Imaginary Numbers

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The Hospital

Outside Beloeuie, Normandy.


“Bonjour, Madam.”

“Bonjour, Monsieur.”

“I have come to see the girl who fell from the sky.”

Oui?” The nurse at the front desk looked astonished. “Are you family?”

“No, I am a professor from the University of Geneva. I would simply like to ask her a few questions.”

Bon. Third floor in the central hall. But, monsieur, visiting hours finish in twenty minutes.” With that she waved the professor past the front lobby of the ancient romanesque building towards the stone staircase. The interior was dark, with tiny cross-shaped window casting yellow Xs onto the floor. The grand barrel vault of the lobby gave way to a dense brick hallway of the third floor. Gurneys lined the narrow space, and ill-matched fluorescent lights lent the old walls an artificial look—washed out in sparse whiteness that seems simultaneously too bright, and not bright enough. Spidery shadows hid under the metal structures of the gurneys.

The hospital was run by a nunnery, and tokens of their religious beliefs could be seen everywhere.

A small sign pointed the way to the central hall.

The ceiling was made of enormous planks of dark wood. Its flatness contrasted with the semi-circular vaults present everywhere else in the building. It was dark, illuminated mostly by old fashioned incandescent bulbs containing glowing orange squiggles like luminous scrawls drawn by a bored hand.

All the patients slept together in the large room. There were perhaps thirty of them, each cordoned off by a plastic curtain. The room was filled with troubled breathing, beeping machines, and a chorus of quiet whispers.

Next to the entrance, sat an old nurse. There was a book in her lap, but she was not reading it. When Dr. William Borgiac entered, she looked up, blinked her eyes a few times, and adjusted her dirty glasses.

Monsieur?”

Pardonnez-moi. I am looking for the girl who was found in Beloeuie. The one who fell from the sky.”

“Ah. Fantastique. Are you her father?”

“No, madam. I am Professor Charles William Borgiac from the University of Geneva. I thought that perhaps I could talk to her. Is she awake?”

The nurse nodded, blinked slowly, then stood up. She gestured with her head for the professor to follow her. Suddenly, he became aware of the klacking of his expensive shoes on the wooden floor. They stopped in the middle of the room, where the curtain had been drawn open, exposing a dark haired woman, in her late twenties, lying suspended in a plaster husk.

The nurse turned to the visitor and said in a low voice, “La fille, she doesn’t understand French.” Then she turned to the woman, who regarded them both blankly, and continued in French anyway, “Mademoiselle, cet homme est venu pour poser quelque questions. Il est un professeur.

She stared blankly with deep black eyes.

When the nurse left, Prof. Borgiac moved closer to her.

“Hello. Do you speak English?”

She nodded.

“My name is Dr. William Borgiac. What may I call you?”

She averted his gaze, and frowned, before slowly answering in a delightfully crisp voice. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I can’t remember.” The professor looked at the nurse by the door, but she seemed engrossed in her book.

“Do you mean to say that you can’t remember anything?”

“I remember falling.”

“How did you come to fall?”

“I don’t know.” She closed her eyes, breathed in deeply, then asked in a tone the wavers on the edge of desperation, “Please, may I have some water?”

“Certainly. I will return shortly.” Then the professor walked with his loud footfalls echoing off the thick stone walls to the old nurse, who looked up from her book with a fake smile.

“Madam,” he said, “this woman, she has no name?”

“Not that we know of. She was found naked. No ID.”

“What are the nature of her injuries?”

“Both legs are broken. Fractured pelvis, punctured lung. Dislocated shoulder, compound fracture of her left radius. We suspect she also suffered a concussion, and trauma to the brain.” The professor raised his eyebrows.

“Who found her?”

“Apparently, she crawled out of the marsh to a hiking trail, where a couple called the ambulance.”

“She crawled? With all those injuries?”

“That what they say.”

“And no one can identify her?”

“No, monsieur. She is not a French citizen, that much we know.”

“Did you take her fingerprints?”

“Yes, but they are not on record.” The nurse smiled, exposing purple gums. “To be honest, that is a good thing. It means she is not a criminal. Usually, it is criminals that fake amnesia. I’m afraid, this might be the real thing.”

He nodded and sighed deeply.

“Might I have some water to give her?”

Bien sur. C’est juste là-bas.” She pointed to a tiny ceramic sink on the other side of the doorway. “The cups are in the cupboard above.”

Merci.”

When he returned with the cup, the unidentified girl swallowed it all at once, and held it out for him to take.

“Would you like more?” he asked.

“Please. I am so thirsty.”

He returned with two more glasses, which went down just as fast as the first.

“Miss, I am sorry I was rude before. I never inquired about your wellbeing.” He smiled and put his hands into his suit pockets. “How are you feeling?”

