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Sunday, October 28, 2012

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

Part five of eight (1 2 3 4)

If Death is the absence of Life, Gunther Schliemann wrote, and if Life is the absence of Death, then Vampirism is the absence of both.

Willem was so absorbed in the book that he missed the noontime meal completely. It was as if Uncle Gunther was speaking from beyond the grave – the turns of phrase and attitudes were unmistakable. But it was also as if there were another Uncle Gunther, some sort of doppelganger who moved in a world of graves and blood. He had spent years studying vampires, traveling from Amsterdam to Istanbul to Athens to Lisbon and back again following the trails of vampire folklore wherever they led. Gunther had not been content to merely study the legends themselves; he had been looking for the truths behind the tales. He had been seeking a real vampire. Uncle Gunther had been convinced that they existed. And how had he come to such a belief? At the University of Hamburg he had met Wolf Muething.

After completing their degrees the two friends had worked together, searching for vampires. Gunther wrote of many places where they had found that mysterious creatures had once existed, creatures which might have been vampires – but the trails were always cold, and a real vampire was never found. There was something terribly elusive about them, as if like the dimmest stars they vanished when looked upon directly. They searched towns in Poland and villages in the Carpathians. They journeyed to Transylvania and found no more evidence of real vampires than they had in any other place. Everything they learned, every lead they followed, every tale they traced was written in Gunther’s book: stories of the begetting of vampires, speculations on the nature of the secret vampiric society they believed to exist, hypotheses on the nature of vampirism itself – but no accounts of actual encounters. Those eluded them, and continued to elude them for years even as they lived off the money that Wolf Muething borrowed, cajoled and outright stole from his rich family.

It ended in part when Wolf Muething’s father died, and Wolf returned home to help his brother run the family. Gunther, though, continued the search on his own, earning money for his travels in exchange for medical treatments. He collected vast amounts of folklore relating to vampires, and as he studied them he began to discover parallels in all the accounts that led him to his own theories as to how they came to be. In one chilling passage he devised a simple experiment. It seems, he wrote, that the folklore leads to one conclusion: that vampirism begins by mixing the blood of a vampire with that of a person freshly dead. Would that I had the means to test this hypothesis.

Two years after Wolf Muething left the chase, Gunther found his most promising lead in a village near Salzburg. Here his prose became excited, even urgent: It must be nearing the end. How thrilling to at last approach the terminus of this great and awful road! And with those words, the book ended.

Willem turned the page and found only two blank flyleaves. He sat back, astounded, letting the book fall to his lap. There was nothing at all of the trip to Salzburg; had Gunther found what he had been looking for? Had he found the vampire? There were no answers. The questions filled Willem’s head as he headed out to dinner.


“You’re a faster reader than I,” Doktor Muething said as Willem entered the laboratory. “It took me two days to read that book. I often wonder who Gunther had print it. What must that person have thought?”

“He probably thought it was a novel,” Willem said as he came over to the table.

The Doktor raised his eyebrows. “Good Heavens, was that a joke?”

Willem only shrugged. “Another attempt?” he asked, pointing at the corpse.

“No,” the Doktor said as he used a scalpel to cut through chest tissue. “This man was fairly healthy when he was gassed. There are no shortages of opportunities to refresh my knowledge of anatomy here. Or yours, for that matter. Come closer, he’s dead and won’t bite. Rub some of that cream under your nose. It will help the smell.”

Willem took a dab of cream from a jar and rubbed it under his nose. The stuff smelled horrible and was very strong, but it did mask the scent of the corpse. He stepped closer and watched as the Doktor opened the man’s chest cavity.

“’Prick us, do we not bleed? Poison us, do we not die?’ What’s the last part – oh yes, ‘Wrong us, shall we not avenge?’” He chuckled. “If the Bard had only known what was to come. You look like you have a question for me, young Schliemann.”

He is always ahead of me, Willem thought. He asked his question. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“How do you reconcile the oath that a Doktor takes with the fact that here we mete out death in huge quantities, and that we profit by it?”

