The painted bird, p.19
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       The Painted Bird, p.19

           Jerzy Kosiński
 
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  In the meantime the riders pulled up their horses between the houses. One of them, a squat man in a fully buttoned uniform and an officer’s cap, shouted orders. They jumped off their horses and tied them up to fences. From their saddles they took pieces of meat that had been cooked by the heat of horse and rider. They ate this blue-gray meat with their hands and drank out of gourds, coughing and spluttering as they swallowed.

  Some were already drunk. They rushed into the huts and grabbed the women who were not hidden. The men tried to defend them with their scythes. A Kalmuk cut down one of them with a single stroke of his saber. Others tried to run away but were stopped by bullet shots.

  The Kalmuks scattered throughout the village. The air was filled with screams from every quarter. I rushed into the middle of a small thick cluster of raspberry bushes right in the center of the square and flattened myself like a worm.

  As I watched carefully, the village exploded in panic. Men tried to defend the houses which Kalmuks had already entered. More shots rang out and a man wounded in the head ran around in circles blinded by his own blood. A Kalmuk cut him down. The children scattered wildly, stumbling over ditches and fences. One of them ran into the bushes where I was hiding but, seeing me, ran out again to be trampled by galloping horses.

  The Kalmuks were now dragging a half-naked woman out of a house. She struggled and screamed, trying in vain to catch her tormentors by the legs. A group of women and girls was being rounded up with horsewhips by some laughing riders. The fathers, husbands and brothers of the women ran about begging for mercy, but were chased away with horsewhips and sabers. A farmer ran through the main street with his hand cut off. Blood was spurting from the stump while he kept looking for his family.

  Nearby the soldiers had forced a woman to the ground. One soldier held her by the throat while others pulled her legs apart. One of them mounted her and moved on top of her to shouts of encouragement. The woman struggled and cried. When the first was done the others assaulted her in turn. The woman soon grew limp and did not fight back any more.

  Still another woman was brought out. She screamed and begged, but the Kalmuks stripped her and threw her on the ground. Two men raped her at once, one in the mouth. When she tried to twist her head aside or close her mouth she was lashed with a bullwhip. Finally she weakened and submitted passively. Some other soldiers were raping from the front and from the back two young girls, passing them from one man to the next, forcing them to perform strange movements. When the girls resisted, they were flogged and kicked.

  The screams of raped women were heard in all the houses. One girl somehow managed to escape and ran out half naked, with blood streaming down her thighs, howling like a whipped dog. Two half-naked soldiers ran after her, laughing. They chased her around the square amidst the laughter and jokes of their comrades. Finally they caught up with her. Weeping children looked on.

  New victims were being caught all the time. The drunken Kalmuks became more and more aroused. A few of them copulated with each other, then competed in raping women in odd ways: two or three men to one girl, several men in rapid succession. The younger and more desirable girls were nearly torn apart, and some quarrels broke out among the soldiers. The women sobbed and prayed aloud. Their husbands and fathers, sons and brothers, who were now locked in the houses, recognized their voices and responded with maddened shrieks.

  In the middle of the square some Kalmuks displayed their skill in raping women on horseback. One of them stripped off his uniform, leaving only his boots on his hairy legs. He rode his horse in circles and then neatly lifted off the ground a naked woman brought to him by the others. He made her sit astride the horse in front of him, and facing him. The horse broke into a faster trot, the rider pulled the woman closer making her lean her back against the horse’s mane. At every lunge of the horse he penetrated her afresh, shouting triumphantly each time. The others greeted his performance with applause. The rider then deftly turned the woman around so that she faced forward. He lifted her slightly and repeated his feat from the back while clutching her breasts.

  Encouraged by the others, another Kalmuk jumped on the same horse, behind the woman and with his back to the horse’s mane. The horse groaned under the load and slowed down, while the two soldiers raped the fainting woman simultaneously.

  Other feats followed. Helpless women were passed from one trotting horse to another. One of the Kalmuks tried to couple with a mare; others aroused a stallion and tried to push a girl under it, holding her up by her legs.

  I crept deeper into the bushes, overwhelmed by dread and disgust. Now I understood everything. I realized why God would not listen to my prayers, why I was hung from hooks, why Garbos beat me, why I lost my speech. I was black. My hair and eyes were as black as these Kalmuks’. Evidently I belonged with them in another world. There could be no mercy for such as me. A dreadful fate had sentenced me to have black hair and eyes in common with this horde of savages.

  Suddenly a tall white-haired old man came out of one of the barns. The peasants called him “The Saint” and perhaps he thought of himself as such. He held with both hands a heavy wooden cross and he wore on his white head a wreath of yellowed oak leaves. His sightless eyes were lifted to the sky. His bare feet, deformed by age and disease, sought a path. The words of a psalm came in a mournful dirge from his toothless mouth. He was pointing the cross at his unseen enemies.

  The soldiers sobered for a moment. Even the drunken ones eyed him uneasily, visibly disturbed. Then one of them ran up to the old man and tripped him. He fell down and lost his grip on the cross. The Kalmuks jeered and waited. The old man tried with stiff movements to raise himself, groping for the cross. His bony, gnarled hands searched the ground patiently while the soldier flipped the cross away with his foot as he got close to it. The old man crawled around babbling and moaning softly. Finally he was exhausted and breathed heavily with a hoarse wheeze. The Kalmuk lifted the heavy cross and stood it upright. It balanced for a second, and then toppled onto the prone figure. The old man moaned and ceased to move.

  A soldier threw a knife at one of the girls who was trying to crawl away. She was left bleeding in the dirt; no one paid any attention to her. Drunken Kalmuks handed women spattered with blood from one to another, beating them, forcing them to perform odd acts. One of them rushed into a house and brought out a small girl of about five. He lifted her high so that his comrades could see her well. He tore off the child’s dress. He kicked her in the belly while her mother crawled in the dust begging for mercy. He slowly unbuttoned and took down his trousers, while still holding the little girl above his waist with one hand. Then he crouched and pierced the screaming child with a sudden thrust. When the girl grew limp he threw her away into the bushes and turned to the mother.

  In the doorway of a house some half-naked soldiers were fighting a powerfully built peasant. He stood on the threshold swinging an ax in wild fury. When the soldiers finally overcame him, they dragged a fear-numbed woman out of the house by her hair. Three soldiers sat on the husband, while the others tortured and raped his wife.

  Then they dragged out two of the man’s youthful daughters. Seizing a moment when the Kalmuks’ grip on him loosened, the peasant jumped up and dealt a sudden blow to the nearest one. The soldier fell down, his skull crushed like a swallow’s egg. Blood and white pieces of brain resembling the meat of a cracked nut spilled through his hair. The enraged soldiers surrounded the peasant, overpowered him, and raped him. Then they castrated him in front of his wife and daughters. The frantic woman rushed to his defense, biting and scratching. Roaring with delight, the Kalmuks held her fast, forced her mouth open, and pushed the bloody scraps of flesh down her throat.

  One of the houses caught fire. In the resulting commotion some peasants ran for the forest, dragging with them half-conscious women and stumbling children. The Kalmuks, firing at random, trampled some of the people with their horses. They captured new victims whom they tortured on the spot.

  I hid i
n the raspberry bushes. Drunken Kalmuks were wandering around, and my chances of remaining there unnoticed were dwindling. I could not think any more; I was frozen with terror. I closed my eyes.

  When I opened them again I saw one of the Kalmuks staggering in my direction. I flattened myself on the ground even more, and nearly stopped breathing. The soldier picked some raspberries and ate them. He took another step into the bush and trod on my outstretched hand. The heel and the nails of his boot dug into my skin. The pain was excruciating but I did not move. The soldier leaned on his rifle and urinated calmly. Suddenly he lost his balance, stepped forward, and stumbled over my head. As I jumped up and tried to run he grabbed me and struck me in the chest with the butt of his rifle. Something cracked inside. I was knocked down, but I managed to trip the soldier. As he fell I ran zigzagging away toward the houses. The Kalmuk fired, but the bullet ricocheted off the ground and whizzed by. He fired again but missed. I tore off a board from one of the barns, climbed in and hid in the straw.

