Skip to main content

La Vida En Deya

ISSUE:  Winter 1987

Deyá nestles between the Mediterranean and the abrupt wall of the Teix on the precipitous pine and olive-clad north coast of Mallorca. Of its some 400 inhabitants, roughly one quarter are foreigners who have either retired or dropped out and opted for a sunny, leisurely island existence.

During the winter months life is placid, and a good deal of writing and painting is accomplished by the village’s permanent artists’ colony. The only social gathering place is the terrace of Las Palmeras bar when it is sunny, or inside when it is not. All of that changes in June when the summer contingent commences drifting in from England, France, Germany, Northern Europe, and the United States. By mid-summer the population has quadrupled, social life takes on a frenetic rhythm, and daytime activity centers on Cala Deyá, the boulder-clogged beach some two kilometers away with its untidy sprawl of boathouses, beached fishing boats and pleasure craft, a small thatched cafe and a terrace restaurant perched above the inlet. The permanent residents are forced to adopt stern measures to maintain any semblance of productivity inasmuch as everyone else assumes that all Deyá is on vacation the year around.

The austere stone houses of the village fill with more writers, painters, television producers, folk and rock artists, theatrical people, and a mixed bag of charter flight jet setters who doze on the Cala rocks by day and attend each other’s white wine bashes by night.

The village has also had five resident Messiahs in the past dozen years plus two John the Baptists. The third Messiah committed suicide by hurling himself headlong into the cistern of his rented house up on the Puig, and he is commonly held responsible for the poltergeist phenomena infesting that house as well as the one next door which shares the same cistern. Skeptics claim that the poltergeist falls silent whenever Pow, a turbulent teenager, is back in the States during the winter. Others identify the poltergeist as the headless horseman who occasionally rides up or down the road leading from the Puig plaza to the village cemetery. Most people have never seen the headless horseman, and his nocturnal jaunts have, in fact, become less frequent since Puddles, a psychic dachshund, developed an antipathy for the horse and took to running after it, barking and snapping at its invisible hooves.

The penultimate Messiah was the only one who divulged a systematic theology, according to the older residents. The doctrine he brought to town centered about his revelation that the word Israel, properly considered, means “I Is Real.” He too met with a tragic end, diving from the sixth-story window of the psychiatric clinic to which he had been committed.

Returning to the poltergeist for a moment, efforts were made to take up a collection that would pay the travel expenses of a Welsh medium who offered to come to Deyá and exorcise the troubled spirit. This effort came to naught, however, since no one but the occupants of the two houses and a few others who had conversed with the spirit via Ouija board took much interest in the affair. Despite this characteristic lack of civic-spiritedness, the medium generously conducted the exorcism rite at long range, for free, and with apparently successful results, since no inexplicable noises have been heard and no obscene graffiti have appeared on the interior walls since she intervened.

Deyá attracts that sort of people for some unfathomable reason. The late Robert Graves, long the village’s senior foreign resident, having come there to live in the late 1920’s, upheld the theory of an Oxford professor friend of his who had made a comparative study of the major sacred spots in the world and who arrived at the conclusion that one major category of such places (Delphi and Delos are other examples) was invariably located a few kilometers from the sea and was ringed about with steep mountains containing a goodly amount of iron ore. The ostensible explanation of the mystery is that the sea’s restless washing at the base of the iron-cored mountains sets up a heterodyning electromagnetic field which influences human brain waves in an extraordinary manner so that one’s individual essence, whether good or bad, rational or slightly potty, is intensified in a way that does not occur in other places.

There are shreds of historical evidence indicating that Deyá has always tended to attract strange human specimens. Count Cagliostro is reputed to have stayed at Ca’n Fusimanyi, the ancestral mansion of the Visconti family, while presumably engaged in researching some of Raymond Lully’s alchemical formulas. This was a good many years before Cagliostro entangled himself in Marie Antoinette’s Diamond Necklace affair and wound up in the Bastille, but inasmuch as Cagliostro is known to have boasted that he fabricated the necklace personally by alchemical means, one wonders if he might not have stumbled across old Lully’s formula right in Deyá.

For another thing, there is a medieval Mallorquin jingle that posits the existence of a Devil’s Triangle on the island itself. It translates as follows: “The devil rises out of Soller and circles over Fornalutx and Deyá inspecting his domains before settling again in Soller,”

Until roughly four years ago when dial telephones were installed, there were persistent rumors that the village switchboards in Deyá and Fornalutx were manned by witches. No hard evidence was ever accumulated against the Deyá switchboard operator, but the affair of the Guardia Civil in Fornalutx gave rise to public preoccupation.

