Rent a house or a Room in Gozo, Malta
A LOVE STORY - The Fungus Rock Adventure or The Healing Herb
In the days of old during the reign of the Knights it was prohibited to gather the Healing Herb that flourished on the Fungus Rock at Dwejra in Gozo.
The Healing Herb was a fungus that was to be found only on the Fungus Rock. It was famous all over Europe and North Africa and very much sought after.
Toninu (Anthony) - a youth of nineteen, studying with the hope of becoming a sea captain. He was deeply in love with Matilde.
Matilde - a girl of eighteen, daughter of Dr. Francesco Azzopardi, Doctor of Laws.
Xandru (Alexander), Toninu's closest friend.
Fr. Saviour, the priest who taught Toninu how to read and write.
"To tell you the truth, Toninu, I'm not against the Grand Master taking steps to guard the Healing Herb (Gherq is-Sinjur in Maltese, meaning the Rich Man's Root). Sometimes we bring trouble over our own heads (Maltese Proverb: Inġibu l-ġebla fuq saqajna). People used to go and pick the root while still green and unripe so it would have perished for ever if action had not been taken", Fr. Saviour was saying.
"I hear that Pinto even smoothed the rock-face of the Fungus Rock to ensure that nobody could climb up", answered Toninu.
Fr. Saviour loved Toninu like a son that he never had. He used to teach him about everything. In fact they had just finished a geography lesson.
"I totally agree because the Fungus or healing herb, call it what you will, is a blessing from God. It heals many kinds of ailments and is most effective against Dysentery. Only yesterday, I gave some of it to a person who came to my house to borrow some but alas I only had a very small quantity", Fr. Saviour continued in a low whisper.
"Don't tell me it's the Lawyer, cause yesterday afternoon I saw him going into your house", Tonino queried.
"Yes Ton. But don't say anything. His daughter is very sick with dysentery and if she is not treated with the healing herb potion she may die, poor girl".
"So, do you think that he still needs more of the healing herb?", he asked the priest.
"Yes he needs more but it is so scarce. He is going to the Auberge of the Grand Master to try to get some more, but everything takes time and this illness waits for nobody".
Toninu's heart missed a beat. Matilde is seriously sick. That is why he did not see her studying on the roof of her house these last two days. Toninu
Toninu liked to go up on the roof and read from his favourite book, how to sail a ship and plot a course from one port to another. It was not an easy subject, but he loved measuring the distances and walking the dividers on the charts, using the slide rule and the Compass-Rose and jotting down his calculations on a piece of paper.
His dream was to become a sea-captain but he never breathed a word of this to anyone except to Fr. Saviour, whom he regarded as a second father and who had taught him how to read and write from a very early age. The priest had never uttered a word of discouragement, but on the contrary, used to tell him that if somebody wanted something seriously enough and if he did his best to attain it, he would succeed in the end.
He loved this nook on the roof and especially in the summer afternoons when he did not go swimming he would climb the ladder and sit in the shade with a book in his hand. Sometimes there was barely enough space for him to sit, since his grandfather would stack the roof with farm produce, now with freshly gathered melons, now with maize, huge tobacco leaves set out to dry, onions, broad beans blackened by the sun, stacks of hay or clover according to the year and season.
At the moment Matilde was having her Easter holidays so she was staying in Gozo for some days. From his post on the roof he could see her, pacing around the perimeter studying and reading aloud. He could not hear her because of the distance but he could see her lips moving. He liked watching this girl a lot, and Matilde on her part seemed to feel the same way since every now and again she stole a glance in his direction. He had never spoken to her but what had raised Toninu's hopes was the fact that whenever she needed to leave the roof she would first look in his direction, walk towards the side facing him and leave her book on the parapet as if to let him know that she would be returning. Or perhaps he liked to think that way cause when he thought about it he saw little hope of there ever being something between him and Matilde.
The Fungus Rock Adventure - Matilde came from a rich family. She was the daughter of the lawyer, Dr. Francesco Azzopardi, who seemed a proud and conceited man. Obviously earning a large yearly salary, he walked with measured step with a silver-knobbed walking stick in his hand and looking at no one, as if he owned the world. And she attended the University in Malta during the winter to become a doctor of laws like her father most probably or perhaps a doctor of medicine. On the other hand Toninu was the son of the local blacksmith who worked from dawn to dusk for a pittance shoeing horses and mules to earn his daily bread. Nevertheless he had already found a soft spot for her in his heart, poor lad. He loved her from a distance.
