They all knew him although no one in Bałtów spoke to him and he spoke to no one. Maryan Skiba had served a prison term of eight years for killing his girlfriend, Zocha, because he caught her in bed with a city hall official. Maryan was a fisherman. After his release from the Lublin prison he returned to his former trade. There was a lake around Bałtów that had carp, pike, and tench. It belonged to a nobleman who permitted the fishermen to fish there for a fee. All day Thursday, and Friday until noon, Maryan would stand in the marketplace beside his tub of live fish. It was impossible to haggle with him, as he had almost ceased speaking. He muttered the cost and no one could get another word out of him. His price was slightly lower than the other fishmongers’ and he generally sold his catch. Sometimes when there were more fish than customers, the others lowered their prices, but not Maryan. It was said that he threw the unsold fish back into the water.
He inherited a hut not far from the Catholic cemetery and there he lived alone. Around his property he had built a fence so that the apprentice tailors and shoemakers who passed by on Saturdays with the maids and seamstresses on their way to the forest could not look into his windows. He kept a dog, a cat, a parrot, and a goldfish in a glass bowl. On the wall above his head hung a hunter’s gun, a sword, and the stuffed head of a boar.
Maryan Skiba, short and squat, had a square head that rested on his shoulders almost without a neck. His flaxen hair reached to the middle of his forehead and stood up like a hog’s bristles. He had a red face, a snub nose with flared nostrils, and round yellow eyes without brows. When Maryan came back to Bałtów the priest sent for him and tried to make him join the church, quoting from the Bible that the merciful God has pity on his erring flock. But Maryan replied: “There is no God.” And he refused further discussions.
The matchmaker Tekla Kalupek, a widow, tried to match Maryan with a girl from a nearby province, an orphan. Maryan listened to the matchmaker without blinking an eye. Then he said: “I don’t want to marry.”
“A man needs a wife.“
“I’m not a man.”
“What are you?”
Since then he’d been avoided by everyone. He, too, avoided everyone, even refusing to have any business with the other fishermen. If they spread their nets on one part of the shore, he went to another. There was talk that he copulated with a she-demon. Once some boys climbed over his fence and peeped through his window. They saw him sitting on a tree stump, mending a net. He seemed to eat only fish because he never came to any store to buy food, though he grew some vegetables in his garden.
His pets were trained to play together and taught not to harm one another. Dymniak the letter carrier swore that once, when he brought Maryan a letter from a former inmate, he saw a cat riding on the dog’s back, and on the tail of the cat perched a small yellow bird. This had only one meaning, that Maryan was a sorcerer.
Actually Maryan Skiba had learned to train animals from a bear trainer by the name of Stach, who shared his cell for many years. Stach had murdered a boy because he stole a copper three-kopeck coin from him. Stach could tell fortunes from cards like a gypsy. One day a crow had flown through the iron bars and Stach taught him to speak. Stach boasted that he was a mind reader and that by the sheer power of thinking he could command his animals to do his bidding. He told Maryan that he awakened in the middle of the night and that some part of him, a spirit, emerged from his body. It left the prison, flew over the Lublin streets, and then above fields, rivers, forests, far from the city. Stach had left behind a mistress, Karola, a magician who could eat fire, swallow knives, and roll a barrel in the air, balanced on the soles of her feet. During his night wanderings, Stach’s spiritual half met Karola and made love to her.
Now that Maryan was free, he tried to practice what Stach had taught him. He never succeeded in flying during the night, except in his dreams, but he was remarkably successful with living creatures. Without uttering a word he commanded Burek, his dog, to bark three times, and he did just that. In the same way he made Duszka the cat lick Burek’s ear. Once a wandering circus came to Bałtów and Maryan attended every performance. From one of the performers Maryan bought two greenish birds, a pair, which belonged to the parrot family though they were not much bigger than sparrows. Maryan named the male Stach and the female Karola. Stach could say a few words and Maryan taught him new ones and even a little song. Maryan built a nest with hay and leaves for the couple and Karola soon began to lay eggs and sit on them. For the growing family, Maryan braided a large cage.
