The Prague Transmutation

My dearest Lucas,

I have entrusted this letter to the representative of Assicurazioni Generali here in Prague, with strict instructions that it be sent with all dispatch to their Headquarters in Trieste and thence by fastest ship possible to New York.  Assicurazioni has handled my father’s affairs in Central Europe for decades and their local agent, Mr. Kafka, assures me they will see my correspondence safely to you.  What you, my trusted friend, will make of its contents, I can only guess. 

I have spent the previous nine months in London, apprenticing with the prestigious banking firm whose name I will not sully with this twisted affair.  I undertook the internship at the insistence of my father.  Though originally I evinced neither the skill nor the enthusiasm for financial work, in a short time I rapidly found myself displaying a heretofore unknown aptitude with stocks and other investments.  My successes at the firm were sufficient that the senior partner offered me a full-time position and two months leave to consider a permanent relocation to London.  I set about the Continent, first to Paris and then to Cologne, idling my time in salons and hotels as I contemplated whether to accept the offer.

It had been my intention all along to end my journey in Prague by spending several weeks with Mathias and we corresponded extensively during my stay in London.  He had secured a small flat of rooms in the Mala Strana, on the west bank of the Vltava, not far from the magnificent Prague Castle.  His modest physician’s practice had found an ever-growing following as he was regarded as something of a novelty for having been educated in New York, a fact which Mathias found infinitely amusing given the superior reputation of European medical schools on our own side of the Atlantic.

To further supplement his income, he took on a side occupation as an English-language tutor for children from Prague’s more well-heeled families.  His letters were filled with robust descriptions of the beautiful sights and charming people of the jewel city of the Hapsburg Empire; above all else, his correspondence showed our friend to be happy and at peace in his surroundings.

We had not written during the previous weeks as I traveled the Continent and I thus held no clue as to the radical change in our friend’s fortunes and demeanor.  My first indication that something was seriously wrong waited for me at the Hotel San Marco upon my arrival from Cologne.  Our friend had deposited a parcel for me at the front desk.  If you asked me to guess the contents of the package before I unwrapped the thick, wax brown paper, I would never – even in a million tries – have said that it contained two autopsy reports.  Yet that is precisely what was inside the parcel, along with newspaper clippings of a series of grizzly killings.

In Kamenice, a village on the southeast outskirts of Prague, two ritualistic murders had been committed.  Both victims were well-respected young men, from good families.  Each, it appeared, was kidnapped by a cult group, perhaps with ties to the Roma community, who held the young men in crude stables for days prior to releasing them into the nearby woods, at which pointed they were hunted and impaled with spears.  The murders – and the ghastly details surrounding their execution – caused an understandable scandal.

Neither of the young men’s bodies was ever found and the details of what befell them came from the sole survivor of the ordeal, the teenage son of a local magistrate.  The boy, Vaclav Mendel, was found shackled in a wooded hut, badly mistreated and severely malnourished.  His mental state had deteriorated with his physical condition, but he was still sufficiently lucid to provide some rough details of his fellow captives’ fate.  Yet he was also reported to be given to fits of gibberish that the local police could not decipher.  Sent back to his family, the boy lapsed into a silent torpor and after two days, committed suicide.

It was here that our friend entered these events directly.  The boy’s father – not willing to accept that his son took his own life – insisted on an autopsy and asked for Mathias personally on the basis of his rising reputation as a physician to Prague’s elite.  Our friend agreed and though his notes show that he concurred with the assessment of a self-inflicted wound, his examination also revealed several findings that he was at a loss to explain.  Vaclav’s teeth, for example, appeared to have experienced an inexplicable phase of growth, overreaching the young man’s lips and giving him an almost fang-like dentition.  Second, there were isolated patches of thick bristle-like hair on his hands and chest, yet he showed little, if any, other body hair on his arms or legs.  Finally, and most perplexing of all, at the base of the boy’s spine, a patch of black insect-like scales had begun to coalesce.

A fortnight later, Mathias was asked to consult on a second autopsy – this time by the Prague police.  The victim, Jakub Starosta, also showed signs of the mysterious black scaling.  However, Mathias’s notes show that Jakub did not have dental distortions nor any of the hideous black hair patches seen on Vaclav.  Jakub also apparently died from a single gunshot to the head, although in his case Mathias was certain it was not self-inflicted.  The young man’s body was found near the back of Prague Castle, in an abandoned brewery on which renovations had recently begun.

