The painted bird, p.16
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       The Painted Bird, p.16
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           Jerzy Kosiński
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  His son Anton was twenty years old. He was a redhead with pale eyes and no eyelashes. He was shunned in the village as much as his father. When someone spoke to him he would glance indifferently at the speaker and then turn silently away. They called him the Quail, because he was like that bird in his habit of speaking only to himself and never answering other voices.

  There was also the daughter Ewka, a year younger than the Quail. She was tall and blond and thin with breasts like unripe pears and hips that allowed her to squeeze easily between the staves of a fence. Ewka never visited the village either. When Makar went with Quail to sell rabbits and rabbit skins in the neighboring villages, she remained alone. She was visited occasionally by Anulka, the local purveyor of cures.

  Ewka was not liked by the villagers. The peasants said she had a ram in her eyes. They laughed at the goiter which was beginning to disfigure her neck, and at her hoarse voice. They said that the cows lost their milk in her presence, and that was why Makar kept only rabbits and goats.

  I often heard peasants mutter that Makar’s strange family should be turned out of the village and his house burned down. But Makar did not listen to such threats. He always carried a long knife in his sleeve, and he could throw it with such perfect aim that he once pinned a cockroach to a wall at five paces. And Quail held a hand grenade in his pocket. He had found it on a dead partisan, and he always threatened the person and family of anyone who bothered him or his father or sister.

  Makar kept a trained wolfhound, which he called Ditko, in the backyard. There were the rabbit cages arranged in rows in the outbuildings surrounding the yard. Only wire netting separated the cages from one another. The rabbits sniffed and communicated while Makar could watch them all at one glance.

  Makar was a rabbit expert. In his cages he had many splendid specimens too costly for even the wealthiest farmers. At the farm he had four she-goats and a male goat. The Quail looked after them, milked them, took them out to pasture, and sometimes locked himself up with them in the stable. When Makar came home after a successful sale, both he and his son would get drunk and go to the goats’ quarters. Ewka used to hint maliciously that they were enjoying themselves in there. At such times Ditko was tied close to the door to prevent anyone approaching.

  Ewka did not like her brother and father. Sometimes she would not leave the house for days, fearing that Makar and Quail would force her to spend the whole afternoon with them in the goats’ stable.

  Ewka liked to have me around when she was cooking. I helped to peel the vegetables, brought firewood, and carried out the ashes.

  Sometimes she asked me to sit close to her legs and kiss them. I used to cling to her slim calves and start kissing them very slowly from the ankles, first with a light touch of the lips and gentle strokes of the hand along the taut muscles, kissing the soft hollow under her knee, up on the smooth white thighs. I gradually lifted her skirt. I was urged on by light taps on my back, and I hastened upward, kissing and half biting the tender flesh. When I reached the warm mound, Ewka’s body began to shake spasmodically. She ran her fingers wildly through my hair, caressed my neck and pinched my ears, panting faster and faster. Then she pressed my face hard against herself and after a moment of trance fell back on the bench, all spent.

  I also liked what followed next. Ewka sat on the bench, holding me between her open legs, hugging and caressing me, kissing me on my neck and face. Her dry heatherlike hair fell over my face as I looked into her pale eyes and saw a scarlet blush spread from her face to her neck and shoulders. My hands and mouth revived again. Ewka began to tremble and breathe deeper, her mouth turned cold and her shaking hands pulled me to her body.

  When we heard the men coming, Ewka would rush to the kitchen, fixing her hair and skirts, while I ran to the rabbit hutches for the evening feeding.

  Later, after Makar and his son had gone to sleep, she brought me my meal. I ate it quickly while she lay down naked by my side, eagerly stroking my legs, kissing my hair, hastily removing my clothes. We would lie together and Ewka would press her body tightly to mine, asking me to kiss and suck her, now here, and now there. I followed all her wishes, doing all kinds of things even if they were painful or meaningless. Ewka’s motions became spasms, she twitched under me, then scrambled on top, then made me sit on her, grasped me eagerly, dug her nails into my back and shoulders. We spent most of the nights like this, dozing off from time to time, and waking again to yield to her seething emotions. Her whole body seemed to be tormented by secret internal eruptions and tensions. It grew taut like a rabbit skin stretched on a board to dry, and then it relaxed again.

  At times Ewka would come for me at the rabbit huts in the daytime, when Quail was alone with the goats and Makar had not yet returned home. We jumped over the fence together and disappeared in the high-growing wheat. Ewka led the way and chose a safe hiding place. We would lie down on the stubbly ground, where Ewka urged me to undress faster, and tugged impatiently at my clothes. I sank onto her and tried to satisfy all her different whims, while the heavy ears of wheat moved over us like the swells of the tranquil pond. Ewka would fall asleep for a few moments. I scanned this golden river of wheat, noticing the bluebottles timidly hovering in the sun’s rays. Higher up the swallows promised good weather with their intricate gyrations. Butterflies circled in carefree pursuit and a lonely hawk hung high in the sky, like an eternal warning, waiting for some unsuspecting pigeon.

  I felt secure and happy. Ewka moved in her nap, her hand sought me instinctively, and it bent the wheat stalks on its way to me. I crawled over to her and worked my way between her legs and kissed her.

  Ewka tried to make me become a man. She would visit me at night and tickle my parts, painfully pushing in thin straws, squeezing, licking. I was surprised to perceive something I had not known before; things over which I had no control began to happen. It was still spasmodic and unpredictable, sometimes rapid, sometimes slow, but I knew I could not stop the feeling any more.

  When Ewka fell asleep at my side, muttering through her dreams, I pondered all those things, listening to the sounds of the rabbits around us.

  There was nothing I would not do for Ewka. I forgot my fate of a Gypsy mute destined for fire. I ceased to be a goblin jeered at by herders, casting spells on children and animals. In my dreams I turned into a tall, handsome man, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, with hair like pale autumn leaves. I became a German officer in a tight, black uniform. Or I turned into a birdcatcher, familiar with all the secret paths of the woods and marshes.

  In these dreams my artful hands induced wild passions in the village girls, turning them into wanton Ludmilas who chased me through flowery glades, lying with me on beds of wild thyme, among fields of goldenrod.

  I clung to Ewka in my dreams, seizing her like a spider, entwining as many legs around her as a centipede has. I grew into her body like a small twig, grafted on a broad-limbed apple tree by a skillful gardener.

  There was another recurring dream, bringing a different kind of vision. Ewka’s attempt to make a grown man of me succeeded instantly. One part of my body grew rapidly into a monstrous shaft of incredible size, while the rest remained unchanged. I became a hideous freak; I was locked in a cage and people watched me through bars, laughing excitedly. Then Ewka came naked through the crowd and joined me in a grotesque embrace. I became a horrible growth on her smooth body. The witch Anulka lurked nearby with a big knife, ready to cut me away from the girl, to mutilate me foully and throw me to the ants.

  The sounds of dawn ended my nightmares. The hens squawked, the roosters crowed, the rabbits stamped their feet in hunger, while Ditko, annoyed by it all, started growling and barking. Ewka furtively hurried home and I surrendered to the rabbits the grass our bodies had warmed.

  Makar inspected the hutches several times daily. He knew all the rabbits by name and nothing escaped his attention. He had some favorite females whose grazing he watched over himself, and he would not leave their cages when they had their litters. One of the
females was particularly loved by Makar. She was a white giant with pink eyes and had not had any young. Makar used to take her to the house and keep her there for several days, after which she seemed quite ill. After some of these visits the big white rabbit bled under her tail, refused to eat, and appeared sick.

  One day Makar called me over, pointed to her and ordered me to kill her. I could not believe he meant it. The white female was very valuable, for pure white skins were rare. Besides, she was very large and would no doubt prove a fertile breeder. Makar repeated his order, without looking at me or at the rabbit. I hardly knew what to do. Makar always killed the rabbits himself, afraid that I was not strong enough to execute them quickly and painlessly. Skinning and dressing them was my job. Later Ewka made tasty dishes of them. Noticing my hesitation, Makar slapped my face and once again ordered me to kill the rabbit.

