© 2007 by Sabine Cassar-Alpert
I had been to see the Ġgantija Temples many times before. Built well over five thousand years ago, they are considered the oldest man-made buildings on our planet and I usually insist on showing these awe-inspiring structures to friends who are visiting Gozo for the first time.
This morning was different though, as I went alone. An exception had been kindly made for me, so I would be able take photographs free from sightseers walking into the picture. Having arrived ten minutes before opening time, I was the only visitor and had the temples all to myself. I wandered around in the glaring sun, which was already intense even at such early hour. Here and there I stopped to capture this fascinating place from different angles, and finally paused for a moment of rest in the shade that lay invitingly behind the temples’ massive back wall.
Sitting down on a small patch of dry grass, I took a sip from my small water bottle, which I had wisely grabbed on my way out from home, and gazed at the colossal boulders that form the walls. In some places these reach a height of over six metres, and a few of these megaliths weigh up to fifty tons… how on earth did they manage to do that? It could, indeed, only have been giants’ work! Local legend has it that a giantess named Sansuna, who fed on a diet of broad beans, collected and carried the stones on her head from as far away as Ta’ Ċenċ – and this is said to have happened a millennium before the first Egyptian pyramids were created!
I had not seen the woman approaching, who I suddenly found towering over me, interrupting my thoughts. A small fright merely lasted for the fracture of a moment as she asked politely, “Excuse me, but are you from here?”
“Well, I know my way around in Xagħra a little,” I replied, scrambling awkwardly to my feet, “how can I help you?”
“Would you mind showing me around a little? I lived here a long time ago,” her voice took on a hue of sadness when she added with a small sigh, “but nothing seems familiar anymore.”
I felt pity for her, and without thinking twice, I found myself accompanying her across the barren terrain towards the entrance gate. Eyeing her with curiosity I saw nothing out of the ordinary. She was slightly taller than I am and dressed in unremarkable, everyday clothing. Her brown hair looked a tad unkempt but not enough to suggest she wasn’t taking care of it. Her age was hard to guess at, she could have been thirty or fifty – looking ageless in a way many middle-aged women do.
Arriving at the gate, we had to wait to let a group of day-trippers pass, who were being led in by a tourist guide. My companion glanced over the mass of people, with her attention finally resting on the fence and walls surrounding the site. She said nothing, just stared.
“So how long have you been away from Xagħra?” I asked her in an attempt to get a conversation going.
“I do not remember exactly, but it has been a very long time.”
Finally it was our turn to make our way out through the small gate, where she asked, “What are these walls for?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” I asked back, shaking my head at her ignorance. “They are keeping out trespassers who don’t want to pay!”
“Yes, pay. For their entry ticket.” I tried to hide from her the fact that my patience was beginning to run a little short.
She furrowed her brow, giving her face an incredulous look. “Are you serious? They are paying to worship?” she asked, eyebrows raised in indignation over that information.
I did not reply. Quite simply put, I didn’t know what to say. Was she serious? Was she trying to be funny in some weird way? Who was she, anyway? With nonchalance that I didn’t feel I asked, “What’s your name – and where do you live nowadays?”
My inquiry was met with an unexpected, warm smile. “What you call ‘Ġgantija’ is my home,” she answered, still smiling. “As for my name… well, if you like, you may call me Sansuna. It does not matter that this name was given to me by people who have never met me. I must admit that I’m taking to it!”
Mainly two emotions were battling for first place in my mind. While I was seriously considering the possibility that I was strolling down the road towards the village centre with a mentally severely disturbed lady, I could not help feeling a certain fascination at the same time.
“So your name is Sansuna. And you want me to believe that you built this place, what, five thousand years ago?” I challenged her. “You don’t strike me as having the physique of a giant. You are just an ordinary person. A woman, at that!”
“I do not want you to believe anything – and I would never claim that I built the temples on my own. Perhaps it is easier for today’s people to believe they were built by giants. In your male-dominated world, women are regarded as weak and insignificant, inferior to men. Accepting that women once were the rulers of this world, must present a great threat to the men of today…”
I had to concede that her words were making sense – to a certain extent. But she had not really answered my question. “Then how did you build these gigantic structures? What is your secret?” I asked what archaeologists and historians have wanted to know for almost a century.
