The Silent Key

Evelyn Wong ’21 writes a gripping piece about a doctor who has been hired by the top military academy in Buenos Aires and his experiences with prisoners and the harrowing circumstances and torture they undergo. 

Santi finished the last drops of his second glass of wine and asked the attendant for another. The pianist was a stout gentleman, with dark curls and a growing beard, almost a palid reincarnation of a Jim Crow caricature. As the clock struck four, the guests began to arrive at the Salón Dorado, where a grand party had been prepared to celebrate the quince of Maria Paz, the daughter of he who they call “El Tigre.”

The pianist finished the last movement and began a new piece, Ballade Pour Adeline. Santi recognized it almost immediately–it was originally composed by the French melodist Paul de Senneville as a tribute to his newborn daughter, a song selected by El Tigre himself as a toast to another blessed year of life and good health.

As Santi watched the generals and their guests trickling in, he reclined in his chair, situated at the back of the room. On the muted television behind him, the excited announcer of the game between Argentina and Peru replayed the highlights of the 6-0 shutout the day before. Upon passing, one of the generals saluted Santi and congratulated him on his soon-to-be newborn daughter, who was due in two days. Santi relaxed, listening absentmindedly as the music continued. One of the keys of the rustic piano was mute:a broken melody that silently infiltrated the room, though the other guests didn’t seem to notice. But Santi, who had spent years of classical training as a child under the guidance of his father, a professor of music at the local university, noted the blaring silence of the middle C note as the pianist pounded the opening progression. Lost in his thoughts, he allowed his mind to wander, remembering a passage from Oscar Wilde’s famous play. His ruminations were interrupted by a sharp tap on the shoulder.

He turned. The man who stood before him was cleanly shaven, with a recognizable scar across his left eye. His fingers constantly pulled an invisible trigger, as if he had never left the battlefield. His dark brown eyes stared lifelessly at Santi, before he said sharply: “The head boss wants to see you. Infirmary. Andá. Now.”

Santi rose, almost in a trance, though not completely taken by surprise. As he passed the pianist on the way out, he thought of his father, who had immigrated from Spain in the 1930s.

“Leave one hell to find ourselves in the middle of another,” his father had said during the military coup d’etat by Gral. Videla.

That year Santi had graduated from the Medical School at the top of his class, receiving the highest grades with a certain sense of humility that set him apart from his peers from the first day. He was a quiet student, who shied away from the antics of the others–his classmates who hungered for the pride and fame of becoming doctors for the sake of becoming doctors, for the pride and honor of their aristocratic family name. Santi’s marks caught the attention of the highest members of la Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, the top military academy in Buenos Aires, who offered him a position as a doctor with a generous salary to pay off his loans and support his new family.

And then the Guerra Sucia started.

He slowly descended the stairs upon leaving the Salon Dorado. In the window above him, he could hear the sound of muted, pained singing, in the Peceras where the prisoners were obligated to carry out forced labor. He remembered the first day he arrived–Santi had been called to the Capucha to check the pulse of a man rendered unconscious. It was the first time he had been called from the infirmary of the military students–the first time he saw, with complete horror, the rows and rows of bodies of those they rendered desaparecidos–the “disappearances.” They were reclined on narrow mattresses on the floor, isolated in cubicles in the ground. The bodies were chained by the hands and feet, and their faces were masked by large, pointed hoods…

The singing had stopped upon his rising the stairs to some sort of attic; he was led by the guards to a young man, barely alive. “Detenido 571,” announced the guard. The capucha–the hood–had achieved its purpose. Whatever name he was called by before the sequestration was now long gone–he had been reduced to a mere number. Santi checked his pulse–it was barely there, but there nonetheless. The man had the body structure of a young adult but the face of someone much younger–but in his shackled arms and feet there was an aura of resilience present in him, almost as if he refused to let death take over just yet. Santi observed the softened edges of his face as he parted his eyelids. He was about 18 or 19, the same age as…

***

Taking another step back, flashback twelve years earlier: Santi finally reached the door, gray and lifeless as all the others, but could already see the family of Matias inside. The nurse smiled sympathetically and opened the door, to the bed, surrounded by IV’s, and heart monitors, amidst the parents and younger sister of his best friend. Santi’s legs were numb. His swollen eyes met a dismal view of a magnolia colored room, with a small window looking out to the gloomy june day. Matias’s breath came in ragged, shallow gasps; seconds passed through what seemed like an eternity, but even that was not enough for Santi. As his heart beat for the last time, Santi had run out of tears. And amidst the pain and anguish he felt in losing a part of him, he vowed something to himself that he would remember for the rest of his life: “Never again.”

