PunchMag

World Poetry/Prose Portfolio: The Names They Left Behind

World Poetry/Prose Portfolio: The Names They Left Behind
Translated from Maltese by Albert Gatt

Margaret (A story in twelve frames)


And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon
the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.
                                                                                                     John, 1:42

1. A New Name

Margaret is seated before Mother Superior. The room has a sepia tinge. In her hand 
is a slip of paper folded in two. Margaret hands the slip of paper to Mother Superior.
On the paper are three names: Peter, David and Michael. Mother Superior’s desk is
made of red deal. She unfolds the slip of paper. Margaret bows her head. Mother
Superior gives a slight nod. She leans back in her chair. Clears her throat. Margaret
raises her head. Mother Superior signals that she is dismissed. Margaret stands up.
Some light comes in through the window. A feeble ray of light is visible behind
Mother Superior. Margaret opens the door and exits. She leaves the door ajar. 
Mother Superior rests her arms on the desk. She folds them across her chest for a few
seconds. Makes the sign of the cross. Mutters a short prayer. Picks up the slip of
paper. The ray of light falls upon Michael.


2. Sister Michael Joseph

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the
wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and
all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen. Sister
Michael is on her knees praying in the convent chapel. In her hands is a little yellow
book. Behind the altar there is Christ on the cross. Blood streams from his face, rays
of light from the window fall across the wounds on his chest. She sits down. Her arms
are folded across her chest. Sister Michael whispers something. She kneels again.
Closes her eyes. Keeps the book shut. Prays to Saint Michael. Her voice is low. Then
the voice rises a notch. Oh, pray to the God of peace that He may put Satan under our
feet, so far conquered that he may no longer be able to hold men in captivity and
harm the Church. Then the voice rises another notch, Offer our prayers in the sight of
the Most High, so that they may quickly conciliate the mercies of the Lord; and 
beating down the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, do thou
again make him captive in the abyss, that he may no longer seduce the nations. She
takes deep breaths. Thank you, Saint Michael; I have now forgotten my real name.
I now bear a new name and a new life. I now accept all the challenges that my name
has given me. Lord I thank you for accepting me as your bride, as your servant, as
your woman. I promise I will never let you down. Amen.


3. St Joseph of the Apparition

Sister Michael reads about Sister Emily de Vialar. In her hands is a blue book. On the
table there is a bronze crucifix. She repeats the words of Mother Superior. In a low
voice. Serving others by our lives as did Joseph, the just one. He had dreams and so
do we. Her eyes are shut. Sister Michael mutters something. The bell rings. The 
sound comes from outside. Sister Michael gets up from behind the desk and goes
out of her room. She walks along the corridor. There are other nuns coming out of their
rooms. They all walk along the corridor keeping close to the wall. Silence. Except for
the nuns’ footfalls. They gather in the chapel. The silence persists. A wan light. The
priest emerges and the mass begins. Sister Michael on her knees, head bowed, the
rosary in her hand. The priest says a few words after the reading from the gospel, As
Joseph was asked to be the human face of God so too must the Sisters of St Joseph
show the infinite tenderness of the Father to those whose lives they share. Sisters, 
you are committed to live the gospel today in the manner of St Emily and become
aware of the absolute incarnational spirituality that has been bequeathed to you by
your saintly foundress. Let us pray. Dear Lord. His voice can no longer be heard.
Outside there is a chill and the leaves are stirring.


