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The Sumerian Oath

A Polytropical Paramyth

Caught in the Frozen Foods & Ice Cream aisle, with an assassin coming down from each end, Goodbody leaped upon the top of the grocery cart. With the grace and the flair of Doctor Blood (as played by Errol Flynn), Goodbody dived over the top of Ice Cream Cones & Chocolate Syrups. At the same time, the push of his departing feet sent the cart down the aisle into the nearest assassin.

Though Goodbody soared with great aplomb and considerable beauty, he knocked over tall boxes of ice cream cones and fell down on the other side into the Home Hardware & Fix-It-Urself Supplies. The cataract of Goodbody and wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, boxes of nails, double sockets, and picture wire startled women customers and caused one to faint into Pet Foods & Bird Cages.

Goodbody dived under a railing and then galloped along the front of the store toward the Liquor Department. A shout caused him to look behind. The fools had actually pulled out their scalpels; they were indeed desperate. It was possible, however, that they did not mean to kill him inside the supermarket. They might be herding him into the parking lot, where others would net him.

He yanked over a pocketbook stand as he went by, whirling it so that The Valley of The Dolls, The Arrangement, Couples, and Purple Sex Thing from the Fleshpot Planet flew out like the hyperactive fingers of desperately hungry and desperately typing pornographers. The nearest pursuer, waving his scalpel, found that its tip was embedded in So You Want To Be a Brain Surgeon?

How appropriate and how terrible, he thought as he fled through the door. He was the author of that best seller, the royalties of which he could not spend because he might find the AMA agents waiting to pick him up if he picked up the checks.

In the parking lot, almost as bright as day, a car leaped at him. He soared again, performing three entrechats to gain altitude (reminding him of the days when he had entered the operating amphitheater to the applause of famous surgeons and slack-jawed first-year students). He landed between a Chevy and a Caddy and was off. Tires screamed; doors slammed; feet pounded; voices growled.

"Doctor Goodbody! Halt! We mean no harm! This is for your own good! You're sick, man, sick!"

Cornered in the angle formed by two high walls, he turned to face them. Never let it be said that he would whimper, any more than Doctor Kildare, young god, would have whimpered, even if confronted with a large uncollectable bill.

Six came at him with glittering scalpels, He jerked out his own blade, speedy as Doctor Ehrlich's Magic Bullet. He would go down fighting; they would not get off lightly when they crossed steel with a man whose genius with the cutting edge was surpassed only by that of Doc Savage, now retired.

Herr Doktor Grossfleisch, huge as Laird Cregar when he played the medical student in The Lodger, floated forward and cast a hypodermic syringe, .1 caliber. The speed and accuracy with which it traveled would have delighted even crusty (but kindly) old Doctor Gillespie, especially as played by Lionel Barrymore. Goodbody responded with a magnificent parry that sent the syringe soaring over the wall, higher than the legendary intern who drank the embalming fluid.

Two eminent doctors, holding straitjackets before them with one hand and suturing needles with the other, like Roman retiarii, advanced. He slashed at them with such speed that five of them cried out with involuntary admiration. They hated themselves afterward for it and would, of course, be reprimanded by the AMA.

Grossfleisch cursed a forbidden curse, for which he would have to pay heavily, though not bloodily. Again he cast a huge syringe with a giant caliber tip, and it sailed over the shoulder of the doctor on Goodbody's left just as Goodbody made a thrust that would have caused Doctor Zorba to go pale with envy. But the needle penetrated Goodbody's extended right arm, and all became as black as the inside of the cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

"Shall we operate, Doctor Cyclops?"

The bright lamp showed six heads in consultation over him. Cyclops' shaven head and thick glasses were not among them. Goodbody had dreamed the words. Coining up from the depths of the dark subconscious, where the only light was the flickering silver of the projector beam on the flickering silver screen, he had brought up with him ancient cherished horrors.

