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Fiction From the December 2011 issue: The Fantastic
This time she's building a city. The first city after eleven islands in a row, now gathered together in the soft red folder which, when her father goes out for a coffee in the evenings and she finds herself alone, she takes out of the drawer beside her bed, before pulling out one of the maps and descending somewhere into it. Here she comes to a chocolate shop, full of fragrance and cocoa powder. Here she comes to a lounge living room with a giant television, and she quickly darts to the front door before they catch her and think she's a burglar. Sometimes she finds herself in the middle of a street, among the cars and motorbikes.
On the map, you'll find anything you could possibly think of. For children, a school encircled with a garden of apple trees. For youngsters, a small university churning out teachers, doctors, engineers, and architects. For the sick, a hospital. For those who want to work, factories, surrounded by fields, with space for them to expand further as more work arrives. For sports lovers, a football field, with small courts around it for volleyball, basketball, and tennis. Then a church and some shops. A bakery. A carpenter's workshop. Grocery stores. Roads and bridges. Ports with boats coming in to dock. Customs offices, post offices. A police station. Farms and animals. An airport, a bus station. And above all, lots of houses. Small ones for those who live alone. Apartments for those who don't want to or cannot spend too much. And big houses for the well-off, with large families where the mom and dad were graced with a fruitful and rewarding life.
Whenever she'd finish a city or an island, she would lift it in the air, and the heavier the paper turned with the blue ink of the felt pen, the more satisfied she would become with its stable structure. And sometimes, if the size of the city so required, she would turn the paper over and build another city right underneath it. An underground city, full of drainage canals, water pipes, electricity and telephone cables, and one or two lines for the metro. Then she would place the paper in front of the bulb of the pink lampshade, and the strong light would reveal the city underneath. You could even catch a glimpse of the mice racing along the tunnels. Or the cars passing through huddled streets and chimneys spurting out gray smoke. She'd then give the city a name, place it in the soft red folder, and start thinking about another one. One map after another, she would continue to perfect her cities and islands, enriching the life of the residents. If in her first attempts she used to place, say, a disco opposite a church (because it was the only space left for it), now she would join the disco to the football field, and make that area a recreation center away from the houses. That way, if the football was kicked out of the ground, it wouldn't break a neighbor's window but hit only the wall of the disco, which hardly has any windows to break. Or else, where before she'd placed a cemetery next to the homes, now she would take the cemeteries somewhere they can't be seen. That way, if a young girl who had lost her mother happened to look out the window during a sleepless night, she wouldn't see her mother's name engraved upon the stone.
The creation of a city or island usually began with an outer circle. The periphery, generally rounded, which she would then begin to fill. Tonight, however, she begins with a small bar, where many people gather every evening, their breath fast steaming the windows. Lots of people, especially students, who each evening order one of the special drinks prepared for them by Livia, a dark-skinned girl from Porto Alegre, who had somehow ended up there from Brazil. What's special about the drinks is that they are as unpredictable as a bulb going out in the middle of the night. All you order is the number of drinks you want: one drink, say, if you happen to be alone. Or four, if you're in the company of three others. But what's in the drink is entirely up to Livia. That's the fun of it. She prepares the mixture herself, whatever occurs to her at that moment. The only thing you can specify is whether or not you want her to light it. If you're scared of fire, well, then you tell her not to light it at all. Otherwise, you could end up with a glass as tiny as an apostle's head at Pentecost, and before drinking up you'd have to wait for the flame to die down and go out. Unless of course you're the adventurous type and you down it all while it's still burning, or even ask Livia to light it in your mouth. But if you're that courageous, and you lower your head a second before the flame goes out, then you might end up burning the roof of your mouth—or as Livia calls it, il cielo dela boca. And everyone gulps down these drinks that don't cost much because they're small and the place is not for the wealthy. Everyone except a bald man sporting a few days' beard, leaning on the corner of the wooden counter, watching Livia in wonder at how she keeps coming out with new colors, new flavors, always a new spectacle. But how does she manage to remember them all? How is it that she doesn't confuse them? How is it that she never spills a drop of beer, and never lets a bottle slip from her hands? How do the colors always end up matching? And how does she make every single drink taste so wonderful?
And as she completes another little masterpiece, the bald man at the counter sets off an applause which soon spreads to the toilet in the inner corner, and when the applause reaches its loudest, he hides his shyness away in the pockets of his jeans—which once were blue—and shouts out with a throaty voice: "Brava, Livia!" By now, Livia's used to him. She knows she won't go over to him and ask if he'd like a drink too. He orders his from the young man who collects, washes, and drops the glasses. Black coffee.
