Nobody knew where the guy came from. The triage nurse at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center’s emergency room had simply looked up from the computer to see a dark-skinned young man on a gurney, his white robe soaked with blood pouring from the gash across his throat, and called for help. Whatever had caused his injury had nearly taken his head off, so getting the bleeding stopped and the wound closed had been a major race against time, and his heart had stopped once or twice before the doctors could stabilize him. But stabilized him they had, and slowly his condition had improved from critical to serious to fair. Everyone said it was a miracle.
He’d been kept in a medical coma for the better part of two weeks. Not only did he need the rest to recover from the blood loss, but he also needed to remain on a vent until his trachea healed, and the doctors didn’t want him to fight it. But they couldn’t be sure now what state he’d be in when he finally woke. His vocal cords had been severed, so he almost certainly would never speak again–perhaps a whisper at best. Brain damage might be a possibility; the injury hadn’t reached his spinal cord that they could tell, but there was no telling what complications lack of oxygen might have wrought. And of course, there was still the risk of his recovery being held up by infection or other complications.
When the time finally came to reduce the medications and let him wake on his own, he woke slowly and blinked sluggishly, frowning in confusion at the room, the doctor, the nurses, and himself. Gingerly he felt of his neck, registering the still-healing wound and startling a little at the open brace and the stitches he could feel under the bandage, and then felt of the oxygen cannula under his nose and the IVs in his arm.
"Sir?" the doctor prompted.
The patient looked up at her.
"I’m Dr. Ramirez. Do you know where you are?"
He blinked at her.
"Do you speak English?"
He blinked faster, not comprehending at all.
"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" When he didn’t respond, she ventured, "?Habla usted espanol?"
He started looking a little worried.
"Hal tatakallam al-lughah al-‘arabiyah?" she tried. "Aya ta pa pakhto khabarey kawalai shey? Kya ap Urdu bolte hain? Turkce biliyor musunuz?"
He shook his head slowly, wincing as the motion pulled at his wound slightly despite the immobilizing brace.
She sighed, thought for a moment, then pointed to the emergency star on her name badge, hoping either the whole symbol or the Rod of Asclepius would be something he’d recognize.
He frowned a little, though more comprehendingly. Medica? he mouthed.
She nodded. "Si, yo soy medica."
He relaxed, then looked around again without moving his head.
"Just rest for now, okay?" When he looked back at her, she made the sign for sleep and repeated, "Rest… dormir."
He nodded slightly at the Latin-sounding Spanish and closed his eyes.
"He doesn’t really look Middle Eastern to me," one of the nurses said as the medical team withdrew from the room. "Maybe he’s from North Africa somewhere."
Dr. Ramirez sighed. "Maybe. Hate to have to keep guessing at languages until we can find some way to communicate. Guess we’ll see if he can write once he’s recovered a little more."
When he had, however–the day the stitches came out and the brace came off–it took several tries and a Google app to find a way to ask him to write his name on the notepad Dr. Ramirez gave him. Once he understood what she wanted, he did write something down…but it was only one word and looked kind of like MAPKOC, only a little swoopier than usual English handwriting, kind of archaic-looking.
"Marcos?" hazarded a nurse who knew Russian.
The patient looked hopeful and nodded a little, still mindful of his wound.
"Vam govoryat po-russkyi?"
Marcos’ face fell, and he shook his head a little.
Dr. Ramirez decided to try Latin, since he seemed to understand that somewhat, to ask where he was from. "Unde est?"
NEYTKHME was what his response looked like, sort of.
The Russian-speaking nurse sighed. "That’s not Cyrillic. I’ve got nothing."
Dr. Ramirez rubbed the back of her neck, frizz escaping from her braid to match her frazzled mood. "Well, we’ve got to get past this language barrier somehow. He needs to know what’s going on–not that we can just stop treating him, but he needs the information. And we need to find out what happened to him, try to help him get home."
"Maybe some basic Sign Language would help. Especially if he’s permanently mute, he’ll need to have some way to communicate once he leaves here."
Dr. Ramirez nodded thoughtfully, erased John Doe from the chart, and replaced it with Marcos NMI NLN. Then, after finishing her examination, she started collecting advice–from Speech Pathology, from Occupational Therapy, from the chaplain. Everyone agreed that ASL might be the easiest way to go, at least for the moment.
So the next day, armed with what little knowledge the medical team had been able to glean, the ASL instructor walked into Marcos’ room. "Hello, Marcos," she said, signing Hello.
Bemused, he repeated the sign.
"My name is Julia," she said and signed.
That set off a light bulb. My name, he signed back and mouthed, Marcos. Then he pointed to his neck with a look of concern and mouthed something she couldn’t make out.
She held up her hands and then signed, Stop. Voice cut.
He frowned.
"We need to go slowly," she said and signed. "But I’m here to help you talk with your hands."
He seemed to catch enough to get the gist and repeated, Help talk?
