Ballad of the Virgin Pain

by Justin Fenech

alhambra at night

Granada for pain.

The rain kissed the man’s blood. Like wine spilled from a broken bottle, the man’s lips bled onto the cobblestone. In the distance he could see the faint lights of the plaza. Smiling, he moved his tongue to a rocking tooth.

Then came the kick that rendered all landscape into a dream-less sleep.

* * *

Earlier that day–

The Reconquista. The Inquisition. Bullfighting. Granada is a city bathed in suffering.

Alex Mangion travelled to Granada on his own. He was staying in an old hotel with a Moorish courtyard at the foot of the Alhambra. The white street and the sunset-hue of the courtyard felt to him like the true colours of Spain.

This was not the same Spain as the Costa Brava or even San Sebastian. That’s where all his friends told him to go to when he told them he was going on a solo trip to Spain.

“There’s more to Spain than beaches and tapas.” He would argue. “I want to see the poetic side of Spain. And where better than Granada.”

San Sebastian for tapas.

Costa Brava for insanity.

Madrid for Goya.

Barcelona for Gaudi.

Granada for Lorca?

No, Granada for pain. It was Granada’s troubled history that attracted Alex. Early that morning, he set off for a walk up to the Alhambra. Pine trees stalked him and the breeze felt kissed by distant snow. The summer was full of silhouettes. Dead leaves rustled gently under his feet. The sound of unseen birds reached his ears and sounded somehow exotic. A stolen ray of light snuck through the curtain of branches.

Along the way he met a shoe-shine man and Alex decided to use him as an opportunity to practice his Spanish.

The old man, who had a kind-looking face and wore a checked shirt, told Alex his entire family history. He had a daughter who was graduating law in Sevilla but wants to move to America with her husband. His wife doesn’t cook anymore and only orders take-away. And his mistress, his wife-on-the-side, she’s drinking too much these days.

Alex noticed the hoarseness in the old man’s voice. He wanted to ask him: why do you sound so pained? But he couldn’t get a word in edge-ways. The sound of the old man wiping his shoes reminded Alex of a revving car engine. He smiled and thought: what must it feel like to live in Granada?

Is it painful?

When the old man was done he casually requested: “25 Euros please.”

“For a fucking shoe-shine?”

Alex gritted his teeth and paid the man. And as if the old man was the human embodiment of the thieving Alhambra, he walked back down the hill, turning his back on that palace of splendor. Leave splendor to the tourists. I’m not here for that, he thought.

So he started on his way to a place where he thought he could begin to understand something most people run away from. As the morning aged the day warmed up. The breeze was gone and now Granada felt like a European outpost of the Sahara.

The avenues lined with white buildings, palm trees and bronze statues of kings and emirs past, was now a humid cauldron. For a moment, Alex stopped in the middle of Plaza Isabel la Catolica, away from the shade of the large statue of the Catholic queen.

statue plaza

Everyone looked at him as if he was outside nature. People fought for space on the limited paths of shade whilst this man, this outsider, deliberately stood in the sun. Alex could feel himself sweating. A bead of sweat trickled down his arm-pit. It felt as though a fly was crawling over his skin. His head was starting to hurt.

And then he heard the sound of the fountain at the foot of the statue. The trickling song of the water brought him relief. So it was time to leave.

It was only a short, ancient walk down the Carrera del Daro to the Palace of the Forgotten. The cobbled streets of the Albaicin felt lucid even in the busy morning. The limestone bridges, the shy balcony railings, and the leafy ditch all felt like photographs made flesh. Life here was a photo-shopped miracle.

But I’m used to this, Alex thought. Back home, in Malta, he knew beauty, he knew history. Hell, it was all he knew. He was all too familiar with the joy of the sun reflecting off the back of a 15th century limestone palazzo and the eruption of freshness one feels when diving into the Mediterranean. His life was a procession of these little joys. He wanted a taste of something else now. He was overdue.

The people who visit the Palace of the Forgotten – they expect the Inquisition.

Opened in 2014 the museum paid homage to an unspoken, forgotten minority in the history of Granada: the Jews. The Jews that were forced to convert to Christianity upon the end of the Reconquista. The Jews who were viewed with suspicion whether they converted or not. The conversos who were the Inquisition’s favorite prey. A part of the museum was dedicated to the torture methods utilized by the Inquisition.