He had not seen her on the roof for the last two days and he has now learnt that she was dying of dysentery. The advocate had only one daughter so Fr. Saviour was most certainly referring to Matilde. What was he to do? He was heart-broken and imagined her lying in bed, her lovely face wan and pale slowly withering away like a flower. He could not go to see her but racked his brains to find a way to help the poor girl.
Two hours later, after leaving Fr. Saviour's residence, Toninu was in his father's shop helping him with a couple of large cart-wheel iron hoops. He saw his friend Xandru (Alexander) hurrying past the smithy door. Toninu whistled and the other turned on his heels and approached his friend.
"Where are you off to, Xand, in such a hurry?", Toninu asked with a smile on his face.
"I don't know", replied the other.
The Fungus Rock
Toninu's father had left and the two lads could talk freely. Toninu had formed a plan and he explained it to his friend. He told him that that night they had to go to Dwejra and climb the Fungus Rock to procure some of the Healing herb.
"So you are mad! I always had my suspicions! Don't you know that the Rock is very well guarded", Xandru exclaimed hotly.
"I know all about that and I also know that the rock face has been cleaned and smoothed so that now it is very difficult to climb. However, I have everything planned", Toninu reassured his friend.
"Come and give me a hand here", Toninu asked Xandru as he walked towards the forge. Xandru began to work the blower while Toninu began to heat an iron rod as he stirred the red-hot coals with it.
30 minutes later, they had fashioned two dozen iron pegs about ten inches long pointed at one end and rounded at the other, resembling large nails.
"With these and a length of rope I can climb a glass wall", Toninu told the other.
"And how are we going to get to the Fungus Rock without being shot dead by the guards", Xandru wanted to know.
Toninu chose not to answer but said instead, "We leave here at 9 o'clock, on foot and without letting anyone see us. At 10 we will be there and God willing by 11 we'll have the healing herb in our possession. We are in luck because this special Fungus, the healing herb (Gherq is-Sinjur) ripens and is ready for picking at this time between April and May. For the rest it cannot be found. What do you think, we meet after the 7 o'clock Mass?"
"Ok if you are sure", Xandru answered somewhat doubtfully.
Xandru left soon afterwards but Toninu stayed in the smithy awaiting his father's return. When he eventually returned home Toninu got busy preparing a sack with the things that he would need.
The Fungus Rock Adventure - After mass, Toninu and Xandru went into the sacristy to talk to Fr. Saviour.
"Hello boys, what brings you here. Do you want to confess?"
"No father. I only want to ask you about.....Do you have news of Matilde?", asked Toninu shyly.
Both Xandru and the priest looked at him curiously, but while Xandru remained open-mouthed, Fr. Saviour smiled knowingly at Toninu and patting him on the shoulder, said rather sadly,
"Her father tells me that the girl is responding very well to the medicine but that she needs more, at least five more days' supply".
"Don't worry, she will get it. I am going tonight".
"Going where?", the priest asked surprised for the second time, but then knowing Toninu's generous nature and adventureous spirit, it soon dawned on him.
"That's very dangerous. The militia have orders to shoot and if they do not kill you they will arrest you both and you'll be condemned to row on the galleys for years and years".
Fungal healing herb
"They will not see us. Expect me at midnight, father. If I bring the Healing herb to you, will you take it straight to the lawyer's house?".
"Oh yes, most certainly, but how do you propose to get to the Fungus Rock, swim?", asked the priest.
"I have planned everything. Leave it to us, father".
The boys looked so determined that the old priest knew that no matter what he said or did, he could not stop them. He smiled ruefully and said,
"Go then, but take good care. God Bless you my children. By the way, in case you don't know, the healing herb or fungus grows to a height of 25 to 30 inches and you can recognize it from its red and white lines. Its fruit is as big as a wild nut, longish and pointed".
"Thank you father. Please, say a little prayer for us".
The Fungus Rock Adventure - At 9 that night the two lads left home on their way to Dwejra, the home of the Fungus Rock on top of which the healing herb grew. Toninu had a small sack slung on his shoulder in which he carried the pieces of iron that he had fashioned that morning and a length of hemp rope. The road was deserted and a half-moon shed enough light to help them pick their way. They walked fast because they wanted to get to their destination in an hour.
"How do we get to the rock?", asked Xandru.
