The painted bird, p.4
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       The Painted Bird, p.4
 

           Jerzy Kosiński

  I trembled and vomited. I had to find people. I had to go to the village.

  I limped on my bruised feet and legs, cautiously making my way over the yellowing autumn grass toward the distant village.

  2

  My parents were nowhere. I began to run across the field toward the peasants’ huts. A rotting crucifix, once painted blue, stood at the crossroads. A holy picture hung at the top, from which a pair of barely visible but seemingly tear-stained eyes gazed into the empty fields and the red glow of the rising sun. A gray bird sat on an arm of the cross. On catching sight of me, it spread its wings and vanished.

  The wind carried the charred smell of Marta’s hut over the fields. A narrow thread of smoke drifted from the cooling ruins upward into the wintry sky.

  Chilled and terrified, I entered the village. The huts, sunk halfway into the earth, with low-slung thatched roofs and boarded-up windows, stood along both sides of the packed dirt road.

  The dogs tied to the fences noticed me and began to howl and strain against their chains. Afraid to move, I halted in the middle of the road, expecting one of them to break free at any moment.

  The monstrous idea that my parents were not here and would not be here passed through my mind. I sat down and began to cry again, calling for my father and mother and even nanny.

  A crowd of men and women was gathering around me, talking in a dialect unknown to me. I feared their suspicious looks and movements. Several were holding dogs which snarled and strained toward me.

  Someone jabbed me from behind with a rake. I jumped aside. Someone else pricked me with a sharp prong. Again I sprang away, crying loudly.

  The crowd became more lively. A stone struck me. I lay down, face to the earth, not wishing to know what might happen next. My head was being bombarded with dried cow dung, moldy potatoes, apple cores, handfuls of dirt, and small stones. I covered my face with my hands and screamed into the dust which covered the road.

  Someone yanked me up from the ground. A tall red-headed peasant held me by the hair and dragged me toward him, twisting my ear with his other hand. I resisted desperately. The crowd shrieked with laughter. The man pushed me, kicking me with his wood-soled shoe. The mob roared, the men clasped their bellies, shaking with laughter, and the dogs struggled closer toward me.

  A peasant with a burlap sack pushed his way through the crowd. He grabbed me by the neck and slipped the sack over my head. Then he threw me to the ground and tried to knead the rest of my body into the stinking black soil.

  I lashed out with my feet and hands, I bit and scratched. But a blow on the back of my neck quickly made me lose consciousness.

  I awoke in pain. Crammed into the sack, I was being carried on someone’s shoulders, whose sweaty heat I felt through the rough cloth. The sack was tied with a string above my head. When I tried to free myself the man put me down on the ground and knocked me breathless and groggy with several kicks. Afraid to move, I sat hunched as though in a stupor.

  We arrived at a farm. I smelled manure and heard the bleating of a goat and the mooing of a cow. I was dumped on the floor of a hut and someone whacked the sack with a whip. I leapt out of the sack, bursting through the tied-up neck as if burned. The peasant stood there with a whip in his hand. He brought it down on my legs. I hopped around like a squirrel while he continued whipping me. People entered the room: a woman in a stained, pulled-up apron, small children who crawled out like cockroaches from the feather bed and from behind the oven, and two farmhands.

  They surrounded me. One tried to touch my hair. When I turned toward him he quickly withdrew his hand. They exchanged remarks about me. Although I could not understand very much I heard the word “Gypsy” many times. I tried to tell them something, but my language and the manner in which I spoke it only made them giggle.

  The man who had brought me began to whack my calves again. I jumped higher and higher, while the children and adults howled with laughter.

  I was given a piece of bread and locked in the firewood closet. My body burned from the slashes of the whip and I could not fall asleep. It was dark in the closet and I heard rats scampering near me. When they touched my legs I cried out, scaring the hens sleeping behind the wall.

