The Balance in the Blood, part four (a fiction repost)

Part four of eight (1 2 3)

Willem took a lukewarm shower, put on clean clothes, and then went back to the laboratory where he found Doktor Muething standing beside the staff car, the black satchel in his hand.

“You look better than you did an hour ago,” the Doktor said. “Come.” He climbed into the back of the staff car, and Willem followed. Inside there was a plate of pastries and a pot of coffee. The Doktor picked up the plate and offered it to Willem. “Are you hungry?”

Willem was indeed hungry, and he immediately grabbed one of the pastries and devoured it before the car even began moving. The Doktor lifted an eyebrow.

“Seeing you eat like that, I might take you for a prisoner.” He poured himself a cup of coffee and tapped the dividing window with his truncheon. “We will go now, driver!” he shouted. To Willem he added, “You may go to sleep, young Schliemann. We will drive a while.” The Doktor finished his coffee in one gulp and then pulled a book from his black satchel.

Willem tried to stay awake, but he dozed off anyway before they reached the main gates. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been this tired. Sleep was welcome….but the dreams he had were not. He dreamed of the dead Jew, reaching for him with long, bony fingers….

“Wake up!” Doktor Muething prodded Willem awake.

Willem groaned as he rubbed residue from his eyes. Looking out the window he saw that they were at the Hamerstadt Kirche, a great stone church with moss-covered walls that was at least five hundred years old. Willem followed Doktor Muething out of the car and down a wooded path, around the hulking building of dark stone to the church graveyard.

“Something doesn’t smell right,” Willem said.

“We’re away from the camp,” the Doktor replied. “You are smelling the normal air, absent of death.”

Strange words, given that they were entering a graveyard, but they were true nonetheless. The air smelled of wet earth, not ash; bodies here were interred and not stacked like cordwood, so there was no stench of rot. The two men traced a weaving path through the very old graves.

“I’ve been here before,” Willem said. “Some of Uncle Gunther’s patients were buried here. Not many, though.” Uncle Gunther had not treated many people who were rich enough to have been buried here. “Why have you brought me here, Herr Doktor?”

“A history lesson that you may find illuminating,” the Doktor said. They walked into an area dominated hy huge mausoleums. “Ah, here we are.” He led Willem to a very old mausoleum whose gray marble was worn very smooth by two centuries of wind and rain. There was a phrase in Latin carved above the door.

“What does that say?” Willem asked.

The Doktor shrugged. “Something about God, I suppose,” he replied as he produced a tarnished brass key, opened the lock, and pushed the heavy metal door open. “Latin was far from my best subject. Your Uncle couldn’t even tutor me to proficiency.”

Willem almost laughed at that, remembering many mornings when he had found Uncle Gunther still in his chair, asleep with a copy of Virgil or Ovid on his lap. Then Willem remembered where he was just then, and he shuddered. “Is this….legal?”

“This is my family tomb,” the Doktor said, “and therefore my property. Someday I may be laid here as well, though somehow I doubt it if the war goes as I expect it will.”

The only light in the mausoleum came from the sun shining through a dingy stained-glass window which depicted Christ on the Cross. The walls were lined with graves. “More than two hundred years’ worth of my ancestors are entombed here,” Doktor Muething said. “Here and in four other tombs in this very yard. I suppose that this is the final benefit of wealth: burial above the ground.”

Willem thought of Uncle Gunther’s grave in a tiny church graveyard fifty miles away. Uncle Gunther had died poor.

They arrived at the back of the tomb where an immense urn, made of stone with brass trim, sat on the floor. The side of the urn was engraved with a list of ten names followed by dates: 1694-1748, 1699-1740, 1742-1748, and so on. Beside the urn was a single wooden coffin that showed no sign at all of decay.

“Here we are,” the Doktor said. “In this urn are the ashes of ten of my ancestors. Of course, putting all their ashes in a single urn is unorthodox; such measures were necessary, though. And here, in this coffin, is my great-great-great-great grandfather, Waldemar. His body was burned as well, but his bones remained as did a peculiar artefact of his final death.”

“Final” death? Willem thought as the Doktor lifted the lid and gestured for Willem to look. Inside was a complete skeleton, the bones mostly smooth and white although tinged with charring. There was no hair at all, no remaining flesh of any kind – just the bones. There was also the “peculiar artifact”: a single wooden stake impaled through the skeleton’s chest cavity. The stake was also barely singed, and the wood was shiny as if purified by the flames. Willem let out a long breath.

“A vampire,” the Doktor said. “Yes, they exist, and there used to be many – although they now number very few.” He lowered the lid on the coffin. “Waldemar von Muething, by all accounts, was a horrid man and never moreso than in death. His passing was cause for actual celebration by the rest of the family and the entire town. Some, however, doubted that death itself could stop a man who had practiced certain forbidden arts.” He noted the expression on Willem’s face and shrugged. “Yes, the man was a dabbler of sorts. Some of his journals escaped being burned by the townsfolk, and those I have in my collection.”

Willem remembered the book in the Doktor’s satchel.