The museum was quiet. It was a beautiful day, most tourists would be taking selfies in the court of lions in the Alhambra, sitting by the cool shade of the mesmerizing fountains. Others would be eating paellas in the Albaicin. But the museum was hidden in a narrow alley, obscured from the bustle of modern life. It too was forgotten.

Alex liked it quiet. He wanted the place all to himself. All those tourists, he thought, all those people – they know what pain is. Pain is tattooed onto their skin like a biography written in blood. Even on the plane ride over Alex met a couple who were travelling to Granada after having been in a car crash a few months earlier.

As they talked to him, they skimmed over the details of the crash. Their memories had buried the sensation of pain the way the winter erases the memory of the summer heat. What they wanted to talk about was recovery and resilience. But what, Alex thought, what did they feel as they felt the boom of the crash? What must it feel like to have your leg broken and to see your girlfriend bleeding in front of you as you lay helpless in front of her?

Swedish tourists, Germans, Italians, Americans, Japanese – he had seen tourists of every race and ethnicity in Granada. But their nationality didn’t matter. What united them was pain. They had all felt the tentacles of pain constrict them at some point in their lives. It made them human the same way love did.

But not me, Alex thought.

I’ve never felt pain in my life. I can feel it, of course. I’m not one of those unlucky few who are biologically immunized to pain. I can feel it. I’ve felt twinges when I’ve had teeth taken out. I’ve felt the sting of an injection and the leather of a football being slamming into my stomach. But that’s not enough to make me human. I feel like an outsider. And I always will be so long as I’m a pain virgin.

The rooms dedicated to the torture weapons of the Inquisition were dank, dark and irresistible to Alex. It was a testament to the intimate relationship between humanity and pain.

judas cradle

The Judas Cradle: a wooden pyramid which tapered to a sharp peak. The victim, with arms and feet tied, would be lowered onto the sharp edge of the pyramid until it was inserted into the anus or the vagina. The limbs were tied so the pressure couldn’t be alleviated by other parts of the body. Simply trying to move his feet the victim would only make things worse for himself. 

If a quick death was required weights would be added onto the victim’s legs. However, the idea of any good torture was to inflict as much pain as possible without the mercy of death. Oil was sometimes applied to the pyramid’s edge to make insertion easier and more painful.

Alex stood in front of the Judas Cradle in silence, like a worshipper praying in front of an altar, the smell of incense lubricating his spirituality.

He tried as hard as he could to imagine the pain for himself. For a brief instant his anus twinged uncomfortably – but that was far from pain. No, the people who were tortured on that device were alien to him. He was down there and they were up here. And although he didn’t envy them, he felt inferior to them. As if they had access to a side of humanity that had so far been restricted to him.

He felt like a disabled person, somehow incomplete.

Another device used by the Inquisition looked far less sinister but was potentially even more brutal. The irreverently named Spanish Donkey was a simple device where victims would be placed on spikes, their legs spread apart, weights added until the pressure could potentially split a person in two.

Women had to go through this torture too, Alex thought. The thought of women victims with their legs spread on this machine made Alex feel quietly aroused.

He went outside. The Alhambra towered above the museum and the gallows. It was like a Moorish Mt. Olympus. It was hot and lonely on the museum’s terrace. Sparrows rustled in the trees of the Albaicin and pigeons flew blackly through the arid air.

Near the ledge of the terrace, Alex looked down. No, you coward, it’s not high enough.

When he went back inside the instruments of torture, big and small, seemed to take on a life of their own; the room swirled violently around him, the instruments seemed to be moving, no, he was moving, he caught glimpses of the rack, the torture chair, the executioner’s black hood, the skeleton broken on the wheel, until finally:

“Sir, sir are you alright?”

One of the museum attendants, a local woman with tanned skin and heavy eye-liner, put her hand on his shoulder. He nodded, sweating like the dying. He told her he was fine, he just needed some air. He walked outside and started making his way back to the hotel.

He felt suddenly tired and unwell. He didn’t like the idea of being sick on his own abroad. Being sick, hah, that’s not pain, that’s a pussy’s version of pain. He wanted to get better, so he walked back to the hotel, intent on drinking lots of water and having a medical siesta.

As he walked back the heat began to tire him. He derived no pleasure from the rays of sunlight biting at him like a thousand frenzied mosquitoes. He walked in the shade. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the window of a book shop and he saw himself pale.


When he entered the breezy courtyard of the hotel, surrounded by plants, fountains and colored tiles, he began to feel better. His room, whose shuttered windows overlooked the courtyard, was cool and dim. He put on the fan and threw himself onto his double bed.

The sheets felt fresh and he felt as though he had just dived into the sea. Before long, relieved, enjoying the sound of trickling water from the fountain in the courtyard, he fell instantly to sleep.

Like an ancient horde of Moorish riders, dreams came galloping into his fatigued mind. One after another. Strange, tangible images flickered like the light of a bonfire on a cave wall. A few seconds after they ended they would be forgotten. Onto the next. No matter how horrifying, their mark would be wiped clean like the pain of childbirth.

The pain of childbirth – thinking that thought on the purgatorial borders of sleep and non-sleep – led Alex to the most vivid dream of that brief, torturous siesta.

He was in a hospital room. Everywhere around him babies screamed like strange birds. Though he couldn’t see a single baby anywhere. Then a doctor came up and grabbed his shoulder and whispered in his ear: “sir, come with me, your wife’s in labour.”

Alex followed the doctor down endless, whirling corridors. The doctor began running but Alex couldn’t keep up no matter how fast he ran. Finally he came up to a room with two large doors. Inside he could see his wife on a bed, her legs spread, a team of doctors swarming around her like bees protecting a hive.

Alex could feel excitement welling up in his surreal bones. Even though his mind-within-a-mind kept telling him: she’s not due for another three months!

When the doctor came out of the room, took Alex by the elbow, and guided him into the room, he saw that his wife was perched on the Judas Cradle!

She was laid out in such a way that the minute the baby was born it would be impaled on the sharp edge of the pyramid.

“No! No, you have to stop the birth! You’re going to kill the baby, the baby!”

Alex woke up with a jolt like summer lightning. He didn’t hear himself but he also screamed out.

Even in the coolness of the room he was sweating hot tears. He got up and went for a shower. He checked the time on his mobile: he had been asleep for nearly three hours. But he didn’t feel refreshed in the slightest.

As he undressed he could feel his heart beating in his chest. It annoyed him. It felt as though it was beating so hard he could reach in and grab it. Could a man suffocate his own heart?

When he turned on the water of the shower, the cool spray raining over him, he started breathing normally. He didn’t bathe, he just stood there, eyes closed, fighting a laconic war against sweat – that hydra-like monster that grows two heads when you cut off the first. 

With his eyes closed snapshots of the dream wove themselves in his tired mind like a spider’s web. He shook his head as if he were a dog, trying to get the dream images out of his head. But even when he did he couldn’t stop thinking about his wife back home.

Alex had never thought about pain until his wife fell pregnant.

For Alex his wife was a symbol of tranquility. An oasis in a world which was a desert of suffering, war and violence. She was like him: a pain virgin. And now, the thought of the agony of childbirth began to change her.

“Men will never know what a mother goes through at birth. They can’t imagine what it’s like to pass a human being through you. And, hell, our sex, they’re meant for things to go inside them, aren’t they? It should be one-way traffic. But God damn it it isn’t.”

“But a father is just as important a parent as a mother. He has to be. A child needs both, doesn’t it? And fathers, we just don’t get enough credit.”

“You want credit? Let me kick you in the balls for a few hours with high heels, then you can get the credit.”

Why is she using pain to win an argument, Alex thought? It was as if the pain she would be going through made all arguments null and void. Deep down, he knew she was right. Maybe after birth both parents are on equal footing. But right now, with that child inside her, she’s already a mother but Alex is not yet a father. A man can’t be a father to a fetus, Alex thought, but a woman is a mother upon conception.

When Alex’s wife started being haunted by the inevitable pain – “coming soon to a pussy near you”, as she’d say – Alex began thinking about his own life.

The absence of pain in his life came to symbolize one thing: I’ve lived a damn sheltered life! I’ve never gotten into any fights, no drunken brawls, no sporting accidents, nothing out on boats or in cars. I’ve not felt any true pain because I haven’t truly lived.

And what happens, Alex thought of his true fear, when I need to face pain? Just as it’s inevitable for a mother to endure pain at childbirth so it is inevitable for us all to feel some kind of agony throughout our lives. Some people, Alex thought enviously, feel it early on and grow a thick skin. Me, I’m just a weak fuck!

Alex turned off the shower and went back into the room to get changed. He was in a hurry. He didn’t know where he was going, but he wanted to God-damn live!

Night on Granada falls softer than anywhere else in the world. The streets become bee-hives of soft, honey lighting. The white avenues feel like home wherever you go. Towering over you is the watchful figure of the colossal Alhambra. Tonight it wore a halo of moonlight.

moonlight granada

The narrow, breathy streets of the Albaicin were full of life. History here is a throbbing vein. And it felt good walking down those intimate, unchanging streets. Real good. Most people who come to Granada think the same thing: I want to live here. It has everything a human being needs for a pleasurable existence, from good food, to homeliness, to good climate and beauty.

Alex would also live in Granada – he felt that same Duende inside him too. But he wasn’t interested in the voice of Granada’s spirits. He was thinking only one thing: tonight I’m getting hurt. I don’t know how and where, but tonight I’m popping that bleeding cherry!

Granada for pain.

At first he went along with the flow. He found an honest restaurant on a beautiful cobbled plaza and ordered paella and Alhambra beer. The beer reminded him he still hadn’t been to the Alhambra yet. Alex shrugged his shoulders.

The restaurant, which was packed with happy locals, had a border of blue tiles all around, and small palm trees in its tight corners, didn’t look a likely arena for violence of any kind. There were happy families and large groups of friends enjoying a Granada summer night. Alex moved on.


He found himself in an Irish pub in a narrow alley, opposite a wall of breath-taking graffiti depicting three flamenco dancers. Irish pubs might be a better venue for a punch-up of some sort, Alex thought.

But the Irish pub was committing an unforgivable sin that night: it was karaoke night. Alex drank one Guinness just to be polite and ran away from that neon hell of unutterable chirpiness. As he opened the big wooden doors of the pub, a frog-like voice singing My Way escaped onto the streets of Granada.

Feeling dejected, like a sex tourist who couldn’t find a brothel or prostitute anywhere, Alex went to the Albaicin for a walk. He walked with his hands in his pockets, head down, so the Alhambra went unseen, as well as the pine trees crowning the hill that surrounds it.

When he found himself once again near the Palace of the Forgotten, beside a narrow bridge that hovered over a wooded ditch, he overheard a strange language being spoken. He looked up and he saw a group of four black men chatting on the other side of the bridge.

A wave of excitement suddenly stampeded through him. All at the same time he felt aroused and gassy. He knew what he had to do. Tonight’s the night.

Voices of night sounded in the distance. Alex felt like a panther stalking the poetic shadows. He leaned on the edge of the bridge, his stare fixed on the group of Africans. He could feel his heart beating in his neck.

Somewhere in this still night children were playing in a calm fountain.

Somewhere afar the sea was smiling with teeth of salt and lips of foam.

Somewhere, gentle tears fell from balconies just touched by death.

“What are you looking at?”

Alex quickly growled when he caught one of the black men looking over at him. The man simply flashed a bright smile and shook his head, ignoring Alex. “The fuck are you laughing at you son-of-a-bitch?”

The men started crossing the bridge towards Alex. Just then a gentle rain began to fall. Alex quickly glanced up and saw the night sky suddenly covered in purple clouds. The moonlight peering through the clouds over the Alhambra made Alex feel at peace. He felt he was doing the right thing.

Of course Alex isn’t a racist! He was from Malta, he knew what those men must have gone through to come to Europe. They, hell, they knew more about pain than anyone else. Perhaps they knew as much about pain as the conversos haunted by the Inquisition. Whatever, it’s not a competition. But if it were, Alex would be an automatic loser.

“You want to tell us what your problem is?” One of the black men, a tall, handsome man with a shaved head and a sleeveless top, spoke in clear Spanish.

Alex noticed the other men surrounding him. He had no path to escape. Bring it on!

“Maybe you’re my problem. Maybe you guys should fuck off back where you came from!”

* * *

Granada for pain.

The rain kissed the man’s blood. Like wine spilled from a broken bottle, the man’s lips bled onto the cobblestone. In the distance he could see the faint lights of the plaza. Smiling, he moved his tongue to a rocking tooth.

Then came the kick that rendered all landscape into a dream-less sleep.

The last thought that passed through the man’s head as he slipped headlong into unconsciousness was: so this is what it’s like!

Rollei Digital Camera

Justin Fenech is an author from the Mediterranean Island of Malta who writes novels and short stories. He’s had short stories published in several reviews such as Across the Margin, Cecile’s Writers, Eastlit, the Gambler and others. In 2010 he was also a finalist in the IEMed Sea of Words competition. He works as an educator in Malta and also runs writing workshops for children and teenagers. He is a travel writer and an all round graphomaniac and Epicurean.

Justin can be reached at:

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