The painted bird, p.9
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       The Painted Bird, p.9

           Jerzy Kosiński
 
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  The blacksmith threw up his hands, swearing in the name of the Son and the Holy Trinity. The first blow felled him. He continued his denials, rising slowly to his feet. One of the men tore out a pole from the fence, swung it through the air and clouted the blacksmith in the face. The blacksmith fell, and the partisans began to kick him all over with their heavy boots. The blacksmith groaned, writhing with pain, but the men did not stop. They leaned over him twisting his ears, stepping on his genitals, breaking his fingers with their heels.

  When he ceased to groan and his body sagged, the partisans hauled out the two hired hands, the blacksmith’s wife, and his struggling son. They opened wide the doors of the barn and threw the woman and the men across the shaft of a cart in such a way that, with the shaft under their bellies, they hung over it like upset sacks of grain. Then the partisans tore the clothing off their victims and tied their hands to their feet. They rolled up their sleeves and, with steel canes cut from track signal wire, began to beat the squirming bodies.

  The crack of the blows rebounded loudly off the taut buttocks while the victims twisted, shrinking and swelling, and howled like a pack of abused dogs. I quivered and sweated with fear.

  The blows rained one after another. Only the blacksmith’s wife continued to wail, while the partisans exchanged witticisms over her lean, crooked thighs. Since the woman did not stop moaning, they overturned her, face to the sky, her whitening breasts hanging down at both sides. The men struck her heatedly, the rising crescendo of blows slashing the woman’s body and belly, now darkened by streams of blood. The bodies on the shaft drooped. The torturers put on their jackets and entered the hut, demolishing the furniture and plundering all in sight.

  They entered the attic and found me. They held me up by the neck, turning me around, punching me with their fists, pulling me by the hair. They had immediately assumed I was a Gypsy foundling. They loudly deliberated what to do with me. Then one of them decided I should be delivered up to the German outpost about a dozen miles from the hut. According to him, this would make the commander of the outpost less suspicious of the village, which was already tardy in its compulsory deliveries. Another man agreed, adding rapidly that the whole village might be burned down because of a single Gypsy bastard.

  My hands and feet were tied and I was carried outside. The partisans summoned two peasants, to whom they carefully explained something while pointing at me. The peasants listened obediently, with obsequious nods. I was placed on a cart and lashed to a crosstie. The peasants climbed onto the box seat and drove off with me.

  The partisans escorted the cart for several miles, swaying freely in their saddles, sharing food from the blacksmith. When we entered the denser part of the forest, they again spoke to the peasants, struck their horses, and vanished in the thicket.

  Tired by the sun and by my uncomfortable position, I dozed off into half-sleep. I dreamed I was a squirrel, crouching in a dark tree hole and watching with irony the world below. I suddenly became a grasshopper with long, springy legs, on which I sailed across great tracts of land. Now and then, as if through a fog, I heard the voices of the drivers, the neighing of the horse, and the squeaking of the wheels.

  We reached the railroad station at noon and were immediately surrounded by German soldiers in faded uniforms and battered boots. The peasants bowed to them and handed them a note written by the partisans. While a guard went off to call an officer, several soldiers approached the cart and stared at me, exchanging remarks. One of them, a rather elderly man, clearly fatigued by the heat, was wearing spectacles fogged by sweat. He leaned against the cart and watched me closely, with dispassionate, watery-blue eyes. I smiled at him but he did not respond. I looked straight into his eyes and wondered if this would cast an evil spell on him. I thought he might fall sick but, feeling sorry for him, I dropped my gaze.

  A young officer emerged from the station building and approached the cart. The soldiers quickly straightened their uniforms and stood at attention. The peasants, not quite sure what to do, tried to imitate the soldiers and also drew themselves up servilely.

  The officer tersely said something to one of the soldiers, who came forward from the file, approached me, patted my hair roughly with his hand, looked into my eyes while pulling back my lids, and inspected the scars on my knees and calves. He then made his report to the officer. The officer turned to the elderly bespectacled soldier, issued an order and left.

