We gathered in the streets that led to the hospital. Those who couldn’t make it, or lived far, watched the live coverage on television in cafés and bars. Gigantic screens had been erected in the vicinity of the hospital, but the reckless few who’d elbowed their way to the front had the best view of the modest southwest corner window on the fifth floor behind which was held, in critical condition, an old woman of eighty-something years.
She was the last illiterate person in the country, this crone who had refused to learn. We in the streets celebrated becoming, nearly becoming, the first fully literate nation. The news had broken early in the morning that an ambulance had rushed her to the hospital. She’d been admitted before. It wasn’t a scoop. But, after an hour or so, a team of renowned physicians confirmed the damage was fatal and she’d pass away before sunset. Foreign dignitaries were invited to monitor the proceedings, to congratulate our proud country for this record-breaking achievement.
But after some euphoric moments, the head of physicians, a respected brain surgeon, appeared on air and informed us that the patient’s brain had failed due to an internal infection and, to his and our chagrin, she’d slipped into a stable coma. He immediately added, reading our minds, that this state could last a day, a year, or longer.
Shock rippled through the spectators. How could Science fail us at this critical juncture? Then, a philosopher appeared on TV. Since the brain was the organ responsible for learning and knowledge, he argued, with the old woman’s brain dead, our country still qualified for the honor. The foreign dignitaries disagreed, claiming that while the respiratory and circulatory systems functioned, the patient was alive.
A letdown, no doubt. But we were busy people and were soon absorbed in our daily preoccupations. The comatose woman would have been forgotten had more news not come out of the hospital a week later. A patient had died during an operation led by the same brain surgeon. People die in surgery, of course. But this one was different. According to eyewitness accounts, in the middle of the operation, the surgeon’s gloved hands hung in the air shaking, his eyes fixed, awestruck as if it was the first time he had seen an exposed brain. A nurse reported that he looked like a random pedestrian hauled in from the street, thrown into an operating room and told to remove a tumor. The surgeon resigned. The scandal lived only for a few hours before it was overshadowed by another. In the neighboring building, a well-known law firm, the lawyers began speaking in gibberish. Those previously adept at saving their clients from jail, penalties, and alimony, were now aimlessly and haphazardly leafing through tombs of ugly lawbooks, not knowing what they should look for.
The rumor spread that a contagious virus was in the air, originating, of course, from the southwest corner of the fifth floor of the hospital. Some said it was the old woman’s curse, her revenge upon the whole nation for anticipating her death. Scientists disagreed. No evidence corroborated the story; no direct chain of cause-and-effect could be seen. And since no crime had been committed, no one could do anything about it. The outbreak—of the virus or the curse—rapidly affected greater numbers of the population. Many of us lost our jobs because we no longer retained the knowledge and skills needed to perform our duties. People started avoiding those with less schooling. Parents stayed away from their kids. Husbands from wives, and wives from husbands.
The antagonism against the comatose woman heightened. Not only had she prevented our country from becoming the first literate nation, she was dragging us down the dark well of ignorance. Threats accumulated. People wanted to have the IVs removed from her body. It sparked Human Rights’ involvement. Police carefully guarded the hospital, though they had to send new troops every few weeks as the curse or virus was indiscriminate in choosing its victims, in stripping them of their learned skills. The nurses rotated, making sure the old woman was breathing and had enough saline and nutritional fluids. They bathed her, changed her sheets and gown. They did so under compulsion, with reluctance.
Factories and offices began to shut down as they sent newly ignorant employees home. We relied on foreign aid for our basic needs. Language was our last bulwark. We wrote down instructions we were afraid to unlearn: what to eat and not to eat, how to keep warm, how to change a flat tire, how to brush our teeth.
We stumbled through our days until a few dignitaries from overseas were diagnosed with incipient symptoms of illiteracy. They were quarantined. As a result, foreign countries, one after another, stopped dispatching help. Then, neighboring countries closed borders. When some of us tried to flee across border, they began to raise walls towering over our small nation. In the chaotic absence of Human Rights, the nurses refused to take care of the old woman, and the police threatened to stop providing security for her. We no longer cared.
That would be a lie. We did care, secretly longing for them to carry out their plan. And when they did, leaving her undernourished, deep in shit and piss, we idled around the abandoned hospital. We cast sidelong glances, never direct, as if it could implicate us. We hoped her likely death would bring back our literacy.
It did not.
We became dyslexic and agraphic. We didn’t know how to read the words, how to spell them. It started with inchoate and truncate and grotesque and, over a few weeks, spread to brain and rain and love.
The savviest of us convened, the few handfuls who were still capable of reading and writing. It wasn’t hard to foresee that our days, the days of intellect at least, were numbered. We decided to document our experience for posterity. We sat at a round table and composed this very manuscript, the first draft being an amalgam of wrong words and misshapen sentences, full of holes. We kept passing it along, editing and editing, and with each round our stares grew more blank as we knew less and less, until we didn’t know what we didn’t know.