Confessions of Fausto Maijstral
It takes, unhappily, no more than a desk and writing supplies to turn any room into a confessional. This may have nothing to do with the acts we have committed, or the humours we do go in and out of. It may be only the rooms cube-having no persuasive powers of its own. The room simply is. To occupy it, and find a metaphor there for memory, is our own fault.
Let me describe the room. The room measures 17 by 11 by 7 feet. The walls are lath and plaster, and painted the same shade of grey as were the decks of His Majesty's corvettes during the war. The room is oriented so that its diagonals fall NNE/SSW, and NW/SE. Thus any observer may see, from the window and balcony on the NNW side (a short side), the city
One enters from the WSW, by a door midway in a long wall of the room. Standing just inside the door and turning clockwise one sees a portable wood stove in the NNE corner, surrounded by boxes, bowls, sacks containing food; the mattress, located halfway along the long ENE wall; a slop bucket in the SE corner; a washbasin in the SSW corner; a window facing the Dockyard; the door one has just entered; and finally in the NW corner, a small writing table and chair. The chair faces the WSW wall; so that the head must be turned 135 degrees to the rear in order to have a line-of-sight with the city. The walls are unadorned, the floor is carpetless. A dark grey stain is located on the ceiling directly over the stove.
That is the room. To say the mattress was begged from the Navy B.O.Q. here in Valletta shortly after the war, the stove and food supplied by CARE, or the table from a house now rubble and covered by earth; what have these to do with the room? The facts are history, and only men have histories. The facts call up emotional responses, which no inert room has ever showed us.
The room is in a building which had nine such rooms before the war. Now there are three. The building is on an escarpment above the Dockyard. The room is stacked atop two others - the other two-thirds of the building were removed by the bombing, sometime during the winter of 1942-43.
Fausto himself may be defined in only three ways. As a relationship: your father. As a given name. Most important, as an occupant. Since shortly after you left, an occupant of the room.
Why? Why use the room as introduction to an apologia? Because the room, though windowless and cold at night, is a hothouse. Because the room is the past, though it has no history of its own. Because, as the physical being-there of a bed or horizontal plane determines what we call love; as a high place must exist before God's word can come to a flock and any sort of religion begin; so must there be a room, sealed against the present, before we can make any attempt to deal with the past.
In the University, before the war, before I had married your poor mother, I felt as do many young men a sure wind of Greatness flowing over my shoulders like an invisible cape. Maratt, Dnubietna and I were to be the cadre for a grand
Time of course has showed the question up in all its young illogic. We can justify any apologia simply by calling life a successive rejection of personalities. No apologia is any more than a romance - half a fiction - in which all the successive identities taken on and rejected by the writer as a function of linear time are treated as separate characters. The writing itself even constitutes another rejection, another "character" added to the past. So we do sell our souls: paying them away to history in little installments. It isn't so much to pay for eyes clear enough to see past the fiction of continuity, the fiction of cause and effect, the fiction of a humanized history endowed with "reason."
Before 1938, then, came Fausto Maijstral the First. A young sovereign, dithering between Caesar and God. Maratt was going into politics; Dnubietna would be an engineer; I was slated to be the priest. Thus among us all major areas of human struggle would come under the scrutiny of the Generation of '37.
Maijstral the Second arrived with you, child, and with the war. You were unplanned for and in a way resented. Though if Fausto I had ever had a serious vocation, Elena Xemxi your mother - and you - would never have come into his life at all. The plans of our Movement were disturbed. We still wrote - but there was other work to do. Our poetic "destiny" was replaced by the discovery of an aristocracy deeper and older. We were builders.
Fausto Maijstral III was born on the Day of the 13 Raids. Generated: out of Elena's death, out of a horrible encounter with one we only knew as the Bad Priest. An encounter I am only now attempting to put in English. The journal for weeks after has nothing but gibberish to describe that "birth trauma." Fausto III is the closest any of the characters comes to non-humanity. Not "inhumanity," which means bestiality; beasts are still animate. Fausto III had taken on much of the non-humanity of the debris, crushed stone, broken masonry, destroyed churches and auberges of his city.
His successor, Fausto IV, inherited a physically and spiritually broken world. No single event produced him. Fausto III had merely passed a certain level in his slow return to consciousness or humanity. That curve is still rising. Somehow there had accumulated a number of poems (at least one sonnet-cycle the present Fausto is still happy with); monographs on religion, language, history; critical essays (Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, di Chirico's novel Hebdomeros). Fausto IV was the "man of letters" and only survivor of the Generation of '37, for Dnubietna is building roads in America, and Maratt is somewhere south of Mount Ruwenzori, organizing riots among our linguistic brothers the Bantu.
We have now reached an interregnum. Stagnant; the only throne a wooden chair in the NW corner of this room. Hermetic: for who can hear the Dockyard whistle, rivet guns, vehicles in the street when one is occupied with the past?
Now memory is a traitor: gilding, altering. The word is, in sad fact, meaningless, based as it is on the false assumption that identity is single, soul continuous. A man has no more right to set forth any self-memory as truth than to say "Maratt is a sour-mouthed University cynic" or "Dnubietna is a liberal and madman."
Already you see: the "is" - unconsciously we've drifted into the past. You must now be subjected, dear Paola, to a barrage of undergraduate sentiment. The journals, I mean, of Fausto I and II. What other way can there be to regain him, as we must? Here, for example:
How wondrous is this St. Giles Fair called history! Her rhythms pulse
regular and sinusoidal - a freak show in caravan, travelling over thousands
of little hills. A serpent hypnotic and undulant, bearing on her back like
infinitesimal fleas such hunchbacks, dwarves, prodigies, centaurs,
poltergeists! Two-headed, three-eyed, hopelessly in love; satyrs with the
skin of werewolves, werewolves with the eyes of young girls and perhaps
even an old man with a navel of glass, through which can be seen goldfish
nuzzling the coral country of his guts.
The date is of course 3 September 1939: the mixing of metaphors, crowding of detail, rhetoric-for-its-own-sake only a way of saying the balloon had gone up, illustrating again and certainly not for the last time the colorful whimsy of history.
Could we have been so much in the midst of life? With such a sense of grand adventure about it all? "Oh, God is here, you know, in the crimson carpets of sulla each spring, in the blood-orange groves, in the sweet pods of my carob tree, the St.-John's-bread of this dear island. His fingers raked the ravines; His breath keeps the rain clouds from over us, His voice once guided the shipwrecked St. Paul to bless our Malta." And Maratt wrote:
Britain and Crown, we join thy swelling guard
To drive the brute invader from our strand.
For God His own shall rout the evil-starred
And God light peace's lamps with His dear hand . . .
"God His own"; that brings a smile. Shakespeare. Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot ruined us all. On Ash Wednesday of '42, for example, Dnubietna wrote a "satire" on Eliot's poem:
Because I do
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to survive
Injustice from the Palace, death from the air.
Because I do,
I continue . . .
We were most fond, I believe, of "The Hollow Men." And we did like to use Elizabethan phrases even in our speech. There is a description, sometime in 1937, of a farewell celebration for Maratt on the eve of his marriage. All of us drunk, arguing politics: it was in a cafe in Kingsway - scusi, Strada Reale then. Before the Italians starting bombing us. Dnubietna had called our Constitution "hypocritical camouflage for a slave state." Maratt objected. Dnubietna leapt up on the table, upsetting glasses, knocking the bottle to the floor, screaming "Go to, caitiff!" It became the cant phrase for our "set": go to. The entry was written, I suppose, next morning: but even in the misery of a Headache the dehydrated Fausto I was still able to talk of the pretty girls, the hot-jazz band, the gallant conversation. The prewar University years were probably as happy as he described, and the conversation as "good." They must have argued everything under the sun, and in Malta then was a good deal of sun.