“Science is not an adequate answer to that, is it?” The Doktor shook his head slowly. “The heart has reasons that are unknown to the mind,” he said as he turned back to the autopsy subject. “In this man’s case, we probably did the right thing for the wrong reasons. His lungs are a cesspool of cancer.”

Willem couldn’t help but notice that Doktor Muething had not answered the question and he could see that it would be useless to bring it up again, so he decided to ask something else that was bothering him. “Doktor, do you really believe the things in that book?”

“My, you do like to change the subject! That’s good. It shows an inquisitive mind.” Doktor Muething picked up the scalpel and began cutting more tissue. “Science is about considering the possibilities. Gunther was a scientist, purely and truly. Before he became a physician, that is. He had no choice in that, you know. The reason the book ends in Salzburg is that Gunther was there when he received a letter from home. That was March of 1931. Do you understand?”

Willem nodded. That was when his father had died, and he had gone to live with Uncle Gunther.

The Doktor began cutting the blood vessels around the dead man’s heart. “Gunther received an urgent letter the day after he arrived at Salzburg, and he knew that he had to return home at once. He wrote to me explaining what had happened, and that he could no longer carry out our work. It broke his heart, at first, to have been so close to unraveling the mystery, but the heart can be strong in ways no one can expect. In time he came to accept his new life. And, I might add, his new family – such as it was.”

Willem stepped forward and looked down into the man’s chest cavity as the Doktor extracted the heart.

“So,” the Doktor went on, “we forgot all about vampires – or rather, your uncle did. He put that part of his life behind him. Whenever I asked him about it after that, he would only recite that passage from the Bible – the one about giving up childish things.”

Willem nodded. That had been one of Uncle Gunther’s favorite passages.

“I, on the other hand, saw nothing childish about our former quest, so I continued on as best I could. I taught at the University and studied the human body. I was able to conduct certain experiments, plumbing the limits and nature of death. Physicians study every way in their power to stave off death, but none ever actually study death itself. It is a fascinating subject. I have learned much since these camps were built. Of course, I doubt that the Allies will take a very kindly view when they arrive.”

“Do you really think they will?”

“I am counting the days,” Doktor Muething said in a voice that made Willem shudder. And then the Doktor continued. “Gunther and I corresponded through the years. He wrote a great deal about his wonderfully gifted nephew who was bound to be a fine physician in his own right. He wrote about things he learned from the old and the weak, and he wrote about all the wonderful little villages where he went to heal the sick. Those letters were far less dark than the ones he had written to me before. All of them, that is, except one he sent to me about two years ago about a village called Ganenpunkt. Do you know this village?”

Willem remembered it all too well, and he paled at its mention. It had happened two years before, when Gunther had heard of a disease that was ravishing the tiny village of Ganenpunkt. Gunther had taken Willem up there to help. Upon their arrival they had found six other physicians from around the region grappling with the disease. Every living thing in the village, it seemed, was wasting away and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. Willem remembered the gaunt and lethargic livestock in the fields, and the sick people in the homes. He had never seen a town so afflicted, and just remembering all those pale and sunken faces brought the feelings of dread back as if two years had never passed.

But then Willem remembered something else. One of the other physicians there had voiced dismay at Uncle Gunther for bringing a child – Willem – into the midst of such disease, but upon looking at the very first patient he examined Gunther had whispered to Willem: “This is no contagion.” It had not struck Willem at the time, but now….

“God in Heaven,” Willem said.

Doktor Muething nodded. “Gunther wrote me a letter all about that mysterious affliction.”

“He sent me home at once,” Willem said, “but he stayed behind to try and give treatment. He told me that he feared for my safety if I stayed. When he came back he told me that the illness had been dealt with, but he wouldn’t say anything more than that.” Willem shuddered when he recalled the expression that had been on Uncle Gunther’s face for days after that.

“There were vampires there – two of them, actually. While the other physicians worked with ineffectual medicines, Gunther went to the graveyards. It did not take him long to find them. They had been townsfolk who had died just a few weeks before, both having wasted away quickly and died, the same disease that was now afflicting the town. Gunther did what had to be done.”

