The painted bird, p.5
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       The Painted Bird, p.5
 

           Jerzy Kosiński

  I turned my head from side to side, loosening the earth around my neck. But my movements only made the birds more curious. They surrounded me and pecked at me wherever they could. I called loudly, but my voice was too weak to rise above the earth and only seeped back into the soil without reaching the hut where Olga lay.

  The birds played with me freely. The more furiously I swiveled my head to and fro, the more excited and bold they became. Seeming to avoid my face, they attacked the back of my head.

  My strength ebbed. To move my head each time seemed like shifting a huge sack of grain from one place to another. I was crazed and saw everything as through a miasmal fog.

  I gave up. I was myself now a bird. I was trying to free my chilled wings from the earth. Stretching my limbs, I joined the flock of ravens. Borne abruptly up on a gust of fresh, reviving wind, I soared straight into a ray of sunshine that lay taut on the horizon like a drawn bowstring, and my joyous cawing was mimicked by my winged companions.

  Olga found me in the midst of the swarming flock of ravens. I was nearly frozen and my head was deeply lacerated by the birds. She quickly dug me out.

  After several days my health returned. Olga said that the cold earth had driven the sickness out of me. She said that the disease was picked up by a throng of ghosts transformed into ravens which tasted my blood to make sure that I was one of them. This was the only reason, she asserted, they did not peck my eyes out.

  Weeks passed. The plague subsided and fresh grass grew on the many new graves, grass that one could not touch because it surely contained poison from the plague victims.

  One fair morning Olga was summoned to the river-bank. The peasants were pulling from the water a huge catfish with long whiskers stiffly sprouting from its snout. It was a powerful-looking, monstrous fish, one of the largest ever seen in that region. While catching it one of the fishermen had a vein cut by his net. While Olga was applying a tourniquet to his arm to stem the gushing blood, the others disemboweled the fish and, to everyone’s joy, extracted the air bladder, which was undamaged.

  Suddenly, at a moment when I was completely relaxed and unsuspecting, a fat man raised me high in the air and shouted something to the others. The crowd applauded and I was swiftly passed from hand to hand. Before I realized what they were doing, the large bladder was thrown into the water and I was flung on top of it. The bladder sank a little. Someone shoved it with a foot. I began to float away from the riverbank, feverishly hugging the buoyant balloon with my legs and hands, plunging now and again into the cold brownish river, screaming and begging for mercy.

  But I was drifting farther and farther away. The people ran along the riverbank and waved their hands. Some hurled rocks which splashed at my side. One almost hit the bladder. The current was fast carrying me into the middle of the river. Both banks seemed unreachable. The crowd disappeared behind a hill.

  A fresh breeze, which I had never felt on land, rippled over the water. I moved smoothly downstream. Several times the bladder sank almost completely under the light waves. But it bobbed up again, sailing on slowly and majestically. Then abruptly I was swept into a whirlpool. Round and round the bladder swirled, pulling away from and returning to the same spot.

  I tried to swing it up and down to throw it out of the circuit by the movements of my body. I was agonized at the thought that I would have to spend all night in this manner. I knew that if the bladder should burst, I would immediately drown. I could not swim.

  The sun was slowly setting. Every time the bladder turned, the sun shone straight into my eyes and its dazzling reflections danced on the shimmering surface. It grew chilly and the wind became more turbulent. The bladder, pushed by a new gust, glided out of the eddy.

  I was miles from Olga’s village. The current carried me toward a shore obscured by a deepening shadow. I began to discern the marshes, the tall swaying clumps of rushes, the hidden nests of sleeping ducks. The bladder moved slowly through the scattered tufts of grass. Waterflies hovered nervously on every side of me. The yellow chalices of lilies rustled, and a frightened frog belched from a ditch. Suddenly a reed pierced the bladder. I stood on the spongy bottom.

  It was completely still. I could hear vague voices, human or animal, in the alder groves and dank swamps. My body was doubled up with cramp and covered with gooseflesh. I listened intently, but the stillness was everywhere.

