A science fiction short story from WHM.

SafeForge Incident Report

Everyone (except me)
SafeForge (the entire station)
SafeForge is an orbital station converted from an asteroid in the BN37 star system to mine heavy metals from the asteroid belt as well as serve as a refuel station for the infrequent occurrence of ships traveling between the two clusters of TheHub and BurstRose. The human component of the station was comprised of 233 individuals. A protectorate of the Materials Alliance Group, it operated as a self-regulating cooperative set at 15% member fluctuation, a cap of 10% admin, and 20% minimum gruntwork per cooperativist. The minimum buy-in was 5,000 toil cycles. The official culture designation was technocratic agnostic with high altruism and low deviation from galactic standard. That's the official line. But here's the truth: the station's isolation had led to a higher than standard localized culture and a high self-perpetuation state (89.3%) as well as proto-animism. I believe this is an example of what The Flangent Group has identified as closed system inductive drift. At the very least, there existed a slavish devotion to minor (or miner [as it were]) superstitions. For example: Although there was no reason to, every shift the miners would draw numbers to determine the order they would leave the station for their excavators. They would use the same stack of cards until there was an accident that either damaged machinery or led to the injury or death of the operator. After such an occurrence, they would publicly incinerate the stack of cards and prepare a new one. Another example: Women in a state of gestation always walked the corridor for their morning exercise that had been walked by the first woman who successfully brought a child to term on the station. Though the corridor had later been extended during an expansion, the historical end of the corridor was still marked by a stripe of red paint. The women never crossed it while exercising. There was a rumor that women who crossed the line had a higher chance of miscarriage or other unfortunatalities. [Yes, that's inexcusable word play. I'm leaving it in. Maybe it explains something.] One time (before my parents moved to the station), a group of teenagers thought it would be amusing to paint over the line and paint a new one several feet into the newer section. According to rumor, all the women who were gravid at the time lost their babies and the four culprits stole an excavator and crashed it into Riva, the gas giant that is the nearest planet to the station. This sounds like one of those cautionary tales generated by necessity rather than events, but I found the documentation. It's delightfully ambiguous on whether the shuttle was stolen or provisioned. [That word delightful is a red herring: if I were truly interested in the gray technicalities of bureaucratic cover-ups, I would have found more joy in my admin internship and would right now be exercising petty retributions on the still-living cooperativists of SafeForge.] Also: yes, the name of the station turned out to be quite ironic: Ha. Ha. Ha.
The station is in complete disarray. Many systems are down. All sectors (but mine [and I'm barely holding on]) are derelict. All 24 mining excavators are missing or destroyed. I am unable [and, to be honest, unwilling] to do detailed assessments.
I know I'm supposed to feel different now that it's gone, but SafeForge has never felt like home to me. Perhaps it is this distance that created the necessary conditions for me to write this report. Perhaps not, especially since it has taken me so long to file it. I should explain further. But to do so requires starting at the beginning. Kasstel write that beginnings rarely matter in the end. Maybe they're right. Maybe it wasn't the beginning where things went wrong. And yet as I did the research necessary to prepare this report, I found myself returning to it again and again. So: I was a lonely child. My research suggests that nearly everyone says they are. I have come to believe that this claim is proof of the narcissism which is bound up in any attempts to reflect on a childhood: to claim loneliness is to hint at thoughtfulness and uniqueness. Who, after all, wants to claim that they were a noisy, thoughtless, joiner of a child who spent all their time reacting to other children, head full of play? No, much better to be a child apart from the world: in one's own little world: creating the oddities and concerns that can bring insight and novelty to the world once refined by education and experience. Or to put it another way: it is a way to sidestep the naiveté, to not be implicated in the cruel innocence of children. Still: I actually was a lonely child. I can prove it thus: I was born on DromePort to ordinary parents: conceived and gestated in the ordinary way: raised in as comfortable (ordinary) and stimulating (ordinary) environment as my parents could afford. In my sixth year, my parents were accepted into the SafeForge cooperative. I now know that this had been their original goal--that I had been one step in their qualification for membership. I mention this not to deflect blame, but rather to provide a fuller picture of the situation. One would have hoped that such a backwater would have very few children, but the locals had taken advantage of its insignificance and isolation to go on a procreation spree. In my pool of children, there were 17 of us: only 20 less than the much larger colony in which I had been born. This abundance pleased my parents. The consequences for me were devastating: the move only solidified my middle-of-the-packness in an even more provincial location. I tried to fend off the sociable enthusiasms of the others, but there are only so many places to hide on a small, increasingly crowded station, and I was not so socially defective as to desire to isolate myself completely so I often was forced to join in. This was abetted by my parents, who were delighted to see that my--in their words--“friends” wanted to play. Except they didn't: I have verified this in my review of the creche feeds. They wanted me to run with the pack, but gave me no role within it. Once I joined, they ignored me completely. I was only present for them in my absence. Once that presence