Il-Keffiena (Preparer of Corpses)

Dreadful screams echoed all the way along Maitland Street, Ħamrun, in the late afternoon of a cool, windy and overcast day in May. Like almost everyone else in the street, Lucia hurriedly stepped outside of her home and walked out onto the narrow footpath outside to see what had happened. By the time Lucia had exited the three-storey building that housed her flat, a small group of neighbours had already gathered in front of the little house opposite, where the distressing cries were emanating from.

Some of the women in the group had been mindful enough to wrap a shawl over their head and shoulders as they left their homes. The tasselled ends of the women’s shawls were flapping in the wind while they collected outside the bright blue wooden door of the house. A gathering of about a dozen people huddled together in silence on the pavement wearing various expressions of fear, concern and anxiety.

Something bad had happened.

The commotion of shouting and wailing inside the house seemed to reach a crescendo, then become quiet, just as a teenaged boy burst through the front door and into the street. One of the women shouted out as the boy dodged his way through the bystanders:

“What in God’s name has happened?”

“The baby is dead! It’s not breathing. I have to bring the doctor!”

The boy ran off to the accompaniment of whispered praying and a few shrieks of anguish from members of the small congregation who repeatedly crossed themselves while imploring God to have mercy. The bedraggled assembly intermittently broke up into ones and twos as people slowly walked away with heads bowed after they realised that there was nothing they could do but go home and pray.

The doctor ran into the house a short time later. He walked out again, slowly, after a few minutes.

Lucia was watching from her side of the road. She heard the young boy’s declaration of death and saw the doctor come and go, from where she stood. Lucia decided to see if she could help.

She went back inside her building, up the flight of steps to her small flat, quickly wrapped herself against the cold and hurried back down the steps again. She pushed through the heavy front door of her building and across the street to the house that had attracted so much attention, the house of the woman she knew as Delores.

She gently raised then lowered the highly polished brass knocker on the blue door three times.

Delores answered the knocking and ushered her highly regarded neighbour inside. The tearful mother of eight explained how she had found her six day old baby girl lying in her cot, ice cold and not breathing, after placing her there asleep not an hour before. The baby had been sick with fever and suffering from diarrhoea for three days. Delores had brought the doctor to examine the child two days ago but he could do little with the limited supply of medicines in his possession. Medicines along with food and other provisions were in extremely short supply in Malta in 1942 due to the Axis blockade of that year.

Between deep sobs, Delores blurted out that the baby was not scheduled to be baptised until the next week and she had not thought the baby’s sickness serious enough to bring the priest. She begged Lucia to tell her that her baby would still go to Heaven. Lucia would know.

The bereft woman looked to the sky above and demanded to know from God why He had taken her beloved baby. What had she done? Why did the innocent child have to die so young? Did not the family live a good Catholic life and observe all the laws of the Church? Why punish and test the family like this?

Delores was inconsolable and it took Lucia some time to calm her sobbing. The sudden death of the infant after carrying her for the last nine months, difficult as that was during the relentless air raids and food shortages, along with it being so soon after the joyful homebirth of the beautiful baby girl, was too much for the woman to endure. The thought that she may have sentenced the baby to Limbo for eternity because she had not got around to baptising her, drove Delores into panic.

The panic had spread to her husband and the other eight children of the household. The children looked traumatised.

Lucia held back tears of her own as she held Delores’ hands in hers and pleaded with Delores to stop her fretting. Lucia explained that because her infant had died as a virtual newborn, her precious baby girl was now an angel and watched over by the Virgin Mary along with all the other little angels in Heaven. The fact that the child had not been baptised did not count because she had died so soon after birth. The baby would never know hunger or suffering, or grow decrepit with age like the rest of those she had left behind and would enjoy the ecstasy of Paradise with Jesus for all eternity. This was the glorious fate of all those who died as innocent babies.

Delores knew from local gossip that Lucia understood things of death and religion but still asked her several times if she was absolutely sure about her baby becoming an angel. Lucia confirmed that this was the law of God. She was sure. And besides, Lucia would immediately summon the priest to give the baby God’s blessing. The Priest would baptise the child then immediately administer the sacrament of Last Rites. It was not too late. Delores gave a deep sigh and seemed to collect herself for a moment at hearing Lucia’s confident assertions. Then, she burst into tears once more.

Lucia spoke in an authoritive tone:

“I must go now and fetch the priest.”

