Several sculptures by the artist Joan Bennàssar. | Joan Bennàssar
Madó Bernardina Francesquina Bordils, who was called Oroneta on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Xixell on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and Lligabose on Sunday and public holidays, told me ten or twelve years ago, a story that, properly arranged in literature, served me as an outline for the fable I will tell you now. I don’t know how I can invent it - or remember - and the truth is, I didn’t ask because I didn’t much care. Madò Bernardina Francesquina, who smells unpleasant, like garlic, goat and cheap cologne, died in January 1983, with the almond blossoms and clear and healthy air; five men with no criminal record, threw her body into the sea without anyone seeing them, and entrusted her with forty masses, seven for each of the seven deadly sins, for the salvation of her soul. This is what the dead woman told me.
In the northern mountains of the island of Mallorca, which defends us from the north wind and rises proud, solemn and wild, surrounded by fig trees, goats and fifty Hesperides, the Nymph of the Oranges approaches the threshold of the cliff every afternoon to see how the sun sets; with what majesty,what sadness, and what contempt.
As the red, almost purple hoop slowly sinks into the mists of the horizon, the Orange Nymph remembers the story of a strange man, a man whom the sea deposited many, many years ago, on the sandy beaches on the other side of the island and which his mother had driven before her so that she might be judged for her blasphemies, which caused chills. The man was tall and jovial, yes, but we also blasphemed and not only dared to cover his head with a very rare and provocative hat and ignoring the symbols of submission to the Triple Goddess which all the men of the island were obliged to wear, but, on top of that, he told heretical and shameless stories with a smile dancing in his blue eyes; stories where men and women presented themselves in a way that was alien to the one that prevailed according to custom. Some of these stories are said to have been invented by him, and even worse, they were beautiful.
The man should have been sacrificed immediately to avoid further harm and confusion. The guardians of the sacred garden of the Nymph, dressed in the attributes of the Goat, had prepared the slingshots to chase him, amongst the olive trees that along the pavement, and thus prolong the agony a little longer. Only in this way would the ritual that ensured every spring, without leaving a single one, be fulfilled, the fact that Mother Earth approved with her beautiful fecundity the orderly discourse of the loyalty of her subjects. The blood of the torn corpse of the intruding stranger would have been used to bless the furrows of the earth, the fertile plough painted by the hand of the man who was already on the ground before he arrived. He would have been denied the final joy of burial, of course, and the bonfire of aromatic dried orange tree branches would have ended the story. But the Nymph had a moment of weakness and fell into temptation. The Nymph liked the elegant insolence, the audacity of the tall, clumsy man who let his hair grow, with curls that could compete with those of any maiden, except for her raw wheat colour.
In addition, the man was wearing very different clothes from those she knew. On the island, men anointed their bodies with mastic sap and lard, instead of warming themselves with clothes, and the foreigner was completely different. The Nymph of the Oranges made the mistake of sparing his life, but the man never knew that he had strayed from the inevitable punishment. The Nymph of the Oranges condemned him to continue inventing legends, stories and poems, to climb during all the hours of his life on a high cliff, from where you could clearly see the fate of the goats with banyam and the woolly sheep, the fields of golden oranges and the silver olive trees and pines that poured into the sea. There he would read his compositions, kneeling before the Nymph, while the soft, confused murmur of the aura amongst the branches of the trees played the part of the precise heart so that the blasphemies would not fly free throughout the valley.
The stranger believed that the Nymph’s decision was a compliment and not a condemnation, and she never understood much of the strange world around her. The foreigner believed, for example, that stories and tales were more important than figs hanging on the branches of trees in the belief that this would favour their fruiting, or the fertilisation of fields and masses. Above all, the foreigner believed that even these tasks were gaining in dignity and importance in the change that was taking place in the southern people, amongst the ships that occasionally approached to take oil, wheat and fruit and in return, leave the amphorae of wine and the ormejos of metal. Pleasant bronze objects no doubt attracted her, but to the extent that they were beautiful and useless. For the foreigner there was nothing more useful than beauty, and the foreigner never understood much of the strange world around him.
