for Mark and Emma
I was a paperboy.
Cold mornings, I would rise before the sun and gather the bundles of papers that had been left in stacks on the front porch overnight. I’d cut the tough, plastic bindings and assemble the various sections of newspaper and load the substantial finished product into a red wagon. Then I’d rouse the family dog, who’d groan and finally rise, rickety, from her deep slumber and we’d walk two streets south, the wagon trundling behind and Simba (named years before the Lion King and meaning ‘lion’ in Swahili) ambling beside me. On Glen Rose Avenue I’d park my wagon in front of each house on my route and with the dog, walk up the front path and deposit the paper on the porch. I was ten years old.
For two months I’ve looked out on the Grand Harbour of Malta. From the window of a gallerija balcony (traditional enclosed Maltese balcony), I have daily stared out at its blue water and the fortifications of Senglea, Birgu and Cospicua opposite. Almost every day I go for a run around Valletta and pass the fortress of St. Elmo. It was here and in these places that in 1565 occurred one of the bloodiest sieges in history. When a vast Ottoman fleet of 200 ships and some 40,000 men was sent by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent to wrest control of these islands from the Knights of St. John, then led by the redoubtable Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, who had at his disposal just 8000 men.
I have here an American friend, who is a conservator and currently working on a project to rehabilitate paintings depicting the Great Siege of Malta. She invited me to take a look at her team’s work and it is here that my interest in the siege was piqued. The paintings are on the upper walls of the throne room in the Grand Master’s palace in Valletta. They were painted by Matteo Perez D’Alleccio in 1577. It is a frieze consisting of 12 panels which depict the siege chronologically. On the high scaffold I walked around the room as my friend detailed each section, the method, the materials and the pigments used. Up close, I could see each brushstroke, feel the texture. As we went, she dramatically told the tale of the siege. It was clear she had done this before. It was better than any movie.
Fort St. Elmo was where the Ottomans directed the full might of their force in the opening days of the siege. Back then, it was a small, hastily constructed fort located at the tip of the peninsula on which Valletta is now located and opposite the three cities where the Knights had their stronghold. There is a large ditch or moat that surrounds it. From the bottom of the ditch up to the rampart is about 60 feet. A detail from one of the books I read describes the bodies being piled so high that one could clamber over them and breach the walls. A bridge of bodies. I paused my run and looked over the ditch and at the high wall and I tried to imagine this.
A scout had estimated that it would take no more than four days to take St. Elmo. It took 28, and cost thousands of lives. The Knights would send nightly reinforcements from Birgu across the harbour. These men would have known they were travelling to a certain death. When finally, the fort was captured the Ottoman leader, Mustapha Pasha had the bodies of the Knights separated from the common soldiers and their heads cut off and stuck on stakes where Valette would be able to see them from across the harbour. Their bodies were then crucified and set alight and floated across the water. In turn, Valette, in a rare loss of cool, had every Turkish prisoner executed and their heads fired from cannons across to the Ottoman camp. St. Elmo was supposed to be an easy victory. When Pasha looked across the harbour at Fort St. Angelo he said,
‘Allah! If so small a son has cost us so dear, what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?’
Yes, I was the ubiquitous Canadian paperboy in the 1980s, delivering the news door to door. Are you familiar with the butterfly that flaps its wings in China and causes a hurricane in the North Atlantic? That a small thing can have a non-linear impact on a complex system. Just think of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Sound of Thunder’.
A turning point in the siege came when Dragut, the great Ottoman corsair, known as ‘the drawn sword of Islam’, was mortally wounded by a rock splinter when a cannonball struck the hard ground near to where he was standing. Despite being almost 80 he was never far from the front lines and like La Valette, he was a brilliant tactician who led by his own courageous example. Years earlier on a campaign in Gozo, Malta’s small island to the north, he had a premonition that his own death would occur on these islands. He said,
‘I have felt in this island the shadow of the wing of death.’
He was not wrong. He died of his wounds a few days later.
As a writer I am given to speculation, but it does not seem a stretch to imagine that were it not for that sound of thunder; the cannonball and its ensuant rock splinter, I would not be here writing this. Was it that small splinter, that small thing that would have such immense historical repurcussions when it struck the great leader Dragut above his right ear, and changed the course of the war, of that island, that sea, the North of Africa and Europe’s collective history’s?
Was it that splinter that allowed me to deliver newspapers in Toronto centuries later?
There was one house on my paper route that was significantly older than any of the others in the neighborhood. It had once been lived in by two local artists of repute. For some reason Simba would refuse to accompany me to its front porch and if I tried to make her, her lips would curl, she’d bare her teeth and the fur on her back would bristle as she stared at the house and emitted a low growl. This gentle creature who I had rarely even heard bark, sensed something there, some disturbance, something that terrified her. Once a month, I would take a small binder full of perforated yellow stubs and I would collect money from each of the houses I delivered to. A young couple lived at that particular house. They had no pets that I could detect or anything else that might cause the dog alarm. They seemed very nice.
I wonder if I sensed something similar, yesterday, when I paused my run and looked into the ditch that surrounds St. Elmo. When I considered the thousands of lives that ended there, how could that not somehow alter the place. When so much of the architecture remains, it is an easy thing to do. I recall descriptions which said the Grand Harbour was so full of bodies you could walk across it. This beautiful view. This harbour I look out on now.
My perception of what it means to be Maltese has changed in the past two months as I have explored this brutal episode in their history, my history. Life was hard here. It is an arid island with a brutal climate, wracked by vicious winter storms and tormented by a merciless sun for much of the year. There is little fresh water and add to this the fact that, back then, the population were routinely carried away into slavery by marauding pirates and corsairs, I can begin to better understand the stubborn streak that runs through the Maltese. Their black humour, their dogged determination, their resilience and toughness, their lawlessness. By the end of the siege the situation was so desperate that women and children joined in the fighting. A soldier who arrived with the reinforcements (after the siege had already been won) remarked that there was not a man, woman or child among the population who did not bear some mark or wound from the battle.
That the people from this ‘obscure island of rock and sandstone’ have prevailed against such unlikely odds is in itself a remarkable feat. This island of figs and honey that was to be the stronghold of the Knights of St. John for two centuries. This strategic spot in the Mediterranean, which has been sought after and possessed by empire after empire: the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the French, the British. This place where exist the oldest man-made structures on earth. This island, known as the thorn in Rommel’s side, which just 80 years ago endured another deadly siege, where more bombs were dropped on it in four months then were dropped on the United Kingdom in the whole of World War II. The island where the rose-tinted light of early evening seems to be decanted through the lens of a bougainvillea petal, the place where the ‘e’ at the end of my surname has a voice albeit one that sits awkwardly on the tip of my Canadian tongue. Where the streets on a summer night are alive with people and the shouts of children at play late into the night. Their raised voices, their language, a reminder of the many civilizations that have been here and left their mark: classical Arabic, Italian, French, English.
Grand Master De Valette sent regular dispatches and entreaties for more troops to Sicily and the Vatican. These would be delivered by a Maltese, who would swim across the Grand Harbour at night, through the thousands of floating dead bodies. They would skirt the Turkish encampment in Marsa and make their way overland to Mellieha, at the northern tip of the island, where a small boat would take the message, avoiding the vast Ottoman fleet, to Sicily and onwards.
Against all odds, every one of Valette’s messages was delivered.
I cannot say the same of my newspapers.