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Estancia Aldea Norteña 24: Más Afilado Que Un Cuchillo

March 31, 2023 11:00AM
"Sharper than a knife," a description of unwise words which poet William Chapman said become embedded into souls (Goodreads).

Enrique had not joined her for an early breakfast on Sunday, waiting until nearly everyone else finished before sauntering in to make his oatmeal. But Monday he was once again up before her, sipping café and checking his phone. "I've got to listen to a message but help yourself," he said, waving about the room as he left. "When you're ready, just head to the door, I'll be outside."

So she ate alone, not sure if she'd done something to upset him. But after all, she remembered how often people said he kept a busy schedule. So she was likely worrying over nothing. It was very peaceful to spend breakfast all by herself in the cozy room. But she found she would rather enjoy company than solitude, and didn't dawdle over her cereal as she cleaned up. Catalina filled a thermos, grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl, and quickly went out to join Enrique. The car radio was turned up as they pulled out of the ranch, preventing conversation, and they drove without speaking through the little town. Only a few people were up and about.

"Retirees," Enrique said, smiling and waving at someone as he puttered by. "It drives Papá crazy how no one's ever in a hurry around here." The idea didn't seem to bother Enrique, even though Catalina was sure he was just as firm about his own schedule.

At the clinic he unlocked the door while Catalina brought the folders inside. The lobby was barely large enough for a few chairs and a magazine rack. No one was at the front desk, and they had to turn on all the lights themselves. The office Enrique showed her into was full of supplies haphazardly thrown around, with cartons and files stacked all over.

Sra. Mundo would have been very, very angry.

"Yes, let's never let her know how bad it is," Enrique agreed, chuckling. "Unfortunately, with clinicians only rotating, and no one full time, things have a tendency to get very messy around here. Señora Costas should be in later today, around ten, and will be very glad for your help."

"What about the patients?" Catalina asked in wonder, not sure how any work could get done in a place of such disorganization.

"None today, and really none until Wednesday actually, this clinic isn't open all the time. Sometimes it even stays dark all week. I'm afraid it's not been a high priority for anyone. But you'll be glad to see there is one place that is fully stocked and ready for use." He ushered her back into the hall and opened a door into a tight little room with a minifridge, sink, microwave, and enough packages of café and snacks to service an army. "So we will not starve or thirst to death!" Enrique said dramatically, then groaned as he saw the full trash can. "But we may have rats again if someone doesn't watch it, I told them to make sure the garbage was removed. Should have done it myself on Saturday."

He insisted on taking care of it. "Although, if you want to wipe everything down, it couldn't hurt, who knows what's growing on some of those surfaces," he said as he twisted the bag and heaved it out. "I'll be right back."

Catalina was used to cleaning, and quite familiar with what to do from having her mother repeat her instructions so many times. She found some rags and bleach in a closet; there were plenty of gloves among the medical supplies. Soon she had lathered up and was scrubbing everything down, humming to herself.

"Smells better, at least," Enrique said, hunting around under the sink until he found a near empty box of trash bags. "There's supposed to be a running list of things that might be needed, do you see one anywhere?"

"Oh no!" Catalina dropped her rag in the sink. "I'm so sorry, I thought it was trash, I'm sure I can find it." She would have begun hunting through the bag she'd started, which was already full of old sugar packets and crumbs, but Enrique stopped her.

"Don't worry about it, we can make another. What a mess, sorry, I was more caught up in paperwork than really inspecting this place over the weekend." He shook his head, then shrugged. "Well, maybe it's best you see it like it is: the satellite clinic is truly the poor relative of the chain."

He led her back into the office, where they worked to clear space at the computer as he explained things to her. "There's not enough people in town to support someone here all the time, or at least, not the people certain higher ups want as patients." Enrique clicked his tongue but didn't elaborate on how he felt about that decision. "It's a very rural population, outside the town here, which you can see are all old and wealthy. To truly serve the entire area, you'd need a team that could operate remotely, traveling to all the little homes scattered around. But that’s expensive and the profit balance hasn't allowed things to move in that direction. So we're stuck with it as is."

She nodded, taking it all in. "I suppose the paperwork getting behind hasn't helped matters?"