But Fausto I was as bastardised as the others. In the midst of the bombing in '42, his successor commented:
Our poets write of nothing now but the rain of bombs from what was once Heaven. We builders practice, as we must, patience and strength but - the curse of knowing English and its emotional nuances! - with it a desperate-nervous hatred of this war, an impatience for it to be over.
I think our education in the English school and University alloyed what was pure in us. Younger, we talked of love, fear, motherhood; speaking in Maltese as Elena and I do now. But what a language! Have it, or today's Builders, advanced at all since the half-men who built the sanctuaries of Hagiar Kim? We talk as animals might.
Can I explain "love"? Tell her my love for her is the same and part of my love for the Bofors crews, the Spitfire pilots, our Governor? That it is love which embraces this island, love for everything on it that moves! There are no words in Maltese for this. Nor finer shades; nor words for intellectual states of mind. She cannot read my poetry, I cannot translate it for her.
Are we only animals then. Still one with the troglodytes who lived here 400 centuries before dear Christ's birth. We do live as they did in the bowels of the earth. Copulate, spawn, die without uttering any but the grossest words. Do any of us even understand the words of God, teachings of His Church? Perhaps Maijstral, Maltese, one with his people, was meant only to live at the threshold of consciousness, only exist as a hardly animate lump of flesh, an automaton.
But we are torn, our grand "Generation of '37." To be merely Maltese: endure almost mindless, without sense of time? Or to think - continuously - in English, to be too aware of war, of time, of all the greys and shadows of love?
Perhaps British colonialism has produced a new sort of being, a dual man, aimed two ways at once: towards peace and simplicity on the one hand, towards an exhausted intellectual searching on the other. Perhaps Maratt, Dnubietna and Maijstral are the first of a new race. What monsters shall rise in our wake . . .
These thoughts are from the darker side of my mind - mohh, brain. Not even a word for mind. We must use the hateful Italian, menti.
What monsters. You, child, what sort of monster are you? Perhaps not at all of course what Fausto meant: he may have been talking of a spiritual heritage. Perhaps of Fausto III and IV, et seq. But the excerpt shows clearly a charming quality of youth: to begin with optimism; and once the inadequacy of optimism is borne in on him by an inevitably hostile world, to retreat into abstractions. Abstractions even in the midst of the bombing. For a year and a half Malta averaged ten raids per day. How he sustained that hermetic retreat, God alone knows. There's no indication in the journals. Perhaps it too sprang from the Anglicized half of Fausto II: for he wrote poetry. Even in the journals we get sudden shifts from reality to something less:
I write this during a night raid, down in the abandoned sewer. It is raining outside. The only light is from phosphorous flares above the city, a few candles in here, bombs. Elena is beside me, holding the child who sleeps drooling against her shoulder. Packed close round us are other Maltese, English civil servants, a few Indian tradesmen. There's little talk. Children listen, all wide eyes, to bombs above in the streets. For them it is only an amusement. At first they cried on being wakened in the middle of the night. But they've grown used to it. Some even stand now near the entrance to our shelter, watching the flares and bombs, chattering, nudging, pointing. It will be a strange generation. What of our own? She sleeps.
And then, for no apparent reason, this:
O Malta of the Knights of St. John! History's serpent is one; what matter where on her body we lie. Here in this wretched tunnel we are the Knights and the Giaours; we are L'Isle-Adam and his ermine arm, and his maniple on a field of blue sea and gold sun, we are M. Parisot, lonely in his wind-haunted grave high above the Harbour; battling on the ramparts during the Great Siege - both! My Grandmaster, both: death and life, ermine and old cloth, noble and common, in feast and combat and mourning we are Malta, one, pure and a motley of races at once; no time has passed since, we lived in caves, grappled with fish at the reedy shore, buried our dead with a song, with red-ochre and pulled up our dolmens, temples and menhirs and standing stones to the glory of some indeterminate god or gods, rose toward the light in andanti of singing, lived our lives through circling centuries of rape, looting, invasion, still one; one in the dark ravines, one in this God-favoured plot of sweet Mediterranean earth, one in whatever temple or sewer or catacomb's darkness is ours, by fate or historical writhings or still by the will of God.
He must have written the latter part at Home, after the raid; but the "shift" is still there. Fausto II was a young man in retreat. It's seen not only in his fascination for the conceptual - even in the midst of that ongoing, vast - but somehow boring - destruction of an island; but also in his relationship with your mother.
First mention of Elena Xemxi comes from Fausto I, shortly after Maratt's marriage. Perhaps, a breach having been made in the bachelorhood of the Generation of '37 - though from all indications the movement was anything but celibate - Fausto now felt safe enough to follow suit. And of course at the same time taking these fidgeting and inconclusive steps towards Church celibacy.
Oh, he was "in love": no doubt. But his own ideas on the matter always in a state of flux, never I think getting quite in line with the Maltese version: Church-approved copulation for the purpose, and glorification, of motherhood. We already know for example how Fausto in the worst part of the Siege of '40-'43 had arrived at a nation and practice of love wide, high and deep as Malta itself.
The dog days have ended, the maijstral has ceased to blow. Soon the other wind called gregale will bring the gentle rains to solemnize the sowing of our red wheat.
Myself: what am I if not a wind, my very name a hissing of queer zephyrs though the carob trees? I stand in time between the two winds, my will no more than a puff of air. But air too are the clever, cynical arguments of Dnubietna. His views on marriage - even Maratt's marriage - blow by my poor flapping ears unnoticed.
For Elena - tonight! O Elena Xemxi: small as the she-goat, sweet your milk and your love-cry. Dark-eyed as the space between stars over Ghaudex where we have gazed so often in our childish summers. Tonight will I go to your little house in Vittoriosa, and before your black eyes break open this small pod of a heart and offer in communion the St.-John's-bread I have cherished like a Eucharist these nineteen years.
He did not propose marriage; but confessed his love. There was still, you see, the vague "program" - the vocation to priesthood he was never quite sure of. Elena hesitated. When young Fausto questioned, she became evasive. He promptly began to display symptoms of intense jealousy:
Has she lost her faith? I've heard she has been out with Dnubietna - Dnubietna! Under his hands. Our Lord, is there no recourse? Must I go out and find them together: follow through the old farce of challenge, combat, murder . . . How he must be gloating: It was all planned. Must have been. Our discussions of marriage. He even told me one evening - hypothetically, of course, oh yes! - precisely how he would find a virgin someday and "educate" her to sin. Told me knowing all the time that someday it would be Elena Xemxi. My friend. Comrade-in-arms. One third of our Generation. I could never take her back. One touch from him and eighteen years of purity - gone!
Etc., etc. Dnubietna, as Fausto must have known even in the worst depths of suspicion, had nothing at all to do with her reluctance. Suspicion softened to a nostalgic brooding:
Sunday there was rain, leaving me with memories. Rain seems to make them swell like bothersome flowers whose perfume is bittersweet. A night I remember: we were children, embracing in a garden above the Harbour. The rustling of azaleas, smell of oranges, a black frock she wore that absorbed all the stars and moon; reflecting nothing back. As she had taken from me, all my light. She has the carob-softness of my heart.
Ultimately their quarrel took in a third party. In typically Maltese fashion, a priest, one Father Avalanche, came in as the intermediary. He appears infrequently in these journals, always faceless, serving more as foil to his opposite number the Bad Priest. But he did finally persuade Elena to return to Fausto.
