The painted bird, p.6
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       The Painted Bird, p.6
 

           Jerzy Kosiński

  Fascinated, the miller and the other two stared silently while eating. The woman sat with a flushed face; even her neck was reddening. The plowboy raised his eyes, only to drop them at once. Sweat ran down through his short hair and he continually pushed it away from his hot brow. Only the miller sat calmly eating, watching the cats, and glancing casually at his wife and guest.

  The tomcat suddenly came to a decision. His movements became lighter. He advanced. She moved playfully as if to draw back, but the male leapt high and flopped onto her with all fours. He sank his teeth in her neck and intently, tautly, plunged directly into her without any squirming. When satiated and exhausted, he relaxed. The tabby, nailed to the floor, screamed shrilly and sprang out from under him. She jumped onto the cooled oven and tossed about on it like a fish, looping her paws over her neck, rubbing her head against the warm wall.

  The miller’s wife and the plowboy ceased eating. They stared at each other, gaping over their food-filled mouths. The woman breathed heavily, placed her hands under her breasts and squeezed them, clearly unaware of herself. The plowboy looked alternately at the cats and at her, licked his dry lips, and got down his food with difficulty.

  The miller swallowed the last of his meal, leaned his head back, and abruptly gulped down his glass of vodka. Though drunk, he got up, and grasping his iron spoon and tapping it, he approached the plowboy. The youth sat bewildered. The woman hitched up her skirt and began puttering at the fire.

  The miller bent over the plowboy and whispered something in his reddened ear. The youth jumped up as if pricked with a knife and began to deny something. The miller asked loudly now whether the boy lusted after his wife. The plowboy blushed but did not answer. The miller’s wife turned away and continued to clean the pots.

  The miller pointed at the strolling tomcat and again whispered something to the youth. The latter, with an effort, rose from the table, intending to leave the room. The miller came forward overturning his stool and, before the youth realized it, suddenly pushed him against the wall, pressed one arm against his throat, and drove a kneé into his stomach. The boy could not move. Terror stricken, panting loudly, he babbled something.

  The woman dashed toward her husband, imploring and wailing. The awakened tabby cat lying on the oven looked down on the spectacle, while the frightened tomcat leapt onto the table.

  With a single kick the miller got the woman out of his way. And with a rapid movement such as women use to gouge out the rotten spots while peeling potatoes, he plunged the spoon into one of the boy’s eyes and twisted it.

  The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and rolled down the miller’s hand onto the floor. The plowboy howled and shrieked, but the miller’s hold kept him pinned against the wall. Then the blood-covered spoon plunged into the other eye, which sprang out even faster. For a moment the eye rested on the boy’s cheek as if uncertain what to do next; then it finally tumbled down his shirt onto the floor.

  It all had happened in a moment. I could not believe what I had seen. Something like a glimmer of hope crossed my mind that the gouged eyes could be put back where they belonged. The miller’s wife was screaming wildly. She rushed to the adjoining room and woke up her children, who also started crying in terror. The plowboy screamed and then grew silent covering his face with his hands. Rivulets of blood seeped through his fingers down his arms, dripping slowly on his shirt and trousers.

  The miller, still enraged, pushed him toward the window as though unaware that the youth was blind. The boy stumbled, cried out, and nearly knocked over a table. The miller grabbed him by the shoulders, opened the door with his foot, and kicked him out. The boy yelled again, stumbled through the doorway, and fell down in the yard. The dogs started barking, though they did not know what had happened.

  The eyeballs lay on the floor. I walked around them, catching their steady stare. The cats timidly moved out into the middle of the room and began to play with the eyes as if they were balls of thread. Their own pupils narrowed to slits from the light of the oil lamp. The cats rolled the eyes around, sniffed them, licked them, and passed them to one another gently with their padded paws. Now it seemed that the eyes were staring at me from every corner of the room, as though they had acquired a new life and motion of their own.

