Fiction · 11/07/2018

Mycophile

The woman was jogging through the park when she spotted the man, hunched at the base of an oak tree and caressing a ruffled, beach ball-sized mushroom. She stopped to catch her breath. “What on earth?”

Grifola fondosa,” he said. “Come look.”

Together, the man and woman coaxed the mushroom out of the dirt. After wrapping it carefully in a bedsheet, they carried it out to his truck.

That night, the man made her dinner, a dark broth that tickled the back of her throat. “It tastes like old stories,” said the woman.

He reached for her hand. “You ought to know something,” he said. “I’m a mycophile. I love mushrooms.”

The woman laughed. “Anything else?”

“What more is there?”

She thought he was joking.

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The man gave her a field guide full of pictures and funny words like Stinkhorn, Puffball, and Bleeding Tooth. He brought out a bright purple specimen and told her to look it up.

She was pleased to find a match. “Amethyst Deceiver.”

“You mean Laccaria amethystina,” said the man.

Just for him she learned the Latin names.

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On weekends he met with “the Mikes,” from the local Mycological Society. He spent night after night cataloguing specimens. There were morels in his sock drawer and spore jars in the pantry. There were notices from the landlord—complaints of a strange odor coming from his apartment. The woman bought him air freshener and scented candles.

Her friends and family saw how pale she was becoming. How reclusive! She needed to ditch this man and get her life back, they said. But the woman knew they were jealous. No one could classify an Hericium erinaceus, blindfolded, like he could.

One night he leaned over and whispered in her ear: “Darling, will you do something for me that no one’s ever done before?”

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The next day, the man filled his bedroom closet with thirty bags of topsoil and humus. He helped the woman into the dirt, where she crouched with her hands wrapped around her knees.

“How are you in there?” he asked over the drone of the humidifier.

“Fine,” she said, though she had a cramp in one leg and wished she had worn something warmer than a tank top and shorts. At bedtime the man sang to the woman, his voice wrapping her like a cozy shawl.

As the weeks passed, however, the man began to check on her less often. When he spoke on the phone to the other Mikes, there was disappointment in his voice. “No results. Nothing.”

But changes were happening. Beneath the dirt she was breaking down into tiny white threads, and it caused great pain, this fruiting, taking all her concentration. She couldn’t talk or straighten her limbs or scratch her itchy neck.

The man grew bored with waiting. He went away on an expedition. He’d been gone for nearly a month when she finally pushed out of the dirt, her head now a spongy cap of tissue-thin gills perched on the pungent stalk that her body had become. It felt good to move again, to sway to the salsa music that played in the apartment next door as she grew and grew.

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When the man came back, he poked around the dirt in his apartment, finding only the woman’s old sports bra and running shorts in the spot where she’d disintegrated. A shame, but it saved him from having to tell her that he’d met someone else. Not only that, but he also had a new hobby, collecting vintage cereal boxes. He poured the dirt into a large, tasteful urn, which he gave to the woman’s bereft family. He dumped his old specimens in the trash. The new girlfriend moved in, and soon they were arranging their cereal boxes on the mantel, taking pictures and making plans for a custom-built display case.

Things were going perfectly well until breakfast one morning, when the man’s new girlfriend noticed a mushroom growing out of the toaster. She yanked the plug out of the socket like the whole thing might catch fire and tossed him an accusing look. “It smells of woman’s perfume.”

The man frowned. Funny he’d never really noticed his old girlfriend’s scent until now. Using a pair of tongs, he carefully extracted the mushroom from the heating coils. As an added precaution, he shook out the crumb tray.

But the very next day, there was another perfumed mushroom growing out of his jacket pocket. The man bagged up his clothes and took them to Goodwill. This, too, proved futile. Mushrooms were soon popping up all over, from the couch cushions to the shower stall to the laundry basket. “Her spores are everywhere,” the new girlfriend complained. When a mushroom emerged from her favorite tube of concealer, that was the last straw. She moved out with her half of the cereal box collection.

Hoping to win her back (along with the cereal boxes), the man gave away most of his furnishings and embarked on a regimen of twice-daily dusting and vacuuming. Despite these efforts, the mushrooms kept appearing and their odor only intensified, causing him severe headaches.

One morning the man awoke surrounded by a mushroom forest so tall it grazed the ceiling, so dense he could not reach over to turn off his alarm, and so aromatic he could hardly breathe. There was barely enough space to squeeze out the window above his bed.

Predictably, the landlord was furious. So were the neighbors, who now had mushrooms springing up from their own carpets and garbage disposals. The entire apartment building had to be fumigated and every air duct cleaned.

After footing the bill for this, the man was almost broke. But at last he could breathe freely. He could walk in and out of his apartment without obstacle, open his fridge and pull on his shoes like a normal person. All the mushrooms were gone. Except for the very, very tiny ones in his beard.

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Susan Frith writes from Orlando. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Moon City Review, Sycamore Review, New Madrid, Nashville Review, Phoebe, Zone 3 and other publications.