He smiled and mouthed what was probably his thanks.
Since he could hear, she started teaching him the finger-spelling alphabet by sounding out each letter as she signed it. He wrote down his alphabet for her so that she could see that some of the shapes were familiar. But there were more letters in it than in the Latin alphabet, some Greek-looking and some just odd, and of course he couldn’t pronounce anything for her to be able to place the ones that looked strange. Then they moved on to basic vocabulary that he’d need in the hospital–yes, no, please, thank you, good, bad, hurt, sick, need help. His Latin vocabulary wasn’t much better than hers, but between that intermediate and a picture dictionary borrowed from one of the schools up the road at Ramstein Air Base, she eventually taught him enough to be able to understand Dr. Ramirez’s explanation of his diagnosis, explanations of tests and treatments, and reports on his progress. He also learned enough occupation and number words to reveal that he was a soldier and that he was about twenty-two years old.
Telephones, televisions, and computers took a lot more explaining. Julia wasn’t sure she’d succeeded, since Marcos remained deeply skeptical of all three. Instead, he preferred to spend his time whittling and carving, which his therapists allowed only because it kept his mind and hands busy, and he usually asked the chaplain to give his little trinkets to his fellow patients.
But no matter whether Marcos finger-spelled or wrote, his answers to most questions about himself still made no sense. He didn’t know what year it was, and though he kept getting signs for numbers above five muddled, he seemed to expect the answer to be relatively small–in fact, his first answer was 4 Diokletiana. When prompted to give the year in AD, he was startled but thought hard for a moment and tried finger-spelling his answer as a Roman numeral. But CCLXXXVII was so far off from 2014 that no one could figure out what conversion he’d used, and he met MMDIV with open disbelief. As for his hometown, he settled on the finger-spelling Niwt, Kemi, which one of the Arabic interpreters thought might mean Thebes, Egypt. But there were no missing persons reports from Thebes for anyone named Marcos or who answered to his description, nor did the Egyptian Army have any records that might shed light on the subject. Marcos didn’t understand Arabic at all, even in the Egyptian dialect, which was strange if he’d grown up in Thebes. And why he claimed his unit was Legio Prima Maximiana Cohors Tertia was beyond anyone.
The neurologists didn’t think he was suffering from aphasia or any other physical damage that would result in that kind of weird answer. The psychologists couldn’t communicate with him well enough to diagnose any kind of mental problem. One psychiatrist did suggest that he might have blocked his knowledge of Arabic if he’d been the victim of a beheading attempt at the hands of Islamist radicals. That was a plausible enough theory except for the oddly specific nature of the Latin Marcos knew–mostly not church Latin, but words like medicus, legio, and cohors that pointed to a possible military application. Nor did it explain why he’d never heard of the United States and called Germany Germania but had been able to point out where he thought he was on an unmarked map of Europe and been just about right.
The Catholic chaplain started to suggest something during a care team meeting but stopped and shook his head. "Nah. Couldn’t be."
Dr. Ramirez looked at him. "If you’ve got an idea, Father–"
The chaplain shook his head more emphatically. "No, no, it’s a crazy idea. Totally illogical. Forget it." And when he continued to refuse to share, the meeting moved on to other matters.
The mystery wasn’t any closer to getting solved when, at the end of October, Marcos came down with the flu, then bronchitis, then viral pneumonia, which brought the ASL lessons to a halt. He seemed to appreciate the chaplains and Soldiers’ Angels volunteers coming to visit him, but he hadn’t wanted anything to do with the Halloween festivities, and he was too sick to enjoy Thanksgiving much. By then, his throat had healed enough that he could safely eat and drink again, but while he found the strange American dishes tasty, he barely had the energy to finish half of what was on his plate.
As Marcos slowly recovered his strength over the course of December, Dr. Ramirez began tentatively planning for his release from the hospital. And Julia began worrying about what that would mean, since Marcos was still a long way from fluency in ASL and hadn’t yet tackled reading and writing in English, never mind German. Finally, she decided to talk it over with her husband, an Air Force captain stationed at Ramstein.
"He’s just a kid, Dan," she concluded. "A nice kid who’s on his own, a long way from home, in a country where he doesn’t speak the language or understand the customs or the technology. Couldn’t we adopt him just for Christmas?"
"It’s not like we’ve got a lot of space here, honey," Dan noted, spreading his arms to indicate their small apartment in Kaiserslautern. Given that he was 6’6" and the room was only ten feet wide, his arms covered most of the wall space that wasn’t behind the Christmas tree.
"But he doesn’t have anyplace else to go! And he’s been stuck in that hospital since September–that’s almost three months."
He sighed. "I’ll think about it."
She nodded. "Okay. But we don’t have a whole lot of time–I think they’re planning to release him on Christmas Eve."