  During the next few days peasants with their families came to the hut to stare at me. The owner whipped my welt-encrusted legs so I would hop like a frog. I was nearly naked but for the sack I was given to wear, with the two holes cut in the bottom for my legs. The sack often fell off when I jumped up and down. The men would roar and the women would titter, looking at me while I tried to cover my little tassel. I stared at a few of them straight in the eye, and they would rapidly avert their eyes or spit three times and drop their gaze.

  One day an elderly woman called Olga the Wise One came to the hut. The owner treated her with obvious respect. She looked me all over, scrutinized my eyes and teeth, felt my bones, and ordered me to urinate in a small jar. She examined my urine.

  Then, for a long time, she contemplated the long scar on my belly, the souvenir of my appendectomy, kneading my stomach with her hands. After the inspection she haggled fiercely and at length with the peasant, until finally she tied a string round my neck and led me away. I had been bought.

  I began to live in her hut. It was a two-room dugout, full of piles of dried grasses, leaves, and shrubs, small oddly shaped colored stones, frogs, moles, and pots of wriggling lizards and worms. In the center of the hut caldrons were suspended over a burning fire.

  Olga showed me everything. Henceforth I had to take care of the fire, bring faggots from the forest, and clean the stalls of the animals. The hut was full of varied powders which Olga prepared in a large mortar, grinding up and mixing the different components. I had to help her with this.

  Early in the morning she took me to visit the village huts. The women and men crossed themselves when they saw us but otherwise greeted us politely. The sick waited inside.

  When we saw a moaning woman clutching her abdomen, Olga ordered me to massage the woman’s warm moist belly and to stare at it without pausing, while she muttered some words and made various signs in the air over our heads. One time we attended a child with a rotting leg, covered with wrinkled brown skin, from which a bloody yellow pus oozed. The stench from the leg was so strong that even Olga had to open the door every few moments and let in a draft of fresh air.

  All day long I stared at the gangrenous leg while the child alternately sobbed and fell asleep. Its terrified family sat outside praying loudly. When the child’s attention flagged, Olga applied to his leg a red-hot rod that was held ready in the fire, carefully burning out the entire wound. The child lashed out to all sides, screamed wildly, fainted and regained consciousness. A smell of charred flesh filled the room. The wound sizzled, as though pieces of bacon were being seared in a skillet. After the wound was burned out Olga covered it with gobs of wet bread into which were kneaded mold and freshly gathered cobwebs.

  Olga had a treatment for nearly every disease, and my admiration for her steadily grew. People came to her with an enormous range of complaints and she could always help them. When a man’s ears hurt, Olga washed them with caraway oil, inserted into each ear a piece of linen wound into a trumpet shape and soaked in hot wax, and set fire to the linen from outside. The patient, tied to a table, shrieked with pain while the fire burned out the remainder of the cloth inside the ear. Then she promptly blew out the residue, “sawdust” as she called it, from the ear and then coated the burned area with an ointment made from the juice of a squeezed onion, the bile of a billy-goat or rabbit, and a dash of raw vodka.

  She could also cut out boils, tumors, and wens, and pull out decayed teeth. She kept the excised boils in vinegar until they became marinated and could be used as medicines. She carefully drained the pus that suppurated from the wounds into special cups and left it to ferment for several days. As for extracted teeth, I pulverized them myself in the large mortar, and the resulting powder was dried over pieces of bark on top of the oven.<
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  Sometimes in the dark of the night a frightened peasant would rush in for Olga and off she would go to attend to a childbirth, covering herself with a large wrap and shuddering from the chill and lack of sleep. When she was asked to one of the neighboring villages and did not return for several days, I watched over the hut, feeding the animals and keeping the fire burning.

  Although Olga spoke in a strange dialect, we came to understand each other quite well. In the winter when a storm raged and the village was in the tight embrace of impassable snows, we would sit together in the warm hut and Olga would tell me of all God’s children and of all Satan’s spirits.

  She called me the Black One. From her I learned for the first time that I was possessed by an evil spirit, which crouched in me like a mole in a deep burrow, and of whose presence I was unaware. Such a darkling as I, possessed of this evil spirit, could be recognized by his bewitched black eyes which did not blink when they gazed at bright clear eyes. Hence, Olga declared, I could stare at other people and unknowingly cast a spell over them.