  She was heavy and I had difficulty dragging her to the yard. She struggled and squealed so that I could not lift her high enough by the hind legs to deal her a lethal blow behind the ears. I had no choice but to kill her without lifting her up. I waited for the right moment and then hit the animal with all my strength. She fell down. To make doubly sure I hit her again. When I thought she was dead I hung her on a special post. I sharpened my knife on a stone and started the skinning.

  First, I cut the skin on the legs, carefully separating the tissue from the muscle, anxiously avoiding any damage to the hide. After each cut I pulled the skin down, until I got to the neck. That was a difficult spot, for the blow behind the ears had caused so much bleeding that it made it hard to distinguish between the skin and the muscle. Since any damage to a valuable rabbit skin enraged Makar, I did not dare to think what would happen if I nicked this one.

  I started detaching the skin with added care, pulling it slowly toward the head, when suddenly a tremor ran through the hanging body. Cold sweat covered me. I waited a moment, but the body remained still. I was reassured and, thinking it an illusion, resumed my task. Then the body twitched again. The rabbit must have been only stunned.

  I ran for the club to kill her, but a horrible shriek stopped me. The partially skinned carcass started to jump and squirm on the post where it was suspended. Bewildered and not knowing what I was doing, I released the struggling rabbit. She fell down and started running immediately, now forward, now backward. With her skin hanging down behind her she rolled on the ground uttering an unending squeal. Sawdust, leaves, dirt, dung, clung to the bare, bloody flesh. She wriggled more and more violently. She lost all sense of direction, blinded by flaps of skin falling over her eyes, catching twigs and weeds with it as with a half pulled-off stocking.

  Her piercing shrieks caused pandemonium in the yard. The terrified rabbits went mad in their hutches, the excited females trampled their young, the males fought one another, squealing, hitting their rumps on the walls. Ditko was jumping and straining at his chain. The hens flapped their wings in a desperate attempt to fly away and then collapsed, resigned and humiliated, in the tomatoes and onions.

  The rabbit, now completely red, was still running. She dashed through the grass, then returned to the hutches; she tried to struggle through the bean patch. Each time her loose hanging skin caught on some obstacle she halted with a horrid scream and spurted blood.

  Makar rushed out of the house finally with an ax in his hand. He ran after the bloody creature and split it in two with one blow. Then he hit the heap of gore again and again. His face was pale yellow and he bellowed horrible curses.

  When only a bloody pulp remained of the rabbit, Makar noticed me and came toward me quivering with rage. I did not have time to dodge and a powerful kick in the stomach sent me breathless over the fence. The world seemed to swirl. I was blinded as if my own skin were falling over my head in a black hood.

  The kick immobilized me for several weeks. I lay in an old rabbit hutch. Once a day Quail or Ewka brought me some food. Sometimes Ewka came alone, but left without a word when she saw my condition.

  One day Anulka, who heard about my injuries, brought me a live mole. She tore it apart before my eyes and applied it to my abdomen until the animal’s body turned quite cold. When she finished she was confident that her treatment would make me well quite soon.

  I missed Ewka’s presence, her voice, her touch, her smile. I tried to get better rapidly, but will power alone was not sufficient. Whenever I tried to stand, a spasm of pain in my belly paralyzed me for minutes. Crawling out of the hutch to urinate was sheer agony, and I often gave up and did it where I slept.

  Finally Makar himself looked in and told me that if I did not return to work within two days he would hand me over to the peasants. They were about to deliver some quotas to the railroad station and would gladly turn me over to the German military police.

  I began to practice walking. My legs did not obey me and I tired easily.

  One night I heard noises outside. I peered through a slot between the boards. Quail was leading the he-goat to his father’s room, where an oil lamp burned dimly.

  The he-goat was seldom taken out. He was a large, stinking animal, fierce and afraid of no one. Even Ditko preferred not to take him on. The he-goat attacked hens and turkeys and butted his head against fences and tree trunks. Once he chased me, but I hid in the rabbit hutches until Quail led him away.

