The painted bird, p.23
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       The Painted Bird, p.23

           Jerzy Kosiński
 
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  On sunny days the Silent One and I walked along the track, over the sun-warmed crossties and the sharp pebbles which hurt our bare feet. Sometimes, if there were enough boys and girls from nearby settlements playing close to the tracks, we would put on a show for them. A few minutes before the arrival of the train I would lie down between the tracks, face down, arms folded over my head, my body as flat as possible. The Silent One would assemble an audience while I waited patiently. As the train was approaching, I could hear and feel the thudding roar of the wheels through the rails and ties until I was shaking with them. When the locomotive was almost on top of me I flattened even more, and tried not to think. The hot breath of the furnace swept over me and the great engine rolled furiously above my back. Then the carriages rattled rhythmically in a long line, as I waited for the last one to pass. I remembered when I had played the same game in the villages. It so happened that once, at the very moment of passing over a boy’s body, the engineer had released some burning cinders. When the train was gone we found the boy dead, his back and head burned like an overbaked potato. Several boys who had witnessed the scene claimed that the fireman had leaned out of his window, seen the boy, and released the cinders on purpose. I recalled another occasion when the couplings hanging free at the end of the last carriage were longer than usual and they smashed the head of the boy lying between the rails. His skull was staved in like a squashed pumpkin.

  Despite these grim recollections, there was something immensely tempting about lying. between the rails with a train running above. In the moments between the passing of the locomotive and the last car I felt within me life as pure as milk carefully strained through a cloth. During the short time when the carriages roared over one’s body, nothing mattered except the simple fact of being alive. I would forget everything: the orphanage, my muteness, Gavrila, the Silent One. I found at the very bottom of this experience the great joy of being unhurt.

  After the train had passed I would rise on trembling hands and weak legs and look around with greater satisfaction than I had ever experienced in exacting the most vicious revenge from one of my enemies.

  I tried to preserve that feeling of being alive for future use. I might need it in moments of fear and pain. By comparison with the fear that filled me when I waited for an approaching train, all other terrors appeared insignificant.

  I walked off the embankment feigning indifference and boredom. The Silent One was the first to approach me, with a protective, though elaborately casual air. He brushed off bits of gravel and splinters of wood embedded in my clothing. Gradually I subdued the trembling of my hands, legs, and the corners of my parched mouth. The others stood in a circle and watched in admiration.

  Later I returned with the Silent One to the orphanage. I felt proud and knew that he was proud of me. None of the other boys dared to do what I had done. They gradually stopped bothering me. But I knew that my performance had to be repeated every few days; otherwise there would surely be some skeptical boy who would disbelieve what I had done and openly doubt my courage. I would press my Red Star to my chest, march to the railroad embankment, and wait for the thunder of an approaching train.

  The Silent One and I used to spend a good deal of time on the railroad tracks. We watched the trains go by and sometimes we jumped on the steps of the rear cars, getting off when the train slowed down at the crossing.

  The crossing was located a few miles from the city. A long time ago, probably before the war, they had started building a spur which was never finished. The rusty switching points were overgrown with moss, for they had never been used. The unfinished spur line ended a few hundred yards away at the end of a cliff from which a bridge had been planned to extend. We carefully inspected the switching points several times and tried to move the lever. But the corroded mechanism would not budge.

  One day we saw a locksmith at the orphanage open a jammed lock simply by soaking oil into it. On the following day the Silent One stole a bottle of oil from the kitchen and in the evening we poured it over the bearings of the switch mechanism. We waited for a while to give the oil a chance to penetrate and then we hung on the lever with all our weight. Something creaked inside and the lever moved with a jolt, while the points switched to the other track with a screech. Scared by our unexpected success we quickly threw the lever back.

  After that, the Silent One and I exchanged knowing glances whenever we passed by the fork. This was our secret. And whenever I sat in the shade of a tree and watched a train appear on the horizon, I was overcome by a sense of great power. The lives of the people on the train were in my hands. All I had to do was leap to the switch and move the points, sending the whole train over the cliff into the peaceful stream below. All it needed was one push on the lever . . .

  I recalled the trains carrying people to the gas chambers and crematories. The men who had ordered and organized all that probably enjoyed a similar feeling of complete power over their uncomprehending victims. These men controlled the fate of millions of people whose names, faces, and occupations were unknown to them, but whom they could either let live or turn to fine soot flying in the wind. All they had to do was issue orders and in countless towns and villages trained squads of troops and police would start rounding up people destined for ghettos and death camps. They had the power to decide whether the points of thousands of railroad spurs would be switched to tracks leading to life or to death.

  To be capable of deciding the fate of many people whom one did not even know was a magnificent sensation. I was not sure whether the pleasure depended only on the knowledge of the power one had, or on its use.

  A few weeks later the Silent One and I went to a local marketplace where peasants from the neighboring villages brought their produce and home crafts once a week. We usually managed to snare an apple or two, a bunch of carrots, or even a glass of cream in return for the smiles we lavished on the buxom peasant women.

  The market was swarming with people. Farmers loudly hawked their goods, women tried on colorful skirts and blouses, scared heifers mooed, and pigs ran squealing underfoot.

