The following is chapter 2 of Hot Skull, Afşin Kum's first novel, published in Turkish in 2016. The work takes place in a distopian present/near-future after a mysterious epidemic has severely decreased the population of the earth. This is the first excerpt published in English from the forthcoming translation.
“No, I’m not,” I replied.
A look of concern crossed her face. “Well, hopefully you won’t opt for the drive for friction over loathing for cylinders.”
I most certainly hoped I wouldn’t. But then again, maybe I would—you never know. If the girl working the register hadn’t heard the question, I could’ve shrugged it off, as I was in no mood to raise hell just because someone was jabbering. But the girl yelled mechanically, “Infection alert!” and pressed the button of an alarm. The doors of the store automatically slammed shut and everyone put on their headphones, myself included. Frightened, the old woman started trying to explain what she’d been trying to say, but no one was listening to her. If she’d had the opportunity, perhaps she would’ve offered up a logical explanation for why she’d said to the person behind her in line at the checkout counter that choosing between the drive for friction and loathing for cylinders was indeed a pressing matter. None of us, however, were the slightest bit interested. Like they always say on television, “Keep your curiosity under control. Do not listen to others. Resist the temptation to prick up your ears. Regardless of the circumstances, do not take risks. If you have the slightest suspicion that something is amiss, inform the authorities so they can make an assessment.”
What they fail to mention, however, is that the authorities do not actually carry out assessments. I know that because I was once involved in the whole business. The authorities are given authority not because they are endowed with a particular knowledge base or skill set but because, by mere coincidence, they were in the right place at the right time to be so vested. Like the customers looking around blankly in the supermarket, they wouldn’t listen to a word of what the old lady had to say, as no precautions exist that would make it safe for them to do so; aside from listening, there are no techniques available which make it possible to determine if someone is really infected or not. Perhaps the authorities could listen a little more to the old lady, but I seriously doubt they would run that risk, especially given the current situation.
You don’t have to be involved in the machinations of the process to understand how it works. If the authorities had a technique that made it possible for them to make a clear distinction between a jabberer and a healthy person, that would mean they were one step closer to solving the riddle of the illness. Everyone is aware of the fact that we don’t know any more about the malady now than we did when the epidemic first broke out, so it’s easier on our consciences to simply believe the lies we’re told. We want to believe that there are specialists who have a deep understanding of the affliction and are taking action, all because we don’t have the energy to take an interest in anything except for ourselves.
To tell the truth, I’m fairly certain that everyone else took note of the fact that the old lady spoke to me because in high-security places like supermarkets, people generally don’t talk to strangers. It’s just too risky. You might say something perfectly normal, but there is a good chance that the person you address will think you’re jabbering, and if they point you out by shouting, “He’s infected!” you won’t have a chance to offer up a self-defense. If you’re lucky, you’ll get locked up in a rehabilitation center, and if you’re not so lucky, they’ll send you off to a quarantine zone.
My guess is that, because we were in Ataşehir, the old lady was one of the unlucky ones. Everyone knows that this is a tough neighborhood. No one would ask, “Hey, where are you taking that woman?” Within a few hours she probably found herself being shipped off to a quarantine zone, where she’d be forced to spend the few remaining days of her life scrounging for food like a wild animal.
It’s possible that she got infected on the way to the supermarket. Here’s one possible scenario: She left home with her shopping list and while walking to the store, stopped to stroke the head of a street urchin and, after having a brief conversation with him, continued on her way, suddenly deciding that all she really needed to buy was an onion. Perhaps there were people waiting for her at home. When she didn’t return, they’d set out to find her, but their efforts would be in vain. In the past, the authorities would inform the families of people they’d identified as being infected, but now they don’t even bother.
When you witness such occurrences, you may feel a slight twinge in your heart, akin to what you feel when you walk past a blind beggar on the street, but nothing more. That’s because you simply don’t have the strength to summon a more vigorous emotional response. By the time that poor old woman was hauled off to a quarantine zone, I’d have long forgotten about her.
Loathing for cylinders?
Well after night had fallen I slipped through the side gate of the apartment complex that’s used for taking out the garbage. Sezgin, one of the security guards who I’d befriended, let me in. His name—which means “shrewd”—always struck me as being somewhat strange, especially for a man whose intellect could have benefitted from no small amount of honing. Which, of course, worked out well for me and my needs. However, he was now making it clear that some compensation was expected in return for the favor he’d done me (perhaps that was his particular brand of shrewdness). Not wanting to directly state that I was broke but hoping he’d pick up on the insinuation, I said, “Thank you so much. I really own you one. I’m not going to forget this.”
A few hours after I got home, my mother approached me for the first time since our place had been raided.
“Murat,” she said, “do you remember Behzat, Makbule’s son? When you and Özgür were working for the AEI, you had him treated.”
“Sure, of course I remember him.”
“He’s not doing so well. I don’t know exactly what the problem is, but he keeps ranting in Ottoman or something. His mother wants us to drop by to see him.”
“What could I possibly do to help him? You know that I don’t work there anymore. Sure, Özgür had tried to treat Behzat, but...”
“Have you heard from Özgür?”
“No. I haven’t been able to get in touch with him. Maybe if I go to Fındıkzade, where he used to live, I’ll run into one of his acquaintances and I can ask if anyone knows where he is. But I don’t think it’ll do us much good. You probably know that he was having some problems with substance abuse.”
“Yes, I know.”
“To be honest, I really don’t think there’s much we can do for Behzat. And in any case, I don’t know much about the medical side of things.”
“I told his mother the same thing but she’s insisting. They’re expecting us on Friday. What do you think?” Her tone of voice made it clear that this was an ultimatum, not a question.
Until that day, I’d always made a concerted effort to prevent others from finding out that I had more than a middling amount of knowledge about the disease, because I knew that if they got it into their heads that I could possibly cure their woes, it would be hard to shake them off. And once those apes had me in their grasp, it would just be a matter of time before they dragged me down into their own miserable nightmares. Until that time, my mother had never put me into a tight spot in that regard, so I surmised that she’d been putting off Makbule’s request for a while. I think, however, that in light of recent developments, she had changed course; either she thought that I might move out soon, or she saw it as only fitting that I help her friend as compensation for the unpleasantness she’d suffered as an indirect consequence of my own actions.
Of course, Makbule was well aware that at one point I’d thrown myself into trying to find a cure for the illness together with my friend Özgür, who was currently nowhere to be found, because we had experimented on Behzat with one of the first chemical treatments that Özgür thought showed promise.
The driving factor behind Özgür’s decision to become an expert in neuropharmacology had been a desire to invent the perfect narcotic, but when the epidemic suddenly broke out, his skills were quickly in high demand and he was drafted onto an international team of specialists trying to develop a cure. In the beginning, they sought to understand how the disease affected the brain by chemically blocking off certain areas and functions, but they were baffled by the fact that the affliction didn’t produce any physiological or hormonal symptoms. The brain activities of people who “jabbered,” as it came to be scientifically known, were identical to people with healthy brains. For that reason, they had no recourse except for trial and error, and they systematically experimented with a wide array of chemicals. Özgür was working tirelessly, trying out new compounds on his patients, and at the same time he was shooting himself up as well with an equally broad array of substances. As a result, everything got jumbled. He very well may have stumbled on a cure, but even if that was the case, he was so unhinged that he didn’t realize it.
That all happened much later. In the days when he was experimenting on Behzat, his mind was still more or less lucid. At first, Behzat seemed to improve; he started speaking more slowly and calmly, and while he occasionally slipped into gibberish, he was able to answer some questions in a reasonably logical manner. But then he stopped speaking altogether.
Before he contracted the disease, Behzat had been quite fond of conversation, and he was known for his sense of humor. The topics in which he was interested ranged far and wide; his knowledge about Turkish music was nearly unrivalled, and he read extensively on history and politics, so he always had an anecdote on hand about whatever was being discussed. I remember that he had a peculiar way of making his exit from any given setting. Wrapping up what he was saying with an elaborately crafted sentence, he’d jump to his feet and say, “Very well then,” and before you knew it, he was out the door. His grand departures left you speechless, unable to even mutter, “Why are you leaving? We were having such a great conversation.”
Now, however, he’d just sit there, a blank expression on his face, emptily gazing into an unseen void. At least, that was how he’d been the last time I saw him, so I wondered if he’d somehow gotten worse. I assumed that Makbule wanted her son brought back to that state if possible, as I don’t think she still clung to the hope that he’d ever fully recover.