“Beware of Mara” — Thomas Pynchon

“Beware of Mara”

an excerpt from Thomas Pynchon’s novel V.


Then Mehemet told him of Mara.

“Another of your women.”
“Ha, ha. Indeed. Maltese for woman.”
“Of course.”

“She is—if you care for the word—a spirit, constrained to live in Xaghriet Mewwija. The inhabited plain; the peninsula whose tip is Valletta, her domain. She nursed the shipwrecked St. Paul—as Nausicaa and Odysseus—taught love to every invader from Phoenician to French. Perhaps even to the English, though the legend loses respectability after Napoleon. She was from all evidence a perfectly historical personage, like St. Agatha, another of the island’s minor saints.

“Now the Great Siege was after my time, but legend—one of them—says that she once had access to the entire island and the waters as far as the fishing banks off Lampedusa. The fishing fleets would always lie to there in the shape of a carob pod, her proper symbol. Early in your 1565, at any rate, two privateers, Giou and Romegas, captured a Turkish galleon belonging to the chief eunuch of the Imperial Seraglio. In retaliation Mara was taken prisoner on one of her jaunts to Lampedusa by the corsair Dragut, and brought back to Constantinople. Soon as the ship had passed the invisible circle centered at Xaghriet Mewwija with Lampedusa on the rim, she fell into a strange trance, from which neither caresses nor tortures could rouse her. At length, having lost their own figurehead in a collision with a Sicilian ragusy the week before, the Turks lashed Mara to the bowsprit and that was how she entered Constantinople: a living figurehead. On drawing near to that city, blinding yellow and dun under a clear sky, she was heard to awake and cry: ‘Lejl, hekk ikun.’ Night, so be it. The Turks thought she was raving. Or blind.

“They brought her to the serail, into the presence of the Sultan. Now she never was pictured as a raving beauty. She shows up as a number of goddesses, minor deities. Disguise is one of her attributes. But one curious thing about those images: jar ornaments, friezes, sculptures, no matter: she’s always tall, slim, small-breasted and bellied. No matter what the prevalent fashion in females, she remains constant. In her face is always a slight bow to the nose, a wide spacing of the eyes, which are small. No one you’d turn to watch on the street. But she was a teacher of love after all. Only pupils of love need be beautiful.

“She pleased the Sultan. Perhaps she made the effort. But was installed somehow as a concubine about the time La Vallette back on her island was blocking the creek between Senglea and St. Angelo with an iron chain and poisoning the springs in the Marsa plain with hemp and arsenic. Once in the seraglio she proceeded to raise hell. She’d always been attributed magical talents. Perhaps the carob pod—she’s often depicted holding one—had something to do with it. Wand, scepter. Perhaps too, some kind of fertility goddess—do I embarrass your Anglo-Saxon nerves?—though it is a quaint, hermaphrodite sort of deity.

“Soon—a matter of weeks—the Sultan noticed a certain coldness infecting each of his nightly companions; a reluctance, a lack of talent. Also a change in attitude among the eunuchs. Almost—how to say it—smug and keeping a bad secret of it. Nothing he could establish definitely; and so like most unreasonable men with suspicions he had certain girls and eunuchs tortured horribly. All protested innocence, showed honest fear to the last twist of the neck, the last upward thrust of the iron spike. And yet it progressed. Spies reported that shy concubines who had once paced with ladylike steps—limited by a slim chain between the ankles—and downcast eyes now smiled and flirted promiscuously with the eunuchs, and the eunuchs—horror!—flirted back. Girls left to themselves would suddenly leap on one another with fierce caresses; on occasion make loud abandoned love before the scandalized eyes of the Sultan’s agents.

“At length it occurred to His Ghostly Magnificence, nearly out of his mind with jealousy, to call in the sorceress Mara. Standing before him in a shift fashioned of tiger-moth wings she faced the Imperial dais with a wicked smile. The Imperial retainers were charmed.
“ ‘Woman,’ began the Sultan.
“She raised a hand. ‘I have done it all,’ she recited sweetly: ‘taught your wives to love their own bodies, showed them the luxury of a woman’s love; restored potency to your eunuchs so that they may enjoy one another as well as the three hundred perfumed, female beasts of your harem.’