She came to me today, out of smoke, rain, silence. Wearing black, nearly invisible. Sobbing plausibly enough in my too-welcoming arms.
She's to have a child. Dnubietna's, came my first thought (of course it did - for all of half a second - fool). The Father said mine. She had been to A. for confession. God knows what passed there. This good priest cannot break the secrecy of the confessional. Only let slip what the three of us know - that it is my child - so that we should be two souls united before God.
So much for our plan. Maratt and Dnubietna will be disappointed.
So much for their plan. We will return to this matter of vocation.
From a distraught Elena then, Fausto learned of his "rival": the Bad Priest.
No one knows his name or his parish. There is only superstitious rumour; excommunicated, confederates with the Dark One. He lives in an old villa past Sliema, near the sea. Found E. one night alone in the street. Perhaps he'd been out prowling for souls. A sinister figure, she said, but with the mouth of a Christ. The eyes were shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat; all she could see were soft cheeks, even teeth.
Now it was none of your mysterious "corruption." Priests here are second only to mothers in order of prestige. A young girl is naturally enough deferent to and awed by the mere glimpse of any fluttering soutane in the street. Under subsequent questioning, it came out:
"It was near the church - our church. By a long low wall in the street, after sunset, but still light. He asked if I was going to the church. I hadn't thought to go. Confessions were over. I don't know why I agreed to walk there with him. It was not a command - though I would have obeyed if it had been - but we went up the hill, and into the church, up the side aisle to the confessional.
"'Have you confessed?' he asked.
"I looked at his eyes. I thought at first he was drunk, or marid b'mohhu. I was afraid.
"'Come then.' We entered the confessional. At the time I thought: don't priests have the right? But I did tell him things I have never told Father Avalanche. I didn't know then who this priest was, you see."
Now sin for Elena Xemxi had been heretofore as natural a function as breathing, eating, or gossiping. Under the agile instruction of the Bad Priest, however, it began to take on the shape of an evil spirit: alien, parasitic, attached like a black slug to her soul.
How could she marry anyone? She was fit, said the Bad Priest, not for the world but for the convent. Christ was her proper husband. No human male could coexist with the sin which fed on her girl-soul. Only Christ was mighty enough, loving enough, forgiving enough. Had He not cured the lepers and exorcised malignant fevers? Only He could welcome disease, clasp it to His bosom, rub against it, kiss it. It had been His mission on earth as now, a spiritual husband in heaven, to know sickness intimately, love it, cure it. This was parable, the Bad Priest told her, metaphor for spirit's cancer. But the Maltese mind, conditioned by its language, is unreceptive to such talk. All my Elena saw was the disease, the literal sickness. Afraid I, or our children, would reap its ravages.
She stayed away from me and from Father A.'s confessional. Stayed in her own house, searched her body each morning and examined her conscience each night for progressive symptoms of the metastasis she feared was in her. Another vocation: whose words were garbled and somehow sinister, as Fausto's own had been.
These, poor child, are the sad events surrounding your given name. It is a different name now that you've been carried off by the U. S. Navy. But beneath that accident you are still Maijstral-Xemxi - a terrible misalliance. May you survive it. I fear not so much a reappearance in you of Elena's mythical "disease" as a fracturing of personality such as your father has undergone. May you be only Paola, one girl: a single given heart, a whole mind at peace. That is a prayer, if you wish.
Later, after the marriage, after your birth, well into the reign of Fausto II when the bombs were falling, the relationship with Elena must have come under some kind of moratorium. There being, perhaps, enough else to do. Fausto enlisted in the Home defence; Elena had taken to nursing: feeding and keeping sheltered the bombed-out, comforting the wounded, bandaging, burying. At this time - assuming his theory of the "dual man" to be so - Fausto II was becoming more Maltese and less British.
German bombers over today: ME-109's. No more need to look. We have grown used to the sound. Five times. Concentrated, as luck would have it, on Ta Kali. These grand chaps in the "Hurries" and Spitfires! What would we not do for them!
Moving towards that island-wide sense of communion. And at the same time towards the lowest form of consciousness. His work at the Ta Kali airfield was a sapper's drudgery; keeping the runways in condition for the British fighter planes; repairing the barracks, mess hall and hangars. At first he was able to look on it all over his shoulder, as it were: in retreat.
Not a night since Italy declared war have we known raidless. How was it in the years of peace? Somewhere - what centuries ago? - one could sleep a night through. That's all gone. Routed out by sirens at three in the morning - at 3:30 out to the airfield past the Bofors emplacements, the wardens, the fire-fighting crews. With death - its smell, slow after-trickling of powdered plaster, stubborn smoke and name, still fresh in the air. The R.A.F. are magnificent, all magnificent: ground artillery, the few merchant seamen who do get through, my own comrades-in-arms. I speak of them that way: our Home defence though little more than common labourers are military in the highest sense. Surely if war has any nobility it is in the rebuilding not the destruction. A few portable searchlights (they are at a premium) for us to see by. So with pick, shovel and rake we reshape our Maltese earth for those game little Spitfires.
But isn't it a way of glorifying God? Hard-labour surely. But as if somewhere once without our knowledge we'd been condemned for a term to prison. With the next raid all our filling and levelling is blasted away into pits and rubble piles which must then be refilled and relevelled only to be destroyed again. Day and night it never eases off. I have let pass my nightly prayers on more than one occasion. I say them now on my feet, on the job, often in rhythm to the shovelling. To kneel is a luxury these days.
No sleep, little food; but no complaints. Are we not, Maltese, English and the few Americans, one? There is, we are taught, a communion of saints in heaven. So perhaps on earth, also in this Purgatory, a communion: not of gods or heroes, merely men expiating sins they are unaware of, caught somehow all at once within the reaches of a sea un crossable and guarded by instruments of death. Here on our dear tiny prison plot, our Malta.
Retreat, then, into religious abstraction. Retreat also into poetry, which somehow he found time to write down. Fausto IV has commented elsewhere on the poetry which came out of Malta's second Great Siege. Fausto II's had fallen into the same patterns. Certain images recurred, major among them Valletta of the Knights. Fausto IV was tempted to put this down to simple "escape" and leave it there. It was certainly wish-fulfillment. Maratt had a vision of
Here towards midnight in a lull between raids, watching Elena and Paola sleep, I seem to have come inside time again. Midnight does mark the hairline between days, as was our Lord's design. But when the bombs fall, or at work, then it's as if time were suspended. As if we all laboured and sheltered in timeless Purgatory. Perhaps it comes only from living on an island. With another kind of nerves possibly one has a dimension, a vector pointing sternly to some land's-end or other, the tip of a peninsula. But here with nowhere to go in space but into the sea it can be only the barb-and-shaft of one's own arrogance that insists there is somewhere to go in time as well.
Or in a more poignant vein:
Spring has come. Perhaps there are sulla blossoms in the country. Here in the city is sun, and more rain than is really necessary. It cannot matter, can it? Even I suspect the growth of our child has nothing to do with time. Her name-wind will be here again; to soothe her face which is always dirty. Is it a world anyone could have brought a child into?
None of us has the right to ask that any more, Paola. Only you.
The other great image is of something I can only call slow apocalypse. Even the radical Dnubietna, whose tastes assuredly ran to apocalypse at full gallop, eventually created a world in which the truth had precedence over his engineer's politics. He was probably the best of our poets. First, at least, to come to a halt, about-face and toil back along his own retreat's path; back towards the real world the bombs were leaving us. The Ash Wednesday poem marked his lowest point: after that he gave up abstraction and a political rage which he later admitted was "all posturing" to be concerned increasingly with what was, not what ought to have been or what could be under the right form of government.
