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Fiction From the May 2011 issue: Writing from Afghanistan
Gabriel died three times. Some insist that even his third and last passing away was no genuine death since his papier-mâché souls still decorate countless streets during the village fiestas: statues of angelswith spread-open wings, angels in fluttering robes, smiling angels, angels with blue glass eyes, angels with arms cast toward the heavens; some holding a palm leaf, some a lily, a trumpet, while others hold nothing and simply curl their fingers in an elegant pose. Streets filled with angels resting on orbs of clouds perched on top of wooden pedestals painted in a marble finish and golden garlands cast in plaster. There isn’t a single village or town that does not own at least one collection of decorative angles masterfully crafted by Gabriel for the fiesta . . . the seven choirs of angels, cherubs, and seraphs . . . flocks of angels. Although Gabriel died his third death with complete solemnity, the delicate souls he fashioned will remain clasped to their wooden pedestals for eternity.
When the sciatica locked his feet and arthritis jammed his neck, Gabriel decided that there was no more room for his angels, neither in heaven nor on earth. He began to spend entire days outside on a wicker chair in front of his workshop; while life scurried before him he envisioned wings and robes fluttering around him in a haze, calling to him from beyond. In the gloomy workshop were numerous shelves. Some held plaster heads with hollow sockets, waiting hopelessly for a pair of blue glass eyes. Others revealed lines of fossilized hands, opened into postures of eternal pleading, or perhaps longing for a palm leaf or a lily stem. Even more shelves barely contained their many rows of stiff limbs and legs seeking a merciful cloud to rest upon. While Gabriel, in his wicker chair, attempted to nurse the sciatica and arthritis, the choir of heads, hands, and limbs on the shelves tune a Miserere imploring a body.
In the farthest corner of the workshop, a dusty white veil conceals the shape of a complete angel. Gabriel made this angel a few years before. After smoothing and refining the surface, Gabriel decided not to apply any paint so that like a soul it might remain more ethereal than all the statues that preceded it.
“This one’s yours!” he told his daughter Miriam. “He will find you a man!”
His daughter became sad. She had long noticed that her father’s words were becoming increasingly disjointed. She saw how he would stare into oblivion and often fall silent abruptly. After her father’s comment she became even more distressed; if all the matchmaking strategies of Aunt Saveria had failed to find her a man, no papier-mâché angel was going to import one from the heavens . . . especially now that she was over forty.
“Yours . . .” her father would mutter, “an angel coated in white plaster . . .”
After about three years Gabriel died. It was on a Thursday morning. The village doctor, Dr. Debrincat, and the parish priest both hastened to reach Gabriel to successfully fulfill their duties. But, they got there too late. Gabriel was in bed; his mouth was wide open and his eyes fixed, more like glass than the ones he used to fasten on the statues. Chensu, the undertaker, showed up with his two assistants. They all agreed that Gabriel’s place in paradise had been long reserved by the scores of angels that he had known throughout his life. While Miriam was busy looking for her father’s black suit and squeaky shoes, Chensu and his assistants were undressing Gabriel so that they could wash the corpse and prepare him for burial. At that very moment, as he was lying naked, Gabriel opened his eyes and croaked:
“I need a glass of water!”
The angels that had just taken off to proclaim Gabriel’s death around villages and towns had to start all over again to spread the good tidings of resurrection. Neighbors and friends gathered in a crowd at Gabriel’s house. But, although their intention was to see Gabriel and congratulate Miriam, they ended up huddled around Chensu and his shocked assistants, who were stuttering and drinking the coffee that Miriam prepared for them once she had hung the black suit back up in its place.
Within the week, Miriam received Chensu’s bill. It reflected the fact that he had carried out his services, and was made victim to a spectacular fright. The parish priest also informed her that he had already celebrated two masses in thanksgiving; Miriam felt obliged to offer him a contribution in an envelope that he only accepted after she assured him it was not a payment but merely a donation. For a week afterward, Dr. Debrincat checked in on Gabriel daily. Shaking his head and squinting his eyes in disbelief, he tested Gabriel’s heart and poked at him. The doctor would not leave the house until after Miriam had inquired as to what she owed. At the end of the week Miriam figured out her accounts and concluded that her father’s resurrection had ended up being more expensive than a funeral.
After the resurrection, Gabriel spoke no more. He would spend all day in his wicker chair in front of his workshop. He would nod his head and smile to passersby that stopped to congratulate him. But no words passed his lips. His gaze fixed in the distance, somewhere beyond the rooftops and bell towers. During the night he would make up for this silence. Miriam could hardly get any rest because of her father’s mumbling. In the past he would only snore and chew, but now he chattered entire conversations throughout the night with invisible companions. This was not the usual mumbo jumbo of dream talk. At first Miriam thought her father was calling out to her and she went running to his room only to find him face up, soaked in sweat, calmly uttering:
“You are all so adorable. I gilded the trimming of your gowns with garlands. People would ask me: ‘Gabriel, why do you go to so much trouble?’ and I would promptly answer, ‘It is never too much work! No beauty is enough for them. I want them to be one more beautiful than the other.’” Her father would pause at this point as if breathless before continuing in a slightly hushed tone, “And you . . . you are my chosen one. I want you to be pure, white and clean, concealed and hidden under a veil so that nobody will disturb your endeavor. No, no . . . I won’t give you anything to hold, no palm leaf and no trumpet. Your hands will remain empty for the time being . . . so that you can achieve what you need to accomplish . . .”
On he would ramble, patiently repeating himself over and over again until the time when Kelina’s rooster would crow. Only then would Gabriel slip quietly into slumber, awakening later when the rooster’s crow blended with the honking of cars and street cries. To a room bedazzled by late-morning sunlight, Gabriel awoke for another day of silence.
