The painted bird, p.18
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       The Painted Bird, p.18

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  The peasant groaned and sighed heavily, gathered up the woman’s body under his hand, raised himself, and with the back of his hand struck her breasts. They flapped loudly like a wet cloth being beaten against a rock. He swooped down on her and flattened her to the bed. Labina, crying incoherently, struck his back with her hands. Sometimes the man lifted the woman, forced her to kneel on the bed leaning on her elbows, and he mounted her from the back, beating her rhythmically with his belly and thighs.

  I looked on with disappointment and disgust at the two intertwined, twitching human frames. So that’s what love was: savage as a bull prodded with a spike; brutal, smelly, sweaty. This love was like a brawl in which man and woman wrested pleasure from each other, fighting, incapable of thought, half stunned, wheezing, less than human.

  I recalled the moments I had passed with Ewka. How differently I treated her. My touch was gentle; my hands, my mouth, my tongue, hovered consciously over her skin, soft and delicate like gossamer floating in windless warm air. I continually sought out new sensitive places unknown even to her, bringing them to life with my touch, as rays of sunshine revive a butterfly chilled by the cool air of the autumn night. I remembered my elaborate efforts and how they released within the girl’s body some yearnings and tremors that otherwise would have been imprisoned there forever. I freed them, wanting her only to find pleasure in herself.

  The loves of Labina and her guests were soon over. They were like short spring thundershowers that wet the leaves and grass but never reach the roots. I remembered how my games with Ewka never really ceased but only dimmed when Makar and Quail intruded into our lives. They continued long into the night like a peat fire whipped gently by the wind. Yet even this love was extinguished as fast as burning logs are smothered with a shepherd’s horse blanket. As soon as I became temporarily incapable of playing with her, Ewka forgot me. To the warmth of my body, the tender caress of my arms, the gentle touch of my fingers and my mouth, she preferred a stinking hairy goat and his loathsome deep penetration.

  Finally the bed stopped quivering and the slackened carcasses, sprawling there like slaughtered cattle, settled into sleep. Then I pushed the bed back to the wall, climbed over it, and lay down in my cold corner, pulling all the sheepskins over me.

  On rainy afternoons Labina grew melancholic and talked about her husband, Laba, who was no longer alive. Many years ago Labina had been a beautiful girl whom the richest peasants wooed. But against reasoned advice she fell in love with and married Laba, the poorest farmhand in the village, known also as the Handsome One.

  Laba indeed was handsome, tall as a poplar, nimble as a top. His hair shone in the sun, his eyes were bluer than the fairest sky, and his complexion was as smooth as a child’s. When he looked at a woman her blood ran fire and lustful thoughts raced through her head. Laba knew that he was good-looking and that he aroused admiration and lust in women. He liked to parade about the woods and bathe in the pond naked. He would glance into the bushes and know that he was being watched by young virgins and married women.

  But he was the poorest farmhand in the village. He was hired by the rich peasants and had to endure many humiliations. These men knew that Laba was desired by their wives and daughters, and they would humble him for it. They also bothered Labina, knowing that her penniless husband depended on them and could only look on helplessly.

  One day Laba did not return home from the field. He did not return the next day, or the day after. He vanished like a stone dropped to the bottom of a lake.

  It was thought that he was drowned or sucked in by a swamp, or that some jealous suitor had knifed him and buried him at night in the forest.

  Life went on without Laba. Only the saying, “handsome as Laba,” survived in the village.

  A lonely year without Laba passed. People forgot him, and only Labina believed that he was still alive and would return. One summer day, when the villagers rested in the short shadows of the trees, a cart pulled by a fat horse emerged from the forest. On the cart lay a large chest covered by a cloth, and next to it walked Handsome Laba in a beautiful leather jacket slung Hussar-fashion over his shoulders, in trousers of the finest cloth and in tall shining boots.

  The children ran among the huts, carrying the news, and men and women swarmed toward the road. Laba greeted them all with a nonchalant wave, while wiping the sweat off his brow and prodding the horse.