was discovered they would hound my parents or sniff out my quiet spots so that I would be forced to join in. One might think a child such as I would turn to art. My education file shows that some attempts were made to nudge me in that direction, but to no avail: I showed neither talent nor interest for the foundations and lineaments of any particular art form. At most I exhibited a slightly higher than average eagerness to consume the communal entertainments to be found on the station, which were paltry in number and thin in value, consisting mainly of screen-based slice-of-life narratives and live imaginative role-inhabiting/swapping (where, incidentally, I always played the overly serious project chair/captain/lead). In fact, I have no memory of and can find no record of me ever accessing the masterworks database until I began crashing about manically doing the research required to write this report. I have spent quite some time with it since then. My parents never seemed to worry about me. Why should they? I never stole rations, or moved sensors, or flooded the network with crude images or dirty jokes. Speaking of jokes: I somehow never grew out of the stage of development where children tell dumb ones. This is likely because my parents, especially my father, laughed uproariously at every one I told, no matter how hoary or unsophisticated. Let me illustrate with one that is representative: Q: What did the miner say to the asteroid? A: I dig you. [For those unacquainted with space mining operations, it's funny not only because it plays on the dual meaning of the word dig but also because heavy machinery operators are known for their monosyllabic literalness, especially in their expressions of romantic interest. Or to state another truism: a miner is always only after one thing.] Or how about this one? Q: What's the difference between butt waste and a vitprot bar? A: Shit if I know. [Alternate punchline: shit isn't what it used to be] These all should have elicited groans from my parents, but instead were met with laughter every time. Even the fifth time and the seventeenth time and the thirty-first. Even after I entered my teen years. Even after my mother died in a freak accident. My peers were no better. They also always laughed. Not as hard or long as my father, but they still laughed. And yet as I grew more self-aware, this laughter only reinforced my loneliness. It always seemed to create distance between me and the person laughing; whereas, I was looking to bridge it: to find some kinship: some spark between brains. It never was clear to me if I was being humored or laughed at or merely causing some reflexive action. So I told the jokes, each time hoping that this would be the time where things clicked. And they always laughed. Little did they know that after I finally grew out of these jokes, I had one more to tell. One that would grow horribly wrong. But that was yet to come and even after writing all this I feel like I'm forcing narrative on to the truth of my childhood and adolescence. Granted, it's a narrative that I, myself, have forced, but I'm not entirely convinced, and I will never know how convincing it is to anyone else. As the poet Sleek wrote: I been back and forth in my mind / like a faulty switch / swinging between possibilities / never landing on which.
None (because they're all dead). I strained my lower back while dragging bodies to the recycler, but that was post-incident. It has healed over the past couple of months.
It occurs to me that there may be some questions about why it has taken so long to file this report. I want to start by emphasizing that what finally happened was not in the plan at all: I did not want to destroy SafeForge. Keeping that in mind, believe me when I say that this report is not some exercise in nostalgia or exorcism or self-justification. It is a reconstruction: meticulously documented, exhaustively researched, corroborated where possible. (Of course, much of the documentation is gone, even my exhaustion has its limits, and those who can corroborate are all dead.) In addition, I have sifted through a multitude of research looking to situate this event in a theoretical framework that would be useful to those who will be doing a more thorough post-mortem [Sorry. Really: truly: sorry] of the failure. It seems to me that I have failed to find the right one, although I do not know if that is because of my deficiencies as a researcher and analyst or because I am too close to the situation. Indeed, even though I will likely never see the final Galactic Auditors report, the desire to provide something that will contribute positively to that report [but, hopefully, without biasing it] is what led me to finally completing this form.
This is where it gets complicated. And requires more information on my upbringing, specifically my adolescence and early adulthood. I don't think much needs to be said on issues of sexuality: I was in the lower end of the middle third in terms of frequency and number of partners. My partner profile centered around the descriptors: gentle, adequate, attentive, consistent. Schooling and career fit requires a bit more detail: I have already expressed my ordinariness. This inevitably translated to mediocrity in studies. I was cautiously interested in but never passionate about everything. Ironically, this dull dilettantery (please don't be impressed with the turn of phrase: I stole it from Shon Za 8) meant I was the only one in my group to rotate through every single occupational exploration station. As you should by now anticipate, I showed no strong affinity but also no strong aversion to any of the occupational tracks. I also exhibited only a very weak desire to leave the station. But even if that desire had been stronger, it wouldn't have mattered. Neither my psych profiles nor my evaluation scores were good enough to afford me that opportunity; while at the same time I was unwilling to commit (at least until it was too late) to manifesting the anti-social behaviors that would get me immediate passage on the next ship out. In order to understand the next part I must explain this: During my career exploration, I served a stint at the med station. It was quickly discovered that I lacked the urgency to be of use in emergency