  In the barn I could still hear the cries of people and animals, rifle shots, the crackling of burning sheds and houses, the neighing of horses, and the raucous laughter of the Kalmuks. A woman moaned softly from time to time. I burrowed deeper into the straw, though every movement hurt me. I wondered what had broken inside my chest. I put my hand against my heart; it was still beating. I did not want to be a cripple. Despite the noise, I dozed off, exhausted and frightened.

  I woke with a start. A powerful explosion rocked the barn; some beams fell, and clouds of dust obscured everything. I heard scattered rifle fire and the continuous rattle of machine-guns. I peered out cautiously and saw horses panicking and galloping away and half-naked Kalmuks, still drunk, trying to jump on them. From the direction of the river and from the forest I could hear the gunfire and the roar of engines. An airplane with a red star on its wings flew low over the village. The cannonade ceased after a while, but the noise of the engines grew louder. It was obvious the Soviets were near; the Red Army, the commissars had arrived.

  I dragged myself out, but the sudden pain in my chest nearly knocked me over. I coughed and spat out some blood. I struggled to walk and soon reached the hill. The bridge was gone. The big explosion must have blown it up. Tanks were crawling slowly from the forest. They were followed by helmeted soldiers, strolling casually as if on a Sunday afternoon walk. Closer to the village some Kalmuks were hiding behind the haystacks. But when they saw the tanks they came out, still staggering, and raised their hands. They threw away their rifles and revolver belts. Some fell to their knees begging for mercy. The Red soldiers rounded them up systematically, prodding them with bayonets. In a very short time most of them were captured. Their horses calmly grazed nearby.

  The tanks had stopped, but new formations of men kept arriving. A pontoon appeared on the river. Sappers examined the ruined bridge. Several planes flew overhead, dipping their wings in greeting. I was somehow disappointed; the war seemed to be over.

  The fields around the village were now filled with machines. Men set up tents and field kitchens and strung out telephone wires. They sang and spoke a language that resembled the local dialect, though it was not quite intelligible to me. I guessed it was Russian.

  The peasants watched the visitors uneasily. When some of the Red soldiers showed their Kalmuk-like Uzbek or Tartar faces the women screamed and recoiled with fear, even though the faces of the recent arrivals were smiling.

  A group of peasants marched into the field carrying red flags with clumsily painted hammers and sickles. The soldiers greeted them with cheers and the regimental commander came out of his tent to meet the delegation. He shook hands and invited them inside. The peasants were embarrassed, and took off their caps. They had not known what to do with the flags and finally deposited them outside the tent before entering.

  Beside a white truck with a red cross painted on its roof, a white-coated doctor and his orderlies were treating the wounded women and children. A crowd circled the ambulance, curious to see everything that was being done.

  Children followed the soldiers, asking for sweets. The men embraced them, and played with them.

  At noon the village learned that the Red soldiers had hanged all the captured Kalmuks by the legs from the oak trees along the river. Despite the pain in my chest and my hand I dragged myself there, following a crowd of curious men, women, and children.

  One could see the Kalmuks from afar; they were hanging from the trees like sapless, overgrown pine-cones. Each had been hanged from a separate tree, dangling by his ankles, his hands tied behind his back. Soviet soldiers with friendly smiling faces walked around calmly rolling cigarettes from pieces of newspaper. Although the soldiers did not allow the peasants to come near, some of the women, recognizing their tormentors, began to curse and throw chunks of wood and dirt at the limp hanging bodies.

  Ants and flies crawled all over the strung-up Kalmuks. They crept into their open mouths, into their noses and eyes. They set up nests in their ears; they swarmed over their ragged hair. They came in thousands and fought for the best spots.

  The men swung in the wind and some of them revolved slowly like sausages smoking in a fire. Some shuddered and uttered a hoarse shriek or whisper. Others seemed lifeless. They hung with wide unblinking eyes, and the veins on their necks swelled monstrously. The peasants lit a bonfire nearby, and whole families watched the hanging Kalmuks, recalling their cruelties and rejoicing over their end.