We all came back eventually. Maratt in a way which in any other context would be labelled absurdly theatrical. He was working as mechanic out at Ta Kali and had grown fond of several pilots. One by one they were shot from the sky. On the night the last one died he went calmly into the officers' club, stole a bottle of wine - scarce then like everything else because no convoys were getting through - and got belligerently drunk. The next anyone knew he was on the edge of town at one of the Bofors emplacements, being shown how to operate the guns. They taught him in time for the next raid. He divided his time after that between airfield and artillery, getting, I believe, two to three hours' sleep out of every twenty-four: He had an excellent record of kills. And his poetry began to show the same "retreat from retreat."
Fausto II's return was most violent of all. He dropped away from abstraction and into Fausto III: a non-humanity which was the most real state of affairs. Probably. One would rather not think so.
But all shared this sensitivity to decadence, of a slow falling, as if the island were being hammered inch by inch into the sea. "I remember," that other Fausto wrote,
A sad tango on the last night of the old world
A girl who peeped from between the palms
At the Phoenicia Hotel
Maria, alma de mi corazon,
Before the crucible
And the slag heap,
Before the sudden craters
And the cancerous blooming of displaced earth.
Before the carrion birds came sweeping from the sky;
Before that cicada,
This empty street.
Oh we were full of lyrical lines like "At the Phoenicia Hotel." Free verse: why not? There was simply not the time to cast it into rhyme or metre, to take care with assonance and ambiguity. Poetry had to be as hasty and rough as eating, sleep or sex. Jury-rigged and not as graceful as it might have been. But it did the job; put the truth on record.
"Truth" I mean, in the sense of attainable accuracy. No metaphysics. Poetry is not communication with angels or with the "subconscious." It is communication with the guts, genitals and five portals of sense. Nothing more.
Now there is your grandmother, child, who also comes into this briefly. Carla Maijstral: she died as you know last March, outliving my father by three years. An event which might have been enough to produce a new Fausto, had it been in an earlier "reign." Fausto II, for instance, was that sort of confused Maltese youth who finds island-love and mother-love impossible to separate. Had Fausto IV been more of a nationalist when Carla died, we might now have a Fausto V.
Early in the war we get passages like this:
Malta is a noun feminine and proper. Italians have indeed been attempting her defloration since the 8th of June. She lies on her back in the sea, sullen; an immemorial woman. Spread to the explosive orgasms of Mussolini bombs. But her soul hasn't been touched; cannot be. Her soul is the Maltese people, who wait - only wait - down in her clefts and catacombs alive and with a numb strength, filled with faith in God His Church. How can her flesh matter? It is vulnerable, a victim. But as the Ark was to Noah so is the inviolable womb of our Maltese rock to her children. Something given us in return for being filial and constant, children also of God.
Womb of rock. What subterranean confessions we wandered into! Carla must have told him at some point of the circumstances surrounding his birth. It had been near the time of the June Disturbances, in which old Maijstral was involved. Precisely how never came clear. But deeply enough to alienate Carla both from him and from herself. Enough so that one night we both nearly took a doomed acrobat's way down the steps at the Harbour end of Str. San Giovanni; I to limbo, she to a suicide's hell. What had kept her? The boy Fausto could only gather from listening in to her evening prayers that it was an Englishman; a mysterious being named Stencil.
Did he feel trapped? Having escaped lucky from one womb, now forced into the oubliette of another not so happily starred?
Again the classic response: retreat. Again into his damnable "communion." When Elena's mother died from a stray bomb dropped on Vittoriosa:
Oh, we've become accustomed to these things. My own mother is alive and well. God willing will continue so. But if she is to be taken from me (or me from her) ikun li trid Int: Thy will be done. I refuse to dwell on death because I know well enough that a young man, even here, dotes along in an illusion of immortality.
But perhaps more on this island because we've become, after all, one another. Parts of a unity. Some die, others continue. If a hair falls or a fingernail is torn away, am I any less alive and determined?
Seven raids today; so far. One "plot" of nearly a hundred Messerschmitts. They have levelled the churches, the Knights' auberges, the old monuments. They have left us a Sodom. Nine raids yesterday. Work harder than I've known it. My body would grow but there's little enough food. Few ships get through; convoys are sunk. Some of my comrades have dropped out. Weak from hunger. A miracle I was not the first to fall. Imagine. Maijstral, the frail University-poet, a labourer, a builder! And one who will survive. I must.
It's the rock they come back to. Fausto II managed to work himself into superstition:
Don't touch them, these walls. They carry the explosions for miles. The rock hears everything, and brings it to bone, up the fingers and arm, down through the bone-cage and bone-sticks and out again through the bone-webs. Its little passage through you is accident, merely in the nature of rock and bone: but it's as if you were given a reminder.
The vibration is impossible to talk about. Felt sound. Buzzing. The teeth buzz: Pain, a numb prickling along the jawbone, stifling concussion at the eardrums. Over and over. Mallet-blows as long as the raid, raids as long as the day. You never get used to it. You'd think we'd all have gone mad by now. What keeps me standing erect and away from the walls? And silent. A brute clinging to awareness, nothing else. Pure Maltese. Perhaps it is meant to go on forever. If "forever" still has any meaning.
Stand free, Maijstral . . .
The passage above comes towards the Siege's end. The phrase "womb of rock" now had emphasis for Dnubietna, Maratt and Fausto at the end not the beginning. It is part of time's chiromancy to reduce those days to simple passage through a grammatical sequence. Dnubietna wrote:
Motes of rock's dust
Caught among corpses of carob trees;
Atoms of iron
Swirl above the dead forge
On that cormorant side of the moon.
We knew they were only puppets
And the music from a gramophone:
Knew the gathered silk would fade,
Plush contract the mange;
Knew, or suspected, that children do grow up;
Would begin to shuffle after the first hundred years
Of the performance; yawn toward afternoon,
Begin to see the peeling paint on Judy's cheek,
Detect implausibility in the palsied stick
And self-deception in the villain's laugh.
But dear Christ, whose slim jewelled hand was it
Flicked from the wings so unexpected,
Holding the lighted wax taper
To send up all our poor but precious tinder
In flame of terrible colours?
Who was she who gently laughed, "Good night,"
Among the hoarse screaming of aged children?
From the quick to the inanimate. The great "movement" of the Siege poetry. As went Fausto II's already dual soul. All the while only in the process of learning life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.
Seeing his mother after a period of months away:
Time has touched her. I found myself wondering: did she know that in this infant she brought forth, to whom she gave the name for happy (ironic?) was a soul which would become torn and unhappy? Does any mother anticipate the future; acknowledge when the time comes that a son is now a man and must leave her to make whatever peace he can alone on a treacherous earth. No, it's the same Maltese timelessness. They don't feel the fingers of years jittering age, fallibility, blindness into face, heart and eyes. A son is a son, fixed always in the red and wrinkled image as they first see it. There are always elephants to be made drunk.
This last from an old folk tale. The king wants a palace made of elephant tusks. The boy had inherited physical strength from his father, a military hero. But it was for the mother to teach the son cunning. Make friends with them, feed them wine, kill them, steal their ivory. The boy is successful of course. But no mention of a sea voyage.
"There must have been," Fausto explains, "millennia ago, a land-bridge. They called Africa the Land of the Axe. There were elephants south of Mount Ruwenzori. Since then the sea has steadily crept in. German bombs may finish it."