After exactly one year, on a Thursday morning, the rooster crowed, the cars honked but Gabriel did not wake up. Miriam checked his pulse, moved him, shook him . . . but Gabriel remained still. The angels, once again, spread their wings and took off to spread the news. The parish priest and Dr. Debrincat, once again, got there late, accompanied by a crowd of people who wanted verify that this time Gabriel was truly dead and that no one was going to take them for a ride. But, the doctor promptly threw everybody out to spend an hour privately examining Gabriel. When Dr. Debrincat had positively completed the inspection, he came out of Gabriel’s room, placed his hand on Miriam’s shoulder, and with a solemn voice told her.
“The Lord was kind enough to give him one more year. But it was only a loan!”
With the death verdict final, the skeptical crowd went in to take a peek while the parish priest recited all the prayers. Chensu, the undertaker, insisted the doctor take an oath and swear on all the heavenly saints that Gabriel was truly dead. He then headed in with his assistants to finish where they had left off one year before. Neighbors and friends paid their respects throughout the day. The more poetic among them suggested that Gabriel should be holding a palm leaf, a lily, or a trumpet; everyone who touched his forehead confirmed that, yes, he was as cold as ice. Two neighbors offered to keep vigil over the corpse with Miriam during the night, but she would not accept. She had spent all these years watching over her father and did not want to change their routine in these last moments. She sat all night long by the coffin, reciting the rosary and drinking one cup of black coffee after another. Eventually all that drinking had its consequence; from the toilet’s window she watched as the first rays of light spread out over the sky and Kelina’s rooster opened his gullet. On the rooster’s crow Miriam thought she heard a squeaky noise. She ran out without pulling the chain and scurried out to find her father’s coffin empty. She heard sounds coming from the workshop. There was her father, neat and tidy, busily polishing the White Angel. He looked at her from the corner of his eye, smiled, and as he kept polishing, covering his black suit in white dust, he softly told her;
“This one is yours . . . he will find you a man!”
The next morning, instead of a funeral mass, the parish priest recited a Te Deum. Gabriel was sitting in his wicker chair on the curb. He kept his burial suit and squeaky shoes on. People came from every corner of the village. Everybody agreed that the angels were protecting him and rewarding him for all he had done. Gabriel smiled at everybody, shaking his head without uttering a word. The bills soon started coming in. The orchestra that was hired for the funeral mass, and suddenly had to perform the Te Deum, wanted extra pay. Chensu the undertaker made a big fuss. Not only did he send a bill for his services but also for the purchase of the coffin because, according to him, it was not appropriate to sell it to some other client since it had been already used. Although Miriam emphasized that in this case the coffin had only been used by someone still alive, Chensu kept insisting that he had never come across a comparable situation and furthermore that, if her father intended to keep playing this bizarre game of his until he was one hundred, it would be better off for them to purchase the coffin today rather than having to pay more money in the future. This, then, is how the coffin with the knockers ended up in the workshop next to the rows of heads, limbs, and empty hands. The only one who refrained from sending a bill was Dr. Debrincat. When Miriam was suffering a cough some months later and sent him a message with one of her neighbors for a house call, he said that he was sick, retired and no longer serving.
Now on his second incarnation, Gabriel began to spend all day in the workshop soaking papier-mâché in glue, filling up molds, casting hands, heads, and limbs, stocking up, and polishing. Occasionally he would unveil the White Angel to spend hours staring at him. It did not take Miriam very long to notice that he was doing this every Thursday morning. Without ever uttering a word, without looking at the calendar or asking her what day it was, every Thursday morning Gabriel would unveil the White Angel. He would sit in front of the angel, smiling at him and swinging shaking his head while murmuring in secret conversation.
He never took off his black suit and squeaky shoes. He would lock himself inside the bathroom, undress, and bathe, splashing water. Miriam ordered him not to lock the door but Gabriel would not listen. When Miriam removed the bolt with a screwdriver, Gabriel began to drag a chair inside the bathroom and secure it underneath the doorknob. Inside the bathroom he would wash himself, change his underwear and show up still wearing his black suit and squeaky shoes. Miriam would make a scene and nag that he was ruining the suit and beg him to at least allow her to wash his trousers. Gabriel would gently close his eyes, squint and place his forefinger against his lips. When she complained more adamantly than usual he would disappear hurriedly into the workshop, contentedly suited, to fill more molds.
After a while he took up a new habit. Rather than sleeping in his room he would huddle up like a small child on the wicker chair in the workshop and there he would remain all night. Miriam had always known well enough that her father was hard-headed, but she never expected that two deaths and two resurrections would make him even more stubborn.
“Now what if your head throws you off balance and you fall off the chair?!” she would argue.
In the beginning, she spent the nights climbing up and down the stairs from her room to the workshop to check on him, and to see if he was still in the chair, but since she always found him to be happily asleep and mumbling as usual, Miriam started to sleep as well. Until one night when she heard a strange noise emanating from the workshop; she rushed in to find him calmly and serenely muttering and arguing as he did on every other night, but instead of being huddled on his chair she found him under the White Angel lying down inside the coffin. The next morning brought a dispute between them that kept on going into the evening. As usual, Miriam finally had to surrender. After all, when she had calmed down and could reason things out, Miriam thought that since the coffin had cost them some money, and she could not tell when it would actually serve its purpose, there was nothing wrong if her father started using it now. She laid two thick blankets in the bottom, added a soft pillow, and hoped that at least her father would be more comfortable than sleeping on the wicker chair. This way, if her father was to pass away during the night, she would have at least gotten her money’s worth out of Chensu’s bill.
