The painted bird, p.22
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       The Painted Bird, p.22

           Jerzy Kosiński
 
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  I touched Mitka’s arm, pointing to the village with my head. He thought I meant that people were moving and he concentrated on the telescopic sight. Seeing no one, he looked at me questioningly. I told him with signs that I wanted him to kill the dog. He showed surprise and refused. I asked him again. He refused, looking at me with disapproval.

  We sat in silence, listening to the fearful rustle of the leaves. Mitka surveyed the village again, then he folded the tripod and removed the telescopic sight. We started down slowly; Mitka sometimes muttered from pain as he hung by his arms searching for a foothold below.

  He buried the spent cartridges under the moss and removed all traces of our presence. Then we walked toward the camp, where we could hear engines being tested by mechanics. We got back in unnoticed.

  In the afternoon, when the other men were on duty, Mitka quickly cleaned the rifle and the sight and replaced them in their sheaths.

  That evening he was mild and cheerful as before. In a sentimental voice he sang ballads about the beauty of Odessa, about gunners who, with a thousand batteries, were avenging the mothers who had lost their sons in the war.

  The soldiers sitting near sang the chorus. Their voices carried loud and clear. From the village came the faint, steady tolling of the funeral bells.

  18

  It took me several days to become reconciled to the idea of leaving Gavrila, Mitka, and all my other friends in the regiment. But Gavrila was very firm in explaining that the war was ending, that my country had been fully liberated from the Germans and that, according to regulations, lost children had to be delivered to special centers where they would be kept until it was determined if their parents were still alive.

  I looked at his face while he was telling me all these things and held back my tears. Gavrila also felt uneasy. I knew that he and Mitka had discussed my future, and if there had been any other solution they would have found it.

  Gavrila promised that if no relatives claimed me within three months after the end of the war, he would take care of me himself and would send me to a school where they would teach me to speak again. In the meantime he urged me to be brave and to remember everything I had learned from him and to read Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, every day.

  I was given a bag full of gifts from the soldiers and books from Gavrila and Mitka. I put on a Soviet Army uniform which was made especially for me by the regimental tailor. In a pocket I found a small wooden pistol with a picture of Stalin on one side and Lenin on the other.

  The moment of parting had come. I was going away with sergeant Yury, who had some military business in the town where there was a center for lost children. This industrial city, the country’s largest, was where I had lived before the war.

  Gavrila made certain that I had all my things and that my personal file was in good order. He had assembled in it all the information I had given him concerning my name, previous place of residence, and the details I remembered about my parents, my hometown, our relatives and friends.

  The driver started the engine. Mitka patted me on the shoulder and urged me to uphold the honor of the Red Army. Gavrila hugged me warmly, and the others shook hands with me in turn as though I were a grownup. I wanted to cry but I kept my face straight and laced tight like a soldier’s boot.

  We started for the station. The train was packed with soldiers and civilians. It stopped often at broken-down signals, went on and stopped again between stations. We passed bombed-out towns, deserted villages, abandoned cars, tanks, guns, airplanes with their wing and tail surfaces cut away. On many stations ragged people ran along the tracks, begging for cigarettes and food, while half-naked children stared openmouthed at the train. It took us two days to reach our destination.

  All the tracks were being used by military transports, Red Cross carriages, and open cars loaded with army equipment. On the platforms crowds of Soviet soldiers and ex-prisoners in a variety of uniforms jostled along with limping invalids, shabby civilians, and blind people who tapped the flagstones with their canes. Here and there nurses directed emaciated people in striped clothes; the soldiers looked at them in sudden silence—those were the people saved from the furnaces who were returning to life from the concentration camps.

  I clutched Yury’s hand and looked into the gray faces of these people, with their feverishly burning eyes shining like pieces of broken glass in the ashes of a dying fire.

  Nearby a locomotive pushed a gleaming railcar to the center of the station. A foreign military delegation emerged in colorful uniforms and medals. An honor guard quickly formed and a military band struck up an anthem. The smartly uniformed officers and the men in striped concentration camp clothes passed without a word within a few feet of each other on the narrow platform.

  New flags were flying over the main station building and loudspeakers blared music interrupted from time to time by hoarse speeches and greetings. Yury looked at his watch. We made our way to the exit.

  One of the military drivers agreed to take us to the orphans’ home. The streets of the city were full of convoys and soldiers, the sidewalks swarmed with people. The orphanage occupied several old houses on a side street. Innumerable children peered from the windows.

  We spent an hour in the lobby; Yury read a newspaper and I feigned indifference. Finally the woman principal came over and greeted us, taking the folder with my documents from Yury. She signed some papers, gave them to Yury, and placed her hand on my shoulder. I firmly shook it off. The epaulets on a uniform were not meant for a woman’s hands.

  The moment of parting arrived. Yury pretended to be cheerful. He joked, straightened the forage cap on my head, and tightened the string round the books with Mitka’s and Gavrila’s inscriptions which I carried under my arm. We hugged each other like two men. The principal stood by.

  I clutched the red star attached to my left breast pocket. A gift from Gavrila, it had Lenin’s profile on it. I now believed that this star, leading millions of workers throughout the world to their goal, could also bring me good luck. I followed the principal.