"We'll borrow Wenzu's boat (frejgatina). You know the one I mean. It's always there on the little slip-way at the back of the harbour behind the Rock".
"Oh yes, good idea. I hope he's left the oars in it too", said Xandru doubtfully.
"If not, we'll paddle with a couple of prickly-pear pads. The boat is light and we don't have too far to go. We'll make it somehow", Toninu said resolutely, "we must".
Xandru could sense the urgency in his friend's thoughts and actions. Toninu was thinking of that girl all the time and he was not his usual jovial self.
"You never told me about this Matilde. You must be very much in love with her, to go to so much pains", Xandru accused Toninu.
"I didn't tell you, because it's only a bee in my bonnet. She doesn't even know that I fancy her, I think. And I'm doing this, well you know how we love adventure, you and me."
The Fungus Rock Adventure - By now, they were entering the village of St. Lawrence, a quiet place with a few familes most of them farmers or herdsmen.
"These people would all be asleep by now, but we'll cut through the fields all the same. We do not want to meet anyone", Toninu said.
Xandru agreed and soon they were on top of the hill walking down the road leading to Dwejra. On their left they could discern the Tower and a feeble light in one of the windows indicating that the tower was manned.
"There would be others near the Fungus Rock too. We will pass close to the tower to avoid them and head west until we come to the harbour", Toninu said.
"Ok, we're almost there, but keep your head down cause I can see two of them near the platform", Xandru warned.
The wooden platform was about 10 feet high and supported a system of ropes and pulleys on which hung a basket which could carry a man to and from the Rock in a matter of minutes.
"If only we could use that", Xandru whispered, "we'll get the healing herb without too much trouble".
"We'll get it all the same, never fear, Xand".
The Fungus Rock Adventure - They were now walking down the slippery path that led towards the boat-house cut in the rock and the little slipway at the back of the harbour.
"There's the boat", cried Toninu triumphantly. "Let's launch it. The oars are here too. God Bless Wenzu. Go on the other side and push".
The two strong lads soon had the boat in the water. It was perfectly calm and by the light of the half-moon, they could see the imposing Fungus Rock looming up in the near distance. Xandru got in first and sat on the thwart amidships while Toninu gave the boat a good push and climbed in.
The small harbour behind the Fungus Rock is enclosed by very high cliffs and it was only a few meters to the Rock.
"You row while I get my things ready. Keep under the cliffs very close to the wall out of the moonlight lest they see us." "Aye, aye Captain", Xandru mimicked as he started pulling strongly at the oars. The oars barely made a sound since Xandru was an excellent rower. He gave them such a dexterous twist that they cut the water like a blade and hardly ever broke the surface. Ten minutes later they were on the west side of the Rock, out of sight of the guards on the mainland.
Small rowing boat - frejgatina in Maltese
Toninu grabbed the sack, took out the rope and slung it over his shoulder and put the iron pieces in his two trouser pockets. With two backward strokes of the starboard oar, while pulling on the other one, Xandru expertly turned the boat with it's stern almost grazing the Rock. Toninu leapt onto a ledge and holding on with one hand looked up to examine the cliff-face that he had to climb.
"Throw me the sack, Xandru and don't go away", he said laughing silently.
"Here catch", replied the other laughing in his turn, "and don't fall off cause you'll scuttle the boat and sink me".
Toninu tied the empty sack round his waist and started climbing, making use of the few handholds and footholds that the cliff-face offered him. From below, Xandru could hear the tinkling sound as Tonino hammered the iron pegs into the holes in the rock. Would the guards hear, he thought anxiously, but when he considered that they were a good distance away and on the opposite side of the Fungus Rock, he calmed down.
The Fungus Rock Adventure - 40 minutes later, several bits of gravel splashed all around the boat and when Xandru looked up, he saw Toninu waving from the top and dancing with a bulging sack in his hand. Xandru stood up on the thwart of the boat and waving back with both hands, laughing silently and signaling to his friend to come down. The sack came first, as Toninu had tied it's neck to a rope round his middle so that it would not hinder him too much in his descent.
"Did you get enough of the healing herb?", Xandru asked him.
"Oh sure, a whole sackful. It is so beautiful up there too. The plateau is covered with wild thyme, fennel and the healing herb itself and the smell is heavenly. And would you believe that I kept flushing quail with every step I took".
