The Use of Force

The Borneo Post - Good English - - Short Story Section - by Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams

THEY were new pa­tients to me, all I had was the name, Ol­son. Please come down as soon as you can, my daugh­ter is very sick.

When I ar­rived I was met by the mother, a big star­tled look­ing woman, very clean and apolo­getic who merely said, Is this the doc­tor? and let me in. In the back, she added. You must ex­cuse us, doc­tor, we have her in the kitchen where it is warm. It is very damp here some­times.

The child was fully dressed and sit­ting on her fa­ther’s lap near the kitchen ta­ble. He tried to get up, but I mo­tioned for him not to bother, took off my over­coat and started to look things over. I could see that they were all very ner­vous, eye­ing me up and down dis­trust­fully. As of­ten, in such cases, they weren’t telling me more than they had to, it was up to me to tell them; that’s why they were spend­ing three dol­lars on me.

The child was fairly eat­ing me up with her cold, steady eyes, and no ex­pres­sion to her face what­ever. She did not move and seemed, in­wardly, quiet; an un­usu­ally at­trac­tive lit­tle thing, and as strong as a heifer in ap­pear­ance. But her face was flushed, she was breath­ing rapidly, and I re­alised that she had a high fever. She had mag­nif­i­cent blonde hair, in pro­fu­sion. One of those pic­ture chil­dren of­ten re­pro­duced in ad­ver­tis­ing leaflets and the pho­togravure sec­tions of the Sun­day papers.

She’s had a fever for three days, be­gan the fa­ther and we don’t know what it comes from. My wife has given her things, you know, like peo­ple do, but it don’t do no good. And there’s been a lot of sick­ness around. So we tho’t you’d bet­ter look her over and tell us what is the mat­ter.

As doc­tors of­ten do I took a trial shot at it as a point of de­par­ture. Has she had a sore throat?

Both par­ents an­swered me to­gether, No . . . No, she says her throat don’t hurt her.

Does your throat hurt you? added the mother to the child. But the lit­tle girl’s ex­pres­sion didn’t change nor did she move her eyes from my face.

Have you looked?

I tried to, said the mother, but I couldn’t see.

As it hap­pens we had been hav­ing a num­ber of cases of diph­the­ria in the school to which this child went dur­ing that month and we were all, quite ap­par­ently, think­ing of that, though no one had as yet spo­ken of the thing.

Well, I said, sup­pose we take a look at the throat first. I smiled in my best pro­fes­sional man­ner and ask­ing for the child’s first name I said, come on, Mathilda, open your mouth and let’s take a look at your throat. Noth­ing do­ing.

Aw, come on, I coaxed, just open your mouth wide and let me take a look. Look, I said open­ing both hands wide, I haven’t any­thing in my hands. Just open up and let me see.

Such a nice man, put in the mother. Look how kind he is to you. Come on, do what he tells you to. He won’t hurt you.

At that I ground my teeth in dis­gust. If only they wouldn’t use the word “hurt” I might be able to get some­where. But I did not al­low my­self to be hur­ried or dis­turbed but speak­ing qui­etly and slowly I ap­proached the child again.

As I moved my chair a lit­tle nearer sud­denly with one cat­like move­ment both her hands clawed in­stinc­tively for my eyes and she al­most reached them too. In fact she knocked my glasses fly­ing and they fell, though un­bro­ken, sev­eral feet away from me on the kitchen floor.

Both the mother and fa­ther al­most turned them­selves in­side out in em­bar­rass­ment and apol­ogy. You bad girl, said the mother, tak­ing her and shak­ing her by one arm. Look what you’ve done. The nice man . . .

For heaven’s sake, I broke in. Don’t call me a nice man to her. I’m here to look at her throat on the chance that she might have diph­the­ria and pos­si­bly die of it. But that’s noth­ing to her. Look here, I said to the child, we’re go­ing to look at your throat. You’re old enough to un­der­stand what I’m say­ing. Will you open it now by your­self or shall we have to open it for you?

