The painted bird, p.17
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       The Painted Bird, p.17

           Jerzy Kosiński
 
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  Cold sweat drained over me in the dark hutch. I myself hated many people. How many times had I dreamed of the time when I would be strong enough to return, set their settlements on fire, poison their children and cattle, lure them into deadly swamps. In a sense I had already been recruited by the powers of Evil and had made a pact with them. What I needed now was their assistance for spreading evil. After all, I was still very young; the Evil Ones had reason to believe that I had a future to give to them, that eventually my hatred and appetite for evil would grow like a noxious weed, spreading its seed over many fields.

  I felt stronger and more confident. The time of passivity was over; the belief in good, the power of prayer, altars, priests, and God had deprived me of my speech. My love for Ewka, my desire to do anything I could for her, also met with its proper reward.

  Now I would join those who were helped by the Evil Ones. I had not yet made any real contribution to their work, but in time I could become as prominent as any of the leading Germans. I could expect distinctions and prizes, as well as additional powers enabling me to destroy others in the subtlest ways. People who had contact with me would likewise become infected with evil. They would carry on the task of destruction, and every one of their successes would earn new powers for me.

  There was no time to be lost. I had to build up a potential for hatred that would force me to action and attract the attention of the Evil Ones. If they really existed, they could hardly afford to miss an opportunity to make use of me.

  I did not feel pain any more. I crawled to the house and peered through the window. In the room the game with the goat was over; the beast was standing calmly in a corner. Ewka was playing with Quail. They were both naked and they took turns lying on each other, jumping like frogs, rolling on the floor, and hugging in the way Ewka had taught me. Makar, also naked, stood by and watched them from above. When the girl started kicking and jerking, while Quail seemed rigid like a fence post, Makar knelt down over them close to his daughter’s face and his huge body shielded them from my sight.

  I continued watching them for a few moments. The sight dribbled off my numb mind like a drop of freezing water descending an icicle.

  I suddenly desired to act and hobbled outside. Ditko, familiar with my movements, only growled and went to sleep. I moved toward Anulka’s hut at the far end of the village. I sneaked up to it, looking everywhere for the comet. The hens were startled by my presence and began to cackle. I peered into the small doorway.

  The old woman woke up at that moment. I crouched behind a large cask and when Anulka stepped out I uttered an unearthly howl and jabbed her in the ribs with a stick. The old witch ran screaming and calling for help from the Lord and all the saints, stumbling over the poles supporting the tomato plants in the garden.

  I slipped into the stuffy room and soon found an old comet by the stove. I shoveled some burning cinders into the comet and sprinted for the forest. Behind me I heard the shrill voice of Anulka and the alarmed voices of dogs and people slowly responding to her cries.

  13

  At that time of year it was not very difficult to escape from a village. I often watched the boys attach homemade skates to their shoes and spread pieces of canvas over their heads, and then let the wind push them over the smooth surface of the ice covering the marshes and pastures.

  The marshes spread over many miles between the villages. In the autumn the waters rose, submerging the reeds and bushes. Small fish and other creatures multiplied rapidly in the bogs. One could sometimes see a snake, its head raised stiffly, swimming with determination. The marshes did not freeze as quickly as the local ponds and lakes. It was as though the winds and reeds were defending themselves by agitating the water.

  In the end, however, ice gripped everything. Only the tips of tall reeds and an odd twig or two protruded here and there, covered by a frosty coating on which snowflakes perched precariously.

  The winds came wild and unharnessed. They bypassed human settlements and gained speed over the flat marshlands, swirling with them clouds of powdery snow, pushing along old branches and dried potato stalks, bending the proud heads of taller trees jutting through the ice. I knew there were many different winds and that they fought battles, butting each other, wrestling, trying to win more ground.

  I had already made a pair of skates, hoping that someday I would have to leave the village. I attached some thick wire to two long pieces of wood, curved at one end. Then I threaded straps through the skates and attached them firmly to the boots, which I myself also made. These boots consisted of wooden rectangular soles and scraps of rabbit skin, reinforced on the outside with canvas.

