Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Balance in the Blood (part two)

Continuing a serialization of a horror novelette. Part One here.

Willem arrived at precisely 4:53. He found Doktor Muething sleeping on a folding cot in the corner with a book in his hand. There were more open books and papers piled atop the Doktor’s desk, and the only light came from the desk lamp. In that dim light the surgical table cast an eerie shadow over half the room and the far wall. The place was quiet except for the Doktor’s light snoring.

Willem drew toward the glass cabinet with the formaldehyde-preserved specimens inside. There was a fetal pig, a cow’s eyeball, a partially vivisected frog. He had seen all of these things before, so he turned his attention to the desk and the books that lay there. Instead of medical journals and texts, he found books of European folklore. Some of the titles were familiar; Uncle Gunther had owned copies for his pleasure reading. Why were they here?

He glanced down then at the floor beside the desk. Sitting open there was a black medicine bag, also just like Uncle Gunthers although Willem supposed that all medicine bags looked alike. He peered into the bag without touching it. There were various medical instruments – scalpels, forceps, a stethoscope – neatly secured in leather pouches. There was a small book in the bag. In the shadows he could not quite make out the lettering on the spine, but he could see that the title started with ‘V’. And there were two vials, each stoppered and labeled. Willem wondered what was in those vials, and he extended a hand down to draw one of them out….


Willem jumped back with a startled gasp. He hadn’t noticed the tiny cuckoo clock that hung on the wall above the door. The clock sounded five, and Doktor Muething awoke.

“Is that you, Young Schliemann? Ah, good!” The Doktor stood up. “And you are on time. Wonderful.” He strode past Willem and stuck his head out the door. “Bring the subject in, please,” he said to whomever was out there. Willem heard a muffled “Yes, sir” as Doktor Muething closed the door and turned back inside. “So, what new rumors about me today? I’m sure you’ve heard some whisperings by now. At dinner, perhaps?”

Willem considered being politic and denying it, but he chose otherwise. “You’re trying to cross a Jew with a monkey.”

“At the expense of the monkey, I assume,” the Doktor said with a scowl. “I’ve heard that one before. Not one of my favorites.” At that moment there was some commotion from outside. The door swung open, admitting two soldiers who dragged an unconscious prisoner between them. It was one of the six Jews from earlier. The Jew had been recently beaten; his face was heavily bruised and he was bleeding from several cuts.

“I’m sure the beating was justified,” the Doktor said.

“Inflicting punishment on the enemies of the Fatherland is always justified.” This came from Commandant Reger, who had just stepped in behind the two soldiers. His jacket was unbuttoned, his shirt collar loose – he had just risen himself.

“Put him on the table,” Doktor Muething said to the two soldiers. “Restrain him, also. Young Schliemann, in the bottom drawer of that bureau you will find a selection of appropriate clothing. Now, Commandant” – he turned to glare at Reger – “I seem to recall making clear that their blood was not to be spilled and their teeth were to be intact. Will you be ignoring all of my directives?”

Willem opened the drawer and selected a smock and gloves, trying not to appear as if he was listening.

“I believe you will find that my men left his canines undamaged.”

“And that,” the Doktor snapped, “is the most of my worries.”

Willem put on the smock as the two soldiers finished restraining the unconscious Jew. Then they returned to the door, behind the Commandant.

“Shall I stay and watch the proceedings,” Reger said.

“I doubt very much that you want to stay and watch the proceedings,” the Doktor said as he pulled on his own smock.

“Touche,” Reger said. “Good luck then, Herr Doktor.” He escorted the two soldiers outside, closing the door behind him.

“Contemptible man,” the Doktor muttered. “Jew or otherwise, death is not a plaything.” He pulled on a pair of gloves and turned to the unconscious Jew, who had been carefully restrained with wire-and-leather straps at the wrists, ankles, waist, and forehead. “Take a closer look. Tell me what you see.”

Willem stepped closer to the Jew and looked the man over. “What I see?” he asked.

