The short story “The Blizzard” appears in the collection “A Young Doctor's Notebook,” which is based on Bulgakov’s own experiences as a doctor in a remote village in Russia, cut off from civilization, before he became a writer. The account of the physician’s dealings in the poor, backward rural region is given in the first person, and the result is a collection of surreal, amusing and cartoonish stories. “The Blizzard” is uncharacteristic of the collection. The spotlight in this story is cast on the blizzard, a phenomenon of nature, and not on the physician’s dealings with the patients, with the diseases and with death, as in the rest of the stories. The path is at the center of this story, the path to a dying girl and back to the rural hospital on time while the terrorizing blizzard rages outside. Facing the blizzard, which is beyond any human endeavor, magnifies the contemplations troubling the young doctor in the other stories as well: thoughts regarding the place of the individual against fate—why try to cure patients who end up dying anyway? Why leave the comfort of the warm home and take to the road? Where does this sense of calling come from? Even if you load me with money I wouldn’t go again, the young doctor concludes at the end of yet another case that resulted in failure, and the blizzard, with its force of life, which sweeps the person away, replies with a ridiculing whistle: “Yes you will go… yes you will go…”
The whole story began, according to the omniscient Aksinya, with Palchikov the clerk, who lived in Shalometyevo, falling in love with the agronomist’s daughter. The love was ardent, wasting the poor man’s heart. He went to Grachovka, the local town, and ordered himself a suit. It turned out to be a dazzling suit, and it’s quite possible that it was the grey stripes on his wide, black trousers that decided the unfortunate man’s fate. The agronomist’s daughter agreed to become his wife.
After removing the leg of a girl who had fallen into a flax breaker, I – the doctor at the hospital of N***, a district of such-and-such a province – became so famous that I almost perished under the weight of my fame. A hundred peasants a day began coming down the smooth sleigh road to my surgery. I stopped eating lunch. Arithmetic is a cruel science. Let’s assume that I spent only five minutes on each of my hundred patients… five! Five hundred minutes is eight hours, twenty minutes. On end, note. And on top of that I had an in-patients department for thirty people. And on top of that I did operations too.
In short, returning from the hospital at nine o’clock in the evening, I didn’t want to eat, or drink, or sleep. I didn’t want anything, apart from nobody coming to call me out to someone in labour. Yet in the course of two weeks I was driven off down the sleigh road during the night half a dozen times.
A dark dampness appeared in my eyes, and a vertical line formed above my nose, like a worm. At night, in a fluctuating mist, I would see unsuccessful operations, ribs laid bare and my hands covered in human blood, and I would wake up sticky and chilly, in spite of the hot tiled stove.
I did my rounds with a swift tread, and behind me swept a male and a female feldsher and two nurses. Stopping by a bed on which a patient was melting in a fever and breathing mournfully, I would squeeze out of my brain everything that was held in it. My fingers would grope over his dry, burning skin, I would look at his pupils, tap on his ribs, listen to his heart beating mysteriously in the depths, and I carried within me just the one thought – how was I to save him? And save this one. And this one! All of them.
There was a battle going on. It began every day in the morning, in the pale light of the snow, and it ended in the yellow twinkling of the fervid kerosene lamp.
“How will it end, I’d like to know?” I would say to myself at night. “I mean, they’re going to be coming in sledges like this in January, and in February, and in March.”
I wrote to Grachovka with a polite reminder of the fact that there was supposed to be a second doctor too in the district of N***.
The letter went forty versts over the even, snowy ocean on a wood-sledge. Three days later came the reply: “Of course, of course,” they wrote… “Without fail… only not now… there’s no one coming for the moment.”
The letter was concluded with some pleasant comments about my work and wishes for further success.
Inspired by these, I started tamponing, injecting diphtheria serum, lancing abscesses of monstrous dimensions, putting on plaster casts…
One Tuesday, not a hundred people came, but a hundred and eleven. I finished the surgery at nine o’clock in the evening. I fell asleep, trying to guess how many there would be tomorrow, on Wednesday. I dreamt that nine hundred people came.
The morning that looked in through the bedroom window was somehow especially white. I opened my eyes, unable to understand what had woken me up. Then I realized – it was a knock.
“Doctor” – I recognized the voice of the midwife, Pelageya Ivanovna – “are you awake?”