  I fixed the skates to my boots at the edge of the marshland. I hung the burning comet over my shoulder and spread the sail over my head. The invisible hand of the wind began to push me. I gathered speed with every gust that blew me away from the village. My skates glided over the ice, and I felt the warmth of my comet. I was now in the middle of a vast icy surface. The howling wind drove me along, and dark gray clouds with light edges raced along with me on my journey.

  Flying along that endless white plain I felt free and alone like a starling soaring in the air, tossed by every flurry, following a stream, unconscious of its speed, drawn into an abandoned dance. Trusting myself to the frenzied power of the wind, I spread my sail even wider. It was hard to believe that the local people regarded the wind as an enemy and closed their windows to it, afraid that it might bring them plague, paralysis, and death. They always said that the Devil was master of the winds, which carried out his evil orders.

  The swelling air was now pushing me with a steady thrust. I flew over the ice, dodging the occasional frozen stalks. The sun was dim, and when I finally stopped my shoulders and ankles were stiff and cold. I decided to rest and warm myself, but when I reached for my comet I found that it had blown out. Not a spark remained. I sagged with fear, not knowing what to do. I could not return to the village; I did not have the strength for the long struggle against the wind. I had no idea whether there were any farms in the vicinity, whether I could find them before nightfall, and whether they would give me shelter even if I found them.

  I heard something that sounded like a chuckle in the whistling wind. I shivered at the thought that the Devil himself was testing me by leading me around in circles, waiting for the moment when I would accept his offer.

  As the wind whipped me I could hear other whispers, mutterings, and moans. The Evil Ones were interested in me at last. To train me in hatred they had first separated me from my parents, then taken away Marta and Olga, delivered me into the hands of the carpenter, robbed me of my speech, then given Ewka to the he-goat. Now they dragged me through a frozen wilderness, threw snow in my face, churned my thoughts into confusion. I was in their power, alone on a glassy sheet of ice which the Evil Ones themselves had spread between remote villages. They turned somersaults over my head and could send me anywhere at their whim.

  I started walking on my aching feet, oblivious of time. Every step was painful and I had to rest at frequent intervals. I sat on the ice trying to move my freezing legs, rubbing my cheeks, nose, and ears with snow scraped off my hair and clothes, massaging my rigid fingers, trying to find some feeling in my numb toes.

  The sun was down to the horizon and its slanting rays were as cold as the moon’s. When I sat down the world around me looked like a vast skillet carefully polished by an industrious housewife.

  I stretched the canvas over my head, trying to catch every turbulence as I moved straight ahead toward the setting sun. When I had almost given up hope, I noticed the outlines of thatched roofs. A few moments later, when the village was clearly visible, I saw a gang of boys approaching on skates. Without my comet I was afraid of them and tried to cut away at an angle, aiming at the outskirts of the settlement. But it was too late; they had already noticed me.

  The group headed in my direction. I started running against the wind, but I was out of breath and could hardly stand on my legs.
I sat on the ice grasping the handle of the comet.

  The boys came closer. There were ten or more. Swinging their arms, supporting one another, they progressed steadily against the wind. The air threw their voices back; I could hear nothing.

  When they were quite close they split into two groups and surrounded me cautiously. I huddled on the ice and covered my face with the canvas sail, hoping they might leave me alone.

  They encircled me with suspicion. I pretended not to notice them. Three of the strongest came closer. “A Gypsy,” one said, “a Gypsy bastard.”

  The others stood by calmly, but when I tried to get up they jumped on me and twisted my arms behind my back. The group became excited. They beat me on the face and stomach. Blood froze on my lip and closed one eye. The tallest one said something. The others seemed to agree enthusiastically. Some held me by the legs, others started pulling off my pants. I knew what they wanted to do. I had seen a band of cowherds raping a boy from another village who happened to wander into their territory. I knew that only something unforeseen could save me.