"No it hasn't. So it's good you're here, for us anyway. I'm afraid it's going to be very boring for you. The entire system only went to the new network five months ago and there's a huge backlog to enter. Señora Costas comes in part of every day to answer the phones, make appointments, and keep things halfway decent, but she's not up to speed on the latest technology. Types fine, just very slowly. Rather like the computer itself, actually." He gestured to still blinking boot menu on the screen. "So I'm afraid your mission is to get the office and Señora Costas into shape, while I try to see as many patients as possible."

"I'll do my best," Catalina said, feeling the importance of her work.

"I'm sure that will be fine. And look, the computer is finally awake, in record time! That's a good omen."

He got her started on a pile of forms to process. "But what about filing them afterward?" she asked, looking around for a cabinet. "And labeling them?"

"We'll have to wait until Señora Costas arrives, I'm afraid I know nothing of such ordinary things," he said loftily, settling in with the patient appointment book and the office phone. "Don't worry, you may find your usual speed is too fast for the turtle you're saddled with."

He was right: the computer was very slow, and tended to freeze at inopportune moments, so that Catalina had barely gotten through two files before Sra. Costas arrived. The older lady greeted Enrique with a hug and kisses, setting a plate of pastries down on the table. "I made these fresh this morning, so you must eat a few dear, you look far too thin!" she said, looking him over. "Now be a dear and introduce me to this nice girl."

"Señora Costas, please meet your new best friend, Señorita Catalina Moreno. She has been trained by the head office drill sergeant herself, so be prepared for no nonsense around here!"

"Oh, you, stop it," Sra. Costas said gaily, and kissed Catalina on the cheek with a smile. "What lovely hair you have! Oh, and you've already started the machine, is it working this morning? Sometimes it's a bit temperamental. Well, I'll just get the café started, and then we can get to work."

Sra. Costas proved to be very friendly, and knew all about the town, but was not so good at details related to the clinic itself. She was confused when Catalina asked about office supplies. "I keep mine right here in this drawer," she said, rolling it out to reveal a neat set of pens, paperclips, and a stapler. "I'm not sure what else is around, I don't touch the medical things." She also possessed a far different sense of when to begin and end the day than Catalina was used to either in Fortuna or Mar del Plata. She had barely arrived, made café, talked with Enrique about the appointment book (amid long tangents about her family, friends, and cats), when she looked at her watch and chirped. "Why, it's nearly time for lunch." She picked up her purse and looked expectantly at Catalina.

It turned out she expected them both to come to her house, which was only a few blocks away by foot. "I'll get the oven prepped, sit wherever you like. Only, Enrique, don't talk on the phone so much! Keep the dear girl company. And don't mind little Guevera, he's in a mood today, but I'm sure he'll settle down soon. Just don't sit in his spot by the window, he's quite sensitive about it."

The cat in question looked very fierce to Catalina, so she steered clear of it. Enrique had brought his laptop along; as soon as Sra. Costas stepped into the kitchen he began typing again. "She always invites someone new over to eat," he explained without looking up. "And she's a very good cook, so feel free to enjoy her company whenever you want."

It seemed to take forever before they were called to the table, and then the meal was very leisurely, almost like sitting with her grandparents back home. Just like them, Sra. Costas shook her head when Enrique excused himself to answer a call. "I hope he's not running himself ragged again. Here, would you like another bun?"

When they finally got back to the clinic, Catalina was in agony. Her first day, and everything was still a mess! She knew exactly what her mother would say if she saw her wasting so much time. The afternoon was more of the same, with Sra. Costas helping her tidy up, but mostly asking her questions about home. Enrique had left directly from the table to see whoever had called. Ever so often, in the middle of some task, Sra. Costas would answer the phone, and rather than simply take a message she would talk to the person for several minutes, as if she were chatting on her own line!

That evening, on the ride back to the ranch, Catalina fidgeted with her thermos and the saint's candle Sra. Costas insisted she take as a gift. The computer had frozen for almost an hour, she hadn't found any new folders to organize things, and the appointments that came in were so muddled, who knew how Enrique would figure out where to go?

"Are you ready to run back to Señora Mundo yet?" he asked conversationally, the hint of a smile on his face.

"No...." Catalina couldn't find any excuse for her lack of progress: she felt completely overwhelmed. "But I'm sure she would be able to make a much better plan of how to do things."

"Please do not call her, she might actually come out and do it!" Seeing her reaction, he offered reassurances. "Do not worry so much: already you've done me a big favor. I usually can't get anything done the first day back except humor Señora Costas; as it is, I think I might actually have a handle on which appointments exist, and which are referrals. And the kitchen is much cleaner."

"Oh, well, that was the easy part," she said cautiously, not sure if he was joking or serious. "But I know there's a lot of work to do, and I'm sure we can get more done tomorrow."

"If the computer will cooperate. You can borrow my laptop tomorrow if you like, I should be able to do without it while I'm calling into my meetings. The joys of telemedicine. Not to mention my brush up course; I've got all the written stuff out of the way, just need to do one short phone interview."

"For what?"

"To dust off my asistente médico license," he said, turning the steering wheel. "You didn't think I was just going to just do therapy out here, did you?"

Now that he mentioned it, the idea was strange. "So you're actually a doctor too?"

"No! And please, do not say that at the ranch, ever." His voice took on a mild note of alarm, softened by a hoarse laugh at the end. "There is never going to be a doctorate attached to my name if I can help it."

She apologized; clearly, she must be doing all sorts of things wrong for him to react like that to a simple question.

"No, sorry, that was harsh." He took a deep breath and adjusted the volume of the radio. "Old arguments, nothing to do with you. The truth is, I originally started as an AM; Papá always thought I'd be in charge of the clinic out here and grow it up, my own small contribution to the villa, I suppose." He paused, keeping rhythm on the steering wheel with his thumbs. "But it's a lot of responsibility, and an actual doctor has even more. I prefer therapy. And I'm sure that's more than you wanted to know. Still, I've always carried my license over, which is why I can be on the rotation to come out here and help out when things get busy back in Mar del Plata. But this time I'm also serving as an educational supervisor, so that's one more credential to add to my illustrious record. And, of course, one more thing they can get me to do again later. Nothing in this world is free."

"I'm so sorry, I didn't realize you'd have to go to school!" she exclaimed, surprised by how much he was doing for her.

"Not really: it's all online now, and it's just a basic certification. No big deal. Now cheer up, you don't have to think about anything to do with the clinic until eight tomorrow."

Elena met them at the door and the day ended on a much happier note. But as the week wore on, Catalina grew more convinced she was making no progress at all. Even on Enrique's laptop, it was slow going to enter so much information, with nothing existing in the system already to check against. By Wednesday, when he drove out to check in on a recovering surgical patient, she still hadn't found a file cabinet, and was worried they might have to order one. Their supply list had ballooned over the course of a few days, and while there was a grocery, bookstore, and a pastry shop nearby, there was not a proper goods store anywhere.

Her discouragement at work grew in equal measure to her anxiety about the ranch. Even retreating with Elena to the back of the house no longer soothed her nerves; she was certain she could hear noises coming from the back stairwell. Sr. Tilve grew more solicitous toward her, asking over and over again about the clinic, and not satisfied with any of her answers. For some reason, he blamed Enrique for not looking out for her! She was so glad the younger man was out taking a call when this comment was made, and wished she might reflect better on him.

Everywhere she looked now she saw the signs of an unhappy family, one trapped by the chains of the past. Sr. Tilve must be hiding something.

One evening she approached the subject of the accident again. They were in a large room setup with all Elena's art supplies and talked in depth while the girl painted. "Mamá was driving with me out on the road nearby. It winds and twists so much, and there are so many trees. It had rained, and the road get very slick. A big animal jumped out in front of us, I still can't remember what it was, just that when she swerved to get around it there was a truck coming from the other way." She recited these facts dispassionately, as if she'd heard them many times before. "They said she died instantly. But it had to be a closed casket."

A closed casket! Catalina could think of many ways this fact could be used to someone's advantage. Perhaps Sra. Tilve was not even dead: what if she had lost her memory, and been sent far away? On the one hand, Catalina was relieved to realize no foul play might have been involved. But on the other, it was easy to figure out why Sr. Tilve would do such a cruel thing as deprive a mother from her children when Elena explained that each of the children inherited money after the accident. "It's in a trust. I don't really understand everything; Papá looks after it, as the chief beneficiary. Some of it was set aside for us to go to school. It paid for Fernando's officer training, and Enrique's medical studies, and Papá uses it whenever I want to take more art classes or buy supplies. We get so much a year in interest. Most of its set aside for later: none of us get the full amount until we turn 30. Or get married, but I think there’s some kind of extra requirements then, like how much extra could be withdrawn or setting up someone else on the account."