  Walking along crowded corridors we passed the open doors of classrooms, in which lessons were in progress. Here and there children were scuffling and shouting. Some boys, seeing my uniform, pointed their fingers at me and laughed. I turned away. Someone threw an apple core; I ducked and it hit the principal.

  I had no peace for the first few days. The principal wanted me to give up my uniform and wear ordinary civilian clothes sent to the children by the International Red Cross. I nearly hit a nurse on the head when she tried to take away the uniform. I slept with my tunic and trousers folded under my mattress for safekeeping.

  After a while my long-unwashed uniform began to smell, but I still refused to part with it even for a day. The principal, annoyed by this insubordination, called two nurses and had them take it away by force. A jubilant crowd of boys witnessed the struggle.

  I broke from the clumsy women and ran out into the street. There I accosted four quietly strolling Soviet soldiers. I signaled with my hands that I was a mute. They gave me a piece of paper on which I wrote that I was the son of a Soviet officer who was at the front and that I was waiting for my father at the orphanage. Then I wrote in careful language that the principal was the daughter of a landlord, that she hated the Red Army, and that she, together with the nurses exploited by her, beat me daily because of my uniform.

  As I expected, my message aroused the young soldiers. They followed me inside, and while one of them systematically smashed the flowerpots in the principal’s carpeted office, the others chased the nurses, slapping them and pinching their bottoms. The frightened women yelled and screamed.

  After that the staff let me alone. Even the teachers ignored my refusal to learn reading and writing in my mother-tongue. I wrote in chalk on the blackboard that my language was Russian, the speech of a land where there was no exploitation of the one by the many and where teachers did not persecute their pupils.

  A large calendar hung over my bed.
I crossed off every day with a red pencil. I did not know how many more days were left to the end of the war still being waged in Germany, but I was confident that the Red Army was doing its best to bring the end nearer.

  Every day I sneaked out of the orphanage and bought a copy of Pravda with the money Gavrila had given me. I read hastily all the news about the latest victories and I looked carefully at the new pictures of Stalin. I felt reassured. Stalin looked fit and youthful. Everything was going well. The war would end soon.

  One day I was summoned for a medical examination. I refused to leave my uniform outside the office and I was examined carrying it under my arm. After the examination I was interviewed by some sort of social commission. One of its members, an older man, read all my papers carefully. He approached me in a friendly manner. He mentioned my name and asked me whether I had any idea where my parents were planning to go when they had left me. I pretended not to understand. Someone translated the question into Russian, adding that he seemed to think that he had known my parents before the war. I wrote nonchalantly on a slate that my parents were dead, killed by a bomb. The members of the commission gave me suspicious looks. I saluted stiffly and walked out of the room. The inquisitive man had upset me.

  There were five hundred of us at the orphanage. We were divided into groups, and attended lessons in small dingy classrooms. Many of the boys and girls were crippled and acted very strangely. The classrooms were crowded. We were short of desks and blackboards. I was sitting next to a boy about my own age who kept muttering incessantly, “Where is my daddy, where is my daddy?” He looked around as if he expected his daddy to emerge from under a desk and pat him on his sweaty forehead. Directly behind us was a girl who had lost all her fingers in an explosion. She stared at the fingers of other children, which were as lively as worms. Noticing her glance they quickly hid their hands as if afraid of her eyes. Farther away there was a boy with part of his jaw and arm missing. He had to be fed by others; the odor of a festering wound emanated from him. There were also several partly paralyzed children.

  We all looked at one another with loathing and fear. One never knew what one’s neighbor might do. Many of the boys in the class were older and stronger than I. They knew that I could not speak, and consequently believed that I was a moron. They called me names and sometimes beat me up. In the morning when I came to the classroom after a sleepless night in the crowded dormitory I felt trapped, fearful and apprehensive. The anticipation of disaster increased. I was as taut as the elastic in a slingshot, and the slightest incident would throw me off balance. I was afraid not so much of being attacked by other boys as of seriously injuring someone in self-defense. As they often told us in the orphanage, that would mean jail, and the end of my hopes of returning to Gavrila.

  I could not control my movements in a scuffle. My hands acquired a life of their own and could not be torn away from an opponent. Besides, for a long time after a fight I could not calm down, pondering what had happened and getting excited again.

  I was also unable to run away. When I saw a group of boys coming toward me I immediately stopped. I tried to convince myself that I was avoiding being hit from behind and that I could better gauge the strength and intentions of the enemy. But the truth was that I could not run away even when I wanted to. My legs became strangely heavy, with the weight distributed in an odd manner. My thighs and calves grew leaden, but my knees were light and sagged like soft pillows. The memory of all my successful escapes did not seem to help much. A mysterious mechanism bound me to the ground. I would stop and wait for my assailants.

  All the time I thought of Mitka’s teachings: a man should never let himself be mistreated, for he would then lose his self-respect and his life would become meaningless. What would preserve his self-respect and determine his worth was his ability to take revenge on those who wronged him.