  3

  I was frightened to find myself entirely alone. But I remembered the two things which, according to Olga, were necessary for survival without human help. The first was a knowledge of plants and animals, familiarity with poisons and medicinal herbs. The other was possession of fire, or a “comet” of one’s own. The first was harder to obtain—it required a great deal of experience. The second consisted merely of a one-quart preserve can, open at one end and with a lot of small nail holes punched in the sides. A three-foot loop of wire was hooked to the top of the can by way of a handle, so that one could swing it either like a lasso or like a censer in church.

  Such a small portable stove could serve as a constant source of heat and as a miniature kitchen. One filled it with any kind of fuel available, always keeping some sparks of fire at the bottom. By swinging the can energetically, one pumped air through the holes, as the blacksmith does with his bellows, while centrifugal force kept the fuel in place. A judicious choice of fuel and an appropriate swinging motion permitted the building up of heat suitable for various purposes, while steady stoking prevented the “comet” from going out. For example, the baking of potatoes, turnips, or fish required a slow fire of peat and damp leaves, and the roasting of a freshly killed bird required the live flame of dry twigs and hay. Birds’ eggs freshly plucked from their nests were best cooked on a fire of potato stalks.

  To keep the fire alight through the night, the comet had to be tightly packed with damp moss collected from the bases of tall trees. The moss burned with a dim glow, producing smoke which repelled snakes and insects. In case of danger it could be brought to white heat with a few swings. On wet snowy days the comet had to be refilled frequently with dry resinous wood or bark and required a lot of swinging. On windy or hot dry days the comet did not need much swinging, and its burning could be further slowed down by adding fresh grass or by sprinkling in some water.

  The comet was also indispensable protection against dogs and people. Even the most vicious dogs stopped short when they saw a wildly swinging object showering sparks which threatened to set their fur on fire. Not even the boldest man wanted to risk losing his sight or having his face burned. A man armed with a loaded comet became a fortress and could be safely attacked only with a long pole or by throwing rocks.

  That is why the extinction of a comet was an extremely serious thing. It could happen through carelessness, oversleeping, or a sudden downpour. Matches were very scarce in that area. They were costly and hard to obtain. Those who had any matches got into the habit of splitting each match in half for economy.

  Fire was therefore preserved most scrupulously in kitchen stoves or in the fireboxes of ovens. Before retiring for the night women would bank up ashes to make certain that the embers would keep glowing until morning. At dawn they reverently made the sign of the cross before blowing the fire back to life. Fire, they said, is no natural friend to man. That is why one must humor it. It was also believed that sharing fire, especially borrowing it, could only result in misfortune. After all, those who borrow fire on this earth might have to return it in hell. And carrying fire out of the house might make the cows dry or go barren. Also, a fire that went out could produce disastrous consequences in cases of childbirth.

  Just as fire was essential to the comet, the comet was essential to life. A comet was necessary for approaching human settlements, which were always guarded by packs of savage dogs. And in the winter an extinguished comet might lead to frostbite as well as to the lack of cooked food.

  People always carried small sacks on their backs or at their belts for collecting fuel for the comets. In the d
aytime, peasants working in the fields baked vegetables, birds, and fish in them. At night, men and boys coming home would swing them with all their strength and let them fly into the sky, burning fiercely, like soaring red disks. The comets flew in a wide arc, and their fiery tails traced their courses. That is how they got their name. They did really look like comets in the skies with their flaming tails, whose appearance, as Olga explained, signified war, plague, and death.

  It was very difficult to obtain a can for a comet. These were found only along the railroad tracks which carried military transports. The local peasants prevented outsiders from collecting them, exacting a high price for the cans they found themselves. Communities on each side of the tracks fought over the cans. Every day they sent out teams of men and boys equipped with sacks for any cans they could find, and armed with axes to ward off any competitors.

