The painted bird, p.7
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       The Painted Bird, p.7
 

           Jerzy Kosiński

  Through the gauzy curtain of foliage we were noticed by perching flocks of birds who became frightened and would soar away with beating wings. Their chirping mixed with the chorus of bees murmuring around us like a moving, gleaming cloud. Lekh protected his face with his hands and fled from the bees to a denser thicket, while I ran at his heels holding on to the bag of birds and basket of traps, waving my hand to drive off the harassing and vengeful swarm.

  Stupid Ludmila was a strange woman and I feared her increasingly. She was well built and taller than the other women. Her hair, seemingly never cut, cascaded down her shoulders. She had large breasts, which hung nearly to her belly, and strong muscular calves. In the summer she went around dressed only in a faded sack which revealed her breasts and a clump of red hair at her crotch. Men and boys would tell of the pranks they played with Ludmila when she was in the mood. The village women often tried to trap her but, as Lekh said with pride, Ludmila’s tail was windblown and no one could catch her against her will. She would disappear in the undergrowth like a starling and creep out when no one was around.

  No one knew where her lair was. Sometimes at dawn when peasants walked to the fields, scythes on their shoulders, they saw Stupid Ludmila waving to them amorously from afar. They would halt and wave back to her, stretching their arms lazily as their will to work weakened. Only the calls of their wives and mothers, approaching with sickles and hoes, brought them back to their senses. Women often set dogs on Ludmila. The largest and most dangerous one ever sent to attack her decided not to return. After that she would always appear holding the animal by a rope. The other dogs would flee with their tails between their legs.

  It was said that Stupid Ludmila lived with this huge dog as with a man. Others predicted that someday she would give birth to children whose bodies would be covered with canine hair and who would have lupine ears and four paws, and that these monsters would live somewhere in the forest.

  Lekh never repeated these stories about Ludmila. He only mentioned once that when she was very young and innocent her parents ordered her to get married to the son of the village psalmist, notorious for his ugliness and cruelty. Ludmila refused, infuriating her fiancé so much that he enticed her outside the village where an entire herd of drunken peasants raped the girl until she lost consciousness. After that she was a changed woman; her mind had become addled. Since no one remembered her family and she was considered not too bright, she was nicknamed Stupid Ludmila.

  She lived in the forests, lured men into the bushes and pleased them so much with her voluptuousness that afterwards they could not even look at their fat and stinking wives. No one man could satisfy her; she had to have several men, one after another. And yet she was Lekh’s great love. He made up tender songs for her in which she figured as a strange-colored bird flying to faraway worlds, free and quick, brighter and more beautiful than other creatures. To Lekh she seemed to belong to that pagan, primitive kingdom of birds and forests where everything was infinitely abundant, wild, blooming, and royal in its perpetual decay, death, and rebirth; illicit and clashing with the human world.

  Every day at noon Lekh and I would walk toward the clearing where he hoped to meet Ludmila. When we arrived Lekh hooted in imitation of an owl. Stupid Ludmila would rise above the tall grass, bluebottles and poppy flowers intertwined in her hair. Lekh rushed eagerly toward her and they stood together, swaying slightly like the grasses around them, almost growing into each other like two tree trunks rising up from a single root.

  I watched them from the edge of the clearing, behind the leaves of ferns. The birds in my bag were disturbed by the sudden stillness and chirped and floundered and excitedly beat their wings against each other. The man and woman kissed each other’s hair and eyes, and rubbed cheek against cheek. They were intoxicated by the touch and smell of their bodies and slowly their hands became more playful. Lekh moved his big, calloused paws over the smooth arms of the woman while she drew his face closer to hers. Together they slid down into the tall grass which now shook above their bodies, partly concealing them from the curious gaze of the birds gyrating over the clearing. Lekh would say afterwards that while they lay in the grass Ludmila told him stories of her life and her sufferings, disclosing the quirks and kinks of her strange untamed feelings, all the byways and secret passages that her frail mind wandered through.

  It was hot. There was not a breath of wind and the treetops stood rigid. The grasshoppers and dragonflies buzzed; a butterfly suspended on an invisible breeze hovered over the sun-whitened clearing. The woodpecker ceased pecking, the cuckoo grew silent. I dozed off. Then I was awakened by voices. The man and the woman stood clinging to each other as if grown into the soil, saying words to each other I did not understand. They separated reluctantly; Stupid Ludmila waved her hand. Lekh strode toward me, repeatedly turning to look at her as he stumbled, a wistful smile on his lips.

  On the way home we set more traps; Lekh was tired and withdrawn. In the evening, when the birds fell asleep in their cages, he cheered up. Restless, he spoke of Ludmila. His body trembled, he giggled, closing his eyes. His white pimply cheeks grew flushed.

  Sometimes days passed and Stupid Ludmila did not appear in the forest. Lekh would become possessed by a silent rage. He would stare solemnly at the birds in the cages, mumbling something to himself. Finally, after prolonged scrutiny, he would choose the strongest bird, tie it to his wrist, and prepare stinking paints of different colors which he mixed together from the most varied components. When the colors satisfied him, Lekh would turn the bird over and paint its wings, head, and breast in rainbow hues until it became more dappled and vivid than a bouquet of wildflowers.

  Then we would go into the thick of the forest. There Lekh took out the painted bird and ordered me to hold it in my hand and squeeze it lightly. The bird would begin to twitter and attract a flock of the same species which would fly nervously over our heads. Our prisoner, hearing them, strained toward them, warbling more loudly, its little heart, locked in its freshly painted breast, beating violently.

  When a sufficient number of birds gathered above our heads, Lekh would give me a sign to release the prisoner. It would soar, happy and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds, and then plunge into the waiting brown flock. For an instant the birds were confounded. The painted bird circled from one end of the flock to the other, vainly trying to convince its kin that it was one of them. But, dazzled by its brilliant colors, they flew around it unconvinced. The painted bird would be forced farther and farther away as it zealously tried to enter the ranks of the flock. We saw soon afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. Shortly the many-hued shape lost its place in the sky and dropped to the ground. When we finally found the painted bird it was usually dead. Lekh keenly examined the number of blows which the bird had received. Blood seeped through its colored wings, diluting the paint and soiling Lekh’s hands.

  Stupid Ludmila did not return. Lekh, sulking and glum, removed one bird after another from the cages, painted them in still gaudier colors, and released them into the air to be killed by their kin. One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens flew amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the fresh-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone.

  Lekh grew thin and stayed in the hut more often, swigging homemade vodka and singing songs about Ludmila. At times he would sit astride his bed, leaning over the dirt floor, and drawing something with a long stick. Gradually the outline became clear: it was the figure of a full-breasted, long-ha
ired woman.

  When there were no more birds to be painted, Lekh began to roam the fields with a bottle of vodka sticking out from under his jacket. Sometimes as I rambled along nearby, afraid that something might happen to him in the swamps, I would hear him singing. The man’s deep, sorrowful voice rose and spread grief over the bogs like a heavy winter fog. The song soared along with the flocks of migrating birds but grew remote as it reached the abysmal depths of the forests.

  In the villages people laughed at Lekh. They said that Stupid Ludmila had cast a spell over him and put fire in his loins, a fire that would drive him insane. Lekh protested, hurling the most vile curses at them and threatening to send birds against them that would peck out their eyes. Once he rushed at me and struck me in the face. He shouted that my presence scared his woman off because she was afraid of my Gypsy eyes. For the next two days he lay ill. When he arose he packed his knapsack, took along a loaf of bread, and went into the forest, ordering me to keep setting new snares and catching new birds.

  Weeks passed. The traps that I set according to Lekh’s orders more often than not caught only the tenuous, filmy gauze of cobwebs that drifted in the air. The storks and swallows had flown away. The forest was becoming deserted; only the snakes and lizards increased in numbers. The birds perched in their cages puffed up, their wings graying and still.

  Then came an overcast day. Clouds of barely discernible shapes screened the skies like a thick feather bed, hiding the anemic sun. The wind whipped over the fields, wilting the blades of grass. The huts, cowering against the earth, were surrounded by vacant stubble, blackened and brown with mildew. In the undergrowth, where careless birds once thrashed, the wind ruthlessly scourged and sheared the gray shagginess of the tall thistles and shifted the rotting stalks of potato plants from place to place.

  Suddenly Stupid Ludmila appeared, leading her huge dog on a rope. Her behavior was odd. She kept asking about Lekh; and when I told her that he had left many days ago and that I did not know where he was, she alternately sobbed and laughed, walking from one corner of the cabin to another, watched by the dog and the birds. She noticed Lekh’s old cap, pressed it against her cheeks and burst into tears. Then she abruptly threw the cap on the floor and trampled it with her feet. She found a bottle of vodka which Lekh had left under the bed. She drained it, then turned and, looking furtively at me, ordered me to go with her to the pasture. I tried to escape, but she set her dog on me.

  The pastures stretched directly beyond the cemetery. A few cows were foraging not far off, and several young peasants warmed themselves at a fire. To avoid being noticed we quickly crossed through the cemetery and climbed over a high wall. On the other side, where we could not be seen, Stupid Ludmila tied the dog to a tree, threatened me with a belt and commanded me to take off my pants. She herself wriggled out of her sack and, naked, pulled me toward her.

  After a moment of struggling and squirming, she drew my face closer to her and ordered me to lie down between her thighs. I tried to free myself but she whipped me with the belt. My screams attracted the other shepherds.

  Stupid Ludmila noticed the approaching group of peasants and spread her legs wider. The men came over slowly, staring at her body.

  Without a word they surrounded her. Two of them immediately began to let down their pants. The others stood undecided. No one paid any attention to me. The dog was struck by a rock and lay licking its wounded back.

  A tall shepherd mounted the woman while she writhed below him, howling at his every move. The man struck open-handed blows at her breasts, leaned over and bit her nipples and kneaded her belly. When he finished and rose, another man took his place. Stupid Ludmila moaned and shuddered, drawing the man to her with her arms and legs. The other men crouched nearby, looking on, snickering and jesting.

  From behind the cemetery appeared a mob of village women with rakes and shovels. It was led by several younger women who shouted and waved their hands. The shepherds hitched up their pants but did not flee; instead, they held on to the desperately struggling Ludmila. The dog strained at the leash and snarled, but the thick rope did not loosen. The women came closer. I sat down at a safe distance near the cemetery wall. Only then I noticed Lekh running across the pastures.

  He must have returned to the village and learned what was going to happen. The women were quite close now. Before Stupid Ludmila had time to get up, the last of the men fled to the cemetery wall. The women now grabbed her. Lekh was still far away. Exhausted, he had to slow down. His pace was shambling and he stumbled several times.

  The women held Stupid Ludmila down flat against the grass. They sat on her hands and legs and began beating her with the rakes, ripping her skin with their fingernails, tearing out her hair, spitting into her face. Lekh tried to push through, but they barred his way. He tried to fight, but they knocked him down and hit him brutally. He ceased to struggle and several women turned him over on his back and straddled him. Then the women killed Ludmila’s dog with vicious shovel blows. The peasants were sitting on the wall. When they moved closer toward me I edged away, ready at any moment to flee into the cemetery, where I would be safe among the graves. They feared the spirits and ghouls which were said to reside there.

  Stupid Ludmila lay bleeding. Blue bruises appeared on her tormented body. She groaned loudly, arched her back, trembled, vainly trying to free herself. One of the women now approached, holding a corked bottle of brownish-black manure. To the accompaniment of raucous laughter and loud encouragements from the others, she kneeled between Ludmila’s legs and rammed the entire bottle inside her abused, assaulted slit, while she began to moan and howl like a beast. The other women looked on calmly. Suddenly with all her strength one of them kicked the bottom of the bottle sticking out of Stupid Ludmila’s groin. There was the muffled noise of glass shattering inside. Now all the women began to kick Ludmila; the blood spurted round their boots and calves. When the last woman had finished kicking, Ludmila was dead.