Decadence, decadence. What is it? Only a clear movement toward death or, preferably, non-humanity. As Fausto II and III, like their island, became more inanimate, they moved closer to the time when like any dead leaf or fragment of metal they'd be finally subject to the laws of physics. All the time pretending it was a great struggle between the laws of man and the laws of God.
Is it only because Malta is a matriarchal island that Fausto felt so strongly that connection between mother-rule and decadence?
"Mothers are closer than anyone to accident. They are most painfully conscious of the fertilized egg; as Mary knew the moment of conception. But the zygote has no soul. Is matter." Further along these lines he would not go. But;
Their babies always seem to come by happenstance; a random conjunction of events. Mothers close ranks, and perpetrate a fictional mystery about motherhood. It's only a way of compensating for an inability to live with the truth. Truth being that they do not understand what is going on inside them; that it is a mechanical and alien growth which at some point acquires a soul. They are possessed. Or: the same forces which dictate the bomb's trajectory, the deaths of stars, the wind and the waterspout have focussed somewhere inside the pelvic frontiers without their consent, to generate one more mighty accident. It frightens them to death. It would frighten anyone.
So it moves us on toward the question of Fausto's "understanding" with God. Apparently his problem was never as simple as God v. Caesar, especially Caesar inanimate - the one we see in old medals and statues, the "force" we read of in history texts. Caesar for one thing was animate once, and had his own difficulties with a world of things as well as a degenerate crew of gods. It would be easier, since drama arises out of conflict, to call it simply human law v. divine, all within the arena in quarantine that had been Fausto's Home. I mean his soul and I also mean the island. But this isn't drama. Only an apologia for the Day of the 13 Raids. Even what happened then had no clear lines drawn.
I know of machines that are more complex than people. If this is apostasy, hekk ikun. To have humanism we must first be convinced of our humanity. As we move further into decadence this becomes more difficult.
More and more alien from himself, Fausto II began to detect signs of lovely inanimateness in the world around him.
Now the winter's gregale brings in bombers from the north; as Euroclydon it brought in St. Paul. Blessings, curses. But is the wind any part of us? Has it anything at all to do with us?
Somewhere perhaps behind a hill - some shelter - farmers are sowing wheat for a June harvest. Bombing is concentrated around Valletta, the Three Cities, the Harbour. Pastoral life has become enormously attractive. But there are strays: one killed Elena's mother. We cannot expect more of the bombs than of the wind. We should not expect. If I am not to become marid b'mohhu, I can only go on as sapper, as gravedigger, I must refuse to think of any other condition, past or future. Better to say: "This has always been. We've always lived in Purgatory and our term here is at best indefinite."
Apparently he took at this time to shambling about in the streets, during raids. Hours away from Ta Kali, when he should have been sleeping. Not out of any bravery, or for any reason connected with his job. Nor, at first, for very long.
Pile of brick, grave-shaped. Green beret lying nearby. Royal Commandoes? Star-shells from the Bofors over Marsamuscetto. Red light, long shadows from behind the shop at the corner which move in the unsteady light about a hidden pivot-point. Impossible to tell shadows of what.
Early sun still low on the sea. Blinding. Long blinding track, white road in from the sun to point of view. Sound of Messerschmitts. Invisible. Sound which grows louder. Spitfires scramble aloft, high angle of climb. Small, black in such bright sun. Course toward sun. Dirty marks appear on the sky. Orange-brown-yellow. Colour of excrement. Black. Sun turns the edges gold. And the edges trail like jellyfish toward the horizon. Marks spread, new ones bloom in the centres of old. Air up there is often so still. Other times a wind, up high, must streak them into nothing in seconds. Wind, machines, dirty smoke. Sometimes the sun. When there's rain nothing can be seen. But the wind sweeps in and down and everything can be heard.
For a matter of months, little more than "impressions." And was it not Valletta? During the raids everything civilian and with a soul was underground. Others were too busy to "observe." The city was left to itself; except for stragglers like Fausto, who felt nothing more than an unvoiced affinity and were enough like the city not to change the truth of the "impressions" by the act of receiving them. A city uninhabited is different. Different from what a "normal" observer, straggling in the dark - the occasional dark - would see. It is a universal sin among the false-animate or unimaginative to refuse to let well enough alone. Their compulsion to gather together, their pathological fear of loneliness extends on past the threshold of sleep; so that when they turn the corner, as we all must, as we all have done and do - some more often than others - to find ourselves on the street . . . You know the street I mean, child. The street of the 20th Century, at whose far end or turning - we hope - is some sense of Home or safety. But no guarantees. A street we are put at the wrong end of, far reasons best known to the agents who put us there. If there are agents. But a street we must walk.
It is the acid test. To populate, or not to populate. Ghosts, monsters, criminals, deviates represent melodrama and weakness. The only horror about them is the dreamer's own horror of isolation. But the desert, or a row of false shop fronts; a slag pile, a forge where the fires are banked, these and the street and the dreamer, only an inconsequential shadow himself in the landscape, partaking of the soullessness of these other masses and shadows; this is 20th Century nightmare.
It was not hostility, Paola, this leaving you and Elena alone during the raids. Nor was it the usual selfish irresponsibility of youth. His youth, Maratt's, Dnubietna's, the youth of a "generation" (both in a literary and in a literal sense) had vanished abruptly with the first bomb of 8 June 1940. The old Chinese artificers and their successors Schultze and Nobel had devised a philtre far more potent than they knew. One does and the "Generation" were immune for life; immune to the fear of death, hunger, hard labour, immune to the trivial seductions which pull a man away from a wife and child and the need to care. Immune to everything but what happened to Fausto one afternoon during the seventh of thirteen raids. In a lucid moment during his fugue, Fausto wrote:
How beautiful is blackout in Valletta. Before tonight's "plot" comes in from the north. Night fills the street like a black fluid; flows along the gutters, its current tugging at your ankles. As if the city were underwater; an Atlantis, under the night sea.
Is it night only that wraps Valletta? Or is it a human emotion; "an air of expectancy"? Not the expectancy of dreams, where our awaited is unclear and unnameable. Valletta knows well enough what she waits for. There is no tension or malaise to this silence; it's cool, secure; the silence of boredom or well-accustomed ritual. A gang of artillerymen in the next street make hastily for their emplacement. But their vulgar song fades away, leaving one embarrassed voice which finally runs out in mid-word.
Thank God you're safe, Elena, in our other, subterranean Home. You and the child. If old Saturno Aghtina and his wife have now moved permanently to the old sewer, then there is care for Paola when you must go out to do your work. How many other families have cared for her? All our babies have had only one father, the war; one mother, Malta her women. Bad lookout for the Family, and for mother-rule. Clans and matriarchy are incompatible with this Communion war has brought to Malta.
I go from you love not because I must. We men are not a race of freebooters or giaours; not when our argosies are prey and food to the evil fish-of-metal whose lair is a German U-boat. There is no more world but the island; and it's only a day to any sea's verge. There is no leaving you, Elena; not in truth.
But in dream there are two worlds: the street and under the street. One is the kingdom of death and one of life. And how can a poet live without exploring the other kingdom, even if only as a kind of tourist? A poet feeds on dream. If no convoys come what else is there to feed on?
Poor Fausto. The "vulgar song" was sung to a march called Colonel Bogie:
Has only one left ball,
Has two but they are small;
Has something similar,
Has no balls
At all . . .
Proving perhaps that virility on Malta did not depend on mobility. They were all, as Fausto was first to admit, labourers not adventurers. Malta, and her inhabitants, stood like an immovable rock in the river Fortune, now at war's flood. The same motives which cause us to populate a dream-street also cause us to apply to a rock human qualities like "invincibility," "tenacity," "perseverance," etc. More than metaphor, it is delusion. But on the strength of this delusion Malta survived.