“A stake through the heart?”

The Doktor shook his head as he examined the man’s liver. “There are a number of ways to do it; staking is merely one of them. It is also not entirely reliable, as some less-than-successful vampire hunters throughout history have discovered.” He chuckled. “You see, staking the heart – the theory goes – destroys the balance between life and death that exists in a vampire. And when that balance is tipped, death always wins.”

Willem pulled up a stool and sat down. “Why is staking dangerous?”

“Because it takes time for that battle – between life and death – to end. During that time, the vampire can still strike. That’s assuming, of course, that the intrepid hunter hits the heart on his first try. Woe to the hunter who misses the mark. Did you know that some vampires sleep with their eyes open?”

“Then how did Gunther do it?”

“The best way: he doused them in kerosene and set them on fire. Fire cleanses and consumes; and it is much faster than staking. Fire completely destroys the life-death balance.” Doktor Muething set the liver aside and probed at the man’s kidneys. “Incidentally, the life-death balance is also why vampires are warded by Crucifixes. Christ is, after all, the ultimate symbol of Life and Death. He transcends both, and nothing so earthly as ‘balance’ applies to Him.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “The vampires had been a minister and his maid. So many vampires were priests or clerics in life, which seems strange: how odd that holy people so often succumb to the unholiest of fates. After Gunther destroyed them he looked through the papers the minister had left behind. Approximately a month before there had been two visitors to the parish, a man and a woman from Spain. They arrived before sunrise, claiming to be refugees of some sort – hardly uncommon in those days, but still I wonder if that poor minister ever regretted not asking just what they were refugees from.” He smiled wryly, and then continued. “The visitors left three nights later, heading for Seville. It was then that the minister and his maid fell ill. They became vampires, and they proceeded to do as vampires do: they fed from their surroundings. Gunther was able to surmise all this from the minister’s journal. It was the breakthrough he had always sought, but circumstances being what they were”—he looked at Willem—“he wrote to me. Thus, two years ago at Gunther’s behest I went to Spain.” Doktor Muething slit the dead man’s stomach and looked inside. “We never feed these people before we gas them. Doesn’t that seem overly cruel?”

Willem leaned forward, completely ignoring the presence of the vivisected body. Only the Doktor’s narrative mattered. “You found them, didn’t you?”

“I did indeed, although it took a long time and a great deal of work, the telling of which I will spare you. The problem with vampire hunting is the drudgery of looking through cemeteries. I searched every damnable burial yard in Seville and found nothing. I despaired of finding these two until, purely by chance, I learned of a wealthy family whose scions were all buried on the family grounds. This was my answer, it had to be – and sure enough, I found them there. I broke into the tomb in broad daylight – a necessity with them, you realize – and after a moment to admire them as they slept with their eyes open, I destroyed them by staking.” He shrugged. “I didn’t miss, fortunately. But before I killed them I was able to collect some of their blood, one pint each.”

Willem’s eyes went wide. “Uncle Gunther wrote that vampires are made by mixing living blood with vampire blood.”

“Go on.”

“And you’re testing it by….by injecting these people with vampire blood. That’s what’s in those vials!”

Doktor Muething nodded as he pushed himself away from the surgical table. “I think I am done here for tonight,” he said. “I am tired.”

“When will our next attempt be?”

Our next attempt?” The Doktor smiled. “Tomorrow morning. Five o’clock.” He turned on the water to the sink and began scrubbing his hands.

Willem headed for the door.

“Young Schliemann?”

Willem stopped and looked again at the Doktor.

“What is right is many times concealed behind a veil of tears and blood,” Doktor Muething said. “Perhaps one day you will understand.”

Willem said good night to Doktor Muething and then left. As he walked across the street he heard the distant rumble of far-off thunder. It was the strangest thunder he had ever heard: the booms perfectly timed and identical. Only when he was almost asleep did he realize that the thunder was actually the rolling sound of exploding bombs.

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