“Aha,” I replied in a weird voice, only half-awake.
“I’ve come to tell you not to hurry to the hospital. Only two people have come.”
“What? Are you joking?”
“Honestly. There’s a blizzard, Doctor, a blizzard,” she repeated joyfully through the keyhole. “And the ones who are here have carious teeth. Demyan Lukich will pull them out.”
“Surely not…” And I don’t know why, but I even leapt out of my bed.
The day turned out splendidly. After doing my rounds, I spent the entire day walking about in my apartment (the quarters allotted to the doctor comprised six rooms, and were for some reason on two floors – three rooms upstairs, and a kitchen and three rooms downstairs), whistling tunes from operas, smoking, drumming on the windows… And going on outside the windows was something I had never seen before. There was no sky, and no earth either. There was whiteness spinning and swirling, hither and thither, back and forth, as though the Devil were playing about with tooth powder.
At noon I gave Aksinya – the acting cook and cleaner for the doctor’s apartment – the order to boil up three buckets and one cauldron of water. I hadn’t washed for a month.
Aksinya and I extracted from the pantry a trough of unbelievable dimensions. It was set up on the floor in the kitchen. (There could have been no question of a bath in N***sk, of course. There were baths only in the hospital itself – and they were damaged.)
At about two o’clock the spinning web outside the window had thinned out significantly, and I sat naked in the trough with my head covered in lather.
“Now this I can appreciate…” I muttered in delight, splashing the scalding water up onto my back, “this I can appreciate. And after this we’ll have lunch, don’t you know, and after that we’ll fall asleep. And if I get the sleep I need, then let even a hundred and fifty people come tomorrow. What news is there, Aksinya?”
Aksinya was sitting outside the door, waiting for the end of the bathing operation.
“The clerk from the Shalometyevo estate’s getting married,” replied Aksinya.
“You don’t say! She’s agreed?”
“Honest to God! He’s in lo-ove…” sang Aksinya, making a bit of a clatter with the pots and pans.
“Is the bride pretty?”
“There’s none prettier! Blonde, slim…”
“Well I never!…”
And at that moment there was a bang on the door. I gloomily poured water over myself and started to listen hard.
“The doctor’s having a bath…” Aksinya was singing out.
“Rumb… rumb…” rumbled a bass voice.
“A note for you, Doctor,” squeaked Aksinya through the crack in the door.
“Reach it through the door.”
I climbed out of the trough, huddling myself up and indignant with fate, and took from Aksinya’s hands a somewhat damp envelope.
“No, not on your life. I’m not going anywhere straight from the trough. After all, I’m human too,” I said to myself without much confidence, and opened the note when back in the trough.
Respected colleague [big exclamation mark]. I impl [crossed out] really must ask you to come urgently. After a blow to the head a woman is bleeding from the nasal cav [crossed out] from the nose and mouth. Unconscious. I can’t manage. I really must ask you to come. The horses are excellent. Her pulse is weak. I’ve got camphor.
Dr [signature illegible].
“I have no luck in life,” I thought dolefully, gazing at the hot firewood in the stove.
“Was the note brought by a man?”
“Let him come in here.”
He came in, and to me he looked like an ancient Roman, because of the brilliant helmet he wore over the top of his big-eared hat. He was enveloped in a wolf-skin coat, and I was struck by a current of cold.
“Why are you wearing a helmet?” I asked, covering my partially washed body with a sheet.
“I’m a fireman from Shalometyevo. We’ve got a fire brigade there…” replied the Roman.
“Who’s this doctor that’s writing?”
“He came to visit our agronomist. A young doctor. What a misfortune we’ve had, oh what a misfortune…”
“Who’s the woman?”
“The clerk’s fiancée.”
Outside the door Aksinya gave a groan.
“What happened?” (Aksinya’s body could be heard pressing up against the door.)
“It was the betrothal yesterday, and after the betrothal the clerk wanted to take her for a sleigh ride. He harnessed up a trotting horse, sat her in the sleigh, and out through the gate. But the horse tore off and his fiancée gave a lurch and hit her forehead on the gatepost. And that’s how she came to fly out. Such a misfortune that words can’t express it… The clerk’s being followed so that he doesn’t hang himself. He’s lost his senses.”