But Gabriel’s third and last death did not happen during the night. With some mysterious accord, it happened again on a Thursday morning while Miriam was at the grocer. She found him in the workshop in front of the workbench, sitting on the wicker chair with his head inside a basin of freshly hardened plaster. By the time the neighbors showed up to help her pull him out, the plaster had hardened completely. Before his departure, Gabriel managed to cast the impression of his face with all the details at the bottom of the basin. This time Miriam decided to take control. The suit that for years was destined for burial now was no good for public function and less so for the gloom of the tomb. She bought him a new suit with shirt and socks. She did manage to salvage Gabriel’s shoes; after dusting and whacking them with shoe polish, they even started to squeak again. Once all the details were attended to, Gabriel was once more comfortably laid inside the coffin that by now he was so familiar with, in the middle of the workshop, under the White Angel, covered with a veil. Chensu tried to sneak a peek but Miriam managed to get rid of him by insisting there would be no funeral before three days and three nights. And that is how it came to pass that Miriam spent seventy-two hours not knowing if she was keeping vigil with the living or the dead. Each time she left the room or when she snoozed, Miriam would expect to find the coffin empty once again. But her father did not wake up. She repeatedly shook him, beat the knockers of the coffin, shouted in his ears . . . but it was all in vain. On the second day, she decided to burn his finger. Then she removed his shoe and sock and burned his toe. No movement. On the third morning, Miriam thought she smelled a strange odor that within a few hours became more intense. So she closed the lid of the coffin and sent out an urgent call for Chensu and the parish priest. The burial was swift and although the service had no pomp, it was celebrated with all the dignity that is due a man who had spent his life with the angels, and had twice paid them a visit.
Peace, however, was not to come as certainly to Miriam as it had to her father. From the day after the funeral, Miriam was plagued with problems. She began dreaming they had buried him alive. She said that in her dreams she saw the gravestones shifting and caught sight of her father struggling between them—full of dust and cockroaches—and when he finally made it to the surface, he collapsed and died from the over-exertion. The Thursday after, she saw the veil covering the White Angel stir and began to suspect that her father had returned from beyond and was hiding underneath. When one of the neighbors volunteered to go into the workshop with her to uncover the veil, Miriam protested. She said that she had no right to spoil his game and to disturb whatever it was he was trying to achieve.
And so we come to my part in the story and how I know about all that I have been narrating. Somebody told Miriam that I was a good friend of the spirits. She got my number and called me at home; stuttering, she explained she needed my services and asked if I would come to her place. The hoarse voice that I heard on the phone led me to expect to find an elderly woman. However, I was wrong. I found this Miriam was an attractive spinster: plump and curved at the waist, with a pair of big black eyes and full lips. When she gave me all the details of her life I was surprised that her Aunt Saveria and all those angels were not capable of finding her a man.
She told me that she wanted me to get in touch with her father to verify that when they buried him he was truly dead, and to ask him if it was indeed he who was stirring the veil of the White Angel every Thursday. If it was him, she wished to know what it was that he needed. I immediately explained that matters were not so simple, but promised that I would try. I told her to prepare a table and two chairs in the workshop, and to light a candle in the candle holder. At nightfall we found ourselves sitting in front of each other. I told her to keep her eyes shut and not to be startled if she heard me breathing heavily and perhaps speaking in a different voice. We held hands and closed our eyes. Usually after a few seconds I would start to get a tingling throughout my body but that night nothing happened. I tried to focus and to clear my mind. I couldn’t. Miriam’s strong clasp was disturbing me. After a quarter of an hour I let her know that we had to stop for the night.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” she promptly replied.
And, that’s what we did . . . the day after and after and after . . . for a whole week. But it was all in vain. I was not thinking of the spirits. Miriam’s hands immediately grasped mine and pressed with such a determination that it would almost embarrass me. Her fingers encircled mine . . . like the many plaster fingers on the shelves lying behind me, begging for a trumpet or a palm leaf. I noticed when I arrived on this, the final night, that Miriam had brought in a different table, a most definitely smaller table.
Here we are tonight, our legs touching, Miriam’s legs pressed hard against mine. I noticed, as soon as I arrived, that she was no longer wearing the black mourning dress but a sleeveless light dress with flowers. I can see her cleavage, white and bouncy, peeking out at the neckline. I do not think she is wearing a bra.
And so, here we are, hand in hand with our eyes closed and a candle flame between us, with our legs pressed together. I cannot concentrate. Miriam is clasping my fingers and squeezing them. My palms are soaking wet. I have not told her that yesterday I unveiled the White Angel and found that in one hand he is holding a sickle and in the other a cluster of harvested wheat. Today is Wednesday and the arms of the clock are moving toward midnight. Miriam is breathing heavily. I can feel a tingle run through my body. Yes, I think tonight something is going to happen . . .!
Translation of “Anġlu Abjad.” Copyright Trevor Zahra. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Ruben Zahra. All rights reserved.
Grabiel miet tliet darbiet. Xi wħud saħansitra jsostnu li anki t-tielet u l-aħħar mewta tiegħu, fil-fatt ma kienet mewta xejn, għax it-toroq ta’ l-ibliet u l-irħula għadhom ta’ kull sena jiżżejnu bl-erwieħ verġni tiegħu: anġli bi ġwenħajhom miftuħin, anġli bil-mantell imtajjar, anġli mbissmin, anġli b’għajnejn koħol tal-ħġieġ, anġli b’dirgħajhom merfugħin ’il fuq; min iżomm palma, min ġilju, min tromba u min ma jżomm xejn ħlief il-liwja manerista ta’ subgħajh. Toroq mimlijin anġli fuq kobob ta’ sħab ilkoll imperrċin fuq pedestalli ta’ l-injam, irħamati u ndurati b’rużuni u girlandi tal-ġibs. Fil-pajjiż kollu mhemmx belt jew raħal li m’għandhiex sett anġli ta’ Grabiel... is-seba’ kori ta’ l-anġli, kerubin u serafini... eżerċti ta’ anġli. Minkejja li Grabiel miet it-tielet mewta bis-solennità kollha, l-erwieħ delikati tiegħu se jibqgħu ggranfati mal-pedestalli ta’ l-injam għall-eternità.
