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A Man of Vision
"Bring in the next patient, please." Brian sighed as the medical technician went out to the reception area. This wasn't exactly what he'd pictured when he chose opthamology as a career. Drab painted walls, bars on the windows, and guards wandering the halls. The prison-like atmosphere was to be expected - he'd been assigned to the State mental institution.
Not as a patient, of course. This was part of his internship from the University, a chance to practice his skills on real patients. It was somewhat disconcerting to also be living here, but the free apartment that came with the job would help with finances. Besides, he enjoyed watching people's faces when he told them his new address. Naturally, a few wits (half and nit, in Brian's opinion) offered concerns that the hospital wouldn't let him leave when the three months were up.
The little man who was ushered in looked normal. That didn't mean anything around this place. Some of the most 'normal' patients he'd treated shuffled in wearing leg restraints and straight jackets. At least this fellow didn't warrant the handlers that came with dangerous cases. He looked more like a middle-aged black accountant caught in his pajamas, complete with wire-rim glasses. The man seemed to be startled when he saw Brian, and then shook his head and muttered something about the medical profession.
Brian reddened a little, and felt a twinge of resentment. Sure, he was young. What did the guy expect? Established doctors didn't give up three months of their lives to treat loonies. He flushed again, this time in shame. Some of these people were voluntary inmates, here for treatment for depression or other problems. This man was a patient, just like any other.
Even so, he felt a little uncomfortable. The man kept looking at him like he was some sort of freak. More curious than anything else. Brian smiled as he plopped down on the stool in front of the chair. He'd been warned not to shake hands or have any more physical contact than was necessary. "Hi! My name is Brian Coe. Almost a Doctor." The old joke, stolen from a 1960's Bill Cosby routine, failed to raise a smile. "Well, then." He flipped open the cardboard folder and glanced at the name. "Mr. Redwing. Are you aware of any problems with your vision? Trouble reading, or headaches?"
Redwing blinked, still staring, but gave no answer.
Brian sighed. "Look, Mr. Redwing. I'm a qualified opthamologist. And you aren't my first patient. I promise you that I will do a good job for you, and if I find anything I can't handle, we'll bring in someone with more experience. But I can't do anything if you won't talk to me."
The man frowned for a moment. "I'm sorry, uh, Dr. Coe. I suppose I should be grateful to have someone here at all. To answer your questions, I'm doing OK for the most part. The prescription for my glasses is only two years old. I do get headaches occasionally, but that is probably from the lighting." Then he smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry if I seemed rude."
This was more like it. He relaxed a little and walked over to shut the door.
"I just wasn't expecting to be examined by a raccoon."
Brian froze. "What?"
"A raccoon. Most of the doctors around here are weasels or dogs. Actually, it's somewhat refreshing to see a new kind of face here."
OK. Brian took a deep breath and forced himself to continue setting up for the exam. If the guy was seeing weasels and dogs, maybe it was just a coincidence that he'd called Brian a raccoon. Still, it was odd that Redwing had chosen Brian's favorite animal. "So, is everyone here an animal?"
"Nah." Redwing settled back in the chair. "At least, not completely. Most folks just have a trace of something. Shows up mostly in the ears and eyes. The nurse outside? Some sort of donkey or mule, a big one. Lots of sheep among the patients, though I see some really nasty-looking critters in some of the rooms. Of course, some of them are little kids, too."
"So, I have raccoon's ears?" Brian tried to be nonchalant about his questioning, even though he was wildly curious.
"Well, sure! I mean, you're all raccoon. You'd look pretty silly with human ears."
This was really weird. He glanced around the office quickly to make sure he didn't have anything out that might be giving this guy ideas. The only pictures he had were a few snapshots of friends, most with horses in the picture. No raccoon stuff at all. "You see me as a real raccoon?"
"You're a lot bigger than a normal animal, and you're wearing clothes. That's because you see yourself as a human." Redwing sighed. "Don't worry about it. Most people don't believe me. I wouldn't have even mentioned it, except that when I see someone completely as an animal, it usually means they know about it, too."
It suddenly occurred to Brian that the man was locked in a mental hospital. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to pursue this conversation, no matter how interesting it might be. While he didn't think his interest in transformation qualified him for commitment, it was close enough to Redwing's apparent delusion to make Brian uncomfortable.
Redwing seemed to take Brian's silence as dismissal, and sat quietly through the rest of the examination. The man's eyesight checked out 20/20 with his glasses, so no change of prescription was required. The lenses were pretty badly scratched, however, which could be causing the headaches. Redwing was pleased with the diagnosis, especially when Brian told him the hospital would get a new pair in for him by the end of the week.
As Brian wrote up the prescription, Redwing wandered over to the battered old desk that served as Brian's 'office.' "I see you like horses." He was looking at the photos. "Don't usually see such a variety in one picture."
Variety? There was only one horse in all of the pictures. Prophet, the former racer that belonged to his friend Eric.
"Nice draft, there. Is he a Shire? Makes that donkey look tiny."
Brian's hand jerked. A Shire and a donkey? Redwing was looking at the picture of Eric and another friend, Bob, standing with Prophet. The man had accurately tagged each of them with the animal shape they used most in stories. Swallowing hard, Brian forced a smile and finished making notations on the chart. "Uh, we'll have your new glasses in a few days. I'll schedule you for a fitting when they come in, OK?"
After Redwing had been escorted back out, Brian sat down and stared at the photos. How had the man known? Lucky guesses? It seemed too far-fetched to make three correct identifications through coincidence. However, the alternative was even more far-fetched. He frowned, touching the picture. Now that he thought about it, there was something vaguely equine about the two men's appearance. Oh, God! He stood up suddenly and forced the thought from his mind. It was just that kind of thing that must have gotten Redwing locked in here in the first place.
The real reason for Redwing's commitment to the asylum turned out to be somewhat more sinister. Friends and members of his family had disappeared, and he claimed responsibility. The possible victims included his best friend of more than ten years, two neighborhood children, and his own eight year-old son. No bodies had ever been found, nor had any signs of violence or blood been discovered. According to Redwing, he'd seen their true selves, and helped them find the reality in which they belonged. Of course, the man had also claimed to be responsible for the much-publicized disappearances of a famous naturalist in South America, a Hollywood actor from a fantasy television show, and three patients who had somehow escaped the facility without detection. With no bodies and some obviously false claims, the authorities had resorted to using his delusion to keep him locked up here.
As unusual as the encounter had been, Brian's hectic schedule kept him from thinking much about it until Redwing's new glasses came in almost a week later. By this time, he had almost managed to convince himself that the man had combined luck and some outward signals or clues that Brian just hadn't been able to identify. Almost. Most people probably would have accepted any logical explanation without digging any deeper, but Brian couldn't quite let go.
Redwing came in and sat quietly as Brian fitted the spectacles. The frames needed only minor adjustment of the nose pads, and his vision checked out 20/20 with the new lenses. Brian fidgeted with the paperwork, trying to work up the courage to ask the man some more questions, only to have the man start the conversation for him.
"You know your true self, don't you?" Redwing was very matter-of-fact, as if he had said Brian had a nice tie on. "I can see it even more clearly now." No one else was in the room, and Brian could only hope that the office wasn't bugged. "I like raccoons a lot. Even thought about becoming one. Daydreaming, of course." That last was added hastily.
"Interesting animals. My son, Lamont, liked them, too. But he really loved squirrels." Redwing sighed. "Every time I see one, I wonder if it's him."
"I've heard that you claimed to have turned him into an animal." Brian hesitated, feeling really foolish. "Did you turn him into a squirrel?"
"Not exactly." The man looked at him evenly for a moment, and then gave a sad smile. "He already was a squirrel. I just helped him find his reality. He would have gone on his own, anyway. Had the vision right from the start."
"The vision?" Brian sat on the edge of the desk, feeling that guilty thrill a kid might have when he played with matches. Scared and excited at the same time, afraid of getting caught, and fascinated by the flame.
"He could see people's true selves by the time he was in kindergarten." Redwing sighed deeply. "I didn't realize he had developed so fully. I couldn't even see people until I was almost twenty. Figured it was safe enough to wait. Then the Wilkerson boy vanished. I didn't think anything of it, except how terrible it was. He and Lamont were best friends. Then the Carter boy went missing. Lamont wasn't upset or scared, even though two friends had disappeared. I knew what had happened even before I asked him."
"Asked him what?"
"If he'd sent the boys on to their realities. Both of the kids were like you. It was like a petting zoo when the three of them were together - a cocker spaniel, a goat, and a squirrel scampering around the house. They were all human, of course, but I saw their true forms."
"So your sonā ...he sent them away?" Brian was starting to understand a little, and that understanding only increased his nervousness. God, was he going insane?
Redwing nodded. "To other realities, where they could really be what they were inside. To be honest, I don't know if that means they are normal animals in our world or in some totally different universe. All I know is, they are happy. I could feel that much from him when he left. It's what makes everything bearable."
"What about the neighbor? Your mother? The three other patients?"
"All me." The man raised an eyebrow. "Carl, my neighbor? He had lost his job. He was divorced, lonely, and suicidal. A sheep with no herd. It was the only way to save his life. My mother had cancer, and got a new chance as a dolphin. And the patients? They were completely lost in their real selves anyway. I sent them to the places they should have been to start with."
Brian stared for a moment, hesitant to push for more. "There were.. two others."
"The naturalist and the actor."
"Taylor, the naturalist? I read in a magazine article that her greatest dream had always been to find a pure, primitive society. Her picture was pure Neanderthal. So I sent her." Redwing shook his head. "Don't worry. It wouldn't have worked unless she wanted it. That's how Lamont was able to send that actor fellow. I guess he really was a centaur under all that makeup."
"You really change people?" Brian's chest was tight, and his palms were cold and damp with sweat. "I mean, you could transform...?"
"I don't transform anybody, son." Redwing leaned forward in the chair, looking intent. "If a person really wants it, I can send them to a different world, a different reality. It's the other place that changes them. Like water being poured into a different shaped bucket."
Brian felt hot and dizzy. His glasses slipped down on his nose, and he tried to push them back up. What had happened to his arms? They didn't reach properly. Bewildered, he looked down and saw his body rapidly shrinking and growing fur. There was no sensation of change. Oddly, it felt like the desk was expanding under him, the floor pulling away from his feet. His clothing crumbled into rags, and then became dust. The crisp scent of trees and rich earth filled his nostrils, and the walls of the examination room began to fade into shadowy woods.
Spinning rapidly, he sprawled across the desktop and grabbed frantically at the photos. They were thinning into mist, but he managed to toss them at Redwing before the world Brian had been part of dissolved into a beam of sunlight shining down through virgin forest. A sense of belonging permeated Brian's soul, his happiness made even greater by the memory of Redwing smiling at the pictures he held in his hand. The young raccoon knew that the man of vision would help his friends see their way home, just as he had helped Brian to his.
A Man of Vision copyright 2000 by Bob Stein.
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