Ein Landarzt, Franz Kafka, German translation, Happy Halloween, short story, surreal dreams, The Country Doctor, ZJC
I was in great confusion: I had to start upon an urgent journey—-a seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village 10 miles off—-a thick blizzard of snow filled all the wide spaces between us—-I had a cart, a little cart with big wheels, exactly right for our country roads—-muffled in furs, my bag of instruments in my hand, I was in the courtyard all ready for the journey—-but there was no horse to be had, no horse at all. My own horse had died in the night, worn out by the tortures of this terrible winter—-my servant girl was now running around the village trying to borrow one—-but it was impossible, I knew it, I stood there hopelessly, with the snow gathering heavier, thickly upon me, heavier, unable to move. In the gateway the girl appeared, alone, waved the lantern—-of course, who would lend a horse at this time of night for such a journey? I strode through the courtyard at once—-I could see no way out—-in my confused state I kicked at the broken-down door of the year-long empty pigsty. It flew open, flapped back and forth on its hinges. A foul smell, just like that of horses, came out from it. A dim stable lantern was swinging inside from a rope. A man, crouching on his hands and knees in that low space, stared back at me with an open blue-eyed face. “Want me to yoke up?” he asked, crawling about on all fours. I did not know what to say, merely stooped down to see what else was in the sty. The servant girl was standing beside me. “You never know what you’re going to find in your own home,” she said. We both laughed. “Hey there, Brother, hey there, Sister!” called the groom, bringing out two horses. They were enormous creatures, with powerful flanks, one after the other, their legs tucked close to their bodies, each well-shaped camel head lowered. By sheer strength of massive buttocks they squeezed out through the door hole, which they filled entirely. But at once they were standing up, their long legs, their bodies steaming like blood thickly. “Give him a hand,” I ordered. The willing girl hurried out to help the groom with the harnesses. Suddenly, she wasn’t even next to him, the groom grabbed hold of her, his terrible mouth pushed against hers. She screamed, ran back to me—-on her cheek blood flowed from the red marks of two rows of teeth. “You brute!” I shouted in fury, “do you want a whipping?” but in the same moment reflected that the man was a stranger to our lands—-that I did not even know where he came from, that he was willing to help me when everyone else had betrayed me. As if he knew my thoughts he took no offense at my shouting but, still working with the horses, only turned around once towards me. “Get in,” he ordered. I looked and indeed everything was ready. A magnificent pair of horses, I saw, such as I had never sat behind before. I climbed in happily. “But I’ll drive, you don’t know the way,” I said. “Of course,” said he, “I’m not coming with you anyway, I’m staying with Rose.” “No!” screamed Rose, fleeing into the house with a terrible sense that her fate was sealed: I heard the door chain rattle as she locked herself in—-I heard the key turn in the lock—-I could see, as well, how she snuffed out the lights in the entrance hall, in all the rooms, anything to keep herself from being discovered. “You’re coming with me,” I said to the groom, “or I won’t go—-urgent as my journey is—-I’m not paying for this by handing the girl over to you.” “Get up!” and he clapped his hands—-the cart whirled off like a log in a breakdam—-I could just hear the door of my house splitting inward, bursting their locks as the groom, steaming, broke the wood down. Then I was deafened, blinded, all by the heavy snow-storm that steadily shook and tempest-tossed all of my senses. But this lasted only for a moment, since, as if my patient’s farmyard had suddenly opened up just before me, I was already there—-the horses had come quietly to a standstill—-the blizzard quickly stopped—-moonlight shown all around—-my patient’s mother and father hurried out of the house, his sister behind them—-I was lifted out of the cart. From their confused babble I could not understand a single word—-in the sickroom the air was so foul it was almost unbreathable—-the dying stove was smoking—-I wanted to push open a window—-but first—-first—-I had to look at my patient. Cadaverous, without any fever, not even cold, not even warm, but with vacant eyes, without a shirt, the child heaved himself up from under the feather bed, threw his stick arms round my neck, whispered in my ear: “Doctor, dear, let me die.” I glanced around the room—-no one had heard him speak, had he spoken?