4. Head of school

So let me remind you today of the hard life of St Emily. She used to carry heavy sacks. 
They made her do a lot of hard work and carry heavy sacks. So St Emily died because
of the heavy sacks. And today we celebrate her feast. So we pray. Sister Michael prays
in the school playground. Before her the girls in single file with their teachers. Let us
have no other wish than to work for God’s greater glory. Like St Emily. Let us also
rejoice in the work done by others. And Sister Michael makes the sign of the cross. In
silence, the children begin to file up to their classrooms. Sister Michael stands at the
door looking over each girl. She points to a shirt that has come untucked from a skirt.
She points to a girl and motions her towards the wall. The somewhat dark-skinned
girl goes to stand against the wall with her head bowed. She straightens the tie of a
blonde, freckled girl. The children continue to climb in silence. Two single files. She
touches the back of a girl with pigtails and she straightens up. She points to a 
shoelace that has come undone. The curly-haired girl moves to one side and squats
down to tie it up. She points to a girl and motions her to the wall. The girl with the
 untucked shirt and flabby thighs goes to stand against the wall. When everyone has
filed past her, she goes to her office and makes a sign to the girls to follow. She shuts
the door. Darkness.

5. Fine. Go ahead and teach the children of Communists


Sister Michael is seated behind her desk. She is signing some papers. Sonia walks 
holding a school bag in one hand and some books in the other. Mother Superior
makes a sign for her to sit down. Sonia sits down. She keeps her head bowed. She
leans her bag against the chair leg. The books lie in her lap. Mother Superior asks 
what she can do for her. She tells her not to waste too much of her time. Sonia says
that she doesn’t want to remain employed as a teacher on a casual basis but wants to
become a full-time teacher. Mother Superior says that these are difficult times and
everyone is tightening their belt, there’s no room for another full-timer. Sonia says 
the State has offered her a full-time post. The State? You want to go and teach for the
State? You choose to teach in a state school? Which state school is better than this 
one? Sonia, her head bowed, says that her husband is on strike and they need money
to support the family1. A casual teacher’s salary isn’t enough to make ends meet.
Mother Superior gets to her feet and strikes the desk with both her hands. On her
chair, Sonia gives a slight start. Her head rises a little with the blow. Then sinks back
down. The nun shouts, Fine. Go ahead and teach the children of Communists, if
that’s what you want. And she strikes the desk with her hands again. A feeble ray of
sunlight enters. It falls on Sonia. Sonia gets up and goes out of the office. Calmly. She
walks straight to the front door. She is walking faster now. She opens the door and
slams it behind her. As she walks through the front gate she sees two girls wiping off
the letters pdm that have been scrawled in black paint on the wall of the school.
Showers of rain begin to fall.


1. [Translator’s note] In September 1984, the Malta Union of Teachers called a general strike among teachers in government schools. The Labour government subsequently locked out teachers who refused to sign a declaration stating that they would not be obeying union directives. The strike, which lasted for seven weeks, followed months of tension between the Labour government and the Church over disagreements related to Church property and the administration of Church schools.


6. Soon you’ll begin to see blood


In class. The girls seated before her. The classroom in half-darkness. The walls 
painted a light blue. All the girls look at the nun. Sister Michael on a wooden 
platform. She tells them that soon they will begin to see blood. She tells them that
when that day comes they are forbidden from using tampons because that is sinful.
The girls stir. Some of them whisper to each other. That is sinful. Sister Michael 
catches Mary-Louise saying something to Janet. Sister Michael tells her that those 
are the manners of a lower-class girl. She asks her what mark she got in her Religious
Studies examination. Some of the colour drains out of Mary-Louise’s face. Sister
Michael repeats the question. Mary-Louise says she got a 69. Sister Michael begins to
clap her hands and asks everyone to clap. She stops. Silence. Mary-Louise’s head is
bowed. Sister Michael tells her she wouldn’t expect Mary-Louise to do any better
than a 69 in Religious Studies since she has the manners of a lower-class girl. Maybe
if she whispered a little less into Janet’s ear during the day, she might make a 70 next
time around. Though there’s no guarantee that Mary-Louise will manage that.
Christina Borg Cardona, now, she always pulls off a 90 in every subject. She asks her
what mark she got in Religious Studies. Christina says 99. Sister Michael tells
the other girls to clap their hands. Everyone claps their hands softly. Brava Christina 
Borg Cardona. Stacy De Majo Preca, now, she too always gets top marks. The nun
asks her to stand up. Stacy De Majo Preca gets to her feet. She asks her what marks
she got in Maths, English and Religious Studies. A 100, Sister. Sister Michael tells the
children to clap. Everyone claps their hands softly. Brava Stacy De Majo Preca. She
points to Mary-Louise. She motions her to her feet. Mary-Louise stands up. She asks
her what mark she got in Maths, English, Religious Studies. Mary-Louise bows her
head and says something. Nobody can hear. She tells her to speak louder. Mary-
Louise is crying. She whispers 60, 62 and 69. Louder. 60, 62, 69. Silence. Sister 
Michael tells the teacher to pass her the donkey’s ears. She opens the drawer and
gives them to her. Sister Michael puts the donkey’s ears on Mary-Louise’s head.
Mary-Louise, I am putting these donkey’s ears on your head. You will be a donkey for
the rest of the day.