Xandru was already pulling at the oars and the boat was flying on the oil-calm water. They had decided to follow the same route as before since the west side of the harbour was still in shadow.
"What about the boat? We'll have to moor it for tonight", Xandru remarked.
"Agreed. We won't be able to haul it up. The slipway is too steep and slippery. Wenzu does it single-handed but he has a manual winch to do the job. It is fixed at the back of his boat-house and he only needs someone just to hold the boat level.
The sea is glassy tonight and the boat will come to no harm. We'll use my rope to tie it securely. There's a buoy, grab it".
Toninu mentally thanked Wenzu for 'lending' them his boat and led the way up the steep flight of shallow steps hewn in the hard rock. When they arrived at the top of the incline they were almost in line with the wooden platform but they could not see any sign of the guards. All the same they crouched and crept on all fours until they were a good distance away and kept to the shadows wherever they could.
From Dwejra to the village of St. Lawrence it was a long hard uphill trek but the two strong lads made light work of it. Twenty minutes later they were on the road to Rabat (Victoria), Toninu shouldering the bag full of the healing herb and Xandru doing the talking, "Wenzu will have a surprise in the morning. He'll think that the elves have kindly launched his boat for him", he said, laughing.
"Oh yes, he'll be surprised all right", Toninu answered, smiling, " but we'll try to find him on Sunday morning and explain. You know how the village farmers and traders have the habit of coming to It-Tokk on Sunday mornings to meet and talk business. Perhaps we'll see him there."
"I hope he won't be angry. We could have got him into trouble with the authorities if we had been caught stealing the healing herb while making use of his boat," Xandru opined intelligently.
"By Jove, I hadn't thought of that", Toninu exclaimed.
"How could you! You were thinking of Matilde all the time, weren't you?
"I was concentrating on not getting us caught and on getting what we came for without getting hurt. And if I was thinking of Matilde ......you were never truely in love, so you don't know what it means", Toninu retorted hotly.
"Oh, OK, Ok. Don't be offended, I was only pulling your leg. I think that Matilde is a beautiful and clever girl and I feel very happy about helping you to get the healing herb for her", Xandru said soothingly, "and I believe that Wenzu is a practical man. He will understand that it was in all reality a matter of life and death".
The Fungus Rock Adventure - "We are here. It is a pity to wake Fr. Saviour up, but here goes", Toninu whispered as he rapped on the sturdy wooden door with his knuckles.
The priest opened at once and led them quickly in. "Sorry to wake you up, Father, but we've got the healing plant for Matilde", Toninu said apologetically.
"I was not asleep, my dears. I was worried and feeling a little guilty for letting you go so I kept on praying for your safe return", the priest said smilingly, "and now that you are here, I must congratulate you on a job well done. God will repay you both a hundredfold for this your errand of mercy. God Bless you my sons. Now I'll have to finish my part of the job and take some of the healing herb to Dr. Azzopardi's house right away. I'll deliver the rest of it in the morning".
With that all three went their separate ways, the boys heading for home and the priest hurriedly making his way to the lawyer's residence with a small paper packet under his arm.
The Fungus Rock Adventure - Four days later, Toninu was in his room, lying on his bed reading. His small bedroom was small and cosy with a tiny window overlooking the street. He heard someone knocking. It was Fr. Saviour asking for him. He leapt from the bed, ran down the flight of their open-air stone stairs and was at the door before his mother had time to call him.
Fr. Saviour was smiling and as soon as the woman had moved away, promptly informed him that Dr. Azzopardi wanted to see him. "What does he want?", Toninu asked half afraid.
"Only to thank you in person. Thanks to the healing herb that you brought him, his daughter is now feeling much better, in fact she is practically healed".
"Oh, I'm so glad to hear it. But I'll be so embarassed. I've never spoken to him and...........", Toninu stammered.
"You have no reason to be shy", the priest cut him short, "he'll talk to you as a friend who has so generously risked his life to save his daughter from certain death", the priest said reassuredly.
"Oh, all right. When do I have to go?", Toninu asked.
"Can you make it this evening at 5?". On the lad's acceptance, the priest patted him fondly on the shoulder and departed smilingly with a "tell me afterwards".
The Fungus Rock Adventure - "You must have a bath and wear your best Sunday clothes", his mother told him as she emerged from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron.
"Oh mother, you heard!", Toninu said accusingly.
