by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
I WAS IN GREAT perplexity: I had to start on an urgent journey; a seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village ten miles off; a thick blizzard of snow filled all the wide spaces between him and me; I had a gig, a light gig 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. My own horse had died in the night, worn out by the fatigues of this icy winter; my servant girl was now running round the village trying to borrow a horse; but it was hopeless, I knew it, and I stood there forlornly, with the snow gathering more and more thickly upon me, more and more unable to move. In the gateway the girl appeared, alone, and waved the lantern; of course, who would lend a horse at this time for such a journey? I strode through the courtyard once more; I could see no way out; in my confused distress I kicked at the dilapidated door of the year-long uninhabited pigsty. It flew open and flapped to and fro on its hinges. A steam and smell as of horses came out from it. A dim stable lantern was swinging inside from a rope. A man, crouching on his hams in that low space, showed an open blue-eyed face. “Shall I yoke up?” he asked, crawling out on all fours. I did not know what to say and 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 house,” she said, and we both laughed. “Hey there, Brother, hey there, Sister!” called the groom, and two horses, enormous creatures with powerful flanks, one after the other, their legs tucked close to their bodies, each well-shaped head lowered like a camel’s, by sheer strength of buttocking squeezed out through the door hole which they filled entirely. But at once they were standing up, their legs long and their bodies steaming thickly. “Give him a hand,” I said, and the willing girl hurried to help the groom with the harnessing. Yet hardly was she beside him when the groom clipped hold of her and pushed his face against hers. She screamed and fled back to me; on her cheek stood out in red the marks of two rows of teeth. “You brute,” I yelled in fury, “do you want a whipping?” but in the same moment reflected that the man was a stranger; that I did not know where he came from, and that of his own free will he was helping me out when everyone else had failed me. As if he knew my thoughts he took no offense at my threat but, still busied with the horses, only turned round once towards me. “Get in,” he said then, and indeed everything was ready. A magnificent pair of horses, I observed, such as I had never sat behind, and 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,” shrieked Rose, fleeing into the house with a justified presentiment that her fate was inescapable: I heard the door chain rattle as she put it up; I heard the key turn in the lock; I could see, moreover, how she put out the lights in the entrance hall and in further flight all through the rooms 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 thinking of paying for it by handing the girl over to you.” “Gee up!” he said; clapped his hands; the gig whirled off like a log in a freshet; I could just hear the door of my house splitting and bursting as the groom charged at it, and then I was deafened and blinded by a storming rush that steadily buffeted all my senses. But this only for a moment, since, as if my patient’s farmyard had opened out just before my courtyard gate, I was already there; the horses had come quietly to a standstill; the blizzard had stopped; moonlight all around; my patient’s parents hurried out of the house, his sister behind them; I was almost lifted out of the gig, from their confused ejaculations I gathered not a word; in the sickroom the air was almost unbreathable; the neglected stove was smoking; I wanted to push open a window; but first I had to look at my patient. Gaunt, without any fever, not cold, not warm, with vacant eyes, without a shirt, the youngster heaved himself up from under the feather bedding, threw his arms round my neck, and whispered in my ear: “Doctor, let me die.” I glanced round the room; no one had heard it; the parents were leaning forward in silence waiting for my verdict; the sister had set a chair for my handbag; I opened the bag and hunted among my instruments; the boy kept clutching at me from his bed to remind me of his entreaty; I picked up a pair of tweezers, examined them in the candlelight and laid them down again. “Yes,” I thought blasphemously, “in cases like this the gods are helpful, send the missing horse, add to it a second because of the urgency, and to crown everything bestow even a groom—” And only now did I remember Rose again; what was I to do, how could I rescue her, how could I pull her away from under that groom at ten miles’ distance, with a team of horses I couldn’t control. These horses, now, they had somehow slipped the reins loose, pushed the windows open from outside, I did not know how; each of them had stuck a head in at a window and, quite unmoved by the startled cries of the family, stood eyeing the patient. “Better go back at once,” I thought, as if the horses were summoning me to the return journey, yet I permitted the patient’s sister, who fancied that I was dazed by the heat, to take my fur coat from me. A glass of rum was poured out for me, the old man clapped me on the shoulder, a familiarity justified by this offer of his treasure. I shook my head; in the narrow confines of the old man’s thoughts I felt ill; that was my only reason for refusing the drink. The mother stood by the bedside and cajoled me towards it; I yielded, and while one of the horses whinnied loudly to the ceiling, laid my head to the boy’s breast, which shivered under my wet beard. I confirmed what I already knew; the boy was quite sound, something a little wrong with his circulation, saturated with coffee by his solicitous mother, but sound and best turned out of bed with one shove. I am no world reformer and so I let him lie. I was the district doctor and did my duty to the uttermost, to the point where it became almost too much. I was badly paid and yet generous and helpful to the poor. I had still to see that Rose was all right, and then the boy might have his way, and I wanted to die too. What was I doing there in that endless winter! My horse was dead, and not a single person in the village would lend me another. I had to get my team out of the pigsty; if they hadn’t chanced to be horses I should have had to travel with swine. That was how it was. And I nodded to the family. They knew nothing about it and, had they known, would not have believed it. To write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with people is hard. Well, this should be the end of my visit, I had once more been called out needlessly, I was used to that, the whole district made my life a torment with my night bell, but that I should have to sacrifice Rose this time as well, the pretty girl who had lived in my house for years almost without my noticing her—that sacrifice was too much to ask, and I had somehow to get it reasoned out in my head with the help of what craft I could muster, in order not to let fly at this family, which with the best will in the world could not restore Rose to me. But as I shut my bag and put an arm out for my fur coat, the family meanwhile standing together, the father sniffing at the glass of rum in his hand, the mother, apparently disappointed in me—why, what do people expect?