Doctor Grossfleisch, author of Sponge Counting Techniques and Extraordinary Cases of Involved and Involuted Intussusception of the Small Bowel I Have Known, bent over him. The eyes were as empty and cold as the reflector on the head of a laryngologist. Yet this was the man who had sponsored him, the man who had taught him so much. This was the man who originated the justly famous When in doubt, cut.

Doctor Grossfleisch held an ice pick in his goblin-shaped hand.

"Schweinhund! First ve do to you der frontal lobotomy! Den der dissection mitout anesthesia alive yet!"

The ice pick descended toward his eyeball. A door exploded open. A scalpel streaked by Grossfleisch's zeppelin hip and stuck in the operating table, vibrating against Goodbody's strapped arm. "Halt!"

The six heads turned, and Grossfleisch said, "Ah! Doctor Leibfremd, world- famous healer and distinguished author of Der Misunderstood Martyrs: Burke und Hare! Vhat gifs for zuch a dramatic entrance?"

"Doctor Goodbody must be kept in good health! He is the only man with the genius to perform a brain operation on our glorious leader, Doctor Inderhaus!"

Goodbody's skin turned cold, and he felt like fainting. "Zo, our glorious leader has deep tumors of der cuneus and der lingual areas of der brain? Und Goodbody only has der chenius to cut? Mein Gott, how can ve trust him?"

"We stand behind him," Doctor Leibfremd said, "ready to thrust to the ganglia if he makes one false move!"

Goodbody sneered as if he were correcting an intern. "Why should I do this for you when you'll dissect me alive later?"

"Not so!" Leibfremd cried. "Despite your great crimes, we will let you live if you operate successfully on Doctor Inderhaus! Of course, you will be kept a prisoner, but in Grossfleisch's sanatorium, where, need I remind you, the patients live like kings, or, even better, Beverly Hills physicians!"

"You would allow me to live?"

"You will die a natural death! You will not be touched by a doctor!" Grossfleisch said, "And you will get a professional courtesy discount, too! Ten percent off your bill!"

"Thank you," Goodbody said humbly. But he was thinking of ways to escape even then. The world must know the ghastly truth.

The day of the great operation, the amphitheater was filled with doctors from all over the world. The life of their glorious leader, Doctor Inderhaus, was at stake, and only the condemned criminal, the Judas, the Benedict Arnold, the Mudd, the Quisling of the medical profession, could save him.

The patient, head shaven, was wheeled in. He shook hands with himself as his colleagues cheered wildly. Tears dripped down his cheeks at this exhibition of love and respect, not unmixed with awe. Then he saw his surgeon approaching, and the benignity of Hyde changed to the hideous face of Jekyll. Goodbody slipped on his mask and gloves. Grossfleisch held a scalpel to his back, and a man, who looked like Doctor Casey after a hard night with the head nurse, aimed a laser at Goodbody.

"Stand back! Give me room!" Goodbody said. He was icy cold, calm as the surface of a goldfish bowl, his long delicate fingers, which could have been a concert pianist's if he had gone wrong, flexed as if they were snakes smelling blood. A hush fell. Though the audience hated him to a man, despised and loathed him, and longed to spit on him (with no sterilization before or after), they could not help admiring him.

The hours ticked by. Scalpels cut. The scalp was rolled back. Drills growled; saws whined. The top of the skull came out. The keen blades began slicing into the gray wrinkled mass.

"Ach!" Grossfleisch said involuntarily as the forebrain came up like a drawbridge. "Mein Gott! Zuch daringk!"

There was a communal "Ah!" as Goodbody held up the great jellyfish-shaped tumor in his fist. Despite themselves, the doctors gave him a standing ovation that lasted ten minutes.

It was sad, he thought, that the greatest triumph of a series of blazing triumphs, the apex of his career, was also his black defeat, the nadir. And then the patient was wheeled out, and the surgeon was seized, stripped, and strapped. Grossfleisch and Ueberpreis, well-known proctologist and author of the notorious article Did Doctor Watson Poison His Three Wives?, approached the operating table. They were smiling with an utterly evil coldness and abhorrently sadistic pleasure, like Doctor Mabuses.

The audience leaned forward. They had always felt that both the patient and doctor were better off without employing anesthesia. The physician could determine the patient's reactions much more accurately and quickly if his responses were not dulled.

"Doctor X, I presume?" Goodbody said as he awoke.

"What!" said the nurse, Mrs. Fell.

"A nightmare. I thought my arms and legs had been cut off. Oh!"

"You'll get used to that," the nurse said. "Anytime you need anything, just press that plate with your nose. Don't be bashful. Doctor Grossfleisch said I was to wait on you hand and foot. I mean..."

"I'm not only a basket case but a crazy basket case," he said. "I'm sure that I've been certified insane, haven't I?"

"Well," Mrs. Fell said, "who knows what insane means! One man's looniness is another man's religion. I mean, one man's schizophrenia is another man's manic- depressiveness. Well, you know what I mean!"

It was no use telling her his story, but he had to. "Don't just dismiss what I'm about to tell you as the ravings of a maniac. Think about it for a long time; look around you. See if what I say doesn't make sense, even if it seems a topsyturvy sense."

He had one advantage. She was a nurse, and all nurses, by the time they were graduated, loathed doctors. She would be ready to believe the worst about them.

"Every medical doctor takes the oath of Hippocrates. But, before he swears in public, he takes a private, a most arcane, oath. And that oath is much more ancient than that of Hippocrates, who, after all, died in 377 B.C., comparatively recently.

"The first witch doctor of the Old Stone Age may have given that oath to the second witch doctor. Who knows? But it is recorded, in a place where you will never see it, that the first doctor of the civilized world, the first doctor of the most ancient city-state, that of Sumer, predecessor even of old Egypt, swore in the second doctor.

"The Sumerian oath -- scratch my nose, will you, my dear? -- required that a medical doctor must never, under any circumstances, reveal anything at all about the true nature of doctors or of the true origin of diseases."

Mrs. Fell listened with only a few interruptions. Then she said, "Doctor Goodbody! Are you seriously trying to tell me that diseases would not exist if it were not for doctors? That doctors manufacture diseases and spread them around? That if it weren't for doctors, we'd all be one hundred percent healthy? That they pick and choose laymen to infect and to cure so they can get good reputations and make money and dampen everybody's suspicions by... by... that's ridiculous!"

The sweat tickled his nose, but he ignored it. "Yes, Mrs. Fell, that's true! And, rarely, but it does happen, a doctor can't take being guilty of mass murder anymore, and he breaks down and tries to tell the truth! And then he's hauled off, declared insane by his colleagues, or dies during an operation, or gets sick and dies, or just disappears!"

"And why weren't you killed?"

"I told you! I saved our glorious leader, the Grand Exalted Iatrogenic Sumerian. They promised me my life, and we don't lie to each other, just to laymen! But they made sure I couldn't escape, and they didn't cut my tongue out because they're sadistic! They get a charge out of me telling my story here, because who's going to believe me, a patient in a puzzle factory? Yes, Mrs. Fell, don't look so shocked! A booby hatch, a nut house! I'm a loony, right? Isn't that what you believe?"

She patted the top of his head. "There, there! I believe you! I'll see what I can do. Only..."

"Yes?"

"My husband is a doctor, and if I thought for one moment that he was in a secret organization...!"

"Don't ask him!" Goodbody said. "Don't say a word to any doctor! Do you want to come down with cancer or infectious hepatitis or have a coronary thrombosis? Or catch a brand-new disease? They invent a new one now and then, just to relieve the boredom, you know!"

It was no use. Mrs. Fell was just going along with him to soothe him.

And that night he was carried into the depths beneath the huge old house, where torches flickered and cold gray stones sweat and little drums beat and shrill goat horns blew and doctors with painted faces and red robes and black feathers and rattling gourds and thrumming bullroarers administered the Sumerian oath to the graduating class, 1970, of Johns Hopkins. And they led each young initiate before him and pointed out what would happen if he betrayed his profession.


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