V, p.38

V., page 38

 

V.
 



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  Paola: my child, Elena’s child but most of all Malta’s, you were one of them. These children knew what was happening: knew that bombs killed. But what’s a human, after all? No different from a church, obelisk, statue. Only one thing matters: it’s the bomb that wins. Their view of death was non-human. One wonders if our grown-up attitudes, hopelessly tangled as they were with love, social forms and metaphysics, worked any better. Certainly there was more common sense about the children’s way.

  The children got about Valletta by their private routes, mostly underground. Fausto II records their separate world, superimposed on a blasted city: ragged tribes scattered about Xaghriet Mewwija, indulging now and again in internecine skirmishes. Reconnaissance and foraging parties were always there, always at the edges of the field of vision.

  The tide must be turning. Only one raid today, that in the early morning. We slept last night in the sewer, near Aghtina and his wife. Little Paola went off soon after the all-clear to explore the Dockyard country with Maratt’s boy and some others. Even the weather seemed to signal a kind of intermission. Last night’s rain had laid the plaster and stone-dust, cleaned the leaves of trees and caused a merry waterfall to enter our quarters, not ten steps from the mattress of clean laundry. Accordingly we made our ablutions in this well-disposed rivulet, retiring soon thereafter to the domicile of Mrs. Aghtina, where we broke our fast on a hearty porridge the good woman had but recently devised against just such a contingency. What abundant graciousness and dignity have been our lot since this Siege began!

  Above in the street the sun was shining. We ascended to the street, Elena took my hand, and once on level ground did not let it go. We began to walk. Her face, fresh from sleep, was so pure in that sun. Malta’s old sun, Elena’s young face. It seemed I had only now met her for the first time; or that, children again, we’d strayed into the same orange grove, walked into a breathing of azaleas unaware. She began to talk, adolescent girl talk, Maltese: how brave the soldiers and sailors looked (“You mean how sober,” I commented: she laughed, mock-annoyed); how amusing was a lone flush-toilet located in the upper right-hand room of an English club building whose side wall had been blown away: feeling young I became angry and political at this toilet. “What fine democracy in war,” I ranted. “Before, they locked us out of their grand clubs. Anglo-Maltese intercourse was a farce. Pro bono; ha-ha. Keep the natives in their place. But now even the most sacrosanct room of that temple is open to the public gaze.” So we nearly roistered along the sunlit street, rain having brought a kind of spring. On days like that, we felt, Valletta had recalled her own pastoral history. As if vineyards would suddenly bloom along the sea-bastions, olive and pomegranate trees spring up from the pale wounds of Kingsway. The Harbour sparkled: we waved, spoke or smiled to every passerby; Elena’s hair caught the sun in its viscous net, sun-freckles danced along her cheeks.

  How we came to that garden or park I can never tell. All morning we walked by the sea. Fishing boats were out. A few wives gossiped among the seaweed and chunks of yellow bastion the bombs had left on the strand. They mended nets, watched the sea, shouted at their children. There were children everywhere in Valletta today, swinging down from the trees, jumping off the ruined ends of jetties into the sea: heard but not seen in the empty shells of bombed-out houses. They sang: chanted, chaffed or merely screeched. Weren’t they really our own voices caught for years in any house and only now come to embarrass us at our passing-by?

  We found a café, there was wine from the last convoy—rare vintage!—wine and a poor chicken we heard the proprietor killing in the other room. We sat, drank the wine, watched the Harbour. Birds were heading out into the Mediterranean. High barometer. Perhaps they had a portal of sense for the Germans too. Hair blew in her eyes. For the first time in a year we could talk. I’d given her some lessons in English conversation before ’39. Today she wanted to continue them: who knew, she said, when there would be another chance? Serious child. How I loved her.

  In the early afternoon the proprietor came out to sit with us: one hand still sticky with blood and a few feathers caught there. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” Elena greeted him. Gleeful. The old man cackled.

