At first, I loved seeing the mushrooms. They conjured up all kinds of fairy tale images stored in my brain’s convoluted trash bins. I’d go out and break off the caps to ponder their velvety brown accordion-gilled undersides. Some days, I’d bring a magnifying glass and examine the hyphae, the thread-like roots which radiate outwards from the bulbous lower stem. But most days, I was content to gaze out through the wavy window panes at the peaceful view from my woodland hideaway. After all, I wasn’t here to become an expert on mushrooms—not that mycology isn’t a noble and worthwhile field of study—but I was here to finish the Great American Novel, which I couldn’t seem to focus on long enough to forget about the mushrooms.
I began to crave mushrooms. Rather than risk sudden death eating wild mushrooms harvested from just one step off the wooden porch of my little cottage, I’d walk the three miles along the lonely, rutted country road to the Saturday farmers’ market and stock up on a couple of pounds of mushrooms of whatever ilk was available and some wild brown rice. About half way back from the farmers’ market, I’d dig into the bag of mushrooms, and wipe one off on my shirt tail and then another, and just pop them into my mouth. That earthy flavor would just transport me to another world. Sure, they’re better cooked, but you do what you gotta do, right? At least I wasn’t buying the “Witches’ Butters,” the “Toothed Jellies,” the “Death Caps,” the “Destroying Angels,” or any other oddball species, but I still worried a little about the toxins and irritants I was ingesting from the raw, and the cooked, mushrooms—but not enough to stop.
It wasn’t long before I just couldn’t get enough mushrooms. I made mushroom and rice omelets, mushrooms and rice on toast, mushroom and rice sandwiches, mushroom and rice pizza, mushroom and rice soup, mushroom and rice loaf, mushroom and rice casserole, mushroom and rice pudding—you name it, I made it. I even started writing poems about mushrooms; but to be perfectly honest, the poems just weren’t that good.
My writing and the mushrooms both vied for my attention. I’d put the rice on to boil early in the morning, go back to my writing, turn the stove off when summoned by the ding of the kitchen timer, and go back to my writing once again. I’d start sautéing the mushrooms when I could no longer concentrate on anything as two-dimensional as words. After a while, though, I guess the active ingredient of the mushrooms, hydrazine, took care of the dimension problem; so efficiently, in fact, that I barely noticed as the words I was writing began to mushroom into another dimension, but by that time, multi-dimensional words just became part of the new normal.
Time passes slowly when you have no human neighbors. Apart from the Post Office, no one knew where I was. Every day except Sunday, the mailman would faithfully show up at my candy apple red mailbox with more mail forwarded here from the city.
Every day, more and more mushrooms of every size, shape and color materialized like magic, drawing me out of the house to inspect the freakish eruptions popping up between the porch’s floorboards. They were even muscling their way through the black shingles on the roof and the brown wooden shake siding. The very cottage itself seemed to be turning into a mushroom. Aside from an almost imperceptible shudder or a woeful moan every now and again, this very sweet and homey abode was quite accommodating.
Each week, I added another pound or two of mushrooms to my haul from the farmers’ market. I never hung around too long—just get in and get out—it’s that simple. I didn’t fraternize with the locals for fear of being sequestered by some long-winded looky-loo hoovering up the pancetta canapés, but sooner or later, someone’s going to get you…
One fateful Saturday, when a small child, carried in the arms of her father, found herself face-to-face with me, she screamed hysterically and kicked her distracted father frantically in the stomach until he sauntered away to the next vendor’s table to sample the brie. I thought the child’s behavior somewhat curious, but upon returning to my little cottage, I passed by the mirror next to the door. The child’s scream reverberated in my memory as I recognized my hair not as hair, but as crazy, white, mycelium—the vegetative branching system of mushroom roots! Oh, my! I had recently read that these self-perpetuating meshed masses of hyphae have actually been known to swallow whole forests! Huh! How about that? Fascinated, I leaned into the mirror for a closer look. Stepping back for a little more perspective, I regarded my wild image with a detached, slightly bemused interest. I absent-mindedly brushed a few crumbs of dirt off my eyebrows and eyelashes, and promptly forgot about my hair.