  Labina was already waiting in the doorway. He kissed his wife, unloaded the enormous chest, and entered the hut. The neighbors gathered in front admiring the horse and cart.

  After waiting impatiently for Laba and Labina to reappear, the villagers began to jest. He had rushed to her like a buck to a goat, they said, and cold water should be poured over them.

  Suddenly the doors of the hut opened and the crowd gasped with astonishment. On the threshold stood Handsome Laba in a suit of unimaginable splendor. He wore a striped silk shirt with a stark white collar round his tanned neck and a garish tie. His soft flannel suit begged to be touched. A satin handkerchief stuck out of his breast pocket like a flower. To this was added a pair of black lacquered boots and, as a crowning glory, a gold watch hanging from his breast pocket.

  The peasants gaped in awe. Nothing like this had happened in the history of the village. Usually the inhabitants wore homespun jackets, trousers sewed together from two lengths of cloth, and boots of rough-tanned leather nailed to a thick wooden sole. Laba extracted from his chest innumerable colorful jackets of unusual cut, trousers, shirts, and patent-leather shoes, shining with such luster they could serve as mirrors, and handkerchiefs, ties, socks, and underclothes. Handsome Laba became the supreme object of local interest. Unusual stories went around about him. Various surmises were made about the origin of all these priceless objects. Labina was showered with questions she could not answer, for Laba gave only vague replies, contributing even more to the growth of the legend.

  During church services no one looked at the priest or the altar. They all watched the right-hand corner of the nave where Handsome Laba sat stiffly with his wife in his black satin suit and flowered shirt. On his wrist he wore a glittering watch, at which he would glance ostentatiously. The priest’s vestments, once the very acme of ornateness, now seemed as dull as a wintry sky. The people sitting near Laba delighted in the unusual fragrances that wafted from him. Labina confided that they derived from a number of little bottles and jars.

  After the Mass the crowd moved into the courtyard of the presbytery and ignored the vicar, who tried to attract their attention. They waited for Laba. He walked toward the exit with a loose, confident stride, his heels loudly tapping the church floor. The people respectfully gave way to him. The richest peasants approached and greeted him familiarly, and invited him to their homes for dinners in his honor. Without inclining his head Laba casually shook the hands outstretched to him. Women barred his way and, heedless of Labina’s presence, hiked their skirts up so their thighs showed and pulled at their dresses to make their breasts more prominent.

  Handsome Laba no longer worked in the fields. He even refused to help his wife in the house. He passed his days bathing in the lake. He hung his multicolored clothing on a tree near the shore. Nearby excited women watched his naked muscular body. It was said that Laba allowed some of them to touch him in the shadow of the bushes and that they were ready to commit shameful acts with him, for which a terrible retribution might be exacted.

  In the afternoon, when the villagers returned from the fields sweating and gray with dust, they passed Handsome Laba sauntering the other way, carefully stepping on the firmest part of the road so as not to soil his shoes, adjusting his tie, and polishing his watch with a pink handkerchief.

  In the evenings horses would be sent for Laba and he would drive off to receptions, often in places dozens of miles away. Labina stayed home, half dead with exhaustion and humiliation, caring for the farm, the horse, and her husband’s treasures. For Handsome Laba time had stopped, but Labina aged rapidly, her skin sagging a
nd her thighs growing flabby.

  A year passed.

  One autumn day Labina returned from the fields, expecting to find her husband in the attic with all his treasures. The attic was Laba’s exclusive realm and he carried on his breast along with a medallion of the Holy Virgin the key to the large padlock securing its door. But now the house was absolutely still. No smoke poured from the chimney, and there was no sound of Laba singing as he changed into one of his warmer suits.

  Labina, frightened, rushed into the hut. The door to the attic was open. She climbed up to it. What she saw stunned her. On the floor lay the chest with its lid torn off and its whitish bottom visible. A body dangled above the chest. Her husband now hung on the large hook where his suits used to hang. Handsome Laba, swaying like a slowed-down pendulum, was suspended by a floral-patterned necktie. There was a hole in the roof through which the thief had carried away the contents of the chest. The thin rays of the setting sun illuminated the pallid face of Handsome Laba and the bluish tongue sticking out of his mouth. All around iridescent flies murmured.