  I was given my first comet by Olga, who had received it in payment for treating a patient. I took very good care of it, hammering over the holes that threatened to become too large, flattening dents, and polishing the metal. Anxious not to be robbed of my only important possession, I wrapped some of the wire attached to the handle around my wrist and never parted from my comet. The brisk, sparkling fire filled me with a feeling of security and pride. I never missed an opportunity to fill my sack with the right kinds of fuel. Olga often sent me to the woods for certain plants and herbs with curative properties, and I felt perfectly safe as long as I had my comet with me.

  But Olga was now far away and I was without the comet. I shivered with cold and fear and my feet were bleeding from cuts of the sharp blades of water reeds. I brushed off from my calves and thighs the leeches which swelled visibly as they sucked my blood. Long, crooked shadows fell over the river and muffled sounds crept along the murky banks. In the creaking of the thick beech branches, in the rustling of the willows trailing their leaves in the water, I heard the utterances of the mystic beings of whom Olga had spoken. They took on peculiar shapes, serpentine and peaked of face, having a bat’s head and a snake’s body. And they coiled themselves around a man’s legs, drawing his will to live out of him until he sat down on the ground, in search of a slumber from which there was no awakening. I had sometimes seen such strange-shaped snakes in barns, where they terrified the cows into agitated mooing. They were said to drink the cows’ milk or, even worse, to crawl inside the animals and consume all the food they ate until the cows starved to death.

  Cutting through the reeds and tall grasses, I started running away from the river, forcing through barricades of tangled weeds, bending low to squeeze under walls of overhanging branches, almost impaling myself on sharp reeds and thorns.

  A cow mooed far away. I quickly climbed a tree and after scanning the countryside from its height I noticed the twinkle of comets. People were coming home from the pastures. Cautiously I made my way in their direction, listening for the sound of their dog, which came toward me through the undergrowth.

  The voices were quite close. There was obviously a path behind the thick wall of foliage. I heard the shuffle of the walking cows and the voices of young herdsmen. Now and then some sparks from their comets lit up the dark sky and then zigzagged down into oblivion. I followed them along the bushes, determined to attack the herdsmen and to seize a comet.

  The dog they had with them picked up my scent several times. It dashed into the bushes, but evidently did not feel too secure in the dark. When I hissed like a snake it withdrew to the path, growling from time to time. The herdsmen, sensing danger, grew silent and listened to the sounds of the forest.

  I approached the lane. The cows almost rubbed their flanks against the branches behind which I was hiding. They were so close I could smell their bodies. The dog tried another attack, but hissing drove it back to the road.

  When the cows moved closer to me I jabbed two of them with a sharp stick. They bellowed and started trotting, followed by the dog. Then I screamed with a long, vibrating banshee howl and struck the nearest herder in the face. Before he had time to realize what was happening, I grabbed his comet and sped back into the bushes.

  The other boys, frightened by the eerie howl and the panic of the cows, ran toward the village, dragging the dazed herder with them. Then I went deeper into the forest, dampening the bright fire of the comet with some fresh leaves.

  When I was far enough, I blew at the comet. Its light lured scores of odd insects out of the dark. I saw witches hanging from the trees. They stared at me, trying to lead me astray and confuse me. I distinctly heard the shudders of wandering souls which had escaped from the bodies of penitent sinners. In the rusty glow of my comet I saw trees bending over me. I heard the plaintive voices and strange movements of ghosts and ghouls trying to bore their way out from inside their trunks.

  Here and there I saw ax cuts on tree trunks. I remembered that Olga had told me that such cuts were made by peasants trying to cast evil spells on their enemies. Striking the juicy flesh of the tree with an ax, one had to utter the name of a hated person and visualize his face. The cut would then bring disease and death to the enemy. There were many such scars on the trees around me. People here must have had many enemies, and they were quite busy in their efforts to bring them disaster.

  Frightened, I swung the comet wildly. I saw unending rows of trees bowing obsequiously to me, inviting me to step deeper and deeper into their closing ranks.

  Sooner or later I had to heed their invitation. I wanted to stay away from the riverside villages.

  I went ahead, firmly convinced that Olga’s spells would eventually bring me back to her. Didn’t she always say that if I tried to run away, she could bewitch my feet and make them walk me back to her? I had nothing to fear. Some unknown force, either from above or within myself, was leading me unerringly back to old Olga.