They hashed out the pros and cons over the next several days, and finally Dan agreed to let Marcos stay through the holidays to give the administrators at Landstuhl more time to figure out where he should go next. Since the next day was Saturday and they were both off duty, Julia took Dan to meet Marcos.
Marcos looked surprised to see her and doubly surprised to see Dan. Your husband? he asked, knowing that she was married.
Both Julia and Dan nodded, and Dan said and signed, "My name is Dan."
Marcos’ eyebrows climbed even higher up his forehead. Daniel? he finger-spelled, then signed, Judge?
Dan started. "Yes. How’d you know that name?"
Marcos shrugged and looked around a little, like he didn’t want to answer–or didn’t know if it was safe.
Dan shook himself and said, "Look. You’re almost well enough to leave the hospital, and it’s almost Christmas, so we thought we’d invite you to stay with us for a few days."
Confused, Marcos looked at Julia, who interpreted, but his confusion didn’t lessen. Go where? he asked.
"With us," she said and signed. "To our house."
Here? In Germany?
"Yes, that’s right."
Marcos still looked uncertain, but he nodded. Okay.
Julia made sure to ask a couple more times before his release if he was sure he wanted to come stay with her and Dan, and he always shrugged and nodded. So Dr. Ramirez, satisfied enough to release him to outpatient care, drew up his discharge papers on Christmas Eve, and Soldiers’ Angels brought him some civilian clothes that he looked at oddly but put on without any hesitation or difficulty. And Julia escorted him out to her car.
Marcos looked around at the surroundings curiously as they walked–until they got to the car and he saw the fish decal on the bumper. Then he inhaled sharply, looked around warily, and started scrabbling at the decal, trying to pull it off.
"No, no, Marcos, stop!" Julia cried, hurrying to catch his hands and stop him before he hurt himself or scratched the paint.
Not see! he signed. Not safe!
"Yes, it is safe! And I do want people to see!"
He looked around again as if he expected to be attacked at any moment.
"Marcos. Look at me." When he did, she signed, Safe. Okay.
He raised one eyebrow. You okay die?
She swallowed hard. I not die. Safe.
He still looked skeptical but allowed her to steer him into the front passenger seat. And then he had bigger problems to be confused about, because evidently he’d never ridden in a car or listened to a radio before. She couldn’t help wondering what kind of rock he’d been living under all his life.
Dan had supper ready by the time Julia brought Marcos home, and they settled in together for a pleasant, if quiet, meal. After supper, though, Marcos seemed a little confused by Julia doing the dishes herself. She offered to let him dry while Dan put things away, and while that made the kitchen a bit crowded, it did make the work go faster. That done, Julia and Dan tried to decide whether to go to church for the Christmas Eve service, and Marcos drifted through the living room examining the decor, giving the tree a baleful look but pausing and lingering when he got to the nativity scene on the shelf above the TV.
"Maybe we should just stay home and read the Christmas story ourselves," Dan suggested. "Somehow I don’t think he’s a real Christmas-y kind of guy."
Julia shrugged. "Whatever you think, sweetie. We didn’t exactly get to much in the way of seasonal vocabulary, so I can’t really ask."
So Dan got out his Bible and called Marcos over to sit in the chair while he and Julia sat down on the couch. "Not sure if you’re familiar with this story," he said and she signed, "but we read it every year at this time."
Marcos tilted his head and settled back awkwardly to listen.
Dan cleared his throat and began to read. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."
Marcos stared.
"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…."
As Dan continued to read, Marcos looked at the nativity set and back at Dan several times, nodding slowly as if translating the words into his own language–or maybe remembering the same passage. By the time Dan reached the shepherds, Marcos was mouthing something to himself.
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying–"
And Marcos, looking at the nativity set, hoarsely whispered something that sounded like, "Ji veohow embnoudi khen nedjose. Aioh tirene khijem bkakh khen enrome embefowosh."
Startled, Dan looked up. "What did you say?"
Marcos looked back at him and replied haltingly, "Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis."
Dan’s mouth fell open.
Her heart hammering, Julia signed, You love Jesus? It was a gamble, since they hadn’t touched on religious signs, but she felt sure he’d understand what the sign meant, since it indicated the nail prints in Christ’s hands.
Marcos’ eyes looked suspiciously bright as he smiled a little, nodded, and repeated, Jesus. Then he pointed to the scar on his neck and signed, I die for Jesus. Now I live for Jesus.
There had to be an incredible story there, Julia knew, even if it might take time to get all of it and even if no one in his right mind would believe it without having met Marcos. The poor guy still had to get used to the way his life had changed, a lot to learn in order to navigate in a totally foreign world without his voice, and there was no telling what the future held for him once he was completely released from medical care. They probably needed to have a long talk with the Catholic chaplain at Landstuhl to see if his improbable theory was accurate after all. But right now, there was only one thing she could think to reply.
We live for Jesus, too, she signed.
And though a tear slid down Marcos’ cheek, he broke into the biggest, sunniest grin she’d ever seen.