  Their fury spent, the women went to the village chattering loudly. Lekh rose, his face bleeding. He swayed on his weak legs and spat out several teeth. Sobbing, he threw himself on the dead woman. He touched her mutilated body, crossing himself, babbling through his swollen lips.

  I sat, huddled and chilled, on the cemetery wall, not daring to move. The sky grayed and darkened. The dead were whispering about the wandering soul of Stupid Ludmila, who was now asking mercy for all her sins. The moon came up. Its cold, pale, drained light illuminated only the dark shape of the kneeling man and the fair hair of the dead woman lying on the ground.

  I slept and woke by turns. The wind raged over the graves, hanging wet leaves on the arms of the crosses. The spirits moaned, and the dogs could be heard howling in the village.

  When I awoke, Lekh was still kneeling by Ludmila’s body, his hunched back shaken by sobs. I spoke to him, but he paid no attention. I was too frightened to go back to the hut. I resolved to leave. Above us wheeled a flock of birds, chirping and calling from all directions.

  6

  The carpenter and his wife were convinced that my black hair would attract lightning to their farm. It was true that on hot dry nights when the carpenter touched my hair with a flint or a bone comb bluish-yellow sparks jumped over my head like “the Devil’s lice.” In the village rapturous storms came often and abruptly, causing fires and killing people and cattle. The lightning was always described as a great fiery bolt hurled from the heavens. Therefore the villagers made no attempt to put out such fires, believing that no human power could extinguish them, just as a person struck by lightning could not be saved. It was said that when lightning strikes a house it hurtles deep into the earth, where it crouches patiently, growing in power, and every seven years attracts a new lightning bolt to the same spot. Even objects saved from a burning house that had been struck by lightning were similarly possessed and could attract new lightning.

  Often at dusk when the meager flames of candles and kerosene lamps began to flicker in the huts, the
skies would become veiled by heavy sagging clouds that sailed obliquely over the thatched roofs. The villagers would grow silent, fearfully looking out from behind the windows, listening to the growing rumble. Old women squatting on cracked tiled ovens ceased their prayers and deliberated as to who would be rewarded this time by the Almighty or who would be punished by ubiquitous Satan, on whom fire and destruction, death or a crippling malady would fall. The groans of creaking doors, the sighing of trees bent by the storm, and the whistle of the wind would sound to the villagers like the curses of long-dead sinners, tormented by the uncertainty of limbo or slowly roasting in the never-ending fires of hell.

  At such moments the carpenter jerkily threw a thick jacket over his shoulders and, while he crossed himself many times, looped an ingenious padlocked chain around my ankle, fastening the other end of the chain to a heavy worn harness. Then in a roaring gale, amidst flashing thunderbolts, he placed me on a cart and, beating his ox frantically, drove me outside the village to a distant field and left me there. I was far from trees and human habitation, and the carpenter knew that the chain and harness would prevent me from returning to the hut.

  I remained alone, afraid, listening to the noise of the receding cart. Lightning flashed close by, suddenly revealing the contours of the faraway huts, which then vanished as though they had never existed.

  For a time a marvelous lull would prevail and the life of the plants and animals would be at a standstill. Yet I could hear the moans of the desolated fields and tree trunks, and the grunt of the meadows. Around me the forest werewolves would slowly creep forth. Translucent demons would come flying on their beating wings from steaming swamps, and stray graveyard ghouls would collide in the air with a clatter of bones. I felt their dry touch on my skin, the shuddering brushes and the icy breezes of their frozen wings. Terrified, I ceased to think. I threw myself on the earth, into the spreading puddles, dragging the rain-soaked harness by its chain. Above me, God Himself stretched, suspended in space, timing the horrendous spectacle with His perpetual clock. Between Him and me the murky night deepened.

 
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