  4

  I was now living at the miller’s, whom the villagers had nicknamed Jealous. He was more taciturn than was usual in the area. Even when neighbors came to pay him a visit, he would just sit, taking an occasional sip of vodka, and drawling out a word once in a while, lost in thought or staring at a dried-up fly stuck to the wall.

  He abandoned his reverie only when his wife entered the room. Equally quiet and reticent, she would always sit down behind her husband, modestly dropping her gaze when men entered the room and furtively glanced at her.

  I slept in the attic directly above their bedroom. At night I was awakened by their quarrels. The miller suspected his wife of flirting and lasciviously displaying her body in the fields and in the mill before a young plowboy. His wife did not deny this, but sat passive and still. Sometimes the quarrel did not end. The enraged miller lit candles in the room, put on his boots, and beat his wife. I would cling to a crack in the floorboards and watch the miller lashing his naked wife with a horsewhip. The woman cowered behind a feather quilt tugged off the bed, but the man pulled it away, flung it on the floor, and standing over her with his legs spread wide continued to lash her plump body with the whip. After every stroke, red blood-swollen lines would appear on her tender skin.

  The miller was merciless. With a grand sweep of the arm he looped the leather thong of the whip over her buttocks and thighs, slashed her breasts and neck, scourged her shoulders and shins. The woman weakened and lay whining like a puppy. Then she crawled toward her husband’s legs, begging forgiveness.

  Finally the miller threw down the whip and, after blowing out the candle, went to bed. The woman remained groaning. The following day she would cover her wounds, move with difficulty, and wipe away her tears with bruised, cut palms.

  There was another inhabitant of the hut: a well-fed tabby cat. One day she was seized by a frenzy. Instead of mewing she emitted half-smothered squeals. She slid along the walls as sinuously as a snake, swung her pulsating flanks, and clawed at the skirts of the miller’s wife. She growled in a strange voice and moaned, her raucous shrieks making everyone restless. At dusk the tabby whined insanely, her tail beating her flanks, her nose thrusting.

/>   The miller locked the inflamed female in the cellar and went to his mill, telling his wife that he would bring the plowboy home for supper. Without a word the woman set about preparing the food and table.

  The plowboy was an orphan. It was his first season of work at the miller’s farm. He was a tall, placid youth with flaxen hair which he habitually pushed back from his sweating brow. The miller knew that the villagers gossiped about his wife and the boy. It was said that she changed when she gazed into the boy’s blue eyes. Heedless of the risk of being noticed by her husband, she impulsively hiked her skirt high above her knees with one hand, and with the other pushed down the bodice of her dress to display her breasts, all the time staring into the boy’s eyes.

  The miller returned with the young man, carrying in a sack slung over his shoulder, a tomcat borrowed from a neighbor. The tomcat had a head as large as a turnip and a long, strong tail. The tabby was howling lustingly in the cellar. When the miller released her, she sprang to the center of the room. The two cats began to circle one another mistrustfully, panting, coming nearer and nearer.

  The miller’s wife served supper. They ate silently. The miller sat at the middle of the table, his wife on one side and the plowboy on the other. I ate my portion squatting by the oven. I admired the appetites of the two men: huge chunks of meat and bread, washed down with gulps of vodka, disappeared in their throats like hazelnuts.

  The woman was the only one who chewed her food slowly. When she bowed her head low over the bowl the plowboy would dart a glance faster than lightning at her bulging bodice.

  In the center of the room the tabby suddenly arched her body, bared her teeth and claws, and pounced on the tomcat. He halted, stretched his back, and sputtered saliva straight into her inflamed eyes. The female circled him, leaped toward him, recoiled, and then struck him in the muzzle. Now the tomcat stalked around her cautiously, sniffing her intoxicating odor. He arched his tail and tried to come at her from the rear. But the female would not let him; she flattened her body on the floor and turned like a millstone, striking his nose with her stiff, outstretched paws.

 
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