“Bewildered at such ready confession, his tender Moslem sensibilities outraged by the epidemic of perversion she’d unleashed upon his domestic repose, the Sultan made what is a fatal mistake with any woman: he decided to argue. Jolted into a rare sarcasm he explained to her, as to an idiot, why eunuchs cannot have sexual intercourse.

“Her smile never fading, her voice placid as before, Mara replied: ‘I have provided them with the means.’

“So confidently did she speak that the Sultan began to feel the first groundswell of an atavistic terror. Oh, at last he knew: he was in the presence of a witch.

“Back home the Turks, led by Dragut and the pashas Piali and Mustafa, had laid siege to Malta. You know generally how it went. They occupied Xaghriet Mewwija, took Fort St. Elmo, and began their assault on Notabile, Borgo—today that’s Vittoriosa—and Senglea, where La Vallette and the Knights were making their final stand.

“Now after St. Elmo had fallen, Mustafa (possibly in sorrow for Dragut, killed in that encounter by a stone cannonball) had also launched a grisly offensive on the morale of the Knights. He beheaded their slaughtered brethren, tied the corpses to planks and floated them into the Grand Harbour. Imagine being on sunrise watch and seeing the dawn touch those ex-comrades-in-arms, belly-up and crowding the water: death’s flotilla.

“One of the great mysteries about the Siege is why, when the Turks outnumbered the invested Knights, when the days of the besieged were numbered on a single hand, when Borgo and thus Malta were almost in the same hand—Mustafa’s—why should they suddenly pull up and retreat, hoist anchor and leave the island?

“History says because of a rumor. Don García de Toledo, viceroy of Sicily, was en route with forty-eight galleys. Pompeo Colonna and twelve hundred men, sent by the Pope to relieve La Vallette, eventually reached Gozo. But somehow the Turks got hold of intelligence that twenty thousand troops had landed at Melleha Bay and were en route to Notabile. General retreat was ordered; church bells all over Xaghriet Mewwija began to ring; the people thronged the streets, cheering. The Turks fled, embarked and sailed away to the southeast forever. History attributes it all to bad reconnaissance.

“But the truth is this: the words were spoken directly to Mustafa by the head of the Sultan himself. The witch Mara had sent him into a kind of mesmeric trance; detached his head and put it into the Dardanelles, where some miraculous set and drift—who knows all the currents, all the things which happen in this sea?—sent it on a collision course with Malta. There is a song written by a latterday jongleur named Falconière. No Renaissance had ever touched him; he resided at the Auberge of Aragon, Catalonia and Navarre at the time of the Siege. You know the sort of poet who can fall into belief in any fashionable cult, current philosophy, new-found foreign superstition. This one fell into belief and possibly love for Mara. Even distinguished himself on the ramparts of Borgo, braining four Janissaries with his lute before someone handed him a sword. She was, you see, his Lady.

Mehemet recited:

“Fleeing the mistral, fleeing the sun’s hot lash,
Serene in scalloped waves, and sculptured sky
The head feels no rain, fears no pitchy night,
As o’er this ancient sea it races stars,
Empty but for a dozen fatal words,
Charmed by Mara, Mara my only love . . .
“There follows an apostrophe to Mara.”

Stencil nodded sagely, trying to fill in with Spanish cognates.

“Apparently,” Mehemet concluded, “the head returned to Constantinople and its owner, the sly Mara meanwhile having slipped aboard a friendly galiot, disguised as a cabin boy. Back in Valletta at last she appeared in a vision to La Vallette, greeting him with the words ‘Shalom aleikum.’

The joke being that shalom is Hebrew for peace and also the root for the Greek Salome, who beheaded St. John.

“Beware of Mara,” the old sailor said then. “Guardian spirit of Xaghriet Mewwija. Whoever or whatever sees to such things condemned her to haunt the inhabited plain, as punishment for her show at Constantinople. About as useful as clapping any faithless wife in a chastity belt.

“She’s restless. She will find ways to reach out from Valletta, a city named after a man, but of feminine gender, a peninsula shaped like the mons Veneris—you see? It is a chastity belt. But there are more ways than one to consummation, as she proved to the Sultan.”

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