“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.”
“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.