The card player (Maltese+Romani+English)

A loy (flame) in the distance pierces the fog. The night is dense, motionless, I crouched like a dog. The face of my grandmother appeared to me, with its old scabs, and I lowered my eyes to contemplate the wet earth. At that moment, the thunder rumbled. It seemed to me that it was my grandmother coming back from the dead, that I was diklo (screwed), that she was going to beat me like when I was a kid. I picked up my deck of cards that had just fallen to the ground and the rain stung my eyes, peak to peak. The trees seemed to be groaning and the sky was pouring gallons of fog, at least I guess, because I was running, avoiding staying around.

I had spent the afternoon cutting down cards, each one more ungrateful than the last. Tejna was on a low wall, the girl was watching me with her black raptor eyes. I had wanted to impress her, and there I was, embarking on a no-win game.

The people of Valletta disgust me. Every time they win a round, I see them spit on the ground, as if they were shooting a tir (an arrow) of fine gold. They don’t spare their spit, even when winning against a street kid like me. I was playing from the cliff top in Filfla, the sea was beautiful and clear. The sun was shining and getting lost in Tejna’s shining eyes, as if the girl wanted me to understand that she understood, that she knew all along that I was in love with her.

The players and I were sitting in our suits near Hagar Qim, the stone of veneration. The wind was blowing in our reddened ears. I was the leader, since I organize these games in the evening, and I had dealt the cards a little faster than usual. We could hear the desalination plant rumbling in the distance like a drunken giant. From our promontory, we could see the yellow stone of the city, the beautiful stone of Malta; the Palace of Justice and the walled city. The sea was calm, inviting to swim.

I gained little that evening. I went home like the beggar I was. I kicked some big ginger cat on the path and remembered this verse from Karmenu Vassallo:

Ma stajtx kont iehor jew haga’ohra? Mela
ghaliex fid-dinja, bla ma ridt, gejt jien?
Iwiegibni min jaf; ghax ili nfittex

« Could I not be other or something else? Why
then did I come into this world without wanting to?
Let the one who knows answer me; for a long time I have been searching
in all the great book of the creation « .

Maltese moistened my lips. The sounds, soft and whispering, mingled with the moan of the east wind. The sky was now disappearing under the red mist; the night was falling on us like an Ace. I was not a religious man, yet on my way home that evening, as I passed the old church, I held back from lighting a candle for my grandmother’s ghost. A horse-drawn carriage nearly ran me over on the way home, but I eventually arrived safely.

My little sister was asleep, the paramaro (cake) that I had baked for her that morning was gone. I lay down on the hard bed and imagined the reflection of the summer sky on the crumbling ceiling. I was still mad at myself for playing cards, and losing for all it was worth. My fists clenched mechanically in a half-sleep, when suddenly I was awakened with a start by a crashing noise.

The old green velvet covered oil lamp cracked as it fell to the floor. Knock, knock, knock, someone was knocking on the door. I swore, I was afraid it was the okl’isto (the gendarme) who had gotten wind of my whistling tricks. I opened the door anyway. My sister had nestled in my legs like a frail bird.

It was a man whom the Maltese call « busuttil » (tall) in their language, a kind of giant with a broad chest. I took a step back and sent my sister with a wave of her left arm to fetch some tea for the stranger.

The Maltese told me his story; I served him some Muscat wine. The night was already advanced, I opened the windows to let the starlight pass. He told me that his name was Xuereb (« the mustached one ») and that he had crossed the hills of the island to meet me.

My sister had gone back to sleep. The stranger didn’t seem bothered by the strong rancid smell of the small room we lived in. How he had heard of me, it did not matter, he had heard that I was the best card player on the island. Since he was Maltese, seemed zammit (serious), and relatively full of aces, I didn’t disappoint him. I liked his outspokenness and the copper purse on his waist.

The bell of the nearest church rang in the morning. The street lights came on in the street, the night was gradually getting lighter. My guest had fallen asleep. My little sister was staring at his vella skin (pear skin) and I felt that she wanted to wake him up by pulling his ears.

The Maltese made me the following proposal: I would play cards every day with his master. Who it was, I had no right to know. No questions should be asked. I brought him some figs and ran a finger over my lips. Strangely enough, it was summer, but since his arrival, the weather seemed to have changed. I saw the roses that I had put in a blue vase that morning covered with frost.

I remembered my grandmother’s words. She who had always advised me to be careful in my undertakings. She hated to see me playing cards in the streets of Valletta. Teyavyomas (may I have been) less greedy that morning!

I didn’t know it, but the identity of my mysterious opponent was already well known to me. And for good reason, it was the Devil!

(to be continued soon)

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