In front of Livia's bar, she's now building a small fountain to adorn the little opening in the street. In the middle of the fountain, she places a statue of a girl with large eyes, wearing a fur coat with small pockets in which she hides the palms of her hands. The water of the fountain spurts out of the five buttons of her coat, down into a giant saucer. And whenever the door of Livia's bar opens, the girl with large eyes hears the racket inside and welcomes the heat that slips out.
And from the saucer, she can see them slurping their little drinks. Sometimes they down a drink and immediately follow it with a spoonful of another drink. As if they were taking a syrup or medicine. Often she'll see someone grimacing, until it all passes and their lips leave their stretch of disgust and meet again in a smile. Then a good laugh and everyone starts clapping. And the bald man shouts out, "Brava, Livia!"
She truly adores the bald man. But when he realizes it's late, throws the checkered beret on his head and the scarf around his neck and leaves, in his eyes she notices the sadness of an entire week. She continues to watch him as he walks down to the end of the street. He then crosses a tiny square with a large tower in the middle—from which you can see the roofs of the entire city—and enters a narrow street, then walks till he reaches a large block of buildings, full of small apartments. He makes his way up and opens the door. As he takes off his coat and scarf and rests them on the chair by the telephone in the corridor, he opens the door of his daughter's room to see if she's asleep.
And as usual, he finds her sleeping with the light on. He slowly takes the piece of paper from her hand, with half a city built and the other half planned, he kisses her on the forehead, and puts out the light under the pink lampshade.
© Pierre J. Mejlak. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Antoine Cassar. All rights reserved.
Issa qed tibni belt. L-ewwel belt wara ħdax-il gżira in fila, li kollha nġabru fis-soft file l-aħmar li hekk kif joħroġ missierha biex imur jieħu l-kafè ta’ filgħaxija u ssib ruħha weħidha, toħroġ mill-kexxun ta’ ħdejn is-sodda, tislet mappa minnu u tinżel x’imkien fiha. Daqqa tiġi f’ħanut taċ-ċikkulata, kollu riħa tfuħ u trab tal-kokkodina. Daqqa f’salott b’televixin daqs dinja u jkollha bilġri tmur tfittex il-bieb ta’ barra qabel jaqbduha u jaħsbuha xi ħalliel. U ġieli spiċċat f’nofs ta’ triq, qalb il-karozzi u l-muturi.
U fuq il-mappa kont issib kollox. Għat-tfal kien hemm skola mdawra bi ġnien kollu siġar tat-tuffieħ. Għaż-żgħażagħ università żgħira biex minn hemm joħorġu għalliema, tobba, inġiniera u periti. Għall-morda sptar. Għal min irid jaħdem fabbriki mdawrin bl-għelieqi biex ikollhom wisa’ fejn jikbru iżjed ma jidħlilhom xogħol. Għall-isportivi ground tal-futbol u oħrajn żgħar tal-volleyball, basketball u tennis madwaru. Imbagħad knisja u ħwienet. Furnar. Mastrudaxxa. Ħwienet tal-ikel. Toroq u pontijiet. Portijiet fejn isorġu l-vapuri. Uffiċċji tad-dwana u tal-posta. Għassa tal-pulizija. Irziezet tal-annimali. Ajruport u venda tal-karozzi tal-linja. U fuq kollox ħafna djar. Uħud żgħar għal dawk li jgħixu weħidhom. Appartamenti għal dawk li jonfqu ħafna ma jridux jew minn fejn jonfqu m’għandhomx. U djar kbar għal dawk sinjuri b'familja kbira fejn l-omm u l-missier ikun kważi ġihom kollox tajjeb.