Catalina did not understand about trusts and stocks any better than her friend, but she had heard them mentioned plenty on television, usually when someone wanted to steal. How easy it would be for Sr. Tilve to keep all that money to use as he wished if his wife were conveniently out of the way. Dead or thought dead, it all worked out the same, but surely he could live with his conscience better if she was being looked after somewhere else.

Friday was to be her first day off, though she didn't feel she deserved it. "You've done enough," Enrique said before leaving. "This internship is not full-time, no need to work like it. I'll be gone until late so you and Elena can have the whole day together."

She felt guilty for not going to the clinic and at least finishing up Thursday’s paperwork, and consoled herself that at least she might do her friends some good personally by finding out what was going on. The evidence must be upstairs, she was sure of it.

It was a bright, sunny day again, and the girls soon went outside to enjoy it. "Quick, before Papá sees us," Elena whispered, and got Catalina to push her across the way into her mother's studio.

Catalina was glad she had not pinned too many hopes on this space when they got inside: it was neat and clean, with shelves and counters built into the wall for displaying things, as well as an entire set of canvases stacked in the middle. There was a large quilt out on part of a wall, only half completed, with patchwork squares sewn in alternating geometric patterns.

"That one isn't just my mother's: it was started by my grandmother, and Mamá added onto it," Elena explained, reaching up to touch an unraveled edge. "I hope one day I'll be able to finish it, although I don't know how to sew that well."

"I know some stitches," Catalina said, and reached a hand to trace the edge as well, surprised at how ragged it was. "Did this get caught in something?"

"I don't know. It's always been like that. Maybe?" Elena eyed her curiously. "Is something wrong with it? I thought it was just like that because the next squares weren't sewn on."

"Usually you would tie the thread off or surge it. This seam could come loose if it's not taken care of."

"Could you teach me? Maybe we could work on it together!"

Catalina let go abruptly. "Oh, but, it's your family's, I couldn't possibly work on it too."

Elena shrugged, smiling secretively. "Not right now, I guess. But come on, there's some thread still around here, I think, in one of those bins. We could take some things back to the house for you to show me."

They selected needles and cloth, perfectly preserved within the drawers. Before leaving she took one last look at the uneven edge, and wondered if in fact Sra. Tilve had finished the quilt. Perhaps the bottom half contained something important, sewn in desperation as a message to her children, and someone ripped it away in anger or malice. Someone who locked up all traces of the woman, away from anyone who could see. It was a sign, she knew, one that could not be ignored. Somehow, she must get up into that upper room.

Opportunity came later that afternoon. Sr. Tilve announced he was heading out to play a few rounds of golf with friends. At first she and Elena enjoyed their relative peace by watching whatever they wanted on the big television, firmly keeping away from the sports channels. After an hour, though, Elena received a phone call from her father. "Yes, Papá, of course, I can find it," she said, moving toward the man's study. Looking back at her friend, she put the phone on her shoulder. "He forgot his appointment book, and wants me to look up some things. It may take a while."

Catalina nodded, barely trusting her good fortune, and ran for the kitchen as soon as she was left alone. It didn't take her long to find the stairs Enrique mentioned: just off from a pantry, behind a large door. It wasn't even locked! She looked around then hurried up before she could lose her nerve.

It was dark and eerie as could be expected from a hidden staircase. However, at the top there was a short landing with a tall window letting in all of the afternoon sun reflecting back from the roof. The door in front of her was large, thick, and made of pure oak. She felt the handle, barely breathing, and was surprised when it opened quite easily without even a squeak. Stepping inside, she pulled the door almost shut behind her, keeping it cracked enough to let in some air. Another tall window allowed plenty of light in, and she could easily see the length of the space, a skinny area more like a wide hall than a room. A small fireplace sat in the middle of the wall, and at the end she could just make out a drop-off she assumed were the other set of stairs.