Meta x-xjatka mażżritlu saqajh u l-artrite rmazzatlu għonqu Grabiel iddeċieda li la s-smewwiet u lanqas l-art ma kienu jifilħu aktar anġli. Intelaq iqatta’ l-jum kollu fuq siġġu tas-soda fil-bieb tal-maħżen, u waqt li l-ħajja tgħaddi tlebbet bil-ħeffa minn quddiemu hu ma jilmaħ xejn ħlief ġwienaħ u mantelli jittajru fiċ-ċpar ta’ madwaru, iperpru u jsejħulu mill-bogħod. Ġod-dalma tal-maħżen għexieren ta’ xkaffi kienu mimlijin irjus tal-ġibs bil-ħofor ta’ l-għajnejn battala jistennew għalxejn għajn kaħla tal-ħġieġ. U xkaffi oħra b’fillieri ta’ pali ta’ jdejn bis-swaba’ miftuħin u ffossilizzati f’supplika eterna jitkarrbu għal fergħa palm jew bastun ġilju. U aktar xkaffi b’ringieli ta’ saqajn ibsin ifittxu bil-ħniena sħaba fuq xiex jistrieħu. Waqt li minn fuq is-siġġu tas-soda Grabiel jittanta jimmansa x-xjatka u l-artrite, l-irjus u l-idejn u s-saqajn ta’ fuq l-ixkaffi kienu bil-ħerqa jintunaw il-miserere u jitolbu li jingħataw ġisem.
Ġor-rokna ta’ ġewwa nett tal-maħżen, minn taħt liżar mimli trab u ġir, kienet tidher l-għamla ta’ anġlu sħiħ. Kien ħadmu ftit tas-snin qabel. Wara li xkatlah u rfinah kien ħallieh fuq il-ġibs, mingħajr l-iċken ħjiel ta’ żebgħa, donnu spirtu aktar efimeru mill-anġli kollha ta’ qablu.
“Dan għalik!” kien qal lil bintu Mirjam. “Dan isiblek għarus!”
Bintu kienet sewdet qalbha. Kienet ilha li bdiet tinnota li kliem missierha kien sar aktar skunettjat, u ħarstu aktar mitlufa u spiss jaqa’ f’sikta barra minn postha. U sewdet qalbha ftit aktar għax la darba l-manuvri u l-istrateġija kollha taz-zija Saverja ma kienx irnexxielhom isibulha għarus, l-ebda anġlu tal-kartapesta ma kien se jimpurtalha wieħed mis-smewwiet... issa li qabżet l-erbgħin.
“Għalik...” kien tennielha missierha, “anġlu abjad miksi ġibs verġni...”
Daqs tliet snin wara, Grabiel miet. Kien il-Ħamis filgħodu. It-tabib Debrincat u l-kappillan ġew jiġru biex ikun wettqu dmirhom. Imma laħqu tard wisq. Grabiel kien ġo soddtu wiċċu ’l fuq, b’ħalqu miftuħ u għajnejh tal-ħġieġ aktar ċassi minn dawk ta’ l-anġli. Warajhom wasal Ċensu tat-twiebet maż-żewġ lavranti tiegħu. Ilkoll qablu li Grabiel kien bil-fors ġa sab post fuq quddiem nett fis-saltna tas-sema, meta tqis il-palata li tawh dawk l-eżerċti kollha li kien ilu midħla tagħhom is-snin. U waqt li Mirjam telqet tfittex il-libsa s-sewda li kienu se jkeffnuh fiha u ż-żarbun li jżaqżaq, Ċensu u l-lavranti neżżgħu lil Grabiel biex jaħsluh u jlestuh għall-kefen. U dak il-ħin sewwa, waqt li kien għarwien wiċċu ’l fuq, Grabiel fettillu jiftaħ għajnejh u b’leħen maħnuq jgħidilhom:
“ ’Tuni tazza ilma!”
L-anġli li kienu għadhom kemm telqu jduru l-ibliet u l-irħula jxandru l-mewta ta’ Grabiel, f’daqqa waħda sabu li kellhom jerġgħu jibdew kollox mill-ġdid biex iħabbru l-irxoxt. In-nies tar-raħal ġriet tiffolla wara l-bieb ta’ Grabiel iżda għad li kienu marru bil-għan li jarawh u jieħdu b’idejn Mirjam, spiċċaw ilkoll qaqoċċa madwar Ċensu u l-lavranti tiegħu, jarawhom jirtogħdu u jtemtmu u jixorbu l-kafejiet li newlitilhom Mirjam wara li marret dendlet il-libsa s-sewda f’postha.
Dik il-ġimgħa Mirjam irċeviet il-kont ta’ Ċensu tat-twiebet li deherlu li kien ħaqqu xi ħaġa tax-xogħol li laħaq wettaq u tal-qatgħa storika li ħa. Il-kappillan għarrafha wkoll li hu kien ġa qaddes xi żewġ quddisiet ta’ radd il-ħajr u biex aċċetta envelop b’xi ħaġa tħaxwex ġo fih, Mirjam kellha terġa’ tifformola kliemha u taċċertah li dik kienet biss donazzjoni u mhux ħlas. Matul dik il-ġimgħa t-tabib Debrincat kien mar jarah tista’ tgħid kuljum. Kien ta’ kull darba jissemmagħlu qalbu u jagħfaslu ’l hawn u ’l hinn u dejjem jispiċċa jxengel rasu u jwerreċ għajnejh. U ma ħallihomx bi kwiethom qabel ma Mirjam staqsietu x’kienu obbligati. Meta dak in-nhar fil-għaxija, wara li Grabiel daħal jorqod, Mirjam qabdet f’idha lapes u karta, waslet minnufih għall-konklużjoni li l-irxoxt ta’ missierha kien ġie jiswielhom aktar minn funeral.
Mill-irxoxt ’l hawn Grabiel ma tkellimx aktar. Baqa’ jqatta’ l-jum kollu fuq il-bankina bil-qiegħda ġos-siġġu tas-soda. Kien iċaqlaq rasu u jitbissem lil kull min jieqaf jifraħlu. Imma kliem xejn. U ħarstu dejjem immirata lejn x’imkien ’il bogħod lil hinn mill-bjut tad-djar u l-kampnari tal-knisja. Imbagħad bil-lejl kien ipatti. Mirjam bil-kemm kienet tkun tista’ tagħlaq għajn m’għajn bit-tgedwid ta’ missierha. Dari kien biss jonħor u jmeċlaq, imma mill-irxoxt ’l hawn bdiet tisimgħu jpaċpaċ... mhux it-tgedwid mimgħud ta’ min jitkellem f’nofs ħolma, imma diskursati ta’ lejl sħiħ ma’ ħbieb inviżibbli. L-ewwel darba li semgħetu Mirjam ħasbitu qed isejħilha u marret tiġri f’kamartu. Sabitu wiċċu ’l fuq, b’għajnejh magħluqin, maħsul bil-għaraq waqt li b’kalma kbira kien qed itenni:
“ Ilkoll ħelwin, wieħed isbaħ mill-ieħor. Indurajtilkom il-borduri tal-mant bil-girlandi. Qaluli: ‘Imma kemm tidħol f’xogħol żejjed, Grabiel!?’ Għidtilhom: ‘Mela mhux xogħol żejjed!’ L-ebda ġmiel mhu biżżejjed għalihom. Irridhom wieħed isbaħ mill-ieħor. Imbagħad lilek xi ħaġa aktar. Irridek pur, abjad u nadif, moħbi u mgħotti bil-liżar abjad biex ħadd ma jtellfek waqt xogħlok. Le, le... xejn ma jien se nagħtik f’idejk, la palma u lanqas tromba. Idejk jibqgħu battala, għalissa... biex bihom tkun tista’ tagħmel li għandek tagħmel...”
U hekk jibqa’ sejjer il-lejl kollu, itenni l-istess frażijiet bis-sabar u bil-lajma sa ma jinstema’ jidden is-serduk ta’ Kelina. Imbagħad Grabiel jiskot, jidħol f’nagħsa u ma jistebaħx qabel ma t-tiddin tas-serduk jitħallat mal-ħsejjes tal-karozzi u l-għajat tan-nies. Meta mbagħad kamartu titgħammex bir-raġġi sħan tax-xemx Grabiel jistenbaħ għal jum ieħor ta’ sikta.
Sewwa sew għeluq is-sena, il-Ħamis fil-għodu, is-serduk idden u l-karozzi paqpqu, imma Grabiel baqa’ ma stenbaħx. Mirjam ħaditlu l-polz, ċaqalqitu, heżżitu... imma Grabiel baqa’ kif kien. L-anġli fetħu ġwenħajhom mill-ġdid u telqu jxerrdu l-aħbar. Il-kappillan u Dr Debrincat reġgħu waslu tard bħad-darba ta’ qabel, akkumpanjati minn sarbut sħiħ ta’ nies li riedu jaċċertaw ruħhom li did-darba ħadd ma kien qed jgħaddihom biż-żmien. Iżda t-tabib kien pront xeħet lil kulħadd ’il barra u qatta’ siegħa sħiħa waħdu ma’ Grabiel. U meta raġa’ tfaċċa fil-bieb tal-kamra, Dr Debrincat poġġa idu fuq spallet Mirjam u b’leħen solenni qalilha:
“Il-Mulej għoġbu jisilfu sena żejda. Imma kienet biss mislufa! ”
Imbagħad in-nies daħlet tittawwal waqt li l-kappillan qal it-talb kollu li kellu jgħid u Ċensu tat-twiebet, wara li ġiegħel lit-tabib jaħliflu fuq kemm qaddisin kien jaf, daħal mal-lavranti tiegħu biex ikompli fejn kien ħalla sena ilu. Mirjam reġgħet marret ġabet il-libsa s-sewda u ż-żarbun li jżaqżaq u f’tebqa t’għajn Grabiel kien nadif u liebes gala, stendut wiċċu ’l fuq ġo nofs l-intrata fit-tebut tal-ħabbatiet li ġabu l-lavranti. Il-jum kollu n-nies baqgħet ġejja bi ħġarha, min jgħid li f’idu messhom qegħdulu palma, min jgħid ġilju, min jgħid tromba u kulħadd imisslu ġbinu u jgħid li kien kiesaħ silġ. Xi żewġ ġirien offrew lil Mirjam biex joqogħdu jagħmlu l-għassa magħha bil-lejl, imma din ma riditx taf. Hi li kienet ilha dawk is-snin kollha għassa miegħu tul ħajtu ma riditx li xxellef l-aħħar ftit sigħat f’mewtu. Qattgħet il-lejl kollu bil-qiegħda ħdejn it-tebut, tgħid ir-rużarjijiet u tixrob kikkra wara kikkra ta’ kafè iswed. Imma dak il-kafè kollu sa fl-aħħar għamel tiegħu. Mit-tieqa tat-tojlit, Mirjam lemħet l-ewwel ħajta dawl u s-serduk ta’ Kelina fetaħ garġih. U sewwa sew mal-leħen tas-serduk Mirjam dehrilha li semgħet bħal ħoss ta’ żaqżiq. Ħarġet tiġri mit-tojlit bla ma’ ġibdet il-katina tal-flaxink u ġriet bla nifs lejn l-intrata. Sabet it-tebut vojt u ħsejjes ta’ żaqżiq u tħaxixwix ġejjin min-naħa tal-maħżen. U hemm sabet lil missierha, pulit u nadif medhi jixkatla l-anġlu l-abjad tal-ġibs verġni. Ħares kemxejn lejha minn taħt il-għajn, tbissmilha u waqt li baqa’ jixkatla u jimla l-libsa s-sewda bil-għabra, kemm kemm jinstama’ qalilha:
“Dan għalik... biex isiblek għarus!”
