A hapless country doctor describes with breathless urgency a night-time summons to attend a young patient. Events soon take on a surreal aspect as "unearthly horses" transport him instantaneously to the bedside. The doctor, preoccupied with personal distractions and grievances against those he is employed to care for, fails to find what is revealed to be a vile, fatal wound (symbolizing the Crucifixion?). He is humiliated by the villagers, who are "always expecting the impossible from the doctor," and doomed to an endless return trip, losing everything.


The story speaks to the strong (almost religious) beliefs about the power of medicine in American culture. In a culture whose main values are narcissism and materialism, medicine appears to hold the "keys to the kingdom" once held by religion. On a more personal level, the story symbolizes the experience of being a healer at any time or place. The sick are needy, vulnerable, and sometimes demanding; the physician is only human, can only accomplish so much, and is often mistaken. There may be an inevitable tension between professional goals and private life.


First published: 1916. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.

Primary Source

The Complete Stories



Place Published

New York




Nahum N. Glatzer

Page Count