—-the parents were leaning forward in silence, waiting for my diagnosis—-the sister brought in a chair for my handbag—-I opened the bag, hunted through my instruments—-the boy kept clutching at me from his bed, as if to remind me of his request—-I picked up a pair of tweezers, examined them in the candlelight, then laid them back down again. “Yes,” I thought, blasphemously, “in cases like let this the gods be helpful, send the missing horse home—-no—-send two back because of the urgency, summon the groom—-” Only then did I remember my Rose—-what was I to do for her? how could I rescue her at 10 miles’ distance? with a team of horses I couldn’t control. These horses, now, they had somehow slipped from their reins, pushed the sickroom window open from outside, I did not know how—-each of them had stuck a head in through the window, quite unmoved by the startled cries of the family. They stood, staring at the patient. “Better go back at once,” I thought, as if the horses were summoning me to the return trip home, but I permitted the child’s sister, who thought that I must have been only dazed by the heat, to take my fur coat from me. A glass of rum was poured out for me, the old father clapped me on the shoulder, a familiarity justified by this offer of his last treasure. I shook my head—-in the narrow thoughts of the old man I must have looked ill—-that must be the only reason for refusing his drink. The mother stood by the bedside, called me towards it—-I went, while one of the horses whinnied loudly to the ceiling, calling. I laid my head to the boy’s chest which shivered under my wet beard. I confirmed what I already knew—-the boy was quite sound, something a little wrong with his blood circulation, I am sure. Drunk on coffee by his concerned mother, but healthy. It would be best if his parents kicked him out of bed with one shove. I am no world reformer, so I let him lie. I was a country doctor, I did my duty the best I could, to the point where it became almost too much for me. I was badly paid, yet I am generous, I help the poor. I still had to see that Rose was all right, and once I was gone if the boy wanted to have his way, so be it. I wanted to die, too. What was I doing there in that endless winter? My horse was dead, not a single person in the village would help me. I had to get my team out of the pigsty—-if I could I would have ridden by swine. That was how it was. I nodded to the family. They knew nothing about all this, had they known, would not have believed me. To write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with common people is hard. Well, this should be the end of my visit, I had once more been called out needlessly, but I was used to that, the whole country zone made my life a misery with my night bell, but that I should have to sacrifice Rose this time as well, my pretty girl, a girl who had lived in my house for years and I had never noticed her—odd—-that sacrifice was too much to ask. I had to figure out something to do, in order not to let explode in rage at this family. The best will in the world would not restore Rose to me. But as I shut my bag, put an arm out for my fur coat, the family meanwhile stood together, the old father sniffing at the glass of rum in his hand, the mother, apparently disappointed in me—why? what do people want?—biting her lip with tears in her eyes, the sister shook out a blood-stained towel. I was almost ready to admit that the boy might be—-what? Ill after all. I went to him, he welcomed me smiling as if I were bringing him the most nourishing broth he had ever tasted—ah! now both horses were whinnying together—-the noise, I suppose, was sent by heaven to assist in my examination of the patient once more—and this time I discovered that the boy was indeed terribly ill. In his right side, near the hip, was a gaping, open wound, as big as the palm of my hand. Infected, inflamed, in many variations of shade, dark in the hollows, lighter at the edges, softly coarse but with irregular clots of blood, open as a hole in the ground is to the daylight. That was how it looked from a distance. But on a closer inspection there was another complication. I could not help but cry out in surprise. Worms, as thick, as long as my little finger, themselves blood-red, blood-spotted, were wriggling from their fastness in the interior of the wound, out and up towards the light, with their small white heads, with many little legs. O! Poor boy, you were past helping. I had discovered your great wound—-this blossom in your side was destroying you. The family was pleased—-they saw me busying myself—-the sister told the mother, the mother told the father, the father told several guests who were coming through the door, through the moonlight in the open door, walking on tiptoes, balancing with outstretched arms. “Will you save me?” whispered the boy with a cry, quite blinded by the life that wriggled deep within his wound. That is what people are like in my country zone. Always expecting the impossible from doctors. They have lost their ancient beliefs—-the preacher sits at home, unravels his vestments because he no longer believes—-but the doctor is supposed to be all-powerful with his merciful surgeon’s hand. Well, if it pleases them—-I was the one they called on—-if they abuse me thinking I can work miracles I suppose I will let them do that to me too—-what else do I want? Old country doctor, robed of my servant girl! So they came, this family, these village elders, they came and stripped me of all clothes—-a school choir with the teacher at the head of it stood before the house, singing these words in an utterly simple tune:
Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us,
If he doesn’t, we’ll kill him dead!
