Dr. Borges was finally back from his vacation in Patagonia and my session could be rescheduled.
When I walked into the waiting area of the doctor’s office, I was stunned by a wholesale décor change. There used to be a series of old Frohse anatomical charts on the walls, but those beautiful dissection drawings had been replaced by austere landscapes and a collection of enormous rodent skulls.
The new paintings featured purple clouds roiling over flat scrubland. The skulls were hanging from pegs near the ceiling and featured large orbital openings and tremendously long, orange incisors.
Of course, the most significant décor change was the buzzard.
Dr. Borges used to have a canary in a pedestal cage and the little animal would twitter in an engaging way when patients checked in, or made follow-up appointments. The cage was now gone, and in its place, there was a perch fashioned from a gnarled tree branch that was as thick as my wrist. Both ends of the branch were anchored to the wall like a Brobdingnagian towel rack.
When I entered the office, the buzzard stared at me, and its talons gripped and re-gripped the perch as it made infinitesimal adjustments to its position.
I vaguely remembered reading that vultures were sometimes kept as pets by South Americans, but I couldn’t imagine it was a practical choice for a busy office. The animal must have been housebroken because there wasn’t a giant smear of guano on the wall or carpet near its perch, but how would it ever get exercise, and what did Dr. Borges do with it on weekends?
The animal wasn’t bald like African vultures, it was fully feathered, with a black head, breast and shoulders, a grey throat, and white legs. It had the familiar carrion-bird body postures, however, the bobbing head and perpetually shuffling talons. Generally, it looked like an avian undertaker who had misplaced its pants.
As I approached the receptionist’s desk, the bird tilted its head to appraise me, raised one leg to stretch out its toes, then ruffled its barred tail feathers. I could see that it wasn’t tethered in any way. Maybe the animal was allowed to fly out the door during lunch hours and search the suburbs for dead gauchos.
Dr. Borges’ aesthetic sense had sure changed since his South American trip.
“Hello,” I said to Emma. I was grateful that Dr. Borges hadn’t jettisoned his receptionist along with the canary and carpeting.
“Health card, please.” She was all business, as usual.
“What’s with the buzzard?” I asked, my thumb discreetly pointed at the gigantic raptor.
“His name is Haslam,” Emma said. I was waiting for some sort of explanation, or at least an entertaining anecdote, but I didn’t get it. “Have a seat, please,” Emma said. “Dr. Borges is with a patient, but he’ll be finished momentarily.”
“Did Dr. Borges enjoy his vacation?” I asked.
“The doctor doesn’t vacation,” she said, as if irritated by my choice of words. Maybe the trip was supposed to be work-related.
I sat in a rustic wooden chair with a leather seat. Dr. Borges used to have a good selection of Sports Illustrated magazines in his waiting room but today all I could find to read was an ancient volume called ‘A Comprehensive History of Labyrinths’.
I flipped through the pages, but couldn’t really concentrate on the material. After a few minutes, I heard voices coming from Dr. Borges’ office and, presently, the door opened. A young man with large eyes emerged and he looked at me suspiciously. I didn’t often bump into other patients, but in my eagerness to see the doctor, I had arrived early. The young man padded towards Emma’s desk. Dr. Borges followed him closely, into the waiting area.
The young man bent over the receptionist’s counter and whispered intently to her.
Dr. Borges stood directly behind him, and placed a friendly hand on the young man’s shoulder.
At that instant, Haslam-the-vulture twisted his head to the side and fully extended his wings. The animal’s beak strained open, and his quivering tongue extended. His yellow eye became an unblinking disc. The bird held that rigid posture for several seconds. Dr. Borges stared at Haslam intently, then removed his hand from the patient’s shoulder and scrawled something on a prescription pad.
Haslam immediately re-folded his wings and tilted his beak towards the floor.
Dr. Borges handed the young man a prescription and wished him good day.
Then Dr. Borges turned to me and smiled broadly. “Mr. Casares,” he said, “I’m pleased to see you.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s a little early, but we might as well get started.”
I hoisted myself out of the chair and we shook hands. I deliberately turned my back to the receptionist, so she couldn’t see my lips. “Dr. Borges,” I whispered, “are you using that buzzard to help diagnose your patients?”
Dr. Borges’ smile broadened until it was as wide as the Pampas. “Haslam? No, of course not,” he said, but he licked his lips with a slender pink tongue and his eyes flicked towards the bird’s perch. I tried to look at Haslam, but Dr. Borges’ heavy hand marshalled me towards the inner office.
“Let’s discuss those spasms of paranoia that have been worrying you,” he said, almost shoving me through the door. I heard a series of clicking noises back in the reception area, like orange incisors tapping on a computer keyboard, or talons gripping a telephone receiver. “Tell me all about your vacation,” Dr. Borges said. “I’m very jealous, I’ve always wanted to see Buenos Aires.”