Fungus

Fungus

The ordeal with the mushroom was her mother’s fault, really. Yuko resisted going to the tennis courts; but her mother dragged her along, lecturing all the while about physical fitness. A child wouldn’t grow properly by lying all day on her stomach, reading books and studying every creature that wandered through the yard. She encouraged, then scolded Yuko’s wild swings that sent bright yellow balls soaring over the chain-link enclosure. Canister after canister was opened, until at last all twelve of the fresh new tennis balls lay scattered across the park. Yuko felt momentarily pleased; but then her mother thrust the canisters at her and ordered: “Now run and fetch all those balls!”

Scoldings trailed after Yuko as she meandered outside the courts: “Leave it alone, Yuko, we have trees at home that you can stare at! Stop teasing that squirrel! And what are you looking at now?”

Fungus

Near the base of a gnarled oak tree, clumps of mushrooms rose from the ground, caps slightly upturned like broken umbrellas. Just behind them, a solitary mushroom grew high above the rest, its stalk thick and milky white, supporting a hulking, brown-topped cone that cast a forbidding shadow. Yuko’s eyes widened in astonishment. Never had she seen such a giant! She crouched low to the ground, her cheek brushing prickly grasses as she peered at the cap’s underside. The fleshy spokes were so many, and the spaces between them so deep and dark, that she could only wonder what hid within them.

“Yuko, come on!”

A spasm of displeasure seized the girl.

“I’m just picking up a ball,” she shouted back; and with a quick swipe of her hand, she picked the mushroom at its base, shoving it cap-first into a canister. The cone squished into a misshapen blob; the stem broke away completely, penetrating the cone as Yuko strained against it. She snapped the lid into place and tucked the tube discreetly under her arm.

At home, in the privacy of her bedroom, Yuko peeled the label off the tube and peered through the transparent plastic, wondering which tools she should use to dissect the mushroom. For years she had begged for her own dissection set; but it was always promised to her “when you’re a little older.” She had just turned nine and still she was too young. In the meantime she had to settle for leftovers from her brother’s science kits. Enviously she watched him grow crystals, wire vegetable clocks and clean his dissection set. Eventually he’d hand her the remnants – test tubes and petri dishes stained and sticky, powders and liquids contaminated, frogs and bovine eyeballs already sliced apart. But here was a living, growing thing that she could examine on her own.

Upon opening the tube, Yuko found the mushroom’s stem broken apart, its fibers splintered; the ruined cap was stuck fast, the delicate spokes barely distinguishable in the pulpy mess she had made of it.

“Yuko! Come and help with dinner!”

Sighing, she pushed the mangled stem back inside, replaced the lid, and stowed the canister in her closet.

She meant to scoop out the mushroom and study it later. She really did, but other events occupied her attention. Half a coachwhip snake, chopped in two by the lawnmower, its brown-speckled skin slowly turning a chalky gray; Yuko lay beside it and watched it die. A mouse in the basement, its paws pitifully smashed under the mousetrap bar. Her father’s tantrum when he found the injured mouse living in Yuko’s doll house, nibbling miserably on cheese and peanut butter.

She quite forgot the canister until her mother, snooping through the closet several days later, exclaimed: “What in the world is this?”

Brown liquid sloshed inside the plastic tube, forming rivulets around the decomposing mushroom. Yuko tried to conceal her surprise and pretended not to notice her mother’s horrified expression. “It’s my experiment,” she said casually.

“But what is it?”

“It’s a mushroom.”

“Well, throw it out before it leaks all over the carpet!”

Yuko felt relieved when her mother set the canister on the dresser. She trusts me to throw it away, she thought with satisfaction, and placed it back in the closet.

Over the next few days, the mushroom sprouted colors: white and black-spotted gray at first, hanging on the mushroom like bits of fuzz. And then pink and green, like the colors of Yuko’s bedroom, projecting bright little balls like fireworks frozen in mid-burst. Yuko tipped the canister this way and that, watching with pleasure as drowned patches of color emerged through the wash of brown liquid. She showed it to her brother, who responded by tattling on her: “Yuko’s keeping mold in her bedroom!”

Her mother threw the canister away. Yuko pretended to mope, turning her face down and letting her midnight-black bangs conceal her eyes, the way she did whenever she was pouting.

Then she picked the canister out of the garbage and snuck it back to her room.

The mushroom became a complicated rainbow, captivating Yuko’s imagination with magnificent, alien forms. She picked out distinct creatures wandering its midst: a Christmas-tree worm with umbrella spores, a blue dragon slug sprouting fractal growths – all against a backdrop that resembled sprawling ocean coral. It was with dismay that Yuko finally noticed bulges in the canister and a crack forming in the yellow cap, a half-circle through which rainbow fungus peeked and dark liquid dribbled onto the pink carpet. The miniature world within the canister had grown greater than its plastic limits.

Yuko crawled onto the closet drawer set, hoisting herself onto the shelf above a row of hangers. At the top of the closet, set into the ceiling, was a rectangular framed panel – a “trap door,” she called it, though it was really just a passage to the attic, the large fiber glass-covered room that covered the whole width of the house. In the past it had been her hideout, a place to retreat from scoldings and prying eyes. But at some point she’d fallen through the ceiling into the middle of the living room, trailing chunks of plaster and puffed pink insulation, while her father was watching a football game with his friends. What a tantrum he’d had then! Yuko was unhurt except for a few scrapes, but her parents put the fear of fiberglass and fragile ceilings into her. Fiberglass was not to be touched with bare skin; it would give her a million tiny, itching cuts. Breathing its particles would scratch her lungs and poison her blood. So now, whenever Yuko crept into the attic to hide her secret things, she always held her breath – and she was careful to walk on the sturdy wooden frames, never on the ceiling. She did so as she added the mushroom to her collection of secrets.

For several days Yuko was occupied with a baby robin fallen from its nest. She tried to put it back, only to find it on the ground again. Yuko’s parents admonished her: “You shouldn’t have touched it! The mother won’t want it now.” Yuko tried to care for the bird herself. She made a nest of cloth strips, chopped an earthworm into tiny pieces and pushed it to the baby’s mouth; but the fragile little bird went quiet and died.

Many days passed before she remembered the mushroom. More would have gone by if she hadn’t noticed peculiar brown splotches around the trap door in the ceiling. Yuko climbed up to inspect, slowly pushing up against the door. A blast of summer warmth caressed her face, followed by a familiar, strangely comforting stuffiness. But there was more: bits of multi-colored fluff swirled against her face and floated lazily downward. Yuko watched them for some time, puzzled, before poking her head through the open rectangle – and then gasped in amazement. Sunbeams streaked through the unfinished garage wall, illuminating elegant sporelings that drifted in the air and glowed ethereally as they struck the light. Among the tiny bits of fluff she recognized the frozen pink fireworks, the red and white Christmas-tree worms, blue moon jellies and iridescent sea slugs. Yuko’s heart raced as she peered into dim corners, where strange forms seemed to manifest before her eyes. She lifted herself into the attic, starting as her fingers sank into a carpet of green and white fungus.

Yuko slid the door shut and balanced on a mold-covered beam. She was vaguely aware that she’d inhaled some of the spores – spores, and maybe fiberglass – but she didn’t care. Nor did she remember that her other secret things, her rare coins and oddities and forbidden books, were now buried under mold. She forgot about holding her breath, overwhelmed as she was with the wonder she’d grown in her own secret hideout, and attributed the wild palpitating of her heart to her own excitement. A magic world – and it’s all mine!

The fluffy insulated walls were barely visible; only a few strips of pink peeked through the lovely patterns stretched across the room. Instead of mold, Yuko saw complex formations of sea coral covered with sponges and anemones. The attic looked almost like an underwater cave, with its marvelous creatures swimming through air; but along the floor was the telltale brown wash, with the fungus moving around it, perturbing the liquid and making it flow like a river. And on its banks the broken canister loomed, the plastic casing warped and thin, stretched to a dozen times its original size.

Carefully Yuko walked the beams, catching sporelings in her hand, holding them in the light for better examination. As she turned a firework between her fingers she detected a movement in the shadows; she looked, and there at the far end of the attic she saw the most magnificent sight of all. A fibrous, milky-white figure reclining among an expanse of yellow coral, slender and humanesque. Two blotches in the face resembled featureless black eyes, and a donut-shaped crown capped the bulbous head, lined and spotted like a sea urchin shell. Yuko froze, awestruck, as it rose and moved forward – a mushroom queen rising from her throne! Behind it trailed a transparent cape, dotted with blue and white spores that flashed in the light.

The mushroom queen stopped before Yuko and seemed to stare down at her. From somewhere in the milky throat, a murmur sounded: Mm-hmm, rmm nmm?

Yuko debated a response.

Before she could answer, the figure lifted two pale arms and grabbed her with straining fingers. It pushed her back, into the mouth of the plastic tube; Yuko slid inside bottom first, torso folding forward. The mushroom squashed her farther in until her head was nearly between her knees, and her hands and feet draped over the tube’s mouth. Yuko would have cried out if only she could draw a proper breath. She could only sit, folded in two, carefully managing one shallow inhalation after another. Meanwhile the mushroom queen stood staring. Its inquisitive murmurs became clearer, until at last Yuko recognized the words: I wonder what I should feed it?

The suggestion filled her with dread. An image flashed in her mind: the baby robin, head drooping, beak smeared with rejected earthworm pulp. Yuko would have said she wasn’t hungry, but was still too squashed to speak properly.

The figure leaned toward her. If it dies, I can dissect it. There are tools over there, in the next room, that I can use to slice it apart.

Yuko’s gaze slid toward the openings in the garage wall.

The mushroom crouched low. Its once majestic, now horrifyingly gaunt face watched Yuko through two black voids. Mournfully she remembered various trapped animals: the mouse in the dollhouse, snakes slithering in the bottom of a paint bucket, salamanders in a shoe box. The mouse had bitten her during a fleeting attempt at escape; its long, sharp teeth left a deep wound that still ached, even after the cut on Yuko’s thumb had healed over. She felt it now as she gripped the edges of canister. In vain she tried to pull herself out; the mushroom instantly pushed her farther in.

