On a snowy night, a country doctor desperately seeks a way to reach a very sick patient in a village some fifty miles away. His own horse died from overexertion the night before, and Rosa, his servant girl, has found no other horse in the village for his carriage. While absentmindedly searching his barnyard, he accidentally knocks open the door to an unused pigsty, only to find there two powerfully built horses and a groom. He instructs Rosa to help the groom hitch the horses to his carriage, but the groom attacks her as soon as she gets near him. The doctor climbs into the carriage but is reluctant to leave when the groom says that he plans to stay behind with Rosa, which causes her to run screaming into the house. The doctor protests in vain, as the horses whisk him away and arrive seemingly instantaneously at the patient’s door.
The parents and sister of the patient rush out to greet the doctor and practically carry him into the poorly ventilated room of the sick boy. The boy, thin but without a fever, whispers to the doctor that he wants to die. At a loss as to what to do, the doctor aimlessly takes out his instruments and curses the miraculous assistance that has been provided him. He suddenly remembers Rosa, toward whom he has never paid much attention but whose fate now troubles him.
The horses manage to open a window in order to observe the sick boy. One neighs loudly when the doctor approaches the bed. As an underpaid employee of the district in which he works, the doctor believes that he is taken advantage of by his impoverished clientele. He convinces himself that the boy is not sick after all and prepares to leave but is interrupted by the disappointed parents. Their intervention brings him to admit that the boy might be sick after all, and when he approaches the bed a second time, both horses neigh loudly in approval.
The doctor discovers that the boy is indeed very sick. There is a hand-sized wound on his right hip, pink (rosa, in German), with many shadings and containing worms the size of his fingers. Although the family is overjoyed to see the doctor’s activity, he thinks to himself that there is no possible way to save the boy. These people always “demand the impossible from the doctor,” he thinks; “they’ve lost their old faith; the minister sits at home and pulls apart his vestments, one after another; and the doctor is supposed to do everything with his delicate surgical hand.”
As a school choir sings, “If you undress him, he will heal,” the family and the recently arrived village elders undress the doctor, place him in the bed next to the boy’s wound, and then leave the room. When the boy tells the doctor that he has very little confidence in him, the doctor tries to excuse his shortcomings and tells the boy that his wound is not so uncommon—many people, he claims, sacrifice their sides to two strokes of a mattock in the forest. Although sensing that the doctor is deceiving him, the boy does not question him further.
The horses have faithfully remained at the window. The doctor gathers up his clothes and instruments. Thinking that the return trip will be as swift as the arrival, the doctor hastily hitches the horses to his wagon and commands them to take him home but slowly, “like old men,” they plod through the snowy wasteland. Behind him the doctor hears another song of the schoolchildren: “Rejoice, you patients, the doctor has been laid in bed for you.”
Never will he arrive home, the doctor complains to himself; he has lost his practice, a successor is robbing him, the groom rages in his house, and Rosa has been sacrificed. “Naked, exposed to the frost of the most unhappy of times, I, an old man, drive around with an earthly wagon and unearthly horses. . . . Deceived! Deceived! There can be no making amends for having once followed the false ringing of my night bell.”