  Intrigued by this unexpected visit to Makar’s room, I climbed onto the roof of the hutch, from where I could see into the hut. Soon Ewka came into the room, huddled in a sheet. Makar approached the buck and stroked its under-belly with birch twigs until the animal became sufficiently aroused. Then with a few light blows of the stick he forced the beast to stand up, resting his forelegs on a shelf. Ewka tossed off her sheet and, to my horror, naked she slipped under the goat, clinging to it as though it were a man. Now and then Makar pushed her aside and excited the animal still more. Then he let Ewka couple passionately with the buck, gyrating, thrusting, and then embracing it.

  Something collapsed inside me. My thoughts fell apart and shattered into broken fragments like a smashed jug. I felt as empty as a fish bladder punctured again and again and sinking into deep, muddy waters.

  All these events became suddenly clear and obvious. They explained the expression I had often heard people use about people who were very successful in life: “He is in league with the Devil.”

  Peasants also accused one another of accepting help from various demons, such as Lucifer, Cadaver, Mammon, Exterminator, and many others. If the powers of Evil were so readily available to peasants, they probably lurked near every person, ready to pounce on any sign of encouragement, any weakness.

  I tried to visualize the manner in which the evil spirits operated. The minds and souls of people were as open to these forces as a plowed field, and it was on this field that the Evil Ones incessantly scattered their malignant seed. If their seed sprouted to life, if they felt welcomed, they offered all the help which might be needed, on the condition that it would be used for selfish purposes and only to the detriment of others. From the moment of signing a pact with the Devil, the more harm, misery, injury, and bitterness a man could inflict on those around him, the more help he could expect. If he shrank from inflicting harm on others, if he succumbed to emotions of love, friendship, and compassion, he would immediately become weaker and his own life would have to absorb the suffering and defeats that he spared others.

  These creatures that inhabited the human soul observed keenly not only man’s every action, but also his motives and emotions. What mattered was that a man should consciously promote evil, find pleasure in harming others, nurturing and using the diabolical powers granted him by the Evil Ones in a manner calculated to cause as much misery and suffering around him as possible.

  Only those with a sufficiently powerful passion for hatred, greed, revenge, or torture to obtain some objective seemed to make a good bargain with the powers of Evil. Others, confused, uncertain of their aim, lost between curses and prayers, the tavern and the church, struggled through life a
lone, without help from either God or the Devil.

  So far I had been one of those. I felt annoyed with myself for not having understood sooner the real rules of this world. The Evil Ones surely picked only those who had already displayed a sufficient supply of inner hatred and maliciousness.

  A man who had sold out to the Evil Ones would remain in their power all his life. From time to time he would have to demonstrate an increasing number of misdeeds. But they were not rated equally by his superiors. An action harming one person was obviously worth less than one affecting many. The consequences of the evil deed were also important. Ruining the life of a young man was certainly more valuable than doing the same to an old man who hadn’t long to live anyway. Furthermore, if the wrong done to someone managed to change his character in such a way as to turn him toward evil as a way of life, then a special bonus was due. Thus, simply beating up an innocent man was worth less than inciting him to hate others. But hatreds of large groups of people must have been the most valuable of all. I could barely imagine the prize earned by the person who managed to inculcate in all blond, blue-eyed people a long-lasting hatred of dark ones.

  I also began to understand the extraordinary success of the Germans. Didn’t the priest explain once to some peasants that even in remote times the Germans delighted in waging wars? Peace had never appealed to them. They did not want to till the soil, they had no patience to wait all year for the harvest. They preferred attacking other tribes and taking crops from them. The Germans probably were noticed then by the Evil Ones. Eager to do harm, they agreed to sell out wholesale to them. That is why they were endowed with all their splendid abilities and talents. That is why they could impose all their refined methods of wrongdoing on others. Success was a vicious circle: the more harm they inflicted, the more secret powers they secured for evil. The more diabolical powers they had, the more evil they could achieve.

  No one could stop them. They were invincible; they performed their function with masterful skill. They contaminated others with hatred, they condemned whole nations to extermination. Every German must have sold his soul to the Devil at birth. This was the source of their power and strength.

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