As she was stepping outside the front door, Lucia paused for a moment, then turned back to face Delores who had accompanied her to the doorstep. A thought had entered Lucia’s mind that she imagined might help comfort the disconsolate mother. She told Delores that her poor little angel deserved to be attended to by one just as pure and innocent. Lucia would bring her petite, angelic young daughter, Pupa, to dress the dead baby for the funeral. It would be as if one angel attended to another. In the meantime Lucia and her husband, Dionisio, would arrange things for Delores.

Dionisio and Lucia earned a meagre living practicing private nursing and had branched out into arranging funerals within their local community. They would assist the grieving relatives by dressing the departed, alerting a provider of coffins, notifying a gravedigger and the local priest and arranging flowers and transport to the cemetery for the burial. It was not pleasant work but the small considerations paid to the parents of eleven hungry mouths to feed were most welcome. The couple were well respected in their community, had established all the necessary contacts and could organise things very quickly.

The next morning Lucia explained to Pupa that she was going to take her to visit a lady’s house where she had a very special task to perform:

“Pupa, today you are going to dress a little angel before she goes to see Jesus.”

“A little angel, mama?”

“Yes, she needs to be dressed nicely before she sees our Saviour. You will be a good girl and help the little angel.”

The naïve child nodded her head in agreement. She did not understand what her mother was talking about but seeing an angel sounded appealing. Young and innocent, Pupa had no concept of death nor any understanding of it.

Lucia walked hand in hand with Pupa to Delores’ house. She knocked the brass handle onto the door and once ushered inside by Delores’ husband, the pair were led into the couple’s bedroom where the dead baby was wrapped in a white woollen shawl and lying on the mattress. Lucia made the sign of the cross and gestured to her daughter to do the same. Little Pupa crossed herself several times while Lucia muttered a brief prayer. Lucia then called for the clothes that were to be used to dress the baby.

The husband left the room and returned a moment later holding up a tiny, pure white christening dress made of cotton and lace. Delores appeared through the doorway dabbing at her eyes with a wet handkerchief. She became aware of Pupa and walked over to her. Bending down to the little girl’s height, she held Pupa tightly in her arms and smothered her with kisses.

Lucia unwrapped the baby from her shawl and laid her back down, naked, onto the mattress. She placed the christening dress next to the baby’s cold and porcelain-white body. Lucia looked across at Pupa and beckoned her young daughter with her hand:

“Pupa, come here and dress this beautiful little angel for Jesus. Be very gentle, now.”

Pupa dutifully obeyed her mother. She placed her small palm behind the infant’s back, gently lifted the baby’s torso and supported it with her left arm. While holding the upper half of the baby up off the mattress, Pupa used her other hand to slip the dress over the baby’s head and shoulders. She then laid the baby back down onto its back. Next, she carefully poked the tiny arms through the sleeve holes, one by one. Pupa completed her mission by delicately pulling down the white, frilly dress over the rest of the dead baby’s body. In Pupa’s mind it was as if she was dressing a doll. It had not registered in her child’s consciousness that she was handling a real baby that was once alive.

The job done, Pupa looked up to see Delores watching her with silent tears rolling down her cheeks and a pained smile on her face. Pupa felt a sense of pride, as though she knew she had done something good, but was still puzzled about it all and did not fully comprehend what was going on around her. Delores hugged and kissed little Pupa again while Lucia proudly commended her pretty, doll-like daughter.

That afternoon a glass sided funeral carriage drawn by a jet black pony arrived at the house. The baby had earlier been placed in a small white coffin which was carried out by Delores’ husband and placed in the black wooden carriage. The sight of the tiny white casket shocked the small crowd of mourners that had gathered outside the house and provoked a spontaneous chorus of audible gasps. Seeing the diminutive coffin had highlighted the heart wrenching tragedy that exemplifies an infant’s death. Some women began to wail softly as the funeral procession slowly made its way down Maitland Street with the carriage in the lead, followed by the distressed family, arm in arm, trailing behind.

Pupa quietly watched the proceedings from the elevated position of the first-floor balcony of her home. Her developing child’s brain processed the sorrowful scene on the street below and in a flash, the full reality of what she had done in Delores’ bedroom earlier that morning dawned upon her. Her expression changed from childlike curiosity to one of distress. Pupa’s face slowly twisted into a grimace and she started to cry.

****

For years after the funeral, each time Delores would encounter the young Pupa out on the street she would walk up, hug her closely to her ample bosom and hold her there for a moment of silent reflection. Delores would tell Pupa that when she held her tightly in her arms, she felt close to her lost baby girl who was now an angel in Heaven.

 

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