U meta tlesti belt jew gżira tgħolliha ’l fuq u iżjed mal-folja tkun tqalet bil-linka l-blu tal-feltpen iżjed tħoss li għandha struttura soda. U ġieli, meta l-kobor tal-belt hekk ikun jitlob, iddawwar il-karta bil-kontra u eżatt taħt il-belt tibni belt oħra. Belt sotterranja mimlija kanali ta’ drenaġġ, pajpijiet tal-ilma, cables tad-dawl u tat-telefon u linja jew tnejn għall-metro. U meta mbagħad tpoġġi l-folja quddiem il-bozza tal-lampshade r-roża, id-dawl qawwi jikxef ukoll il-belt tal-qiegħ. Sal-ġrieden jiġru bil-ħarba fil-mini ta’ taħt l-art tkun tista’ tilmaħ. Sal-karozzi għaddejjin minn toroq mimlija nies u djar bi ċmieni jdaħħnu duħħan griż. Imbagħad tagħti isem lill-belt, iddaħħalha fis-soft file l-aħmar u tibda taħseb f'oħra. U mappa wara l-oħra kienet qed torqom dejjem iżjed il-bliet u l-gżejjer tagħha u ssebbaħ il-ħajja għan-nies tal-post. Għax jekk qabel, ngħidu aħna, ġieli kienet tpoġġi diskoteka quddiem knisja (għax hemm biss kien ikun fadlilha wisa'), issa bdiet tgħaqqad id-diskoteka mal-ground tal-football u tagħmel dik ir-rokna ċentru ta' rikreazzjoni maqtugħ mid-djar. Biex jekk iwaddbu l-ballun tal-futbol barra mill-ground ma jkissrux it-tieqa tal-ġirien imma jolqtu biss il-ħajt tad-diskoteka, li ħafna twieqi ma jkollhiex. Jew fejn qabel ġieli poġġiet ċimiterju ħdejn id-djar, issa bdiet tieħu ċ-ċimiterji fejn ma jidhrux. Biex jekk tifla żgħira li tilfet lil ommha jfettlilha tħares mit-tieqa ’l barra f’nofs ta’ lejl bla rqad, ma tarax isem ommha mnaqqax fuq il-kapitelli.
Il-ħolqien ta’ belt jew gżira s-soltu kien dejjem jibda biċ-ċirku ta’ barra. Bil-periferija, ġeneralment ittondjata, li mbagħad riedet timliha. Imma llejla qed tibda b'ħanut ċkejken, li fih kull filgħaxija jinġabru ħafna nies, li bin-nifsijiet tagħhom malajr itappnu t-twieqi ta’ barra. Ħafna nies, l-iżjed studenti, li kull filgħaxija jordnawlek xarbiet speċjali li tippreparahom Livia, tfajla samranija minn Pôrto Alegre, li b'xi mod, mill-Brażil spiċċat hemm. U x-xarbiet huma speċjali għax huma spontanji daqs il-qtugħ ta’ bozza f’nofs ta’ lejl. Dak li jkun jordna biss in-numru ta’ xarbiet li jkun irid. Xarba waħda, per eżempju, jekk it-tali jkun waħdu. Jew erbgħa, jekk ikun ma’ tlieta oħra. Imma x’hemm fix-xarba jibqa’ sa l-aħħar f’idejn Livia. Dak il-gost. It-taħlita tippreparaha hi. Kif jgħidilha moħħha dak il-ħin. Li tista' tippreċiża hu biss jekk tridx li tqabbadhielek jew le. Jekk tibża’ minn nar, allura, tgħidilha ma tqabbadlek xejn. Imma jekk le, tista’ tispiċċa b'tazza ċkejkna qisha ras appostlu nhar il-Pentekoste u jkollok tistenna l-fjamma tnin u tmut qabel tixrob kollox. Sakemm ma tkunx it-tip avventuruż u tixrob kollox waqt li jkun qed jaqbad jew saħansitra tgħid lil Livia tqabbadlek it-taħlita meta tkun għadira f'ħalqek. Imma jekk tkun daqshekk qalbieni u tbaxxi rasek sekonda qabel ma l-għadira tkun intfiet, allura taf tikwi s-saqaf ta' ħalqek - jew kif tgħidlu Livia, il cielo dela boca. U kulħadd qed jixrob dawn ix-xarbiet li ma jiswew xejn għax huma żgħar u l-post mhux tas-sinjuri. Kulħadd ħlief raġel qargħi b'daqna ta' ftit jiem imserraħ mal-kantuniera tal-bar tal-injam li qed iħares lejn Livia u jimmeravilja ruħu kif kull darba toħroġ b'kuluri ġodda, b'togħmiet ġodda, bi spettaklu ġdid. Imma kif jista’ jkun tiftakarhom kollha? Kif ma tħawwadx? Kif qatt ma twaqqa’ ftit barra jew jiżloqilha flixkun minn idejha? Kif il-kuluri dejjem jispiċċaw jaqblu ma’ xulxin? U kif ix-xarbiet dejjem jiġuha tajbin?
U kif tlesti kapulavur ċkejken, il-qargħi ta’ mal-bar jibda ċ-ċapċipa li malajr tinfirex sa ħdejn it-tojlit fil-kantuniera ta’ ġewwa u x’ħin iċ-ċapċipa tkun fl-aqwa tagħha jpoġġi l-mistħija għal ftit fil-bwiet tal-jeans - li darba kien blu - u jgħajjat b’vuċi maħnuqa: “Brava, Livia!” U Livia issa dratu. Taf li mhux se ddur fuqu biex tistaqsih iridx xarba huwa wkoll. Tiegħu jordnaha mingħand il-ġuvnott li jiġbor, jaħsel u jwaqqa’ t-tazzi. Kafè iswed.
