Ravens and Crows Will Peck Us to Pieces
Stefan Eromski

Not even one living ray was able to break through the flood of clouds driven by storm winds. The growing brightness of the morning stealthily waxed stronger, revealing a flat, broad, and completely empty landscape. The pouring rain was grainy. Its drops were swept up by the wind and blown horizontally, as they pelted the ground.

The gloomy Autumn completely chilled and poisoned everything that lived in the grass and among the weeds. Stripped of leaves, the birch moaned pitifully, lowering its branches to the ground. The harvested potato and grain fields, and especially the wintered soil, soaked up the rain and turned into abysmal swamps. Gray torn clouds, flew fast, almost on the surface of the rain-whipped, almost-dead fields.

On this very day, Andrew Borycki (better known by his alias of Simon Winrych) appeared from beyond the hills and headed towards the plains, towards Nasielsk. Leaving the scrub, he walked for a while following a dirt path, walking across the furrows when it disappeared under puddles.

He had been keeping watch for two nights and had walked continually for three days at the side of the wagon. His boots became so badly soaked in mud that they barely clung to his foot. He was thoroughly soaked and chilled to the bone. Who would recognize that this ragamuffin used to be a president of the famous rubstaki fraternity? Who would recognize that this was the former Andrew, king and sultan of the Warsaw mermaids? His hair had grown long and mangy, his fingernails into wild claws. He was now wearing a coat permeated with sweat, as he devoured bread and bacon and naively guzzled spirits as if it were soda mixed in with currant juice.

The horses were so hungry and tired, that they stopped occasionally. This was no surprise, because the wheels were cutting into the mud up to the hub, and on the ladder wagon under a little alden brushwood, hay, and straw, there were sixty guns, and a dozen sabers, not to mention the small arms. The horses were quite good mares: tall, almost skinny, but of a strong working breed. They could easily walk ten miles a day if one only allowed them to rest twice and fed them well. The horses were owned by a certain nobleman from the M awa region. They composed a sizable part of his possessions, because he owned only three mares. But the nobleman lent them to Winrych every time he needed them. Winrych usually came late at night, knocked on a window of the homestead, then, with the nobleman, stealthily led the horses out, so the farmhand wouldn't wake up, rolled out the wagon, and they were off! In the summer season the ride was easy. During the day Winrych slept in the forest's underbrush, and the horses went out to graze. Now there was no way he could either sleep or feed the horses. Winrych was counting on somebody relieving him, especially now that the most dangerous posts and obstacles had happily passed by.

But those sorts of days were already gone... If anyone in the land fought in the true meaning of fighting, it was he, Winrych. He alone took up arms; he alone would not become despondent. If it hadn't been for him, the party would have long ago flown apart into the four winds. For a long time he had comforted the pursued, hungry, cold and scared people with his railing insinuations at the enemy and incited them to action as if with a whipping. Now, after everything had collapsed into a bottomless pit of fright, he became, as they say, perfectly determined.

As the philosophical principle: fratres! rapiamus, capiamus, fugiamusque was penetrating not only the depths of moods and consciences, but also the foundations of revolutionary politics, he felt within himself a growing stubbornness that was becoming more presumptuous, more horribly painful, and yet almost delirious...

When he was thus drenched, hungry, and terribly weary, he stumbled by the wagon and, as with the cold, a feeling of misery began sinking within him. He had neither a crumb of bread in his pocket nor a drop of vodka in his bottle. In general, worn boots (even having so much as a millimeter of leather laces that could be considered part of some whole) could not be the cause of this feeling of misery. Neither hunger nor cold alone was its cause. The irony of observation followed Winrych's footprints he left in the dust with his worn boots. This was the cruel misery, who does not hesitate to break into the holy place of the saints, and who, with the courage of a filthy usurer, snatches priceless jewels of human spirit with his crooked hand and mocks their value, disguising his cruelty in the most logical of syllogisms.