treatments or surgeries and the empathy to assist in non-emergency care, so I was assigned to behind-the-scenes stuff: sample analysis, ongoing treatment preparations, etc. For once, I became intensely curious about something: why were more than half of the residents of SafeForge being slipped synapse stabilizers in their vitprot bars (which I had a hand in preparing for the 40 remaining toil cycles of my med term)? I don't know why I was trusted with this information. That's a lie. I know exactly why: see everything above. But anyway: one of the medtechs let it slip that many of the members of the cooperative needed a little extra help so their moods stayed within the ranges needed to cope with station life. Clearly, they were trying to make the job I was doing seem more important and/or interesting. Not smart. But how were they to know? I was to find out later that this was just one of many indications that SafeForge had slipped into monocultural torpor. As Dinduh-Rae sang: How were I to know / You were this dumb? / With up your butt / Your only thumb? [So sorry. I may be experiencing the effects of long-term sleep deprivation.] And now I must explain this: You already know about the jokes. I also went through a phase where I became quite interested in accounts of practical jokes. All of my peer group did. That's how it works, right? Somebody dredges up some bit of gold from the archives; the rest go frantically panning for other nuggets with which to impress the group. Once that plays itself out, it's on to the next thing. Except with this one I kept up my search. Not obsessively: consistently. Which is how, several years later, I came across it. It was, as such things often are, buried in a report. There are hard limits to the miscreantsy that teenagers on a station can get up to: limits so effectively drilled in that the kids aren't aware of them. For example: One does not mess with anything that could affect station pressure. Another example: One does not do anything that could diminish or taint water supply. However, this is where the ingenuagility effect invariably comes in: the limits created by the unthinkable mean that the thinkable often becomes that much more twisted. The report gave me the basic idea, but the details on how it was carried out were heavily euphemized. I had to read between the lines and draw certain inferences. It wasn't that hard. Now, though, I wonder if I completely misinterpreted the nature and scope of the prank. Synthesizing the chemicals was easy (I expressed interest in doing another cycle in the components lab: this was such a rare occurrence that it was immediately granted and largely unsupervised). So was the delivery system (the vitprot bars). Clearly, I made a mistake in the amounts or in my understanding of how soon they would flush through an individual's system. I also probably shouldn’t have paired it with the removal of the stabilizers from the vitprot bars: I though it would intensify the effects: I was correct. [To my horror.]
I have assigned myself the primary blame. But I believe I was only the spark that lit the tinder. Tharsten's work on systems failure has been quite useful in explaining what happened next, especially their observation that the search for inflection points forces a narrativistic perspective which is generally not useful at rooting out core causes. I don't have the expertise to generate a multi-nodal analysis, but I suspect the rest of the incident was caused by the systematic, cascading social failure of the human components of the station: a collective fall into delusion and violence.
I'm sorry if that all sounds a bit dramatic. And yet it was. I have had to quarantine the feed archives to stop my obsessive viewing of them. I will give only four examples of each phase [Fillip Skance: Four is always more (than three)]. You can isolate out the rest from the feed archives [which have now been coded to open only by input of a Galactic Auditor credential]. At first it was amusing (which is what I was going for): A shift supervisor paired the specialists up by the euphony of their kin names. A food tech over-sugared the pre-shift bowl of grains. A group of teens acted out the tragedy of the galactic family dressed in bedsheets and vacuum hoses. Then it was disturbing (which is where I began to be alarmed): The off-shift miners had words and fists with the ore processors over accusations of credit shaving. A creche leader ran calisthenics until the children collapsed. The admin team refused to process any fatigue exemptions. A group of teenagers formed a jeering circle around an elderly cooperativist. Then it was terrifying (which is where I isolated myself): Three of the shuttles bringing back ore tried to weave a double scissors and split into each other. A surgeon overrode the robotic controls and scalpeled a forested mountain with river scene onto a patient’s skin. An irate shift-supe flushed an insubordinate subordinate out an air lock and then shortly afterward received the same treatment from the remaining irate shift workers. The counselors opened up the medstores and the corridors soon filled with the dazed, the psychotic, the failing. And so I was a coward cowering but one provisioned and isolated, brain chemistry intact, and with access to most of the video, audio and system feeds available on the station. And so SafeForge fell. And so I researched and wrote this report.
So many. But it boils down to this: whether the failure was that of the system that produced the individual [Me!] or of the individual itself [Also: Me!]. I am, obviously, too close to the problem to offer a definitive answer, but I hope this report will provide an adequate starting place. Every end has a start. I wish you luck in finding it.
After the audit, SafeForge should be (at most) the object of a salvage operation.
I would hurtle SafeForge into BN37, but I don't know how. I'd carry out justice directly on myself, but I have too healthy a sense of self-preservation. I'd keep things running indefinitely, but the enviro systems still working are reaching the limits of my knowledge of how to maintain them. If by some outlandish coincidence you receive this report in time to help, don't come for me until after they fail: that would ruin the joke.