***

Santi had left the Salon, and night had begun to fall. The treetops and uneven buildings of the ESMA insidiously drowned the horizon as it burned out of view. Here, the night did not surge as a clean “slitting of the throat” of the countryside, but rather a violent sawing of the sun by the jagged teeth of the tree-lined horizon. He stopped at a large green iron door, flanked by armed guards. The entrance to the basement was formed by a series of steps that was part of the main staircase seen when entering the Salon Dorado. It was said that el Sotano (the “basement”), which the officials referred to as “Sector 4,” was the first place to where the prisoners were brought when they arrived at the ESMA, and also the last place they passed through before they were executed. Here they were introduced violently to the torture-based interrogations. In the same fateful basement, they would return before becoming traslados–transferred to death. It was a dark space illuminated only by a few fluorescent tubes.

From la viga, Santi heard the screams of a woman being beaten by a pair of guards.The next day la viga would be cleaned again, cleared of its horrific blood stains. The deep cleaning had the clear purpose of erasing all possible evidence of what had happened the previous day. Nevertheless, there were times when negligence in cleanliness could be seen in the marks of the bodies dragged from the infirmary to the side door of the basement. Yet, among the prisoners, these marks comforted them, reminding them that what had happened had happened, the unwashable blood that stained the hearts of the soulless torturers.

He entered the basement, where the Tigre waited for him in la Enfermeria. Almost immediately, he recalled why he had been summoned here. The anguish of the screams jolted his mind to that night, two years after he first met Raul Lisandro Cubas, whom they named “Detenido 571.” He was 21 years old and and was a guerrilla leader in La Matanza. He had been sequestered the morning of October 20, 1976, by ten armed men that jumped out of five dark vehicles. One of them pointed a pistol to his head and ordered him to the ground before arresting him. He had one brother and one sister.

Lisandro had endured an inestimable amount of torture–physical torture, mental torture, emotional and spiritual torture. In addition to the meager conditions of food and hygiene, he was subjected to beatings with whatever the soldiers had in hand:he was subjected to waterboarding, in which they pushed him to the border of asphyxiation in a tub of water; and, most frequently, the dreaded electric chairs. The process was almost routine for any prisoner–they were tied to the metal elastic of a bed without a mattress, shackled by the ankles and tightly-adjusted wrist bands, which caused painful ulcerations, and masked to protect the identity of their torturers. And then came the shocks, which rose and fell alternatively and abruptly to induce bursts of pain, each time more agonizing than the last. They caused pain in any part of the body one could imagine. And every time, Santi was called to revive him from the brinks of death, only to be tortured a week, days, a few hours later. But the worst type of pain, Lisandro had told him one night, was the terror–the terror of what lay ahead, the terror of not knowing where the fear was coming from.

He was brought back into the present by the booming voice of the general. “Pasa,” thundered el Tigre. Santi entered the infirmary and fixed his eyes on the face of the general. His skin was weathered and dark like leather. He was about middle-aged, and everything about him screamed discipline. From his polished shoes to his trimmed moustache, he was born to command. He ran his unit with an iron fist–but while he commanded the respect of everyone under him, it was silently agreed that this respect came from fear rather than admiration.

Santi felt a shiver run down his spine. “I entrusted you with a dangerous subversivo and you betrayed us,” thundered el Tigre. Santi stared back into his lifeless eyes.

“Heart arrest,” he stated curtly. “He passed away on his own. There was nothing I could do.”

“Nothing I could do..” Almost immediately after the words tumbled out of his mouth, almost defensively, Santi relived what had occurred that fateful night… Raul was dragged into the enfermeria after a prolonged torture session of the electric chair. His head was shaved; he looked very thin. He had varicose veins in his pale arms and legs–it had been 818 days since he had been exposed to the sun. He was bruised from head to toe; his body convulsed erratically.

Santi raised the syringe to the light, hand gripping it in a fist above his head, checking the dosage of the medication. In circumstances of life and death, there could be nothing short of perfection. The date was 22 June 1978; on this day eight years later Diego Maradona would score the historic goal in the Mundial that would leave him baptized with “the Hand of God,” ominously in the same motion of Santi’s fist as he lowered the needle. First the sodium thiopental, to induce unconsciousness…

“Is that so?” snarled the general, as he reached for his belt.

Santi saw the words in bold, as if the pages of his medical textbook were before laid out him. Pancuronium bromide, for muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest…

“Los dueños de la vida y la muerte, they say. Either you killed him the first chance you got, or you’re as useless as I predicted the first night they brought your soft ass here. Either way, you’ve failed us.” He loaded the ammunition as Santi reached into the bottle of Potassium Chloride with the needle, the final cure…

“They tell me your daughter is due in two days. Que amorrr, what will you name her? Will you baptize her in your own name, ‘The Owner of Breath,’ or rather, ‘The Keeper of Souls’?” el Tigre snarled mockingly.

How touching, Santi thought. In the breadth of two days, in this brief span of life and death, he felt the agony of being stripped of both titles, of being robbed of his profession and livelihood in his own enfermeria. He would go down in history as the silent traitor, the 88th key of the piano.

He punctured the skin of the now-tranquil montonero as the Tigre raised the gun. Potassium Chloride, KCl, to stop the heart…

And he fired.

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