Yet it didn't look like a hiding place at all! It was not as ordered as the studio, certainly, and the window's glass looked grimy. But if not completely clean, the makeshift attic was by no means dirty. The piano even appeared well cared for: when she played a key, it rang with a vibrant sound, not out of tune in the slightest. Instead of old papers, maps, diaries, or newspapers, there were hat boxes with only hats in them, and a few clothing racks with old-fashioned gowns and coats hung up. Nothing was revealed in their pockets: they had all been dry cleaned and wrapped in plastic covers. There was no evidence of moths or vermin. Everything looked like a perfectly ordinary storage space.

In a last ditch effort to make her trip meaningful, Catalina hunted around the chimney's bricks, searching for hidden panels or papers stuck in the flew. But there wasn't even soot to disturb.

Surveying the room again, and thinking back over everything, Catalina felt ridiculous. What was she doing up here, sneaking around, indulging idle suspicions? Did she really expect there to be evidence of a sinister plot? It now seemed so preposterous, so unlikely, where before she had been certain that all the clues must point to something important to be found.

But that was only on television, and in movies; maybe even in a book. Why would Sr. Tilve keep a dying confession in his own house? Someone obviously tended this room, maybe the housekeeper, and surely she would not help cover up an evil conspiracy. It was a stupid notion, and Catalina repented it as the result of too many changes, too fast. Sr. Tilve was probably guilty of something, but not of any real crime that would involve police and scandal. What it was she could not say, but she would learn no more here.

She had just reached for the door to return down to the kitchen, and hopefully avoid any eyes that might demand an explanation, when she heard something. Her heart beat faster as she realized someone was climbing the stairs, two at a time it sounded like.

How stupid! She was up here, all alone, without a weapon, and now someone would discover her. What should she do? While she wondered wildly, trying to settle her new fears in the same bin as the old ones, the doorknob moved under her hand, and who should she see looking back at her in surprise but Enrique!

"Oh my goodness!" she exclaimed, jumping back, shocked and relieved all at the same time. "What are you doing here?"

"The door was open in the kitchen so I came up to make sure everything was in proper order," he said with a grin, looking at her quizzically. "And to be honest, sometimes I use it as a shortcut to avoid the main rooms in the front, or a longcut I guess. I suppose you've discovered that use yourself?"

"No!" Catalina shouted, then got a hold of herself, trying to settle her skittering heartbeat. "I mean, I only came up to see ... things." She finished the sentence lamely, not knowing how to explain herself, and praying he would not ask.

"Exploring by yourself? Really, Elena has no right to complain about your being at work most of the week, when the first chance she gets you're left all alone." He tsked in a semiserious manner, then looked around. "Well, what do you think? Is it everything you imagined?"

It was not, not at all, but Catalina did not know how to say so. "It's very clean," she said at last, wanting to get out the door, but Enrique was still blocking it.

"It's better than it used to be," he agreed, moving to the piano. "And this thing: still in good working order. I've told Elena she ought to get Papá to move it downstairs, maybe in one of her studios. Either that or we should sell it, this thing is too nice for such neglect." He idly ran his fingers over some of the keys.

It would be rude to dash away now, even though Catalina wanted to so badly. "I thought you weren't going to be back this early," she said, realizing it could not be as late as she'd first imagined based on the amount of sunlight still pouring in.

"So did I, until one of the families scheduled for an appointment called to say they had to leave early for a trip. I decided to come back and work on my laptop here. Did I scare you, popping in all of a sudden?" He spoke with friendly concern, leaning against the piano.

"A little," she admitted, edging toward the door. She had never wanted to leave him so much before, but felt trapped by his piercing eyes, studying her with open curiosity.

"Honestly, we should clean this place out, don't you think? Too much old stuff. But Papá won't stand for anything to budge, even for a charity auction, so what can we do?"

"But, I thought, Elena said...." Catalina tried to rectify her picture of Sr. Tilve with this new puzzle piece, so at odds with the rest. "Didn't he want to get rid of it all?"

Enrique looked almost ready to laugh, maddeningly so. "Get rid of what?"

"Your mother's things." Catalina found she had lowered her voice, despite only one other person present. "I thought he ordered everything destroyed."

"Who told you that?" he asked in open incredulity, the hint of a frown forming.