27 Ways of Looking at Genre

WHM looks at genre by torturing metaphors, begging questions and conflating issues.

Image of David Bowie Blackstar Album Art Eyes
Image: Barnbrook. Licensed under the Creative Commons NonCommercial Share-Alike license.

1. We talk of genre boundaries as if they’re electric fences and not softened butter.

2. We talk of genre boundaries as if genres are nations with borders to cross (complete with guard shacks and passports and visa stamps) and not estuary marshlands alive with foul bogs, ancient trees, and all manner of creeping, crawling, buzzing, cooing, winging life.

3. We talk of genre boundaries as if they are glass cases and not a dilapidated house filled with cobwebs that stick to us as we tramp through the rooms.

4. Okay, yes, those stifling marketing categories. But marketing categories are insatiable squirrels that dart here and there and stuff their cheeks to bulging with whatever acorns seem fresh and tasty and bury things here and there to decay, sprout, petrify.   

5. We say that, of course, genres are fuzzy sets and family resemblances and marketing categories and bookshop shelves and reader expectations and then it all comes down to the illustration and name on the cover where what it should be is a diagrammed sentence or a list of metaphors or a graph of the plot structure.

5. Oh, the talk of process. The pride about writing speed or lack of writing speed. The shaking the head in wonder at the three books a year or the one book every seven years. The need to signify your camp by how you describe your process. The easiest way to authorial persona is by way of process.

6. Genre transgressions are always contingent.

7. Genre is almost all contingencies. That’s why it’s so fun.

8. One day a genre author decided they would remove all their influences. They would get back to pure story. They would intentionally forget everything they had ever read. It took years of concentrated, intentional mind work and quite a bit of substance abuse, but finally their mind was empty and when they began to write, they wrote with a freedom they had never previously known. Now, I bet you think I’m going to say that they wrote a masterpiece or a bestseller or a steaming pile of cliches. Nope. The freedom was a momentary illusion. Three chapters in it all came back, the weight of genre. The tightness in the shoulders and neck and right there at the base of the skull that the author is always trying to ignore, relax or alleviate.    

9. Genre authors are shameless magpies. Just don’t look too close at their shinies. Stand afar and jut your hand from your brow and admire the glittering glare, the sparkling play of light.

10. Hey genre authors are you playing games with me? Are you having a laugh? Are you trying to pull the wool over my eyes, lower the blast shield over my face? I think some of you are. Those who aren’t: why aren’t you?

11. Hey, SF&F I see what you’re doing with Romance and Mystery, and I gotta say this: do it better. I’m talking peanut butter and milk chocolate or dark chocolate and toffee almonds here—not stale bits of crisped rice in waxy chocolate product.

12. Hey, SF&F I see what you’re doing with Horror there, and I gotta say this: try peeling back a couple more layers. It’s not always necessary, but try it and see if in this or that particular case it is.

13. The genre readers know what they want. They want the familiar, they want the new. They want the comforting, they want the exciting. They want to be transported, they don’t want to leave the confines of their own worldview. They want you to explain more. They want you to stop explaining so they can fill the cracks with their own explanations. They want, they want, they want, they don’t want. Stupid readers.

14. Write fan fiction as if you’re writing original fiction (because you are); write original fiction as if you’re writing fan fiction (because you are). Yes, that’s a semicolon there. So am I suggesting some level of equality between the two? Am I saying that one is not parasitic on the other?