Imaginings ensued of saw blades gripped in pale fingers, of Yuko’s own liquefying body scooped out with metal tools. A wild panic consumed her. She held her breath and heaved against the plastic, straining with every muscle until the frail casing cracked apart. With a cry she sprang to her feet and leapt free, scurrying over brown rivulets toward the open rectangle; but the mushroom caught her foot and sent her sprawling. Desperately Yuko pounded her fists into the ceiling. The fungus resisted, cushioning the blows and holding fast.

So she turned, curled toward the mushroom queen, and sank her teeth into its twining fingers. The mushroom reared back. In a moment Yuko had jumped through the trap door, landing with a well-practiced softness on the shelf. She dared to reach up and slide the door closed before scrambling down.

“Mom!” she cried, racing into the living room. “Dad!”

“Shh,” her mother said. She turned away, cradling the phone in her hand.

Yuko danced from foot to foot, impatiently waiting for her mother to hang up the phone. Her brother peered at her from the sofa. “What’s with you?” he asked. “Your eyes look funny.”

She spilled the entire story to him. “And it’s still up there, and it might come down and get us!” she concluded breathlessly.

Her mother put down the phone and admonished her. “Really, Yuko, you’re nine years old now. You should know better than to think we’ll believe your made-up stories.”

“But it really happened, just now!”

“Sure it did – in your imagination,” her mother insisted. “You have too many strange hobbies. Your own mind will get the best of you if nothing else does.”

Yuko’s brother smirked. “It’s probably from one of her fairy stories. Next time she’ll be telling us she kissed a toad and it turned into a prince.”

Yuko lowered her head, just enough to glare at them from beneath the fringe of her bangs.

Throughout the evening she kept a nervous eye on the hall leading to her room. Occasionally she thought she saw sporelings or white threads peeking around a corner, but she looked more closely and found nothing. Her fear waned; her heart resumed its normal pace. Yuko poked her head into her bedroom, eyeing the closet and the trap door. Nothing looked unusual except for the brown stains.

She decided to inspect the garage. The gaps in the wall bore no signs of mold; ceiling lights showed puffs of insulation fading away into darkness, and below that, tools all in their proper places. On the lowest shelves were new bottles of disinfectant and anti-fungal treatments that her mother had bought for the koi pond. Yuko picked them up and studied the labels, imagining little balloons filled with chemicals – fungus-killing bombs for tossing into the attic. She had balloons in her bedroom. But would that be enough for an offensive against the horrible mushroom queen?

“What else?” she whispered, and through the open back door she heard a loud response: Choot! Choot!

Yuko tucked the bottles under her arm and backed out of the garage, her gaze locked on the unfinished wall.

Crickets and frogs chirped in the distance. Yuko was crouching beside the pond, cooing at the fish and resisting the urge to poke her fingers into the water, when she noticed a large river toad resting nearby. It called again: Choot! Choot!

Yuko picked it up. She held it firmly while it squirmed, probed a webbed foot with her finger, rubbed the smooth lumps of mottled brown flesh. Remembering her parents’ warning that toads could produce strange poisons, she avoided the bulging white warts that might be venom glands. The toad looked dry and thirsty. Yuko wondered if she could give it a drink by pouring water on its skin. “You shouldn’t go into the pond, it’s infected,” she murmured. “But we’ve got clean water in the house.” And with the bottles still tucked under her arm, she carried the toad back to her bedroom.

Cautiously she checked the trap door. It was still closed, and beyond it the attic was silent. Yuko frowned. It seemed so unfair to have made such a wondrous world, only to be unable to explore it – and to have become afraid of it! That was worst of all. And to have no one believe her, no one to help her face up to that dreadful mushroom thing. Yuko remembered her mother’s scolding, her brother’s taunt. Next time she’ll be telling us she kissed a toad…

Her scowl became a smile as she considered the words. She had seen a magic world spring from a single, plain-looking mushroom; why not a prince from an ugly, warty toad? Thoughtfully Yuko lifted the toad and kissed its face. Her lips stung ever so slightly; an acidic burn trailed through her saliva, past her lips, onto her gums and the soft flesh of her inner cheeks. Curiously she studied the toad, examined the bulging skin behind its golden eyes. She touched it with the very tip of her tongue, and there again was the burn. The toad stared back at her. All at once its gaze seemed strangely human – and didn’t the webbing seem to have shriveled from the front feet, making them seem more like fingers, while the upper parts rounded into shoulders? And weren’t the back legs elongating, becoming more shapely – and the mouth narrowing, the eyes moving frontward to look at her more directly?

Could a toad turn into a prince? What would happen if she set him loose in the magic world above? Would he fight for her, and subdue the dreaded mushroom queen, or would he be just as dreadful? Surely he couldn’t be – not with such gentle dignity shining in those wonderful golden eyes!

Yuko’s heart thumped wildly as she imagined a dashing toad prince in battle. She gazed at the brown stains on the closet ceiling, now spattered with fuzzy bits of blue and green. The fungus seemed to spread before her eyes, descending ever so slowly into the bedroom. She gave it a defiant look and kissed the toad again.

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