The painted bird, p.24
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       The Painted Bird, p.24
 

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  This only contributed to my doubts. Would it not be better for me to stay on my own and wait for Gavrila, who would eventually adopt me? I would much prefer to be alone again, wandering from one village to the next, from one town to another, never knowing what might happen. Here everything was very predictable.

  The apartment was small, consisting of one room and a kitchen. There was a washroom on the stairs. It was stuffy and we were crowded, getting in one another’s way. My father had a heart condition. If anything upset him he grew pale and perspiration covered his face. Then he would swallow some pills. My mother went out at dawn to wait in the endless queues for food. When she returned, she started cooking and cleaning.

  The small boy was a nuisance. He insisted on playing whenever I was reading the newspaper reporting the Red Army successes. He would clutch my pants and knock over my books. One day he annoyed me so much that I grabbed his arm and squeezed it hard. Something cracked and the boy screamed madly. My father called a doctor; the bone was broken. That night, when the child was in bed with his arm in a cast, he whimpered quietly and glanced at me in terror. My parents looked at me without a word.

  I often left secretly to meet with the Silent One. One day he did not turn up at the appointed time. They told me later at the orphanage that he had been transferred to another city.

  Spring arrived. On a rainy day in May the news came that the war was over. People danced in the streets, kissing and hugging one another. In the evening we heard the ambulances throughout the city picking up all the people injured in the brawls which broke out at the drinking parties. During the days that followed I visited the orphanage frequently, hoping to find a letter from Gavrila or Mitka. But there was none.

  I read the newspapers carefully, trying to figure out what was happening in the world. Not all the armies were due to return home. Germany was to be occupied and it might be years before Gavrila and Mitka would return.

  Life in the city was becoming more difficult. Every day masses of people arrived from all over the country, hoping that it might be easier to make a living in an industrial center than in the country, and that they would be able to earn back all that they had lost. Unable to find work or living quarters, bewildered people tramped the streets, struggled for seats in streetcars, buses, and restaurants. They were nervous, short-tempered, and quarrelsome. It seemed that everyone believed himself chosen by fate merely because he had survived the war, and felt entitled to deference on that account.

  One afternoon my parents gave me some money for the cinema. It was a Soviet film about a man and a girl who had a date to meet at six o’clock on the first day after the war.

  There was a crowd at the box office and I waited patiently in line for several hours. When my turn came I discovered that I had lost one of my coins. The cashier, seeing that I was a mute, put my ticket aside to be picked up when I brought the rest of the change. I rushed home. Not more than half an hour later I came back with the money and tried to get my ticket at the box office. An attendant told me to stand in line again. I did not have my slate so I tried to explain with signs that I had already stood in line and that my ticket was waiting for me. He did not try to understand. To the amusement of the people waiting outside he took me by the ear and roughly pushed me out. I slipped and fell on the cobblestones. Blood started dripping from my nose onto my uniform. I quickly returned home, put a cold compress on my face, and started plotting my revenge.

  In the evening, as my parents prepared for bed, I got dressed. Anxiously they asked me where I was going. I told them in signs that I was simply going for a walk. They tried to convince me that it was dangerous to go out at night.

  I went straight to the theater. There were not many people waiting at the box office and the attendant who had thrown me out earlier was idly strolling in the yard. I picked up two good-sized bricks from the street and sneaked up the staircase of a building adjoining the cinema. I dropped an empty bottle from the third-floor landing. As I expected, the attendant came quickly to the spot where it fell. When he bent down to examine it I dropped the two bricks. And then I ran down the steps into the street.

  After this incident I went out only at night. My parents tried to protest, but I would not listen. I slept during the day and at dusk I was ready to start my night prowl.

  All cats are the same in the dark, says the proverb. But it certainly did not apply to people. With them it was just the opposite. During the day they were all alike, running in their well-defined ways. At night they changed beyond recognition. Men sauntered along the street, or jumped like grasshoppers from the shadow of one streetlamp into the next, taking occasional swigs from the bottles they carried in their pockets. In the dark gaping doorways there were women with open blouses and tight skirts. Men approached them with a staggering gait and then they disappeared together. From behind the anemic city shrubbery one heard the squeals of couples making love. In the ruins of a bombed house several boys were raping a girl reckless enough to have ventured out alone. An ambulance turned a distant corner with a screech of tires; a fight broke out in a nearby tavern and there was the crash of broken glass.