15. I am (I mean sure, there’s a difference between fiction that overtly uses another author’s characters and setting and fiction that comes up with new characters and settings, but it pretty much all comes down to stripping the car down for parts and rebuilding something else from it whether or not the serial numbers are filed off or proudly displayed).

16. We talk about genre as if it’s this thing we can embrace, subdue, love, pull apart, shove aside or wear when really it’s a library of narratives, of individual works. You wouldn’t spend most of your time in the library talking about the lighting, carpeting and shelving would you? Maybe you would for awhile. It is important to feel at home in one’s surroundings. But at some point in that discussion one becomes very aware of all the eager individual stories crowded together on the shelves longing, aching for your attention.

17. Hey genre, I’m going to use a word to describe you that was given to me when I first began studying comparative literature to describe that field: anxiogenic. Look, I know geeks and nerds are cool now, but being cool doesn’t remove the anxiety does it? Yeah, didn’t think so. So how are you going to turn that anxiety into productive anxiety rather than crippling or lashing-out anxiety?

18. Hey genre, you have too many awards.

19. Hey genre, you don’t have enough awards.

20. Okay, look. It’s easy to make pithy statements and set up false equivalencies, but if the space suit, jeweled slipper, cracked leather boots fit… Because there are too many awards the field seems to always be in a state of anxiety about lists and eligibility and nominations and finalists and winners and who is voting and who isn’t and what’s being unduly lauded. Because there aren’t enough awards whole categories are ignored.

21. What if instead of lobbing stories into various pens and then wallowing only in the pens we feel comfortable in, we realize that all new things are an acquired taste. It may take several tries and the right preparation of the dish for you to realize that while it may never become a staple of your diet, there’s a deliciousness or at least a particular-ness to whatever ethnic background, political ideology, religious experience, genre/sub-genre form, sexuality, writing style, etc. belonging to the author and/or the characters that caused you to dismiss the work. And that while with some works you may never come to like the candied walnuts in the salad that doesn’t mean that all the other ingredients aren’t tasty and well prepared. We could all be better omnivores.

22. Who should be blamed for the fact that so much of genre seems to focus on the adolescent? Or that so many of the novels are the equivalent of reunion tours and cover bands? Is that the fans themselves remain in a state of arrested development? Or is that coming of age and quest stories have a universal appeal? And if the latter then maybe it’s because adulthood is so boring and complicated. And maybe it’s because youth is reckless enough to seek adventure and start revolutions. Maybe it’s because it’s so much harder to change when you get old. Would we want genre to also be about the mundane triumphs of life?

23. (Hell, yes.)

24. In the beginning there was myth. Or maybe epic. Okay, let’s go with epic. In the beginning there was epic. On the first day, there arose adventure and horror. On the second day, engineering constructed itself (golden age). On the third day, prose style and ambiguity made it’s incursion into the field. On the fourth day, characterization came in and rounded everything out. On the fifth day, representation skirted around the edges and then marched across the field. What will happen on the sixth day of genre? What rough slouching beast? What skittering horde? What lumbering golem?

25. So here’s the deal with the mingling of literary and SF&F: the New Wave borrowed from literary modernism and postmodernism. So the fact that over the past 20 years the literary has begun to import stuff from genre (vampires, zombies, post-apocalyptic landscapes, plot) means that we can’t complain. Because we borrowed from literary back in the day. This is especially important because there is a bigger thing to worry about: both literary and SF&F seem to be converging on something that ignores the lessons already learned from modernism and postmodernism. Even the pulp writers will claim to want to write complex characterization. Even the literary authors will claim to want to make attempts at plot. Everybody is messing about with form. And yet while there appears to be this wide range, it’s all pretty damn mimetic. You want to shake up genre? You want to transgress? Dive back into modernism and postmodernism and see what you can re-emerge with.

26. Is anybody else in genre bored with endings that are either revolutions or restorations? (I’m especially looking at you epic fantasy.) And maybe that boredom is because: what happens after the big event? Who are those heroes? The builders and defenders rather than the catalysts. Because I’m no catalyst. But I might be able to build and defend.

27. To restate in relation to our specific present: we hope, we fear that we’re on the verge of major events. But what if the near future is all aftermath? Don’t we need stories to get us through that?   


