78. Unknown Dialect

Part 1 of the 'Perfectionism' series.

FROM THE NEARBY VILLAGE of Génos on a dismal December morning in the foothills of the Pyrenees, smoke could be seen rising from an isolated farm at the end of a narrow gravel road running along a creek in a deep valley. Expecting to find a reclusive widow who’d been known to live there in solitude and squalor, the village policier instead found a teenage girl dressed in rags curled up in a corner of the smouldering ruins of what appeared to have been, until quite recently, a commune. The girl appeared to be alone and was catatonic with terror. She was taken to the nearest clinic and had her wounds attended to (sprained wrist, minor burns and abrasions), after which she was taken to the police station and interviewed by a succession of police, doctors, psychologists and social workers, each of which noted that she appeared to be speaking a kind of Catalan, or Basque, or possibly a combination of the two. When a Catalan translator was called in, he said she wasn’t speaking Catalan; likewise when, later the same morning, a Basque translator was called for. All parties agreed, however, that the girl was speaking an actual language, that it appeared to be related, distantly perhaps, to Catalan, though probably not, according to the Basque translator at least, to Basque. Meanwhile, the forensic report came back from the farm. It appeared to have accommodated several dozen people in several buildings, including a kitchen, a mess hall and an assembly hall. The fire appeared to have been deliberately lit, and the residents to have left in a rush. The policewoman agreed to take the girl to Pau the following day, to speak to a Béarnais translator. For lack of a better option, the girl would have to spend the night in a cell. In Pau, the Béarnais translator concluded the girl wasn’t speaking Béarnais but a related Gascon dialect, only one he couldn’t translate competently. He had been able to understand words and phrases here and there but the girl, who switched between catatonic and histrionic, either would say nothing at all or would burst into long rapid monologues of which little could be understood. The translator recommended calling on the expertise of a linguistics professor in Toulouse who specialised in the various dialects of Gascon. The police transferred the girl to the Police National headquarters in Toulouse, who had taken over the investigation of the case. They in turn arranged for the girl to be lodged in a government hostel overnight and to meet with the professor the following morning, but overnight the girl fled the hostel and, despite an exhaustive hunt, was not found. Closed circuit video footage corroborates witness reports of a barefoot, skimpily dressed girl loitering near a motorway truck stop on the outskirts of town in the early hours of the icy morning, and a police report has tentatively concluded a truck driver had given her a lift, possibly as far as Spain. A missing person report was filed and forwarded to Spanish police.