"I couldn't help overhearing, could I. I'll also clean the new sandals that the cobbler made for you last year. You must cut a good figure. Those people are so rich and polite".
His mother's words made Toninu worry even more but what must be done, had better be done in the best possible way.
The Fungus Rock Adventure - And so at a couple of minutes to 5, Toninu was slowly approaching the majestic house of the lawyer. The closer he came the more his heart threatened to jump out of his chest. He took deep breaths to calm his nerves down and approached the great dark green door. He took the brass bell-pull in his right hand and gave it a feeble tug. He heard it tinkling inside and almost instantly the door was opened by none other than the lawyer himself.
With outstretched hands he welcomed the lad, shaking hands with him and patting him on the back. "Hello Toninu, come in. I'm very glad that you could come. Come in, come in", and he led him into the parlour.
They sat down in the comfortable armchairs and Toninu could not help take in the rich furnishings, the heavy curtains, the carpets and chandeliers and unconsciously compare his host's residence with his own home.
"What are you having, Toninu? Some tea or wine perhaps?"
"A cup of tea will be fine, please sir", Toninu answered.
"You have made us a great favour, Toninu. You have saved my daughter's life", the lawyer said smiling. "Do I owe you anything?"
"Oh, no, no. It was just another adventure for me", Toninu answered quickly.
"Very risky, I must say. Ah, here she is. Come darling. Here is Toninu".
Matilde appeared with the tea-tray and Toninu could not take his eyes off her. At such close quarters she was even more beautiful.
The Fungus Rock Adventure -His heart was thumping in his chest and he was afraid that he would not be able to speak ... "Dear, darling Matilde", he thought.
She was still very pale but as beautiful as ever. She deposited the tray on the coffee table, went over to Toninu, put her hands lightly on his shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks, "How can I ever thank you, Toninu. You saved my life for me, you saved me from certain death".
"Oh, no, no" was all he could say and he inadvertently raised his right hand to touch her hand lingering on his shoulder. Toninu's cheeks were now flaming red not only on account of Matilde's kisses but also owing to her father's eyes studying their every move.
However when Toninu stole a glance in the lawyer's direction he saw that he was smiling warmly. He is not such a peacock after all, Toninu thought. As Fr. Saviour always said - Appearances can be deceitful. The lawyer then begged to be excused and left the room.
Matilde sat down near him and her right hand 'accidentally' touched his leg. The boy turned his face towards her and saw gratitude and admiration in her big brown eyes. Or was it love? He was not sure about her but he knew without the shadow of a doubt that he was head over heels in love with her.
Oh, how he longed to kiss her. Their eyes were still locked and his face was unconsciously being drawn towards hers. But then the sound of her father's returning footsteps broke the spell. They both looked at the lawyer who was still smiling warmly. Her father must love her terribly. He looks so happy that she is up and well again, Toninu concluded.
The Fungus Rock Adventure - "Here you are my boy. A little present for you. You surely deserve it. Doesn't he Matilde?".
"Oh yes father. He deserves all our respect and ....", Matilde promplty added.
"I hear that you wish to become a sea-captain, Toninu", Matilde's father continued, "so I obtained these two books for you which I believe will set you well on your way, one on Navigation and Seamanship and the other about the Law of the Sea". They are the best I could find. In truth they have a small drawback since some parts of them are in Italian and in French".
"Oh thank you so much Sir, it is a really wonderful gift. Just what I needed", Toninu said as he took the books from the lawyer's hands, "Fr. Saviour will help me with the translation".
"Oh no. I mean would you like me to help you with the translation of the Italian and French texts", Matilde suggested shyly. "You may come again tomorrow morning if you like. Is it Ok father?"
"I have no objection, dear children", the lawyer said with a twinkle in his eye.
To thank Xandru for his part in getting the healing herb for his daughter, the lawyer had given him a super brand new fishing rod and a wicker basket with all kinds of fishing tackle.
A week later, when Matilde was completely herself again, Toninu took her for a long walk to Dwejra to show her the little harbour behind the Fungus Rock. Her father suggested that Xandru should accompany them and the two boys explained to her in all detail how they had succeeded in getting the healing herb.
And so it happened that Toninu and Matilde started to spend a lot of time in each other's company, especially during the summer recess when Matilde was not required to go to University and on weekends when she came over to Gozo from Malta.
The lawyer liked Toninu from the start because for him, a man of strong will and generous character was the best choice of husband for his daughter Matilde.
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