An SFnalish mistranslation of Part 1:I from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus

WHM (mis)translates the first sonnet in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus: “A tree of immense clarity arose. One made of bard songs.”

photo of the painting Beech Tree by Achille-Etna Michallon
Beech Tree by Achille-Etna Michallon; Thaw Collection, Jointly Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2009

A tree of immense clarity arose. One made of bard songs. A tall tree for tall tales.

The tree arose and the world went quiet. The kind of quiet from which proceeds hints and signs, inceptions and transformations.

Mythic beasts nosed their way into this quiet out of languid forest dens and sleepy mountain aeries. The urge to bellow, to shriek, to growl, to roar had shriveled in their hearts. They all foreswore that they creep softly about not from fear or trickery but so that they may listen.

This was a time where existed scarcely a hovel to receive the quiet the tree had ushered into the world. No lair of darkest desires whose threshold trembled in response to the great silence. And so you felled the tree and raised from it a great hall in which to recite your verse.

Note on the translation: this is not even close to a faithful translation. For one, it’s prose and not poetry. For another, I drop the the mention of Orpheus that is central to the context of the entire project and switch some of the allusions to a different context entirely. For another, I interpolate all over the place. But the feeling of it—that I hope to have preserved/conveyed. Also: I have yet to read an English translation that deals well with the final stanza. Switching to prose allowed me a bit more freedom to turn it into something of a narrative.   

The original German version (as well as the rest of the sonnets in the cycle) can be found at Project Gutenberg DE

County Doctor, a translation of Kafka’s Ein Landarzt for the American West

A man in a suit in the seat of a buckboard. Two horses are hitched to it. It is winter.
Image credit: Neenah History, flickr


The following is a translation of Franz Kafka’s short story “Ein Landarzt” that I did in the summer of 2004. I publish it here so that I have a more permanent home for it on the web. Two notes follow the main text of the story.  

I was in dire straits. An urgent trip stared me in the face. A seriously ill patient waited for me in a small settlement about 10 miles outside of town. In the howling space between us raged a blizzard.

I was ready to go. I had a buckboard suitable for navigating the rough country roads — light framed with large wheels. I was clad in a calf-length sheepskin coat. My medical bag was fully stocked. I stood in the yard ready to get on the road. But one thing was missing — the horse. I had no horse.

My only horse had died of overexertion the night before, a casualty of this icy winter. My hired girl was now running around town trying to scare up a loaner. But I knew it was hopeless. And as the snow continued to pile up, the road becoming ever more impassable, I could only stand there fixed in place.

The hired girl appeared at the gate and waved her lantern. But of course. Who would lend his horse for such a journey? I paced across the yard once more. I couldn’t think of any more options. While agonizing over my situation, I absentmindedly kicked the rotting door of the pigsty, which hadn’t been used for many years.

The door flew open and flapped back and forth on its hinges. The thick, warm breath and smell of horses emerged. A ranch hand, his frank, blue-eyed face dimly lit by a lantern swinging from a rope, crouched in the ramshackle structure. “Should I harness the wagon?” he asked, crawling forward on all fours. I wasn’t sure what to say and only bent forward to see what else was in the sty. The hired girl stood next to me.

“You never know what’s available in your own pantry,” she said, and we both laughed.

“Hey brother, hey sister!” called the ranch hand.

Two horses burst through the door frame one after the other, their legs pulled up against their torso, well-formed heads dipping like camels, only able to push themselves out through a forceful turn of their powerful bodies. But soon they were upright. They stamped the ground, stretching their long limbs and shaking their solid, damp bodies.

“Help him,” I said, and the hired girl eagerly moved to hand him the harness. The moment she was within reach, he grabbed her and pressed his face against hers. She cried out and flew to my side, two neat, red rows of teeth marks on her cheek.

“You beast,” I yell angrily. “Are you looking for a whipping?” But then I remember that he is a stranger, that I don’t know where he hails from, and that he is volunteering to help me when everybody else has refused to.

As if he knew my thoughts, he simply ignored my threat and instead, the horses’ reins still in hand, looks in my direction. “Get in,” he says, and indeed everything is ready. I suddenly realize that I have never traveled with such a fine team and happily climb up on the seat.

“I’ll take the reins — you don’t know the way,” I say.

“Go ahead,” he says. “I’m not coming with you. I’m staying with Rose.”

“No,” she screams and, correctly sensing her inescapable fate, runs to the house. I hear the jingle as she chains the door. I hear the key turn in the lock. What’s more I see how she traverses the entryway and dashes through the front room extinguishing all the lamps, trying to cloak herself in darkness.

“You ride with me,” I say to the ranch hand. “Or I renounce the trip, as urgent as it is. I’m not going to trade the girl for the trip.”