Thanks to this situation, the foreigner was able to compose beautiful poems, happy stories and sad legends of the mysterious world that grew on the other side of the sea. Every afternoon, the stranger went to the steep hill where the Nymph was waiting for him and did not come down again until the darkness of the night changed the descent into an adventure.
At times the whole effort seemed futile as the Nymph closed her eyes and remained hieratic, her black, wavy hair curling around her neck with the whip of the wind. Did she still pay attention to the poet’s verses? The foreigner never dared to interrupt the reading to check. The stranger merely lowered his voice a little so as not to disturb the dream that was perhaps already being insinuated, but the Nymph, sometimes ended up opening her eyes after a few moments, without moving a single muscle: eyes with cobwebs because of the thoughts that flew much farther from the valley and to the sea that knew no end. If the stranger trembled for a moment in the rhythm of the reading, the charm was suddenly broken when the Nymph turned her head and looked, with a gripping fury, at her slave. The foreigner, then, had to follow the recital of his verses at once, repressing the desire to ask questions that should always go unanswered.
After sunset, the Nymph snatched the skins from the foreigner where he had kept his words and shouted at her violently. When her figure was lost in the darkness, the Nymph descended from the rocks on the opposite side, out of the way and in the direction that would have led her to the sea. In the middle of the slope was a magical cave where a breath of wind never entered and where a stream of fresh air seeped through the curb of the well that sank into the bowels of the earth. The cave remained warm and welcoming in the winter and during the summer heat it was cool and humid until the sun went down. There, in a crack in the walls of the rock, the Nymph piled her skins with the stories and verses of the foreigner. It was, in a way, compensation, instead of his blood, his words were pouring into the heart of the earth. With this will, the Nymph could repeat the sacrifice over and over again as many times as she wanted.
But the story is written unintentionally, and on one occasion, perhaps because of chance or lack of trace, no-one ever knew that some of the skins escaped from this cave grave. Perhaps on an even darker night than usual, as the maiden goddess — the new moon — struggled to gain a faint flicker of light as darkness bit, the wind snatched some pieces of skin from the Nymph’s hands with the writings. It was, no doubt, very unlucky that the next day they fell into the hands of a goat-man, perhaps a satyr, with blue eyes and short, muscular legs, while tending the flock on land broken by rocks and weeds. He knew nothing, the goat-man, of signs of writing, or of poems, or stories, but the skins could be exchanged on the other side of the island for a few sips of dry, resinous wine carried by overseas traders. Greed prevented him from recognising that such valuable objects could only belong to the Nymph, and he blinded his conscience to the point of ignoring that it was sacrilege to detain and traffic them. The stranger kept them in the most secluded places in his sling, and then, taking advantage of any excuse, went south and yielded them to the man-horse, perhaps a centaur, while savouring, greedily, the last exquisite award drops.
Several times over the years, he repeated the story, always aided by the careful delicacy with which the goat-man sought every day among the trees and stones some piece of skin lost in the wind, and so, little by little, the poems of the foreigner escaped, at least in part, the fate they should have suffered at the hands of the Nymph. In this way they came into the hands of the black curly-haired merchants who dared to reach the island, with their ships with seven rowing banks and a Latin sail with which they tried to to subdue the scant favourable wind. Thus was created little by little the cautious and beautiful myth of the foreigner, locked in a distant island, wandering amongst the bushes of rosemary, lentil and mulberry at the will of the Nymph, who changed his sudden death by continuous and very slow quartering. Legends came and went, flying, walking and swimming and the verses were adorned with a thousand praises and applause.
There was even someone who thought of a deception hatched by the sailors who were bored and their discussions gave way to bets by means of which a decision was reached: a new and beautiful ship, with a bank more rowers than ever, would approach the island to check the truth about the existence of the captive alien. Skilled warriors would go on the expedition, as the proverbial ferocity of the goat-men and their expert slingshot was well known. The necessary poets would also embark to verify the truth of the origin of the verses they already considered beautiful, and finally some children would be enlisted in the expedition in order to offer them as a sacrifice to the Nymph to calm down any outbursts of rage. So important was the journey and so great was the interest of the organisers that the oracle of Didyma was consulted, after forcing the priest to drink the water from the springs of Castalia and Colophon. To the chagrin of those present, the priest died suddenly and without moving a single wrinkle. But the merchants who had rented the boat and enlisted the crew hid this terrible omen and made the people believe that the priest found the purpose of the voyage so pleasing that, out of sheer joy, he had fallen asleep at the foot of the fountain. No-one dared to oppose them, for their power was immense and the scope of their revenge infinite. The ship left, taking advantage of the midday breeze and was soon lost beyond the last known island of the sea. It followed the sun, crossed the sea of Liguria and ventured through the difficult steps besieged by beasts and hurricanes, until one day, after many hardships, an island with grey ridges and sandy beaches appeared on the horizon.