  A person should take revenge for every wrong or humiliation. There were far too many injustices in the world to have them all weighed and judged. A man should consider every wrong he had suffered and decide on the appropriate revenge. Only the conviction that one was as strong as the enemy and that one could pay him back double, enabled people to survive, Mitka said. A man should take revenge according to his own nature and the means at his disposal. It was quite simple: if someone was rude to you and it hurt you like a whiplash, you should punish him as though he had lashed you with a whip. If someone slapped you and it felt like a thousand blows, take revenge for a thousand blows. The revenge should be proportionate to all the pain, bitterness, and humiliation felt as a result of an opponent’s action. A slap in the face might not be too painful for one man; for another it might cause him to relive the persecution he had endured through hundreds of days of beating. The first man could forget about it in an hour; the second might be tormented for weeks by nightmarish recollections.

  Of course the opposite also held true. If a man hit you with a stick but it only hurt like a slap, take revenge for a slap.

  Life at the orphanage was full of unexpected attacks and brawls. Nearly everyone had a nickname. There was a boy in my class called the Tank because he pummeled with his fists anyone who stood in his way. There was a boy labeled Cannon because he threw heavy objects at people for no particular reason. There were others: the Saber, who slashed his enemy with the edge of his arm; the Airplane, who knocked you down and kicked you in the face; the Sniper, who hurled rocks from a distance; the Flamethrower, who lit slow-burning matches and tossed them into clothing and satchels.

  The girls also had their nicknames. The Grenade used to lacerate the faces of her enemies with a nail hidden in her palm. Another, the Partisan, small and unobtrusive, crouched on the ground and tripped passersby with a neat leg snatch, while her ally, the Torpedo, would hug a prostrate opponent as though trying to make love, and then deal him a professional knee kick in the groin.

  The teachers and attendants could not handle this group, and they often kept out of the way of the brawls, fearing the stronger boys. Sometimes there were more serious incidents. The Cannon once threw a heavy boot at a young girl who apparently had refused to kiss him. She died a few hours later. On another occasion the Flamethrower set fire to the clothes of three boys and locked them in a classroom. Two of them were taken to the hospital with severe burns.

  Every fight drew blood. Boys and girls battled for their lives and could not be separated. At night even worse things happened. Boys would assault girls in dark corridors. One night several boys raped a nurse in the basement. They kept her there for hours, inviting other boys to join them, exciting the woman in the elaborate ways they had learned in various places during the war. She was finally reduced to a state of insane frenzy. She screamed and yelled all night until the ambulance came and took her away.

  Other girls invited attention. They stripped and asked boys to touch them. They discussed blatantly the sexual demands which scores of men had made on them during the war. There were some who said they could not go to sleep without having had a man. They ran out into the parks at night and picked up drunken soldiers.

  Many of the boys and girls were quite passive and listless. They stood against the walls, mostly silent, neither crying nor laughing, staring at some image which they alone could see. It was said that some of them had lived in ghettos or concentration camps. Had it not been for the end of the occupation, they would have died long since. Others had apparently been kept by brutal and greedy foster-parents who had exploited them ruthlessly and flogged them for the slightest sign of disobedience. There were also some who had no particular past. They had been placed in the orphanage by the army or the police. No one knew their origins, the whereabouts of their parents, or where they had spent the war. They refused to tell anything about themselves; they responded to all questions with evasive phrases and indulgent half-smiles suggesting infinite contempt for the questioners.

  I was afraid to fall asleep at night because the boys were known to play painful practical jokes on one another. I slept in
my uniform with a knife in one pocket and a wooden knuckle-duster in the other.

  Every morning I crossed one more day off my calendar. Pravda said that the Red Army had already reached the nest of the Nazi viper.

  Gradually I became friendly with a boy called the Silent One. He acted as though mute; no one had heard the sound of his voice since he had come to the orphanage. It was known that he could speak, but at some stage of the war he had decided that there was no point in doing so. Other boys tried to force him to speak. Once they even gave him a bloody beating, but did not extract a single sound from him.

  The Silent One was older and stronger than I. At first we avoided each other. I felt that by refusing to speak he was mocking boys like me who could not speak. If the Silent One, who was not mute, had decided not to speak, others might think that I too was only refusing to speak but could do so if I wanted to. My friendship with him could only enhance this impression.

  One day the Silent One unexpectedly came to my rescue and knocked down a boy who was beating me in the corridor. The next day I felt obliged to fight on his side in a scuffle which broke out during a recess.

  After that we sat at the same desk in the rear of the classroom. We first wrote notes to each other, but then learned to communicate by signs. The Silent One accompanied me in expeditions to the railroad station, where we made friends with departing Soviet soldiers. Together we stole a drunken postman’s bicycle, went across the city park, still sown with land mines and closed to the public, and watched the girls undressing in the communal bathhouse.

  In the evening we sneaked out of the dormitory and roamed through the nearby squares and courtyards, scaring love-making couples, throwing stones through open windows, attacking unsuspecting passersby. The Silent One, taller and stronger, always acted as the striking force.

  Every morning we were awakened by the whistle of the train which passed close by, bringing peasants to the city with their produce for the market. In the evening the same train returned to the villages alongside its single track, its lighted windows twinkling between the trees like a row of fireflies.

 
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