We’re delighted to present the following excerpt from Leena Krohn’s short novel Datura (trans. Anna Volmari and J. Robert Tupasela), available as part of the author’s Collected Fiction, just released by Cheeky Frawg Books (and also available as part of this StoryBundle). The novel as a whole is about a narrator who works for New Anomalist, a fringe magazine devoted to documenting strange phenomena and Forteana. As she explores her increasingly strange home city and interviews its bizarre inhabitants and learns more about their odd (and oddly compelling) beliefs, she has her own strange visions and experiences that call into question the reality she has previously taken as a given. This selection from Datura, “The Trepanist,” can be read as a standalone story, but of course it gains additional significance and resonance when read in the context of the entire novel. — The Editors
If there’s one New Anomalist subscriber who could be filed under stark raving mad, I’d have to say, with only the briefest of hesitation, that it would be the man we called Carl Gustav Cork. I only hesitate because I also became acquainted—though only via email—with a person who believed in reversed speech. The young lady in question believed that recording someone’s speech and then playing it in reverse would reveal what that person really meant. I understood that she shared this conviction with an extensive group of people, if not an entire cult. Though a speaker knowingly lied, the young lady wrote, that person’s secret motives could not help but be revealed. Reversed speech would uncover what a person most wants to hide.
But Cork was a much more serious case. There was an abandon and determination in him that made me shudder. For legal reasons, I’ll let his identity remain a secret.
Cork had sent the magazine an extensive article entitled: “Enlightenment Through Trepanation!”
“What’s trepanation?” I asked the Marquis, who happened to be in the office when I opened the letter.
He hadn’t heard the term either. After reading the article, neither of us wanted to hear it again. For once, we agreed. We didn’t publish the article. Even the Marquis thought it crossed the line of decency.
I was so infuriated by Cork’s piece that I didn’t even answer it with a short form letter as I usually would: “Thank you for your contribution, but unfortunately…”
Soon after the next issue had come out, a mountain of a man showed up at the office wearing an ugly hardware store baseball cap. He introduced himself as the author of the trepanation article and demanded to know why the article hadn’t been published. I thought it was strange and impolite that he didn’t take off his hat, but his reasons became apparent soon enough.
I decided to be as clear as I could.
“Because we cannot encourage our readers to do anything so foolish,” I said. “We would probably be sued if we did, and so would you.”
“Risks have to be taken,” he said and stuck out his stout jaw. “When the benefit and well-being of mankind is in the balance, laws and conventions must be defied. Trepanation opens the human mind to vast new vistas. It is a procedure that breaks new ground for the spirit. It offers the chance to escape the prison of materiality represented by our ossified skulls.”
“I’m not the least bit convinced by your theory,” I said and turned my attention back to my papers. I hoped that he would take the hint and leave.
“It seems you haven’t acquainted yourself enough with this matter,” he accused. “Did you even read the entire article?”
I began to get angry.
“I am as acquainted with it as I need to be. You want people to drill holes in their own skulls. I think that’s utterly irresponsible. Even lobotomies are punishable by law these days. They led to thousands of people being degenerated into imbeciles. The poor souls who were subjected to that abuse can now demand compensation for their suffering. You even give advice on what kind of drill people should use to perforate their skulls.”
“Of course I do,” the man said. “It’s the most necessary of advice. Black & Decker is by far the best choice.”
“You,” I went on, “drew a comic strip illustrating how to go about drilling open one’s own head. Your proposal is beyond the pale.”
“Now listen here, you’re obviously unaware that trepanation has met with great success for millennia. It is a noble skill. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Indians all knew the secrets of trepanation, though they usually only performed it on slaves and the lower classes.”
“I don’t doubt that for a second,” I said. “The history of humanity is one shameful chapter after another.”
“In the middle ages, skulls were opened to let demons out. There is evidence that those who survived the operation gained new, even supernatural, spiritual abilities.”
“And just how many survived, I wonder?”
“As people grow up, they lose their original intuition and fresh ability to observe the world,” Cork continued, paying no attention to my question. “The flow of blood to the brain is reduced, perception and emotions become flat. It has been scientifically proven that trepanation restores vitality to the senses and potency to the emotions.”
“Scientifically, you say,” I mumbled.
He wasn’t about to let me get in the way of his lecture.