Manhood on Malta thus became increasingly defined in terms of rockhood. This had its dangers for Fausto. Living as be does much of the time in a world of metaphor, the poet is always acutely conscious that metaphor has no value apart from its function; that it is a device, an artifice. So that while others may look on the laws of physics as legislation and Gad as a human form with beard measured in light-years and nebulae for sandals, Fausto's kind are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the "practical" half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie, confident that their machines, dwellings, streets and weather share the same human motives, personal traits and fits of contrariness as they.
Poets have been at this for centuries. It is the only useful purpose they do serve in society: and if every poet were to vanish tomorrow, society would live no longer than the quick memories and dead books of their poetry.
It is the "role" of the poet, this 20th Century. To lie. Dnubietna wrote:
If I told the truth
You would not believe me.
If I said: no fellow soul
Drops death from the air, no conscious plot
Drove us underground you would laugh
As if I had twitched the wax mouth
Of my tragic mask into a smile -
A smile to you; to me the truth behind
The catenary: locus of the transcendental:
y = a/2 (e^(x/a) + e^(-x/a)).
Fausto ran across the engineer-poet one afternoon in the street. Dnubietna had been drunk, and now that it was wearing off was returning to the scene of his bat. An unscrupulous merchant named Tifkira had a hoard of wine. It was Sunday and raining. Weather had been foul, raids fewer. The two young men met next to the ruin of a small church. The one confessional had been sheared in two but which half was left, priest's or parishioner's, Fausto could not tell. Sun behind the rain clouds appeared as a patch of luminous grey, a dozen times its normal size, halfway down from the zenith. Almost brilliant enough to cast shadows. But falling from behind Dnubietna so that the engineer's features were indistinct. He wore khakis stained with grease, and a blue fatigue cap; large drops of rain fell on the two.
Dnubietna indicated the church with his head. "Have you been, priest?"
"To Mass: no." They hadn't met for a month. But no need to bring each other up to date.
"Come on. We'll get drunk. How are Elena and your kid?"
"Maratt's is pregnant again. Don't you miss the bachelor life?" They were walking down a narrow cobbled street made slick by the rain. To either side were rubble heaps, a few standing walls or porch steps. Streaks of stone-dust, matte against the shiny cobblestones, interrupted at random the pavement's patterning. The sun had almost achieved reality. Their attenuated shadows strung out behind. Rain still fell. "Or having married when you did," Dnubietna went on, "perhaps you equate singleness with peace."
"Peace," said Fausto. "Quaint word." They skipped around and over stray chunks of masonry.
"Sylvana," Dnubietna sang, "in your red petticoat/ Come back, come back/ You may keep my heart/ But bring back my money . . . ."
"You should get married," Fausto said, mournful: "It's not fair otherwise."
"Poetry and engineering have nothing to do with domesticity."
"We haven't," Fausto remembered, "had a good argument for months."
In here. They went down a flight of steps which led under a building still reasonably intact. Clouds of powdered plaster rose as they descended. Sirens began. Inside the room Tifkira lay on a table, asleep. Two girls played cards listlessly in a corner. Dnubietna vanished for a moment behind the bar, reappearing with a small bottle of wine. A bomb fell in the next street, rattling the beams of the ceiling, starting an oil lamp hung there to swinging.
"I ought to be asleep," Fausto said. "I work tonight."
"Remorse of a uxorious half-man," Dnubietna snarled, pouring wine. The girls looked up. "It's the uniform," he confided, which was so ridiculous that Fausto had to laugh. Soon they had moved to the girls' table. Talk was irregular, there being an artillery emplacement almost directly above them. The girls were professional and tried for a while to proposition Fausto and Dnubietna.
"No use," Dnubietna said. "I've never had to pay for mine and this one is married and a priest." Three laughed: Fausto, getting drunk, was not amused.
"That is long gone," he said quietly.
"Once a priest always a priest," Dnubietna retorted. "Come. Bless this wine. Consecrate it. It's Sunday and you haven't been to Mass."
Overhead, the Bofors began an intermittent and deafening hack: two explosions every second. The four concentrated on drinking wine. Another bomb fell. "Bracketed," Dnubietna shouted above the a/a barrage. A word which no longer meant anything in Valletta. Tifkira woke up.
"Stealing my wine," the owner cried. He stumbled to the wall and leaned his forehead against it. Thoroughly he began to scratch his hairy stomach and back under their singlet. "You might give me a drink."
"It isn't consecrated. Maijstral the apostate is at fault."
"Now God and I have an agreement," Fausto began as if to correct a misapprehension. "He will forget about my not answering His call if I cease to question. Simply survive, you see."
When had that come to him? In what street: at what point in these months of impressions? Perhaps he'd thought it up on the spot. He was drunk. So tired it had only taken four glasses of wine.
"How," one of the girls asked seriously, "how can there be faith if you don't ask questions? The priest said it's right for us to ask questions."
Dnubietna looked at his friend's face, saw no answer forthcoming: so turned and patted the girl's shoulder.
"That's the hell of it, love. Drink your wine."
"No," screamed Tifkira, propped against the other wall, watching them. "You'll waste it all." The gun began its racket again.
"Waste," Dnubietna laughed above the noise. "Don't talk of waste, you idiot." Belligerent, he started across the room. Fausto put his head down on the table to rest for a moment. The girls resumed their card game, using his back for a table. Dnubietna had taken the owner by the shoulders. He began a lengthy denunciation of Tifkira, punctuating it with shakes which sent the fat torso into cyclic shudders.
Above, the all-clear sounded. Soon after there was noise at the door. Dnubietna opened and in rollicked the artillery crew, dirty, exhausted and in search of wine. Fausto awoke and jumped to his feet saluting, scattering the cards in a shower of hearts and spades.
"Away, away!" shouted Dnubietna. Tifkira, giving up his dream of a great wine-hoard, slumped down to a sitting position against the wall and closed his eyes. "We must get Maijstral to work!"
"Go to, caitiff," Fausto cried, saluted again and fell over backwards. With much giggling and unsteadiness Dnubietna and one of the girls helped him to his feet. It was apparently Dnubietna's intention to bring Fausto to Ta Kali on foot (usual method was to hitch a ride from a lorry) to sober him up. As they reached the darkening street the sirens began again. Members of the Bofors crew, each holding a glass of wine, came clattering up the steps and collided with them. Dnubietna, irritated, abruptly ducked out from under Fausto's arm and came up with a fist to the stomach of the nearest artilleryman. A brawl developed. Bombs were falling over by the Grand Harbour. The explosions began to approach slow and steady, like the footsteps of a child's ogre. Fausto lay on the ground feeling no particular desire to come to the aid of his friend who was outnumbered and being worked over thoroughly. They finally dropped Dnubietna and headed towards the Bofors. Not so far overhead, an ME-109, pinned by searchlights, suddenly broke out of the cloud-cover and swooped in. Orange tracers followed. "Get the bugger," someone at the gun emplacement screamed. The Bofors opened up. Fausto looked on with mild interest. Shadows of the gun crew, lit from above by the exploding projectiles and "scatter" from the searchlights, flickered in and out of the night. In one flash Fausto saw the red glow of Tifkira's wine in a glass held to an ammo-handler's lips and slowly diminishing. Somewhere over the Harbour a/a shells caught up with the Messerschmitt; its fuel tanks ignited in a great yellow flowering and down it went, slow as a balloon, the black smoke of its passage billowing through the searchlight beams, which lingered a moment at the point of intercept before going on to other Business.
