Dr. Quasdonovich’s Solution
by Ross Smeltzer
Manfred Dyrftig, an old and ailing footman, opened the pine door leading to his master’s refuge. Formerly a wine cellar, the earthen chamber had been repurposed many decades before Manfred’s birth.
An ancestral Dyrftig, his name forgotten, had been proud to supervise the initial conversion. Entrusted with the indispensable scheme, he had eagerly cleared away countless barrels of wine, turning the chamber into little more than a deep pit.
The cellar’s air had acquired a sharp, piquant quality in the years since its alteration. Manfred visibly recoiled from the room’s distinctive bouquet, though he fought against this reflexive action. His master had chastised him for it on many occasions.
Manfred descended into the chamber, doing so carefully. The light of his kerosene lantern seemed to turn a pale green as he made his first faltering steps into the gloom. It had been metamorphosed by the cellar’s queer climate.
He reached the room’s earthen floor and, contrary to his every instinct, advanced down its length. His gait was deliberate — a generous observer would call it “stately” — just as his master had instructed.
He found his master in his accustomed place: suspended from the wooden rafters by his curled toes. His long arms were folded around his distended, bloated chest. His left eye was open, revealing an amber orb. He looked like an overgrown grey pupa. Though night was imminent, he was not yet conscious. Manfred hated to wake his master; to discomfit him was to risk censure and worse.
“Graf zu Varazdin,” Manfred began. “I did not wish to wake you, but I have a message to convey.” He spoke in as clear and forceful a voice as he could muster.
He watched his master’s stiff, inflexible limbs reanimate jerkily; it was still an arresting sight after decades of service. “I have brought you a letter from Doctor Eusebius von Quasdonovich. He requests the pleasure of your company later this evening. He wished me to communicate to you that he has made a discovery that will be of interest to you. I believe he said it will ‘transmogrify the foundations on which your species is constituted.’” Manfred completed this announcement and awaited his master’s response. He tried to subdue the tremors coursing through his body. His teeth rattled loudly.
Graf Konrad zu Varazdin inhaled the clean, wholesome air of his bedchamber. It was so unlike the air one encountered in the world beyond: air that had been ingested and digested by the bodies of men and beasts.
Brushing aside philosophical ruminations for a moment, he gazed down from the ceiling, turning his head to look on a timorous footman. The trembling creature’s name escaped him. They were all indistinguishable. It addressed him through chattering teeth, in precisely the manner it had been taught not to speak.
Varazdin, frustrated but not yet fully awake, contorted himself and scuttled down an adjacent earthen wall. When he reached the floor, he assumed an erect posture.
Varazdin had understood his footman’s announcement, though the creature’s characteristically inept delivery had taxed his fathomless reasoning powers. He would spare the brute, though he knew that doing so would embolden it and only stimulate its stupidity. The proper schooling of retainers was the work of decades, he mused.
Exasperated, he resolved to call upon Dr. Quasdpnovich. The physician, unashamedly eccentric and unrepentantly self-infatuated, at least made for eventful company. Doubtlessly he would prove more compelling than the quivering thing before him.
“Footman, I intend to visit the most learned doctor,” the roused strigoi announced. “I will require comfortable evening attire, as well as a coach. Fetch both for me.”
The footman scurried out of the room in a way Varazdin thought comparable to a rat. It soon returned, perspiring and bearing a maroon doublet, a buff jerkin, a yellowed cartwheel ruff trimmed with a veritable cloud of diaphanous lace, a pair of perfumed gloves, and a beaver cap.
Varazdin donned this finery, taking care to stuff his paunch into his snug jerkin and to conceal his purplish wasted neck inside the crisp, exact folds of his formidable ruff. The cap, moldy with age, was an adequate substitute for the hair he had lost long ago.
Varazdin left the cellar, slowly ascending the wooden steps leading to the world above. Though the sun had long ago withdrawn, Varazdin could feel its lingering warmth. It stung him. It very nearly agonized him to think of the poor creatures that daily endured the presence of that celestial tormentor. Such were the travails attendant with their mean existence. Varazdin’s footman, quaking in the cold, had prepared the coach for travel. It was an antique model. It pleased Varazdin to know that his coach was an assuredly uncommon and exceptional sight for those who had the good fortune to espy it in the blue moonlight. It was drawn by two Holsteins.
Powerful and imposing brutes when they had been alive, the creatures had lost these qualities in their dotage and subsequent demise. A blue light pulsed in their eyeless sockets: the symptom of the necromantic glamours that permitted their ongoing employment.
For a time, Varazdin had contemplated retiring this team, but the novelty of a coach drawn by reanimated cadavers was undeniable. Their persistence was a testament to Varazdin’s potency: his indomitable will and resolution. They would eventually be retired, of course; the last shreds of skin and muscle would slough away; tendons would shrivel and break; bones would grow brittle and crumble. Only upon their absolute disintegration would Varazdin’s discharge his steeds from their obligations.
Varazdin mounted his coach and directed his steeds towards the home of Dr. Eusebius von Quasdonovich. They knew the way. The coach followed a winding road through unbowed bracken and forest. It passed many abandoned villages.
Varazdin remembered a time before their inhabitants had fled to the cities in the distant valleys. Many had been his tenants or his serfs. He had once begrudged their flight. Now, he scarcely remembered his feudal privileges and was glad to be rid of their associated obligations.
