The painted bird, p.8
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       The Painted Bird, p.8

           Jerzy Kosiński
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  By now the dark could be touched, grasped like a clot of coagulated blood, smeared over my face and body. I drank it in, gulped it, smothered in it. It outlined new roads around me and transformed the flat field into a bottomless chasm. It erected impassable mountains, leveled hills, filled up the rivers and valleys. In its embrace perished villages, forests, road shrines, human bodies. Far beyond the boundaries of the known the Devil was sitting and hurling sulphur-yellow lightning, loosing reverberating thunderbolts from behind the clouds. Every bolt of thunder shook the earth to its base and caused the clouds to sink lower and lower, until the wall of downpour changed everything into one watery swamp.

  Hours later at dawn, when the bone-white moon had given way to the bleak sun, the carpenter would drive to the fields and take me back to the hut.

  One stormy afternoon the carpenter fell ill. His wife fluttered around him preparing bitter juices and could not bother to drive me outside the village. When the first thunderbolts resounded, I hid myself in the barn under the hay.

  In an instant the barn was jarred by an uncanny peal of thunder. A short while later a wall burst into fire, the tall flame glowing through the resin-soaked planks. Fanned by the wind, the fire raged loudly, the tips of its long wings extending to the hut and cow barn.

  I darted into the courtyard in complete confusion. In the surrounding huts people tossed in the darkness. The village was astir; shouting could be heard in every direction. A dazed clustering throng, carrying axes and rakes, ran toward the carpenter’s burning barn. The dogs howled, and the women with babies in their arms struggled to keep their skirts down which the wind was lifting up shamelessly over their faces. Every living creature had rushed outside. Their tails raised, furious, bellowing cows, jabbed by ax handles and shovel blades, were running, while calves on lean, quivering legs tried in vain to cling to the udders of their mothers. Trampling down the fences, breaking off the barn doors, colliding in a stupor with invisible walls of houses, the oxen lunged with their heavy heads hung low. Frenzied hens spattered into the air.

  After a moment I ran away. I believed that my hair had attracted the lightning to the barn and huts and that the mob would surely kill me if it saw me.

  Fighting with the squalling gale, stumbling over stones, falling into trenches and waterlogged pits, I reached the forest. By the time I had run as far as the railroad track in the forest, the storm had passed and was superseded by a night full of the loud sounds of splashing raindrops. In a thicket nearby I found a protected hole. Crouching in it, I listened to the confessions of the mosses and waited there the night through.

  A train was due to pass here at dawn. The track served mainly to transport timber from one station to another, a dozen miles apart. The cars carrying the logs were pulled by a small, slow locomotive.

  When the train approached I ran for a while alongside the end car, jumped a low-slung step, and was carried away into the safe interior of the forest. After some time I noticed a flat part of the embankment and jumped down, plunging into the thick undergrowth, unnoticed by the guard on the locomotive.

  As I walked through the forest, I discovered a cobblestone road overgrown with weeds, and evidently long abandoned. At its end stood a deserted military bunker with massive reinforced-concrete walls.

  There was utter silence. I hid behind a tree and threw a stone at the closed door. It rebounded. The echo came back quickly, and then there was silence again. I walked around the bunker, stepping over broken ammunition crates, scraps of metal, and empty tin cans. I climbed to an upper terrace of the mound, and then to the very top, where I found bent cans and, somewhat farther off, a wide opening. When I leaned over the opening I smelled a foul odor of decay and dampness; from within I heard some muffled squeaking. I picked up an old helmet and dropped it through the opening. The squeaks multiplied. I began quickly to throw clods of earth into the hole, followed by pieces of metal hoops from the crates and lumps of concrete. The squeaks grew louder; there were animals living and floundering inside.

  I found a piece of smooth sheet metal and reflected a beam of sunlight into the interior. I saw clearly now: several feet below the opening there surged, billowing and receding, a black churning sea of rats. This surface twitched in an uneven rhythm, glittering with countless eyes. The light revealed wet backs and hairless tails. Time and again, like the spray of a wave, dozens of long scrawny rats assaulted with spasmodic leaps the smooth inner wall of the bunker, only to fall back onto the spines of others.

  I gazed at this rippling mass and saw how the rats were murdering and eating one another, pouncing on one another, furiously biting out chunks of flesh and shreds of skin. The spurts of blood enticed more rats to fight. Each rat tried to scramble out of this living mass, competing for a place at the top, for yet another attempt to climb the wall, for yet another torn piece of rump.

  I quickly covered the opening with a tin panel and hastened on my journey through the forest. On the way I ate my fill of berries. I hoped to reach a village before dusk.

  In the late afternoon, as the sun was setting, I saw the first farm buildings. When I approached, some dogs leapt out from behind a fence and rushed at me. I crouched before the fence, waving my hands vigorously, hopping like a frog, howling, and throwing stones. The dogs halted astonished, uncertain of who I was and how to act. A human being had suddenly acquired dimensions unknown to them. While they stared at me, dumfounded, their snouts bent sideways, I jumped over the fence.

  Their barking and my shrieks brought out the owner of the hut. When I saw him I immediately realized that by an unhappy quirk of fortune I had returned to the same village from which I had fled the night before. The peasant’s face was familiar, too familiar: I had seen him often at the carpenter’s hut.

  He recognized me at once and shouted something to a farmhand, who rushed in the direction of the carpenter’s hut, while another farmhand kept watch over me, restraining the dogs at their leashes. The carpenter came, followed by his wife.

  The first blow pitched me off the fence directly at his feet. He raised me and held me so I would not fall and slapped me again and again. Then, holding me like a cat by the neck, he dragged me to his farm, toward the charred smell of the smoldering ruins of the barn. Once there he threw me down on a pile of manure. He delivered one more blow to my head and I fainted.

  When I came to, the carpenter was standing nearby preparing a sizable sack. I remembered that he used to drown sick cats in sacks like this. I flung myself at his feet, but the peasant kicked me away without a word and calmly continued preparing the sack.

  Suddenly I recalled that the carpenter had once told his wife about partisans who hid their war trophies and supplies in old bunkers. I crawled toward him again, this time swearing that if he would not drown me, I would show him a pillbox full of old boots, uniforms, and military belts, which I had discovered during my escape.

  The carpenter was intrigued, though he feigned disbelief. He squatted at my side, gripping me hard. I repeated my offer, trying as dispassionately as I could to assure him of the great value of the objects.

  At dawn he harnessed an ox to his cart, tied me by a string to his hand, took along a large ax, and, saying nothing to his wife or neighbors, set off with me.

  On the way I racked my brains for a way to tear myself loose; the string was strong. After we had arrived, the carpenter halted the cart and we walked toward the bunker. We climbed onto the hot roof; for a while I acted as if I had forgotten the direction of the opening. Finally we reached it. The carpenter avidly pushed aside the tin panel. The stench hit our nostrils, and from the interior the rats squeaked, blinded by the light. The peasant leaned over the opening, but he could not see for the moment because his eyes were not accustomed to the darkness.

  I slowly moved to the opposite side of the opening, which now separated the carpenter from me, pulling taut the string by which I was tied. I knew that unless I succeeded in escaping in the next few seconds, the peasant would kill me and throw
me into the depths.

  Horror-stricken, I tugged suddenly at the string, so hard that it cut my wrist to the bone. My abrupt leap pulled the carpenter forward. He tried to rise, yelled, waved his hand, and dropped into the maw of the pillbox with a dull thud. I pressed my feet against the uneven concrete flange over which the slab had rested. The string grew tauter, scraped against the rough edge of the opening, and then snapped. At the same time I heard from below the scream and the broken, babbling cry of a man. A fine shudder shook the concrete walls of the bunker. I crept, terrified, toward the opening, directing into the interior a beam of daylight reflected from a piece of tin sheet.