It seems that the Fornalutx switchboard operator was the mother of an unprepossessing daughter who had secretly lost her heart to the swaggering young Guardia Civil corporal stationed in the village. The Guardia in turn was smitten with the village beauty, who happened to be the daughter of the local justice of the peace. The plain girl closeted herself in her room to repine in solitude, and on the night of the next full moon the village belle suddenly kicked over a table outside the Café Deportivo and sprinted screaming down the main street, stripping off her clothing as she ran. She was wrestled to a standstill by several agile matrons and escorted to her home wrapped in a blanket. To top things off, next morning before 7 o’clock mass the local priest discovered the young Guardia clutching a tombstone in the village cemetery and sobbing uncontrollably, his erstwhile raven hair turned gray. After a lengthy recuperation in a military hospital, he was discreetly transferred to a small town in Andalusia, and no formal charges were ever brought against the telephone operator.

All the old villages in Mallorca were built at a respectful distance from the sea because of the age-old danger of pirate raids. Deyá is no exception to this rule, and it had its share of pirate incursions in the past. From the moment when the pirates anchored in the Cala and struggled up the steep gorge through the Clot to get at the town itself, there would have been time enough to get the women, children and old people into the “Moor’s castle” and mobilize the menfolk for defense of the village.

In the days before helicopter gunships and airborne rockets the “Moor’s castle” was an impregnable redoubt. It rises from a hilltop behind the Es Moli tourist hotel: a vertical spire of naked rock some 15 meters high with a rectangular walled platform on top that might hold 60 or 70 people in a squeeze. The only access is by narrow, single-file steps cut into the stone, and one must use both arms to pull oneself up the last meter and onto the platform, so that a man with a cutlass could defend it singlehanded against a besieging army.

The circular stone watchtowers studding Mallorca were built in the mid-16th century when the Turkish fleet and the Barbary Coast marauders were pillaging the Mediterranean. They were constructed at line-of-sight intervals all the way around the circumference of the island, manned day and night during those troubled times, and their signalling system of smoke by day and bonfires by night was so effective that Palma’s military garrison could be alerted within 20 minutes from any point on the coast where a pirate fleet first hove into sight.

Soller, some seven kilometers to the northeast of Deyá, boasts the only bay along the north coast in which deep-draft vessels can seek shelter from the prevailing on-shore winds. Its traditional hero was a drunken, one-legged ex-cannoneer who, at one crucial moment of municipal history, was the only person in town who knew how to charge, train, and fire the old brass cannon perched on a point overlooking the bay’s entrance channel. One afternoon the town fathers paid an urgent call on the beatifically-muddled veteran to inform him that a pirate vessel was heading for the entrance and his presence was required.

Aware of his strong bargaining position, the old man agreed, provided they would furnish him with a full bottle of Anis del Mono and carry him up to the point on a stretcher. The deal was quickly concluded, and he was lugged up to the cannon, lounging pillowed in the stretcher and taking occasional nips from his fresh bottle.

By the time he had supervised loading operations, the pirate ship had entered the channel and come about, preparatory to dropping anchor. He sighted the cannon blearily, ordered a smidgeon more elevation, applied a firebrand to the touchhole, and blew off the ship’s mainmast at deck level. The pirates hastily chopped away the tangled rigging, broke out sweeps, and sculled away ignominiously, never to be seen again.

According to Carbon 14 datings carried out by Bill Waldren, the resident archaeologist, Deyá has been continuously inhabited by man for the past 4,300 years—an antiquity that makes Rome and Paris mere striplings by comparison. Neolithic man settled here because of the abundant springs that flow from the base of the Teix to provide an ample, year-round water supply.

As befits a town that has weathered 4,300 years of turbulent history in this major crossroads of the Mediterranean, its native inhabitants are conservative, cautious, close-fisted peasant folk. A majority of them are getting along in years, since the younger generation has abandoned agriculture as a way of life and headed for the big city of Palma where the lights are brighter, the decibel level higher, and jobs in tourist-related enterprises were, until recently, easier to find. A simple diet and the Spartan conditions offered by the old stone houses they live in may account for the extraordinary longevity of the native Deyános. A perusal of tombstone dates in the cemetery shows that the vast majority die in their 80’s or well into their 90’s. As the old houses in the village go empty, they are snapped up by foreigners and remodeled to provide modern amenities such as plumbing and electricity.

Along with their peasant shrewdness, the Deyános have developed a surprisingly sophisticated attitude toward the eccentrics and the cosmopolitan foreigners who take over the village during the summer months. At root, though, this urbanely tolerant attitude in the face of frequently outrageous behavior is based on the simple conviction that all foreigners are crazy. They know. They’ve seen them come and go. They survived the hippy invasion and the heavy drug scene of the late 60’s, and the village returned to its normal, peaceful, crime-free stability in which mothers unconcernedly let tiny toddlers wander unattended all over town. The older children will take care of them, or there’s always a watchful adult nearby, should they need to be fished out of one of the three torrentes that crisscross the town. The old tradition of the key in the lock is dying out, perhaps because of the throngs of mischievous foreign children at large during the summer, but previously whenever a Deyá housewife went out, she would leave the big iron key protruding from the keyhole of the front door. The message to friends was: “Come in and borrow a cup of sugar if you need it,” while at the same time it warned strangers that there was nobody home and no point in knocking.

