PROSE: Gerita by Trevor Żahra

Copyright Gilbert Calleja
Translated from Maltese by Albert Gatt

It was just my brother Tommy and me at our father’s burial. As the parish priest brought his pointless muttering to a close and the gravediggers stood by impatiently, mortar bucket in hand, my brother and I gazed absently at the bouquet of flowers that the undertaker had gone ahead and ordered without our permission. We longed to replace those daisies with thorns.

The fact is that, notwithstanding my father’s pitiful state in the aftermath of his stroke, my brother and I could still see the savagery of old in his eyes, that hatred, that violence, those insults, that cruelty. In our nostrils, there lingered the sour whiff of beer and vodka that we smelled whenever he brought his face close and told us – my sister Josette, my brother and myself: “You are God’s pigs. You just breathe a word and I’ll skin you alive and feed your carcass to the dogs.” My sister’s cries still resounded in our ears, as he dragged her into his bedroom and locked the door. When our aunt Salvina was still alive, she would try to stick up for us, bearing the brunt of his slaps with the utmost resignation. And when one day she threatened to call the police, he grabbed Tommy by the hair and said that if she so much as ventured over the doorstep she’d need to bring a bucket and mop Tommy’s bowels off the floor. Aunt Salvina’s death was sudden; the day after her funeral, my sister disappeared. She was fourteen. She was last seen somewhere in the vicinity of Dingli cliffs. Then, the neighbours started talking, the police became involved ... there were interrogations, sleepless nights, humiliations, recorded statements, until my father ended up in jail and my brother and I ended up in care.

When the undertaker asked us if we’d like to see him one last time, Tommy spat on the coffin and strode off, leaving me on my own. At that precise moment, as I turned to look at my brother, I spied Gerita lingering by the cemetery gates.


Gerita had caused pandemonium the year before, on the day of the village festa. According to the papers, that’s when she made her first appearance. Just as the procession was making its way out of the parish church, I began to hear what sounded like shouts and whistles from the periphery of the village square that seemed to jarr with the festive atmosphere. I pushed my way through the crowd and suddenly saw before me something I’d never have expected to see in a village festa. In front of me there was a counter of the kind nougat vendors rigged up, decorated all over with rubber dolls – arms, legs, heads – all cut up into pieces and hung from a cord stretched taut across the counter between two poles. Behind it all, an old woman with a wizened face was frenetically chopping up the dolls with a meat cleaver, putting them on the scales normally used to weigh chunks of nougat, smearing them with tomato ketchup and hanging them on the cord. It didn’t take me long to realise that the wizened face of the old woman was in fact a latex mask and the anarchic white hair that sprouted from beneath her checked headscarf was in fact a wig.

All of a sudden, the crowd began to pelt her with empty plastic bottles and beer cans. There were even some people who threatened to overturn her counter, dolls and all ... but before the police managed to get onto the scene, a motorbike roared over from the other end of the street; quick as a flash, the old woman leapt behind the rider and the two of them cut through the crowd at top speed, without regard for the people they could have injured.

The next day, the rumours began to spread and there were news reports and letters in the papers. The motorbike rider, who was dressed like a metalhead and wore a helmet with a dark visor, was nicknamed the Black Knight. The old woman was nicknamed Gerita. Some said she was a satan who wanted to hurt Christian feelings; other said she was an illegal immigrant; some insisted that it really was a woman (her breasts had been seen wobbling beneath her dress when she leapt onto the motorbike) and yet others said it was a man, given the hairy arms that jutted out of the cuffs of the dress. A regular correspondent in one of the Sunday papers suggested that Gerita’s had merely been a provocative anti-abortion statement. But nobody really believed that. In fact, the Church’s media denounced the actions of this ‘unidentified individual’ as an insult to the holiest and most cherished of its traditions.

