The doctor walked into the waiting room. I could tell he was important because everyone stopped what they were doing. I had been making noise with my toy tank, blowing up imaginary soldiers, but when the doctor entered my mother shushed me.
“We will talk to the doctor now,” she said. “About Grandmama.”
Being five, I didn’t like being shushed. We had been waiting longer than expected. I was tired and hungry. I wanted to go home. I didn’t even like Grandmama, who was as old as fuzzy cheese. Nevertheless, I took my seat.
From my mother’s face, I knew I had better be quiet. Science had to be respected. Science was going to save the world. Mother was a believer in science, and who was more scientific than a doctor?
When my mother rose to greet the doctor, she did so warmly. My father remained seated, hands folded in front of him. He was a frugal man, and he rarely talked. It was like he thought he’d be charged by the word. Mother said, “How is she, doctor?”
“Please sit down,” he said. “Sit down, everyone.” My mother was the only one standing, but she obeyed his command. He was a doctor. He knew what he was doing. Mother waited for him to start.
“I’m afraid there were complications,” he said.
“Yes,” he said. “As you know the patient—“
“Yes,” the doctor said, clearly resenting being interrupted. “Your mother, my patient. Please let me continue.”
Mother blushed. “I’m dreadfully sorry.”
“As you know—Grandmama—was brought into the hospital for ingesting a Musca domestica.”
Mother said, “I do not understand.”
Again the doctor became annoyed. He looked at me. “What did your grandmother do?”
I shrugged. “She swallowed a fly.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Even the boy understands. She ingested a Musca domestica. She was almost hysterical. We knew immediate action must be taken. Such cases are extremely dangerous, if left untreated, and we felt to delay any procedure would be life threatening. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” Mother said. “What was done?”
“We administered an arachnid.”
“She was given an arachnid to ingest.”
“She–?” Mother was confused. We were a family of janitors. All of this medical jargon was over our heads. He might as well have been talking in Latin.
The doctor sighed his resignation. “A spider. She was given a spider to swallow.”
“A spider?” Mother said. “Is that—is that normal?”
“It’s standard procedure in cases like this.”
“Yes, yes. A spider! She was given a spider to catch the fly.”
“What kind of spider?”
“It doesn’t matter what kind!” The doctor took out a handkerchief and dabbed his forehead. “You must excuse me. It has been a long day. The point is there were further complications.”
“You mean, the fly is still there?”
“No, absolutely not. The arachnid made quick work of the Musca domestica, but it was disinterested in extraction. We made a choice to move to the next level of treatment. Mind you, we had no time to consult. Things were moving quickly.”
“What are you saying?” Mother asked.
“She was administered a member of the class Aves.”
“I know that one!” Father interjected. “It’s a bird, right? Like an aviary.”
“You are correct, sir. A bird. Erithacus ubecola, to be exact, or as you commoners call it: a robin. ”
My mother was beginning to get a sense of things. She leaned forward toward the doctor. “Mother swallowed a bird?”
“It was perfectly painless.”
“My mother swallowed the bird to catch the spider?”
The doctor sighed and put away his handkerchief. “Yes, that was the prescribed treatment. Look it up in any medical text. But I might as well tell you now that the Erithacus ubecola, despite making a quick lunch of the arachnid, could not be coaxed out of the patient—ahem, Grandmama—and so we had to move to other treatments.”
“And what were they?” Mother was almost yelling.
“First the feline, then the canine.”
“A cat and a dog?!”
“Madam, calm down. In surgery, any emergency may arise and you must make split-second decisions that could determine whether a patient lives or dies. Your getting unreasonably upset will not change the fact your mother swallowed a goat today!”
“Yes. A goat. To catch the dog.”
Mother yelled, “Since when do goats eat dogs?! Or even chase them?!”
“It’s in the medical texts, Madam! Are you a doctor? Are you someone who has studied medicine for years? I admit these things may seem counterintuitive. For instance, why should a cow be sent to chase the goat? We do not know, except that cows are bigger and it has always been this way. Madam, you cannot fight City Hall, even in medicine!”
“I think I’m going to faint,” Mother said. She looked at Father. “Will you do something?”
My father just shrugged. “What can I do? Your mother swallowed a cow. If the Doctors prescribe this, who are we to argue?”
This seemed to mollify the doctor. “A sensible man,” he said.
“What I want to know,” my father said, “is how much does a full cow cost these days?”
“We will send your insurance a bill,” the doctor said. “I will say this. Such a remarkable woman, this Grandmama, such will to live.” He shook his head in amazement. “She is the first ever to survive the bovine treatment.”
My mother sighed. I think we all did. I could see everybody’s shoulders grow slack. Grandmama was a mean old lady, but nobody deserves to die gagging on a cow.
“So mother will live,” Mother said. “Thank heavens. She will poop leather for a month, but we get to take her home.”
“Well,” the doctor said. “Not exactly.”
“Don’t tell me you sent in the elephant!”
“Madam?! Do you think we’re monsters?! Honestly, as if this job were not difficult enough!”
“I do apologize,” Mother said. “This has been a hard day on us all. Please go on. When will we get to take her home?”
The doctor let his silent contempt for us fill the room for a time.
“Equus caballus,” he said finally. He knew what we were waiting for. “A horse.” The room grew very quiet.
“Not even that big of a horse, mind you. More like a large pony.”
“But she’s dead?”
“Of course. You can’t swallow a horse, Madam, and not be dead. At that point, you’re just trying to ease the suffering. And you can take comfort in the fact that the end came quickly. She never even got the head in.”
My mother shook in her seat. “We will sue,” she said. “We will sue and sue. And then we will call up another lawyer and sue some more.”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” the doctor said. “But I was thinking in there, somewhere between the goat and the cow, what would be the real question the lawyers might ask.”
“Yes. This question: Why, oh why, did she swallow that fly?”
Mother said, “What are you implying?”
“Nothing, Madam. Just that people do not often on their own swallow flies. Most times, perhaps, they are fed the flies.”
“You bastard!” Mother stood. “You accuse me of, of—feeding my own mother a fly?! And you, a man of science!”
He did not respond. He knew the authorities would side with him, and besides, all this talking to people below his station was annoying to him. Mother grew quiet. At last, her face pale and ten years older, she grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the door. Father lagged behind. Helplessly, I looked at my toy tank, which was still resting on the chair where I’d been sitting. I wanted to go back, but Mother didn’t stop pulling.
A year later, when I walked through the woods and swallowed a whole mouthful of gnats, Mother drove right past the hospital to the Church of Our Lord, where I made a full confession of my sins.