“I’m having a bath,” I said plaintively, “why on earth didn’t you bring her here?” And at the same time I poured water over my head, and the soap went into the trough.
“Unthinkable, respected Citizen Doctor,” said the fireman with feeling, and he clasped his hands together as if in prayer, “not a chance. The girl will die.”
“But how are we to get there? The blizzard!”
“It’s died down. Do come, sir. It’s completely died down. They’re fast horses, harnessed in single file. We’ll fly there in an hour…”
I groaned meekly and climbed out of the trough. Poured two bucketfuls over myself in a frenzy. Then, squatting down before the jaws of the stove, I poked my head into them to dry off, even if only a little.
“I’ll end up with pneumonia, of course. Lobar pneumonia, after such a journey. And the main thing is, what am I going to do with her? It’s clear from the note alone that this doctor is even less experienced than I am. I don’t know anything. In six months I’ve just picked a bit up from practice, and he knows even less. He’s evidently just left university. And he takes me for someone with experience…”
Reflecting thus, I didn’t even notice that I had got dressed. Getting dressed wasn’t easy: trousers and a blouse, felt boots, over the blouse a leather jacket, then an overcoat, and a sheepskin coat on top, a hat, a bag, and in it caffeine, camphor, morphine, adrenalin, torsion forceps, sterile cloth, a syringe, a probe, a Browning, cigarettes, matches, a watch, a stethoscope.
It didn’t seem at all frightening, although it was getting dark and the day was already melting away as we drove out of the village. It was apparently snowing a little more lightly. It was slanting down, in one direction, into my right cheek. The mountain of the fireman shielded me from the crupper of the first horse. The horses did, indeed, set to briskly, they stretched out, and the sledge went flying over the bumpy road. I lay down in the sledge, got warm straight away, and thought about lobar pneumonia, and about how the girl’s cranial bone had possibly cracked from within and a splinter pierced the brain…
“Are they fire-brigade horses?” I asked through my sheepskin collar.
“Oowhoo… whoo…” rumbled my driver, without turning round.
“And what did the doctor do to her?”
“Oh, he… whoo, whoo… he studied venereal diseases, you see… oowhoo… whoo…”
“Whoo… whoo…” the blizzard started thundering in a copse, and then, from the side and with a whistle, down it sprinkled… I began to be rocked to sleep, I was rocked and rocked… until I found myself in the Sandunovsky Baths in Moscow. And I was still in my fur coat, in the changing room, and covered in perspiration. Then a torch flared up, the cold was let in, I opened my eyes and saw a bloody helmet gleaming, thought there was a fire… and then came to, and realized I had arrived. I was by the threshold of a white building with columns, apparently of the time of Nicholas I. There was deep darkness all around, but I was met by firemen, and there was flame dancing above their heads. Straight away I extracted my watch from a slit in my fur coat and saw that it was five. So we had been travelling for not one, but two and a half hours.
“Let me have horses to go back at once,” I said.
“Yes, sir,” replied my driver.
Half-asleep, and wet under my leather jacket as if in a compress, I went into the lobby. I was struck from one side by the light of a lamp, and a strip of it fell onto the painted floor. And at this point a fair-haired young man with haunted eyes came running out, wearing trousers with a freshly pressed crease in them. His white tie with black spots was twisted to one side, his shirt front had popped out like a hump, but his jacket was spick and span, new, and with such creases, they seemed to be metallic.
The man waved his arms, seized hold of my fur coat, gave me a shake, clung on to me and began crying out very quietly:
“My dear… Doctor… quickly… she’s dying. I’m a murderer.” He looked off to the side somewhere, closed his eyes sternly and blackly, and said to someone or other: “I’m a murderer, that’s what I am.”
Then he started sobbing, grabbed at his straggly hair and tugged on it, and I saw that he genuinely was tearing at his locks, winding them around his fingers.
“Stop,” I said to him, and gave his arm a squeeze.
Somebody drew him away. Some women came running out.
Someone took my fur coat off me, and I was led over rugs put down for the celebration and brought to a white bed. The young doctor rose from a chair to meet me. His eyes were tormented and bewildered. For an instant there was a glimpse of surprise in them that I was just as young as he himself. All in all we were like two portraits of one and the same person, and of the same age. But then he was so pleased to see me that he even choked.