I admit being somewhat unnerved at the unexpected presentation of these curious papers and by our friend’s failure to meet me personally at either the hotel or train station.  There seemed to be more than a slight sense of foreboding over all that had transpired since my arrival in Prague that morning.  But I also confess that having come from London, where the creation of Conan Doyle is still quite popular, the whole affair imbued me with a thrilling sense of intrigue.  As I looked out my hotel window at the fantastic medieval city before me, I could scarcely think of a more worthy setting for such an adventure – and who better to share it with than my dearest comrade, Mathias.  I remember wishing I had bought a deerstalker cap during my time in England.  How ludicrous it seems to me now that I actually relished the evening to come, thinking it all some exciting game, a parlor mystery for Mathias and I to crack.

The final document in the parcel was a brief note from Mathias with detailed directions to his club not far from Wenceslas Square.  I followed them exactly and our friend’s customary precision did not fail me.  I arrived one half hour in advance of our appointed meeting time of eight o’clock and took the liberty of indulging in a cigar and ordering a glass of the absinthe for which Prague is so famous.

It was only as time wore on and our usually punctual friend failed to materialize that my curious excitement switched back to unnerved worry.  When Mathias finally arrived at nine, his appearance did little to calm my fears.  He was pale and disheveled and if I didn’t know him better I would say he’d been wearing the same clothes for days.  His eyes were frantic and furtive, darting everywhere with great anxiousness.  Finally, he held his right oblique with his left hand, as if his side would spill forth his intestines were it left unattended.  For the duration of the evening, the hand stayed locked against his side, hidden underneath his suit jacket.  When I say the hand never left his side, Lucas, I am not exaggerating.

If his appearance left me concerned, his first word did little to calm my fears.  He walked up to me, still anxiously looking over his shoulder and said one syllable: “Dead.”

Our friend’s agitated state and unkempt condition drew immediate looks from the other visitors to the salon.  Fearing for his reputation, I swept him immediately into the chair across from mine and insisted he down a mouthful of absinthe to settle his nerves and calm his demeanor.  This he did without protest and I was quickly ordering second glasses of the greenish spirit for both of us.

After several moments and additional absinthe, a flicker of our old friend returned.  He looked at me with eyes that were brighter.  He shook his head as if apologizing for his manner of greeting and simply said, “I’m glad you’re here, Sebastian.”

Our friend’s return to civility greatly heartened me and I returned his warmth.  “It’s good to be with you too, old friend.  Now tell me, who, prey, is dead?”

“Jiri Jezek,” our friend said matter-of-factly, as if the name explained itself.

“Another victim?” I asked.

“A patient,” Mathias said, his eyes no longer meeting mine.  “No, that’s not quite right.  He was actually my student.”

“Your tutoring?” I prompted.

“Yes,” Mathias nodded. “Jiri was a quick study.  He was eighteen and his father, a well-known physician, was hoping to send the boy abroad to study.  Maybe to London.  I was actually planning on having him call upon you.”

“But now?”

Mathias shook his head as if to describe what happened to the boy was simply too much.  Then he simply said the word, “Changed.”

“What?” I asked.

Our friend sighed as if it was burdensome that I didn’t immediately understand his meaning.  He spoke calmly again, as if reciting events of which he had not been a part.

“It was last night, you see.  Dr. Jezek’s butler was waiting outside my flat.  I was understandably surprised to see him at that hour.  He said the doctor needed my urgent help.  That something had happened to Jiri.  I pressed the manservant for details, but he simply said that they’d discovered the boy the day before unconscious near the old brewery.

“I arrived at the Jezek’s’ home at about ten o’clock.  Mrs. Jezek was upstairs but I could hear her weeping as soon as I entered the downstairs foyer.  Dr. Jezek greeted me with equal parts relief and concern.  I asked what had happened to Jiri and he grew deathly silent.  He simply took my hand and led me up the stairs to the boy’s room.

“I tell you, Sebastian, never has there been such a thing. You see, Jezek opened the door and the boy had changed…”

Mathias’ voice trailed off and he said no more for several minutes.  Finally, growing exasperated I asked the obvious question.  “For heaven’s sakes, man, what do you mean the boy changed?”

“Not here,” he hissed at me, with the utmost seriousness in his eyes.  Whatever detached calm our friend mustered during his preceding narration was gone and he lapsed into the same anxious, furtive state he displayed when he first entered the club.  He gripped his side tighter and glanced around the high-back leather chair as if expecting someone to be lurking there, listening unbidden.  In a gulp, he finished the last of his absinthe and then immediately left the club, leaving at such a pace that I could scarcely keep up with him.  It was only when we were out in the streets – the cool, soothing night air embracing us – that Mathias slowed his pace and allowed me to rejoin him.