Karola did not show much inclination to learn, but Stach was a diligent pupil. He became more attached to Maryan than to his wife. He often stood on Maryan’s head, jabbered, whistled, pulled at his earlobe, and spoke ticklish secrets to him. When Maryan mended a net, Stach settled on the index finger of his right hand. Maryan had developed so much confidence in Stach that during the summer, when he sold his fish in the marketplace, he let Stach perch on his shoulder, and the bird never flew away.
Stach’s devotion to Maryan became greater from day to day. He fought with the other males, his sons and grandsons. Small as he was, he began a war with the larger parrot. Stach could not stand to see Maryan pet the cat or caress the dog. He screeched with a voice that was hard to believe could come from such a tiny creature. How strange that the other birds and even the cat and the dog were afraid of Stach and his shrill reproaches. Often when Stach went into a rage, the old parrot entered his cage and leaned his head to one side, and his golden eye seemed to ask: Why is he so upset? The cat hid under the bed. The dog slunk into the corner, his tail between his legs. Sometimes, when Stach was displeased, he flew back and forth, hitting against the walls and windows and scolding in bird language. He even tried to bite the other pets. One night when Maryan awoke and could not fall asleep again, a strange idea occurred to him: that the soul of the murdered Zocha had entered Stach. In all these years Maryan could never forget Zocha, the love she gave him in the beginning of their relationship, the sweet talk, and the wails she let out when he walked in with an ax in his hand to confront her in bed with her seducer. Maryan began to imagine that he heard Zocha’s voice in Stach. The love the bird showed him was not natural. Zocha must have forgiven him and returned from the other world.
Maryan sometimes called Stach, Zocha. He quickly responded to that name and repeated it at once.
The Zocha that was in Stach decided to destroy all competition. Burek, the dog, for no apparent reason, stopped eating and snapped at his master. Burek had a fight with a porcupine and came home with a snout full of quills. Maryan tried to remove them but Burek resisted and howled as though he had gone mad. He uttered a last bark and fell dead. One afternoon the cat climbed up to the windowsill and sat curled up between the flowerpots. When Maryan called her to eat she did not respond. The cat had expired. A few weeks later the parrot died. At dawn one morning Maryan heard screaming from the cage where Stach and his family slept at night. The cage was covered with a shawl that had once been Zocha’s. Maryan wondered. As a rule birds kept quiet when it was dark. He wanted to get up to see what happened but he was so exhausted from work that his head fell back on the pillow like a stone. At daybreak when Maryan awoke it occurred to him that it was unusually quiet. He rose from his cot. All the birds in the cage were dead except for Stach. He was perched on a stick and looked down at the carcasses, his beak bloody. Feathers and down were scattered everywhere. Stach had killed his clan. It is Zocha’s revenge, Maryan murmured. Then he yelled: “Murderer!”
Stach flew out of the cage, screamed with a human voice, hit windowpanes, shelves, rafters. In his outburst he dislocated his wing. Maryan tried to snap it back for him, but Stach remained a cripple.
From that day on, Maryan never brought another creature into the house. He locked Stach in the cage for a period of eight weeks, for the eight years he himself had spent in jail. The bird was never the same again after his release. All day long he stood on the roof of his cage with his damaged wing hanging down, his head bent, not uttering a sound. Maryan spoke to him but he did not answer. Maryan put his finger to the bird’s beak but Stach did not bite. Maryan never saw him eat, drink, or preen, as if he were constantly brooding about the matters that drained away life.
Maryan, too, changed. Until then one never heard of him getting drunk. Now he bought liquor at the tavern, took it home, and drank it. The other fishermen mocked him, saying he was trying to catch fish with nets that had holes in them. Tevya, the night watchman, saw Maryan walking and talking to himself in the middle of the night. Maryan went to the town scribe, Kipa Pevzner, and asked him to write a letter to the warden of the Lublin prison to let him know whether Stach was still there, and, if he had been released, where he could be found. In the middle of dictating the letter, Maryan spat and left.
One Thursday Maryan did not appear in the marketplace. One of the fishermen went to see what happened to him. The shutters were closed. The fisherman knocked but there was no response. He broke the door in and saw Maryan hanging from a hook in the ceiling, an overturned stool at his feet. On his head, clinging to Maryan’s hair, was Stach the bird—dead.
—Translated from the Yiddish by the author