  I watched them with fascination. If the miller had not been there I myself would have taken them. Surely they could still see. I would keep them in my pocket and take them out when needed, placing them over my own. Then I would see twice as much, maybe even more. Perhaps I could attach them to the back of my head and they would tell me, though I was not quite certain how, what went on behind me. Better still, I could leave the eyes somewhere and they would tell me later what happened during my absence.

  Maybe the eyes had no intention of serving anyone. They could easily escape from the cats and roll out of the door. They could wander over the fields, lakes, and woods, viewing everything about them, free as birds released from a trap. They would no longer die, since they were free, and being small they could easily hide in various places and watch people in secret. Excited, I decided to close the door quietly and capture the eyes.

  The miller, evidently annoyed by the cats’ play, kicked the animals away and squashed the eyeballs with his heavy boots. Something popped under his thick sole. A marvelous mirror, which could reflect the whole world, was broken. There remained on the floor only a crushed bit of jelly. I felt a terrible sense of loss.

  The miller, paying no attention to me, seated himself on the bench and swayed slowly as he fell asleep. I stood up cautiously, lifted the bloodied spoon from the floor and began to gather the dishes. It was my duty to keep the room neat and the floor swept. As I cleaned I kept away from the crushed eyes, uncertain what to do with them. Finally I looked away and quickly swept the ooze into the pail and threw it in the oven.

  In the morning I awoke early. Underneath me I heard the miller and his wife snoring. Carefully I packed a sack of food, loaded the comet with hot embers and, bribing the dog in the yard with a piece of sausage, fled from the hut.

  At the mill wall, next to the barn, lay the plowboy. At first I meant to pass him by quickly, but I stopped when I realized that he was sightless. He was still stunned. He covered his face with his hands, he moaned and sobbed. There was caked blood on his face, hands, and shirt. I wanted to say something, but I was afraid that he would ask me about his eyes and then I would have to tell him to forget about them, since the miller had stamped them into pulp. I was terribly sorry for him.

  I wondered whether the loss of one’s sight would deprive a person also of the memory of everything that he had seen before. If so, the man would no longer be able to see even in his dreams. If not, if only the eyeless could still see through their memory, it would not be too bad. The world seemed to be pretty much the same everywhere, and even though people differed from one another, just as animals and trees did, one should know fairly well what they looked like after seeing them for years. I had lived only seven years, but I remembered a lot of things. When I closed my eyes, many details came back still more vividly. Who knows, perhaps without his eyes the plowboy would start seeing an entirely new, more fascinating world.

  I heard some sound from the village. Afraid that the miller might wake up, I went on my way, touching my eyes from time to time. I walked more cautiously now, for I knew that eyeballs did not have strong roots. When one bent down they hung like apples from a tree and could easily drop out. I resolved to jump across fences with my head held up; but on my first try I stumbled and fell down. I lifted my fingers fearfully to my eyes to see whether they were still there. After carefully checking that they opened and closed properly, I noticed with delight the partridges and thrushes in flight. They flew very fast but my sight could follow them and even overtake them as they soared under the clouds, becoming smaller than raindrops. I made a promise to myself to remember everything I saw; if someone should pluck out my eyes, then I would retain the memory of all that I had se
en for as long as I lived.

  5

  My duty was to set snares for Lekh, who sold birds in several neighboring villages. There was no one who could compete with him in this. He worked alone. He took me in because I was very small, thin, and light. Thus I could set traps in places where Lekh himself could not reach: on slender branches of trees, in dense clumps of nettle and thistle, on the waterlogged islets in the bogs and swamps.

  Lekh had no family. His hut was filled with birds of all varieties, from the common sparrow to the wise owl. The peasants bartered food for Lekh’s birds, and he did not have to worry about essentials: milk, butter, sour cream, cheeses, bread, hunter’s sausage, vodka, fruits, and even cloth. He would collect all this from the nearby villages while carrying around his caged birds and hawking their beauty and singing abilities.

  Lekh had a pimpled, freckled face. The peasants claimed that such faces belong to those who steal eggs from swallows’ nests; Lekh himself asserted that this was due to his spitting carelessly into fire in his youth, claiming that his father was a village scribe who wanted him to become a priest. But he was drawn to the forests. He studied the ways of birds and envied them their ability to fly. One day he escaped from his father’s hut and began to wander from village to village, from forest to forest, like a wild and abandoned bird. In time he began to catch birds. He observed the wondrous habits of quail and larks, could imitate the carefree call of the cuckoo, the screech of the magpie, the hooting of the owl. He knew the courting habits of the bullfinch; the jealous fury of the landrail, circling a nest abandoned by its female; and the sorrow of the swallow whose nesting place was wantonly destroyed by young boys. He understood the secrets of the hawk’s flight and admired the stork’s patience in hunting for frogs. He envied the nightingale its song.

  Thus he passed his youth amidst the birds and trees. Now he was rapidly growing bald, his teeth were rotting, the skin of his face was sagging into folds, and he was becoming slightly shortsighted. So he settled down for good in a hut he built himself, in which he occupied one corner and filled the others with birdcages. At the very bottom of one of these cages a narrow space was found for me.

  Lekh spoke often of his birds. I listened avidly to everything he had to say. I learned that flocks of storks always came from beyond distant oceans on St. Joseph’s day and remained in the village until St. Bartholomew drove all the frogs into the mud with hop poles. The mud would plug the frogs’ mouths and the storks, unable to hear their croaking, would not be able to catch them and would therefore have to leave. The storks brought good luck to the houses on which they nested.

  Lekh was the only man in the area who knew how to prepare a stork’s nest in advance, and his nests were never without tenants. He charged high prices for building such nests, and only the wealthiest farmers could afford his services.

  Lekh set about nest building with great deliberation. On the selected roof he first placed a harrow at the halfway point, providing a framework for the structure. It was always slanted slightly toward the west, so that the prevailing winds could not damage the nest badly. Then Lekh drove long nails halfway into the harrow, thus providing anchorage for the twigs and straw which the storks gathered themselves. Just before their arrival he placed a large piece of red cloth in the middle of the harrow to attract the storks’ attention.

  It was known that it brought good luck to see the first springtime stork in flight; but seeing the first springtime stork sitting down was an augury of a year of trouble and misfortune. The storks also provided clues as to what went on in the village. They would never return to a roof under which some misdeed had been committed in their absence or under which people lived in sin.

  They were strange birds. Lekh told me how he had been pecked by a female sitting on her eggs when he tried to correct the position of the nest. He took revenge by placing one goose egg among the other stork eggs. When the chicks hatched, the storks looked with amazement at their offspring. One of them was misshapen, on short bowlegs, with a flat beak. Father Stork charged his wife with adultery and wanted to kill the bastard chick on the spot. Mother Stork felt that the baby should be kept in the nest. Family argument continued for several days. Finally the hen decided on her own to save the gosling’s life, and she carefully rolled it onto the thatched roof, from which it fell harmlessly into some straw.

  It would seem that this closed the matter and that matrimonial harmony would be restored. But when the time came for flying away, all the storks held a conference as usual. After debate it was decided that the hen was guilty of adultery and did not deserve to accompany the husband. Sentence was duly passed. Before the birds took off in their faultless formation, the faithless wife was attacked with beaks and wings. She fell down dead, close to the thatched house on which she had lived with her husband. Next to her body the peasants found an ugly gosling shedding bitter tears.

  The swallows also led interesting lives. The favorite birds of the Virgin Mary, they came as harbingers of spring and joy. In the fall they were supposed to fly far away from human life, to perch, tired and sleepy, on the reeds growing in distant marshes. Lekh said that they rested on a reed until it broke under their weight, plunging them into the water. They were supposed to remain underwater all through the winter, secure in their icy home.