“It’s so dark in here. I want to see the sun.”

“Well, I will try my best to have them move you, but it might be difficult.”

“Thank you.”

The professor paused before speaking. “It is strange that I cannot call you by name.” She looked him directly in the eyes in a gaze that attempted to transmits her soul. It’s as if she wanted to give him as much of herself as she could—the raw her without a name, without an identity to sum her up.

“Listen,” he said, “I would really like to help you. So if there is anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask and I will try my best to see it happen. Starting with getting you moved into a brighter room.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Call me William.”

“Your English is very good.”

“So is yours!”

“Well, it feels natural. I think it’s my native language.”

The professor frowned, and smoothed his hair back. “I’m not so sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“I do detect a hint of an accent. It is nebulous, yet it is there nonetheless.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Do any other languages want to come out when you speak?”

She shook her head.

“Very well. One day at a time. I will leave my card with the nurse. Please ask her to call me if you need anything. I will be staying in town until we figure out who you are and where you came from.”

She smiled. “That would be nice.” The professor nodded and returned the smile.

“Would you like some more water before I go?”

“Yes! Thank you so much.”

* * *

The Director of L’Hôpital des Invalides was a terse woman in her fifties, wearing the habit of the order. She frowned as Dr. Borgiac spoke.

“But madam, if you can’t move her, then can I take her for a walk at least?”

“I’m sorry. She still needs too much equipment. It is impossible.” A tiny beam of morning sun divided the room in half, falling through the arrow slit posing as a window.

“Are there no other rooms?”

“Monsieur, we use all our available resources. The hospital is not rich.”

“What if I made a donation?”

La Directrice bit her lip, regarded the man in the expensive three-piece suit, and considered the proposition.

“The building is old. We only have windows in the pre-natal unit. It is small, but there might be empty beds. Of course, we would deeply appreciate a substantive donation.” Then she stood up from behind her cluttered desk and extended her hand.

They shook, and the professor pulled out a cheque book from his inside jacket pocket, and wrote out a generous sum.

Merci beaucoup, monsieur. I will see that she is moved immediately. If you would like to wait, I will send an orderly to get you once she is upstairs.”

Standing there in the lobby, Dr. Borgiac considered the possible reasons a naked woman could fall from heaven. He wondered if he could get logs of flight paths crossing the area. He pulled out a small notebook and added an item to his list: “Call Aviation Authority.”

The lobby of the old abbey was a beehive of activity, with nurses, and nuns coming and going, doctors standing around discussing schedules, and a few patients in gowns ambling about. Dr. Borgiac, however, stood alone with his thoughts.

A tired-looking orderly approached him and told him to follow. He led the professor up the stairs to the top floor. It was a narrow arcade, in ancient times open to the elements, now windowed in and filled with jovial pregnant women and their husbands.

In the sixth bed, juxtaposed against the jubilation of the first five woman, was the unknown girl, suspended with wires and plaster. The bright light of the sun illuminated the entire gallery, competing with the glow of the pregnant women. Only the seventh bed was void of joy. The woman, hands on her belly, eyes closed, looked lonely and blue. She was listening to her broken bedmate, and smiled briefly as the amnesiac said something to her, trying to cheer her up.

Bonjour, mademoiselle.” The girl looked over and recognized the professor.

“Oh! Hello.” The professor looked pleased. “You look good.”

“Sir, thank you so much! I really like the new room. I can’t thank you enough.”

“It’s my pleasure.” The professor looked over at the woman in the seventh bed. “I see you have made a friend already.”

“Yes! This is Christine.”

Bonjour, madam.”

Bonjour.”

“So, how do feel today?”

“I feel so much better. The sunlight!” she said, and brushed a strand of jet black hair off her forehead with her good arm. She smiled.

“I’m pleased to hear that.” The professor pulled a stool from the aisle, and sat down next to the girl. “I was hoping we could start the journey today. I want to help you figure out who you are.” He opened his briefcase with a simultaneous clicking of locks and retrieved a liter of water. “I brought you this,” he said and handed it to her. Then he stood up, took it back, and opened the cap for her.

“Thank you.”

“So I would like to start by asking you a few questions, starting from what you are able to remember.”

“Okay.”

“So, I have talked to the staff and they told me that a couple of hikers found you.”

“Yes. They called the ambulance.”

“Could you describe what happened?”

“Well, to be honest, I only remember the fall. I remember waking up—”

“What is the first thing you remember?”

“I remember a clap of thunder. A loud sound. Then I was falling.”

“What did you see?”

“I saw the curvature of the Earth. It was very high. I saw clouds and the ocean.”

“That sounds quite high.” The professor pulled out his notebook and flipped a few pages. Then he started making notes. “Do you remember seeing a plane?”