  Bewitched eyes can not only cast a spell but can also remove it, she explained. I must take care, while staring at people or animals or even grain, to keep my mind blank of anything other than the disease I was helping her remove from them. For when bewitched eyes look at a healthy child, he will immediately begin to waste away; when at a calf, it will drop dead of a sudden disease; when at grass, the hay will rot after the harvest.

  This evil spirit which dwelled in me attracted by its very nature other mysterious beings. Phantoms drifted around me. A phantom is silent, reticent, and is rarely seen. Yet it is persistent: it trips people in fields and forests, peeks into huts, can turn itself into a vicious cat or rabid dog, and moans when enraged. At midnight it turns into hot tar.

  Ghosts are attracted to an evil spirit. They are persons long dead, condemned to eternal damnation, returning to life only at full moon, having superhuman powers, with eyes always turned mournfully eastward.

  Vampires, perhaps the most harmful of these intangible threats because they often assume human form, are also drawn to a possessed person. Vampires are people who were drowned without having first been baptized or who were abandoned by their mothers. They grow to the age of seven in water or in the forests, whereupon they take human form again and, changing into vagabonds, insatiably try to gain access to Catholic or Uniate churches whenever they can. Once they have taken nest there they stir restlessly around the altars, maliciously soil the pictures of the saints, bite, break, or destroy the holy objects and, when possible, suck blood from sleeping men.

  Olga suspected me of being a vampire and now and then told me so. To restrain the desires of my evil spirit and prevent its metamorphosis into a ghost or phantom, she would every morning prepare a bitter elixir which I had to drink while eating a chunk of garlicked charcoal. Other people also feared me. Whenever I attempted to walk through the village alone, people would turn their heads and make the sign of the cross. What is more, pregnant women would run away from me in panic. The bolder peasants unleashed dogs on me, and had I not learned to flee quickly and always keep close to Olga’s hut, I would not have returned alive from many of these excursions.

  I usually remained in the hut, preventing an albino cat from killing a caged hen, which was black and of great rarity, and much valued by Olga. I also looked at the blank eyes of toads hopping in a tall pot, kept the fire burning in the stove, stirred simmering brews, and peeled rotten potatoes, gathering carefully in a cup the greenish mold which Olga applied to wounds and bruises.

  Olga was highly respected in the village, and when I accompanied her I did not fear anyone. She was often asked to come and sprinkle the eyes of cattle, to protect them from any malicious spell while they were being driven to market. She showed the peasants the manner in which they should spit three times when purchasing a pig, and how to feed a heifer with specially prepared bread containing a sanctified herb before mating it with a bull. No one in the village would buy a horse or cow until Olga had decreed that the animal would remain healthy. She would pour water over it, and, after seeing how it shook itself, would give the verdict on which the price and often the very sale depended.

  Spring was coming. Ice was breaking up on the river and low rays of the sun penetrated the slippery coils and eddies of the rushing water. Blue dragon-flies hovered above the current, struggling with the sudden bursts of cold, wet wind. Wraiths of moisture rising from the sun-warmed surface of the lake were seized upon by the gusts and eddies of the wind and then teased out like wisps of wool and drawn up into the turbulent air.

  Yet when the eagerly expected warmer weather came at last, it brought along a plague. The people whom it struck wriggled with pain like transfixed earthworms, were shaken by a ghastly chill, and died without regaining consciousness. I rushed with Olga from hut to hut, stared at the patients in order to drive the sickness out of them, but all to no avail. The disease proved too strong.

  Behind the tightly shut windows, inside the half-dark huts, the dying and suffering groaned and cried out. Women pressed the small tightly swaddled bodies of their babies, whose life was swiftly ebbing, against their breasts. Men, in despair, covered their fever-wracked wives with feather mattresses and sheepskins. Children gazed tearfully at the blue-spotted faces of their dead parents.

  The plague persisted.