“He died eventually of a mysterious wasting disease, and the town was only too happy that he was gone. But then others began to suffer the same disease – first Waldemar’s family members, and others later on. All reported dreams of being visited in the night by a ghostly figure that stank of earth and drank their blood. Seven townspeople died, including Waldemar’s brother, sister, and two nephews. His niece, though, recognized him when he came for her and the next day she told the town Priest, who opened this very tomb and found Waldemar not dead and not alive. A stake – that stake – was put through his heart. The same was done to all the others who had died of the wasting, though it is not clear that any of those would have become what Waldemar became. All were burned in a great pyre and the ashes placed in that urn – except for Waldemar’s bones, which somehow the flames would not consume. So it ended – only to be remembered as a curious episode in the town’s history.” His voice became soft and finally trailed away. Willem resisted a sneeze from the dust in the crypt. “I see you don’t believe me,” the Doktor said suddenly.

“Vampires don’t exist,” Willem said. “They’re made up, for nighttime stories to scare children.”

“You’re not much more than a child yourself, young Schliemann. And you seem a bit unnerved. Are you realizing just what we are doing in the laboratory?”

Willem blinked. No, Doktor Muething couldn’t be trying to…. “The experiment?” Willem stammered. “I don’t understand.”

“Yes you do,” the Doktor said, sounding slightly exasperated. “You are smarter than this. Say it.”

Willem still said nothing.

“Say it,” the Doktor commanded.

Willem swallowed deeply. “You’re trying to create on of them,” he finally said. “You’re trying to create a vampire.” Willem nearly choked on the sheer absurdity of those words. Vampires didn’t exist. They didn’t exist, damn it!

“Perhaps we should go now,” the Doktor said.

Willem didn’t say a word as they walked back to the staff car, and Doktor Muething repsected that silence at least until they were in the car and driving back to the camp.

“You are disturbed,” Doktor Muething said. “Is it so difficult to believe?”

Willem glared at the Doktor. “I thought I was working for the good of Germany. Instead you give me ghosts.”

“Oh, they aren’t ghosts. They are very far from ghosts. As a scientist, you should use proper nomenclature. And as for the good of Germany, I suggest you put aside such notions. Again, you are too smart to believe in such nonsense.”

“You are a traitor, to speak this way.”

“Nonsense. Germany will survive. The Reich will not, and for that I am thankful. It has been a frightful business, perverting the minds of the people – the children, worst of all. I hear it in your words as you say things that I know you do not believe. But I know something of you, now. And I knew Gunther, perhaps even better than you ever did. Everything we’ve been told for the last twenty years is false, and you know it.”

Willem looked down at his hands. The Doktor laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t be upset, young Schliemann. All I have done here is to unfetter you from a belief you never truly held. You’ve known it all along. Those poor devils we’re experimenting on? Innocents. They are no one’s enemy.”

“Then how can you kill them?”

Kill them?” Doktor Muething shook his head, and a look of great sadness came over him. “I am trying to save them.”

Willem looked up, met the Doktor’s gaze. “How?”

The Doktor sighed heavily. “Ah, there are more things in Heaven and on Earth than your philsophy dreams of. Something like that, anyway. Tell me, young Schliemann: what is medicine?”

The answer came automatically. “Medicine is treating the malfunctions of the human body by learning about the body’s limitations,” Willem said.

“Gunther’s words, and mine. Well, not ours, exactly; they were told to us by our teachers just as they have been told to you. ‘We study the limits of the human body and the effects of the world upon it.’ And the ultimate limits are the boundaries of life and death. We constantly probe those boundaries, and seek to move them. But the vampires? Ah, the vampires – they straddle the boundary, existing between it. So often we describe life and death as the faces of a coin. But does a coin not also have an edge, between the two faces? And does that edge not define the faces of the coin?” His voice trailed off as they arrived back at the camp. The car moved through the gates, stopping once to allow an arriving train to cross the road. Minutes later they were back at the laboratory, and Willem stifled a yawn. The Doktor checked his pocket watch. “Nearly noon,” he said. “A long time to be awake, and a short time to see the things that you have seen today. Take the remainder to rest, and we will begin tomorrow at the same time.”

Willem looked up at the Doktor. “I don’t believe in vampires, Herr Doktor.”

“Gunther did.”

Willem felt as though his blood had gone to ice. Doktor Muething nodded.

“Gunther and I worked together in school. He was as interested in vampires as I, perhaps even moreso – although I am unaware of anything in your family history that is similar to mine. But Gunther was the genius. He made the first breakthroughs; I have merely been carrying on his work, and noble work it is. He set the work aside, though, after the first War.”

Willem’s head spun. Uncle Gunther? Working on vampires? How could kindly old Uncle Gunther have done anything remotely like what Willem and Doktor Muething had done that morning?

“I don’t believe you,” Willem said weakly.

“Believe Gunther, then.” And with that the Doktor reached into his satchel and pulled out the black book, the book Willem had seen the night before whose title he hadn’t been able to make out, and handed it to Willem. “He wrote this book, you see. It is the collection of the work he did – that he and I did.”

Willem glanced down at the book cover. A single letter ‘S’ was enscribed there, and the lettering on the spine read Der Vampyr. He opened the book to the title page. There was no indication of publisher or date; only the title Der Vampyr and the name: Gunther Schliemann.

“Are you getting out?”

Willem looked up at the Doktor, and only then did he notice that the driver had climbed out of the car and opened the rear door. He moved for the door.

“Tomorrow, five o’clock,” said the Doktor.

As Willem climbed out of the car a fresh breeze stirred, chilling him. He scrambled to button his coat, but it did no good. He was suddenly very, very cold.

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