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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The day Gaëlle forgot language, I was arranging a bouquet of roses and eucalyptus at our house north of town. My husband Fred and I were supposed to have dinner when her nurse called and told me Gaëlle suffered a stroke. I walked out the door, forgot the flowers, and took off for the rest home where my former nanny was housed. Gaëlle stood by the window and the nurse told me she was tired, that she needed sleep. I asked Gaëlle if she would like a glass of milk before bed, as she always had.
I want she said. And then her mouth turned gummy, turned itself inside out as she fumbled for the word. I stepped closer and looked into her pupils. She was eighty-six. These are things that happen. The loss of speech, of memory, motor skills. I lay her down in her cot and propped her head up with two down pillows. I pulled her quilt to her waist, and then left to bring her a glass of whole milk from the cafeteria. Milche, she said. It was subtle and I did not notice.
But the next day, the nurse called again to tell me that it was not a stroke. She had simply become shy. I arrived on Tuesday and she spoke nothing but Deutch. The resident nurses said she had forgotten. Gaëlle stood at the window wearing only her gold ski metals, the red, white, and blue, ribbons flowing over her neck like Fourth of July frosting.
She has forgotten what? I asked.
Gaëlle rubbed her fingers over the solid metal—it was not even plated. She rounded her thumb over them as though making a wish, as though she was not quite certain of them.
She forgot other words: rag doll, asparagus, brooch, the purple ones. She replaced them with Stoffpuppe, Spargel, Nadel, die Violette.
I’m so glad you get a chance to visit, the nurse said. I think she’s lonely.
Despite her loss of English, Gaëlle seemed to be in perfect health. The next day, I told her that I had a surprise for her, and then I disappeared to tell the nurse that I would bring her back later that evening.
Gaëlle smiled at me and spoke in deep “o”s, hard vowels and late-alphabet consonants. My mouth did not upturn, my lips were straight, I shook my head.
I don’t speak German, I said.
Gaëlle nodded pleasantly, and then looked out the window.
She had been the first to introduce us to the mountains when we arrived in town, when our families had both transplanted to Idaho. And so it became my father’s mountains, and Gaëlle taught us how to ski black diamonds and slalom over molehill terrain. And although the mountains of Idaho were not the mountains of Switzerland, she said this was her home, this was her chosen range.
Let’s go home? I said to Gaëlle. Come home with me.
So I took her back to our house where Fred was cooking dinner. He was at work so often those days, he thought of our place as a vacation home, his work as his permanent residence.
It happened like this:
Fred removed the meatballs from the oven. He took the Weimar china out of the kitchen cabinet.
For a special occasion, he said. Welcome home.
He placed four meatballs on each plate, on a bed of lettuce, and drizzled them with apricot sauce.
Gaëlle watched out the window, watched the tiny people as they went down the mountain.
We sat down to eat. We talked to Gaëlle, but she did not respond, as we knew she wouldn’t. We asked: How is your new home? How is the food?
Gaëlle smiled and nodded to everything we said. The answer was always yes.
After dinner, she rose fragilely from the table and grabbed her plate.
Oh don’t worry about that, Gaëlle, Fred said. Tanner can take care of it.
Gaëlle walked to the sink, raised the plate high above her head and smashed it into the basin. The pottery shards flew everywhere. I screamed. Pieces nicked her neck, and when she turned around there were blood beads on her check, neck, throat, and shoulder, like expensive jewels.
Ich will nach Hause gehen, she said. Hause, ja?
House, Fred said. Yes.
There was nothing to say on the drive back, but we had a way of starring at the mountains.
Mountains, I said to her. The mountains, the mountains, the mountains. It was a refrain, a mantra, a way to teach a child.
I could feel my tongue slip through my teeth with every word until they caught in my jaw and I quit talking. The leftover sunlight still floated on the mountain. By the light of the moon, we saw the snowmakers chug snow onto the mountain, churn out fake snow like glitter, painting the mountainside. It was a bad year for snow, and outside of the resort, it showed. The rocks peered through the snow and dappled the hills like leprosy. I stopped to admire the destruction of last winter’s snowfall. It fell not from the sky, but from the top of the mountain.
Last year, I read that someone died in an avalanche tumble and was buried for days before he was fished from the winter by a search team—too late. I closed my eyes and pictured the giving-way, how it worked like forest fire, ripping timeworn trees up by the root and carrying them down the valley, roaring, ripping, downwards.
Katrin Tschirgi is currently an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University where she serves as managing editor of the Mid-American Review. A previous contributor of The Open Bar, her work has appeared or is forthcoming inalice blue review and Post Road. She is originally from Boise, Idaho.