The ship had to stay offshore for a couple of days because the strong north wind made it difficult to manoeuvre and docking on the rocks was useless. In the end, the anchor hit the bottom of the largest arc shaped beach on the southern contour of the island of Mallorca, but the expedition did not get a hospitable reception when they approached land. No-one came out to meet them, because what the sailors did not know, was that during the previous days they were in sight of the mountains of Mallorca and the Nymph had sent a dolphin-man, perhaps a male mermaid to find out why such a beautiful boat defied the sea and the north wind. Why not run for shelter on the shores of the Pitiüses? The dolphin-man had approached the wheel of the ship, sheltered by the hangover that whipped the tack, and could have seen the vomit of the warriors beaten by the incessant movement, and the sacrifices offered to the heretical gods that the aliens blamed for the hurricane. The dolphin man had laughed out loud. Didn’t they know that it was the same Nymph who had ordered the intruders to stop at sea? But his mockery was lost amid the roar of the oxen and the halyards, and no-one on board suspected the true cause of the bad weather or the origin of the sudden hail. The consequence was that they proceeded to disembark with the joy of those who already feared for their lives and found themselves, once again, with the generous mainland where they could rest.
For two days and two nights those on the expedition licked their wounds, made up their weapons, cleaned their swords and spears with saltpetre, and tried to put in order the gifts that could be used to rescue the foreigner, if he really did exist. The men then set out for the mountains and were amazed at the fertility of the fields and the abundance of wheat and barley and the almost absolute absence of living things. Only a few animals - a goat, perhaps a horse - amongst the thick pines and holm oaks, signaled in front of the island embalmed by the scents of flowers and bushes. For the rest, only the insects added their roar to the breeze. Part of the expedition refused to follow because they doubted that this was the island that the merchants had described, with friendly, easy-to-deceive natives, who exchanged their snail drums for trinkets. Something foreshadowed that everything was going badly, very badly. The poets were the first to turn around, but the warriors were not disillusioned.
Charged with the stigma of cowardice, they mocked them and accused them of showing fears that belonged to women. Half the men followed the path to the nearby rocks, assuring the cowards that, if there were any strangers on the island, they would chain him and take him to the cereal fields of the plain. As they walked away, the men still made fun of them, but the first buttresses of the mountains cut off their desire to make a joke. The men soon discovered that both the weapons and the baggage were a serious obstacle to going up the mountain and as a result they left a guard for the heaviest impediment and continued on their way keeping only the daggers and swords in their belts. Armour, spears and shields remained behind under the watchful eye of the guard and most of the rations were also abandoned, because the island, with its fruit trees and streams of water, justified losing all useless weight during the climb. The worst part was that once they had gone too far away to go back, a rumble of voices and smoke on the abandoned camp made them think that they should have left a larger and firmer guard to protect their property. It is probable that the natives had gone in to plunder the treasures at hand. It did not matter because the warriors were sure to drive those unfortunates away with a single movement and the skilful and fierce gunners, whom they feared so much, were nowhere to be seen. At the risk of someone watching, it might have been prudent to keep the helmets, shields, and armour, but that meant giving up the climb to the mountains. It made no sense to discuss possible evils and prudent precautions to ward them off. It was better to hurry and reach the nearby gorges and access the cliffs on the coast that already appeared to the north and to the sea.
None of the expeditioners came to see the other side of the mountains. The first attack of the goat-men ended most of the intruders without them being able to guess where their pebbles were falling, breaking their bones and crushing their skulls. The few survivors were blinded and maimed before being taken to the Nymph, who received the prisoners at the highest point of a steep cliff where the retreat took place. She made them sit beside her on the hard ground and they watched her intently as the retinue approached slowly, hampered by the difficulty of the captives who groaned at every step they travelled because of their wounds. The contrast between the foreigner and the prisoners was obvious. Despite years spent under the clear sky of the mountains, her skin remained as white as milk and was soft to the touch, similar to buckthorn juice. The skin of the prisoners, on the other hand, was dark and battered by the wind and saltpetre of the sea. The stranger’s hair curled in a tangle that fell like a bunch of freshly cut ears falling down the slope. The sailors, however, had very black hair, with oily curls like goat-men. If the defeated invaders had kept their sight, another notable difference would have been added to what was said. Where and in what other latitude, had grey eyes been seen by strangers?
The Nymph was angry. In the end she had tolerated the annoyances of stalking and the struggle of men with strangers, in the hope of being able to supply the foreigner, who had already aged, with another younger and passionate poet with his compositions. But what they carried before her was nothing more than the remains of the same horse-men whom she kept far away, in the plain, out of contempt. Only curiosity prevented her from ordering that they be thrown down the hill without further ado, and she condescended to ask them the reasons for the invasion.
His verses and stories are famous all over the sea, oh, Nymph! His fame has reached beyond the civilised world, and it is said that even among the savages circulate versions of his stories in the form of mystical and festive legends. “But we didn’t know he was under your care,” the captive spokesman lied, hoping to save his life.
The Nymph did not want to hear another word and let the goat-men do their merciful work. But the story of the success and fame of the foreigner outside the island had changed the whole meaning of his presence on the mountain. The Nymph did not want, next to her, a poet whose verses, mysteriously, remained in the mouths of the navigating barbarians and were chanted in their miserable, dirty cities. To share with these despicable men what she treasured as something worthy of her exclusive pleasure, was an unbearable humiliation; in her fury she decided that the foreigner did not even deserve the honour of dying at the hands of the goat-men and ordered them to take him to devour the rest of the horde that had remained in the camp.
The poets applauded with joy as they saw the procession arrive and the dust rising from the road. Then, seeing the strange goat-men they fell silent and guessed the rest of the story. Luckily for them, the fierce and muscular warriors came no closer than to suddenly release an old man, who was lying face down in the bushes. When he was finally able to speak, given the remaining physicists, he agreed that the expedition had found victory in a surprising way.
“You are free, poet,” they said. And now your fame will increase with your presence and the new and beautiful stories you will be able to write. Silver and the applause and favours of young people will be the reward that the gods reserve for you to make up for your sorrow and fatigue.
The invaders decided to leave the next morning, when the sea breeze gave way to their onslaught.
During the night, the foreigner escaped the negligent vigilance of the expeditionaries who slept under the effects of the feast in which they had thanked the gods for their merciful attitude. His legs were weak and his breath short and he was tired, but he could walk all night lit by the mother-goddess, the waning moon that managed to shine in the sky until dawn. By then he was safe on the rocks near the gorge, and he crouched in a damp cave to let the day go by without anyone seeing him. When night fell again, he returned to the road with hope, encouraged by the proximity of the rocks of Deya where the Nymph had heard him for so long. On the third night he arrived. It was useless to seek refuge then because the goat-men would find him at sunrise, no matter how well he hid. He lay at the foot of the rock where the Nymph sat to listen to him, at the highest point of the promontory, from where the valleys and the sea dominated. The Nymph discovered him there, asleep, with the sun hitting her whitish skin and the wind playing with the already white bush of her hair. And at last she took pity on him, granted his death, and buried his body in the highest place of the promontory, surrounded by the heart of the branches of the trees, and refreshed by the dew which lightens the nights of the most intense and gripping heat of the summer. And she ordered the goat-men to burn on the grave the necklace of dried oranges which symbolised the power of the Triple Goddess over her subjects. And a single tear was shed, which, when it touched the ground, turned into the bud of a new-born olive tree. She ordered the tree to change the colour of its leaves to pearl grey so that as long as there were olive trees in Mallorca, everyone would remember the foreigner, the ancient poet who wanted to die on the promontories of the island that he had helped to invent.