Dnubietna hung over him, haggard, one eye beginning to swell. "Away, away," he croaked. Fausto got to his feet reluctant and off they went. There is no indication in the journal of how they did it, but the two reached Ta Kali just as the all-clear sounded. They went perhaps a mile on foot. Presumably they dove for cover whenever the bombing got too close. Finally they clambered on the back of a passing lorry.
"It was hardly heroic," Fausto wrote. "We were both drunk. But I've not been able to get it out of my mind that we were given a dispensation that night. That God had suspended the laws of chance, by which we should rightly have been killed. Somehow the street - the kingdom of death - was friendly. Perhaps it was because I observed our agreement and did not bless the wine."
Post hoc. And only part of the over-all "relationship." This is what I meant about Fausto's simplicity. He did nothing so complex as drift away from God or reject his church. Losing faith is a complicated Business and takes time. There are no epiphanies, no "moments of truth." It takes much thought and concentration in the later phases. which themselves come about through an accumulation of small accidents: examples of general injustice, misfortune falling upon the godly, prayers of one's own unanswered. Fausto and his "Generation" simply hadn't the time for this leisurely intellectual hanky-panky. They'd got out of the habit, had lost a certain sense of themselves, had come further from the University-at-peace and closer to the beleaguered city than any were ready to admit, were more Maltese, i.e., than English.
All else in his life having gone underground; having acquired a trajectory in which the sirens figured as only one parameter, Fausto realized that the old covenants, the old agreements with God would have to change too. For at least a working relevancy to God therefore, Fausto did exactly what he'd been doing for a Home, food, marital love: he jury-rigged - "made do." But the English part of him was still there, keeping up the journal.
The child - you - grew healthier, more active. By '42 you had fallen in with a roistering crew of children whose chief amusement was a game called R.A.F. Between raids a dozen or so of you would go out in the streets, spread your arms like aeroplanes and run screaming and buzzing in and out of the ruined walls, rubble heaps and holes of the city. The stronger and taller boys were, of course, Spitfires. Others - unpopular boys, girls, and younger children - went to make up the planes of the enemy. You were usually, I believe, an Italian dirigible. The most buoyant balloon-girl in the stretch of sewer we occupied that season. Harassed, chased, dodging the rocks and sticks tossed your way, you managed each time with the "Italian" agility your role demanded, to escape subjugation. But always, having outwitted your opponents, you would finally do your patriotic duty by surrendering. And only when you were ready.
Your mother and Fausto were away from you most of the time: nurse and sapper. You were left to the two extremes of our underground society: the old, for whom the distinction between sudden and gradual affliction hardly existed, and the young - your true own - who unconsciously were creating a discrete world, a prototype of the world Fausto III, already outdated, would inherit. Did the two forces neutralize and leave you on the lonely promontory between two worlds? Can you still look both ways, child? If so you stand at an enviable vantage: you're still that four-year-old belligerent with history in defilade. The present Fausto can look nowhere but back on the separate stages of his own history. No continuity. No logic. "History," Dnubietna wrote, "is a step-function."
Was Fausto believing too much: was the Communion all sham to compensate for some failure as a father and husband? By peacetime standards a failure he certainly was. The normal, pre-war course would have been a slow growing into love for Elena and Paola as the young man, thrown into marriage and fatherhood prematurely, learned to take on the burden which is every man's portion in the adult world.
But the Siege created different burdens and it was impossible to say whose world was more real: the children's or the parents'. For all their dirt, noise and roughnecking the kids of Malta served a poetic function. The R.A.F. game was only one metaphor they devised to veil the world that was. For whose benefit? The adults were at work, the old did not care, the kids themselves were all "in" the secret. It must have been for lack of anything better: until their muscles and brains developed to where they could take on part of the work-load in the ruin their island was becoming. It was biding time: it was poetry in a vacuum.
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 an 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 passer-by; 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 gossipped 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 cafe, 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 whitecaps. 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 towards 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, walless, 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 towards the suncloud. As if winds were blowing today from all thirty-two points of the rose at once to meet at the centre 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 beside 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 towards the sky.
"Missierna li-inti fis-smewwiet, jitqaddes 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.
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 towards 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 sore, 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 antisubmarine 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 winged 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 harbour such germs and thus turn so against its divine owner.
The children, being poets in a vacuum, adept at metaphor, had no trouble in transferring a similar infection to any of God's representatives the priests. Not all priests; but one, parishless, an alien - Sliema was like another country - and having already a bad reputation, was fit vehicle for their scepticism.
Reports of him were confused. Fausto would hear - through the children or Father Avalanche - that the Bad Priest "was converting by the shores of Marsamuscetto" or "had been active in Xaghriet Mewwija." Sinister uncertainty surrounded the priest. Elena showed no concern: did not feel that she herself had encountered any evil that day in the street, was not worried about Paola coming under any evil influence, though the Bad Priest had been known to gather about him a small knot of children in the street and give them sermons. He taught no consistent philosophy that anyone could piece together from the fragments borne back to us by the children. The girls he advised to become nuns, avoid the sensual extremes - pleasure of intercourse, pain of childbirth. The bays he told to find strength in - and be like - the rock of their island. He returned, curiously like the Generation of '37, often to the rock: preaching that the object of male existence was to be like a crystal: beautiful and soulless. "God is soulless?" speculated Father Avalanche. "Having created souls, He Himself has none? So that to be like God we must allow to be eroded the soul in ourselves. Seek mineral symmetry, for here is eternal life: the immortality of rock. Plausible. But apostasy."
The children were not, of course, having any. Knowing full well that if every girl became a sister there would be no more Maltese: and that rock, however fine as an object of contemplation, does no work: labours not and thus displeases God, who is favourably disposed towards human labour. So they stayed passive, letting him talk, hanging like shadows at his heels, keeping a watchful eye. Surveillance in various forms continued for three years. With an apparent abating of the Siege - begun perhaps the day of Fausto and Elena's walk - the stalking only intensified because there was more time for it.
Intensified too - beginning, one suspects, the same day - was a friction between Fausto and Elena - the same unceasing, wearying friction of the leaves in the park that afternoon. The smaller arguments were centred, unhappily, around you, Paola. As if the pair had both rediscovered a parental duty. With more time on their hands they belatedly took up providing for their child moral guidance, mother love, comfort in moments of fear. Both were inept at it and each time their energies inevitably turned away from the child and on one another. During such times the child would more often than not slip away quietly to trail the Bad Priest.
Until one evening Elena told the rest of her meeting with the Bad Priest. The argument itself isn't recorded in any detail; only:
Our words became more and more agitated, higher in pitch, more bitter until finally she cried, "Oh the child. I should have done what he told me . . ." Then realizing what she'd said, silence. She moved away, I caught her.
"Told you." I shook her until she spoke. I would have killed her, I think.
"The Bad Priest," finally, "told me not to have the child. Told me he knew of a way. I would have. But I met Father Avalanche. By accident."
And as she had begun to pray in the park had then apparently let the old habits reassert themselves. By accident.
I would never be telling you this had you been brought up under any illusion you were "wanted." But having been abandoned so early to a common underworld, questions of want or possession never occurred to you. So at least I assume; not, I hope, falsely.
The day after Elena's revelation the Luftwaffe came in thirteen times. Elena was killed early in the morning, the ambulance in which she was riding having apparently suffered a direct hit.
Word got to me at Ta Kali in the afternoon, during a lull. I don't remember the messenger's face. I do remember sliding the shovel into a pile of dirt and walking away. And then a blank space.