—biting her lips with tears in her eyes, the sister fluttering a blood-soaked towel, I was somehow ready to admit conditionally that the boy might be ill after all. I went towards him, he welcomed me smiling as if I were bringing him the most nourishing invalid broth—ah, now both horses were whinnying together; the noise, I suppose was ordained by heaven to assist my examination of the patient—and this time I discovered that the boy was indeed ill. In his right side, near the hip, was an open wound as big as the palm of my hand. Rose red, in many variations of shade, dark in the hollows, lighter at the edges, softly granulated, with irregular clots of blood, open as a surface mine to the daylight. That was how it looked from a distance. But on a closer inspection there was another complication. I could not help a low whistle of surprise. Worms, as thick and as long as my little finger, themselves rose red and blood-spotted as well, were wriggling from their fastness in the interior of the wound towards the light, with small white heads and many little legs. 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 the father, the father told several guests who were coming in, through the moonlight at the open door, walking on tiptoe, keeping their balance with outstretched arms. “Will you save me?” whispered the boy with a sob, quite blinded by the life within his wound. That is what people are like in my district. Always expecting the impossible from the doctor. They have lost their ancient beliefs; the parson sits at home and unravels his vestments, one after another; but the doctor is supposed to be omnipotent with his merciful surgeon’s hand. Well, as it pleases them; I have not thrust my services on them; if they misuse me for sacred ends, I let that happen to me too; what better do I want, old country doctor that I am, bereft of my servant girl! And so they came, the family and the village elders, and stripped my clothes off me; a school choir with the teacher at the head of it stood before the house and sang these words to an utterly simple tune:
Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us,
If he doesn’t, kill him dead!
Only a doctor, only a doctor.
Then my clothes were off and I looked at the people quietly, my fingers in my beard and my head cocked to one side. I was altogether composed and equal to the situation and remained so, although it was no help to me, since they now took me by the head and feet and carried me to the bed. They laid me down in it next to the wall, on the side of the 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 voice in my ear, “I have very little confidence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet. Instead of helping me, you’re cramping me on my deathbed. What I’d like best is to scratch your eyes out.” “Right,” I said, “it is a shame. And yet I am a 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 must be, I can’t help it. I always have to put up with things. A fine wound is all I brought into the world; that was my sole endowment.” “My young friend,” said I, “your mistake is: you have not a wide enough view. I have been in all the sickrooms, far and wide, and I tell you: your wound is not so bad. Done in a tight corner with two strokes of the ax. Many a one proffers his side and can hardly hear the ax in the forest, far less that it is coming nearer to him.” “Is that really so, or are you deluding me in my fever?” “It is really so, take the word of honor of an official doctor.” And he took it and 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 dressing; if the horses raced home as they had come, I should only be springing, as it were, out of this bed into my own. Obediently a horse backed away from the window; I threw my bundle into the gig; the fur coat missed its mark and was caught on a hook only by the sleeve. Good enough. I swung myself onto the horse. With the reins loosely trailing, one horse barely fastened to the other, the gig swaying behind, my fur coat last of all in the snow. “Gee up!” I said, but there was no galloping; slowly, like old men, we crawled through the snowy wastes; a long time echoed behind us the new but faulty song of the children:
O be joyful, all you patients,
The doctor’s laid in bed beside you!
Never shall I reach home at this rate; my flourishing practice is done for; my successor is robbing me, but in vain, for he cannot take my place; in my house the disgusting groom is raging; Rose is his victim; I do not want to think about it any more. Naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages, with an earthly vehicle, unearthly horses, old man that I am, I wander astray. My fur coat is hanging from the back of the gig, but I cannot reach it, and none of my limber pack of patients lifts a finger. Betrayed! Betrayed! A false alarm on the night bell once answered—it cannot be made good, not ever.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1883, and died in 1924. He is known for the intense visionary character of his novels, stories, parables, and sketches, all written in German. Less than one-quarter of his writing consists of completed works. The most famous of his works are the unfinished novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, and the short stories collected under the title The Penal Colony, from which this story is taken.
Interpreting Kafka is always a dangerous enterprise, but “A Country Doctor” seems obviously, at least on first reading, to be a dream. Almost a hundred years later Bob Dylan would pen a poetic subjective description of dreams that recalls Kafka’s technique in its tone and enigmatic series of visions:
Series of Dreams
by Bob Dylan
I was thinkin’ of a series of dreams
Where nothing comes up to the top
Everything stays down where its wounded
And comes to a permanent stop
Wasn’t thinking of anything specific
Like in a dream, when someone wakes up and screams
Nothing too very scientific
Just thinkin’ of a series of dreams
Thinkin’ of a series of dreams
Where the time and the tempo drag
And there’s no exit in any direction
’Cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes
Wasn’t making any great connection
Wasn’t falling for any intricate scheme
Nothing that would pass inspection
Just thinkin’ of a series of dreams
Dreams where the umbrella is folded
Into the path you are hurled
And the cards are no good that you’re holding
Unless they’re from another world
In one, the surface was frozen
In another, I witnessed a crime
In one, I was running, and in another
All I seemed to be doing was climb
Wasn’t looking for any special assistance
Nor going to any great extremes
I’d already gone the distance
Just thinkin’ of a series of dreams