from jerzy kosinski’s steps

 

 

Work was scarce during the war; I was too thin to work in the fields, and the peasants preferred to use their own children or relatives on the farms. As a vagrant, I was everybody’s victim. To amuse himself the former with whom I was finally boarded would take hold of me by my collar, drag me up close and then strike me. Sometimes he would call his brother or his friends to share in a game in which I had to stand still—staring ahead with open eyes—while they stood a few paces in front of me and spat at my face, betting on how often they could hit me in the eye.

This spitting game became very popular in the village. I was a target for everyone—little boys and girls, farmers and their wives, sober men and drunkards.

One day I attended the funeral of a child who had died of mushroom poisoning, the son of one of the richest farmers in the village. Everybody who came to the funeral was dressed in his Sunday best, looking meek and humble.

I watched the mourning father as he stood at the open grave. His face was yellow as the newly turned earth, his eyes red and swollen. He leaned on his wife, his legs unsteady, barely able to bear his weight. When the coffin was brought to the graveside he threw himself on the polished lid, babbling and kissing it as though it were his child. His cries and those of his wife broke the silence, like a chorus on an empty stage.

It became clear to me that the peasants’ love for their children was just as uncontrollable as an outbreak of fever among the cattle. Often I saw a mother touching her child’s soft hair, a father’s hands flinging the child into the air and catching it safely again. Frequently I watched the small children wobbling on their plump legs, stumbling, falling, getting up again, as though borne up by the same force that steadies sunflowers buffeted by the wind.

Then one day I saw a sheep writhing convulsively in a slow death, its desperate bleating bringing terror to the entire flock. The peasants claimed that the animal must have swallowed a fishhook or a shard of glass in its feed.

Months passed. One morning a cow from the herd in my charge strayed onto a neighbor’s property, damaging the crops. This was reported to my master. Upon my return from the fields, the farmer was waiting for me. He pushed me into the barn and whipped me until the blood oozed from my legs. Bellowing with rage he finally hurled the leather thong into my face.

I began to collect discarded fishhooks and bury them behind the barn. After the farmer and his wife left for church I slipped into my hiding place and kneaded a couple of fishhooks and crushed glass into balls of fresh bread which I had torn out of the day’s newly baked loaves.

I liked to play with the youngest of the farmer’s three children. We often met in the farmyard, and she would laugh uproariously while I imitated a frog or a stork.

One evening the little girl hugged me. I dampened a ball of bread with my saliva and asked her to swallow it in one piece. When she hesitated, I took a piece of apple, put it into the back of my mouth, and pushing it with my forefinger, instantly swallowed it The girl imitated me, swallowing the balls, one after another. I looked away from her face, forcing myself to think only of the burning of her father’s whip.

From then on I gazed boldly into my persecutors’ eyes, provoking their assault and maltreatment. I felt no pain. For each lash I received my tormentors were condemned to pain a hundred times greater than mine. Now I was no longer their victim; I had become their judge and executioner.

There were no doctors or hospitals in the area—the nearest railway only carried an occasional freight train. At dawn crying parents carried their gasping children to the church so the priest could purify them with holy water. But at dusk, in a more desperate mood, they took the dying to the distant huts of the local witches who practiced sorcery and healing.

But death continued to levy its toll, and children went on dying. Some of the peasants blasphemed God, whispering it was He Himself who had dispatched His only son, Jesus, to inevitable crucifixion, in order to redeem His own sin of creating so cruel a world. Others insisted that Death had come to dwell in the villages to avoid the bombed cities, and the war, and the camps where the furnaces smoked day and night.

There was a man at the university who had wronged me. I discovered he was of peasant stock and therefore privileged among those whom the Party had pushed into the university for political reasons. I could not change the climate which favored him and thus saw no way of countering his enmity. It occurred to me that to blame the system was simply an excuse which prevented my facing him.

At that time we were all required to join the paramilitary student defense corps. Every unit in turn had to guard the university arsenal, which was under the jurisdiction of the city garrison. We regularly had a two-day guard duty, which was organized along military lines: the guards’ quarters occupied a wing of the university and were run like an army barracks. Telephone messages had to be recorded and acted upon as set forth in the military manuals, and instructions had to be followed with the utmost precision, since, as we were often warned, the city military commander might at any time declare a full-scale alert to test the efficiency of the student defense corps.

One day I observed this man reverently acknowledging instructions from the headquarters of the university arsenal, his knuckles tense and white as he gripped the telephone receiver. I looked at him closely again. I now had a plan.

By the time he was appointed guard commander for a weekend, I had already spent many hours practicing a brusque military voice, smart with clipped arrogance. On his first day of duty I telephoned him at midnight, and in the most urgent and authoritative tones announced I was the city garrison duty-officer and that I wished to speak directly to the guard commander. In my assumed voice I proceeded to inform him that an army exercise was in progress, and that in accordance with the plan, he was to muster the university unit and move through the park for a surprise attack on the city arsenal. Once there, his unit was to disarm the regular guards, force an entry and take over the building until the exercise was called off. I asked him to give the instructions back to me: he excitedly repeated my orders, obviously failing to register the omission of the daily password, which I could not give him.

When half an hour later I telephoned the post again, there was no answer: his unit had probably left to storm the arsenal.

On Monday all of us heard about what had happened. Exactly as I had intended, his unit had advanced and attacked the arsenal. In the garrison a full-scale alert had been set off, since it was assumed that there was either a mutinous invasion under way, a counterrevolution, or some secret regional exercise. The university unit was promptly rounded up and arrested; its commander was charged with armed insurrection.

During the court-martial he insisted that backed by the password he had acted under direct orders from the city’s garrison. He clung pathetically to his story.

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