"Everything is lost," whispered Winrych, "it's all gone; not only to the very last inch, but to the very last unfettered sigh. Now real fear will be unleashed into the world. Fear, with its big eyes and hair standing on end, will unleash itself and drive all the reactionary metaphysicians and prophets of ignorance out of their mouse holes. The things that no one once dared whisper in somebody else's ear, they will now publish in hexameter. They will drag out into public as much as there is ruffian and traitor in a person and display it as the example to follow. One might think that it was us that made this progress of imaginations, even though we lost..."

He cinched his woolen belt, covered his chest with a burlap coat and started along, drooping his head. Every once in a while he would lift it up and growl through his teeth: " You, mangy dogs!"

The rough rain began to let up and poured a watery, unceasing veil, that hung right before his eyes. The wind spun around the wagon, whistled between the spokes, blew his coat out and pulled his shirt.

Behind the veil of fog there was something moving monotonously, parallel to the barely visible horizon. It might be a row of wagons, a herd of cattle, or... an army.

Winrych looked for a moment, blinking his eyes. He felt like someone had just bent his finger under a vein in Winrych's chest, and tore it out.

"Muscovites..." - he whispered to himself.

He forcefully whipped the horses, yanked the reins, turned back and started to run with the wagon. He didn't want to, or rather he couldn't turn his head back, to see what was happening behind him. He thought, he would be able to step aside not be seen. Unfortunately the place was bare and empty within a radius of several kilometers.

The escaping wagon was noticed. From the row of moving troops a group of riders broke off, and galloped quickly. Winrych saw what happened and could not tell whether they were coming towards him, or riding away in the opposite direction. It was only when he noticed banners hanging from the lowered lances and the horses' heads, that he realized they were getting closer to were he was now. His blood, pulsing through his veins, suddenly coagulated... He stopped the horses and lashed the reins around poles, as his mind was raced: what should he pull out of the wagon for protection: a saber or an unloaded short rifle?

But before he was able to take any steps, he instinctivly drew closer to the tired horses and began taking off the headstall and harness from one of them, as if he was going to free his companions from their labors. While doing so, he hugged the horse's neck and sighed.

Eight Russian soldiers on beautiful horses reached the wagon and, in the twinkle of the eye, surrounded it. One of them, not saying anything, started throwing aside the dry branches and stacks of straw, searching the bed of the wagon.

When the tip of the lance struck the barrels of the short rifles with a ring, the soldier patted Winrych on the shoulder and winked to his comrades. They reached for their lances. Winrych was standing calmly, as before, with his arm around the horse's neck. His lips scowled disdainfully, and not bravery, but contempt entrenched itself in his heart-endless contempt for everything on earth.

"Which party are you carrying this for?" asked the one searching.

"You fool!" responded Winrych, not even lifting his head.

"Which party are you carrying this for? Do you hear me, you stupid Pole?"

"You fool!" said Winrych staring at the ground.

"Take this you son of a %!@$# !" screamed the solder.

Two of them at once moved a few steps away and quickly raised their lances. The condemned one glanced at them as they were about to kick their horses with their spurs, and like a little child he covered his head with his hands, and with quiet voice he uttered:

"Don't kill me..."

Then the horses leaped in unison and together the soldiers pierced him. One hideously cleaved his stomach, and the another one broke his ribs. The third soldier went off a dozen steps or so and when the two pulled out their lances, spat, and moved aside, he took aim at the insurgent's head. He pulled the trigger at the same time as Winrych slipped into a ditch. Instead on hitting Winrych, the bullet plowed through the horse's skull and killed him instantly. The animal pitifully groaned and breathlessly fell on top of dying Andrew's legs. The soldiers got off their horses and examined the empty packets of his burlap coat. Upset that Winrych had drunk all of his vodka, they crushed the bottle on his skull and tore his cheeks with their spurs. Hearing a call to come back, they jumped on their saddles, and after taking few Belgian sabers, they went away towards the division, that was now immersed in fog. The captain of the squadron was chasing a small fleeing insurrectional division, so he did not have time to go back and pick up the arms left on the field in Winrych's wagon.