  “English,” he said. “Yes I knew the moment I saw you. English tourists.” It became our private joke. While she kept touching me under the table, mischievous Elena, the owner continued a foolish discourse about the English. Wind off the Harbour was cool, and the water which for some reason I only remembered as yellow-green or brown now was blue—a carnival blue and stippled with white-caps. Jolly Harbour.

  Half a dozen children came running round the corner: boys in singlets, brown arms, two little girls in shifts tagging behind but ours was not one. They went by without seeing us, running downhill toward the Harbour. From somewhere a cloud had appeared, a solid-looking puff hung stock-still between the sun’s invisible trolleys. Sun was on collision-course. Elena and I rose at last and wandered down the street. Soon from an alley burst another crowd of children, twenty yards ahead of us: cutting across in front, angling up the street to disappear single-file into the basement of what had been a house. Sunlight came to us broken by walls, window frames, roof beams: skeletal. Our street was pocked by thousands of little holes like the Harbour in noon’s unbroken sun. We stumbled, unsprightly, each using the other now and again for balance.

  Forenoon for sea, afternoon for the city. Poor shattered city. Tilted toward Marsamuscetto; no stone shell—roofless, wall-less, windowless—could hide from the sun, which threw all their shadows uphill and out to sea. Children, it seemed, dogged our footsteps. We’d hear them behind a broken wall: or only a whispering of bare feet and the small wind of a passage. And they’d call, now and again, somewhere over in the next street. Name indistinct for the wind off the Harbour. Sun inched downhill closer to the cloud that blocked its way.

  Fausto, were they calling? Elena? And was our child one of their own or off on some private tracing-of-steps? We did trace our own about the city’s grid, aimless, in fugue: a fugue of love or memory or some abstract sentiment which always comes after the fact and had nothing to do that afternoon with the quality of the light or the pressure of five fingers on my arm which awoke my five senses and more. . . .

  Sad is a foolish word. Light is not sad: or should not be. Afraid even to look behind at our shadows lest they move differently, slip away into the gutter or one of the earth’s cracks, we combed Valletta till late afternoon as if it were something finite we sought.

  Until at length—late afternoon—we arrived at a tiny park in the heart of the city. At one end a band pavilion creaked in the wind, its roof supported miraculously by only a few upright beams. The structure sagged and birds of some sort had abandoned their nests all round the edge: all but one whose head was visible, looking out at God knew what, unfrightened at our approach. It looked stuffed.

  It was there we awoke, there the children closed in on us. Had it been hare-and-hounds all day? Had all residual music gone with the quick birds, or was there a waltz we’d only now dreamed? We stood in sawdust and wood chips from an unlucky tree. Azalea bushes waited for us across from the pavilion but the wind was the wrong way: from the future, driving all scent back to its past. Above, tall palms leaned over us, false-solicitous, casting blade-shadows.

  Cold. And then the sun met its cloud, and other clouds we’d not noticed at all began it seemed to move in radially toward the sun-cloud. As if winds were blowing today from all thirty-two points of the rose at once to meet at the center in a great windspout to bear up the fire-balloon like an offering—set alight the undershorings of Heaven. Blade-shadows disappeared, all light and shadow were passing into a great acid-green. The fire-balloon continued its creep downhill. Leaves of all trees in the park began to scrape at one another like the legs of locusts. Music enough.

  She shivered, held to me for a moment, then abruptly seated herself on the littered grass. I sat bes
ide her. We must have been a queer-looking pair: shoulders hunched for the wind, facing the pavilion silent, as if waiting for a performance to begin. In the trees, at the edges of eyes, we saw children. White flashes which could have been faces, or only the other sides of leaves, signalling storm. Sky was clouding: the green light deepened, drowning the island of Malta and the island of Fausto and Elena hopelessly deeper in its oneiric chill.

  O God, it was the same stupidity to be gone through again: the sudden fall in the barometer which we did not expect; the bad faith of dreams that send surprise skirmish-parties across a frontier which ought to be stable; the terror at the unfamiliar stair-step in the dark on what we thought was a level street. We’d traced nostalgic steps indeed this afternoon. Where had they brought us?

  To a park we’d never find again.