Sansuna took in a deep breath, which she exhaled with an equally deep sigh. “It is not for me to reveal how Ġgantija was built. But great deeds can be achieved if you believe in yourself – and in others. Maybe your people will one day re-discover this truth, together with life’s simplicity. Then, perhaps, the secret behind Ġgantija’s creation will finally be understood, too.”
I was still pondering her reply, when a strong ray of sunlight that had crawled around the temple wall, hit my face. I blinked and saw a small group of people passing by, a few of them scrutinizing me with curious stares.
Awkwardly I struggled to my feet, and started heading for the gate. On my way out, I kept scanning the crowds of tourists, who were being herded into the grounds, for Sansuna. But she wasn’t there.
Some time last year, I entered a short story into a competition organised by Showtime, a cultural supplement of the Times of Malta. The winner was announced in the first week of December; sadly it was not me… First place went to Katryna Storace, whose story “The Androgynous Aphrodite” will be published in a future edition of Showtime.Since my story was mentioned among 10 “runner-ups” of sorts (see clip) I was content enough. I’d have expected for it to be totally lost among the many entries they surely must have received.
Well, nobody asked me if they may publish it (nope, I hadn’t expect that either!), and I have nothing to report in my blog today, so I thought I might as well publish it here, thus affording it a tiny, exclusive audience!
So here it is…
(c) 2005 Sabine Cassar-Alpert
Lorraine opened her eyes tentatively as she felt the last rays of the autumn sun on her face. When her eyes adjusted to the light, she realised the taxi had already crossed the first third of Channel Bridge. “I must have dozed off”, the young woman thought, and stared in wonder at the tower of Comino, which they were passing just then. A moment later the enormous steel construction of the bridge came into focus, leaving the ancient watchtower to fade into the background.
“What a monster”, she meant to think but probably had spoken out loud, because the driver eyed her in his rear-view mirror with a peculiar mixture of hostility, defensive hurt, and curiosity all rolled into one.
“That tower’s over four hundred years old ta, Miss,” he said, perhaps a tad more grumpily than he had meant to, “to call it a monster is outrageous!”
Lorraine held his gaze in the mirror and retorted wryly, “I’m talking about the bridge, not the tower!” She shook her head but could not help being awed at the sight of the huge bridge, which could easily compete with San Francisco’s Golden Gate. They had not even stopped at putting in an exit from the bridge to Comino! The tiny island between Malta and Gozo had been car-free in the days when Gozo was home for her.
“Ah!” And both, his voice and face took on a more amiable hue when he continued, “Ghandek ragun. I guess you’re right. Doesn’t do much to enhance the landscape, hux? Imma, you know what? For me it don’t matter if it’s nice or ugly. Most important thing is, I can cross over any time, day or night!”
Lorraine left his last remark without reply and hung after her own thoughts, careful not to voice them aloud again. The concept of ferry queuing – or worse, cancelled trips because of rough seas – was totally foreign to her. She tried to remember what little experiences she had had of the ferry between the two islands. Her family had whisked her away to England when she was only seven; she could just about recall one outing with her school class to Malta in grade one, when they had been herded through several museums, not quite old enough to appreciate their country’s treasures. And then, of course, the last crossing, heading for the airport. The minibus they had hired for the occasion was jam-packed with suitcases, trunks and bags, and Lorraine herself had carried her school satchel, and a heavy heart. That had been fifteen years ago, almost exactly to the day.
Lorraine could not stifle a sigh at the thought of those days. The summer of 2006 had been a catastrophe in terms of tourism, which had been Gozo’s main money spinner until then. The frantic counter-measures taken by the authorities in the run-up to the elections had been the proverbial too little too late, with disastrous consequences. Needless to say, she had been much too young to be aware of the negative ripple effects on the economy as a whole. What was of significance to her at the time, were the less crowded beaches and, more importantly, the fact that her dad was more available – which certainly was good, rather than bad! Towards the end of that summer, however, her secure little world had collapsed like one of those card houses she used to build with her dad. Her parents had explained carefully that she was to leave her school, her friends, and her home behind: They were moving to England where her father was getting a well-paid job.
Her daydream almost succeeded in luring her back into her earlier doze, but just then Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel came into view, causing Lorraine’s heart to take up a faster pace. This was very close to home! Hardly noticing the exit marked “Mgarr Marina” and ignoring the handful of sparkling yachts mooring just visibly below, Lorraine’s eyes where riveted to the end of the bridge, which adjoined the road leading up to Xewkija, her home town. As they continued their journey on solid ground, Lorraine held her breath in expectancy of the moment the church dome of her native village would come into view, but was to be disappointed bitterly: where once open fields had allowed a glimpse of the magnificent dome on approaching the village, these had now given way to an endless row of terraced houses, leaving her to guess where the village of Ghajnsielem finished and Xewkija started.
After clearing away the lump that had formed in her throat, Lorraine asked the driver, “Would you mind passing through the centre of Xewkija?”
“Mela le, no problem. – You got connections there?” Visibly relieved that the long silence was finally broken again, he gave her an encouraging nod in the mirror.
“I lived there once, a long time ago.”
“Ah.” He eyed her with renewed interest. “Where about?”
“Soil Street, do you know where that is? There used to be a grocer’s right next door to our house, on the corner…” She wrinkled her forehead in concentration. “Can’t remember its name though.”
“Haqq id-dinja! Don’t tell me you’re the daughter of Ganni ta’ fallakka? Um… Lorraine, hux?”
“Yes, that’s me alright.” She gave him a puzzled look. “I’m so sorry, but I don’t seem to remember you… How do you know my family?”
“Know them…” For the first time he laughed openly, which lent a surprisingly handsome quality to his face. “Ganni’s mother and my grandmother were sisters! I’m Giovann, we used to play together at the centru, you really don’t remember?”
Now it was Lorraine’s face that lit up. “That’s crazy! But… I guess some things never change – in Gozo everyone’s related to one another! So… we’re second cousins then… well, I’m sure pleased to meet you, Giovann!”
She felt more comfortable in her backseat now, and when a moment later her former family home came into view, Giovann slowed the car down to a crawl so she could take her time examining the neighbourhood. It still looked quite the same as when she had last seen it. Only the street looked deserted, lifeless, and where in former times the neighbours had competed for precious parking lots, now hardly a car seamed the flawless tarmac of the road.
“It’s almost unchanged, and at the same time different,” Lorraine observed. “Aren’t there any people around?” Suddenly she remembered vividly Guza and Karmni, the spinster sisters from next door, always sitting on stools in front of their house and scrutinising each passer-by with aplomb. Jonathan from further down the road had forever been washing and polishing his ancient but precious Ford Escort, and there had been a constant coming and going at the little corner shop next to her home. Now the whole place was deserted and reminded her of a film city that had long since served its purpose.
“You guys weren’t the only ones who left Gozo, although the real exodus happened about eight years ago,” Giovann explained. Shaking his head, he added, “Just when the bridge was finished, how’s that for irony!”
Giovann steered the car back to the main road and they resumed their trip to Xlendi, where Lorraine was going to stay. Rita, her best friend during her all too brief schooldays in Xewkija, had arranged a small flat on the seafront for her. After they had lost contact about a year after Lorraine had moved to England, they found each other again with a little help by the internet, in a chat room that was mostly frequented by Gozitans. It had been on Rita’s insistence that Lorraine had finally decided to spend her vacation in Gozo. Lorraine felt excited and apprehensive at the same time, but now that she finally approached her destination, she was just glad that she had come.
As they left Xewkija, Giovann asked, “Are you in a hurry? I’d like to show you something. It won’t take more than ten minutes,” he added pleadingly.
Lorraine knew that Rita was expecting her at the flat, but she didn’t have the heart to disappoint her newly re-discovered relative, and so she agreed. Giovann took a left turn and headed for Sannat. Again Lorraine was dismayed at the sight of missing fields that had been replaced by dwellings.
“If it’s true that so many people left the island, then who are all these houses for?”
