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Dec 30

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“The Fungi That Talk Softly” by Harry Markov

In the grand conversation of life, fungi are considered rather dull creatures. It’s not hard to imagine why, though. Far removed from the vocal faunas with their incessant self-expression, which quite frankly speaks of poor manners, fungi appear to be mutes when compared to the well-nigh infinite biological diversity.

Roars are too crude, hisses improper, and chirps unfathomable for the well-behaved fungi. It, then, should come to no surprise that fungi don’t click. They don’t find the need to rattle, buzz, or drone. Their bodies are most certainly not resonance chambers.

They are certainly too curvaceous, plump, and proud thereof to consider communication through the winds’ nymphomaniac touches. That is, unlike other floras, whose indecency has been known since Cooksonia first graced the lands.

No, fungi communicate through a language unequalled in the natural and unnatural worlds. The closest analog is the insect kingdom, when insects utilize their hive-mind data transmission system, which fungi have perfected and surpassed. Even humans, evolution’s favored ones, are as of yet inarticulate in their own cognitive process to even consider the possibility of intelligence in the fungi kingdom.

As you might imagine, this pleases the fungi, which feed on all that once lived, and store this knowledge into their collective memory, because fungi are nature’s post-mortem engine. They consummate and calculate algorithms. Find evolutionary trends and alter their hyphae’s basic structure to note down when a species dies. What fungi do not do is recall individuals.

However, there is one human name that every fungus from the domesticated black mold to the tentacled Aseroe rubra knows. That name belongs or rather belonged to Rostislav Kazakchiev, one rather peculiar human with the desire to fathom and translate the fungal language.

The fungi, at the time, did not suspect that the boy—licking mold off the wall in his family’s house in the city of Varna, positioned on the northern coast of Bulgaria—would amount to anything more than a biped with a penchant for reproduction and a questionable taste in nutrition. Not a single ever-observing spore, well hidden in the Kazakchiev’s three-storey house, suspected what revolution awaited within Rostislav’s cellular encryption.

After all, no matter how evolutionarily ahead fungi are, they are not clairvoyant.

Rostislav himself had no reason to suppose how important he would be. By human standards, Rostislav Kazakchiev embodied the concept of a genetic misstep. He had neither the body nor possessed the mind to belong to his kin.

It wasn’t because he had the bones of a small mummified rodent with barely any skin to hide his joints and organs. It certainly had nothing to do with how his neurons bounced off electrical impulses along the paths of his brain, for all the wiring was, in fact, intact.

Upon further inspection and deduction after Rostislav’s assimilation, the Bulgarian clusters of diminutive Psilocybe semilanceata have now confirmed that this otherness manifested in the pauses between the biped’s movements. Then there is how he established eye contact with other members of his species or rather, failed to do so. Not to mention the peculiar notes produced during the utilization of his vocal cords.

For Rostislav, the explanation for this behavior was far shorter and inexplicably more illogical.

In his words, “People halve my lifespan every time I’m forced to look at them.”

Whenever he could, he surrounded himself with walls—and obstructions built of silence, and awkward stares—in order to repel humans. Rather, he turned his attention to growing molds, which he enjoyed as a calming pastime.

As a child Rostislav once soaked a whole loaf of bread in water. He wrapped it in his mum’s plastic folio, carefully stolen from the kitchen cupboard when no one had looked, and then hid under his bed. The young observer ran out of luck and had to abort his experiment a few short days into it, when his father stumbled upon the spongy mess one afternoon. Since then Rostislav performed queer acts, from a human perspective of course.

The fungi, of course, entitle humans to some eccentricities and withhold judgment. The fungi record, they do not critique.

With puberty Rostistlav’s infatuation with fungi lessened in favour of his own body odor, especially after an item of clothing had stayed longer on his skin than socially acceptable. He enjoyed the clammy heaviness of his perspiration. How the smell tickled his nostrils as he pressed the cloth to his nose and the slippery sheen the synthetic materials acquired. These breathing sessions concluded with his mind swimming from the excess of fumes in his lungs and a slippery anticipation acrawl through his windpipe.

As his peers and parents reprimanded his behavior, Rostislav taught himself the subtle art of concealment.

Such is the path of evolution.

He bathed only to fit in. He scrubbed and rubbed the soap between his legs in hopes that it was not too gay, even though no one watched or could surmise what he did, when the shower steam melted his silhouette into nothingness.

What he did, however, was to keep a single pair of white briefs for further olfactory savouring. He had worn those for two weeks straight and kept them well hidden for months. Each night he would sniff, press, and play with the material, noting its fermentation.