  Labina guessed what had happened. When Laba had returned from bathing in the lake to put on his parade suit, he found the hole in the attic roof and the empty chest. All his fine clothes were gone. Only a single necktie remained, lying like a severed flower in the trampled straw.

  Laba’s reason for living had disappeared with the contents of his chest. There was an end to weddings at which no one looked at the groom, an end to burials at which Handsome Laba would meet the worshipful gaze of the crowd as he stood above the open grave, an end to proud self-display in the lake and the touch of eager female hands.

  With a careful, deliberate movement which no one else in the village could imitate, Laba had put on his necktie for the last time. Then he had pulled the emptied chest toward him and reached for the hook in the ceiling.

  Labina never discovered how her husband had acquired his treasures. He never referred to the period of his absence. No one knew where he had been, what he had done, what price he had paid for all those goods. All the village knew was what the loss of his things cost him.

  Neither the thief nor any of the stolen objects was ever found. While I was still there rumors circulated that the thief was a cuckolded husband or fiancé. Others believed that some insanely jealous woman was responsible. Many people in the village suspected Labina herself. When she heard of this accusation her face grew livid, her hands shook, and a rancid smell of bitterness came from her mouth. Her fingers clawed, she would hurl herself at the accuser, and the onlookers would have to separate them. Labina would return home, drink herself into a stupor, and hold me close to her breast, weeping and sobbing.

  During one of these fights, her heart burst. When I saw several men carrying her dead body to the hut, I knew I had to flee. I filled my comet with smoldering embers, grabbed the precious necktie hidden under the bed by Labina, the necktie on which Handsome Laba had hung himself, and left. It was common belief that the rope of a suicide brings good luck. I hoped I would never lose the necktie.


  The summer was nearly over. Sheaves of wheat were stacked in the fields. The peasants worked as hard as they could, but they did not have enough horses or oxen to bring in the harvest quickly.

  A high railroad bridge spanned the cliffs of a big river near the village. It was guarded by heavy guns set in concrete pillboxes.

  At night when high-flying airplanes droned in the sky, everything on the bridge was blacked out. In the morning life resumed. Soldiers in helmets manned the guns, and from the highest point of the bridge the angular form of the swastika, woven into its flag, twisted in the wind.

  One hot night gunfire was heard in the distance. The muffled sound washed over the fields, alarming men and birds. Flashes of lightning twinkled far away. People assembled in front of their houses. The men, smoking their corncob pipes, watched the man-made lightning and said: “The front is coming.” Others added: “The Germans are losing.” Many arguments broke out.

  Some of the peasants said that when the Soviet commissars came they would distribute the land fairly to everyone, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. It would be the end of the exploiting landlords, of corrupt officials and brutal policemen.

  Others violently disagreed. Swearing on their holy crosses they shouted that the Soviets would nationalize everything right down to wives and children. They looked at the glare in the eastern sky and shouted that the coming of the Reds meant that people would turn away from the altar, forget the teaching of their ancestors, and give themselves up to sinful lives until God’s justice made them pillars of salt.

  Brother fought against brother, fathers swung axes against sons in front of their mothers. An invisible force divided people, split families, addled brains. Only the elders remained sane, scurrying from one side to the other, begging the combatants to make peace. They cried in their squeaky voices that there was enough war in the world without starting one in the village.

  The thunder beyond the horizon was coming nearer. Its roll cooled the quarrels. People suddenly forgot about Soviet commissars or divine wrath in their rush to dig pits in their barns and cellars.

  They hid stores of butter, pork, and calves’ meat, rye, and wheat. Some secretly dyed sheets red for use as flags to greet the new rulers, while others hid away in safe places crucifixes, the figures of Jesus and Mary, and icons.