The next I knew I was in the street, in a part of the city I did not recognise. The all-clear had sounded so I must have walked through a raid. I stood at the top of a slope of debris. I heard cries: hostile shouting. Children. A hundred yards away they swarmed among the ruins, closing in on a broken structure I recognized as the cellar of a house. Curious, I lurched down the slope after them. For some reason, I felt like a spy. Circling the ruin I went up another small bank to the roof. There were holes: I could look through. The children inside were clustered round a figure in black. The Bad Priest. Wedged under a fallen beam. Face - what could be seen - impassive.
"Is he dead," one asked. Others were picking already at the black rags.
"Speak to us, Father," they called, mocking. "What is your sermon for today?"
"Funny hat," giggled a little girl. She reached out and tugged off the hat. A long coil of white hair came loose and fell into the plaster-dust. One beam of sunlight cut across the space and the dust now turned it white.
"It's a lady," said the girl.
"Ladies can't be priests," replied a boy scornfully. He began to examine the hair. Soon he had pulled out an ivory comb and handed it to the little girl. She smiled. Other girls gathered round her to look at the prize. "It's not real hair," the boy announced. "See." He removed the long white wig from the priest's head.
"That's Jesus," cried a tall boy. Tattooed on the bare scalp was a two-colour Crucifixion. It was to be only the first of many surprises.
Two children had been busy at the victim's feet, unlacing the shoes. Shoes were a welcome windfall in Malta at this time.
"Please," the priest said suddenly.
"She's alive, stupid."
"Please what, Father."
"Sister. May sisters dress up as priests, sister?"
"Please lift this beam," said the sister/priest.
"Look, look," came cries at the woman's feet. They held up one of the black shoes. It was high-topped and impossible to wear. The cavity of the shoe was the exact imprint of a woman's high-heeled slipper. I could now see one of the slippers, dull gold, protruding from under the black robes. Girls whispered excitedly about how pretty the slippers were. One began to undo the buckles.
"If you can't lift the beam," the woman said (with perhaps a hint of panic), "please get help."
"Ah." From the other end. Up came one of the slippers and a foot - an artificial foot - the two sliding out as a unit, lug-and-slot.
"She comes apart."
The woman did not seem to notice. Perhaps she could no longer feel. But when they brought the feet to her head to show her, I saw two tears grow and slip from the outside corners of her eyes. She remained quiet while the children removed her robes and the shirt; and the gold cufflinks in the shape of a claw, and the black trousers which fit close to her skin. One of the boys had stolen a Commando's bayonet. There were rust-spots. They had to use it twice to get the trousers off.
The nude body was surprisingly young. The skin healthy-looking. Somehow we'd all thought of the Bad Priest as an older person. At her navel was a star sapphire. The boy with the knife picked at the stone. It would not come away. He dug in with the point of the bayonet, working for a few minutes before he was able to bring out the sapphire. Blood had begun to well in its place.
Other children crowded round her head. One pried her jaws apart while another removed a set of false teeth. She did not struggle: only closed her eyes and waited.
But she could not even keep them closed. For the children peeled back one eyelid to reveal a glass eye with the iris in the shape of a clock. This, too, they removed.
I wondered if the disassembly of the Bad Priest might not go on, and on, into evening. Surely her arms and breasts could be detached; the skin of her legs be peeled away to reveal some intricate understructure of silver openwork. Perhaps the trunk itself contained other wonders: intestines of parti-coloured silk, gay balloon-lungs, a rococo heart. But the sirens started up then. The children dispersed bearing away their new-found treasures, and the abdominal wound made by the bayonet was doing its work. I lay prone under a hostile sky looking down for moments more at what the children had left; suffering Christ foreshortened on the bare skull, one eye and one socket, staring up at me: a dark hole for the mouth, stumps at the bottoms of the legs. And the blood which had formed a black sash across the waist, flowing down both sides from the navel.
I went down into the cellar to kneel by her.
"Are you alive."
At the first bomb-bursts, she moaned.
"I will pray for you." Night was coming in.
She began to cry. Tearless, half-nasal; more a curious succession of drawn-out wails, originating far back in the mouth cavity. All through the raid she cried.
I gave her what I remembered of the sacrament of Extreme Unction. I could not hear her confession: her teeth were gone and she must have been past speech. But in those cries - so unlike human or even animal sound that they might have been only the wind blowing past any dead reed - I detected a sincere hatred for all her sins which must have been countless; a profound sorrow at having hurt God by sinning; a fear of losing Him which was worse than the fear of death. The interior darkness was lit by flares over Valletta, incendiary bombs in the Dockyard. Often both our voices were drowned in the explosions or the chattering of the ground artillery.
I did not hear only what I wanted to hear in these sounds that issued unceasing from the poor woman. I have been over it, Paola, and over it. I have since attacked myself more scathingly than any of your doubts could. You will say I had forgotten my understanding with God in administering a sacrament only a priest can give. That after losing Elena I'd "regressed" to the priesthood I would have joined had I not married her.
At the time I only knew that a dying human must be prepared. I had no oil to anoint her organs of sense - so mutilated now - and so used her own blood, dipping it from the navel as from a chalice. Her lips were cold. Though I saw and handled many corpses in the course of the siege, to this day I cannot live with that cold. Often, when I fall asleep at my desk, the blood supply to an arm is cut off. I wake and touch it and am no further from nightmare, for it is night's cold, object's cold, nothing human, nothing of me about it at all.
Now touching her lips my fingers recoiled and I returned from wherever I'd been. The all-clear sounded. She cried once or twice more and fell silent. I knelt by her and began to pray for myself. For her I'd done all I could. How long did I pray? No way of knowing.
But soon the cold of the wind - shared now with what had been a quick body - began to chill me. Kneeling grew uncomfortable. Only saints and lunatics can remain "devoted" for extended periods of time. I did feel far a pulse or heartbeat. None. I arose, limped about the cellar aimlessly, and finally emerged into Valletta without looking back.
I returned to Ta Kali, on foot. My shovel was still where I had left it.
Of Fausto III's return to life, little can be said. It happened. What inner resources were there to give it nourishment are still unknown to the present Fausto. This is a confession and in that return from the rock was nothing to confess. There are no records of Fausto III except for indecipherable entries.
And sketches of an azalea blossom, a carob tree.
There remained two unanswered questions. If he had truly broken his covenant with God in administering the sacrament why did he survive the raid?
And why did he not stop the children: or lift the beam?
In answer to the first one can only suggest that he was now Fausto III, with no further need for God.
The second has caused his successor to write this confession. Fausto Maijstral is guilty of murder: a sin of omission if you will. He will answer to no tribunal but God. And God at this moment is far away.
May He be closer to you.
Valletta: 27 August 1956
Stencil let the last thin scribbled sheet flutter to bare linoleum. Had his coincidence, the accident to shatter the surface of this stagnant pool and send all the mosquitoes of hope zinging away to the exterior night; had it happened?
"An Englishman; a mysterious being named Stencil."
Valletta. As if Paola's silence since - God, eight months. Had she, by her refusal to tell him anything, been all this time forcing him closer to the day when he'd have to admit Valletta as a possibility? Why?
Stencil would have liked to go on believing the death and V. had been separate for his father. This he still could choose to do (couldn't he?), and continue on in calm weather. He could go to Malta and possibly end it. He had stayed off Malta. He was afraid of ending it; but, damn it all, staying here would end it too. Funking out; finding V.; he didn't know which he was most afraid of, V. or sleep. Or whether they were two versions of the same thing.
Was there nothing for it but Valletta?