7. The Crusaders

It is after school hours. The Crusaders have their meeting in one of the classrooms.
Today there are five new girls. Sarah. Hello Sarah. Martha. Hello Martha. Gabriella. 
Hello Gabriella. Nadia. Hello Nadia. Lydia. Hello Lydia. We the Crusaders fight in the
name of Christ. Let us therefore remind the new Crusaders why we are here. To fight
in the name of Christ. We are the Crusaders. Everyone claps their hands and bangs
on the table. Mandy takes down the minutes. Sister Michael tells them the story of 
the Crusaders, brave warriors. Sister Michael reminds them that they are the Holy
Spirit’s chosen ones. Gabriella whispers something in Nadia’s ear. Sister Michael
notices. She calls her to her side. Orders her to pull up her sleeve. Gabriella pulls up
her sleeve. She orders her to turn over her hand. Gabriella turns over her hand. She
hits her with a ruler. Again. And again. And again. Then she pulls up the other 
sleeve. Then she turns the other hand over. Then she hits her again with the ruler. Again. 
And again. And again. The Crusaders do not whisper in people’s ears.


8. Sister Michael’s Novitiate

She is seen lying on a bed. The room is dark. She wears a white dress. Her hair is 
in disarray. Her legs appear bruised and are tied to the iron bedstead. Her face is 
bruised. Her arms are bruised. Her ankles are bruised. She stirs. Listlessly. She 
moans a little. Her voice is broken. The door opens a crack. A feeble ray of light 
enters the room. A nun walks in. I’ve come to get you. Do you recognise me? I’ve
come to get you. I’ve come to take you back to Malta. Sister Michael shakes her head.
Your novitiate ends here. Sister Michael sobs. I know, I know it’s been a difficult year.
The novitiate is difficult for everybody. It’s founded on discipline and obedience. But
you should know that a good formation will turn you into a nun with an iron will.
Now I’m taking you back with me. We’re going back. Sister Michael’s cheeks look
smudged. The door opens again. The same feeble light enters the room. Sister
Michael struggles a little against the bed. The nun leaves. She closes the door. For
a few seconds, it is pitch dark. Only Sister Michael’s sobs can be heard.  Then the door
opens again. Three other nuns enter. They untie her wrists and ankles. They help her
up and out of the room. 
All of a sudden a blurred sepia photograph appears. It slowly comes into
focus. She is in the photograph alongside the nun who went to get her in Marseille
where she did her novitiate. Side by side, from the waist up. Sister Michael wearing a 
fake smile. The other nun unsmiling. In the background there is the convent of the
Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition in Marseille. The plaque is clearly visible. In 
one corner a seagull can be seen flying.  She puts the photograph down on her desk.
She picks up another silver frame which is also on the desk. It’s of her with two other
nuns. There is the Vatican in the background. She puts the frame back in its place. 
She gets up and goes to look at the photographs on the wall. In one of them she’s still
very young and there’s her mother and father and her two brothers. In another, she’s
with Pope John Paul II in the parish church in St Julians. In another, she’s with the
archbishop during a retreat at Mount St Joseph Home. In another, she’s with a group
of girls. One of the girls is holding up a large sign, Form 4 Violet.