Later that evening, I spent a half hour just washing the ten pounds of mushrooms I’d just bought. I cut them all up and sautéed them in butter, garlic and soy sauce. That would be just about what I’d need for my week’s supply of mushrooms—this way, I could focus more on my writing and less on the business of processing mushrooms to feed my addiction.
After supper, I began to feel a little itchy. Every time I scratched some exposed skin, which felt slightly slimy, the little rim of dirt under my fingernails grew a bit thicker. I usually take my shower in the morning, but there was no way I’d be able to sleep feeling this grungy. I was afraid to wash my new crazy white hair that night, so I tried to keep it dry by taking a bath instead of a shower. Before I knew what was happening, my crazy white hair grew a good seven or eight inches in a stealthy creep down my unsuspecting back so it could drink in some of my muddy bath water. No matter how hard I scrubbed myself, there seemed to be no end to the dirt washing out of my skin. I patted myself dry, not wanting to muddy the towel, and slipped into my flannel PJs. Before going to bed, I brushed my teeth. Funny, but I hadn’t been aware of there being any sand in my mouth until that very moment. Could my teeth be crumbling? I could have checked my appearance in the bathroom mirror, but it was all steamed up, and really, I was just too tired. If there were any logical explanation for all this, I was just going to have to puzzle it out in my dreams.
Careening my way towards the bedroom with a mind-numbing weariness, I mumbled,“To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.”*
I stretched out between the smooth sheets of my welcoming bed, my head sinking down, luxuriating in the soft coolness of the pillow. All my cares and woes surrendered to forgetfulness as the cottage emitted random vibrations and a groaning sigh or two. My skin and my scalp tingled with anticipation. My mind glittered with the neon mushrooms I could only see with my eyes closed. Once in a while, I’d open my eyes just a crack to peer at the benevolent moon shining over my candy apple red mail box at the street edge of the front yard. Was I dreaming? Was I sleeping? I don’t know, but I do know that I wasn’t quite awake.
Sunday morning dawned as a misty, dark day. I contemplated the mute grayness padding the wavy window panes until it morphed into black. Just as fatigued as I was before I went to bed, I didn’t bother moving. It wasn’t exactly a decision—it just didn’t occur to me. My mouth felt vaguely gritty, but other than that, I was perfectly comfortable–not hungry, not thirsty, not warm, not cold, not dry, not wet, not happy, not sad, not awake, not asleep—all my needs, not that I was aware of any, invisibly and seamlessly tended to.
Monday morning’s dawn blushed golden pink before a breezy blue puffed its way into the firmament. The sun, pulsing with orange life, insinuated its cheerful rays through my bedroom window, dissipating my brain fog that had left me almost comatose for the last day and a half. I raised my head a few inches off the pillow, but my hair pulled me back—my head was tethered to the pillow by my crazy white hair, which had continued to proliferate, wrapping itself several times around, over, and under the bed, imprisoning my numbed and paralyzed body in a white mycelium cocoon, which was studded with mushrooms.
A logical explanation no longer seemed like something I really needed.
When I heard the US Postal Service truck grinding its gears to a halt in front of my candy apple red mailbox, my heart almost leaped out of my chest. If I could have ripped my hair out by the roots to free myself, I would have. I raised my head as high as I could. My efforts were rewarded with the jerky, shimmering image of the mailman through the wavy glass. I screamed until my lungs were raw and the taste of rusty blood rose into my dusty throat. The mailman never heard me—not that day nor any other day afterwards.
He continued to deliver the mail every day for the next two or three weeks, and every day, I would scream myself hoarse. Towards the end, I think I forgot to scream. Maybe I just didn’t remember why I should.
The last time the mailman stopped, he removed the accumulated mail from my candy apple red mail box, got back into his truck and drove away, grinding the gears. He never bothered to stop again. Or maybe he did and I don’t remember. Not that it matters, but I’ll never know.
*From the “To be, or not to be” speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1602
Photo Credit: Estelle Trueman, “Wet ‘Shroom,” http://www.deviantart.com