L-għada fil-għodu, minflok il-quddiesa tal-funeral, il-kappillan intona t-Te Deum. Grabiel ħareġ fuq il-bankina bil-qiegħda ġos-siġġu tas-soda. Baqa’ bil-libsa tal-kefen u ż-żarbun li jżaqżaq. In-nies bdiet ġejja minn kullimkien. Kulħadd itennilu li l-anġli kienu qed jidħlu għalih quddiem il-Mulej u kienu qed jaqilgħulu rigal wara l-ieħor ta’ dak kollu li kien għamel magħhom. U Grabiel jitbissem lil kulħadd u jmejjel rasu bla ma jlissen l-ebda kelma. Iżda l-kontijiet ma damux ma bdew jaslu. L-orkestra li qagħdet tinqala’ għall-quddiesa tal-funeral u li flok id-Die Sire kienet daqqet it-Te Deum riedet titħallas xorta waħda. Ċensu tat-twiebet ġabha aktar bi kbira. Mhux biss bagħat il-kont ta’ jdejh imma wkoll tat-tebut, għax skond ma qal hu, dak it-tebut ma kienx xieraq li jbigħu lil klijent ġdid la darba ġa kien intuża minn mejjet ieħor. U għalkemm Mirjam sostniet li f’dan il-każ, it-tebut kien biss intuża minn ħaj, Ċensu baqa’ jtenni li ħwejjeġ bħal dawn hu qatt ma kien għamilhom. Imbagħad temm jgħidilha li jekk missierha kien fi ħsiebu jqatta’ sal-mitt sena jilgħab din il-logħba stramba tiegħu, kien jaqblilha żżomm dak it-tebut bil-prezz tal-lum, milli tixtri wieħed bil-prezz ta’ min jaf kemm-il sena oħra. U hekk it-tebut tal-ħabbatiet spiċċa fil-maħżen mal-fillieri ta’ rjus u saqajn u pali ta’ jdejn battala. It-tabib Debrincat biss baqa’ ma bagħat l-ebda kont. Meta xi xhur wara Mirjam qabditha sogħla qawwija u bagħtitlu risposta mal-ġirien biex jittawlilha ftit, minnufih bagħat jgħidilha li huwa wkoll kien irtirat bid-deni u ma kienx qed iservi... u bis-sogħla b’kollox Mirjam kellha tmur il-berġa.
Grabiel beda jqatta’ l-jum kollu fil-maħżen, ixarrab il-karti fil-kolla, jimla aktar forom ta’ jdejn u rjus u saqajn, jistokkja u jixkatla u meta jiftillu jmur ineħħi l-liżar minn fuq l-anġlu l-abjad u jqatta’ s-sigħat iħares lejh. Mirjam ma damitx ma osservat li din il-biċċa ta’ l-anġlu kien qed jagħmilha kull nhar ta’ Ħamis filgħodu. Bla ma qatt ilissen kelma, bla ma qatt iħares lejn kalendarju jew jistaqsi x’jum kien, kull nhar ta’ Ħamis filgħodu Grabiel kien imur jikxef l-anġlu l-abjad, ipoġġi bil-qiegħda quddiemu, joqgħod jitbissimlu u jċaqlaq kemxejn xofftejh f’diskursata sigrieta.
Il-libsa s-sewda u ż-żarbun li jżaqżaq ma qalagħhomx minn fuqu. Kien jidħol iteftef waħdu ġol-kamra tal-banju, isakkar il-bieb warajh u jinstema’ ħoss ta’ ilma jċaflas. Għalxejn Mirjam widdbitu biex ma jaqfilx il-bieb minn ġewwa, Grabiel xorta baqa’ jsakkar il-bieb warajh. U meta Mirjam qabdet tornavit u qalgħet il-firroll, beda jdaħħal siġġu miegħu u jqiegħdu taħt il-pum. Hemm ġew kien jinħasel waħdu, ibiddel il-flokk u l-qalziet ta’ taħt, imma jerġa’ joħroġ liebes il-libsa s-sewda u ż-żarbun li jżaqżaq. U ta’ xejn Mirjam titbaqbaq u tgħidlu li dik il-libsa kien qammilha u titlobu bil-ħniena biex ta’ lanqas iħalliha taħsillu l-qalziet. Grabiel kien biss jagħlaq għajnejh, irosshom flimkien u jtella’ sebgħu l-werrej ma’ xofftejh. U jekk iddum tredden xi ftit aktar mis-soltu arah jitlaq iħaffef lejn il-maħżen u jkompli jimla l-forom.
Ftit wara, beda jieħu drawwa oħra. Flok jidħol jorqod f’kamartu beda jitgeddes kobba fuq is-siġġu tas-soda u jqatta’ l-lejl kollu fil-maħżen. Mirjam kienet taf li missierha minn dejjem kien rasu iebsa, imma qatt ma basret li wara żewġ mewtiet u żewġ irxoxtiet kien se jsir stinat daqshekk.
“Issa jekk tegħlbek rasek u taqa’ minn fuq is-siġġu?!” kienet tipprova tfiehmu.