  The soldiers moved away. From the station building a gay tune could be heard. On the tall watchtower with its machine-gun post the guards were adjusting their helmets.

  The bespectacled soldier approached me, wordlessly untied the rope with which I had been tied to the cart, looped one end of the rope around his wrist, and with a movement of his hand ordered me to follow him. I glanced back at the two peasants; they were already on the cart, whipping the horse.

  We passed the station building. On the way the soldier stopped at a warehouse, where he was handed a small can of gasoline. Then we walked along on the railroad track toward the looming forest.

  I was certain that the soldier had orders to shoot me, pour the gasoline over my body and burn it. I had seen this happen many times. I remembered how the partisans had shot a peasant who was accused of being an informer. In that case the victim was ordered to dig a ditch into which his dead body later dropped. I remembered the Germans shooting a wounded partisan who was fleeing into the forest, and the tall flame rising later over his dead body.

  I dreaded pain. The shooting would certainly be very painful, and the burning with gasoline even more so. But I could do nothing. The soldier carried a rifle, and the rope tied to my leg was looped over his wrist.

  I was barefoot and the crossties, hot from the sun, scorched my feet. I hopped about on the sharp particles of gravel lying between the crossties. I tried several times to walk on the rail, but the rope tied to my leg somehow prevented me from keeping my balance. It was difficult to adjust my small steps to the large, measured stride of the soldier.

  He watched me and smiled faintly at my attempt at acrobatics on the rail. The smile was too brief to signify anything; he was going to kill me.

  We had already left the station area and now passed the last switchpoint. It was darkening. We drew nearer to the forest and the sun was setting behind the treetops. The soldier halted, put down the gasoline can, and transferred the rifle to his left arm. He sat down on the edge of the track and, heaving a deep sigh, stretched his legs down the embankment. He calmly took off his spectacles, wiped the sweat from his thick brows with his sleeve, and unclipped the small shovel hanging from his belt. He took out a cigarette from his breast pocket and lit it, carefully extinguishing the match.

  Silently he watched my attempt to loosen the rope, which was rubbing the skin off my leg. Then he took a small jackknife out of his trouser pocket, opened it, and moving closer held my leg with one hand, and with the other carefully cut the rope. He rolled it up and flung it over the embankment with a sweeping gesture.

  I smiled in an attempt to express my gratitude, but he did not smile back. We now sat, he drawing at his cigarette and I observing the bluish smoke drifting upward in loops.

  I began to think of the many ways there were of dying. Until now, only two ways had impressed me.

  I recalled well the time, in the first days of the war, when a bomb hit a house across the street from my parents’ home. Our windows were blown out. We were assaulted by falling walls, the tremor of the shaken earth, the screams of unknown dying people. I saw the brown surfaces of doors, ceilings, walls with the pictures still clinging desperately to them, all falling into the void. Like an avalanche rushing to the street came majestic grand pianos opening and closing their lids in flight, obese, clumsy armchairs, skittering stools and hassocks. They were chased by chandeliers that were falling apart with shrill cries, by polished kitchen pots, kettles, and sparkling aluminum chamber pots. Pages torn out of gutted books fell down, flapping like flocks of scared birds. Bathtu
bs tore themselves away slowly and deliberately from their pipes, entwining themselves magically in the knots and scrolls of banisters and railings and rain gutters.

  As the dust settled, the split house timidly bared its entrails. Limp human bodies lay tossed over the jagged edges of the broken floors and ceilings like rags covering the break. They were just beginning to soak in the red dye. Tiny particles of torn paper, plaster, and paint clung to the sticky red rags like hungry flies. Everything around was still in motion; only the bodies seemed at peace.

  Then came the groans and screams of people pinned down by the falling beams, impaled on rods and pipes, partially torn and crushed under chunks of walls. Only one old woman came up from the dark pit. She clutched desperately at bricks and when her toothless mouth opened to speak she was suddenly unable to utter a sound. She was half naked and withered breasts hung from her bony chest. When she reached the end of the crater at the pile of rubble between the pit and the road, she stood up straight for a moment on the ridge. Then she toppled over backwards and disappeared behind the debris.

