The painted bird, p.21
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       The Painted Bird, p.21

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  One day, however, a few soldiers disregarded the risk of punishment and managed to slip out of the camp. The guards pretended not to notice. Life in the camp was monotonous and the soldiers, waiting for departure or action, were desperate for some entertainment. Mitka the Cuckoo knew about this outing of his friends and he might even have gone with them if he had not been crippled. He often said that since the Red Army soldiers risked their lives for these local people by fighting the Nazis, there was no reason to avoid their company.

  Mitka had been looking after me ever since I entered the regimental hospital. Thanks to his feeding I gained weight. Mitka fished out of the great caldron the best pieces of meat, and skimmed the fat off the soup for me. He also assisted at my painful injections, boosting my courage before medical examinations. Once when I got indigestion from overeating, Mitka sat with me for two days, holding my head when I vomited and wiping my face with a wet cloth.

  While Gavrila taught me serious things, explaining the role of the Party, Mitka introduced me to poetry and sang me songs, strumming an accompaniment on his guitar. It was Mitka who took me to the regimental cinema and carefully explained the films. I went with him to watch the mechanics repairing the engines of the powerful Army trucks, and it was Mitka who took me to see the sharpshooters in training.

  Mitka was one of the best liked and respected men in the regiment. He had a fine military record. On special Army days one could see decorations on his faded uniform which would be the envy of regimental or even divisional commanders. Mitka was a Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest military honor, and was one of the most decorated men in the whole division.

  His feats as a sharpshooter were described in newspapers and books for children and adults. He was featured several times in newsreels seen by millions of Soviet citizens on collective farms and in factories. The regiment took great pride in Mitka; he was photographed for the divisional newssheets and interviewed by correspondents.

  Soldiers often told tales at the evening campfire about the dangerous missions he had undertaken only a year earlier. They discussed endlessly his heroic actions in the rear of the enemy, where he parachuted in alone and then sniped at officers and couriers of the German Army with extraordinary long-range marksmanship. They marveled at the way Mitka managed to return from behind the lines, only to be sent out again on another dangerous mission.

  During such talks I swelled with pride. I sat next to Mitka, leaning on his strong arm, listening intently to his voice, so as not to miss a word of what he was saying or the questions of others. If the war lasted until I was old enough to serve, perhaps I could become a sharpshooter, a hero about whom working people talked at their meals.

  Mitka’s rifle was the object of constant admiration. Yielding to requests, he would take it out of its sheath, blowing off invisible specks of dust on the sights and stock. Trembling with curiosity, young soldiers bent over the rifle with the reverence of a priest at an altar. Old soldiers with large, horny hands picked up the weapon with its softly polished stock as a mother picks up a baby from its cradle. Holding their breath they examined the crystal-clear lenses of the telescopic sight. It was through this eye that Mitka saw the enemy. These lenses brought the targets so close to him that he could see the faces, gestures, smiles. It helped him to aim unerringly at the spot beneath the metal bars where the German heart was beating.

  Mitka’s face darkened as the soldiers admired his rifle. He instinctively touched the pained, stiffened side of his body in which the fragments of a German bullet was still embedded. That bullet had ended his career as a sniper a year ago. It tormented him daily. It changed him from Mitka the Cuckoo, as he had been known before, into Mitka the Master, as he was now more often called.

  He was still the regimental sharpshooting instructor, and he taught young soldiers his art, but that was not what his heart craved. At night I sometimes saw his wide-open eyes staring at the triangular roof of the tent. He was probably reliving those days and nights when, hidden in branches or in ruins far behind enemy lines, he had waited for the right moment to pick off an officer, a staff messenger, an airman, or a tank driver. How many times he must have looked the enemy in the face, followed their movements, measuring the distance, setting his sights once more. With each one of his well-aimed bullets he strengthened the Soviet Union by removing one of the enemy’s officers.

  Special German squads with trained dogs had searched for his hiding places, and the manhunts had covered wide circles. How many times he must have thought he would never return! Yet I knew that these must have been the happiest days of Mitka’s life. Mitka would not trade these days when he was both judge and executioner for any others. Alone, guided by the telescopic sights of his rifle, he deprived the enemy of their choicest men. He recognized them by their decorations, by the insignia of their rank, by the color of their uniforms. Before pulling the trigger he must have asked himself if this man was worthy of death by a bullet from Mitka the Cuckoo’s rifle. Perhaps he should wait for a choicer victim: a captain instead of a lieutenant, a major instead of a captain, a pilot instead of a tank gunner, a staff officer instead of a battalion commander. Every one of his shots could bring death not only to the enemy, but also to himself, thus robbing the Red Army of one of its finest soldiers.

  Thinking about it all, I admired Mitka more and more. Here, lying on a bed a few feet from me, was a man who worked for a better and safer world, not by praying at church altars, but by excelling in his aim. The German officer in the magnificent black uniform, who spent his time killing helpless prisoners or deciding the fate of small black fleas like me, now appeared pitifully insignificant in comparison with Mitka.