  I did not understand all of it, but I sensed the urgency in the air. No one paid any attention to me any more. I wandered among the huts, hearing sounds of digging, nervous whispers, and prayers. As I lay in the fields with my ear to the ground, I could hear a thudding sound.

  Was it the Red Army coming? The throbbing in the earth was like a heartbeat. I was wondering why, if God could make sinners into pillars of salt so easily, salt was so expensive. And why didn’t He turn some sinners into meat or sugar? The villagers certainly needed these as much as salt.

  I lay on my back looking at the clouds. They floated by in such a way that I myself seemed to be floating. If it was true that women and children might become communal property, then every child would have many fathers and mothers, innumerable brothers and sisters. It seemed to be too much to hope for. To belong to everyone! Wherever I might go, many fathers would stroke my head with firm, reassuring hands, many mothers would hug me to their bosoms, and many older brothers would defend me against dogs. And I would have to look after my smaller brothers and sisters. There seemed to be no reason for the peasants to be so afraid.

  The clouds dissolved into one another, becoming now darker, now lighter. Somewhere high above them God directed it all. I understood now why He could hardly spare time for a small black flea like me. He had vast armies, countless men, animals, and machines battling beneath Him. He had to decide who was to win and who was to lose; who was to live and who was to die.

  But if God really decided what was to happen, why did the peasants worry about their faith, the churches, and the clergy? If the Soviet commissars really intended to destroy the churches, desecrate the altars, kill the priests, and persecute the faithful, the Red Army would not have the remotest chance of winning the war. Even the most overworked God could not overlook such a menace to His people. But then would not that mean that the Germans, who also demolished churches and murdered people, would prove the winners? From God’s point of view it seemed to make more sense if everyone lost the war, since everyone was committing murder.

  “Common ownership of wives and children,” the peasants said. It sounded rather puzzling. Anyway, I thought, with a little goodwill the Soviet commissars might perhaps include me among the children. Although I was smaller than most eight-year-old boys, I was almost eleven now and it disturbed me that the Russians might classify me as an adult or, at least, not regard me as a child. In addition, I was a mute. I also had trouble with food, which sometimes came up from my stomach undigested. I surely deserved to become common property.

  One morning I noticed unusual activity
on the bridge. Helmeted soldiers were swarming over it, dismantling the cannon and machine-guns, hauling down the German flag. As large trucks went westward from the other side of the bridge, the harsh sound of the German songs faded. “They are running away,” said the peasants. “They have lost the war,” whispered the bolder ones.

  Next day at noon a band of mounted men rode up to the village. There were a hundred of them, perhaps more. They seemed to be one with their horses; they rode with marvelous ease, without any set order. They wore green German uniforms with bright buttons and forage caps pulled down over their eyes.

  The peasants instantly recognized them. They screamed in terror that the Kalmuks were coming and the women and children must hide before they could be seized. For months in the village many terrible tales had been told about these riders, usually referred to as Kalmuks. The peasants said that when the once invincible German Army had occupied a large area of Soviet land it was joined by many Kalmuks, mostly volunteers, deserters from the Soviets. Hating the Reds, they joined the Germans who permitted them to loot and rape in the manner of their war customs and manly traditions. This is why the Kalmuks were sent to villages and towns that were to be punished for some noncompliance and, particularly, to those towns that lay in the path of the advancing Red Army.

  The Kalmuks rode at full gallop, bent over their horses, using their spurs and uttering hoarse cries. Under their unbuttoned uniforms one could see bare brown skin. Some rode without saddles, some carried heavy sabers at their belts.

  Wild confusion seized the village. It was too late for flight. I looked at the horsemen with keen interest. They all had black oily hair which glistened in the sun. Almost blue-black, it was even darker than mine, as were also their eyes and their swarthy skins. They had large white teeth, high cheekbones, and wide faces that looked swollen.

  For a moment, as I looked at them, I felt great pride and satisfaction. After all, these proud horsemen were black-haired, black-eyed, and dark-skinned. They differed from the people of the village as night from day. The arrival of these dark Kalmuks drove the fair-haired village people almost insane with fear.

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