Not a move. Even her ex­pres­sion hadn’t changed. Her breaths how­ever were com­ing faster and faster. Then the bat­tle be­gan. I had to do it. I had to have a throat cul­ture for her own pro­tec­tion. But first I told the par­ents that it was en­tirely up to them. I ex­plained the dan­ger but said that I would not in­sist on a throat ex­am­i­na­tion so long as they would take the re­spon­si­bil­ity.

If you don’t do what the doc­tor says you’ll have to go to the hospi­tal, the mother ad­mon­ished her se­verely.

Oh yeah? I had to smile to my­self. Af­ter all, I had al­ready fallen in love with the sav­age brat, the par­ents were con­temptible to me. In the en­su­ing strug­gle they grew more and more ab­ject, crushed, ex­hausted while she surely rose to mag­nif­i­cent heights of in­sane fury of ef­fort bred of her ter­ror of me.

The fa­ther tried his best, and he was a big man but the fact that she was his daugh­ter, his shame at her be­hav­iour and his dread of hurt­ing her made him re­lease her just at the crit­i­cal times when I had al­most achieved suc­cess, till I wanted to kill him. But his dread also that she might have diph­the­ria made him tell me to go on, go on though he him­self was al­most faint­ing, while the mother moved back and forth be­hind us rais­ing and low­er­ing her hands in an agony of ap­pre­hen­sion.

Put her in front of you on your lap, I or­dered, and hold both her wrists.

But as soon as he did the child let out a scream. Don’t, you’re hurt­ing me. Let go of my hands. Let them go I tell you. Then she shrieked ter­ri­fy­ingly, hys­ter­i­cally. Stop it! Stop it! You’re killing me!

Do you think she can stand it, doc­tor! said the mother.

You get out, said the hus­band to his wife. Do you want her to die of diph­the­ria?

Come on now, hold her, I said.

Then I grasped the child’s head with my left hand and tried to get the wooden tongue de­pres­sor be­tween her teeth. She fought, with clenched teeth, des­per­ately! But now I also had grown fu­ri­ous--at a child. I tried to hold my­self down but I couldn’t. I know how to ex­pose a throat for in­spec­tion. And I did my best. When fi­nally I got the wooden spat­ula be­hind the last teeth and just the point of it into the mouth cav­ity, she opened up for an in­stant but be­fore I could see any­thing she came down again and grip­ping the wooden blade be­tween her mo­lars she re­duced it to splin­ters be­fore I could get it out again.

Aren’t you ashamed, the mother yelled at her. Aren’t you ashamed to act like that in front of the doc­tor?

Get me a smooth-han­dled spoon of some sort, I told the mother. We’re go­ing through with this. The child’s mouth was al­ready bleed­ing. Her tongue was cut and she was scream­ing in wild hys­ter­i­cal shrieks. Per­haps I should have de­sisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been bet­ter. But I have seen at least two chil­dren ly­ing dead in bed of ne­glect in such cases, and feel­ing that I must get a di­ag­no­sis now or never I went at it again. But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond rea­son. I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and en­joyed it. It was a plea­sure to at­tack her. My face was burn­ing with it.

The lit­tle brat must be pro­tected against her own id­iocy, one says to one’s self at such times. Oth­ers must be pro­tected against her. It is a so­cial ne­ces­sity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feel­ing of adult shame, bred of a long­ing for mus­cu­lar re­lease are the oper­a­tives. One goes on to the end.

In a fi­nal un­rea­son­ing as­sault I overpowered the child’s neck and jaws. I forced the heavy sil­ver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged. And there it was--both ton­sils cov­ered with mem­brane. She had fought valiantly to keep me from know­ing her se­cret. She had been hid­ing that sore throat for three days at least and ly­ing to her par­ents in or­der to es­cape just such an out­come as this.

Now truly she was fu­ri­ous. She had been on the de­fen­sive be­fore but now she at­tacked. Tried to get off her fa­ther’s lap and fly at me while tears of de­feat blinded her eyes.

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