By Paul Kavanagh
After many months in a dull hotel room on Strait Street, Valletta, I concluded that I had arrived too late, too late to write an old-fashioned account of travel. Half asleep, I had journeyed through Malta. I drank too much while in quest of something elusive in Saint Paul’s and Saint Julian’s. I had spent too much time in bed hiding from the sun dreaming of the Past. I hardly interacted with the people, the cathedrals blurred, the buildings merged, the myths muddled; the streets became just one long ascent, dusty, narrow. Waiting for a bus to take me to the Ġgantija Temples, I listened to two young girls asking their father many questions. We were in Città Vittoria. It was very hot and I had no water. “Why is water blue in the sea and clear in my bottle?” asked the smaller of the two girls, the pretty one. “Papa, could Aquinas fly?” asked the other girl. They were English. Their burnt flesh only matched their questions. I left Malta and traveled to Gozo. Without searching for it, I found the cave of Calypso. I had taken an early morning walk with the hope that the walk would wake me up. I left a dirt road with the wish of reaching the sea. I was worried that I could feel the first signs of heatstroke. I found myself on a craggy hill overlooking the sea. As I made my way down the craggy hill, I saw a sign for Għar Calypso. I stood before the cave. A young boy greeted me.
“Hello,” I said. He smiled. He followed me into the cave. I handed him some money and he lit a small white candle. He handed me the candle and stuffed the note into his pocket. Splintered sunbeams danced iridescently upon the glistening, dank rocks. It had a kaleidoscopic effect. The rocks were beautiful. I can’t explain why. They were simply beautiful. I thought about Odysseus’s futility. The wax from the candle was running down my hand. Fear made me rotate. The candle boy was still there. The flame danced upon the candle. The boy’s contrapposto made me think of Caravaggio. I had spent a week staring at Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.” It is an extremely violent painting. St. John’s Co-Cathedral I found very beautiful. If I were to attempt to describe the cathedral I would describe all the cathedrals to be found in Malta. The boy was wearing jeans cut at the knees. The bottoms were frayed. The naked legs were hairless and almond. The white jean strands next to the almond skin caught my eye. The boy was shoeless. The toenails were dirty. The boy moved slightly, searching for a more comfortable stance. The cave was not a cave but a lacuna where once a tooth had been located. As the wax dripped onto my toes, as the light from the candle danced upon the pockmarked walls, I tried to read the graffiti that covered the walls. Somebody had written something about the size of Odysseus’s penis; the graffiti was very witty, but crude. I sat down where Calypso and Odysseus kissed and decided that I would go to Magalíluismili. In my rucksack, I had The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Melia Klepht’s For Those Who Love to Fight. The latter book was an account of the war between Ayeléticia and Magalíluismili. It had been a bloody war. Ayeléticia had been rebuilt after the war and was now just another city. I had heard that Magalíluismili had not changed at all, that all the wealth they had accumulated before the war had been wasted on the war. I spent the rest of the day on the beach at Ramla l-Hamra reading The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The sand was golden and the waters undulated softly. I swam when my eyes started to feel the strain of trying to catch the words as they endeavored to elude the sun. The water was warm. I watched a young couple fooling around in the water and imagined Calypso and Odysseus caught in the same act by some minor god.
After the Conquistadors, after the Pirates, arrived the Northern Europeans. Magalíluismili was to be a Utopia in the clouds, a paragon of man’s aspirations. Therefore, why they built the village at the bottom of a valley is a mystery.
There is only one road to Magalíluismili. It is a long, winding road. The road cuts through the deep jungle. It rises steeply with the hills that surround Magalíluismili, descends, cuts Magalíluismili in two, ascends with the hills on the other side, traverses the hills, and continues to Ayeléticia. The road ends after more jungle in Claudfani.
Magalíluismili is surrounded by six hills and one mountain.
The Northern Europeans were very superstitious, and the names they gave the six hills and mountain illustrate their deep-rooted superstition: there is Devil’s Elbow, Devil’s Knee, Devil’s Heel, Devil’s Chin, Devil’s Ear, Devil’s Hump.
The road cuts through the Devil’s Hump.
The mountain is named Pachocle after Captain Wilhelm Pachocle, the first man to have climbed the mountain. It is 2,130 feet (650 m) above sea level.
Captain Wilhelm Pachocle, it is believed, declared war on the Devils in the clouds. He stood on the roof of his hut and cursed the rain. The rain fell unabated, impassive to the wild expletives of Captain Wilhelm Pachocle. Fearing defeat, he aimed his shotgun at the clouds, shot, and kept on shooting until the clouds reacted. Captain Wilhelm Pachocle fell through the roof of his hut and broke his neck.
Taxes are very high. There is much unemployment. The price for the simple things, like bread, milk, butter, and wine, is breathtaking. There is a thriving black market. Everybody is on the make. I was able to employ a guide. Vaz was a small man with a head full of gray hair, which was once black as coal. He liked to rub his potbelly, and he possessed a contagious laugh. Before employment, Vaz had been living on the streets, so I allowed him to sleep in the commodious closet. He found me a small room at the O’Higgins Hotel, which is on the Main Street. It was a rundown place. The room contained a bed, a table and chair, a restroom with latrine, shower, and washbasin. From the window, there was an excellent view of the Main Street and the Devil’s Chin, Devil’s Ear, and Devil’s Hump. During the hottest time of the day, Mount Pachocle blocked out the sun.
Walking along the Main Street, Vaz told me how the street happened to be paved. He pointed to a beautiful older woman standing before a shop and said, “It is because of the likes of her that the streets of Magalíluismili are paved. The men being men were more than happy to tread in mud, but the ladies being ladies and having a liking for high heel shoes and the men having a liking for ladies in high heel shoes and knowing that ladies in high heel shoes cannot walk up and down the Main Street if the street is muddy, thought it best to pave the street, and so my beloved Main Street is paved. And so have no fear of muddying yourself as we hurry through Magalíluismili.”
There was no Directory for Magalíluismili, and so if I were ever to get to know the town, I would have to visit the cemetery or the most dilapidated bar. A cemetery will tell you what families run a town, which families are powerful and rich; it is an advertisement, a mausoleum of black marble that works just as well as a Rolls Royce. A dilapidated bar will contain as much history as a cemetery. Vaz informed me that the cemetery was deep in the jungle. Not wanting to spend my first day in the jungle, I asked Vaz to take me to the most rundown bar.
Drunk, Vaz wanting to show me something did the chicken pox dance. It was a very fun dance.
The first part of the dance, Vaz scratched himself crazily from head to foot.
The second part of the dance, Vaz fell to the floor and gyrated.
The third part of the dance, Vaz quivered until still.
My bed was comfortable. The mosquitoes did their best to spoil my sleep. Vaz snored loudly. During the night, I watched the rainfall through the moonlight. It turned out not to be rain, but insects. I sat by the window and watched for two hours. A little flying insect was eaten by a bigger flying insect and that flying insect was eaten by a bigger flying insect and on and on it went until finally an insect so big it struggled to fly was picked off the window ledge by a bat. The bats were big. I climbed back into bed. I could hear the jungle, and its whispers metamorphosed into the refutation of Vico’s theory that imagination is memory reshaping itself within the cage that is the brain. I read a few chapters from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville until sleep. I dreamt of Christopher Columbus. In the morning, I asked Vaz if he could get me a copy of Richard Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America. Vaz said, “You have more chance of climbing that mountain.” “I could,” I said. He laughed loudly. It was a mocking laugh. I wanted him to stop laughing. I took this for no. I handed him The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and told him he could exchange it for a few bottles of wine. He thanked me. I eyed the mountain as though the mountain were on the other side of the net and we were about to start a game of tennis.
We sat in Murphy’s bar to escape the midday sun. Magalíluismili is famous for its cabbages. I had cabbages with everything. I had strong beer that tasted of tinfoil and stewed cabbages. Later Vaz said, “Have you never noticed death smells so much like tin foil.” I had never come across death. We spent the night in the hotel room and Vaz, being light-headed after much walking, drinking, and little food, had to tell me how he arrived in Magalíluismili. I sat on the bed and him on the floor. In Magalíluismili, it never gets truly dark, the moonlight being so strong. The window was open slightly so we could smoke. We could hear the insects and smell the jungle as it claimed the corpses of the day. Vaz started with, “A lie is constructed of many parts. The truth is constructed of only one part. The truth is always whole; a lie is only whole when the lie has reached its end.” He said something else but a yawn obstructed my hearing. He started happily but ended in tears. When I woke in the morning, I was still dressed. I had fallen asleep, sitting up with my back pushed up against the wall. My alarm clock was the ringing in my neck. Vaz slept like a baby on the floor.
When in Magalíluismili it is a must that you attend a performance by Zine Kueneau. For the price of a bottle of wine, a cheap meal, and a packet of cigarettes, he will entertain for as long as you are willing to be entertained. He is a thin man, aquiline in features with an impressive voice. The suits he wears shimmer in the sun, you cannot miss him. We sat under the shade of many trees with names that I found to be untranslatable. I sipped mango juice poured over crushed ice, unbuttoned my shirt, and took off my boots. As Zine Kueneau performed, Magalíluismili dissipated; so did the hills, my nemesis the mountain, the jungle, and the world.
Yadda Street is lined with beautiful trees that form a canopy over the road. It is a busy road; it is the main thoroughfare for the City of Magalíluismili. A man walking out of the First National Bank just by his very presence hurried a squirrel onto the busy road. The man, shocked, dropped the wad of money he had been counting. The money flew onto the busy road. The man hurried after the money and was knocked down and killed. The air was thick with the smell of tin foil. Vaz said, “It is the smell of blood.” That night I drank a full bottle of Gordon’s Gin. The wind barked outside my window. During the night, there had been a bad storm. I had not heard it, or seen it. A tree had fallen close to the hotel. In the morning, hungover, I staggered outside and looked at the fallen tree. I looked up and saw the skyscrapers of Magalíluismili. I was amazed that one single tree could have hidden the skyscrapers of Magalíluismili. There were so many.
Seeing that it was my last night in Magalíluismili, Vaz was able to pick up some of Francisco’s last batch of homemade booze. It was indeed very strong. I opened the window and listened to the roar of cars, trucks, and buses. The neon lights that flashed across the street illuminated the room. The homemade brew was thick and iridescent like oil. We mixed it with water; once mixed, it turned into milk. We added sugar and some lime. We poured the drink over ice. Vaz told me that the locals drink it rare, a thing I could not do, I was not a local, I was a tourist. We got very drunk. Vaz did all the talking. I sat on the bed and listened. From the bed, I could see the skyscrapers of Magalíluismili. The skyscrapers loomed over the hills turning the hills into ant mounds.
There was a knock on the door. It was Vaz. My taxicab was waiting for me downstairs. I pointed to the mountain. “The next time I am here I am going to climb that mountain,” I boasted. Vaz laughed loudly and slapped me on the back. I was taken-aback.
“That, my good friend, is no mountain” – he removed the cigarette – “that is a rubbish heap.”
Paul Kavanagh’s writing credits include poetry and short stories inThe White Review, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Sleepingfish, Burnside Review, 3am Magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Nano Fiction, Evergreen Review, Marginalia, Upstairs at Duroc, Annalemma Magazine, Trnsf, Third Wednesday, and Structo magazine. New work is soon to appear in The Chaffey Review and Bateau Press.