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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


58. [Plate 40]
Prick the Physician

In his lifetime, a man wears many hats. So, too, with Prick. Student, Lover, Musician, Statesman, Warrior, and now... Physician. It takes years of training to become a doctor, unfortunately, and Prick didn't have the years to expend. He was simply looking for a respectable profession to fill his declining years. So he relied upon an honorary degree from Johns Hopkins University, and the good will of his clientele.

This he had in spades. To begin with, Prick accepted only the very best class of patients. Then too, he made house calls. Right to your penthouse he would come, little black bag in hoof. Ducking his head as he passed through the doorway, he would briefly pay his respects and then make straight for the sickroom. Trailed by star-struck relatives of the afflicted, he would gracefully sink down beside the bed.


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Prick's bedside manner was a marvel. His steady gaze was empathy itself. His touch was soft and sure. He took a pulse with all the care and attention he had once given to running the country. Rather more, in fact.

Admittedly, Prick had only the faintest idea what he was doing. He had never quite gotten the hang of which thermometer was for the mouth and which was not. There were bottles in his bag he didn't dare open.

But consider his positives. He never got the patient addicted to dangerous drugs through over-prescription of painkillers. He never performed experimental surgery in hopes that a lucky accident might teach him something interesting. Because he believed anything he was told, he never doubted the patient was sick. Thus, not a one of them died after being reassured that nothing was wrong.

Also, he was a celebrity. The social status conferred by his visits far outweighed the purely hypothetical progress that a rich and usually aged relation might have made under other circumstances.

Consider this as well. When, as sometimes happened, a patient died in his care, Prick would calmly sign the death certificate and draw the sheets up over the head of the deceased. He never slid a watch from the patient's wrist and onto his own. Not once did go through the pockets for spare change. How many doctors in the AMA can say as much?

A man who employed Prick had an ass for a physician. Quite frankly, he could have done worse.


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This is the 58th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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