By then the briefs’ elastic had capitulated, stretched and abused by his fingers. Now the elastic band looked as if it had hugged the waist of a beggar crone for years on end, before finding itself in a dumpster. The fabric frayed where his nails dug in the sides and looked nothing remotely close to white. Despite the severe wear and tear, Rostislav kept his white briefs folded in a perfect square, placed in the small wooden box his mother gave him to keep his golden cross, and hidden in the rusted springs of his bed.

He sprinkled the briefs with water at the sink and let them sit in the dark box to grow life.

Not one girl mentioned his name without a nervous tic. Beautiful tics of revulsion, whose conviction that no one would ever love or kiss Rostislav. Which infected all those around him, including Rostislav himself.

He knew his loins and his seed would never culminate in a family.

The mold, with its mucous flowers in full bloom, became his child. A child to be ashamed of and hidden, but he was a good father. He fed the mold skin from his scalp, when Rostislav rubbed the briefs over his greasy head. He offered hair follicles, spit, snot, and semen aplenty in the aftermath of his midnight self-satisfaction.

#

The fungi recall the moment Rostislav grew in importance.

The night had been in August, decades before Rostislav’s assimilation. A side dish of well-buttered Russula emetica—the scarlet sickener, or the rabid mushroom as Bulgarians call it—aided the Kazakchiev family to suspend their existence as living matter.

At the same time his parents choked on their last breath, Rostislav dreamt of a forest. He remembered the dream for years.

Much like his parents vomited to death, in his dream the sky vomited rain as thick as blood plasma. Globe-like drops fell down in streaks. The forest became well lubricated, and Rostislav stumbled with each step as the act of standing erect became a bruising experience.

Pine needles perforated his skin.

Raindrops sought to clog his lungs with their salty sweetness, carrying the taste of his fever-sweat that trickled to his lips, until the mushroom greeted him with a swollen bow of its cap, and sheets of bubble-scarred slime where the rain water coalesced at the mushroom’s rim and dripped down.

The mushroom’s body rivaled Varna’s lighthouse in size, but its pigmentation was darker than the night. To Rostislav the mushroom seemed to embody depths that one should behold. Depths with the ability to stare back at him.

As he neared, he saw shapes huddled together. Shapes he recognized from the thin books of tales he used to read. It seemed he could hear the tune for “Good Night Children” swimming in the night, a ghastly succession of strings plucked in a sloppy manner.

Under the mushroom’s cap waited an ant as tall as himself; a butterfly taller than the ant; a mouse in scarlet skirts taller still; a sparrow with coals for eyes hanging from the mushroom’s gills as if it had mistaken itself for a bat; and one rotting rabbit, half-hidden behind the mushroom’s stem.

All signs warned Rostislav that he should run, but the woodland critters cowered before him, even though they were giants compared to their real—life counterparts.

He stepped forward under the mushroom, away from the cold rain, which smelled of carrion. The woodland giants folded back towards the stem and opened their mouths. Jaws dislocated in slickened pops as fungi sprung forth and carpeted the giants’ bodies and the ground around them.

In that silent protest—where the rain offered loud and incessant dribbles that reminded Rostislav of how his grandmother poured half—molten pig grease into a warm pan—Rostislav kneeled under the weight of the wave of sentience.

As you might assume, this sentience exceeded anything human imagination could fathom, but unlike most humans touched by highly evolved fungi, Rostislav’s cells didn’t give way to nature’s most efficient filing system. On the contrary, he woke a few days after in a musty hospital room. His bed was between two old men, who were on the waiting list to enter the fungi’s catalog of death.

#

Life for one touched by the closest thing humans define as a deity equals nothing known to any rational individual.

No fungi shed a spore in surprise at Rostislav’s denial. He grieved his family’s death, or rather, tried to unsuccessfully. Just as unsuccessfully he tried to ascribe the sickening vision in his dream to the mushroom’s poison. Otherwise, why would he dream his favorite fairy tale from his childhood in such a grotesque rendition. He had nothing against bunnies and wanted to forget the bent—over skeletal figure, which still looked around with bewildered eyes.

What Rostislav could not deny was how fungi reacted to him, or rather how he reacted to them now that he woke from his fever. As the days after his hospitalization passed, he sensed that someone was observing him. A whole hive of eyes, all focused on his body. It was as if every mushroom and mold had acquired a persona and stared at him with an intent he didn’t understand.

Paranoia, Rostislav explained it to himself.

The fungi still remember the aftershocks of curiosity cycling through their cells’ cores, when the human interacted with their psyche.