“What you see,” Doktor Muething repeated. He was filling a syringe from a large glass bottle of clear fluid. “Describe him, as you would any patient.”

Willem nodded. He had done this for his uncle many times, after all. “This is an adult male, middle aged. There are beginning symptoms of malnutrition. His skin appears to be infected in places – there are lesions which have not received proper attention. A number of bruises and wounds around his upper head and torso indicate that he was recently beaten. He has suffered direct injury to his jaws; examination of his teeth—”

“That won’t be necessary,” Doktor Muething said as he came over, the syringe in his hand. “Will you please administer this? In the arm will do.” He held the syringe out to Willem.

“What is it?” Willem asked as he took it.

“A soporific. I want to see your technique.”

Willem had administered injections before, under Uncle Gunther’s watchful eye. He bent over the Jew and saw that the man’s gaunt condition made his veins easily visible. He pinched a fold of skin on the inside of the Jew’s elbow, and just like that a blue vein appeared. He slid the needle into the vein and depressed the plunger.

“Well done,” Doktor Muething said as Willem withdrew the needle. “Now, monitor him,” the Doktor said. “It won’t take long.” He handed Willem the stethoscope from around his neck.

Willem felt again the pinch of realization. “That drug will kill him, won’t it?”

Doktor Muething nodded. “I found that drug in Africa – frightful place, I’m glad it only took a few months – and I spent a great deal of time and effort at Trilenska refining it.” Trilenska was another concentration camp. “It will slowly halt his respiration. When that happens death will follow within seconds, and at that moment you must alert me. There is a moment, you see, between life and death when he will be both and neither.” He turned away then, back to the desk and the black satchel. Reaching in, he pulled out one of the flasks of dark liquid. Willem monitored the Jew’s slowing heartbeat as the Doktor filled another syringe from the flask. The heartbeat became slower, slower, slower….

“I think he will be gone soon.” The words caught in Willem’s throat. Uncle Gunther had said so many times: “Our work is preserving life if it is possible, or making it bearable if it is not.” And yet he had just ended a life – a Jewish life, but a life nonetheless. He felt sick.

Doktor Muething came over and listened to the Jew’s chest. “Yes, he is almost gone,” the Doktor said in a very low voice. He stood back up and came around the table, to stand next to Willem. There they stood looking on the dead Jew.

Willem had seen old people dead of age, adults dead of accidents, children dead of things in the water. Again he heard his uncle’s voice: “You must always accept death, but if you ever become accustomed to it, you must put aside your instruments for your useful days as a doktor are over.” Willem blinked. How could he ever become accustomed to this?

“Death is the last phase of life, young Schliemann,” Doktor Muething said. “Always think of it thus, and it will never defeat you.” With that, he took the dead Jew’s arm, found a vein, and injected the body with the dark fluid in the syringe. Then he handed the spent syringe to Willem and began administering compressions to the dead Jew’s chest.

Willem stared, confused. “Are you bringing him back?”

The Doktor paused compressions as he considered the question. “No,” he said. “Diverting him on his journey.” Satisfied at his own answer he resumed the compressions. “Move around the other side, young Schliemann. You won’t be able to see from where you are now.”

Willem came around to the opposite side of the table. He was struck just then by the Jew’s pallid coloration. This man had been dying for years, as had thousands of his brothers.

“That should be enough,” the Doktor said suddenly as he stopped compressions and stepped away from the body. “Now time will tell.” He walked around the laboratory and closed the shutters on all the windows, completely obscuring any light from outside.

Precautions for what? And why the secrecy of shuttering the windows? Willem wondered as he leaned over the dead Jew and studied the man’s features. He had learned long ago that every person died with a different expression. Some looked serene when they died, others looked frightened. How could he describe the expression on the Jew’s face? It certainly wasn’t serenity that he saw there. Anger? Fear? Resignation? Defiance? Willem couldn’t tell at all.

And then the dead Jew opened his eyes and met Willem’s gaze.

No comments: