hot wave swept over me. I looked at the sky. At last someone up there had noticed me. They saw my prayers lying in a huge heap like potatoes piled high at harvest time. In a moment I would be close to Him, at His altar, within the protection of His vicar. This was only a beginning. From now on a different, easier life would begin for me. I had seen the end of terror that shakes one until it squeezes the stomach empty of vomit, like a punctured poppy pod blown open by the wind. No more beatings from Garbos, no more hangings, no more Judas. A new life lay before me, a life as smooth as the yellow fields of wheat waving under the gentle breath of the breeze. I ran to the church.

  It was not easy to get inside. The garish crowd overflowed around the churchyard densely. Someone saw me immediately and drew attention to me. The peasants rushed at me and began to scourge me with osier branches and horsewhips, the older peasants laughing so hard that they had to lie down. I was dragged under a cart and then tied to the tail of a horse. I was held fast between the shafts. The horse neighed and reared and kicked me once or twice before I succeeded in freeing myself.

  I reached the vestry trembling, and my body ached. The priest, impatient at my delay, was ready to proceed; the ministrants had also finished dressing. I shook with nervousness as I put on the altar boy’s sleeveless mantle. Whenever the priest looked away the other boys tripped me up or poked me in the back. The priest, puzzled by my slowness, became so furious that he shoved me roughly; I fell on a bench, bruising my arm. Finally everything was ready. The doors of the vestry opened and in the stillness of the crowded, expectant church we took our places at the foot of the altar, three of us on each side of the priest.

  The Mass proceeded in all its splendor.

  The priest’s voice was more melodious than usual; the organ thunde
red with its thousand turbulent hearts; the altar boys carried out solemnly their meticulously inculcated functions.

  I was suddenly jabbed in the ribs by the altar boy standing next to me. He gestured nervously toward the altar with his head. I stared uncomprehendingly as blood pounded in my temples. He gestured again, and I noticed that the priest himself was throwing me expectant glances. I was supposed to do something, but what? I panicked, I lost my breath. The acolyte turned toward me and whispered that I must carry the missal.

  Then I realized that it was my duty to transfer the missal from one side of the altar to the other. I had seen this done many times before. An altar boy would approach the altar, grasp the missal together with the base on which it stood, walk backward to the center of the lowest step in front of the altar, kneel holding the missal in his hands, then rise and carry the missal to the other side of the altar, and finally return to his place.

  Now it was my turn to perform all this.

  I felt the gaze of the entire crowd on me. At the same time the organist, as if to attach deliberate importance to this scene of a Gypsy assisting at the altar of God, suddenly hushed the organ.

  Absolute silence held the church.

  I mastered the trembling of my legs and climbed the steps to the altar. The missal, the Holy Book filled with sacred prayers collected for the greater glory of God by the saints and learned men throughout the centuries, stood on a heavy wooden tray with legs tipped by brass balls. Even before I laid my hands on it I knew that I would not have strength enough to lift it and carry it to the other side of the altar. The book itself was too heavy, even without the tray.

  But it was too late to withdraw. I stood on the altar platform, the lean flames of the candles flickering in my eyes. Their uncertain flutter made the agony-racked body of the crucified Jesus seem almost lifelike. But when I examined His face, it did not seem to be gazing; the eyes of Jesus were fixed somewhere downward, below the altar, below us all.

  I heard an impatient hiss behind me. I placed my sweaty palms under the cool tray of the missal, breathed deeply, and straining to the utmost, raised it. I cautiously stepped back, feeling the edge of the step with my toe. Suddenly, in an instant of time as brief as the prick of a needle, the weight of the missal grew overwhelming and tipped me backward. I staggered and could not regain my balance. The ceiling of the church reeled. The missal and its tray tumbled down the steps. An involuntary shout sprang from my throat. Almost simultaneously my head and shoulders struck against the floor. When I opened my eyes angry, red faces were bent over me.

  Rough hands tore me up from the floor and pulled me toward the doorway. The crowd parted in stupefaction. From the balcony a male voice shouted “Gypsy vampire!” and several voices took up the chant. Hands clamped my body with excruciating hardness, tearing at my flesh. Outside I wanted to cry and beg for mercy, but no sound came from my throat. I tried once more. There was no voice in me.

  The fresh air hit my heated body. The peasants dragged me straight toward a large manure pit. It had been dug two or three years ago, and the small outhouse standing next to it with small windows cut in the shape of the cross was the subject of special pride to the priest. It was the only one in the area. The peasants were accustomed to attending to the wants of nature directly in the field and only used it when coming to church. A new pit was being dug on the other side of the presbytery, however, because the old pit was completely full and the wind often carried foul odors to the church.

  When I realized what was going to happen to me, I again tried to shout. But no voice came from me. Every time I struggled a heavy peasant hand would drop on me, gagging my mouth and nose. The stench from the pit increased. We were very close to it now. Once more I tried to struggle free, but the men held me fast, never ceasing their talk about the event in the church. They had no doubt that I was a vampire and that the interruption of the High Mass could only bode evil for the village.

  We halted at the edge of the pit. Its brown, wrinkled surface steamed with fetor like horrible skin on the surface of a cup of hot buckwheat soup. Over this surface swarmed a myriad of small white caterpillars, about as long as a fingernail. Above circled clouds of flies, buzzing monotonously, with beautiful blue and violet bodies glittering in the sun, colliding, falling toward the pit for a moment, and soaring into the air again.

  I retched. The peasants swung me by the hands and feet. The pale clouds in the blue sky swam before my eyes. I was hurled into the very center of the brown filth, which parted under my body to engulf me.

  Daylight disappeared above me and I began to suffocate. I tossed instinctively in the dense element, lashing out with my arms and legs. I touched the bottom and rebounded from it as fast as I could. A spongy upswell raised me toward the surface. I opened my mouth and caught a dash of air. I was sucked back below the surface and again pushed myself up from the bottom. The pit was only twelve feet square. Once more I sprang up from the bottom, this time toward the edge. At the last moment, when the downswell was about to pull me under, I caught hold of a creeper of the long thick weeds growing over the edge of the pit. I fought against the suction of the reluctant maw and pulled myself to the bank of the pit, barely able to see through my slime-obscured eyes.

  I crawled out of the mire and was immediately gripped with cramps of vomiting. They shook me so long that my strength vanished and I slid down completely exhausted into the stinging, burning bushes of thistle, fern, and ivy.

  I heard the distant sound of the organ and human singing and I reasoned that after the Mass the people might come out of the church and drown me again in the pit if they saw me alive in the bushes. I had to escape and so I darted into the forest. The sun baked the brown crust on me and clouds of large flies and insects besieged me.

  As soon as I found myself in the shade of the trees I started rolling over in the cool, moist moss, rubbing myself with cold leaves. With pieces of bark I scraped off the remaining muck. I rubbed sand in my hair and then rolled in the grass and vomited again.

  Suddenly I realized that something had happened to my voice. I tried to cry out, but my tongue flapped helplessly in my open mouth. I had no voice. I was terrified and, covered with cold sweat, I refused to believe that this was possible and tried to convince myself that my voice would come back. I waited a few moments and tried again. Nothing happened. The silence of the forest was broken only by the buzzing of the flies around me.

  I sat down. The last cry that I had uttered under the falling missal still echoed in my ears. Was it the last cry I would ever utter? Was my voice escaping with it like a solitary duck call straying over a huge pond? Where was it now? I could envision my voice flying alone under the high-arched, vaulting ribs of the church roof. I saw it knocking against the cold walls, the holy pictures, against the thick panes of colored glass in the windows, which the sun’s rays could scarcely penetrate. I followed its aimless wanderings through the dark aisles, where it wafted from the altar to the pulpit, from the pulpit to the balcony, from the balcony to the altar again, driven by the multichorded sound of the organ and the groundswell of the singing crowd.

  All the mutes I had ever seen paraded by under my lids. There were not very many of them and their absence of speech made them seem very much alike. The absurd twitching of their faces tried to substitute for the missing sound of their voices, while the frantic movement of their limbs took the place of their un-forthcoming words. Other people always looked at them with suspicion; they appeared like strange creatures, shaking, grimacing, dribbling heavily down their chins.

  There must have been some cause for the loss of my speech. Some greater force, with which I had not yet managed to communicate, commanded my destiny. I began to doubt that it could be God or one of His saints. With my credit secured by vast numbers of prayers, my days of indulgence must have been innumerable; God had no reason to inflict such terrible punishment on me. I had probably incurred the wrath of some other forces, which spread their tentacles over those God had abandone
d for some reason or other.

  I walked farther and farther from the church, plunging into the thickening forest. From the black earth that the sun never reached stuck out the trunks of trees cut down long ago. These stumps were now cripples unable to clothe their stunted mutilated bodies. They stood single and alone. Hunched and squat, they lacked the force to reach up toward the light and air. No power could change their condition; their sap would never rise up into limbs or foliage. Large knotholes low on their boles were like dead eyes staring eternally with unseeing pupils at the waving crests of their living brethren. They would never be torn or tossed by the winds but would rot slowly, the broken victims of the dampness and decay of the forest floor.


  When the village boys who were lying in wait for me in the forest caught me at last, I expected something terrible to happen to me. Instead, I was taken to the head of the village. He made certain that I had no sores or ulcers on my body and that I could make the sign of the cross. Then, after several unsuccessful attempts to place me with other peasants, he handed me over to a farmer called Makar.

  Makar lived with his son and daughter on a farmstead set apart from the rest of the settlement. Apparently his wife had died long ago. He himself was not well known in the village. He had arrived only a few years before and was treated as a stranger. But rumors circulated that he avoided other people because he sinned both with the boy he called his son and with the girl he called his daughter. Makar was short and stocky, and had a thick neck. He suspected I only pretended to be mute to avoid betraying my Gypsy speech. Sometimes at night he would rush into the tiny attic in which I slept and try to force a scream of fear from me. I would awake shaking and open my mouth like a baby chick wanting to be fed, but no sound came out. He watched me intently and seemed disappointed. After repeating the test from time to time, he eventually gave up.

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