  The voice of the cuckoo could mean many things. A man hearing it for the first time in the season should immediately start jangling coins in his pockets and counting all his money, in order to secure at least the same amount for the whole year. Thieves should be careful to remember when they heard their first cuckoo of the year. If it was before there were leaves on the trees, it was better to abandon their plans of robbery, which would be unsuccessful.

  Lekh had a special affection for cuckoos. He regarded them as people turned into birds—noblemen, begging God in vain to turn them back into humans. He perceived a clue to their noble ancestry in the manner in which they raised their young. The cuckoos, he said, never undertook the education of their young themselves. Instead, they hired wagtails to feed and look after their young, while they themselves continued flying around the forest, calling upon the Lord to change them back into gentlemen.

  Lekh viewed bats with disgust, regarding them as half birds and half mice. He called them the emissaries of evil spirits, looking for fresh victims, capable of attaching themselves to a human scalp and infusing sinful desires into the brain. Even bats, however, had their uses. Lekh once caught a bat in the attic. He captured it with a net and placed it on an anthill outside the house. By the next day only white bones remained. Lekh meticulously collected the skeleton and took out the wishbone, which he wore on his chest. After grinding the rest of the bones to dust, he mixed them in a glass of vodka and gave it to the woman he loved. This, he said, would assure him of her increased desire for him.

  Lekh taught me that a man should always watch birds carefully and draw conclusions from their behavior. If they were seen flying in a red sunset in large numbers, and were of many different breeds, then it was obvious that evil spirits on the lookout for damned souls rode on their wings. When crows, rooks, and jackdaws assembled together in a field, the meeting was usually inspired by an Evil one, who tried to instill in them hate for other birds. The appearance of long-winged white crows signaled a cloudburst; low-flying wild geese in the springtime meant a rainy summer and a poor harvest.

  At dawn when the birds were sleeping we would venture out to stalk up to their nests. Lekh strode ahead, carefully jumping over bushes and shrubs. I followed directly behind. Later on, when daylight reached even the most shaded corners of the forest and fields, we would take the terrified, thrashing birds from the traps we had set the day before. Lekh removed them carefully, either speaking soothingly to them or threatening them with death. Then he would put them into a large bag slung over his shoulder, in which they would struggle and stir until their strength waned and they calmed down. Every new prisoner pushed down into the bag brought new life, causing the bag to quiver
and swing against Lekh’s back. Above our heads the friends and family of the prisoner would circle, twittering curses. Lekh would then look up from under his gray eyebrows and hurl insults at them. When the birds persisted, Lekh put the bag down, took out a sling, placed a sharp stone in it, and, aiming it carefully, shot it at the flock. He never missed; suddenly a motionless bird would hurtle from the sky. Lekh would not bother to look for the corpse.

  When noon approached, Lekh hastened his steps and wiped the perspiration from his brow more often. The most important hour of his day was nearing. A woman locally nicknamed Stupid Ludmila was waiting for him in some distant forest clearing known only to the two of them. I would proudly trot behind him, the bag of twitching birds slung over my shoulder.

  The forest became increasingly dense and forbidding. The slimy striped trunks of snake-colored hornbeams shot straight up into the clouds. The linden trees, all of which, according to Lekh, remembered the very beginnings of the human race, stood broad-shouldered, their trunks resembling coats of mail festooned with the gray patina of mosses. The oaks stretched out of their trunks like the necks of starving birds looking for food, and obscured the sun with gloomy branches, casting the pines and poplars and lindens into shadow. Sometimes Lekh would stop and silently look at some spoors in the crannies of decaying bark, and in tree knots and gallnuts full of black, curious holes from whose interior shone bare white wood. We would pass through groves of young birches with lean, fragile shoots, diffidently flexing their thin, small branches and buds.

 
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