He is only a doctor, only a doctor.
Then, old man that I am, I was naked. I looked at the people quietly, my fingers in my beard, my head cocked to one side. I was still composed. I was still equal to this situation. I would remain so, although it was no relief to me to do so, since they now carried me to the bed. They laid me down in it, next to the wall, on the side of the open wound. Then they all left the room—-the door was shut—-the singing stopped—-clouds covered the moon—-the bedding was warm around me—-the horses’ heads in the open windows wavered like shadows. “Do you know,” said a tiny voice in my ear, “I have very little faith in you. Why, you were only blown in here like snow, you didn’t even come on your own feet. Instead of helping me, you’re crushing me on my own deathbed. What I’d like best is to jab your eyes out.” “Right,” I said, “it is a shame. Yet I am the doctor. What am I to do? Believe me, it is not too easy for me either.” “Am I supposed to be content with this apology? Oh, I suppose that I must be, I can’t help it. I always have to put up with these things. A terrible wound is all I brought into this world—-that was my only gift.” “My young friend,” I said, “you are mistaken. You have not a wide enough view. I have been in all the sickrooms of this country zone and I tell you that your wound is not so bad. Maybe it happened with two strokes of the ax. Many get hit in the side, for they can hardly hear an ax in the forest as it is coming to to them.” “Is that really the truth? or are you lying to me because of my fever?” “It is really so, take the word of an official doctor.” He took it, then lay still. But now it was time for me to think of escaping. The horses were still standing faithfully in their places. My clothes, my fur coat, my bag were quickly collected—-I didn’t want to waste time putting them on—-if the horses raced home as they had come, I would soon be in the bed of my own. Obediently a horse backed away from the window—-I threw my bundle into the cart—-the fur coat was caught on a hook, hanging only by its sleeve. So what? Good enough. I swung myself naked onto the horse. With the reins loosely trailing, the two horse barely fastened to each other, my fur coat dragging in the snow, I shouted: “Get up!” But there was no galloping—-only, like old men, we crawled through the snowy wasteland—-for a long time a new song of the children echoed behind us:
Be joyous, you patients,
The doctor had been laid in bed beside you!
Never will I ever reach home at this rate—-my country practice is in ruin—-my neighbors robbing me—-that beast that I once called a disgusting groom is hidden in my house—-Rose is no more—-I do not want to think about what lays for me in the snow. Naked, exposed to the hoarfrost, lost in this most unhappy of ages, old man that I am, I wander in the winter like a stray. My fur coat is hanging from the back of the cart—-but I cannot reach it. No one will lift a finger. Betrayed! Betrayed! Once a person responds to a false alarm calling to you from a night bell there is no making anything ever good again—never again.
(by Franz Kafka, translation by ZJC)
This isn’t a horror story but it is my favorite Halloween story. Written in 1919 in German, it was originally titled, “Ein Landarzt.” I love this because it has been the nearest I’ve ever gotten to reading about what dream-state is really like—-nightmares and surreal images that swirl before you … and there is never anything that anyone can do. In dreamland stupid, brutal things occur, things you’d never do in the waking world, and yet there is never anything that we can do to alter it. It’s pointless to take this story literally. Of course the Doctor wants to save Rose, but he is powerless to do anything. Of course any sane physician would check all of the boy’ body before pronouncing a diagnosis, but in the dreamland that just doesn’t happen. In dreamland we are slaves to all that we fear and have no power over.