  Staring at the gleaming bicycle of a militiaman I stumbled against a tall table with dairy produce on it, knocking it over. Buckets of milk and cream and jugs of buttermilk spilled everywhere. Before I had time to run away a tall farmer, purple with rage, hit me hard in the face with his fist. I fell down, spitting out three teeth together with blood. The man lifted me by the scruff of my neck like a rabbit and went on beating me until the blood spattered over his shirt. Then he pushed aside the gathering crowd of onlookers and jammed me into an empty sauerkraut barrel and kicked it over into a garbage heap.

  For a moment I did not know what had happened. I heard the laughter of the peasants; my head was spinning from the beating and the rolling in the barrel. I was choking with blood; I felt my face swelling.

  Suddenly I saw the Silent One. Pale and shaking he was trying to get me out of the barrel. The peasants, calling me a Gypsy stray, laughed at his efforts. Afraid of further attacks, he started rolling the barrel with me inside toward a water fountain. Some village boys ran along, trying to trip him and take it away. He warded them off with a club until we finally reached the fountain.

  Soaked with water and blood, with splinters sticking in my back and hands, I crawled out of the barrel. The Silent One supported me on his shoulder as I staggered along. We reached the orphanage after a painful walk.

  A doctor dressed my cut mouth and cheek. The Silent One waited outside the door. When the doctor left, he contemplated my lacerated face for a long time.

  Two weeks later the Silent One woke me at dawn. He was covered with dust and his shirt clung to his perspiring body. I gathered that he must have been out all night. He signaled me to follow him. I dressed quickly and we were soon outside with no one the wiser.

  He took me to a derelict hut not far from the railroad crossing where we had oiled the points. We scrambled onto the roof. The Silent One lit a cigarette which he had found on the way
and gestured for me to wait. I did not know what it was all about, but I had nothing else to do.

  The sun was just beginning to rise. Dew was evaporating from the tar-paper roof and brown worms started to crawl out from under the rain gutters.

  We heard the whistle of a train. The Silent One stiffened and pointed with his hand. I watched the train appear in the faraway haze and slowly come nearer. It was market day and many of the peasants took this first morning train which ran through some of the villages before dawn. The carriages were filled. Baskets stuck out of the windows and people hung on to the steps in bunches.

  The Silent One drew closer to me. He was sweating and his hands were moist. He licked his drawn lips from time to time. He brushed back his hair. He stared at the train and suddenly he seemed much older.

  The train was approaching the crossing. The cramped peasants leaned out of the windows, their blond hair flying in the wind. The Silent One squeezed my arm so hard that I jumped. At the same moment the train’s locomotive veered aside, twisting violently as if pulled by some invisible force.

  Only the two front cars followed the engine obediently. The others hobbled and then like frisky horses started climbing on one another’s backs, falling off the embankment at the same time. The crash came with a tumultuous crunch and screech. A cloud of steam shot up into the sky obscuring everything. Screams and cries came from below.

  I was stunned and quivered like a telephone wire struck by a stone. The Silent One sagged. He gripped his knees spasmodically for a while, looking at the dust settling slowly. Then he turned and dashed for the stairs, pulling me along behind him. We quickly returned to the orphanage, avoiding the crowd of people rushing to the scene of the accident. Ambulance bells were clanging in the vicinity.

  At the orphanage everyone was still asleep. Before going into the dormitory I took a good look at the Silent One. There was no trace of tension in his face. He looked back at me, smiling softly. If it had not been for the bandage over my face and mouth I would have smiled too.

  During the next few days everyone at school talked about the railroad disaster. Black-bordered newspapers listed the names of the casualties; the police were looking for political saboteurs suspected of previous crimes. Over the track cranes were lifting the carriages, which were entangled with one another and twisted out of shape.

  On the next market day the Silent One hurried me to the marketplace. We pushed through the crowd. Many of the stands were empty and cards with black crosses informed the public of the deaths of their owners. The Silent One looked at them and signified his pleasure to me. We were heading for the stand of my tormentor.

  I looked up. The familiar shape of the stand was there, with its jugs of milk and cream, bricks of butter wrapped in cloth, some fruit. From behind them, as in a puppet show, popped up the head of the man who had knocked out my teeth and pushed me into a barrel.

  I looked at the Silent One in anguish. He was staring at the man in disbelief. When he caught my glance he grabbed my hand and we quickly left the market. As soon as we reached the road, he fell down on the grass and cried as though in terrible pain, his words muffled by the ground. It was the only time that I had heard his voice.

  19

  Early in the morning one of the teachers called me out. I was being summoned to the office of the principal. At first I thought it must be news from Gavrila, but on the way I began to have my doubts.

  The principal was waiting for me in her office, accompanied by the member of the Social Commission who thought he had known my parents before the war. They greeted me cordially and asked me to sit down. I noticed that they were both rather nervous, though they tried to conceal it. I looked anxiously around, and heard voices in an adjoining office.

  The man from the Commission went into the other room and talked to someone in there. Then he opened the door wide. A man and a woman stood inside.