In the meantime heavy rain started falling, and for a short moment brought Andrew back to consciousness.

His eyelids clenched in agony and in deadly panic lifted themselves up, as his eyes beheld the clouds for the last time. His mouth twitched, and uttered to the scurrying clouds this last thought:

"...Forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us..."

The great hope of immortality embraced the dying one, like endless space. With this hope in his heart, he died.

His head pressed a little pit into the mud. Little streams of water began to flow down into the pit, creating an expanding pool. Drops, striking the water, created big bubbles, that burst into nothingness as fast and completely as the whole holy human illusion. The dead horse was cooling down quickly in the cold, and the live one was struggling violently in the team, as if someone was flogging it with a leather whip. Suddenly it bent over the tongue of the wagon and its dead companion to smell Winrych's head. As soon as it smelled death, its eyes went bloodshot and the mane on its neck wildly convulsed. It lurched backwards and then jerked forward with its whole body, hit the ground with its legs, and kicked in every direction with such fury, that one of his hind legs fell between the spokes of the front wagon wheel. It struggled with all its might, and in doing so it terribly broke its leg just above the pastern. Pain made him rage even more. Now savage, it began to rampage, bolting up and down. The bone sheared into two pieces in such a way that the sharp, knife-edged bone fragment pierced the skin and pared the flesh more and more with each vehement jerk.

It was not until the next morning that it stopped raining, however the wind had not yet calmed down. Clouds flew high in the sky, divided by dark shadows with strange forms. Crows and ravens flew singly and in flocks against the wind, as if to meet the clouds. The stormwind's gusts forced them back and sometimes even comically forced their wings upwards or threw them towards the earth like a rock. The birds started circling above the carcass, eagerly descending. After wrestling with the gale for some time, they landed on the plowed rows in the field some distance away.

The live horse stood with a broken leg locked between the spokes. It was not trying to pull it out because of the great pain. Its bare bone bit into the wood and carved away skin every time it tried to move.

When it noticed the crows, that were slowly approaching step by step, the horse whinnied. It seemed as if it cried out to mankind:

"O base people, O vicious breed, O brood of murderers!..."

The cry resounded over the empty flats, only stopping the carrion-eaters for a short moment before dying in the wind's furious voice. The crows approached the horse with great caution, tact, patience, and diplomacy, twisting their heads and carefully studying the situation. One in particular displayed the greatest reserve of energy, lust for distinguishing itself, and/or hatred. Or perhaps it was, after all, only out of a sense of interest for its own beak and stomach, or as we became accustomed to saying, "courage" (what "was formerly a paradox, but turned out to be an axiom in our times"...). It marched to the nostril of the killed horse, where a blood clot was still oozing, covered with a reddish membrane. Its sharp, keen eyes noticed, what they were supposed to. Then, without thought, the crow jumped on the dead, decrepit horse's head, lifted up its beak, straddled it with its legs like a woodcutter setting himself to fell a tree, and struck the corpse's eye, as if with an iron pickax. The other companions followed the example of the bold crow. One operated on a rib, another pinched a leg, and another mixed a wound into the skull. The most distinguished of them all (who deserved the title of "exemplar") was the one, that desired to gaze into brain, into this collection of free thought, with the purpose of devouring it. It majestically stepped onto Winrych's leg, marched along his body, successfully reached the head and began to fiercely maul the inside of the skull, this last bastion of the Polish uprising.

Yet, before the crow tasted of the troublemaker's brain and was able to win recognition, a newcomer scared him away. He was stealthily and surreptitiously approaching and looked like a big, gray beast. It wasn't a poetic jackal, but a poor man, a peasant from nearest little village. On the parcel of land that was supposed to belong to him from that time forth and forever, there lay corpses. He was thus going to remove them.

