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Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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On the Waves

Excerpt from Dr Fenech's Guide to Lycanthropy in Malta (1913)

by Cooper Renner

[Editor's Note: Generally I have aimed, in presenting these stories, both to appear as an interlocutor and to shape the interview in such a way as to keep the story-line clean and in the most nearly standard English possible. In the case of the tale which follows, however, I have set aside my habit in order to allow the old fisherman's language -- he spoke in a dialect of Maltese not yet written down -- and method to ring out clearly. Had the old man been born in England and had the opportunity of a fine education, he might by now have become one of the language's most popular writers. His skills were innate, I presume, or perhaps honed by the long oral tradition and isolation of the fishing village, Marsa Scirocco (now Marsaxlokk), at which I interviewed him in June 1899. For me the most remarkable aspect of his telling is the way he enters into the tale, as though he, his son and cousin had been present during the Great Siege of 1565.]


Lycaon Turned Into a Wolf by Goltzius, 1589, Public Domain.

They was getting into the boat, wasn't they?Wasn't it every one of them? They was getting into the boat by sword-point or knife-blade or a fist the size of a baby's head. Wasn't they? The whole island was under siege, you know it, but the ships -- the damned ships of the Turk -- was up there at the Grand Harbour, up there where Valletta and Floriana and all of them walls is now, where all the easy coming and going is, where the knights in all their godly glory was telling us what to do. The Borgo.

And it was three of them come down here too, telling us what to do. Telling us to get into the boat and shove off. Telling us to row it, row it, row it, till we couldn't be seen, then put up the sail. They was crazy, wasn't they? Them and their lordly names and their families back in France and Navarre and the Isles; them and their poverty. Hah. Them and their celibacy. And they wasn't taking no No for an answer. They was telling us to shove off and get them to Sicily and the King. Reinforcements. Hah. Wasn't we already doing most of the dying anyway? We wasn't up there on the walls in steel and mail and helmets, was we?

They wasn't taking no No. They wasn't listening. They wasn't having the wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of the fishers, the wisdom of the waves. It was full moon! Can't a dog swim too? They wasn't having nothing of it.

So we're getting into the boats. We're loosing the lines. We're shoving off, we're shoving off. And even though there ain't no Turk anywhere anybody can see, they're making us row and row and not letting us sail -- even though we sail for the fish nearly every night. Even the Turks know that. Of course they know that. Don't they? Ain't they taking most of the fish from us, coming down here every two days, every three days, letting us out on the water so they can have our fish -- and we left with enough to stay half-alive. But at least we ain't shut up in those walls with the rest of them.

So we're going out, we're rowing out. You see the point, you see the point! I don't know what they're calling it in those days. We're calling it Benghisa Point. Don't ask me how you spell it! I look like I got letters? I got the eye on the boat; I got the eye and the sign and the fisherman's brain. Don't ask me about no letters. And we're passing the point and heading toward the west, and the moon is back there now, looking over our shoulders while we're putting up the sail. Moon before you, you squint a little, but anything coming at you is throwing you its shadow right at you. But She's behind us, isn't she? Still kind of low in the sky. We're throwing our own shadow ahead of us, sailing into its own darkness. And it's full moon, it's deep darkness, harder than ever to see because there's so much of Her. I look back, I see Her over their shoulders. Lordly knights. Their faces black as pitch with the light behind. A gleam maybe, once or twice, from the wet of an eye. But mostly I'm forward, I'm forward, I'm looking where we're going. Because, Lord! we're going. The wind is like an old woman with her broom coming squalling up behind us. And we're coming to Hassan's cave soon. I know it, I know it.

No, it wasn't Hassan's cave then! Not till after the Turks. . . .

Oh, we're coming, we're coming. Like that flying Chinaman. We're barely touching the waves, I think, as fast as we're coming. Them waves is chopped up like eels on a rock, but I'm hardly feeling any of it, am I? Am I? We're flying. And then there it is.

Yes. Yes, sir. I'll just stop here a minute and take me a breath. Yes, sir, there it is. What is it? you're asking yourself. I'll just have me a breath and a tuck on the pipe.

There it is.

It ain't one of the big ones, no. Them's all up at the Harbour. It's one of the little ones. One of the fast ones, circling the island, making sure we few fishers not inside the walls ain't doing nothing but fishing. Making sure we ain't helping no knights get away to Sicily. One of them speedy little ships that'll be on us in a half a thought. Sailing right into our shadow.

"Down in the bottom!" I'm saying to them. "Down, down!" And two of them gets down, don't they? But the other one just looks at me, and then the dog is looking at me, with that silver moonlight all making his fur silver, and then the knight is taking the tiller from me and heading us straight into that little ship.

I'm not wanting my boat smashed up, I'm not wanting to swim with the Singers, I'm not wanting my last night on earth to be this one, but I'm angling to get a spot closer to him and shivvy his elbow at the last minute, hair of the dog or no, when he gives me that look. "I got this." That's all he says. He's looking me in the eye and I'm seeing the dog way down in there, in the black in the middle of his eye, and it takes me all of a second or two to take account that he's talking to me in my tongue and not in his knight language.

So I make the other two of us sit tight. I'm not jarring nothing, I'm not shivvying nothing. He got it. Yeah. I got this! he says.

And we're heading into the ship, heading into the ship. And its prow is all lit up in the moon on this side, and dark as pitch where it's angled away. And he's aiming our shadow right at that point -- right where the light and the shadow are kissing each other -- and I'm seeing all of us hurled into the water, some over there, some over here, like a cannonball in the middle of the boat. I'm seeing my boat nothing but timbers, and my last night on earth right here with one of the dogs. I guess there's worse ways to go to it. I hate to see my son going down with me. That's it mostly.

And then our shadow is there -- right there -- the shadow of my boat is right there ramming up the line of the light and the dark on the damned ship of the Turk, and the Turks is shouting and carrying on, they know we're dead men, but one or two of them shoots arrows at us anyway. And I'm all for taking it in the chest if it'll save my boy.

But it don't happen, does it? I'm right here with you, ain't I? I had you, didn't I?

The point of that shadow goes right up the prow, and the knight -- the dog, I ought to say -- he slams the tiller over, and there we are! Sailing right past the Turk on this side, in the light, between the ship and the rocks where Hassan's cave is, and that's when I see it. That's when I see them, I ought to say.

It's like a bubbling up in the water, there's so many of them. Even a dog can swim, eh? And they're coming closer and closer, and even though the moon's coming around on them, it's like She don't want to light 'em up too much. It's too easy. And they're making their own wake there's so many of them. And the next thing I know we're up against the Turks, my boat right up against the Turkish ship, and they're up and over. Up and over is what I'm telling you. Up and over.

I can't tell you what I saw. I don't know what I saw. I didn't half see some of it because my boy was grabbing at me he was so scared, and that dog -- that knight -- at the tiller kept somehow being right in my way, right in my line of sight, and then he was up and over. Him too. It was like they was spiders -- not dogs, not men -- but spiders going right out of the water and up the side of the ship. I never. I know. I don't believe it either.

We was caught. The boat, I'm telling you, was caught up in a little kind of eddy, kind of almost like a calm. And we was over toward the rocks, toward the cave, while the sounds coming from the ship -- men moaning, shouting in fear, and dogs snarling -- was coming over the water to us. That was when I heard her, behind us, at the shore, I mean.

She was old, older than anybody I ever seen, but not crippled up and wizened or nothing like that. Singing soft and throwing it out over the water, you could hear it, almost like your mama in your ear when you're a baby. And when the fighting and dying goes away, she's gone, and it's quiet.

I know what it was. I know the sons of the dog -- the sons of the wolf, them English say -- but my boy was like dreaming, and my cousin. He don't talk so much after. They take the other knights, the ones in the boat with us, they take them up in the ship, and they're off -- off to Sicily. And we're back for the bay and the house, and I got five gold coins in my hand like I never seen before.