Harry and the Grapes

The physically challenged sacristan of the church was very proud of the luxuriant grapevine he had cultivated and trained over the veranda during recent years. The sacristan had managed to obtain a vine cutting from a famous vineyard and winery on the narrow road to the village of Marsaxlokk where he was from. That particular year the vine was laden with full bunches of young grapes ready for ripening. The sacristan lived only to impress and curry favour with his benevolent masters who had taken pity on the unpopular, unpleasant looking man. Even his own family in Marsaxlokk[1] could not stand his company for very long and his siblings disliked him in response to his cruelty towards them and his surly manner.

The man was a Quasimodo-type character, with a disposition that seemed to match his twisted limbs and bitter expression. Somewhat appropriately, he also looked after the morgue that was housed in the basement of the rectory.

Every Sunday after Mass, the boys would peer over the rectory wall to check on the progressive ripeness of the grapes growing around the veranda. Each week bunches grew fatter on the vine and looked softer in colour. It would not be long. The ripest grapes were just about ready for harvesting.

The sacristan was livid with rage when he noticed that the first bunch of grapes went missing. But he became even more furious when the next bunch vanished. All his hard work was being stolen right before his very eyes. Grapes were simply impossible to obtain for his priests during wartime Malta. The man had been eagerly looking forward to presenting his masters with the fruits of his labour and he craved the ebullient praise that would undoubtedly come his way.

The sacristan noticed that both bunches of grapes went missing sometime after early Mass on the last two Sundays. He decided to lie in wait the next Sunday morning. He would hide all day if necessary. As long as he could catch the despicable thieves of his precious grapes.

The next Sunday it was Harry’s turn to climb over the rustic drystone wall and reap the rich prize that awaited him. Meanwhile, Emanuel waited nervously on the other side. No sooner had Harry laid the first touch of his outstretched hand onto the plump bunch of fruit when the heavy, twisted arm of the sacristan slapped onto the back of Harry’s neck and grabbed him by his shirt collar. Harry shrieked. Emanuel ran away.

“Ha, Devil! I’ve got you, thief! You wicked boy. Now I’m going to teach you a lesson.”

The sacristan dragged the terrified boy across the veranda to the old rectory building and down the dark, stone stairway to the basement and morgue. During these days of bombings and typhoid epidemics, the rectory morgue was always crammed full of dead bodies waiting their turn for burial. He unbolted the latch, dragged open the heavy wooden door and threw Harry in. He slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside.

Harry turned as white as a ghost when he realised where he was. Some of the coffins were open and through the semidarkness, he was sure that he could see movement. Every now and then air escaped from one of the bodies resulting in wheezing, subhuman sounds in the dark. Sometimes, the tendons of one of the fresh bodies in the closed coffins would tighten, causing scraping and knocking against the wood or the weight of the corpse to shift, and the timber to creak. Harry could hear the scurrying of rats across the hard stone floor and the smell of rotting flesh filled his nostrils.

After about two hours, Harry heard the key being turned in the lock. The sacristan opened the door to the basement to find Harry hunched into a small, shivering ball with his hands cupped over his ears and his wet eyes shut tight.

“Ha, you evil devil! This will teach you not to steal from the church! You will surely go to hell where all thieves like you belong. Get out and you better not let me see you anywhere around here again!”

Harry’s father, Carmelo, was startled to see the ashen faced, red eyed, traumatised boy walking towards him. He had never seen Harry sob in the manner he did after the father asked him what had happened.

Carmelo was as unlike his small, skinny son as could be. His above average height and strong, barrel-chested build meant that he found work in the local constabulary and his work, by necessity, had taught him how to handle himself. Carmelo hurried over to the rectory. He leaped the drystone wall and marched up to the astonished sacristan who was on the veranda, tending to his vine. Laying both his powerful hands flat against the small man’s chest, Harry’s father slowly clenched his fists and gathered up the whimpering creature’s shirt in the process. He lifted the sacristan high off the ground by his shirtfront. Using both powerful arms and all his enraged strength, Carmelo slammed the little weasel against the timber door of the rectory while screaming obscenities about the sacristan’s mother and the Ottoman Turks. The irate father could have done some serious damage to both the sacristan and the door had not the priests inside the rectory heard the commotion. They stepped outside and implored Carmelo to stop.

The cruelty of the sacristan was the excuse the priests needed to dismiss the odious little man. His nasty reputation had cancelled out any potential prospects he may have had locally so he had to move away. The sacristan returned to his hometown in the south of the island.

Harry spent a lot of time in church that summer and there was a conspicuous change in his behaviour. He became an altar boy and eventually, with strong encouragement from his father, helped out for free around the rectory.

One oppressively hot summer day, while on a family outing to the seaside fishing village of Marsaxlokk, Harry noticed a small and familiar looking male figure on the side of the road. The little man was noticeably suffering in the intense heat while occupying a roadside stall outside the vineyard on the road to the village.

The sacked sacristan was selling grapes.


[1] Pronounced “Marsa-shlok”

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