“No. There was no plane. I flipped backwards to look for it, but saw only the emptiness of space. There was nothing.”

“Does it bother you that I’m asking these questions?”

“Not at all. I just wish I could be of more help.”

“Do you remember anything after you landed?”

“I remember the crash. It was hot. I felt my skin burning.”

“And yet you have no burns.”

“I know.”

“The nurse said that you crawled out of the marsh.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“You know, everyone heard the crash. People nearby thought it was a meteorite.”

“I thought I was going to die.” She looked into the distance. “While I fell, I considered having a non-life. You know, living without having a past, without having a family.” She looked over to Christine, who was still rubbing her belly with her eyes closed. “I want to find out who I am, sir. I’m sorry I can’t give you the answers you need, but I appreciate you helping me.”

“I see,” said the professor. “I believe we have come to a dead end in this part of the investigation. Perhaps there are other methods available to us.”

“Like what?”

“Like hypnosis.” Her eyes widened, brows raised in neat little arcs.

“Do you really think that will work?”

“Well,” he said, catching her deep black eyes, and feeling slightly embarrassed, as if he walked in on her changing. “It will be our last reserve. I’d rather you tell me your story yourself.”

* * *

The pre-natal unit was where the unnamed girl felt the happiest. Everyone was always friendly and the sunshine had a direct healing effect on her.

The professor’s echoing footfalls klick-klacking through the building alerted the girl to his presence before he arrived at her bedside.

“Good morning,” he said and pulled up a stool. He laid a hand on her good arm, looked her in the eye and asked, “How do you feel today?”

“Much better!” She beamed at him from her cot. “How are you?”

“Good.” As has become his custom, he handed her a liter of water. “Here. I shall pour it into a cup this time, so that you can drink slowly while we talk.”

“Thank you.” She was staring at her toes—tiny little piglets protruding from the end of the casts. “Look! I can move them.” The toes wiggled enthusiastically, and Dr. Borgiac couldn’t help but laugh. The image of the wiggling toes was childlike to him, and the mysterious girl contained within her a jubilant spirit he rarely had the opportunity to encounter in his everyday life.

“I’m glad to see it. You look very happy for someone with serious injuries.”

“I guess I heal fast,” she said, and took a sip from the plastic cup the professor gave her. “I wonder if you can ask the doctor to take another look at my legs. They feel much better, and…” She hesitated as a sheepish look crosses her face. “And, my knees are itchy.”

“I shall ask him the moment I see him.” She downed the rest of the water, and handed him the cup, which he filled up again. “You are always quite thirsty.”

“Yes.” She drank again.

“I find it curious,” the professor said, “since the nurse has told me today that you are barely eating.”

“I’m sorry, I will try harder. It’s just I have no appetite, that’s all.”

“I see. Well, I imagine that perhaps the hospital food is not of acceptable quality, so I have also brought you a soup and some croissants from the village.” He adjusted the folding table, and helped her raise the bed to an upright position. Then he placed the food in front of her.

“Will you be able to manage?”

“I think so.” He found himself attempting to glean any possible information from her. He examined her closely, scientifically: her demeanor was vivacious, friendly, and innocent; her features were nebulous; she was neither familiar nor exotic. She was clearly not French, not northern European. Her hair was straight and black, her eyes almond-shaped, and delicate, a mixture of of elements neither Asian, nor Middle-eastern, nor African. Her skin was olive brown. Is she muslim, he though. Her accent sounds Lebanese, or Cypriot, yet so slight that she might be a second generation child who grew up in America. All these facts his mind catalogued, yet they were insufficient to lead him to any conclusions except for one glaringly obvious one: she was astonishingly beautiful.

“I was wondering if you have any thoughts about family?”

“Well, I think about it all the time. I wonder what my parents are like. I wonder if they are looking for me.”

“I’m sure they are,” he said and ran his hand over his hair. “I’m certain that a bright woman like you would have many interested people looking for you.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, I do. In fact, your story has been in the news recently. You family will see it and come forth.”

“But how will I know if it’s really them?”

“A valid concern.” He scrunched up his mouth. “When you close your eyes, can you picture your mother or father? Or anyone in particular?” She closed her eyes, resting the spoon in her hand on the folding table, next to the aromatic soup. After a few seconds, she opened her eyes and frowned, peaking her thin eyebrows into a lambda shape.

“I picture many people, but they are strangers. They are fiction.”

“What do you mean fiction?”

“Well, I believe that I’m crafting them. Making them up because I want to believe that I have a family. Perhaps, I am picturing my ideal family.”

“Are the images consistent?”

“No.” She tasted the soup for the first time. “It’s not bad. I can eat this!” They both smiled.

“Maybe,” she said between spoonfuls of soup, “you can tell me about your family and it will help me remember.” He considered this.

“Very well.”

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