  We had been using, it seemed, nothing but Valletta to fill up the hollows of ourselves. Stone and metal cannot nourish. We sat hungry-eyed, listening to the nervous leaves. What could there be to feed on? Only one another.

  “I am cold.” In Maltese: and she did not move closer. There could be no more question of English today. I wanted to ask: Elena what do we wait for—for the weather to break, the trees or dead buildings to speak to us? I asked: “What is wrong?” She shook her head. Let her eyes wander between the ground and the creaking pavilion.

  The more I studied her face—dark hair blowing, foreshortened eyes, freckles fading into the general green of that afternoon—the more anxious I became. I wanted to protest, but there was no one to protest to. Perhaps I wanted to cry, but the salt Harbour we had left to gulls and fishing boats; had not taken it in as we had the city.

  Were there in her the same memories of azaleas, or any sense that this city was a mockery, a promise always unfulfilled? Did we share anything? The deeper we all sank into twilight the less I knew. I did—so I argued—love this woman with all there was in me to expedite or make secure any love: but here it was love in a growing dark: giving out, with no clear knowledge of how much was being lost, how much would ever be returned. Was she even seeing the same pavilion, hearing the same children at the frontiers of our park: was she here in fact or like Paola—dear God, not even our child but Valletta’s—out alone, vibrating like a shadow in some street where the light is too clear, the horizon too sharp to be anything but a street created out of sickness for the past, for the Malta that was but can never be again!

  Palm leaves abraded together, shredding one another to green fibres of light; tree limbs scraped, leaves of the carob, dry as leather, throbbed and shook. As if there were a gathering behind the trees, a gathering in the sky. The quiverings about us, mounting, panicked, grew louder than the children or ghosts of children. Afraid to look, we could stare only at the pavilion though God knew what might appear there.

  Her nails, broken from burying the dead, had been digging into the bare part of my arm where the shirt was rolled up. Pressure and pain increased, our heads lolled slowly like the heads of puppets toward a meeting of eyes. In the dusk her eyes had grown huge and filmed. I tried to look at the whites as we look at the margins of a page, trying to avoid what was written in iris-black. Was it only night “gathering” outside? Something nightlike had found its way here, distilled and pre-shaped in eyes that only this morning had reflected sun, whitecaps, real children.

  My own nails fastened in reply and we became twinned, symmetric, sharing pain, perhaps all we could ever share: her face began to go distorted, half with the strength it took to hurt me, half with what I was doing to her. The pain mounted, palms and carob trees went mad: her irises rolled toward the sky.

  “Missierna li-inti fis-smewwiet, jitgaddes ismek. . . .” She was praying. In retreat. Having reached a threshold, slipped back to what was most sure. Raids, the death of a parent, the daily handling of corpses had not been able to do it. It took a park, a siege of children, trees astir, night coming in.

  “Elena.”

  Her eyes returned to me. “I love you,” moving on the grass, “love you, Fausto.” Pain, nostalgia, want mixed in her eyes: so it seemed. But how could I know: with the same positive comfort in knowing the sun grows colder, the Hagiar Kim ruins progress toward dust, as do we, as does my little Hillman Minx which was sent to a garage for old age in 1939 and is now disintegrating quietly under tons of garage-rubble. How could I infer: the only ghost of an excuse being to reason by analogy that the nerves chafed and stabbed by my fingernails were the same as my own, that her pain was mine and by extension that of the jittering leaves all round us.

  Looking past her eyes I saw all white leaves. They had turned their pale sides out and the clouds were storm clouds after all. “The children,” I heard her say. “We have lost them.”

  Lost them. Or they had lost us.

  “O,” she breathed, “O look,” releasing me as I released her and we both stood and watched the gulls filling half the visible sky, gulls that were all in our island now catching the sunlight. Coming in all together, because of a storm somewhere out at sea—terribly silent—drifting slow, up and down and inexorably landward, a thousand drops of fire.

  There had been nothing. Whether children, maddened leaves or dream-meteorology were or were not real, there are no epiphanies on Malta this season, no moments of truth. We had used our dead fingernails only to swage quick flesh; to gouge or destroy, not to probe the wards of either soul.

