Ġorġ Mallia

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How much does a baby cost?

A short story for Christmas

 

"How much does a baby cost?"

The shop owner stared at her.  A pretty girl.  A little pale, as if she had just come out of some illness, but pretty.  Mostly her long black hair contrasting with the pale skin of her face.

"Sorry?"

"A baby.  How much does it cost?"

And again.  "A baby.  Isn't this Christmas?  Isn't that a baby in the manger?  I want a baby."

"Aah, now I understand.  Crib statuettes.  A baby jesus for the manger.  No, those we don't sell.  If you would like you can try Knick-Knacks at the corner.  He'll have them for sure."

He could not understand her.

Not even this one.

He was not alone in this.

She said nothing else to him and left the shop.

The cold was not there.  Indeed, it was warm, as if St. Martin's Summer had extended to December.  And the stickiness of a stinking south wind that only a Christmas in Malta can give us.

Last year it was cold.  She felt it suddenly when she saw the blood dripping on the bedsheet.  She felt it shiver her spine when on the realisation that that large red spot was coming out of her.

And outside there was a band playing Jingle Bells.  Today she can still not understand how in that moment of terror the only thing that passed through her mind was how alien that melody sounded - those words speaking of snow that in Malta never twirled round the frequent winds.  Alien.

Like the baby in her womb.

So alien that it did not want to stay there.

And now, looking into a window lit by lights twinkling a colourful winking, she felt the cold again, snaking its way up her spine, and the skin on her neck, pins and needles, reminding her.

The doctor had told her to try and forget.  To get lost in the work that, once, was so dear to her.  And occasionally she managed, but not at Christmas time.
At the first plastic three dressed in hair of aluminum glinting in the confusion of fairy lights;

at the first released strands of familiar notes that are dusted each year at December's dawning;

at the word "Christmas" or "Yuletide" stuck into adverts that insinuate themselves among radio and television programmes, until they grow into a chain that occasionally links to it a programme or two;

at the laughing faces of children...

...children...

(WHY DID YOU HURT ME SO MUCH?  WHAT HAVE I EVER DONE WORSE THAN OTHERS TO HAVE ENDED UP DENIED THE LIFE THAT SHARED WITH ME FOR A WHILE MY EXISTENCE?  THAT SPOKE TO ME WITH A MUTE VOICE EVERY SECOND OF MY BREATHING FOR FIVE HOLY MONTHS - A HUNDRED AND FIFTY DAYS OF LIFE AMIDST TWENTY FOUR YEARS OF DEATH?  WHY?)

There's a foreign choir in the square.

It was brought over by the Department of Culture.  The voices are sweet, and they penetrate the heat with words about the cold of snow, far away places, traditions evoked once a year, hope of peace, hope of happiness.

A foreign choir.

The foreign life in her womb used to twinkle like the living lights that snaked around the art of the illiterate artisan who made the decorations in the shop-filled street through which she walked.

It was a life that often startled her with the blow of the silent flash of the star on the cave in the crib.  Of the star with trembling light that she had bought for the window of her room a few hours before the red on the sheet stole the light from her heart.

Wearing red scarves, children in a mixed group are at a corner singing carols from old exercise books, yellowed by the sweat of a thousand fingers, and with curled edges.  The school teacher that directs them wipes perspiration off with a torn handkerchief that had seen many Christmases and which now went from one pocket to another.
But the children are sweet.  People stop to watch them.  The singing is totally out of tune, but the faces are red from the warmth of the woolen pullovers and the heat of the south wind.

(WHY?  PERHAPS BECAUSE MY BIRTH WAS NOT TO BE A VIRGIN ONE LIKE THE ONE SHE HAD TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO?  BECAUSE MY LOVE WAS JUST FOR THE FRUIT AND NOT FOR THE SEED AND LESS AND LESS FOR THE GARDENER WHO SOWED IT?  WHO EVER THINKS OF THE SOWING AS HE EATS A FRUIT? AM I GUILTY BECAUSE OF THAT?  IF NOT... WHY?)

On a small stool there is a man with the years... ruts running across his face, wearing cotton wool instead of a beard, and for the rest decorated in white and red.  A faded red from the washing and boiling of once a year for so many years, but red nonetheless.

There are crowns of shining green leaves, in the way that plastic shines in light.  There are cherries of red plastic hanging there.

And the trees are full of artificial balls of all colours, but it is the red that meets her eyes - gobs of red, drops of red, contrasting with the snow-white background on the card printed abroad, in a foreign language, which comes for a short while, makes someone happy and is then hidden among the rubbish until it gets worn and is thrown away.
Because there is no room for the foreign here.

Isn't that so, oh wax baby in a manger full of synthetic straw?

We will greet what is foreign for a while - say, once a year, then we will pack it away among the rubbish in the attic.

Away from the eyes, away from the heart?

No...

Because the red winking of the light bulb does not let it be so.  The silence lullabyed by the winking of the non-understood voices of the passers-by - voices that rise and fall in a symphony that everybody understands according to his or her own background, fill the air that suffocates because of the halogen lights and the south wind.

Among the hubbub there is a lagoon of silence around her, but there is a lot of noise in her thoughts - a coloured and black noise, dented by the heaviness of the living memory that dressed death and found an ending at the beginning.  And a bunch of thorns in her stomach pushes bitterness up her throat - pushes the redness in front of her eyes.

The children's singing is moving away, and she takes the road leading the other way.  Away from there.  Far away from the materialistic cave lit by technology, hemmed by the electronic shout moaning for a consumer.

She wished she could touch a real tree - green, with no red balls hanging on it.  She wished to hug the life of the tree to her so as to remember what that life was that was not bought wrapped and rolled round in pretty paper.

She wished a happy Christmas to her barren womb - almost sterile, and decorated it with a tear winking on its way down in the light of the moon.

And she waited for the dawning of the morrow, the day of the twenty sixth, to celebrate Christmas.

 

Written in Maltese: December 11, 1999 (Published in Il-MUMENT, special Christmas edition). It also appeared in IL-MALTI, the journal of the Maltese Academy. No. LXXV, November 2001, pp. 112-114.
 

Translated: September 3, 2002

Click HERE for the original Maltese version

 

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Ġorġ Mallia 2017