Thinking back, Catalina realized Elena hadn't actually made such a statement, only implied it, or so she'd thought. "No one, really," she answered truthfully. "But then, if that's not true," Catalina faltered, grasping for illumination, "why did he toss out her letters, and the pictures?"

Enrique's frown deepened, and one hand began rhythmically beating against the side of the piano. "He didn't toss anything out; he let Mamá's family go through and take anything they wanted, to remember her by, after the funeral. It was very generous when he can barely stand to have a single thing of her's moved, even now. And maybe he regrets his generosity, but the Delgados can never say he didn't share as much as he could with them. Anything of real value, the best pieces, the personal things from her childhood, they took it all." He sounded increasingly annoyed, agitation clearly visible, and took a breath before continuing. "Where on earth is this coming from? Something someone back in Mar del Plata told you?"

"No, no, it was just ... when I was talking with Elena, I misunderstood," Catalina babbled, and realized with a sinking feeling that she had not paid nearly as close attention as she should have, or asked the right questions. "The way she spoke about it, the accident I mean, or after, I thought perhaps, maybe, it was just so strange sounding. I didn't know he was so sad." Hearing her own words, Catalina felt how idiotic they sounded all the more, and even insensitive. She wanted to take them back, and was about to apologize, when Enrique suddenly responded in a solemn tone completely at odds with his usual energetic spirit.

"Sad does not quite describe it. He was barely able to leave her side, even when the hospital pronounced her dead, and canceled all his business trips for the year, just like that." He snapped his fingers, the sound harsh and loud in the quiet of the room. "Then it was up and down the country, all over the place, looking for the best doctors. I suppose it was strange, and he didn't mourn like people wanted him to. None of us did, really: after all, we had Elena to take care of, and however much we miss Mamá, she's alive. We couldn't afford to wallow in grief. Maybe he didn't always express himself correctly; heaven knows there were enough arguments back then to try the patience of a saint, which General Tilve is not. But I can assure you, no matter what anyone says, my father was as devastated by the accident as anyone else; it took him a long time to recover."

He was so serious, and if not angry, his voice was decidedly firm. Catalina felt her heartbeat skitter again for a different reason entirely. "Then it really was an accident; no wonder he was so upset," she murmured, all the clues she had been looking at turning around to form a completely different picture, both better and worse than she had imagined. She didn't think of how her words might sound, caught up as she was by this revelation. But then the silence in the room grew ominously loud, and she looked up to see Enrique's strangely grave face, as if the sun were blotted out though it shown in full splendor upon him, the twinkle of his eyes gone as if it had never existed.

"Yes, it was an accident, the kind that most people only watch or read about but thankfully never have to experience. I suppose the fact that we survived and kept together as a family wasn't enough for some people, they had to start whispering rumors as well. I've heard them all, you know, for a long time. But my mother was not drunk that night. Neither was the unfortunate man in the truck who hit her. There's no one to blame. Just a very unfortunate, statistically unlikely event."

It was such a horrible insinuation, and Enrique appeared so sad, she couldn't help correcting him, coming closer in sympathetic anxiety. "No one has ever said such a thing to me, I would never have suspected your mother of anything wrong, of course not!"

He didn't cheer up, or grin, or offer her any consolation. "What, you think Papá was at fault?"

The accusation stung the more because it was uttered so quietly, without malice or rancor, only a miserable resignation. She blinked back a few tears, trying to think of something to say to make everything better and failing miserably.

"Catalina," his voice dropped, low and resonant, "how can that possibly make any sense? This isn't the old frontier days, it wasn’t even the '60s when the army could get away with murder. There was a thorough investigation, not just by the police but even a few private detectives. Mamá's family would never have settled things as amiably as they did if there was the least hint of something actionable for a lawsuit. You're smarter, better than this, I can't believe you would.... Come on, cariña, what were you thinking?"

Her throat closed up and it was difficult to breathe. If she tried to answer, Catalina would surely burst into tears and force Enrique to suffer through an even more shameful scene. She backed away, shaking, wishing the floor would give way and drop her down to the ground.

"I — I'm so sorry," she choked out, miserable and mortified. Then she fled toward the opposite side of the room, almost tumbling down the other flight of steps in her haste to flee his look of utter disappointment.

Estancia Aldea Norteña 24: Más Afilado Que Un Cuchillo

MichelleRWMarch 31, 2023 11:00AM


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