  One could die less spectacularly at the hands of another man. Not long ago, when I lived at Lekh’s, two peasants began to fight at a reception. In the middle of the hut they rushed at each other, clutched at each other’s throat, and fell on the dirt floor. They bit with their teeth like enraged dogs, tearing off pieces of clothing and flesh. Their horny hands and knees and shoulders and feet seemed to have a life of their own. They jumped about clutching, striking, scratching, twisting in a wild dance. Bare knuckles hit skulls like hammers and bones cracked under stress.

  Then the guests, watching calmly in a circle, heard a crushing noise and a hoarse rattle. One of the men stayed on top longer. The other gasped and seemed to be weakening, but still lifted his head and spat in the victor’s face. The man on top did not forgive this. He triumphantly blew himself up like a bullfrog and took a wide swing, smashing the other’s head in with terrible force. The head did not struggle to rise any more, but seemed to dissolve into a growing pool of blood. The man was dead.

  I felt now like the mangy dog that the partisans had killed. They had first stroked his head and scratched him behind the ears. The dog, overwhelmed with joy, yapped with love and gratitude. Then they tossed him a bone. He ran after it, wagging his scruffy tail, scaring the butterflies and trampling flowers. When he seized the bone and proudly lifted it, they shot him.

  The soldier hitched up his belt. His movement caught my attention and I stopped thinking for a moment.

  Then I tried to calculate the distance to the forest and the time it would take him to pick up his rifle and shoot if I should suddenly escape. The forest was too far; I would die midway on the sandy ridge. At best I might reach the patch of weeds, in which I would still be visible and unable to run fast.

  The soldier rose and stretched with a groan. Silence surrounded us. The soft wind blew away the smell of the gasoline and brought back a fragrance of marjoram and fir resin.

  He could, of course, shoot me from the back, I thought. People preferred killing a person without looking into his eyes.

  The soldier turned toward me and pointing to the forest made a gesture with his hand which seemed to say, “run away, be off!” So the end was coming. I pretended I did not understand and edged toward him. He moved back violently, as if fearing that I might touch him, and angrily pointed to the forest, shielding his eyes with his other hand.

  I thought that this was a clever way of tricking me; he was pretending not to look. I stood rooted to the spot. He glanced at me impatiently and said something in his rough tongue. I smiled fawningly at him, but this only exasperated him more. Again he thrust his arm toward the forest. Again I did not move. Then he lay down between the rails, across his rifle, from which he had removed the bolt.

  I calculated the distance once more; it seemed to me that this time the risk was small. As I began to move away, the soldier smiled affably. When I reached the edge of the embankment, I glanced back; he was still lying motionless, dozing in the warm sun.

  I hastily waved and then leapt like a hare down the embankment straight into the undergrowth of the cool, shady forest. I tore my skin against the ferns as I fled farther and farther until I finally lost my breath and fell down in the moist, soothing moss.

  While I lay listening to the sounds of the forest, I heard two shots from the direction of the railroad track. Apparently the soldier was simulating my execution.

  Birds awakened and began rustling in the foliage. Right next to me a small lizard leapt out of a root and stared attentively at me. I could have squashed it with a whack of my hand, but I was too tired.

  8

  After an early autumn destroyed some of the crops, a severe winter set in. First it snowed for many days. The people knew their weather and hastily stored food for themselves and their livestock, plugged any holes in their houses or barns with straw, and secured the chimneys and thatched roofs against the harsh winds. Then the frost came, freezing everything solid under the snow.

  No one wanted to keep me. Food was scarce and every mouth was a burden to feed. Besides, there was no work for me to do. One could not even clear manure out of barns which were banked up to the eaves by snow. People shared their shelter with hens, calves, rabbits, pigs, goats, and horses, men and animals warming each other with the heat of their bodies. But there was no room for me.