  They seemed somehow familiar, and I could hear my heart beating under the star of my uniform. Forcing an expression of indifference, I scrutinized their faces. The resemblance was striking; these two could be my parents. I clutched my chair while thoughts raced through my mind like ricocheting bullets. My parents . . . I didn’t know what to do; admit that I recognized them or pretend that I didn’t?

  They came closer. The woman bent over me. Her face was suddenly creased by tears. The man, nervously adjusting the spectacles on his moist nose, supported her on his arm. He also was shaking with sobs. But he quickly overcame them and addressed me. He spoke to me in Russian and I noted that his speech was as fluent and beautiful as Gavrila’s. He asked me to unbutton my uniform: on my chest, on the left side, there should be a birthmark.

  I knew I had the birthmark. I hesitated, wondering whether to expose it. If I did, everything would be lost; there would be no doubt that I was their son. I pondered for a few minutes, but I felt sorry for the crying woman. I slowly unbuttoned my uniform.

  There was no way out of the situation, no matter how one looked at it. Parents, as Gavrila often told me, had a right to their children. I was not yet grown up: I was only twelve. Even if they did not want to, it was their duty to take me away.

  I looked at them again. The woman smiled at me through the tear-smudged powder on her face. The man excitedly rubbed his hands together. They did not look like people who would beat me. On the contrary, they seemed frail and ailing.

  My uniform was now open and the birthmark plainly visible. They bent over me, crying, hugging and kissing me. I was undecided again. I knew that I could run away anytime, jump on one of the crowded trains and ride it until no one could trace me. But I wanted to be found by Gavrila, and therefore it was wise not to run away. I knew that rejoining my parents meant the end of all my dreams of becoming a great inventor of fuses for changing people’s color, of working in the land of Gavrila and Mitka, where today was already tomorrow.

  My world was becoming cramped like the attic of a peasant’s shed. At all times a man risked falling into the snares of those who hated and wanted to persecute him, or into the arms of those who loved and wished to protect him.

  I could not readily accept the idea of suddenly becoming someone’s real son, of being caressed and cared for, of having to obey people, not because they were stronger and could hurt me, but because they were my parents and had rights which no one could take away from them.

  Of course, parents had their uses when a child was very small. But a boy of my age should be free from any restriction. He should be able to choose for himself the people whom he wished to follow and learn from. Yet I could not decide to run away. I looked at the tearful face of the woman who was my mother, at the trembling man who was my father, uncertain whether they should stroke my hair or pat my shoulder, and some inner force restrained me and forbade me to fly off. I suddenly felt like Lekh’s painted bird, which some unknown force was pulling toward his kind.

  My mother remained with me alone in the room; my father went out to take care of the formalities. She said that I would be happy with her and my father, that I could do anything I wanted. They would make me a new uniform, an exact copy of the one I was wearing.

  As I listened to all this, I recalled the hare which Makar once caught in a trap. He was a fine large animal. One could sense in him a drive for freedom, for powerful leaps, playful tumbles, and swift escapes. Locked in a cage he raged, stamped his feet, beat against the walls. After a few days Makar, furious over his restlessness, threw a heavy tarpaulin over him. The hare struggled and fought under it, but finally gave up. Eventually he became tame and ate from my hand. One day Makar got drunk and left the door of the cage open. The hare jumped out and started toward the meadow. I thought he would plunge into the tall grass with one huge leap and never be seen again. But he seemed to savor his freedom and just sat down, with ears pricked up. From the distant fields and woods came sounds that only he could hear and understand, smells and fragrances that only he could appreciate. It was all his own; he had left the cage behind.


  Suddenly there was a change in him. The alert ears flopped, he sagged somehow, and grew smaller. He jumped once and his whiskers perked up, but he did not run away. I whistled loudly in the hope that it would bring him to his senses, make him realize that he was free. He only turned around and sluggishly, as though suddenly aged and shrunken, moved toward the hutch. On his way he stopped for a while, stood up, and looked back once again with ears pricked; then he passed the rabbits gazing at him and jumped into the cage. I closed the door, though it was unnecessary. He now carried the cage in himself; it bound his brain and heart and paralyzed his muscles. Freedom, which had set him apart from other resigned, drowsy rabbits, left him like the wind-driven fragrance evaporating from crushed, dried clover.

  My father came back. Both he and my mother hugged me and looked me over and exchanged some comments about me. It was time to leave the orphanage. We went to say goodbye to the Silent One. He glanced suspiciously at my parents, shaking his head, and refused to greet them.

  We went out into the street and my father helped to carry my books. There was chaos everywhere. Ragged, dirty, haggard people with sacks on their backs were returning to their homes, quarreling with those who had occupied them during the war. I walked between my parents, feeling their hands on my shoulders and hair, feeling smothered by their love and protection.

  They took me to their apartment. This they had been able to borrow with great difficulty after they had learned that a boy answering their son’s description was at the local Center, and a meeting could be arranged. At the apartment a surprise awaited me. They had another child, a four-year-old boy. My parents explained to me that he was an orphan whose parents and older sister had been killed. He had been saved by his old nurse, who handed him to my father at some point in their wanderings during the third year of the war. They had adopted him, and I could see that they loved him very much.

 
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