“How glad I am… colleague… now… her pulse is failing, you see. I’m actually a venereologist. I’m terribly glad you’ve come.”
On a scrap of gauze on the table lay a syringe and several ampoules of yellow oil. From outside the door came the clerk’s crying, then the door was pushed to and the figure of a woman in white appeared at my shoulder. There was semi-darkness in the bedroom, the lamp had a scrap of green cloth hanging down over one side of it. On the pillow in the greenish shade lay a face the colour of paper. Locks of fair hair were drooping down and scattered about. The nose had sharpened, and the nostrils were stuffed with cotton wool that was pinkish with blood.
“Her pulse…” the doctor whispered to me.
I took hold of the lifeless hand, applied my fingers with what was already a customary gesture, and winced. Beneath my fingers there began a shallow, frequent trembling, then it started to be broken, stretched to a thread. I felt the customary cold in the pit of my stomach, as I always did when I saw death close to. I hate death. I managed to break off the end of an ampoule and draw the thick oil into my syringe. But it was already mechanically that I injected it, and I squeezed it in under the skin of the maidenly arm for nothing.
The girl’s lower jaw began to jerk as if she were choking, then it sagged, and her body tensed underneath the blanket, seemed to freeze, then went slack. And the last thread disappeared beneath my fingers.
“She’s dead,” I said into the doctor’s ear.
The white figure with grey hair dropped onto the smooth blanket, pressed against it and started to shake.
“Steady now, steady,” I said into the woman in white’s ear, while the doctor cast a sidelong look full of suffering at the door.
“I can’t take any more of him,” said the doctor very quietly.
This is what we did: we left the crying woman in the bedroom, said nothing to anyone and led the clerk away into a distant room.
There I said to him:
“If you don’t allow yourself to be injected with some medicine, we can do nothing. You’re wearing us out, hindering our work!”
At that point he consented; crying quietly, he took off his jacket, we rolled back the sleeve of the smart shirt he was in as the fiancé, and injected him with morphine. The doctor went off to the dead woman, ostensibly to help her, while I lingered beside the clerk. The morphine helped more quickly than I had expected. After a quarter of an hour, crying and complaining ever more quietly and incoherently, the clerk began to drop off, then laid his tear-stained face down on his arms and fell asleep. He didn’t hear the commotion, the crying, the rustling or the muffled wails.
“Listen, colleague, it’s dangerous to travel. You might get lost,” the doctor said to me in a whisper in the entrance hall. “Stay here, stay the night…”
“No, I can’t. I’m leaving, come what may. I was promised that I’d be taken back straight away.”
“And you will, only be warned…”
“I’ve got three patients with typhus that I can’t leave on their own. I have to see them during the night.”
“Well, but be warned…”
He diluted some alcohol with water and gave it to me to drink, and there in the entrance hall I ate a piece of ham. My stomach grew warm, and the anguish in my heart shrank a little. I went into the bedroom one last time and looked at the dead woman, popped in to see the clerk, left the doctor an ampoule of morphine and went out onto the porch all wrapped up.
There the storm was whistling, the horses had hung their heads and the snow was lashing them. A torch was being tossed about.
“Do you know the way?” I asked, covering up my mouth.
“We know the way,” replied the driver very sadly (he was no longer wearing the helmet), “but you ought to stay the night…”
Even by the ears of his hat you could see that he would almost rather die than go.
“You should stay,” added another man who was holding the frenzied torch, “it’s bad out in the fields, sir.”
“Twelve versts,” I rumbled morosely, “we’ll get there. I’ve got seriously ill patients…” and I climbed into the sledge.
I confess I didn’t add that just the very thought of staying in that wing, where there was woe and where I was powerless and useless, seemed to me unbearable.
The driver flopped down hopelessly onto his seat, straightened up, swayed, and we leapt out through the gates. The torch vanished as though the earth had swallowed it up, or else it had gone out. A minute later, however, something else grabbed my interest. Turning around with difficulty, I saw that not only was there no torch, but Shalometyevo and all its buildings had disappeared, as if in a dream. This stung me in an unpleasant way.
“This is great, though…” I either thought, or muttered. I poked my nose out for a moment, then hid it again, things were so nasty. The whole world had curled itself up into a ball, and it was being pulled about in all directions.