  Winter did not loosen its grip. The heavy sky, filled with leaden clouds, seemed to weigh down on the thatched roofs. Sometimes a cloud darker than the others raced over like a balloon, trailing behind it a mournful shadow that stalked it as evil spirits stalk a sinner. People breathed peepholes onto the ice-frosted windows. When they saw the sinister shadow sweep over the village, they made the sign of the cross and mumbled prayers. It was obvious that the Devil was riding over the countryside on the dark cloud, and as long as he was there one could expect only the worst.

  Wrapped in old rags, scraps of rabbit fur and horsehides, I wandered from one village to another, warmed only by the heat of the comet that I made from a can I found on the railway track. I carried on my back a sack full of fuel, which I anxiously replenished at every opportunity. As soon as my sack grew lighter, I would go to the forest, break off branches, tear off some bark, and dig up peat and moss. When the sack was full I continued on my way with a feeling of contentment and security, twirling my comet and delighting in its warmth.

  Food was not difficult to find. The endless snowing kept people in their huts. I could safely dig my way into the snowbound barns to find the best potatoes and beetroots, which I later baked in my comet. Even when someone spied me, a shapeless bundle of rags moving sluggishly through the snow, they mistook me for a wraith and only sent the dogs after me. The dogs were reluctant to leave their lairs in the warm huts and waded slowly through the deep snow. When they finally reached me I could easily scare them away with my hot comet. Cold and tired, they returned to the huts.

  I wore big wooden shoes bound with long strips of cloth. The width of the footwear, coupled with my light weight, enabled me to move over snow quite well without sinking to my waist. Wrapped up to the eyes, I roamed the countryside freely, meeting no one but ravens.

  I slept in the forest, burrowing into a hollow beneath tree roots, with a snowdrift for a roof. I loaded the comet with damp peat and rotten leaves that warmed my dugout with fragrant smoke. The fire lasted through the night.

  Finally, after a few weeks of milder winds the snow began to thaw and the peasants began to go outside. I had no choice. Well-rested dogs now roamed about the farmhouses, and I could steal food no more and had to be on my guard every minute. I had to look for some remote village, safely distant from the German outposts.

  During my wanderings through the forest, splotches of wet snow often fell on me, threatening to choke my comet. On the second day I was halted by a cry. I crouched behind a bush, afraid to move, listening intently to the rustling trees. I heard the cry again. Above crows flapped their w
ings, scared by something. Moving stealthily from the cover of one tree to another, I approached the source of the sound. On a narrow, soggy road I saw an overturned cart and horse, but no sign of a person.

  When the horse saw me it pricked its ears and tossed its head. I came closer. The animal was so thin that I could see its every bone. Every strand of emaciated muscle hung like wet rope. It looked at me with dim bloodshot eyes that seemed about to close. It moved its head feebly, and a froglike croak rose up in its thin neck.

  One of the horse’s legs was broken above the fetlock. A sharp splinter of broken bone protruded, and every time the animal moved its leg the bone cut farther through the skin.

  Ravens circled over the stricken beast, hovering upwind and downwind, persistently keeping their watch. Now and then one of them would perch in the trees and send lumps of wet, thawed snow cascading to the ground with the thud of potato pancakes flapped into a pan. At every sound the horse wearily lifted its head, opened its eyes, and looked about.

  Seeing me walk around the cart, the horse switched its tail invitingly. I approached him and he put his heavy head on my shoulder, rubbing against my cheek. As I stroked his dry nostrils, he moved his muzzle, nudging me closer.

  I bent down to examine his leg. The horse turned his head toward me, as if awaiting my verdict. I encouraged him to take a step or two. He tried, groaning and stumbling, but it was useless. He lowered his head, ashamed and resigned. I grasped his neck, feeling it still pulse with life. I tried to persuade him to follow me; staying in the forest could only mean his death. I spoke to him about the warm stable, the smell of hay, and I assured him that a man could set his bone and heal it with herbs.

  I told him about the lush meadows still under snow, only awaiting spring. I admitted that if I succeeded in bringing him back to the local village and returning him to his owner, my relations with the local people might improve. I might even be able to stay on the farm. He listened, squinting at me from time to time to make sure that I was telling the truth.

 
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