For a pause in time, which the fungi couldn’t measure because it was so short in their timeless minds, Rostislav opposed the fungi’s inquiring curiosity. He killed any fungus he saw, scrubbed every surface in his bathroom, and dusted the whole house so that not a single spore could land in his home.

Needless to say, spores did land and would have continued to land regardless of his wishes. The spores—although unborn fungi—always maintained a polite composure.

Rostislav’s life path altered significantly when he visited his elderly aunt and she fed him stew. The peculiar thing about the stew, however, was that it had boiled with a few chopped mushrooms. Rostislav hadn’t noticed; and his aunt pretended she hadn’t included the despised ingredient in the first place.

When Rostislav went to bed back in his empty house, a dream formed.

Trampled grass, moss on stones, sagging bark, and the sweet-sour rot thereof rose from his taste buds. In his dream these flavors had slept deep within his tongue and now were awakened. As each taste burst from his ripened taste buds, Rostislav remembered how he grew from the moist cracks in the stones to cover the shadowed surfaces as thick and splendid moss. He remembered the warmth of the ground, and then how he pushed onwards and outwards to greet the sun as grass. And he remembered the wriggles of larvae under his skin which was now bark.

Most of all, he remembered how they all died and the mushrooms came. They ate the dead and nothing went missing. Not a single sensation had been lost. Every sensory memory stuck to their porous flesh and then was transmitted from mushroom to lichen to mold and back. All of this synchronized.

Rostislav experienced the fungi kingdom’s language, a harmonious song of simultaneous transmissions. If every librarian in the world learned to sing every book at the same time, and in tune with every other librarian, the performance would still pale in comparison to the mushrooms.

The fungi grew with swollen caps and wide-spread mycelia—at the human’s endorphin spike—during that first revelation of what fungi have truly accomplished, while the rest of the world’s biodiversity strain to have their voices heard.

After this first dream, Rostislav consumed many other fungi, dreamt many other dreams, and listened to the song, which resonated deeply through his bones and intestines, heavy and pregnant with meaning.

Alas, he understood nothing of it. No matter how far and wide he pushed his dreams, the song remained out of reach. It was uncatchable. It floated like an echo diluted into a cavern sung in a second language he once vaguely knew. The translation never presented itself to him.

When he launched his dream mold experiments, Rostislav had already transformed his small attic into a mushroom cave, which showed streaks of psychedelic hues, whenever light tricked the curtains and landed in the room.

The mushrooms he ate there didn’t poison him. Not because they couldn’t, but because they conducted their own experiments to discover whether Rostislav could progress further than downloading data through the bacteria in his digestive tract.

Rostislav cared for his mushrooms. For his coquettish pink Hygrocybe calyptriformis he brought crushed butterflies and bees. For his Otidea alutacea, the vaginal cluster, only the most phallic animal would do—and therefore she received wild snakes from the beaches’ dunes and shrubbery.

Each night he dreamt of other lives as a fly, a cockroach, a sparrow, and even an old alley cat that used to limp around his city square.

The only fungi group not to assimilate through death proved to be the common black mold, which ate dead cells, secretions from the skin, and even the spray of a cough. This was when he turned his house into a lodging for poor students, who travelled the whole country to attend Varna’s Economic university and found the central location and cheap rent most delectable.

Those Rostislav put to sleep with some morphine and placed their heads on pillow cases coated in mold. He waited in their rooms the whole night and changed the pillow before dawn. Then as the morning news block trampled the silence with its self-important intro tunes, he chewed on thin strips of mold from the sleeper’s facial impression and shivered through the memories of somebody else.

#

Rostislav switched tenants faster than it took for trees to change their leaves, and he didn’t mind as the dreams proved insufficient. It mattered not what the subject was, the dreams did not possess anything that could bring him closer to deciphering the fungal song.

In retrospect, the fungi kingdom agrees and applauds this human’s evolutionary-forward manner of deduction. Diversity matters little, when your biological mechanism is ill-equipped for the necessary analysis.

As if by divine intervention, a specific female tenant rented Rostislav’s house right before he contemplated suicide.

By human standards the tenant, Divna, stopped hearts equally well as a massive cardiac arrest. Rostislav and his little Rosty still had yet to behold such composition of facial features. Her irises demanded attention with the heavenly blue of the Mycena interrupta, while her hair reflected sunlight like the worn brass around his home.

Perhaps it was the desperation with the project, or one final impulse to follow his species’ encoded behavior, but Rostislav altered his known habits. He kept his fungi on a diet through neglect as he greeted the sun with Divna, who by then had survived for a month. What fun they had with her talking about writing, for she was a poet, and him listening.