I tell you, Lucas, never have I held a more conflicted set of feelings: all around me, this magnificent city was alive and bustling after dark.  I longed to see its wonders and explore its pleasures.  Yet next to me my dearest friend in the whole world shuffled along in the darkest fugue imaginable, his very sanity increasingly in doubt in my own mind.  But I could perceive no way to help him but to wait out his twisted narrative and hope that by allowing him to finish his macabre tale it might somehow unburden his mind and allow his spirit to rally.

He led me through the Old Town in silence, through one labyrinth turn then another until finally we were on a cobble-stoned street that unceremoniously deposited us in front of one of the most magnificent sites I have seen in all of Europe: Charles Bridge, that great massive stone span over the Vltava, lit up in a golden haze by gas lamps.

For a moment, the breathtaking view almost made me forget the plight of our friend.  We walked about a third of the way across the bridge when reality again took hold: Mathias began to sob quietly and leaned against the side of the bridge, as if his legs would no longer carry him.  I made a move to examine his side, but he waved me off angrily.

After several minutes of silence, I decided to repeat my question from the club.

“Mathias,” I said as calmly as I could, “you told me the boy changed.  For God’s sake what do you mean?  What did he change into?”

At this point, our friend’s right hand grabbed me by the collar with great violence.  Startled and further concerned for his sanity, I shook him off as gently as I could.  He looked up at me with as deranged an expression as I should never hope to see on another human being.  He said the two words which will forever haunt my mind’s domain.

“Monstrous vermin,” he hissed, “the boy had become a monstrous vermin!”

“You saw this with your own eyes?” I demanded.

He nodded slowly and then resumed his narration.

“The boy – the thing – was repelled by the light.  As soon as his father and I entered, it – he – slithered under the bed.  How he forced his monstrous bulk into the space between the floor and the bed frame I’ll never know, but he did it with such remarkable speed.   I saw only flashes of his thick dark skin – like insectoid scales at one moment, then at others the thick, oily hair of a rodent.  I saw only glimpses, you see, flashes of that horrible bulk but the sound – the sound! – that Godforsaken noise of his claws on the floorboards as they scraped and scurried I shall never forget.”

I spoke to him as a parent to a scared child: “Flashes, you say.  Glimpses.  So you didn’t actually perceive the whole of the creature?  You had no way of knowing that it was in fact the boy somehow transmuted into this horrible fiend?”

He looked at me with something like mad anger.  But just as quickly the rage in his eyes dissipated.  What I saw in its place was resignation.  He continued:

“I saw the whole of the beast when they came for him.  I was shocked – appalled – unable to speak.  Next to me, the father could barely stand, he reached out to support himself on my shoulder and I made no protest.  I think the fact of showing it – his son – what he had become to another man of science somehow confirmed for him the worst of this cruel and twisted reality in an irreversible way.  The two of us gaped, despairing and dumbfounded, as dark twitchy eyes stared out at us from under the bed while underneath those inhuman feet scratched and clawed in place.

“How long we stood there I cannot honestly say.  I was trying to formulate some plan, some course of treatment but my every thought seemed consumed with the horrid madness lurking in the shadows.  I finally made some effort to speak when the room was assailed with a hail of rocks and bricks.  The windows burst forth and missiles struck at the overhead light rendering us in total darkness.  My heart pounded as I realized that the creature was now free to prowl about the room but no sooner had that heinous thought entered my mind then I was blinded by a wall of phosphorous powder.

“The creature that had once been Jiri Jezek screamed in pain – and my God, Sebastian, there never has been such a scream heard by human ears.  Unholy wailing ripped through the house as dark figures charged in through the broken windows.  I could feel Dr. Jezek knocked to the floor next to me as I myself was punched and kicked till I left my feet and landed hard on my side.  I lay on the ground in darkness, sure that I would meet some foul end or another.”

Our friend paused his narration here, his eyes drifting off to some unseen spot in the darkness of the Vltava.  My own eyes fixed again on the spot where our friend clung to his side.  I wondered if he had broken ribs in the attack.  Perhaps there was internal bleeding or infection, either of which I surmised could explain his agitated demeanor and questionable mindset.

Mathias paid my looks of concern no attention and kept speaking, increasing the pace of his words as if he were running out of time in which to tell them.

“When the last of the phosphorous powder burned off, I tried to blink away the bright color splashes that danced before my eyes.  Slowly, my sight returned and by the moonlight I could see six or seven, maybe eight shadowy figures binding the hideous creature with nets.  They must have managed to muzzle it somehow as the shrill shrieks were now replaced with stifled grunts.  It was when they were hauling the thing through the window that I saw the outline of its true form, roughly the length of a man, but of such a bulk and contour that it was as if nature had combined the most repugnant aspects of a cockroach and a rodent all into the same massive, twisted frame.”