  I will limit the inevitable annotating to this request. Observe the predominance of human attributes applied to the inanimate. The entire “day”—if it was a single day, rather than the projection of a mood lasting perhaps longer—reads like a resurgence of humanity in the automaton, health in the decadent.

  The passage is important not so much for this apparent contradiction as for the children, who were quite real, whatever their function in Fausto’s iconology. They seemed to be the only ones conscious at the time that history had not been suspended after all. That troops were relocated, Spitfires delivered, convoys lying to off St. Elmo. This was, to be sure, in 1943, at the “turn of the tide” when bombers based here had begun to return part of the war to Italy and when the quality of anti-submarine warfare in the Mediterranean had developed to where we could see more than Dr. Johnson’s “three meals ahead.” But earlier—after the kids had recovered from the first shock—we “adults” looked on them with a kind of superstitious leeriness, as if they were recording angels, keeping the rolls of quick, dead, malingering; noting what Governor Dobbie wore, what churches had been destroyed, what was the volume of turnover at the hospitals.

  They also knew about the Bad Priest. There is a certain fondness for the Manichaean common to all children. Here the combination of a siege, a Roman Catholic upbringing and an unconscious identification of one’s own mother with the Virgin all sent simple dualism into strange patterns indeed. Preached to they might be about some abstract struggle between good and evil; but even the dogfights were too high above them to be real. They’d brought the Spitfires and ME’s down to Earth with their R.A.F. game, but it was only simple metaphor, as noted. The Germans to be sure were pure evil and the Allies pure good. The children weren’t alone in that feeling. But if their idea of the struggle could be described graphically it would not be as two equal-sized vectors head-to-head—their heads making an X of unknown quantity; rather as a point, dimensionless—good—surrounded by any number of radial arrows—vectors of evil—pointing inward. Good, i.e., at bay. The Virgin assailed. The wingèd mother protective. The woman passive. Malta in siege.

  A wheel, this diagram: Fortune’s wheel. Spin as it might the basic arrangement was constant. Stroboscopic effects could change the apparent number of spokes; direction could change; but the hub still held the spokes in place and the meeting-place of the spokes still defined the hub. The old cyclic idea of history had taught only the rim, to which princes and serfs alike were lashed; that wheel was oriented vertical; one rose and fell. But the
children’s wheel was dead-level, its own rim only that of the sea’s horizon—so sensuous, so “visual” a race are we Maltese.

  Thus they assigned the Bad Priest no opposite number: neither Dobbie nor Archbishop Gonzi nor Father Avalanche. The Bad Priest was ubiquitous as night and the children, to sustain their observations, had to be at least as mobile. It wasn’t an organized affair. These recording angels never wrote anything down. It was more, if you will, a “group awareness.” They merely watched, passive: you’d see them like sentinels at the top of a rubble pile any sunset; or peering round the corner of the street, squatting on the steps, loping in pairs, arms flung round each other’s shoulders, across a vacant lot, going apparently nowhere. But always somewhere in their line-of-sight would be the flicker of a soutane or a shadow darker than the rest.

  What was there about this priest to put him Outside; a radius along with leather-winged Lucifer, Hitler, Mussolini? Only part, I think, of what makes us suspect the wolf in the dog, the traitor in the ally. There was little wishful thinking about those children. Priests, like mothers, were to be venerated: but look at Italy, look at the sky. Here had been betrayal and hypocrisy: why not even among the priests? Once the sky had been our most constant and safe friend: a medium or plasma for the sun. A sun which the government is now trying to exploit for reasons of tourism: but formerly—in the days of Fausto I—the watchful eye of God and the sky his clear cheek. Since 3 September 1939 there had appeared pustules, blemishes and marks of pestilence: Messerschmitts. God’s face had gone sick and his eye begun to wander, close (wink, insisted the rampant atheist, Dnubietna). But such is the devotion of the people and the sure strength of the Church that the betrayal was not looked on as God’s; rather as the sky’s—knavery of the skin which could harbor such germs and thus turn so against its divine owner.

 

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