  I allowed them to take off my pants, pretending I was exhausted and could not fight any more. I guessed that they would not take off my boots and skates because they were too firmly attached to my feet. Noticing that I was limp and did not resist, they relaxed their grip. Two of the biggest crouched by my bare abdomen and struck me with frozen gloves.

  I tensed my muscles, withdrew one leg slightly, and kicked one of the boys bending over me. Something cracked in his head. At first I thought it was the skate, but it was whole when I jerked it out of the boy’s eye. Another one tried to grab me by the legs; I kicked him across the throat with the skate. The two boys fell on the ice, bleeding profusely. The rest of the boys panicked; most of them started dragging the wounded boys toward the village, leaving a bloody trail on the ice. Four stayed behind.

  These pinned me down with a long pole used for fishing in ice holes. When I ceased struggling they dragged me toward a nearby hole. I resisted desperately at the edge of the water, but they were ready. Two of them widened the hole and then they all heaved together, pushing me under the ice with the pointed end of the pole. They tried to make sure that I could not emerge.

  The icy water shut over me. I closed my mouth and held my breath, feeling the painful thrust of the spike pushing me under. I slid underneath the ice, and it rubbed my head, my shoulders, and my bare hands. And then the pointed pole was bobbing at my fingertips, no longer being jabbed into me, for the boys had let go of it.

  The cold encased me. My mind was freezing. I was sliding down, choking. The water here was shallow, and my only thought was that I could use the pole to push against the bottom and lift myself to the ice-cut. I grabbed the pole and it supported me as I moved along underneath the ice. When my lungs were nearly bursting and I was ready to open my mouth and swallow anything, I found myself near the ice-cut. With one more push my head popped out and I gulped air that felt like a stream of boiling soup. I caught the sharp rim of the ice, holding on to it in such a way as to be able to breathe without emerging too often. I did not know how far the boys had gone, and I preferred to wait a while.

  Only my face was still alive; I could not feel the rest of my body: it seemed to belong to the ice. I made efforts to move my legs and feet.

  I peered over the edge of the ice and saw the boys disappearing in the distance, and diminishing with each step they took. When they were far enough away, I climbed to the surface. My clothes froze solid and crackled at every movement. I jumped up and down and stretched my stiff legs and arms and rubbed myself with snow, but warmth returned only for a few seconds and then vanished again. I tied the ragged remains of my pants to my legs and then pulled the pole out of the ice hole and leaned heavily on it. The wind struck me sideways; I had trouble keeping my direction. Whenever I weakened, I put the pole between my legs and pushed on it, as though riding on a stiff tail.

  I was slowly moving away from the huts, toward a forest visible in the distance. It was very late afternoon and the brownish disk of the sun was cut by the square shapes of roofs and chimneys. Every gust of wind robbed my body of precious remnants of warmth. I knew that I must not rest or stop even for a moment until I reached the forest. I began to see the pattern of bark on the trees. A frightened hare jumped from under a bush.

  When I reached the first trees my head was spinning. It seemed to be midsummer, and the golden ears of wheat were waving over my head and Ewka touched me with her warm hand. I had visions of food: a huge bowl of beef seasoned with vinegar, garlic, pepper and salt; a pot of coarse gruel thickened with pickled cabbage leaves and pieces of succulent fat bacon; evenly cut slices of barley bread soaked in a thick borscht of barley, potatoes, and corn.

  I took another few steps over the frozen ground and entered the woods. My skates caught on roots and bushes. I stumbled once and then sat on a tree trunk. Almost immediately I started sinking into a hot bed full of soft, smooth, warmed pillows and eiderdowns. Someone leaned over me, I heard a woman’s voice, I was being carried somewhere. Everything dissolved into a sultry summer night, full of intoxicating, moist, fragrant mists.