The thought popped into my head that perhaps we should go back? But I suppressed it, sank down deeper into the hay on the bottom of the sledge as though into a boat, huddled myself up and closed my eyes. Straight away there swam up the scrap of cloth on the lamp and the white face. My mind suddenly cleared: “It was a fracture of the base of the skull. Yes, yes, yes… Aha, aha… exactly so!” Certainty that this was the correct diagnosis blazed out. It had dawned on me. Well, and what was the use? It was no use now, and nor would it have been of any use before. What could you have done with it? What a terrible fate! How absurd and terrifying it is to live on earth! What would happen now in the agronomist’s house? Even thinking of it makes you feel sick and miserable! Then I began feeling sorry for myself: what a hard life I have. People are asleep now, their stoves are well heated, but I have again been unable even to have a wash. I am being borne by the blizzard like a leaf. Right then, I’ll get home, and who knows, I might be taken off somewhere again. I’ll just carry on flying through the blizzard. There’s one of me, but there are thousands of patients… I’ll go and get pneumonia and die here myself… And so, having moved myself to pity, I plunged down into darkness, but how long I was there I don’t know. I didn’t find myself in any bathhouses, and I began to feel cold. And ever colder and colder.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a black back, and only after that did I grasp that we weren’t moving, but standing still.
“Are we there?” I asked, goggling dully.
The black driver stirred mournfully and suddenly dismounted, and it seemed to me as if he was being spun in all directions… and he spoke without any deference:
“Oh, we’re there all right… You ought to have listened to people… I mean, you see what happens! We’re going to kill both ourselves and the horses…”
“We haven’t lost the road, have we?” My spine turned cold.
“What road’s that?” the driver responded in a downcast voice. “The whole wide world’s our road now… We’re done for, and all in vain… We’ve been driving for four hours, but where to… I mean, you see what’s going on…”
For four hours. I started groping about, found my watch, took out my matches. Why? There was no use in it, not one single match produced a flame. You’d strike one, there’d be a flash – and the light would instantly be lost without trace.
“About four hours, I’m telling you,” said the fireman funereally. “Now what do we do?”
“Where are we now?”
The question was so stupid that the driver didn’t consider it necessary to answer it. He was turning in various directions, but it seemed to me at times that he was standing still, while I was being spun about in the sledge. I clambered out and immediately found that the snow by the runner came up to my knee. The rear horse was stuck belly-deep in a snowdrift. Its mane was hanging down like a woman’s loosened hair.
“Did they stop by themselves?”
“By themselves. The animals have had enough…”
I suddenly remembered certain stories, and for some reason felt anger towards Leo Tolstoy.
“It was all right for him at Yasnaya Polyana,” I thought, “I don’t suppose he was taken to see people who were dying…”
I began to feel sorry for the fireman and for myself. Then I experienced a flash of wild terror again. But I crushed it in my breast.
“That’s… faint-heartedness…” I muttered through my teeth.
And impetuous energy surged up inside me.
“Here’s what, dad,” I began, sensing that my teeth were freezing, “we mustn’t give in to despondency now, or else we really will go to the devil. They’ve stopped for a bit, had a rest, now we have to move on. You walk, take the horse at the front by the bridle, and I’ll drive. We have to get out of this, or else we’ll be snowed in.”
The ears of his hat looked desperate, but the driver moved forwards all the same. Plodding along and sinking down, he made his way to the first horse. It seemed to me to take an endlessly long time to get out. The figure of the driver became blurred to my eyes, they had the dry snow of the blizzard driven into them.
“Gee-ee up,” moaned the driver.
“Gee up! Gee up!” I cried, cracking the reins.
Little by little the horses moved off and started wading through the snow. The sledge rocked as if on a wave. The driver now grew taller, now became smaller as he tried to find a way out in front.
We moved like this for about a quarter of an hour, until I finally sensed that the sledge seemed to have started crunching along more evenly. Joy surged into me when I began to see glimpses of a horse’s rear hooves.
“It’s not deep here, this is a road!” I cried.
“Oho… Oho…” the driver responded. He plodded back to me and immediately grew taller.
“It does seem to be a road,” the fireman responded joyfully, even with a trill in his voice. “As long as we don’t stray again… Maybe…”
We changed our seats. The horses set off more vigorously. The blizzard was definitely abating, it had begun to weaken, or so it seemed to me. But above and to the sides there was nothing but murk. I no longer hoped to arrive specifically at the hospital. I just wanted to arrive somewhere. After all, roads lead to dwelling places.