Għall-ewwel bdiet tqatta’ l-lejl kollu tielgħa u nieżla minn kamritha għall-maħżen biex tara jekk kienx għadu wieqaf dritt ġos-siġġu, imma meta lejl wara lejl bdiet issibu rieqed kuntent, ipaċpaċ u jirraġuna bħas-soltu, Mirjam bdiet torqod mistrieħa hija wkoll. Sakemm lejl minnhom dehrilha li semgħet bħal ħoss stramb u niżlet tiġri lejn il-maħżen. Sabitu jgedwed u jirraġuna bħall-iljieli kollha ta’ qabel, kalm u seren, imma minflok kobba fuq is-siġġu tas-soda sabitu taħt l-anġlu l-abjad, wiċċu ’l fuq fit-tebut. L-għada fil-għodu bdiet bejniethom ġlieda oħra li baqgħet sejra sa ma reġa’ sar ħin l-irqad. Imma kif dejjem ġara sa fl-aħħar Mirjam kellha ċċedi. Wara kollox, meta kkalmat u moħħha seta’ jirraġuna aħjar Mirjam dehrilha li la darba dak it-tebut kien qamilhom sold ġmielu u qatt ma setgħet tgħid meta kienu se jiġu bżonnu, ma kien hemm xejn ħażin li missierha jibda jużah minn issa. Firxitlu żewġ kutri ħoxnin fil-qiegħ, poġġietlu mħadda ratba u ttamat li talanqas isibu komdu aktar mis-siġġu tas-soda. U b’hekk, jekk kif dejjem ġara, missierha kellu jmut mal-lejl, tkun iffrankat biċċa sewwa mill-kont ta’ Ċensu.
Imma t-tielet u l-aħħar mewta ta’ Grabiel ma kellhiex tkun matul il-lejl. B’xi appuntament sigriet reġa’ kien il-Ħamis fil-għodu waqt li Mirjam marret ħarba s’għand tal-merċa. Sabitu ġol-maħżen, quddiem il-bank tax-xogħol, bil-qiegħda fuq is-siġġu tas-soda, wiċċu mgħaddas ġo friskatur ġibs verġni nofsu magħqud. U sa ma daħlu l-ġirien u għenuha taqilgħu minn postu, il-ġibs laħaq għaqad u hekk, qabel telaq darba għal dejjem, Grabiel irnexxielu jħallilhom il-forma ta’ wiċċu bid-dettalji kollha ġo qiegħ il-friskatur. Did-darba Mirjam ħadet kollox f’idejha. Dik il-libsa li kienet ilha s-snin destinata għall-kefen issa la kienet tajba għal quddiem in-nies u wisq anqas għad-dalma tal-qabar. Xtratlu tibdila ġdida, mill-qmis sa l-ingravata u l-kalzetti. Kulma rnexxielha ssalva kien biss iż-żarbun, li wara tfarfira u xebgħa nagit reġa’ seta’ jibda jżaqżaq mill-ġdid. Meta kollox kien lest Grabiel sab ruħu f’dak it-tebut li issa kien drah sewwa, stendut f’nofs il-maħżen taħt l-anġlu l-abjad mgħotti bil-liżar. Ċensu mar jipprova jagħti titwila, imma Mirjam kienet pronta ħelset minnu ħafif ħafif għax, skond ma qalet hi, ma kienet se tippermetti li se jsiru l-ebda funerali qabel jgħaddu tlitt ijiem u tliet iljieli. U hekk Mirjam qattgħet tnejn u sebgħin siegħa ma tafx jekk hix għassa mal-ħajja jew mal-mewt. Kull meta twarrab kemmxejn, jew meta għajnha tmur biha, Mirjam kienet tistenna li se terġa’ ssib it-tebut battal. Imma missierha baqa’ ma stenbaħx. Kienet ta’ kull darba ċċaqalqu, iċċekċiklu l-ħabbatiet tat-tebut, tgħajjatlu ġo widintu... iżda kollu ta’ xejn. Fit-tieni jum ġieha f’moħħa li taħraqlu sebgħu ż-żgħir ta’ idu. U wara dan neżżgħetlu ż-żarbun u l-kalzetti u ħarqitu wkoll subgħajh ta’ saqajh. L-ebda taħrika. Mas-sbiħ tat-tielet jum, Mirjam dehrilha li qed ixxomm riħa stramba li fi ftit sigħat tant żdiedet u għaqdet, li kienet pronta qiegħdet l-għatu tat-tebut f’postu u bagħtet b’urġenza għall-Ċensu u għall-kappillan. Id-difna saret bil-ħeffa u l-quddiesa, għad li ma kinitx presente cadavere saret bid-dinjità kollha li tixraq lil bniedem li qatta’ għomru kollu ma’ l-anġlu u li mar jarahom u ġie lura darbtejn.
Imma mill-għada stess tad-difna għal Mirjam beda nkwiet ġdid. Bdiet toħlom li difnuh ħaj. Qalet li fil-ħolma rat il-kaptelli jiċċaqalqu u lemħet lil missierha jitqanżah biex jgħaddi minn bejniethom, mimli kollu trab u wirdien u meta sa fl-aħħar irnexxielu jitla’ fil-wiċċ, intelaq bla nifs fuq il-kaptelli u miet bil-battika. Il-Ħamis ta’ wara qalet ukoll li lemħet il-liżar li kien jgħatti l-anġlu l-abjad jitħarrek u bdiet tissuspetta li missierha kien ġie mid-dinja l-oħra u qagħad moħbi taħt dak il-liżar. U meta waħda mill-ġirien offriet li tidħol magħha fil-maħżen biex jikxfu l-liżar flimkien, Mirjam ma riditx taf. Qalet li ma kellha l-ebda dritt tħassarlu l-logħba u tfixklu f’dak li kien qed jipprova jagħmel.
U kien propju hawnhekk li jien dħalt fil-ġrajja u sirt naf dak kollu li għadni kemm irrakkuntajt. Xi ħadd qal lil Mirjam li jiena ħabib ġmieli ta’ l-ispirti. Iddubbat in-numru tat-telefon tiegħi, ċemplitli d-dar u b’leħen imriegħed talbitni naslilha wasla għax kellha bżonn is-servizzi tiegħi. Il-leħen maħnuq li smajt minn fuq it-telefon ġegħelni nistenna li se nsib quddiemi mara fuq l-għatba tax-xjuħija. Imma mort imqarraq bil-kbir. Sibt li din Mirjam kienet xebba grazzjuża, imbaċċa iżda mibruma u fuq qaddha, b’par għajnejn kbar suwed u xofftejn mimlijin... u meta tatni d-dettalji kollha ta’ ħajjitha tassew skantajt kif iz-zija Saverja flimkien ma’ dawk l-anġli kollha ma kienx irnexxielhom isibulha għarus.