  I was soon familiar with the night city. I knew quiet lanes where girls younger than myself solicited men older than my father. I found places where men dressed in smart clothes with gold watches on their wrists traded in objects the very possession of which could get them years in prison. I found an inconspicuous house from which young men took piles of leaflets to post on government buildings, posters which the militiamen and soldiers tore down in rage. I saw the militia organize a manhunt and I saw armed civilians killing a soldier. In daytime the world was at peace. The war continued at night.

  Every night I visited a park near the zoological garden, on the outskirts of the city. Men and women assembled there to trade, drink, and play cards. These people were good to me. They would give me chocolate which was hard to get, and they taught me how to throw a knife and how to snatch one from a man’s hand. In return I was asked to deliver small packages to various addresses, avoiding militiamen and plain-clothesmen. When I returned from these missions the women drew me to their perfumed bodies and encouraged me to lie down with them and caress them in the ways I had learned with Ewka. I felt at ease among these people whose faces were concealed in the darkness of night. I did not bother anyone, I did not get into anyone’s way. They regarded my being mute as an asset which ensured my discretion when I carried out my missions.

  But one night it all ended. Blinding searchlights flashed from behind the trees and police whistles shrilled in the silence. The park was surrounded by militiamen and we were all taken to jail. On the way I nearly broke the finger of a militia officer who pushed me too roughly, ignoring the Red Star on my chest.

  The next morning my parents came to take me away. I was brought out all dirty and with my uniform in shreds after a sleepless night. I was sorry to leave my friends, the night people. My parents looked at me puzzled but said nothing.

  20

  I was too thin and not growing. The doctors advised mountain air and a lot of exercise. The teachers said that the city was not a good place for me. In the fall my father took a job in the hills, in the western part of the country, and we left the city. When the first snows came I was sent to the mountains. An old ski instructor agreed to look after me. I joined him in his mountain shelter and my parents saw me only once a week.

  We got up early every morning. The instructor kneeled down for prayer while I looked on indulgently. Here was a grown man, educated in the city, who acted like a simple peasant and could not accept the idea that he was alone in the world and could expect no assistance from anyone. Every one of us stood alone, and the sooner a man realized that all Gavrilas, Mitkas, and Silent Ones were expendable, the better for him. It mattered little if one was mute; people did not understand one another anyway. They collided with or charmed one another, hugged or trampled one another, but everyone knew only himself. His emotions, memory, and senses divided him from
others as effectively as thick reeds screen the mainstream from the muddy bank. Like the mountain peaks around us, we looked at one another, separated by valleys, too high to stay unnoticed, too low to touch the heavens.

  My days passed in skiing down the long mountain trails. The hills were deserted. The hostels had been burnt down, and the people who had inhabited the valleys had been sent away. The new settlers were only beginning to arrive.

  The instructor was a calm and patient man. I tried to obey him and was glad when I earned his scant praise.

  The blizzard came suddenly, blocking out the peaks and ridges with swirls of snow. I lost sight of the instructor and started on my own down the steep slope, trying to reach the shelter as quickly as possible. My skis bounced over hardened, icy snow and the speed took my breath away. When I suddenly saw a deep gully it was too late to make a turn.

  April sunshine filled the room. I moved my head and it did not seem to hurt. I lifted myself on my hands and was about to lie down when the phone rang. The nurse had already gone, but the phone rang insistently again and again.

  I pulled myself out of bed and walked to the table. I lifted up the receiver and heard a man’s voice.

  I held the receiver to my ear, listening to his impatient words; somewhere at the other end of the wire there was someone who wanted to talk with me . . . I felt an overpowering desire to speak.

  I opened my mouth and strained. Sounds crawled up my throat. Tense and concentrated I started to arrange them into syllables and words. I distinctly heard them jumping out of me one after another, like peas from a split pod. I put the receiver aside, hardly believing it possible. I began to recite words and sentences, snatches of Mitka’s songs. The voice lost in a faraway village church had found me again and filled the whole room. I spoke loudly and incessantly like the peasants and then like the city folk, as fast as I could, enraptured by the sounds that were heavy with meaning, as wet snow is heavy with water, convincing myself again and again and again that speech was now mine and that it did not intend to escape through the door which opened onto the balcony.

 


 

  Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird

  (Series: # )

 

 


 

 
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