The speed with which he spoke left our friend breathless and he paused now, his breathing shallow and agitated.  I very much wanted to continue to question him on the encounter – to point out that he’d never seen the beast directly, just in silhouette, but I sensed that Mathias was in a state well past where logic would apply.  Oh, Lucas, how I wish you had been there to counsel me last night.  How does one tell one’s best friend that he fears for his sanity?  I can only hope that that is not a question you yourself are asking as you read my own words.

Unprompted, our friend began speaking again in the same rapid diction to which I was now becoming accustomed.

“The elder Jezek said nothing.  He looked at me with the eyes of a man who has not only lost a child but has been forsaken by God Himself.  He shook his head and wordlessly stumbled out of the room and down the hall.  I followed and saw him collapse into his terrified wife’s arms.  Their sobs followed me as I walked in a dreamlike stupor down the stairs and out the front door.

“If you had seen me that night, Sebastian, you would have thought for sure I was a hopeless drunkard.  My gait was wild and unsteady as I careened down the winding streets of Mala Strana.

“But then somehow, someway, I knew the way.   You see, Sebastian, it called to me.”

He said the last words as a statement that was plain to all, but I had no idea what he could possibly mean.  The empty look in his eyes further convinced me that our friend’s sanity was in the gravest danger.  I reached out to place a hand on his shoulder, hoping he might allow me to examine the wound I now was sure must be festering in his side.  But he took two quick steps back, almost without looking at me and lapsed into a trance-like recitation.

“It called to me, Sebastian.  I have no memory of walking there, yet I found myself outside the old brewery.  As if watching another person, I felt myself climbing the old, darkened steps.  I don’t remember how I got through the locked door, but I must have.  The smell…the thick, musty odor was all I do remember.  That and the many, many steps as I descended into the cellar.”

There was something in our friend’s voice that forced me to believe he was recalling an actual memory and not just rambling incoherently.  He spoke his words with both fear and conviction, and the earnestness of his dread forced my attention.

“I wandered through the cellar, past the vats and the shelves, through the alcoves and down passages, along paths that seemed to veer off from one another at angles I considered impossible.  The walls became covered with shapes that became letters and letters that spoke to me in a tongue I couldn’t pronounce.  I walked through shadows and around different colors, my mind abandoning any reason as to the physics and geometry of my passage.  Until I saw it.”

Our friend went abruptly silent; yet he had relayed the preceding to me with a calmness that was absent in his voice since we left the club.

“What did you see?”  The words escaped my lips, before I could stop them.  I did not wish to encourage our friend’s delusions, but some part of me, I confess, was starting to believe this tale of lunacy.

Mathias stared at some null point between my shoulder and the horizon for several seconds. He finally spoke in an empty, dispassionate voice that unnerved me more than if he had been screaming bloody murder.  I record here his chilling words:  “If I say that my imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of a rodent, a beetle, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.  It was all of these, but none.  It had shape, but did not.  It had life, yet reeked of death.  It moved in those foul tunnels, but I have no doubt that its proper home is the place of dreams or more aptly, nightmares.”

Our friend said nothing else for some time, and I continued to survey his condition.  I was making my mind up to inspect his side, by force if necessary.  Surely, a wound must lay there festering.  What other explanation could there be for this insane story, this macabre tale?  What else could explain how he could speak such nonsense so convincingly?

“He touched me,” he said in a voice barely audible.  My eyes darted to his side and then to his eyes which had dilated with fear.

“He touched me,” he repeated in the same hollow whisper.

And at that I could bear no more of our friend’s condition or his gabble.  I set for him when the slightest of movements stopped me cold in my tracks.  I can tell you there was neither a darker nor a more unexpected moment in my brief life as the second when our friend finally withdrew his left hand and held it clear into the illumination from the gas lights on Charles Bridge.  In an instant I realized it was not his side that had been afflicted all evening, but rather his hand.  Our comrade’s five fingers had morphed into three claw-like appendages and on the palm and back, there were thick, bristle-like hairs, slicked with an oily substance.  I was left with the unmistakable impression that I was looking at the paw of a giant rat.

I took two steps back and was near taking full flight when Mathias reached out and grabbed hold of me again.  “Don’t let them take me!” he roared, as I fought in vain to escape his clutches.  But his rat-like paw held my waistcoat in an iron grip as he pleaded with me through fetid breath. “Swear! Swear, sir, you will end this!  Swear!”