“As you know, newborns have a fontanel in their skull that slowly closes up. Our skulls harden with age, the flow of blood ebbs. Trepanation is one of the most effective and permanent methods of restoring us to our original state of flexibility and happiness. I even know a doctor, a surgeon, who drilled a hole in his skull with an electric drill. He’s never felt better! I can give you his name and address and you can ask him for details yourself.”
“No thank you,” I remained cold. He really looked like he meant to dig out a pen and paper.
“If you ask me, you have a duty to tell your readers about this procedure!”
His tone sharpened. He put both hands—and they were huge mitts—on my desk and leaned in so close that the brim of his cap brushed my forehead. The situation was getting uncomfortable, even threatening. I pushed my chair back farther from the table and wondered whether I should try to call the Marquis.
“My conscience will be clear even if I never mention your procedure to a soul,” I assured him, but my voice came out weak and uncertain.
“Don’t you want to hear about my experiences?” he asked.
“I’d rather not, thank you very much,” I said.
But he didn’t respect my wishes, and instead snatched the cap off his head and turned his back to me. I was flabbergasted. There before my eyes, amongst thinning gray hair, nearly in the center of the crown of his head, was a cork, an ordinary cork from a wine or perhaps a champagne bottle.
What would have happened had it been pulled out? I trembled as I imagined a wet pop, followed by the murky contents of his skull gushing into the room.
“I got benzocaine for a local anesthetic and various bandaging materials,” he went on, replacing his cap. “Iodine is, of course, necessary for sterilizing the hole. I went to the hardware store and bought a light, high-quality hand drill and drill bits made for ceramic tile. I was disappointed with the service, though. I asked the salesman what kind of bit he would recommend for drilling into the skull. Can you imagine he said he really couldn’t recommend anything? Such poorly trained employees! In the end, I was happy with my choice, though a bit made for drilling metal might also work. I absolutely recommend a double-handled Black & Decker.”
I hoped that he would stop, and I began impolitely underlining my copy of the Voynich manuscript. But Cork leaned over my desk again, and I felt a heavy, sickeningly sweet waft of air. I shrank back in my chair. It could have been the stench of his cerebral fluids.
“It’s best to use a chair with a head rest. A good office chair or a sturdy armchair would work fine. If you manage to borrow a dentist’s chair, you can congratulate yourself. You will also have to build some kind of support, to keep your head absolutely still. And then a seatbelt, don’t forget a seatbelt! It would be most unfortunate if the drill were to skip around here and there.”
“Now listen, I’m quite busy at the moment,” I said tiredly.
“I started drilling slow and easy with the help of a friend of mine who’s dedicated to the cause,” he continued. “In fact, I’ve promised to return the favor to him. Having observed the procedure, he is convinced of its benefits and can hardly wait for his turn.”
I groaned and felt faint.
“The work progressed slowly, but the hole in my skull grew deeper and deeper, until after about an hour, I heard a new, extraordinary sound, like a kind of bubbling or fizzing. I realized what it was: air bubbles under my skull had been freed from their skeletal prison. What joy! My friend carefully pulled the drill out of the opening.
“I really don’t want to hear any more,” I said. I was afraid I’d throw up.
Despite my expressed disgust, this ruthless man went on: “With two mirrors, I was able to see the blood ebbing and flowing in the opening in time with my heartbeat. I felt euphoria, an unprecedented joy and peace of mind. That feeling has stayed with me ever since. How I wish that more people could experience it! You, too, my friend!”
He patted my arm.
“It isn’t even expensive. I’ve already given lectures on the blessings of this procedure to many clubs and societies. I implore you, seize this opportunity and publish my article. It could bring quality and wellbeing to the dull lives of countless citizens. If enough people understand the benefits of this procedure, the fate of the entire nation could be changed! There must be a political party that would make this their banner issue.”
I tried to collect myself and put some authority into my voice. “We are not publishing your article. It’s completely out of the question! This is my final word. You can always self-publish if you’re determined to get sued.”
“I’m disappointed and astonished. I would have expected a bit more open-mindedness from The New Anomalist,” he said, dissatisfied.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I was amazed that he finally seemed to give up hope of making me understand. Relieved, I showed him out, and I didn’t like the look on his face when he said goodbye. It didn’t look anything like euphoria to me.
“You’ll regret this, madam,” he said. “You are in dire need of trepanation. This isn’t over.”
I wondered whether Cork could have fit a double-handled Black & Decker in the pocket of his windbreaker. After that episode, at my insistence, the Marquis had a peephole installed in the office door.