Because he feared the Muscovites, he almost crawled on all fours. The desire to cut the throngs was burning within him. The hope excited him that, in spite of the soldiers inspection, he might still be able to find some scrap of hardware, one of the horses' traces, or clothing on the corpses. Eventually he reached Winrych's corpse, stopped, shook his head and sighed. Then he knelt down on the ground, took off his cap, crossed himself, and loudly said a prayer.

As soon as he pronounced the last amen and already with the glint of lust in his eyes, he lunged at the pockets and bosoms, first searching for money bags. But there was already nothing there. Then he stripped the coat, the thick, linen thick rags, and boots off the corpse. He even took the muddy footcloth, wrapped part of the weapons with the rags and speedily dismissed himself. In an hour, he came back to pick up the rest of conquests. At about noon, he brought two horses and unharnessed the crippled horse. After careful examination of its broken leg, he came to the conclusion, that there was nothing he could do with it. The helpless old horse was to be strangled. So, without further delay, he put a rope around its neck, tied it to the swingletree, spit into his hand, and whipped the horses with all his might. The horses suddenly lurched forward, the noose strangled the throat of the condemned horse, and knocked it down to the ground. But right away it darted off galloping after the two that were pulling him, bounding along over the mud and rocks with the sharp point of its naked shinbone.

The peasant looked, and covered his eyes in disgust. He immediately removed the rope and gave up the execution. He attached his horses to the wagon and drove off. That afternoon, he reappeared with a carving knife and stripped off skin from the horse shot by the soldiers. There was then only skin for removal left on the horse still living. The little peasant meditated over the matter and considered it from different angles. After all, he could kill the old horse with his knife and it would settle the whole matter with one blow, but he did not feel like staining himself morally and physically. On the other hand he was seriously afraid, that at night somebody would sneak in, quietly kill the horse, and remove its skin. But finally, touched by some twinge of conscience, he said to the lying horse:

"Ah, die here. By tomorrow morning you'll kick the bucket anyway. I'm spent from work. The Merciful Lord Jesus has blessed me, a sinner. Maybe no one saw it, and maybe they won't come for the skin. That's good enough. Die, you poor thing, die..."

On the side, in the same direction, were Winrych was headed, were potatoes storage holes in the flat field. Because water had seeped into these winter manorial vaults, the potatoes had been moved to different places, and the pits had become overgrown with weeds. Bushes of barberry lined the floors and sides of the pits. Beams sank down with lumps of clay, creating dungeons and catacombs full of watery mud. The peasant dragged the insurgent's body and the horse's corpse, that was missing its skin to one of the pits. He shoved them both down into one dungeon. He covered them with branches, weeds, and a little bit of clay, so the crows would not be able to track down their prey.

And thus, without knowledge nor volition, having avenged himself for many centuries of prolonged slavery, for spreading benightedness, for exploitation, for dishonor, and for the suffering of the common people, he walked towards his house, his head uncovered and prayer on his lips. A strange wistful joy ascended into his soul and adorned the whole horizon, the whole range of the mind's comprehension, even the whole earth, with marvellous, beautiful hues. Deeply, sincerely, and with all his soul, he glorified God for sending him, in His infinite grace, so much hardware and lather...

Suddenly through the deathly silence of autumn's nightfall, the horse's desperate whinny raced over the earth. The peasant stopped and looked towards the sunset, shading his eyes from the brightness with his hand.

Against the background of evening's rosy-fingered aurora, there was a horse, propped up by his front legs. He was shaking his head, turning it toward Winrych's grave, and neighing.

Groups of crows beat their wings over the living corpse, flying up and down in circles. The aurora was quickly fading away. From beyond this world came night, despair, and death...

-translated by Grzegorz Pawlik and Vaughn Hughes