I finally summoned all my might and pushed him away, sending our friend sprawling on the cobblestones.  As he fell, his shirt collar came undone and a thatch of the hideous bristle-like hairs poked forth, leaving me no doubt that the aberration now covered most of his chest as well.  His mouth twisted in a demonic grimace that bared an unholy dentition; his teeth seemed to be shifting before my eyes, narrowing and lengthening into a mass of fangs.

“How long?!”  I screamed the words half as a question and half as a demand; to my everlasting shame, it was as if I were blaming our friend for his abhorrent condition.

“My hand, this afternoon,” he said with difficulty, it already becoming an effort to force his mouth to form words.  Then he pointed first to the thick oily hairs protruding from his shirt and then secondly to the monstrous teeth.  “Since the club,” he whispered and his shoulders collapsed as he began weeping openly.

I thought back to the anticipation and joy I felt a mere two hours before as I sat enjoying deep pulls on my cigar, waiting for Mathias to arrive.  The city – our lives – seemed bright with every conceivable promise.  Two hours and now the unspeakable had befallen he who was dearest to my heart.  Two hours and I was being asked to do that which went beyond unspeakable.

Our friend’s cries grew deeper and heavier.  They sprung from him in violent fits, deep gurgles in a voice that I could already tell was not quite human.

“How long?” I said once again, but this time there was no rancor in my voice, only the deepest possible sadness.

“By morning,” he barely mumbled, his teeth seeming to overgrow his mouth even as he spoke.  They would be the last human words he would utter.

With effort, I placed my hand on his shoulder and tried not to recoil as I felt something spiny and cold rather than solid shoulder muscle.  I held my hand there just long enough to say the words that needed to be said.  “It will be done, my friend. I swear.”

He looked up at me with eyes that still seemed all too human and I helped him stand.  I was thankful for the thickness of his overcoat as the wool felt provided some shielding between my hands and the unspeakable changes slowly afflicting our friend’s arms.  The form I helped move through the streets of Prague that night was still manlike, but from his occasional jerks and the string of low painful growls I could perceive the earliest stages of the hideous metamorphosis that would transform him from a creature that walked on two legs to one that would more naturally be at home scurrying in the dark on four.

Of the state of his mind, I cannot say for sure.  To his credit, he managed to lead me directly to his rooms a short ways from the Charles’ Bridge.  With grunts and nods he directed me both to the key to his flat (secured cleverly in a faux rock outside his window) and, once inside, to a newly purchased padlock.  I used that device to secure his bedroom door after he entered.  He disappeared into the darkness, offering me not so much as a glance.  Truth be told, I was relieved for the quietness of his exit and collapsed onto his settee to collect my tattered thoughts and sort the impossible events of that evening.

Perhaps I am a coward for not doing the foul deed right then and there.  But there was still too much humanity in him for me to strike him dead in cold blood.  I needed the night – that long, dreadful night – to think on what had transpired and to plan for what I must do.  Most of all, Lucas, I needed to set these words down for you.  I trust you will not curse me for relating this mad tale to you but rather I leave it to your good judgment to see that without the effort of writing this letter I might well have lost my own sanity during that long darkness as I waited for the dawn.  In your own way, my friend, you have seen me through these horrible events.

For here, my tale must end, sparing you – and would God only will it that I could be spared it as well – the final act of this dreadful play.  I have purchased a set of dueling revolvers and plan to make my way forthwith back to Mathias’s rooms.  Once there I shall waste no time in doing what I must, what I promised our dear friend I would.  The padlock shall be removed and with all the swiftness I can muster, the door will be kicked open, and the electric light snapped on.  I pray that I will have the courage to immediately empty both barrels into the face of the fiend that now lurks where our friend once walked.

But what awaits me?  When I locked Mathias in his bedroom last night he still had the general visage of a man.  Then in the night I could hear unimaginable screams and horrendous scratching that no human body could produce.  “Monstrous vermin,” he whispered to me in terror on the Charles Bridge.  How far has his hideous metamorphosis progressed?

I can only hope that the electric light will be enough to stun him, to give me that one essential moment to end his misery, though it will not end mine.  Not only must I live with the twisted tale I heard upon arriving in this city, but I must bear the knowledge of having been the final instrument of my best friend’s destruction, even if it be a kindness to end such an abominable existence.

Pray for me, Lucas, and keep always my memory and that of our beloved Mathias in your thoughts.

Yours in deepest friendship,

Sebastian L. Rasmussen, III