  A gust of wind shook the trees. The bodies swung shivering in widening circles. The watching peasants made the sign of the cross. I looked around for death, for I felt its breath in the air. It had the face of dead Marta as it romped among the oak branches, brushing the hanging men gently, entwining them with cobwebby threads which it spun out from its translucent body. It whispered treacherous words into their ears; it caressingly trickled a chill through their hearts; it strangled their throats.

  It was nearer to me than ever. I could almost touch its airy shroud, gaze into its misty eyes. It stopped in front of me, preening itself coquettishly and hinting at another meeting. I was not afraid of it; I hoped it would take me along to the other side of the forest, to the fathomless marshes where branches dip into the steaming caldrons bubbling with sulphurous fumes, where one hears at night the thin dry clatter of coupling ghosts and the shrill wind in the treetops, like a violin in a distant room.

  I reached out my hand, but the ghost vanished among the trees with their burden of rustling leaves and heavy crop of hanging corpses.

  Something seemed to burn inside me. My head was spinning, and I was covered with sweat. I walked toward the riverbank. The moist breeze cooled me and I sat down on a log.

  The river was wide here. Its swift current carried timber, broken branches, strips of sackcloth, bunches of straw in wildly swirling eddies. Now and again the bloated body of a horse floated by. Once I thought I saw a bluish, rotted human corpse hovering just under the surface. For a moment the waters were clear. Then came a mass of fish killed by the explosions. They rolled over, flowed along upside down, and crowded together, as if there were no longer room for them in this river, to which the rainbow had brought them long ago.

  I was shivering. I decided to approach the Red soldiers, though I was not sure how they would look upon people with black, bewitching eyes. As I passed by the array of hanging bodies I thought I recognized the man who had hit me with his rifle butt. He was swinging in wide circles, openmouthed and fly-ridden. I turned my head up to get a better view of his face. A pain again pierced my chest.

  16

  I was released from the regimental hospital. Weeks had gone by. It was the autumn of 1944. The pain in my chest had disappeared, and whatever had been broken by the butt of the Kalmuk’s rifle was now healed.

  Contrary to what I had feared, I was allowed to stay with the soldiers, but I knew that this was temporary. I expected to be left in some village when the regiment went into the front line. In the meantime it was encamped by the riv
er, and nothing suggested an early departure. It was a communications regiment, composed mainly of very young soldiers and recently recruited officers, who had been boys when the war began. The cannon, machine-guns, trucks, telegraphic and telephonic equipment were all brand-new and well oiled and as yet untested by war. The tent canvas and the men’s uniforms had not yet had time to fade.

  The war and the front line were already far away in enemy territory. The radio reported daily new defeats of the German Army and of its exhausted allies. The soldiers listened carefully to the reports, nodded their heads with pride, and went about their training. They wrote lengthy letters to their relatives and friends, doubting that they would have a chance to go into battle before the war ended, for the Germans were being routed by their older brothers.

  Life in the regiment was calm and well ordered. Every few days a small biplane landed on the temporary airfield, bringing mail and newspapers. The letters brought news from home, where people were beginning to rebuild the ruins. Pictures in the newspapers showed bombed Soviet and German cities, smashed fortifications, and the bearded faces of German prisoners in endless lines. Rumors of the approaching end of the war circulated more and more frequently among the officers and soldiers.

  Two men looked after me most of the time. They were Gavrila, a political officer of the regiment, who was said to have lost his entire family in the first days of the Nazi invasion, and Mitka, known as “Mitka the Cuckoo,” a sharpshooting instructor and a crack sniper.

  I also enjoyed the protection of many of their friends. Every day Gavrila used to spend time with me in the field library. He taught me to read. After all, he said, I was already over eleven. Russian boys of my age not only could read and write, but they could even fight the enemy when necessary. I did not want to be taken for a child: I studied industriously, watching the ways of the soldiers and imitating their behavior.

 
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