U quddiem il-bar ta’ Livia issa qed tibni funtana ċkejkna biex issebbaħ dik id-daqsxejn ta’ fetħa fit-triq. U f’nofs il-funtana qed tpoġġi statwa ta’ tifla b’għajnejha kbar, liebsa kowt tal-fur bi bwiet ċkejknin li fihom qed taħbi l-pali ta’ idejha. U l-ilma tal-funtana ħiereġ mill-ħames buttuni tal-kowt u nieżel fi plattina ġganteska. U meta jinfetaħ il-bieb tal-bar ta’ Livia, it-tifla b’għajnejha kbar tismal-istorbju ta’ ġewwa u tilqa’ s-sħana li tiżgiċċalhom ’il barra.
U minn fuq il-plattina qed tarahom jixorbu x-xarbiet ċkejknin. Ġieli jixorbu xarba u dritt wara jdaħħlu f’ħalqhom kuċċarina b’xi xarba oħra fiha. Qishom qed jieħdu l-mistura. U ħafna drabi jkun hemm min iqarras wiċċu sakemm f’daqqa jinbidel kollox u minn tiġbida ta’ diżgust ix-xufftejn jerġgħu jingħaqdu fi tbissima. Imbagħad daħka u kulħadd jinfexx iċapċap. U r-raġel il-qargħi jgħajjat, “Brava, Livia!”
Tħobbu wisq lir-raġel il-qargħi. Imma meta jintebaħ li sarlu l-ħin u jitfa’ f’rasu l-beritta l-griża kkaxxjata u jdawwar ix-xalla madwar għonqu u joħroġ, tara f’għajnejh in-niket ta’ ġimgħa miġbur. Tibqa’ tħares lejh sakemm jimxi t-triq kollha. Imbagħad jikser fuq il-lemin. Jgħaddi minn pjazza daqs nitfa b’torri kbir f’nofsha - li minn fuqu tista’ tara s-soqfa kollha tad-djar tal-belt – u jidħol fi triq dejqa li fit-tarf tagħha hemm blokk bini kbir, kollu appartamenti żgħar. U jibqa’ tiela’ fuq. Jiftaħ il-bieb. U waqt li jinża l-kowt u x-xalla u jpoġġihom fuq is-siġġu ta’ ħdejn it-telefon fil-kuritur, jiftaħ il-bieb tal-kamra tat-tifla, biex jara raqditx.
U bħas-soltu jsibha rieqda bid-dawl mixgħul. Ineħħilha bil-mod il-karta minn idha, b’nofs belt mibnija u bin-nofs l-ieħor ippjanat, ibusha fuq moħħha u jitfilha l-lamp shade r-roża.
Pierre MejlakPierre Mejlak
Born in Malta in 1982, Pierre J. Mejlak is a novelist and short story writer. He has won four National Book Awards in Malta and the Sea of Words European Short Story Award. His first collection of short stories for adults, Qed Nistenniek Niezla max-Xita (I'm Waiting for You to Fall with the Rain) was published to critical and popular acclaim in 2009. His second collection of short stories, Dak li l-lejl ihallik tghid (What the Night Lets You Say), was published in June 2011. A number of his short stories have been translated into English, French, Catalan, Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, and Italian, and were read at numerous literary festivals around Europe and the Middle East. Mejlak's awardwinning novel Rih Isfel (Southern Wind) has been turned into a prime-time TV series for Malta's national TV station.
Translated from MalteseMaltese by Antoine CassarAntoine Cassar
Antoine Cassar (1978) has rendered into English a number of his fellow Maltese authors, and is an avid translator into Maltese of Neruda, Whitman and Tagore. A writer of Maltese, English, and multilingual verse, Cassar has presented his poetry in a number of European and Asian cities, most recently at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Seoul ICLA conference, and at readings in Hong Kong, New Delhi and Bangalore. In 2009, his composition “Merhba, A Poem of Hospitality” was awarded the United Planet Writing Prize. Cassar’s latest and most important poetic work, Passport (2010), printed in the form of an anti-passport for all peoples and all landscapes, has been published and presented in several languages, with profits donated to local associations providing assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. "Bejn / Between", a collection of Maltese poems with English translation by Alex Vella Gera and the author, is due to be published in December 2011 (Edizzjoni Skarta).
photo by Iolanda Frisina
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