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.