Of course there was the village rapist several years ago, but he was victim of a mental aberration—those heterodyning vibes again!—and his truncated career scarcely falls into the same category as the casual, anonymous muggings and breakins that big-city dwellers have to contend with these days.

His defenders—and there are quite a few, most of them women, curiously enough—claim he was just a simple Mallorquin peasant lad who fell in with the wrong crowd and developed bad habits after he was persuaded to become the star performer in the Saturday night orgies sponsored by the Deyá Pornographers’ Society. The cattier gossips point out that he preyed exclusively on foreign girl vacationers and that most of those would undoubtedly have submitted with no fuss had he just asked them nicely. The trouble was, however, that he had a kinky fetish about wearing a black hood and carrying handcuffs and a club—and he insisted on using them.

No one is quite certain why the pornographers chose Deyá as their Mediterranean headquarters. An instinctive, birds-of-a-feather reflex, perhaps. In those days it was a cheap place to live, and they were grossly underpaid and exploited, so it may have been simple economics plus word-of-mouth advertising. When a sizeable group of them had settled down in the vicinity, their Mafioso bosses sent out an editor to keep them producing within the parameters of a computer-analyzed formula for successful hard-core pornography and also to edit and polish the rough first-draft pages that accumulated beside their overheated typewriters each working day.

The editor, Bill M. , and his wife settled a few kilometers away at Miramar, the ancient Franciscan monastery built by Raymond Lully 700 years ago to house Europe’s first Institute of Oriental Languages, and he received his first warning even before the orgies commenced at Miramar. Several weeks after moving in a lightning bolt struck the Miramar tower and flashed down, splitting the wall of their bedroom. Once they started up, there was nothing particularly clandestine about the Saturday night orgies, and whenever a comely hippy girl arrived in town Bill would make a point of cordially inviting her and her friend to drop around.

Bill’s wife tired of their overactive social life and left him. Another girl moved in, and Bill planned a special fête scheduled for Good Friday at 3 o’clock in the afternoon when the sky darkened and the earth shook and the rocks were split. A Black Mass was to be celebrated on the dining room table, the altar cloth being a sheet stained with menstrual blood. After the ceremony, a sumptuous buffet was to be served at the same table, same tablecloth.

The two of them left for Palma about 10 in the morning to pick up some of the final delicacies for the buffet. Bill was high on speed as usual and careened crazily around the narrow twisting curves, trying to provoke a fear reaction in his companion. They got safely through Valldemossa and down the canyon that debouches onto Mallorca’s central plain. Bill wound the car up to 110 kilometers, swung out on a blind curve to pass a slow-moving truck and was decapitated under the wheels of a tourist bus heading for Valldemossa. The girl was lucky to survive; she was in a coma for two months with head injuries, a fractured pelvis and two broken legs, and was hospitalized for four months more. After that, without Bill’s guiding hand on the reins, the pornographers, one by one, drifted away from Deyá, leaving as their only heritage the village rapist.

The rapist’s exploits were too sensational to be hushed up, but one has to live here a long while and gain the confidence of an established Mallorquin family before he will hear the story of Bernardo and Manuela. Though the events took place almost half a century ago, relatives of the two principals still live in the village, and family pride runs strong in Mallorca.

Bernardo, to put it bluntly, was the village idiot. He was husky, docile, good-natured, but his mind was that of a six-year-old. He learned the routines of agricultural labor at an early age and was a tireless worker as long as someone told him what to do next. His aging parents owned a solid house and a number of well-watered terraces on the edge of the village, but they knew that when they were gone Bernardo would be incapable of keeping his inheritance intact.

Manuela was the perfect wife for Bernardo: energetic, decisive, dominant and astute, but too ugly to interest any of the other boys in town. She was the youngest of seven children, all the rest of them boys. Her mother, who had yearned for a baby daughter throughout her male-besieged marriage, was delirious with joy when she finally delivered Manuela herself, since the men were away from home and there was no time to call the midwife.

Bernardo’s parents died shortly after the marriage, and the newlyweds moved into the family home. The two of them left the house early each morning, and Manuela would knit in the shade of a pear tree and sing out orders in a drillmaster’s voice to patient Bernardo. They never had children, and in view of Bernardo’s dubious genes the village thought that was just as well.

After 30 years of reclusive marriage—they had no close friends—Bernardo knocked on a neighbor’s door one morning to complain that Manuela refused to wake up. He sobbed inconsolably when they explained that his wife was dead, and the neighbors had to make all the preparations for the wake and funeral, down to ordering the coffin from Soller.

The wake had already commenced with coffee, cookies, and cognac being passed around when the village vestidora (corpse washer) arrived and went up to the bedroom where Manuela’s body lay. A few moments later she shot down the stairs, eyes popping, and beckoned urgently for several other matrons to come upstairs. She led them into the dim room, threw back the sheet and asked, unnecessarily:

“Do you see what I see?”

The evidence was incontrovertible: Manuela had been a Manuel all the time.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading