“What’s wrong with her?”
“We don’t know.”
Dr. Alejandro Benetti shook his head in frustration. Every time an economic opportunity convinced him to leave the capital, it was the same story. Small-town nurses were always extremely willing and helpful, but their training left a lot to be desired. The further one got from Buenos Aires, the worse it became, and when one reached small resort towns in Patagonia, it was necessary to keep a close eye on the staff, for the patients’ sake.
“Is she showing any symptoms?”
“No, the people at the home brought her in because they say she wasn’t looking well. I looked her over, and she seems to be healthy – but very, very old.” Carlos Ramírez was one of the better nurses the doctor had encountered, but perhaps it was just his turn to show the gaps in his preparation.
“Did you ask her what was wrong?”
“Of course, but… She doesn’t speak any Spanish.”
“A foreigner?” It wouldn’t have surprised Alejandro at all. During the winter months, Esquel filled up with Brazilians and Europeans, though why an old lady would come to ski or practice extreme sports was beyond him.
“No. She was born ten kilometers away. She’s Tehuelche.”
He shrugged. “The natives that used to live here. They’re all gone now.”
“Let me see her.”
The old woman was just as advertised. Her dark face was lined with chasms and crevasses which deepened as she smiled. There seemed to be nothing outwardly amiss, yet the director of the nursing home had been adamant that there was something wrong with her.
Alejandro’s examination brought no obvious problems to light, and his questions, asked out of habit, received incomprehensible replies or sad smiles. Out in the corridor again, he cornered Carlos and the director of the nursing home. “Is there anyone who speaks Tehuelche?”
The director, a fiftyish woman with platinum hair, replied. “No. We’ve never needed it before, since she was speaking Spanish perfectly until yesterday. We don’t even know if what she’s speaking is actually even Tehuelche or just gibberish.”
Well, at least now Alejandro knew what had been disturbing the director so badly. When one of your patients suddenly forgets how to communicate with you, you look for an expert opinion.
“Well, does she have any family? Someone who might know how to talk to her?”
“She has one adult granddaughter who lives in Buenos Aires. We’ve gotten in touch with her and she’s flying in tomorrow.” The director hesitated. “We’d prefer it if she stayed in the clinic tonight.”
Alejandro sighed. The nursing home was covering its bases — if the old woman died, they’d have nothing to do with it. Worse, there was no point in arguing, because the director probably knew someone on the city council who had a cousin on the hospital’s board…
He just hoped the granddaughter could be of some use.
Designer clothes? Blue eyes? “You don’t look much like your grandmother.”
Jimena smiled. “A Welsh grandfather and an Italian mother will do that to you.”
“Have they told you the situation?”
She nodded. “I don’t think I can help much, but I want to be there for her.”
“Do you speak Tehuelche?”
Jimena laughed, a tinkling, pleasant sound that cut through her concern and brightened her features. “You don’t know much about the Tehuelche people, do you?”
“Well, I know what kills them, and how to keep that from happening. Everyone is pretty much the same on the inside, you know.”
Her face spoke her disbelief, and she went on. “Tehuelche is a dying language. A few years ago, there were four native speakers, all very old. I haven’t seen any new statistics lately, but it might be safe to assume that my grandmother is the last one alive. She’s ninety-three, you know.”
“I didn’t know. The home said she was in her late eighties.”
“Can I see her?”
“She’s right there,” Alejandro said, pointing towards the door to the only private room in the clinic. They hadn’t wanted to put her in a ward, and there were hardly any other patients in residence. “She didn’t touch her breakfast this morning.” And she looks a lot worse than she did yesterday, he didn’t say.
The woman nodded silently, the veil of concern down again. Impulsively, Alejandro followed her into the room and stood silently just inside the door as the woman spoke softly to the wrinkled woman on the bed. Jimena’s words were in Spanish, but the replies were impossible to understand.
No recognition shone in the grandmother’s eyes, and the smile was the same as the one she’d given the doctor. There was little time left to her, and nothing outwardly wrong that he could detect. Perhaps the bloodwork would show something, but it would be two days before that came back from Bariloche.
Then it hit him. The scratchy sounds the woman was making might represent the last time the Tehuelche language was spoken on the face of the Earth. How long had it lasted? A thousand years? Two thousand?
He wanted to take Jimena by the shoulders, shake her and tell her to appreciate the importance of the moment, to drink in every sound, to keep the woman talking as long as she could. But that would be inhuman: Jimena was losing her grandmother.
But what the world was losing was priceless. He was inured to death and illness, but had never been present at anything of this magnitude.
So Dr. Alejandro Benetti stood just inside the door in a tiny clinic, a thousand miles from Buenos Aires, and listened harder than he’d ever listened to anything in his life.
Gustavo Bondoni writes way too many stories, but he enjoys it, so that’s OK. His work wanders all over the genres, and occasionally into mainstream. Some of it even gets published.