by Leena Krohn, recommended by Jeff VanderMeer
AN INTRODUCTION BY JEFF VANDERMEER
Leena Krohn, one of Finland’s most decorated writers, is the kind of storyteller who rewires your brain. She forces you to adapt to her pace, her particular and unique ideas of urgency. The ceaseless roving, testing, and journeying that manifests in Krohn’s fiction originates from a fierce intellect. Krohn is curious about the world, and she has the kind of philosophical mind to make that exploration fascinating to readers. Her fictions aren’t abstractions, however, but alive with details of character and setting and situation that display a keen eye for observation of the world around her.
Krohn’s usual form is a kind of “mosaic” novel, in which short chapters advance the overall story arc but also form complete tales in and of themselves. Her adoption of this structure is wise — the rate of ideas and images conveyed in a typical chapter, even when playful, has a density that might overwhelm in longer increments, but seems layered and useful at the short length. It also creates a puzzle aspect respectful of reader intelligence and imagination.
The story reprinted here, “Lucilia Illustris,” was first published in Mathematical Creatures or Shared Dreams (Matemaattisia olioita tai jaettuja unia), Leena Krohn’s seventh prose work for adults and the winner of the 1992 Finlandia Prize. The book consists of twelve prose pieces that occupy the ground between the essay and the short story, thematically linked by a discussion of the relationship between self and reality.
Some readers of Krohn’s other work in English may be surprised by the tactile, visceral aspect of “Lucilia Illustris,” which could be read as a wide-angle meditation on crime scenes. But, in fact, this quality of the practical and specific occurs throughout Krohn’s fiction. It just isn’t always on evidence in the small selection of her work published in English to date.
A vein of the horrific occurs also in her novel Gold of Ophir, in its description of an airplane disaster and in its ruminations on the explorations of a tuatara reptile. It also can be found in other of her fictions that deal with terrorism and with biotech. To some extent, the grotesque occurs in Krohn’s work because it is an important part of the world, and Krohn’s explorations in fiction tend to interrogate the world from many different angles. The nod to Decadent literature demonstrates, too, that Krohn’s influences are wider than English-language readers may have assumed. But it is also a nod to Decadent-era (pre-vaccination) views of decay and the human body.
What will not surprise readers is Krohn’s focus on the natural world in “Lucilia Illustris.” Nor will readers of her prior, World Fantasy Award-finalist novel Tainaron be surprised by the role of insects in the story. In Tainaron, intelligent insects rule a city named Tainaron and the nameless human narrator comes to understand her hosts and to be transformed by them. In “Lucilia Illustris,” the process is merely more literal.
Krohn has never been “just” a humanist in her fiction and other writings. She generally takes a view of the universe that pulls back from the human to encompass other animals and environments that do not privilege human concerns — even while acknowledging those concerns. She is trying to push past the human gaze, in many cases, to try to get somewhere new and fresh.
In “Lucilia Illustris,” the long view is implicit in the main character’s job as a forensic entomologist. Yet little human moments become amplified by that focus and, in typical Krohn fashion, these small moments in the surface of the text take on more emphasis than they would otherwise. The narrator is always coming up against the human gaze and in needing to explain her own approach we get both a human and post-human view of the world.
Most of Krohn’s fiction, visceral or not, has moments where it challenges the reader, but also enthralls, horrifies, or delights the reader. In creating these effects, Krohn is trying to show the underlying beauty and complexity of the world, this universe, that we inhabit.
Author, The Southern Reach Trilogy
by Leena Khron
Translated by Viivi Hyvönen
Do you remember, my love, the object we saw, on that temperate summer morn:
The unused sidetrack led to an overgrown yard of a derelict factory. This was the Ultima Thule of the city, the kind of neighborhood people moved into only if they had no alternative. It had housing projects, a supermarket, a primary school, two kiosks, a bus terminus, some paint factories and National Railways’ storage areas.
The last thing to have been manufactured in the low factory halls were Christmas ornaments, and if you bothered to look in through one of the broken windows you could still see a length of silver tinsel glimmering on the dusty floor.
I know this, because I looked in — because I saw that forgotten glimmer.
Behind the barracks that had served as a canteen, the yard sloped down steeply and soon crumbled into a sandpit.
The neighborhood residents used the sandpit as an unauthorized dump. All the usual junk had been thrown in: fridges, tires and hubcaps, defective office equipment, corroded oil containers, and leaky canisters, the contents of which were best forgotten. There were parts of things so far removed from their original form that it was no longer possible to guess their function. A living room suite in plush was covered in stains not only of mold but also of wine and sperm spilled at some party, decades ago.
In summer, mayweed and willowherb and mugwort seemed to do all they could to hide the things discarded by people, but it was not enough by far.
And it was summer. One of the armchairs of the suite had been placed on the rusty tracks. It looked as if it had been brought there for a performance, a bluff, a cheap jest. As if the onlooker was supposed to think of it as a private vehicle that might, at any moment, speed away southward, to where the old sidetrack met with the main line, and still onward, all the way to the railway station in the city.
Behind the armchair, between a burned Datsun and a Strömberg electrical stove, there was something else. Admittedly it was peculiar that it had lain unobserved for so long. Now it was the center of all our attention.
A cotton blanket, which had once been yellow and flower patterned, was wrapped around it tightly and bound repeatedly with plastic cord. The blanket was already partially decomposed, it had been soaked both in rain and in the fluids secreted by its contents.
Not even the highest of fevers in a living being can rise as high as the heat of decomposition. Its furnace had consumed not only its very source but also the blanket covering it. The colors had faded and merged, the patterns could barely be guessed at, only fuzzy blotches remained. But the havoc was not wreaked by bacterial activity alone. Insects, too, flies and their larvae, beetles and many other species, had participated in the destruction.
Summer was at its peak, the morning so early that the city had not yet woken. A bird I didn’t know chirped on the bank of the sandpit in an elder shrub, its berries already reddening. Some sand slid down as if under someone’s steps. I looked up, but there was no one. The sand shifted by itself.
The shutter of a camera clicked repeatedly. The photographer performed a complicated choreography around his subject, crouching down, shooting a short hand-held series, setting up his pedestal in a new spot, and shooting again.
The rest of us — the inspector and I, and the two patrolmen, who had been alerted to the scene by an anonymous phone call — looked at the bundle in silence, without an objective, until one of the patrolmen retched. At that moment, as if in mutual agreement, all the men moved, almost started, back, away from the source of the stench.
I could not. I was already pulling on rubber gloves. On the contrary, I had to step closer and bend down over the roll. I had to do my due. Despite having felt weary as soon as I saw the bundle. It meant weeks of toil.
– A fucked up job, one of the patrolmen said in a thick voice.
I glanced at him coldly and opened my tool bag to choose the right pincers.
Although I would gladly have sat down in the worn armchair, where someone had read quietly on winter nights long gone by. I would have sought the hidden switch to make it shoot forward, dug my head deep into the headrest, and sped away from the officials and the unknown cadaver, as far as the tracks went.
But soon I forgot the armchair and was captivated by the wrapped up world, which emitted a buzzing tune. I didn’t open the package yet. It wasn’t time to open it yet. The others were already too far, they didn’t hear the tune, and had they heard it, it would have driven them even further. I have never been able to close my ears from it. It was the sound of decomposition, which is the sound of life in death.
Once a man, a poet of sorts himself and my lover at the time, read the poem “A Carcass” by Charles Baudelaire aloud to me while drunk with whisky. I had not heard of it before.
– It’s for you, he said, — remember it always.
I will. I can estimate that the corpse that the narrator of the poem and his lover saw at a bend in the path, on a bed sown with gravel, had lain dead for no more than a few days. It had reached the second stage of putrefaction, was soon to reach the third, for it reeked and the inner gases still distended it, but its skin was already starting to tear: “opened her stench-swollen belly.”
I have also heard the sound Baudelaire writes about, “a curious music,” which resembles the wind, or a stream, or the rustle of grains. Its source is the movement of insects, the overlapping of sheets of insects, their swarming, digging, feeding, breeding, hatching, growing, and preying.
When I first heard its tune, my innards almost overturned. Now it doesn’t have this effect on me anymore.
I’m an entomologist. In my youth my studies took me to many countries. In one small town, the name of which I have forgotten, I had lunch in an untidy café. On the wall of the ladies’ room someone had written in a swift, sketchy hand: Time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once.
To me it seemed odd that graffiti of such consequence was to be found in the restroom of such an inconsequential lunch bar. When I read those words it was as if they had been written just for me. I was unable to imagine the person who had written them. I only saw the hand that wrote.
I have kept both the poem and this sentence in mind all these years.
Timing — that is my task. The wall of the restroom told the truth: If time didn’t exist, everything would happen at once. There would be no separate cause and effect. There would be no infinite chains of causality. But now: things follow each other in a definite order so that the effect never comes before the cause. This applies not only to life but to dying and death, too.
You may want to ask: Why do you state the obvious? I answer you: Because in it lies the real secret.
As a side job I participate in forensic examinations. I am called whenever a body is found whose time of death needs to be narrowed down and who, usually, has died of unnatural causes. This occurs four or five times a year. I have to resist, overcome, or at least set aside my revulsion, my pity, my fear, and my grief. Yet it would be foolish to think that I’ve become free of them over the years. They remain, but I can act in spite of them.
I am summoned to the scene as soon as the body is discovered. I travel around the country carrying a bag with tens of small boxes. They’re for the insects. In them I collect all the insects I can find on the surface of the body and in its vicinity.
Only then is the body taken to the forensic department. There I resume my examination: I go, so to say, deeper than skin, I take samples, analyze insects, determine their species, and relative amounts, and stages of development. Of course, all the other routine tests that the pathologists consider necessary are also performed at the department. Only when I am finished and they are will the remains be handed over to the next of kin and the mortician.
Most of the victims are women or girls. Some are homeless men. Once I had to analyze an already mummified body of an infant.
In a sense my position is similar to that of the meteorologist. The further into the future the weathermen have to forecast, the less accurate their predictions become. It is like moving away from a radio station: the static increases until the transmission is lost altogether. This happens very quickly: even a month away is too far to predict. The countless different variables turn estimates into mere guesses.
I “predict” backwards and my task is the easier of the two: the timing of a single phenomenon, the death of a certain organism. Still, my observations are subject to the same laws. The longer the body has been left to lie, the less accurately can I state its time of death. If the body is found in four or even five days, my accuracy is within hours. If it is found after weeks, then we are speaking of days, if months, then weeks.
And there comes a time when I hold my peace.
I work neither for the prosecutor nor for the defense attorney. But my expertise can be used to prove both the guilt of the guilty and the innocence of the innocent. As an entomologist, though, I am not interested in matters of guilt and innocence.
All I want is to answer the question: When?
To the deceased I say: Tell me when you died so that they may know who killed you.
Some childish person once asked me: Don’t the victims come to haunt you?
Why in god’s name would they haunt me? I didn’t kill them. I don’t fear them. I may fear and despise the ones who have brought their bodies into the state in which I find them. But the victims I hardly even pity. They have felt blind terror and unbearable pain, but now it’s over. It’s truly over. No, they are no longer where I see them. They are not the ones to fret over whether their remains lie in a family grave under a block of granite behind a wrought-iron fence, or rot nameless among the trash of a landfill.
The victims don’t rise from their graves like the horror characters of B movies as seething, mottled shapes with beetles for eyes, their noses devoured into a single cavity, their skin — or what once was skin — shifting in slow waves to the pulse of an armada of maggots.
Those who have met a violent end do not differ from those who have died of so-called natural causes. All death is violence.
But if another person has brought about the end, the aftermath lasts longer. Sorrow cuts more excruciatingly, tears stay hot longer. And the burning furnace of fury. Its is a heat very different from the fumes of decomposition that cleanse, loosen, and, in the end, renew.
Decay is the prerequisite for all spring.
Still, nothing is more abhorred and recoiled from as decay when it concerns our own material: human flesh.
The different stages of decomposition vary depending on the temperature and the surroundings. I have to be well versed not only in taxonomy and the duration of the various stages of insect life, but also in the circumstances and conditions of each scene. As they say, a body cools after death. But before long, although the warmth of life has left the skin, the body’s inner temperature begins to rise. As I said: Not even the highest of fevers in a living being can be as high as this afterglow, the fire of rot.
And now begins life in death and after death, although — as it has been said — everything doesn’t happen at once. It should be understood that the insects come in waves, which follow one another in a predictable order. Although decomposition is a continuous process, to facilitate the investigation it is best divided into several stages.
In my investigations I follow the five-stage system of M. Lee Goff.
At the fresh stage, which lasts between a day and a week depending on the surroundings and the weather, the first wave arrives. How swift they are! How, in fact, do they know? I don’t have the expertise to answer. I doubt anyone has. Blowflies land in just ten minutes, before a human nose could detect even the faintest of odors. The process has begun. From then on the activity is incessant. Such thorough, meticulous and methodical purification is nowhere else to be found.
The first wave insects, which are mostly none other than blowflies, are sometimes called “the garbage men.” They assault and swiftly destroy the soft tissues. They are interested in all body orifices, the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth. As they toil, they make way to the ones that come after and prefer cartilage or dry skin.
The next phase of decomposition is the bloated stage, in which the temperature of the body rises and the inner gases cause it to swell. Still, flies and maggots are the prevailing species.
Only in the third phase of decomposition, the decay stage, does the body start to reek perceivably. The body wrapped inside the blanket is in this stage. Its skin tears and the gases are released. At this stage the maggots are at their most numerous both on the surface and on the inside of the carcass. Before long, though, they give way to an army of beetles. In this phase all flesh is consumed and only skin, cartilage, and bone remain.
During the first stages of decomposition, predatory insects emerge to prey on the aforementioned, and the parasites and the omnivores, who feed on both the cadaver and other insects, make their appearance.
There is one more group of insects that do not really have anything to do with the matter at hand: those who stray onto the carcass by coincidence, inadvertently, and gain nothing of it. You might think these insects have nothing to tell me. But this assumption is false. Sometimes I find insects that do not naturally occur at the scene.
What can I conclude from this? A fact that is of utmost interest to the police: that the body has been brought to the scene from somewhere else. All in all, there can be eight or nine separate waves of insects. At certain stages of decomposition several hundreds of different species of insect may be found on the body.
The process is unfaltering in its course, even though the duration of its stages varies from one case to the other. The lengths of these periods depend on the environmental circumstances, the temperature and its variations during the time. But the proliferation of insects, the maturation of eggs, the development of larvae into adult individuals also occurs according to the same laws. Note this: NATURE NEVER MISSES A STEP AND IT NEVER TURNS BACK. Never, nowhere. Or, to be more cautious, let us say: nowhere here, never in time.
And we can do nothing, absolutely nothing to make it miss a step any more than turn back. It is capable of neither. The most we can do is to regulate the circumstances so that the processes are slowed down or sped up.
A crop is not harvested in spring. A child turns into an adult only through puberty, and an insect only becomes an imago once it has passed through the pupal stage. No stage is missed and every stage occurs in a designated order. In the right and unwavering order. In the only possible order.
Upon this fact all my certainty and uncertainty is founded.
As the waves follow one another, the post-decay stage is soon reached when even skin and cartilage disappear. Only the durable parts remain, the ones that may keep for centuries, even millennia: bones and hair.
Then everything is finished. Liquids and gases have evaporated, the temperature has come down, the slime has dried, the stench has vanished. Everything is clear and irrevocable. Cold and dry, clean and brittle. We look at the remains calmly and without disgust.
The insects have left, and I, too, am long gone. Everything is finished. If something remains, it is invisible even as grief and the soul are invisible.
Sometimes they are unable to answer even who the deceased was while still alive. Such was the case with this woman. She had been left to lie where she was for three weeks in the middle of high summer. Thus the insects had labored for a long time, and I could give no more than a rough estimate.
The police went to a lot of trouble to identify her. But very little was learned. She had traveled to that part of town on the day she was killed, taking the last night bus. She had been alone, and if anyone had spoken to her, the bus driver hadn’t noticed. She was a foreigner, but from which country, no one knew. As far as I know, her identity was never verified.
Who was she? And what does it really mean? Officially it means a name, an address, a place and a time of birth, height, hair color, and distinctive features, if any. To be even more specific it also means the names of parents, occupation, and marital status. Once these facts have been established, we suppose to know who she was
We saw her brown hair, her size, her bare feet, the already torn skin under which seethed the living sheet of insects.
The cup was her body. The spirit had left it, making room for other forms of life. It was no longer alive, but it had life. Life that may seem despicable and disgusting to us but is nevertheless indispensable.
The rains and the fermentative secretions of the cadaver had soaked the bundle and stiffened it. But the person who had been violated was long gone.
Lucilia illustris. Necrophobus vespillo. Emus hirtus. Insects are not individuals. They are, so to say, statistical beings. They do not know what they do. They only know what they want, which is what they must do: feed, mate, breed, flee death as long as they possibly can. But in addition to this — no, in doing this — they perform a wonderful, essential function, the only true catharsis.
To purify. To equalize. To return. To unite. This is the goal, which the insects themselves know nothing of but which they show to whomever willing to see. For this universal unity they toil while trying to preserve and continue their own petty, statistical existence.
How tempting it would be to believe that human beings, just by being what they are, as wholly as possible, elaborate and faithful to themselves, would fulfill a more important task, of which they know as little as insects of human life.
I rarely have to deal with the victims’ families. Or with those who were suspected, or those who actually killed. What would I have to do with them? This dead woman was an exception.
– Are you aware that I’m suspected of her death?
Startled, I took my eye off the ocular of a microscope. A man I didn’t know stood at the door of my office, his gaze stern and demanding.
– What do you want, and who are you? I asked, rather harshly. His steps had been so soundless that I hadn’t noticed him until he spoke.
He told me his name and repeated his question. He was no bum. He dressed smartly and his phrasing was refined. I had heard his name mentioned in the investigation. He had been questioned, but there had been no arrest, and what I knew of the hearings anyone could read in the tabloids. Just that this man had been on the same bus with the victim and had gotten off at the same stop.
– My only concern is to determine the developmental stages of insects. I am not an officer of the law.
– But you do know?
This I admitted to, albeit reluctantly. — Why do you come to me? What does it matter if I’ve heard your name or not?
I fell silent and looked at him, expectant and somewhat suspicious. He was fairly young, tall, and blonde. Was this person trying to affect me and was the timing of the woman’s death of consequence to him?
He lowered his gaze and said glumly: — I was just asking.
– I ascertain the species and age of the insects. When I know them, I can give a rough estimate of the time of death.
I have no idea why I didn’t end the conversation, why I told this stranger about the requirements of my office.
– I work neither for the prosecutor nor for the defense attorney, I went on. — It’s for others to make the final conclusions. Flies don’t lie. Undoubtedly, other truths than theirs exist, but they are no concern of mine.
– What will happen to me?
– It depends on what you did.
– If everyone dies anyway, he said — and in manners that are all more or less cruel, why is it so horrifying that it should happen by someone else’s hand? Perhaps they are only put out of their misery, who knows.
– Is this a confession? I asked and stood up. The conversation had started to horrify me.
– Quite the opposite, he said quickly. — I didn’t do it.
– But why do you come here to philosophize? I said, suddenly angry. I felt myself stiffen and blush. — You speak rubbish and you know it. If you have anything real to impart on this subject, go to the police.
– How do you know the murderer didn’t do her a favor?
– Do you still go on? Men love their yoke, I told him. — Hasn’t it been said that evil must come, but woe to him by whose hand it does? Go to the police.
– Now you think I’m guilty, admit it. I didn’t even know her. I didn’t speak a word to her.
– So what? Not all murderers know their victims. You must have something to relate about this matter, or you wouldn’t have come. But I am not police, surely you understand that.
– Are you going to tell them about this conversation?
– I don’t need to, I said. — You will tell them all they need to know.
Why was I so sure? He glanced at me and was about to say something more, but changed his mind for some reason.
– Well? I have work to do, as you can see, I said and gestured at my desk.
He turned and left the office without saying goodbye.
As a matter of fact I think there is nothing but life. Many forms of life. It is called birth, growth, and death.
People who have looked upon their deceased sometimes say: “Then I saw that there is no resurrection. That there can be none. Nothing as lifeless as that can ever have been alive.”
You might think that someone who has seen death in all its — not nakedness, but in its wealth, diversity, activity, intensity — would see things in the same way. That someone like that, if anyone, would be predestined to the most severe form of materialism.
The idea of resurrection is foreign to me, too. But always when I witness the absoluteness of the change that occurs in death, and its irrevocable consequences, I cannot help but wonder. As anyone would, I keep repeating the question: What happened to the life that was here just a moment ago? Where is the self that only yesterday aspired, desired, loved and remembered?
How could one, who has seen what I have seen, so closely, not believe in perpetuity? For if it exists in matter, how could it not exist in spirit?
The spirit is like the queen of an anthill. No one sees it, for it lives in the most hidden cave. Yet its effect is what keeps the body healthy, whole, intact. It moves the body. It alone makes the nest alive. When the queen is removed, the nest disintegrates with unbelievable rapidity. Soon it is only dust.
Yet the queen itself may remain inviolate.
I saw the man who had come to my room one more time. I saw him outside a movie theater, with a party of friends engaged in lively conversation, and I recognized him at once. He wore the same clothes as when last we met.
He said something to a woman, who glanced at me with curiosity and then turned away. He came to me.
– Yes? I said.
– You still do what you used to?
– Still. That is my office, you see, I said.
– I hear the incident last summer was never solved, he said. — A pity.
– Yes, I said. — It’s a pity.
He hesitated and glanced at his companions, who had fallen silent and seemed to be waiting for him. Then he said: — I just wanted to apologize for intruding into your office so rudely back then. But the hearings had put me slightly off balance. It is not every day one is suspected of murder.
– Most certainly not, I said. — But I never did understand why you came.
– It was just a whim. Coincidence, really, he said. — Someone mentioned your name, and what you do. I was intrigued.
– Really? Is your opinion still the same?
– About what? he asked.
– You philosophized about the justification of killing.
– Is that what I said?
Now he seemed to panic a little. Maybe he regretted coming to me.
– I was a little drunk. Please forget about it.
I looked at him and considered whether I should have reported the conversation to the police after all.
– I hate to think that her killer is still on the loose, he said.
His name was called. The movie was about to begin. He nodded, joined his party, and disappeared into the lobby of the theater. At the door I saw him turn back and look at me, as though expecting or even inviting me to follow him. As if he was slightly disappointed that I didn’t.
I can picture the past, translucent form of your hands, their slenderness instead of this current shape. Only dry, blackened tatters of skin that don’t even cover your finger bones.
Who knows whether you were killed by a man you once loved, whom you trusted more deeply than anyone on earth. Or did that blonde stranger follow you from the bus stop, did he grab you and throw you down, hit you, hit you, over and over again, kick you, rape you and finally strangle you.
– You lived, I said in my mind to this eaten, emptied shape. — You lived like I live now. Where did you go now that you are no longer there? Where will I go when I’m no longer here?
Her hair still had vigor, it shone amid the twigs and the dry hay, even though her skin was already torn, even though her face had bloated and blackened beyond recognition.
But still I see a look on the face. That look — I have seen the same look on the faces of other dead, at the first or second stage of decomposition. How can it be described?
It is a seriousness devoid of all moral judgment. No hatred, no fear, no pain. Concentration, that is the right word. Such complete concentration can only be seen in the eyes of very small children or, sometimes, at a moment of ecstasy, in someone listening to music. Something that is left as proof of what is and what may persist. As if something crucial had been revealed to them.
It is the look of knowledge. The mouth half open. And the eyes, most of all — they are open. The vitreous humor is of course less clear than that of a living person. The eyes never blink and the mouth will not tell what they have seen. Still they keep the knowledge that no longer seeks or needs to be expressed. It will stay to trouble the onlooker as an inextinguishable question.
I would like to know what she looked at. Not at her murderer any more. What happened to her no longer interested her. It had already happened, was over at last. The worst had happened. All had happened that could happen to her on Earth.
What were her eyes in fact fixed on at that final moment, when all her muscles slackened from their frantic convulsion? On a branch of a tree, at the edge of the pit, that kept swaying gently, incessantly even as the hands closed around her throat? The wind, forever roaming the Earth, brushed the tops of the bushes as well as both their foreheads. “Still, the moor-wind remains…”
Where she was dumped and hidden, whence she was carried, the first snow now falls. The rusty tracks, the car tires, the oil containers will soon be covered under the humble forms of the snowdrifts. The armchair on the tracks will get a luminous cushion. How unresisting and at the same time irresistible is the on-going snowfall. The meadow fescues, which yellowed and flattened under her ravaged corpse, are coated in snowflakes. When they rise again in the spring, no trace of the shape of her body will be visible.
Queen, where did you go?