“Giddy-up!” he says, clapping his hands together.

The buckboard jumps forward like a downed tree branch caught in a flash flood. Yet I still hear the front door of my house splinter and burst under the ranch hand’s assault. Then my eyes and ears — all my senses — are filled with a piercing whistling.

But even that is only the blink of an eye. Then, as if my patient’s yard had opened up immediately in front of my gate, I am already there. The horses stand quietly. The snow has stopped falling. Moonlight surrounds us. The patient’s parents hurry out of the house, his sister in tow. They pluck me from the buckboard. I catch none of their confused chatter. The sick room is unbearable — stuffy and smoky from an untended stove. I want to push open the window. First, I will examine the patient.

He’s shirtless, a scrawny kid with empty eyes. He doesn’t have a fever. He is neither cold nor warm to the touch. He raises himself up out of the feather bed and attaches himself to my neck. “Doctor — let me die,” he whispers in my ear. I glance around the room. No one has heard him. The parents stand silently, leaning forward, awaiting my verdict. The sister has brought a stool for my bag.

I open the bag and dig through my instruments. The boy continues to nag me about not forgetting his wish. I grab a pair of tweezers, examine it in the candlelight, and place it back in the bag.

“Yes,” I think blasphemously. “This is the way the gods help. Send the missing horse. Add a second to hasten the trip. And go overboard and throw in a ranch hand to boot.”

And now, for the first time, my thoughts turn to Rose. What shall I do? How can I save her? How do I pull her out from under the ranch hand when I’m ten miles away with horses I can’t handle harnessed to my buckboard?

Speaking of the horses, they have somehow slipped out of their harnesses and unlatched the window from the outside. Each pokes its head through and, undistracted by the family’s outcry, peers intently at the patient.

“I’ll go back right now,” I think, as if the horses had summoned me for the return trip. And yet I let the sister, who seems to think I’ve become overcome by the heat, take my coat. A glass of whiskey is placed in my hand. The old man pats me on the shoulder as if to make me feel better about my supposed condition. Only his devotion to his treasured son excuses this intimate gesture. I shake my head. The old man’s limited thought processes sicken me, and I decide to not drink the whiskey.

The mother stands near the bed and beckons me. I walk over to it. As I lay my head on the boy’s chest, one of the horses begins to neigh to high heaven. The boy shivers upon contact with my wet beard. It confirms what I already know: He is healthy. His blood may be a little thin — undoubtedly his mother has over-hydrated him with coffee — but he is healthy and should be rousted out of bed with a swift kick.

I’m no do-gooder so I let him lie where he is. I am employed by the county, and I more than fulfill my duties — sometimes to the point where it becomes almost too much. Although poorly compensated, I still am generous and ready to help the less fortunate. But it’s Rose whom I must attend to now. Then the boy can have his wish granted him, and I — I too will want to die.

What am I doing here in this endless winter? My horse is dead and no one in town would loan me one. I have to draw a team out of a pigsty, and if there hadn’t had been the lucky accident with the horses, I would have had to have been pulled by pigs. That’s just the way it is.

I give the family a deliberate nod. They don’t know a thing about all this and even if they did, they wouldn’t believe it. Writing prescriptions is easy, but coming to an understanding with people is quite difficult.

Now here is where my visit would normally come to an end. Someone has needlessly bothered me yet again. I’m used to it. The whole county tortures me with the aid of my night bell. But that this time I have to also give up Rose — for years this beautiful girl has lived in my house barely noticed by me. It’s too much of a sacrifice. I pause and gather my thoughts. I need to subtly make sure that I don’t alienate this family, who couldn’t give me Rose even if they wanted to.

However, as I close my bag and gesture for my coat, the family stands in unison, the father taking a sniff of the glass of whiskey in his hand, the mother most likely disappointed in me. What do these people expect of me? Then the sister, tears filling her eye, biting her lower lip with concern, waves a handkerchief soaked with blood, and anyhow, under the circumstances, I am ready to admit the boy might be sick.

I go to him. He smiles at me as if I was bringing him some remarkable cure-all — and now both horses neigh. The alarm bodes well. The heavens are undoubtedly arranging to make the exam easier. And now I find that the boy is indeed sick. A palm-sized wound has opened up on his right hip.

