Dance pseudomacabre

William Carlos Williams. 

The baby is in a smother of sheets and crumpled blankets. Its left eye closed, its right partly opened. It emits a soft whining cry continuously at every breath. It can’t be more than a few weeks old.

Will it live? It is the mother: a great tender-eyed blonde. Great full breasts. A soft gentle-minded woman of no mean beauty.

If it lives it will be an idiot perhaps. Or it will be paralyzed – or both. It is better for it to die.

There it goes now! The whining has stopped. The lips are blue. The mouth puckers as for some diabolic kiss. It twitches, twitches faster and faster, up and down. The body slowly grows rigid and begins to fold itself like a flower folding again. The left eye opens slowly, the eyeball is turned so the pupil is lost in the angle of the nose. The right eye remains open and fixed staring forward. Meningitis. Acute.

Breath has stopped. The body is stiff, blue. Slowly it relaxes, the whimpering cry begins again. The left eye falls closed.

It began with that eye. It was a lovely baby. Normal in every way. Breast fed. I have not taken it anywhere. It is only six weeks old. How can he get it?

Will he die?
Yes, I think so.

Oh I pray God to take him.

Have you any other children?
One girl five, and this boy.

Well, one must wait.

Excerpted from The Doctor Stories (written 1930-50)


In the full story, which is only four pages, this account is preceded by another in which the doctor is summoned in the middle of the night to a grossly obese Scotsman with erysipelas who thinks he is dying.

Again the moon. Again. Any why not again? It is a dance.

Another night, another drama, another victory, another tragedy.

Williams Doctor Stories have a medical setting, a doctor’s privileged insight, but they are not primarily medical dramas. Always they are about the people. The way they respond, the history that makes them that way, and understanding that. As in several of his other stories (discussed beneath The Heart Attack), the doctor’s voice is impassionate to to the point of seeming callous. In person he was not.

Other stories concern a stillbirth, then successful delivery from the same mother; patients with problems with alcohol, and always with money. A drug-addicted senior doctor. A gentle experience of gentility from an elderly Italian couple. A demanding, overprotective, non-English speaking new mother, about whom a terribly revealing background gradually emerges.

Further info

  • There is more about Williams and the background to the Doctor Stories beneath The Heart Attack
  • Dance macabre (Wikipedia), meaning Dance of Death, is an artistic genre on the universality of death, originating in the 15th and 16th centuries.
  • The featured image Dance Macabre by Michael Wolgemute was published in 1493 (Wikimedia Commons).

Contributed by

Neil Turner

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