  The massive body of the carpenter was only partly visible. His face and half of his arms were lost under the surface of the sea of rats, and wave after wave of rats was scrambling over his belly and legs. The man completely disappeared, and the sea of rats churned even more violently. The moving rumps of the rats became stained with brownish red blood. The animals now fought for access to the body—panting, twitching their tails, their teeth gleaming under their half-open snouts, their eyes reflecting the daylight as if they were the beads of a rosary.

  I observed this spectacle as if paralyzed, unable to tear myself away from the edge of the opening, lacking sufficient will power to cover it with the tin panel. Suddenly the shifting sea of rats parted and slowly, unhurrying, with the stroke of a swimmer, a bony hand with bony spreadeagled fingers rose, followed by the man’s entire arm. For a moment it stood immobile above the rats scuttling about below; but suddenly the momentum of the surging animals thrust to the surface the entire bluish-white skeleton of the carpenter, partly defleshed and partly covered with shreds of reddish skin and gray clothing. In between the ribs, under the armpits, and in the place where the belly was, gaunt rodents fiercely struggled for the remaining scraps of dangling muscle and intestine. Mad with greed, they tore from one another scraps of clothing, skin, and formless chunks of the trunk. They dived into the center of the man’s body only to jump out through another chewed hole. The corpse sank under renewed thrusts. When it next came to the surface of the bloody writhing sludge, it was a completely bare skeleton.

  Frantically I grabbed the carpenter’s ax and fled. I reached the cart breathlessly; the unsuspecting ox was grazing calmly. I leapt onto the box seat and pulled the reins, but the animal did not want to move without its master. Looking behind, convinced that at any moment the swarm of rats would rush out in pursuit, I jabbed the ox with the whip. It turned around in disbelief, hesitated, but the next few blows convinced it that we would not wait for the carpenter.

  The cart jerked furiously over the ruts of the long untraveled road; the wheels tore the bushes and crushed the weeds growing across the trail. I was unfamiliar with the road and was only trying to get as far away as possible from the bunker and the carpenter’s village. I drove at a frenzied pace through the forests and clearings, avoiding roads with any fresh traces of peasant vehicles. When night fell I camouflaged the cart in the bushes and went to sleep on the box seat.

  The next two days I spent traveling, once just missing a military outpost at a sawmill. The ox grew lean and its flanks narrowed. But I rushed on and on, until I was certain I was far enough away.

  We were approaching a small village; I rode into it calmly and halted at the first hut I came to, where a peasant crossed himself immediately on beholding me. I offered him the cart and ox, in return for shelter and food. He scratched his head, consulted his wife and neighbors, and finally agreed, after looking suspiciously at the ox’s teeth—and at mine.

  7

  The village lay far from the railroad line and river. Three times a year detachments of German soldiers would arrive to collect the foodstuffs and materials which the peasants were obliged to provide for the army.

  I was being kept by a blacksmith who was also the head peasant of the village. He was well respected and esteemed by the villagers. For this reason I was better treated here. However, now and then when they had been drinking the peasants would say that I could only bring misfortune to the community and that the Germans, if they found out about the Gypsy brat, would punish the entire village. But no one dared to say such things directly to the blacksmith’s face, and in general I was not bothered. True, the blacksmith liked to slap my face when he was tipsy and I got in his way, but there were no other consequences. The two hired hands preferred to thrash each other rather than me, and the blacksmith’s son, who was known in the village for his amorous feats, was almost never on the farm.

  Early each morning the blacksmith’s wife would give me a glass of hot borscht and a piece of stale bread, which, when soaked in the borscht, gained flavor as rapidly as the borscht lost it. Afterwards I would light the fire in my comet and drive the cattle toward the pasture ahead of the other cowherds.

  In the evening the blacksmith’s wife said her prayers, he snored against the oven, the hired hands tended the cattle, and the blacksmith’s son prowled the village. The blacksmith’s wife would give me her husband’s jacket to delouse. I would sit in the brightest spot in the room, folding the jacket at various places along the seams and hunting the white, lazily moving blood-filled insects. I would pick them out, put them on the table, and crush them with my fingernail. When the lice were exceptionally numerous the blacksmith’s wife would join me at the table and roll a bottle over the lice as soon as I put several of them down. The lice would burst with a crunching sound, their flattened corpses lying in small pools of dark blood. Those that fell onto the dirt floor scurried away in every direction. It was almost impossible to squash them underfoot.

  The blacksmith’s wife did not let me kill all the lice and bedbugs. Whenever we found a particularly large and vigorous louse, she would carefully catch it and throw it into a cup set aside for this purpose. Usually, when the number of such lice reached a dozen, the wife would take them out and knead them into a dough. To this she added a little human and horse urine, a large amount of manure, a dead spider, and a pinch of cat excrement. This preparation was considered to be the best medicine for a bellyache. When the blacksmith suffered his periodic bellyache, he had to eat several balls of this mixture. This led to vomiting and, as his wife assured him, to the total conquest of the disease, which promptly fled his body. Exhausted by vomiting and trembling like a reed, the blacksmith would lie on the mat at the foot of the oven and pant like a bellows. He would then be given tepid water and honey, which calmed him. But when the pain and fever did not die down, his wife prepared more medicines. She would pulverize horses’ bones to fine flour, add a cup of mixed bedbugs and field ants, which would start fighting with each other, mix it all with several hen’s eggs, and add a dash of kerosene. The patient had to gulp it all down in one big swallow and was then rewarded with a glass of vodka and a piece of sausage.

  From time to time the blacksmith was visited by mysterious mounted guests, who carried rifles and revolvers. They would search the house and then sit down at a table with the blacksmith. In the kitchen the blacksmith’s wife and I would prepare bottles of home-brewed vodka, strings of spiced hunter’s sausages, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, and sides of roast pork.

  The armed men were partisans. They came to the village very often, without warning. What is more, they fought each other. The blacksmith explained to his wife that the partisans had become divided into factions: the “whites,” who wanted to fight both the Germans and the Russians, and the “reds,” who wanted to help the Red Army.

  Varied rumors circulated in the village. The “whites” wanted also to retain the private ownership of property, leaving the landlords as they were. The “reds,” supported by the Soviets, fought for land reform. Each faction demanded increasing assistance from the villages.

  The “white” partisans, cooperating with the landlords, took revenge on all who were suspected of helping the “reds.” The “reds” favored the poor and penalized the villages for any help they gave to the “whites.” They persecuted the families of the rich pea
sants.

  The village was also searched by German troops, who interrogated the peasants about the partisan visits and shot one or two peasants to set an example. In such cases the blacksmith would hide me in the potato cellar while he himself tried to soften the German commanders, promising them punctual deliveries of foodstuffs and extra grain.

  Sometimes the partisan factions would attack and kill each other while visiting the village. The village would then become a battlefield; machine guns roared, grenades burst, huts flamed, abandoned cattle and horses bellowed, and half-naked children howled. The peasants hid in cellars embracing their praying women. Half-blind, deaf, toothless old women, babbling prayers and crossing themselves with arthritic hands, walked directly into machine-gun fire, cursing the combatants and appealing to heaven for revenge.

  After the battle the village would slowly return to life. But there would be fights among the peasants and boys for the weapons, uniforms, and boots abandoned by the partisans, and also arguments about where to bury the dead and who should dig the graves. Days would pass in argument as the corpses decomposed, sniffed by dogs in the daytime and chewed by rats at night.

  I was awakened one night by the blacksmith’s wife who urged me to flee. I barely had time to leap out of bed before male voices and rattling weapons could be heard surrounding the hut. I hid in the attic with a sack thrown over my body, clinging to a crack in the planks, through which I could see a large part of the farmyard.

  A firm male voice ordered the blacksmith to come out. Two armed partisans dragged the half-naked blacksmith into the yard, where he stood, shivering from cold and hitching up his falling trousers. In a tall cap with star-spangled epaulets on his shoulders, the leader of the band approached the blacksmith and asked him something. I caught a fragment of a sentence: “... you helped enemies of the Fatherland.”

 
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