  The villagers would come to the thresholds of their huts, raise their eyes from the earthly dust, and search for God. He alone could assuage their bitter sorrow. He alone could bestow the mercy of serene sleep on these tormented human bodies. He alone could change the horrible enigmas of the disease into ageless health. He alone could deaden the pain of a mother mourning for her lost child. He alone . . .

  But God, in His impenetrable wisdom, waited. Fires burned around the huts, and the paths and gardens and yards were fumigated with smoke. The ringing strokes of axes and the crash of falling trees could be heard from the neighboring forests as the men hewed the wood needed to keep the fires alive. I heard the crisp, sharp sounds of ax blade on trunk coursing through the clear, still air. As they reached the pastures and the village they became strangely muffled and faint. As a fog hides and dims a candle flame, so the silent brooding air, heavy with disease, absorbed and enmeshed these sounds in a poisoned net.

  One evening my face began to burn and I shook with uncontrollable throbs. Olga looked for a moment into my eyes and placed her cold hand on my brow. Then rapidly and wordlessly she dragged me toward a remote field. There she dug a deep pit, took off my clothes, and ordered me to jump in.

  While I stood at the bottom, trembling with fever and chill, Olga pushed the earth back into the pit until I was buried up to my neck. Then she trampled the soil around me and beat it with the shovel until the surface was very smooth. After making sure there were no anthills in the vicinity, she made three smoky fires of peat.

  Thus planted in the cold earth, my body cooled completely in a few moments, like the root of a wilting weed. I lost all awareness. Like an abandoned head of cabbage, I became part of the great field.

  Olga did not forget me. Several times during the day she brought cool drinks which she poured into my mouth and which seemed to drain right through my body into the earth. The smoke from the fires, which she stoked with fresh moss, misted my eyes and stung my throat. Seen from the earth’s surface when the wind occasionally cleared the smoke away, the world looked like a rough rug. The small plants growing round about loomed as tall as trees. When Olga approached she cast an unearthly giant’s shadow over the landscape.

  Having fed me at twilight for the last time, she threw fresh peat on the fires and went to her hut to sleep. I remained in the field, alone, rooted into the earth which seemed to draw me down deeper and deeper.

  The fires burned slowly and the sparks jumped like glow-worms into the infinite blackness. I felt as though I were a plant straining toward the sun, unable to straighten its branches, restrained by the earth. Or again, I felt tha
t my head had acquired a life of its own, rolling faster and faster, picking up dizzying speed until it finally struck the disk of the sun which had graciously warmed it during the day.

  At times, feeling the wind on my brow, I went numb with horror. In my imagination I saw armies of ants and cockroaches calling to one another and scurrying toward my head, to some place under the top of my skull, where they would build new nests. There they would proliferate and eat out my thoughts, one after another, until I would become as empty as the shell of a pumpkin from which all the fruit has been scraped out.

  Noises woke me. I opened my eyes, uncertain of my surroundings. I was fused with the earth, but thoughts stirred in my heavy head. The world was graying. The fires had gone out. On my lips I felt the cold of streaming dew. Drops of it settled on my face and in my hair.

  The sounds returned. A flock of ravens circled over my head. One of them landed nearby on broad rustling wings. It approached my head slowly while the others began to alight.

  In terror I watched their shining black-feathered tails and darting eyes. They stalked around me, nearer and nearer, flicking their heads toward me, uncertain whether I was dead or alive.

  I did not wait for what would come next. I screamed. The startled ravens leapt back. Several rose a few feet into the air, but touched ground again not far off. Then they glanced suspiciously at me and began their circuitous march.

  I shouted once more. But this time they were not frightened, and with increasing boldness advanced ever more closely. My heart thudded. I did not know what to do. I screamed again but now the birds showed no fear. They were only two feet from me. Their shapes loomed larger and larger in my eyes, their beaks grew more and more vicious. The curved widespread claws of their feet resembled huge rakes.

  One of the ravens halted in front of me, inches from my nose. I yelled right into its face, but the raven only gave a slight jerk and opened its beak. Before I could shout again, it pecked at my head and several of my hairs appeared in its bill. The bird struck again, tearing out another tuft of hair.

 
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