  14

  I woke on a wide low bed nestled against the wall and covered with sheepskins. It was hot in the room and the flickering light of a thick candle revealed a dirt floor, chalky-white walls, and a thatched roof. A cross hung from the chimney-piece. A woman sat staring into the high flames of the fire. She was barefoot, in a tight skirt of coarse linen. Her jerkin of rabbit pelts with many holes was unbuttoned to the waist. Noticing that I was awake she approached and sat down on the bed, which groaned under her weight. She lifted my chin and looked attentively at me. Her eyes were watery blue. When she smiled, she did not cover her mouth with her hand as was customary here. Instead, she displayed two rows of yellowish, uneven teeth.

  She spoke to me in a local dialect which I could not fully understand. She persisted in calling me her poor Gypsy, her little Jewish foundling. At first she would not believe that I was a mute. Occasionally she looked inside my mouth, rapped my throat, tried to startle me; but she soon stopped when I stayed silent.

  She fed me hot thick borscht and carefully inspected my frozen ears, hands, and feet. She told me her name was Labina. I felt safe and contented with her. I liked her very much.

  In the daytime Labina went out to work as a domestic to some of the richer peasants, especially to those with sick wives or too many children. Often she took me along so I could have a decent meal, although it was said in the village that I should be delivered to the Germans. Labina replied to such remarks with a torrent of curses, shouting that all were equal before God and that she was no Judas to sell me for silver coins.

  In the evenings Labina used to receive guests in her hut. Men who managed to get out of their houses came to her hut with bottles of vodka and baskets of food.

  The hut contained a single enormous bed that could easily accommodate three people. Between one edge of this bed and the wall there was a wide space where Labina had piled sacks, old rags, and sheepskins, thus providing me with a place to sleep. I always went to sleep before the guests arrived, but I was often awakened by their singing and boisterous toasts. But I pretended to be asleep. I did not wish to risk the beating Labina often halfheartedly said I deserved. With eyes nearly closed I would watch what was happening in the room.

  A drinking bout would begin and last far into the night. Usually one man would stay after the others had left. He and Labina would sit down against the warm oven and drink from the same cup. When she would sway uncertainly and lean toward the man, he would place a huge blackened hand on her flabby thighs and slowly move it under her skirt.

  Labina at first seemed indifferent, then struggled a little. The man’s other hand slid from beneath her neck down inside her blouse, squeezing her breasts so hard that she uttered a cry and panted hoarsely. At times the man kneeled on the floor and pushed his face aggressively into her groin, biting it through the skirt while s
queezing her buttocks with both his hands. Often he would strike her groin abruptly with the edge of his hand and she would bend over and moan.

  The candle was put out. They would undress in the dark, laughing and cursing, stumbling over the furniture and each other, impatiently shedding their clothing, overturning bottles that would roll across the room. When they tumbled onto the bed I feared it would collapse. While I thought of the rats who lived with us, Labina and her guest tossed about in the bed, wheezing and fighting, calling on God and Satan, the man howling like a dog, the woman grunting like a pig.

  Often, in the middle of the night, in the midst of my dreams, I suddenly awoke on the floor between the bed and the wall. The bed quivered above me; shifted by the bodies struggling in convulsive fits. Finally it began to move over the tilted floor toward the center of the room.

  Unable to crawl back into the bed from which I fell, I had to sneak under it and push it back against the wall. Then I returned to my pallet. The dirt floor under the bed was cold and moist and covered with cat feces and the remains of birds they had dragged in. As I inched in the dark I tore at thick cobwebs and the frightened spiders ran over my face and hair. Warm little bodies of mice fled to their holes, brushing against me as they passed.

  Touching this dark world with my flesh always filled me with revulsion and fear. I would crawl out from under the bed, wipe the cobwebs off my face, and wait shivering for the proper moment to push the bed back toward the wall.

  Gradually my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I looked on while the great sweating body of the man mounted the trembling woman. She embraced his fleshy buttocks with her legs which resembled the wings of a bird crushed under a stone.

 
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