The horses suddenly gave a jerk and began working their legs with greater vigour. I rejoiced, as I didn’t yet know the reason for it.
“Have they, maybe, sensed some dwelling?” I asked.
The driver didn’t answer me. I lifted myself up a little in the sledge and started peering out. A strange sound arose, mournful and malicious, somewhere in the gloom, but quickly died away. I had an unpleasant feeling for some reason, and I recalled the clerk and the way he had whined thinly, with his head laid on his arms. Suddenly I made out a dark dot on the right-hand side, and it grew into a black cat, and then grew some more and came closer. The fireman suddenly turned round to me, at which point I saw that his jaw was jumping, and he asked:
“Did you see, Citizen Doctor?”
One horse flung itself to the right, the other to the left, the fireman fell back onto my lap for a second, groaned, straightened up, and then began, supporting himself, yanking on the reins. The horses snorted and bolted. They were throwing the snow up in clods, tossing it about, moving unevenly, trembling.
And a tremor ran through my body several times too. Recovering myself, I put my hand inside my bosom, took out my Browning and cursed myself for having left the second cartridge clip at home. No, if I hadn’t stayed for the night, then why hadn’t I brought a torch with me?! In my mind I saw a short announcement in the newspaper about me and the ill-starred fireman.
The cat had grown into a dog and started bowling along not far from the sledge. I turned around and saw very close behind the sledge a second four-legged creature. I can swear that it had pointed ears and was moving easily behind the sledge, as if on a parquet floor. There was something menacing and insolent in its speed. “A pack, or just the two of them?” I wondered, and at the word “pack” I was thrown into a cold sweat beneath my fur coat and my toes stopped freezing.
“Hold on tight, and hold back the horses,” I said in a voice not my own, unknown to me.
The driver only groaned in reply and drew his head into his shoulders. There was a flash in my eyes and a deafening bang. Then for a second time and a third. I don’t remember for how many minutes I was bumped about on the bottom of the sledge. I listened to the wild, shrill snorting of the horses, squeezed the Browning, hit my head on something, tried to emerge out of the hay, and thought in mortal terror that an enormous, wiry body was suddenly going to appear on my chest. In my mind I already saw my ripped intestines…
At that moment the driver howled:
“Oho… oho… there it is… there… Lord, preserve me, preserve me…”
I finally got the better of my heavy sheepskin, freed my arms and lifted myself up. There were no black beasts either behind or to the sides. The swirling snow was light and tolerable, and glimmering in the light shroud was the most enchanting eye, which I would have known in a thousand, which I know even now – it was the glimmering of my hospital’s lamp. Something dark loomed behind it. “Far more beautiful than a palace…” I reflected, and suddenly, in ecstasy, I fired two more bullets from the Browning, backwards, towards where the wolves had disappeared.
* * *
The fireman stood in the middle of the stairs leading from the lower section of the splendid doctor’s apartment, I at the top of those stairs, Aksinya in a sheepskin coat at the bottom.
“Load me with money,” began my driver, “if ever again I…” He didn’t finish what he was saying, knocked back his diluted spirit in one, let out a dreadful croak, turned to Aksinya and added, spreading his arms wide, as far as his build allowed: “This big…”
“Is she dead? You didn’t save her?” Aksinya asked me.
“She’s dead,” I answered indifferently.
A quarter of an hour later it was quiet. The light had gone out downstairs. I remained alone upstairs. For some reason I gave a spasmodic grin, undid the buttons of my blouse, then did them up, went to the bookshelf, took out a volume on surgery, wanted to look at something about fractures of the base of the skull, but put the book down.
When I had undressed and got under the blanket, I was shaken by tremors for about half a minute, but then they eased, and warmth spread all through my body.
“Load me with money,” I rumbled, beginning to doze off, “but no more will I…”
“You will go… actually, you will…” the blizzard started whistling mockingly. It went thundering across the roof. Then it sang in the chimney, flew out of it, rustled outside the window and disappeared.
“Yes you will go… yes you will go…” ticked the clock, but more and more indistinctly.
And then nothing. Silence. Sleep.
*Taken from: “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” by Mikhail Bulgakov. Alma Books, 2012.