Me, I didn’t buy any of that. I held back from airing my views because, truth be told, I’d been mesmerised by that nougat counter. I’d noticed that it wasn’t lit with a festoon of lights, as nougat counters norrmally are. It had been set up in a dark corner and surrounded with a black cloth like a shroud. The arms and legs of the mutilated dolls, the heads with their eyes gouged, the gaping holes, all hung out on a cord and dripping tomato ketchup ... all of this had hypnotised me. The thumps of Gerita’s heavy cleaver seemed to be keeping time to the thumping of the marching band’s bassoon. I was captivated by that macabre vision.

Things calmed down after a while and Gerita was more or less forgotten. Come October, Birgu celebrated its candle-lit vigil over two or three nights. And that’s where Gerita struck again. I glimpsed her in a narrow street close to the Inquisitor’s Palace. She wore the same checked headscarf, the same black dress with tiny white polkadots. A large woollen shawl draped over her shoulders provided an additional touch. She was seated on a stool. Behind her, there was a large bench with three long poles, each one impaled with the head of a pig, dripping blood. Her feet were planted in a circle of flickering candles and Gregorian chant issued from a casette recorder concealed somewhere nearby. Threading a large rosary in her hand, of the kind that monks wear around their waist, Gerita rocked back and forth on the stool in silent supplication. Once again, I found myself staring as if anaesthetised at this vision of light and shadow, prayer and damnation, blood and reparation, this Caravaggesque composition just a stone’s throw away from the Inquisitor’s Palace. I didn’t notice the gathering crowd, the mutter of opprobrium, the indignant cries of some people. I didn’t even notice when Gerita, hearing the rumble of the engine, flew off her stool and straddled the motorbike behind her Knight, leaving behind the rosary beads, the cassette tape hidden beneath the bench and the pigs’ heads dripping blood.

The rumours began again the next day. As the weeks rolled by, I found myself becoming obsessed with the thought of her. Who was she? What did she have in mind? What was she trying to convey? Had I really seen all that or was it just my imagination? Because, just before the crowd had begun to gather, as I stood alone before her, I got the distinct impression that Gerita had briefly interrupted her back and forth rocking and nodded in my direction. I thought her eyes had stared right at me. But I couldn’t be certain because of the latex mask. And then again, behind the holes in the mask, those eyes seemed dull and lightless. It could have been a trick of the flickering candlelight. This time, although the months passed and the rumours and letters in the papers fizzled out once again, I simply couldn’t rid myself of that image of her. I felt the desire to see her again. Everywhere I went – festas, social occasions, walks – I’d always expect to see Gerita suddenly appearing out of thin air. But this time, Gerita left me waiting for months.

Good Friday finally arrived, and I went to see the Rabat pageant, as I do every year. And just as the statue of Our Saviour was carried past, the door of an old coach house swung open and Gerita emerged with a large crucifix on her back. Dragging herself painfully along, she moved into the centre of the procession behind Our Saviour, holding a urine-filled bag in her left hand with a rubber catheter tube that disappeared under her skirt. This time, I wasn’t the only one who remained speechless. The crowd froze and stared at her wide-eyed as she struggled along beneath the weight of her crucifix to the rhythm of the funeral march. And this time I was certain that Gerita looked directly at me, as though pleading with me to move closer and take the weight off her shoulders, like Simon of Cyrene.

An entire police investigation was launched, but to no avail. The old coach house in Rabat turned out to be connected to a house that had been sealed for years. One of the dailies actually offered a prize to whoever could come up with verifiable information as to Gerita’s identity. But once again, the old woman had melted away. For months, there was no sign of her. Until ...

... I turned to look at my brother Tommy and there by the cemetery gates stood Gerita, staring fixedly at me. In her hand, she carried a bunch of yellow and red balloons. As the gravediggers busied themselves replacing the slabs and sealing them with mortar, Gerita seemed to be hopping daintily from foot to foot, as she let go of the balloons one by one.

I stood there, staring at the yellow and red spheres as they filled the sky and rose gradually, very gradually, until they were the size of chickpeas and were lost in the blue. And when I turned back towards the cemetery gates, Gerita had disappeared.


The original version of this story was first published in Penumbra (Merlin Library, 2010)

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