  When the soldiers who had slipped out of the camp to the village did not return, Mitka became worried. The hour of the night inspection was approaching and their absence might be discovered at any moment. We were sitting in the tent. Mitka paced nervously, rubbing his hands, moist with emotion. They were his closest friends: Grisha, a good singer, whom Mitka accompanied on his accordion; Lonka, who came from the same city; Anton, a poet, who could recite better than anyone else; and Vanka who, Mitka claimed, had once saved his life.

  The sun had set and the guard had been changed. Mitka kept looking at the phosphorescent dial of his watch, which he had won as war loot.

  There was a commotion among the guards outside. Someone shouted for a doctor as a motorcycle sputtered at top speed across the camp toward headquarters.

  Mitka rushed out, pulling me along with him. Others also came running behind.

  Many soldiers were already assembled at the guard line. Several soldiers covered with blood knelt or stood surrounding four motionless bodies laid on the ground. We learned from their incoherent words that they had attended a feast at a nearby village and had been attacked by some drunken peasants who had become jealous of their women. The peasants had outnumbered and disarmed them. Four of the soldiers had been killed with axes and others badly wounded.

  The deputy commander of the regiment arrived, followed by other senior officers. The soldiers made way for them, and stood at attention. The wounded men tried in vain to rise. The deputy commander, pale but composed, listened to the report of one of the injured men and then issued his orders. The wounded were immediately taken to the hospital. Some of them could walk slowly, supporting one another and wiping blood from their faces and from their hair with their sleeves.

  Mitka crouched at the feet of the dead men, staring silently at their butchered faces. Other soldiers stood by visibly upset.

  Vanka lay on his back, his white face turned to the surrounding onlookers. In the dim light of a lantern one could see streaks of congealed blood on his chest. Lonka’s face had been split in two by a terrible blow from an ax. Splintered skull bones were mixed with hanging ribbons of neck muscles. The battered, bloated faces of the other two were barely recognizable.

  An ambulance drove up. Mitka angrily clutched my arm while the bodies were taken away.

  The tr
agedy was brought up in the evening report. The men swallowed hard, listening to new orders forbidding any contact with the hostile local population and prohibiting any action which could further aggravate its relations with the Red Army.

  That night Mitka kept whispering and muttering to himself, beat his head with his fist, and then sat in brooding silence.

  Several days passed. Regimental life was returning to normal. The men mentioned the names of the dead less frequently. They began to sing again and prepared for the visit of a field theater. But Mitka was not well, and someone else replaced him in his training duties.

  One night Mitka woke me up before dawn. He told me to dress quickly and said no more. When I was ready I helped him to bind his feet and to pull on his boots. He groaned with pain but moved in haste. When he was dressed he made sure the other men were asleep and then pulled out his rifle from behind the bed. He took the weapon out of its brown case and slung it over his shoulder. He carefully replaced the empty case behind the bed, locking it to look as though the rifle was still inside. Then he uncovered the telescope and slipped it into his pocket together with a small tripod. He checked his cartridge belt and took a pair of field glasses off the hook and looped the strap around my neck.

  We silently slipped out of the tent, past the field kitchen. When the men on guard had marched by, we ran quickly toward the bushes, crossed the adjoining field, and were soon outside the encampment.

  The horizon was still swathed in nocturnal mist. The white streak of a country lane crept between the dim layers of fog which hung over the fields.

  Mitka wiped the sweat off his neck, hitched his belt, and patted me on the head as we hurried toward the woods.

  I did not know where we were going or why. But I guessed that Mitka was doing something on his own, something he was not supposed to do, something that might cost him his position in the Army and in public esteem.

  And yet, realizing it all, I was filled with pride to be the person chosen to accompany him, and help a Hero of the Soviet Union in his mysterious mission.

  We walked fast. Mitka was obviously tired as he limped and pulled up his rifle which kept slipping off his shoulder. Whenever he stumbled he muttered curses which he usually forbade other soldiers to use and, realizing I had heard them, ordered me to forget them at once. I nodded in agreement, though I would have given much to have my speech back so that I could repeat these magnificent Russian curses, which were as juicy as ripe plums.

  We cautiously bypassed a sleeping village. No smoke rose from the chimneys, the dogs and the roosters were silent. Mitka’s face stiffened and his lips became dry. He opened a flask of cold coffee, took a gulp and gave me the rest. We hurried on.

  It was daylight by the time we entered the forest, but the woods were still gloomy. The trees stood stiffly like sinister monks in black habits guarding the glades and clearings with the broad sleeves of their branches. At one point the sun found a tiny opening at the top of the trees and the rays shone through the open palms of chestnut leaves.

  After some reflection Mitka selected a tall sturdy tree close to the fields on the edge of the forest. The trunk was slippery, but there were knots and broad boughs grew fairly low. Mitka first helped me onto one of the boughs and then handed me the long rifle, the binoculars, the telescope, and the tripod, all of which I hung delicately on the branches. Then it was my turn to help him up. When Mitka, groaning and puffing, and wet with sweat, reached me on the branch, I climbed to the next one. Thus, helping each other, we managed to get almost to the top of the tree with the rifle and all the equipment.

  After a moment’s rest, Mitka deftly bent back some branches which obscured our view, cut some of them, and tied others. We soon had a reasonably comfortable and well-concealed seat. Unseen birds fluttered in the foliage.

  Growing accustomed to the height, I discerned the outlines of buildings in the village just ahead of us. The first puffs of smoke were beginning to rise into the sky. Mitka attached the telescope to his rifle and fixed the tripod firmly. He sat back and carefully placed the rifle on its support.

  He spent a long time scanning the village through the binoculars. Then he handed them to me and began to adjust the telescopic sight of the rifle. Through the binoculars I surveyed the village. Their image amazingly enlarged, the houses seemed to be just in front of the woodland. The picture was so sharp and clear that I could almost count the straws in the thatched roofs. I could see hens pecking in the yards and a dog lazing in the thin sunshine of the early morning.

  Mitka asked me for the binoculars. Before handing them back I had another quick glimpse of the village. I saw a tall man leaving a house. He stretched his arms, yawned, and looked at the cloudless sky. I could see that his shirt was wide open in front, and there were big patches on the knees of his pants.

  Mitka took the binoculars and placed them beyond my reach. Intently he studied the scene through his telescope. I strained my eyes but, without the glasses, could see only the dwarfed houses far below.

  A shot rang out. I started and birds fluttered in the thicket. Mitka raised his red, perspiring face and muttered something. I reached for the binoculars. He smiled apologetically and held back my hand.

  I resented Mitka’s refusal, but could guess what had happened. In my imagination I saw the farmer keeling over, reaching above his head with his hands, as if seeking support from an invisible handhold as he slumped on the threshold of his house.

  Mitka reloaded the rifle, placing the used cartridge case in his pocket. He calmly inspected the village through the binoculars, whistling softly through tight lips.

  I tried to visualize what he saw there. An old woman wrapped in brown rags walking out of the house, looking at the sky, crossing herself, and at the same moment catching sight of the man’s body lying on the ground. As she approached it with clumsy, waddling steps and bent down to turn his face toward her, she noticed the blood and ran screaming toward the neighboring houses.

  Startled by her cries, men pulling on their trousers and women only half awake started running out of the houses. The village soon swarmed with people rushing to and fro. The men bent over the body, gesturing wildly and looking helplessly in all directions.

  Mitka moved slightly. He had his eye glued to the telescopic sight and was pressing the butt of his rifle to his shoulder. Drops of perspiration glistened on his forehead. One of them broke away, rolled into his bushy eyebrows, emerged at the base of his nose and started along the diagonal ridge of his cheek on its way to his chin. Before it reached his lips, Mitka fired three times in quick succession.

  I closed my eyes and saw the village again, with the three bodies sliding to the ground. The remaining peasants, unable to hear the shots at that distance, scattered in panic, looking around in bewilderment and wondering where the shots were coming from.

  Fear gripped the village. The families of the dead sobbed wildly and dragged the bodies by their hands and feet toward their houses and barns. Children and older people, unaware of what was happening, milled aimlessly about. After a few moments everyone disappeared. Even the shutters were closed.

  Mitka examined the village again. There must have been no one left outside, for his inspection took some time. Suddenly he put aside the binoculars and seized the rifle.

  I wondered. It was perhaps some young man sneaking between the houses, trying to evade the sniper and get quickly back to his hut. Not knowing where the bullets came from, he stopped now and then and stared about him. As he reached a row of wild rosebushes, Mitka fired again.

  The man stopped as though nailed to the ground. He bent one knee, tried to bend the other, and then just toppled into the rosebushes. The thorny branches shook uneasily.

  Mitka leaned on his rifle and rested. The peasants were all in their houses and none dared to come out.

  How I envied Mitka! I suddenly understood a good deal of what one of the soldiers had said in a discussion with him. Human being, he said, is a proud name. Man carries in himself his
own private war, which he has to wage, win or lose, himself—his own justice, which is his alone to administer. Now Mitka the Cuckoo had meted out revenge for the death of his friends, regardless of the opinions of others, risking his position in the regiment, and his title of Hero of the Soviet Union. If he could not revenge his friends, what was the use of all those days of training in the sniper’s art, the mastery of eye, hand, and breath? Of what value was the rank of Hero, respected and worshiped by tens of millions of citizens, if he no longer deserved it in his own eyes?

  There was another element in Mitka’s revenge. A man, no matter how popular and admired, lives mainly with himself. If he is not at peace with himself, if he is harassed by something he did not do but should have done to preserve his own image of himself, he is like the “unhappy Demon, spirit of exile, gliding high above the sinful world.”

  I also understood something else. There were many paths and many ascents leading to the summit. But one could also reach the summit alone, with the help at most of a single friend, the way Mitka and I had climbed the tree. This was a different summit, apart from the march of the working masses.

  With a kind smile Mitka handed me the binoculars. I peered eagerly at the village, but saw nothing except tightly shut houses. Here and there a hen or a turkey strutted. I was just about to hand the glasses back to him when a big dog appeared between the houses. It wagged its tail and scratched its ear with a hind leg. I remembered Judas. He had done just that as he scowled at me hanging on the hooks.

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