|Photo: Jivaro shrunken head, courtesy salangome.com, via Softpedia|
Then word came of another possible speaker, only 30 miles or so up the river. Markel dutifully hired a guide and lost a pint of blood to mosquitoes in pursuit of this new grail. If it was true, then Markel might be able to bring her back to the village so that she and Mursa, that banausic primipara, could converse, cooperate and assist him in translating Mursa's stories for all the world to read.
Alas, he was several weeks too late. When he arrived and asked to see the woman, he was startled to be presented to a shrunken head nailed to a tree. Frantic gesticulation resulted in the appearance of a drinking vessel filled with bilious liquid and floating detritus which the linguist took to be a hallucinogenic concoction of chewed leaves and copious amounts of saliva. He couldn't make out if it was to facilitate conversation with the head or to placate him in his obvious disappointment and distress.
It was accompanied by the inevitable bowl of crispy salted insects.
Choosing to forgo Happy Hour, Markel made his dejected way back to the canoe and they set off for the closest village to an airstrip, sixty miles in the opposite direction. Riddled with parasites, shaking with fever and sporting a decidedly yellowish cast to his skin, the lover of languages blessed the little plane which would carry him home and flung a few choice epithets at the porter who had snatched his satellite phone and flung it at a peccary to chase it off. You would think the idiot would have been armed with something other than an ancient flare gun which had promptly jammed. The porter was equally irate that his accuracy had not been acknowledged. You would think the idiot would have known the difficulty of hitting a wild pig directly on the snout.
The University had been less than pleased to see him return empty-handed, and calls from successful and grateful alumni soon produced the $50,000 required by Mersa to share her trove of Zpetylka tales with the civilized world. Off to the jungle Markel went, to film the old hag and her theatrical performance, contracting fine cases of schistosomiasis and jungle rot in the process. It was none too soon, as the Last Speaker of Zpetylka passed away peacefully in front of the village's single treasured television set that evening.
Back home, and definitely to stay this time, Markel and his graduate students went to work, carefully parsing and translating the language in all of it's groaning and spittle strewn glory. There were tales of magic, adaptive island living, the cobbling together of what seemed to be modern devices from the rudimentary leavings of nature. Markel saw fame and fortune dangling before him. Halfway through, one of his students stopped and cleared his throat.
"What is it?" asked Markel, still looking somewhat skeletal after his recent bouts of flux.
"Umm...these stories. I know them."
Markel licked his dry lips and felt his stomach contract.
"How," he whispered.
"They're all from the show Gilligan's Island."
And so the Last Speaker of Zpetylka, who might not have even been speaking Zpetylka for all anyone knew, disappeared along with the language and the culture of a tribe which may, or may not, have ever existed. But she had added one thing to history; Gilligan's island can now be viewed with Zpetylka subtitles.
Mr. Markel is now preparing a paper on the evolution of, and current cultural importance of, μιμεῖσθαι mimeisthai (memes). He is accepting donations on his blog Dead Languages Deserve To Be Dead toward paying off the $50,000 owed to the Alumni.
Sample: flash fiction