Dr. Quasdonovich’s home, a tall tower on the tree line of a glowering mountain, was not far from Varazdin’s own. Varazdin thought the structure spindly; its wont of solidity lessened the impression it made on the viewer. Still, he admired how it punctured the grey mist that gathered nightly at the base of the nameless mountain, like a needle or a knife.
Varazdin’s steeds, accustomed to journeying to the doctor’s aerie, found the tower’s entrance and halted before it without the need of commands. Varazdin thrust open the door of his coach, exited its confines, and entered the home of his peer.
Varazdin found the doctor in his study. The ancient and learned physician, a noble more proud of his knowledge than his heredity, was bent over a low table with a body on it. He was wearing a musty cerulean waistcoat that barely covered his girth.
The body before him, its hands and feet strapped to the table, respirated feebly. It was swarthy and gaunt. Its face looked distorted, chaotic — nerve-mad.
From its clothes, Varazdin recognized it as a Romani. Romanies periodically traipsed through the mountains where Varazdin, Quasdonovich, and others of their kind dwelled, offering their debatable services as laborers. Volunteering to become drudges, they often became foodstuffs.
Such was the inevitable fate of the body now squirming on the table. The doctor looked up from his work, but did not look at his guest. He had heard Varazdin’s approach.
He smiled, exposing his dagger-like incisors. They were ruddy, permanently stained. He was clutching a number of vials, and others were scattered about the room; some contained liquids of different colors and others were uncorked and empty. All manner of instruments lay about the room. The doctor had been tinkering.
“Graf zu Varazdin, I am honored by your company,” the doctor exclaimed. “To host the voivode of Mühlbach, margrave of Visci, and castellan of R is now a rare privilege.” He was still bent over the table. After listing Varazdin’s titles — with an impolite absence of feeling, Varazdin thought — he turned. His wide eyes — quite mad — shone brightly in the darkness.
“No, most learned doctor, it is I who am the honored one. I possess lands and titles, but you possess something inestimably greater: an expanded, cultivated mind. Your treatises have pried treasured secrets from the miserly earth. I am grateful for your invitation and am eager to learn of your latest discovery.” Varazdin had prepared this offering years ago and could now deliver subtle variations of it from rote.
The Romani’s writhing grew more desperate, and the table on which he was splayed shook violently. He screamed. The two strigoi smiled and ignored these disturbances. They continued their discussion.
“Doctor, perhaps we should eat before you regale me with your latest findings.” Varazdin was hungry. He had not eaten in some time, and his skin had begun to acquire a scaly, glutinous quality.
“Yes,” Quasdonovich replied, “momentarily. In truth, I have asked you here to tell you of a most fascinating discovery.” The physician stroked the thin strands of white hair that hung, barble-like, from his swollen, ruddy face. “This discovery pertains directly to our method of sustaining ourselves. And our station.”
“I am most intrigued,” Varazdin said, carefully seasoning his reply with suggestions of indifference and impatience.
Quasdonovich folded his arms behind his back, began pacing slowly up and down the long room, and spoke: “As you know, our species must regularly consume the still-fresh bodies of men. We can survive, for a time, without their flesh, muscles, and blood, but must inevitably grow weaker from their absence. Deprivation of these essentials leaves us weakened and results in our expiry. We are, it must be conceded, tethered to them.”
He motioned to the Romani on the table. “Creatures like this — physically inferior, destitute of reason — hold us in their thrall, though they fear us.” He resumed. “To feed on them is to satisfy our hungers and preserve ourselves, but it has a wholly undesirable side-effect; it turns our inferiors into our equals.
“I am sure it has not escaped your attention that those on whom you feed become like you. Their extinction brings not nullification but elevation. I, myself, have encountered my fellow victims, wandering about cemeteries with glazed, stupid expressions. They are baffled by their improvement, I suspect.” The doctor chuckled.
Varazdin was accustomed to the doctor’s ramblings and said, “Yes, I quickly learned all these things. What of them? They are unalterable. Our species is, regrettably, a permeable one.”
“That is what I thought, too. But our fecundity is problematic, Varazdin. We bring attention to ourselves when we are concentrated and numerous. And we become concentrated and numerous when we feed and beget more of our kind. The calculations are cruel; our numbers could easily outstrip those of our cattle.”
He paused for effect and smiled slyly. “There is worse, though. When we grow numerous, we eliminate the distinction between our inferiors and ourselves. Creatures like us represent a providential design: examples of improved, perfected humanity. What is the value of this perfection if we mete it out unthinkingly? Our status must be guarded and preserved, else we will reenter the condition we so recently exited; we would be indistinguishable from the masses once more. I have concluded that our permeability is our greatest peril.
“Varazdin, prior to your elevation, your station rested on titles: titles whose value resided in their scarcity. The station of our species rests on a similar foundation. We cannot, like that rutting king in Poland, dilute our power through our inadvertent fertility. We must find a way to attain perfect exclusivity,” he concluded.
His undisguised self-regard was quite intolerable, Varazdin thought.
Quasdonovich looked pleased with himself. Wearied by his discourse, he slumped into one of the high chairs surrounding the table where the Romani lay. The Romani had stopped writhing. His eyes were wide and his skin was ashen.
Varazdin, feigning interest in the doctor’s ponderings, wanted action: “How can we address this problem, doctor? Your ‘perfect exclusivity,’ while undoubtedly a worthy aspiration, must be made real.”
Copyright © 2014 by Ross Smeltzer