A gifted surgeon was summoned to an insane asylum. A decadence story.
|I'm not an author. I'm just a translator from Russian.
A GOOD HAND: a story by Roman Arilin
An illustration is here https://invir-lazarev.livejournal.com/584.html
The train gave off a lot of steam and started slowly to build up speed, taking the crowded wagons farther in the direction of Yamburg. After the stifling warmth of the third-class carriage, smelling of tobacco and sourness, a gust of bone-chilling January wind hit Korneev’s legs. He raised the collar of his coat and now truly regretted not putting on his warm pants, as his wife had advised.
Along the wooden train platform, which slopped off somewhere into a dark field, walked a woman, wearing a scarf wrapped over her eyes, and a venerable-looking old man, with a beard a la Alexander the third. It was starting to get dark, and Korneev thought with alarm that besides the letter and some very short instructions in the letter, he did not know for sure what he should do next.
“Are you the doctor, or what?”
Korneev turned around. The devil knows where this scrawny muzhik in a sheepskin coat came from. It seemed he had materialized out of nowhere. He peered from under his eyebrows at the plume of smoke coming from the train, which was quickly being scattered by the wind.
“Yeah” Korneev answered shortly, not showing that he had taken offence from such an address. In such dangerous times, one should choose one’s words carefully.
“You look too young to be a doctor,” the peasant continued distrustfully. “The Professor said that you are supposed to be a master. I forgot your name, you see, I have such a sickness that I can't remember a thing.”
“Mikhail Ivanovich Korneev, obstetrician,” Korneev sarcastically tapped the tops of his galoshes together. “Are you happy, sir?”
«I'm going to forget all this. It’s too complicated for me.” The man shook his head, taking a carpetbag with surgical equipment. - Well, doctor, let's go.”
The man settled angry Korneev in his sleigh, wrapped him on all sides in a filthy gunny sack, and he sat down at his side, taking the reins.
“How long does it take?” asked Korneev, raising his voice to be heard above the wind. But the driver was silent, hiding somewhere inside his sheepskin coat. Instead of an answer, there was a thin snore. But the mare was not bothered at all. She, apparently, had already got used to this road and to her master. Her pace dragged: she was slowing down on the descents and picking up speed up the hill with a deep-chested neighing.
The road, hopelessly blanketed with snow, snaked through a hollow between a frozen swamp and low hills. From the roadside station to the hospital it was ten miles as the crow flies, from what Korneev had understood from the letter. He thought tiredly and vexedly that they would definitely not arrive before dark. Perhaps he would have to spend the night there. For some reason, he imagined a cold room with frost on the walls and an inevitable piercing draft through cracked and leaky windows. Korneev immediately felt cold from his thoughts and he pulled his ear-flapped hat lower. For the thousandth time he kicked himself for agreeing to this trip. Damn both his boss and this village hospital!
But he was flattered that they had chosen him after all. But he was flattered that they had chosen him all the same. Not Hoffmann, not Fiminov, or, God forbid, Yashka Borovoy. Korneev had a good hand that’s why he had been sent. Everyone knew this, and even Alexey Petrovich himself somehow vaguely predicted that he would become the best in the obstetric center. He didn't even notice when he was sent to sleep by the delicate rolling movement of the sled and the warmth of his covering.
The table was set lavishly, with village pickles, homemade sausages and nastoika in a crystal decanter.
Korneev could not even remember the last time he saw normal meat in Petersburg butcher shops. Just at the very end of the sixteenth year, a couple of weeks ago, he had been lucky enough to buy a bunch of sausages after waiting in line with other angry people.
Korneev felt an appraising glance of the hosts towards him. The director of the asylum, attractive and stout, Gleb Sergeyevich was lounging lazily on his chair and carefully reading the letter he had been given by Korneev, holding it just in front of a lamp. Opposite him sat Fedor Mikhailovich, who presented himself jokingly as a "psychiatrist- philosopher", but his look was unkind, like that of a played out prostitute on Nevsky Prospekt.
“Well, dear Mikhail Ivanovich, how is Aleksey Petrovich getting on there? Still restless?” asked Gleb Sergeyevich, pouring viscous liquor into shot glasses.
“He doesn’t give us a rest and constantly examines everyone,” Korneev nodded shortly, trying not to be too greedy with thinly sliced bacon.
“All evil comes from women, truly I tell you!” the psychiatrist said, out of place and then added: «Try the mushrooms, they're especially delicious with nastoika. Here is а granny in the village who makes it ...”
The hosts delicately waited while Korneev ate fluffy boiled
potatoes, sprinkled with fragrant oil. Next came the veal stewed in the oven, homemade blutwurst sausage and cabbage pies.
“I haven't had such a banquet in years.” Korneev said, undoing the top button of his shirt. “Okay, so let's get down to business, because I feel really shy. Who should I examine?”
Gleb Sergeevich became serious, and began to smooth out the starched tablecloth. The psychiatrist- philosopher, on the contrary, began to smile.
“Of course, it is necessary to take a look,” Gleb Sergeyevich was confused, looking at some point in the corner of the room, “but I'm afraid, in our case, things are more likely, in a sense ...
“Abortion,” the psychiatrist said shortly. “Let's not beat around the bush.”
“You know that abortion is permitted only if the life of the patient is at risk,” Korneev had become tense. “ Alexey Petrovich did not say anything directly about this.”
“In short, we have strong suspicions that our three patients are in an interesting condition,” said Gleb Sergeevich. “And in the letter he assured us that you have a good hand and that shouldn't be too difficult for you to resolve our problem.”
Korneev actually remembered that the boss had been very evasive in explaining his goal. He talked a lot about hard times, mentioned compassion, and did not want to tell the very essence of the situation. There is a place where his old friend works and his patients need delicate help, but who would have thought it was an abortion?
“No, gentlemen, I'm not your helping hand in this business.” Korneev answered.
“Let him look first,” the psychiatrist waved his hand, rising from the table.
The treatment room was small and cramped - three meters by four. An examination couch was squeezed between a medicine cabinet and an antique desk. Korneev had put on a white coat and prepared his treatment tools. The door opened and the psychiatrist brought the patient. The face of the rather elderly woman was in a mask of some kind of a rage. Her hands were in a gray straitjacket and tied behind her back. Korneev even shrunk back when he saw her bulging eyes and mouth opened with a crooked grin and blackened stumps of teeth inside.
“This is Thekla, she is obedient,” the psychiatrist said quietly. “Just don’t talk loudly, she doesn’t like that. I'll be just outside the door. When you're done, I’ll bring the next one.”
Korneev laid her on the couch, undid the straitjacket and took off her grungy knickers, smelling of urine. Thekla lay quietly, muttering something and held still while she was examined.
Then the psychiatrist brought the next patient. Her hair was shaved bald and she really looked like a Cossack, not a lady. She screamed when he touched her, but then suffered in silence.
The third was a very young girl, looking like she had came straight out of an Italian artist's painting. Korneev was even uncomfortable taking her clothes off, but the eyes of the young shepherdess had no expression and a string of saliva hung down her mouth. She endured all the manipulations indifferently, like a cow in the morning milking.
With some embarrassment, Korneev thought that it would be very pleasant to work with mental patients. It was a shameful idea to suggest using idiots in the anatomical theater as a training for students. Peaceful, obedient, they do not complain of cold hands.
“Listen ... when did this happen to you?” he asked the girl; maybe she could say something. But she did not even look at him and continued to stare straight ahead with empty eyes.
After finishing with her, he washed his instruments in a basin of warm water, washed his hands and sat down at the table to write a medical history as normal.
All three had approximately the same gestational age, about five weeks. He vouched for an accuracy of a week, or even less. The police chief should have been informed, he thought carefully.
“Well, now do you understand the specifics of our patients?” asked Gleb Sergeevich, when Korneev returned from the examination. “They can't have children.”
“I have to say… I’d assumed that in a place like this they are carefully monitored, to prevent men's attention, so to speak” Korneev said, blushing. ”Then there would be no need of the elimination of such undesirable consequences.”
“Tell me straight” put in the psychiatrist, “You believe that we go around taking advantage of these helpless young women on winter evenings because the fresh air gives us too much energy?”
Korneev felt that he needed to keep silent, because the conversation was going in a bad direction.
“Wait a while with your jokes, Fedor Mikhailovich,” Gleb Sergeyevich winced. “First of all, we are interested in making sure that this doesn't happen. For example, Thekla had drowned her baby and then set fire to the house. She saw devils everywhere. She had been in the asylum for ten years. Nastya and Claudia are like that from birth; they were placed with us as teenagers so that they wouldn’t kill themselves. They are in no condition to be left without medical care, much less giving birth to children. They would cause such trouble!”
“Then I do not understand,” said Korneev, “how this could have happened?”
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” the psychiatrist mused. “The Lord's miracle! Or the work of Satan.”
“Please understand,” said Korneev. “Abortion is recommended only when the life of a woman is at risk.”
- And if a baby would be even at greater risk? - asked Gleb Sergeevich. - She may strangle him or put herself on a wooden stake and it would be a sin!
“Well, there are orphanages, after all,” Korneev answered.
“Tomorrow a revolution will break out, everyone is already talking about this in St. Petersburg,” Gleb Sergeyevich said. “Nowhere to take them, the kids will die without a wet nurse. And what kind of children will be born to them is also not clear.”
“No, gentlemen, I’m sorry, but all this just sounds so dark.” Korneev jumped up and started walking around the room, from window to window. “Do not seduce me into sin!”
“So, on the contrary, you will save them from torment and death!” Gleb Sergeevich threw up his arms.
“Do you want to keep your hands clean?” the psychiatrist asked, “then let others do this.”
“ Let's not be so hasty. I suggest, young man, that you make a decision in the morning,” Gleb Sergeyevich sighed. “We will put you in the cottage for the night, with all the comforts.”
The room was heated properly and Korneev did not feel any drafts. A simple iron bed with a starched sheet was covered with a soft blanket. On the table, near the window, someone had prudently left a cup with fruit drink, a clean towel and a fresh bar of soap.
At first Korneev turned for a long time in bed, furiously punching the pillow. He threw off the covers, so as not to sweat, then he wrapped himself up when he started to freeze. His mind was racing with ideas and all sorts of questions. Well, suppose he agrees. What if someone complains? This would be such a scandal! Then he immediately objected, thinking that the idiots would not write complaining petitions. And if you do not perform an abortion, they will still find someone else for this job, except the boss would start looking at you with suspicion. He would say, you betrayed my trust.
But all the nastoika he had drunk and the pleasant repleteness of his stomach served their purpose. Korneev fell into a deep sleep and dreamed of an endless field, covered with snow and a special train heading into the distance. People who had turned blue because of the cold were climbing out from under the snow, accompanied by the continuous sound of a train whistle, and crawling in the direction of the rattling iron machine, staring with their unseeing eyes. And he, Korneev, also stood barefoot in the snow and likewise felt attracted to the steam train heading beyond the horizon, or rather, to the fire in its firebox that never went out due to the coal being thrown in by an unknown fireman. Ice pained him in his chest and burned his gut like a fire. Only the flame of the firebox could melt this piece of ice. Korneev started running, Korneev started running, ripping off his fingernails on the crust of snow. But the train smoke moved further and further into the distance, and the dead blue walkers who were climbing out from under the snow just kept coming. After a while, he found himself being caught between frozen bodies. Then he simply moved in the endless stream, having finally lost the feeling of the fire that could have been his salvation.
The food, carefully wrapped in a white rag, gently supported his back. A bottle of milk rolled heavily somewhere at his feet. The weather cleared up and the low sun tickled his nose. The sleigh flew like an arrow, raising behind it a shallow dry snow. Korneev unfastened his coat, letting in crisp winter air. Ivan did not sleep, urging the horse forward with reins and a cussword.
“I have an aching lump on my neck,” he recalled. “Such a shit!”
“Well, then go see a doctor,” Korneev answered good-naturedly.
“And what are you for?” asked Ivan in surprise.
“I'm from another field, you understand? You need another doctor.”
“A month ago, a star fell at night.” Ivan’s mind had jumped to another thought. “It blazed in the sky just like your lantern and then went out. And then just darkness. The dogs howled, a cow died, a sow gave birth. An icon cried blood.”
“So, what’s next?” Korneev asked.
The driver turned to him and came close, almost burying his disheveled beard right in Korneev’s face.
“But the women conceived by him! Truly, I tell you! He has come into the world to save us, through a woman's womb, pure ...”
“By who?” Korneev recoiled, feeling an icy breath on his face.
But Ivan had already slammed his eyes shut and turned away again, wrapping himself in his sheepskin coat.
“By who? Come on, tell me, you pig-face!” Korneev grabbed the man by the collar.
“I have a lump, I’m sick and everything goes right over my head,” Ivan waved him off languidly. He was silent for the rest of the way.
The carriage smelled of tobacco and sourness as usual. Korneev sat on a hard bench, clutching to himself the package of food. A pale officer with wound stripes on his left sleeve sat opposite him. A lady was touchingly leaning toward the officer; judging by her posture and expensive gloves she was from a very noble family.
Outside some unknown filthy station was passing by. On its walls hung Christmas angels, covered by snow mixed with coal dust.
“Peter, I have a feeling that this was the last Christmas,” the lady said quietly.
“Well, my dear, the Savior will not leave us,” the officer gently patted her hand.
“But I killed him, the Savior! Аnd the Father and the Holy Spirit! All three, on the couch! I scraped them with a curette without leaving anything behind!” Korneev said loudly.” I have a good hand!”
A village woman who was sitting next to him quickly crossed herself and whispered a prayer.
“A good hand ... a good hand,” Korneev repeated in wonder, showing everyone his hand. Burgundy drops spilled on his white cuff.
The steam-engine gave a long whistle and began to accelerate.
Translated from Russian by Invir Lazarev -2021