9. The old girls’ reunion 

The old girls of St Joseph’s Convent, Sliema, gather before the big front door of St
Joseph’s. They have a lot to say to each other. They haven’t seen each other in many
years. They are celebrating their thirtieth anniversary of their last year at school. 
They wait for Sister Michael, who was head of school at the time. Fr. Albert prepares
for mass. He counts the wafers. He needs twenty. The old girls begin to file into the
chapel. They whisper into each other’s ears. One of them has come from Australia,
another came from Egypt and another from London. Sister Michael is with them.
They sit down. They begin to sing. Mass begins. They pray for Maryanna, Ruth and
Miriam, who are no longer with them. Mass ends. They walk slowly to the Holiday
Inn. The buffet awaits them. 


10. Sister Thomas, tell your brother, he should be ashamed of himself


Sister Michael calls in Sister Thomas. Sister Thomas walks into Mother Superior’s
office. She makes a sign for her to sit down. Sister Thomas bows her head. There is a
rosary in Sister Thomas’s hand. Her fingers move from one bead to the next. The
room has a sepia tinge. In Sister Michael’s hand there is a sheet of paper, normal-
sized. Mother Superior gives the sheet of paper to Sister Thomas. She doesn’t open it.
Give that to your brother. Sister Thomas begins to weep. Tell your brother he should
be ashamed of himself, refusing to read out the Archbishop’s pastoral letter. He
should be ashamed of himself, your brother, acting on a whim. Mother Superior’s
desk is made of red deal. Mother Superior takes back the sheet of paper. Sister
Thomas remains with her head bowed. Mother Superior inclines her head slightly.
She leans back in her chair. Sister Thomas gets to her feet and begins to walk towards
the door. A feeble ray of light comes in through the window. Sister Thomas opens the
door. Her back to Mother Superior. Give him the message, tell him that, more than
any of the others, he is in our prayers, for he truly needs our prayers. Sister Thomas
goes out. She leaves the door ajar. Mother Superior rests her arms on her desk. She
crosses them for five seconds. Makes the sign of the cross. Mutters a short prayer.
Raises the sheet of paper. The ray of light suddenly dims. 


11. Fr Peter, Sister Klara, Sister Joseph and Sister Michael


The room is white. The sheets are white. The blanket of sheep’s wool is yellowish.
Sister Michael is in bed. Her hair is white and cut short. Her eyes are closed. The 
rattle of her breath can be heard. A feeble breath. At her bedside on the right is Sister
Joseph. In her hand there is a rosary. At her bedside on the left is Sister Klara. Fr. 
Peter is next to her. Fr. Peter is administering the last rites. Then he dips his finger
in the silver saucer of holy water on the bedside table and lets a few drops fall over
the body. He dips his finger in the oil and traces a crucifix on Sister Michael’s forehead.
She doesn’t move. The nuns sob and pray. The priest leaves the room. The light 
suddenly dims.


11. Now you walk on in her footsteps


The hearse draws up. Other black cars draw up and nuns descend from them. There 
are eleven nuns. Behind them are some relatives and teachers. Behind the relatives is
a class of secondary school students. All of them are in uniform. All of them have
their hair pulled back. They walk over to the grave. The grave is open. The crucifix is
removed. Mother Superior takes it. The coffin begins to descend. The coffin is brown.
The nuns begin to sing. You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of
thirst. You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way. You shall
speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand. You shall see the face of
God and live. The undertakers begin to seal the tomb with slabs. The spatula can be
heard. The singing becomes louder. Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come 
follow me, and I will give you rest. Then, it gradually dies down. Then, it stops 
altogether. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord,
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, Amen. Mother Superior kisses Sister Michael’s
relatives. Then the teachers. Then the children. She says to them, Now you walk on in
her footsteps. 
Mother Superior is alone for a few moments. A tear trickles down her cheek. Her 
face gradually recedes from focus. Darkness.

Comments


*Comments will be moderated