Giovann explained how the construction industry had been the one trade to survive a little longer than all of the others. Cut-throat pricing had made building cheap, and banks had facilitated the dream of your own home further by granting loans at low interest rates. One disastrous side-effect was the further decline of tourists – the whole island had become one huge construction site. In the end, the only survivors had been the houses. Apart from high-quality roads, membership in the European Union had given Gozitans excellent education – and the possibility to work abroad. Giving green light to building the bridge had been the government’s last desperate attempt to attract Gozitan workers to employment in Malta. It failed.
As their ride took them into Sannat, Giovann turned left again, in direction of the Ta’ Cenc cliffs.
“Are you going to show me the golf course?” Lorraine asked. She knew that years ago there had been a heated debate whether to have one at Ta’ Cenc or not.
“Golf course my foot!” Giovann replied with a smirk. “What you are about to see has probably been the biggest victory for the greens in Gozo’s history!”
Curiosity made Lorraine search the horizon for anything extraordinary, while the taxi inched its way forward on the potholed ground. This was the only road she had seen so far that had been bypassed by the craze of having ultra-smooth tarmac everywhere. And when it did come into view, it caused her to open her mouth and not shut it again. Like a fish on dry land, she seemed to be gasping for air, but what she was really lacking, were words. Where once the unique rocky terrain had given view to the open sea far below and all the way to the horizon, there was now a vast field of evenly spaced, huge white wind-turbines. So gleaming white, they almost hurt the eye. There was hardly any breeze, and their propellers were turning at a slow-motion pace.
“… And there I was thinking the bridge was a monster! This is…” An appropriate attribute evaded her. ‘Hideous’ sprang to mind but did not do it justice. The rough beauty of the area was destroyed in its entirety.
Giovann killed the engine and opened his door. “Ejja, let’s have a closer look!” he invited her. Together they walked a short distance, accompanied by a constant, eerie hum in the air. About fifteen metres from the nearest turbine an electric fence stopped them in their tracks. For a while they just stood quietly, and stared at the eyesore; then Lorraine broke the silence.
“Let’s leave,” she rubbed her forehead, “I think I’ve got a headache coming up. It’s been a long journey – and Rita is probably starting to worry about me.”
“I don’t think the headache is from your trip, ta! It’s the turbines. And they don’t only give you a headache. People have moved away because of stomach trouble. And migraines. There used to be a hotel not far from here, but it had to close down because of these things… You should hear them when it’s windy – it drives you nuts! All the neighbouring villages get their share of noise and vibrations!”
They turned away from the fence and made their way back to the car. As Giovann opened the door for her, he told her about how birds continuously flew innocently into the turbines’ turning blades and into their death. Taking in everything she had heard this afternoon, a cold chill came over her all of a sudden.
“How could they do such a thing and get away with it?” Lorraine shouted angrily. Then, still shivering, she looked around and slowly became aware of Rita sitting next to her with a concerned look in her face.
“Who did what?” Rita inquired.
“What?” Lorraine searched her friend’s face, wondering what she was on about. Their beach mats were in the shade now, as the sun had vanished behind the rocks. Hastily she pulled a sweatshirt over her swimsuit. Then she started shaking with laughter. “What’s the date today?” She asked breathlessly.
“Today’s the first of October, and it’s your eighteenth birthday, silly woman!” Rita rolled her eyes.
“I just had the most peculiar dream ever!” Lorraine rolled around onto her belly, gazing into the distance while she tried to recall the dream’s details.
“Well, we’d better get going, because at seven Giovann is going to pick us up for dinner!” Furrowing her brow she added, “And on the way home you’d better tell me all about that dream of yours!”
Giovann… Oh yes, they’d better hurry. He had promised to take them to the best restaurant in Malta; they were going to take the ferry at 8.15 pm. It was going to be one of the highlights of her vacation this year. Giovann… She had been coming to Gozo every single summer since she’d moved to England, but ever since she had met Giovann last summer, Lorraine was toying with the idea that she actually might stay for good one day. Gozo was certainly not the worst place to live in.
Oh, and of course, Giovann was not related to Lorraine outside her weird dream!