Qaltli li xtaqitni nagħmel kuntatt ma’ missierha biex taċċerta ruħha li meta difnuh kien mejjet tassew, u nistaqsih jekk kienx hu dak li kull nhar ta’ Ħamis qed imur iċaqlaq il-liżar ta’ l-anġlu l-abjad u jekk kien hu, riditu jgħidilha x’ried mingħandha. Jien minnufih fissirtilha li l-affarijiet ma kinux daqstant faċli, imma wegħedtha li nipprova. Għidtilha biex tlesti mejda u żewġ siġġijiet fil-maħżen, tixgħel xemgħa ġo kandlier u meta dalam u bdiet taqa’ s-sikta, intasabna bil-qiegħda faċċata ta’ xulxin. Għidtilha żżomm għajnejha magħluqin u ma tinħasadx jekk tismagħni nieħu nifsijiet twal u forsi nibda nitkellem b’leħen differenti. Żammejna id f’id u għalaqna għajnejna. Soltu fi ftit sekondi kont nibda nħoss bħal tnemnim ma’ ġismi kollu, iżda dak in-nhar minn dan kollu ma ġara xejn. Ippruvajt nikkonċentra aktar u nbattal moħħi. Imma ma stajtx. L-għafsa soda ta’ jdejn Mirjam ma’ tiegħi bdiet aktar tfixkilni. Wara kwarta kelli ngħidilha li għal dak in-nhar se jkollna nieqfu.
“Nerġgħu nippruvaw għada,” kienet pronta weġbitni.
U hekk għamilna... l-għada u l-pitgħada u pitpitgħada... u għal tmint ijiem sħaħ. Imma kollu ta’ xejn. Moħħi ma kienx fl-ispirti. Idejn Mirjam kienu minnufih jaħftu lil tiegħi u jagħfsuhomli b’qawwa u b’determinazzjoni imbarazzanti waqt li subgħajha jduru tond ma’ tiegħi... donnhom dawk l-għexieren ta’ swaba’ tal-ġibs li fuq l-ixkaffi ta’ warajna kienu għadhom jitkarrbu għal tromba jew fergħa tal-palm. U dan l-aħħar deherli li Mirjam bidlet il-mejda u ġabet waħda iżgħar. Saqajna qed iħokku flimkien u l-lejla saqajn Mirjam tkaħħlu sew ma’ tiegħi. Malli wasalt għandha ndunajt mill-ewwel li minflok il-libsa tal-vistu kellha fuqha waħda ffjurita, ħafif u bla kmiem, u mill-imbukkatura wiesgħa stajt nara l-bidu ta’ sidirha abjad u qabbieżi. Naħseb mhix liebsa riċipettu.
U hekk ninsabu hawn... id f’id, b’għajnejna magħluqin, bix-xemgħa tixgħel bejnietna u b’saqajna jħokku ma’ xulxin. Ma nistax nikkonċentra. Mirjam qed tagħfasli subgħajja u tagħsarhomli waqt li l-pali ta’ jdejha maħsulin għaraq. Għadni m’għidtilhiex li l-bieraħ kxift il-liżar ta’ l-anġlu l-abjad u sibt li f’id waħda għandu minġel u fl-oħra ħodon qamħ. Illum l-Erbgħa, imma l-minutieri ta’ l-arloġġ qed iqarrbu lejn it-tnax. Mirjam qed tieħu nifsijiet twal. Qed inħoss tnemnim ma’ ġismi kollu. Iva, naħseb li l-lejla se tiġri xi ħaġa...!
Copyright Trevor Zahra. All rights reserved.
Trevor ZahraTrevor Zahra
Trevor Zahra was born in 1947 in Zejtun, Malta. He has published more than 130 books. His first children's adventure, Il-Pulena tad-Deheb (The Golden Figurehead), was published in 1971. Since then he has published adventure stories, poetry for children, folk tales, workbooks, translations, novels, and short stories. In 1974 his adult novel Taht il-Weraq tal-Palm (Under the Palm Trees) was awarded first prize in a national literary competition. He received the 1995 National Literary Prize for his fantasy novel Is-Seba' Trongiet Mewwija (The Seven Enchanted Citrusfruits). He has won fourteen National Book Prizes for his children’s books, adult fiction and illustrations. Zahra visits schools to speak to children, teachers, and parents about the importance of reading. He also conducts creative writing workshops. In 2004, in recognition of his literary career, particularly in children’s literature, he was awarded the Medal for Services to the Republic by the President of Malta.
Translated from MalteseMaltese by Ruben ZahraRuben Zahra
The musical “mosaic” of Ruben Zahra is composed from fragments of colliding musical cultures. His interest in classical, rock, jazz, and world music has led him to develop a style which absorbs these influences within the music tapestry of his contemporary works. After graduating from the University of Malta in 1994 he was awarded a scholarship by the Italian Cultural Institute to further his studies in composition at the National Music Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. While in Italy he studied film music with Ennio Morricone. In 2000 he moved to the USA for an MA degree in composition at Mills College in Oakland, California. In 2002 he moved to Los Angeles and spent two years working for the Hollywood film industry. As a composer Ruben Zahra is committed to contemporary expression and Mediterranean music heritage. His compositions are often performed by international ensembles within contemporary music festivals. As leader of the Nafra folk ensemble he is a major exponent of Maltese traditional music and has been invited to present concerts in major international events all over Europe as well as in Tunisia, India and Hong Kong. The encounter and tension between heritage and innovation is the most significant relationship in the music of Ruben Zahra.
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