At first glance the wound is several shades of rose-red. Darkest in the middle, it grows lighter as it reaches the delicate edges. Blood has collected in places and the entire thing is as open as a mineshaft. Upon closer examination, another complication appears. Who can see such a thing and not let out a soft whistle? Worms the size of my little finger — rose-colored like the wound, both from their own pigmentation and also because they are coated in blood — wriggle their white heads and multiple legs. They have attached themselves deep in the wound.

Poor fellow. Nothing can be done for him. I have found his great wound. Yes, this flower in your side will send you to an early grave.

The family is happy to see me acting in the manner of my profession. The sister says so to the mother; the mother to the father; the father to a few guests who are tippy-toeing in through the open door along with the streaming moonlight, their arms outstretched to keep their balance.

“Will you save me?” whispers the sobbing boy, almost blinded by the life teeming in his wound.

And thus are the people in this county. Always they demand the impossible from the doctor. They have lost the old faith. The priest sits at home and idly picks apart his vestments, one after the other. But the doctor should perform everything with his gentle, well-trained hand. This is how things stand at the present: I have not resigned from my position. They use me up with holy errands. And I let them. What can I change, an old county doctor deprived of his hired girl?

And they come — the family and town elders — and undress me. A choir of school children lines up in front of the house, and, under the direction of a teacher, sings (to a simple tune):

Undress the man, he’ll heal us then
And if he can’t, we’ll shoot him dead
You’re only a doctor, a county doctor

Then I am undressed. I quietly give these people a stern look, my hand pressed to my bearded chin, head slightly tilted.

I am perfectly composed, above it all, and will remain so, yet this fact doesn’t help me at all for now they take me by the head and the feet, carry me to the bed, and lay me on the side closest to the wall, the side with the gaping wound.
Then they all leave the room. The door is closed. The song grows quiet. Clouds pass in front of the moon. The bedding wraps me in its warmth. The horses sway their shadowed heads in the open window.

“You know,” I hear whispered in my ear. “I have very little faith in you. You were whisked here with the storm. You didn’t come on your own two feet. Instead of helping, you crowd my deathbed. I would love nothing more than to scratch your eyes out.”

“Quite right,” I say. “It is an utter humiliation. I am only a doctor. What am I supposed to do? Believe me — this won’t be easy for me either.”

“So I should be content with this excuse? Oh, I suppose I must. I must always remain content. I came into this world with a handsome wound. It was my entire inheritance.”

“Young friend,” I say. “Your mistake is — you have no perspective. I, who have been in sick rooms far and wide, tell you: your wound isn’t that bad. Created by two neat strokes of the axe. Many offer up their side and scarcely hear the axe in the forest, let alone that it is creeping silently closer.”

“Is that really true? Or are you trying to take advantage of my fever and deceive me?”

“It’s true. Take the word of a Harvard-trained doctor.”

He took it and grew still.

But now it was time to think of how I could save myself. The horses still stood faithfully in place. Not wanting to delay myself by dressing, I gathered up my clothes, coat and bag. If the horses hurried like on the trip here, I’d be able, in a manner of speaking, to jump out of this bed into my own.

One of the horses obediently drew his head from the window. I tossed the bundle of clothes onto the buckboard. The sheepskin coat flew wide, but one of its sleeves snagged on the end of the wagon and lodged there. Good enough. I swung myself onto the horse.

Loose reins dragging, the horses barely roped together, the buckboard wandered forward, the coat trailing in the snow. “Giddy-up!” I said, but giddy-up they didn’t. The horses pulled us through the snow-covered wasteland as slow as old men.

Behind us the distant sounds of children singing a new, inaccurate song rang out:

Dance with joy — all you patients
The doctor has lain beside you

I will never make it home like this. My flourishing practice is lost. My successor robs me — but without profit for he cannot supplant me. That revolting ranch hand rages in my house. Rose his sacrificial victim. I don’t want to think about it. Naked, exposed to the frost of this disastrous age, in an earth-bound wagon drawn by unearthly horses, I meander forward like the old man that I am.

My sheepskin coat lies behind me.

But I can’t reach it. And not one of the rabble — not even the most agile of my patients — lifts a finger to help! Deceived! Betrayed! Once a false alarm in the night is answered — it can never be made right. Never.

Notes on the translation:

1. In this translation I carry over a crucial aspect of the original German: a tense change that occurs part way into the story, one that has been omitted from most (if not all) of the older English, traditionally published translations. 

2. I claim that this is a translation for the American West. I made some of the details of the story explicitly so because I feel like modern American (and other) readers might be tempted to read this as more fairy tale-like and less situated in time and place, and, most specifically, in the bureaucracy of the state, as I think it is.