As their friendship grew stronger, Rostislav wanted to know more about Divna, and her talk about books tired his ears. That is how Rostislav tasted her dreams and saw her. Divna was wild, always caught in a dance under the trees in the mountains of her Stara Planina town. Her feet knew not where the land was. She threw her hair so hard that it soared into the torrents of winds that had the trees shimmy, and made the shadows of their crowns bob on the landscape. The dance knew no end as well. Unlike his other subjects, her dreams multiplied this one image into loops that harbored a sense of timelessness.

Divna appeared to be truly different, so he read about what he saw.

A week into his dream eating, Rostislav recognized what he had housed in his home. His guest had not belonged to the human genus at all, but belonged to an entire different family.

Divna was a samodiva.

But what would make a nymph search outside her forests? The better question being, how did he make her confess her true nature?

Again in retrospect, the fungi criticize in hushed and mannered tones Rostislav’s approach to the subject of supernatural species, for such nonsense does not exist. Nevertheless, dreams never lie. Rostislav’s fault was in his inadequacy as an interpreter.

He read further and discovered that these nymphs fed on poisonous mushrooms, so with a smile on his face he sat Divna at his chipped dinner table and buttered fat pieces of bright red—Amanita muscaria; fly agarics—which he then hid under a blanket of mayonnaise.

Rostislav recovered from his indigestion. Divna did not.

#

Years passed until the government institutions released Rostislav Kazakchiev from the well-nigh endless chain of psych wards he had been committed to. When he returned, Rostislav had entered the autumn of his life. His joints ground together. His cartilage had worn thin from the cold and damp in the run—down white buildings, where screams nested in the spaces between the bricks and made themselves known at all times.

His house, cared for by one of his aunts, welcomed him with cobwebs and dampness, cracks and peeling paint.

The mold inside cared little for him at that time. He had spent years in rooms polished and scrubbed, because he had made the mistake to reveal his passion for all fungi. The nurses had checked over and over again for mushrooms and molds. Rostislav’s old tricks might have fooled his mother, but these nurses, these smart, smart women with wet cow eyes, saw through his nonchalantly fisted hands that hid bread crumbs and lumps of spitted fabric under his pillow.

All this, everyone had repeated, was part of his healing. Every aspect of his project had been denied to him for years and Rostislav had grown so tired from these games that brought only frustration.

Decades had passed and the connection with the fungi had been neglected. Amidst the incessant information upload, download, analysis, and archiving, the fungi had soon shelved his curious peculiarity. Rostislav intended to draw their attention back to him. If he had learned one thing in the years of silence, it was that he had employed the wrong methods.

The choice to consume fungi had seemed so correct, but the years had given him time to think, which is what Rostislav did. As he eyed the walls in his rooms and smiled at doctors who asked him questions, he collected ideas.

He tied them into theories, tested them in his mind, and when they failed, Rostislav scratched them off. This was how he decided not to eat the fungi as his main method. That would be inferior.

No, Rostislav would be the fungi. Only then would he speak their language. But first he had to know them intimately, and what was more intimate than digestion?

His first task, when he returned, was to move to the small attic room and spray the walls with mud water. As the first winter gales threw hail on the attic’s windows, the walls glistened like greasy skin, and musk imbued every surface. Two small heaters growled against the winds outside, lapping Rostislav with their warm breath, as he worked on the first-ever human-to-fungi transformation.

The spray bottle and his pen never left his hands. One to soak his clothes, the other to dot his dreams in notebooks. Rostislav drank spoilt water from plastic bottles, abandoned in his closet for weeks, and ate mushrooms he grew on his carpet.

His dreams fattened, and sat heavily on his mind, and teased his nostrils, and he slept, and he smelled of carrion, and he looked like nothing resembling his species.

His skin itched and sagged under colonies of rashes he knew were fungi. His wrists ached, but he continued to write. What came from under the pen’s tip crawled in the pages. Each letter diluted as if the ink was smoke captured on the paper midflight. By then, Rostislav Kazakchiev neared the fungi song.

The data, the intent, the language that had no words, and the song that had no tune rubbed frequencies with his cells and he responded, although the meaning remained encrypted. Some stray words, as far as a concept of words can be applied to the fungi, would wrap themselves in meaning, and Rostislav would write these down with the swiftness of an entomologist in a chase after an ever elusive specimen.

Such were Rostislav’s winter days.

#

There. He hears it.

The song in its incalculable mass.

Human language really does not possess the capacity to describe it, but he translates. The pen goes on the paper, but he does not see what he writes. He has stayed for so long in the dark, he’s not sure he has any eyes left. At some point he remembers that he hasn’t opened his mouth in what feels like years, though there is no reason to. There is no hunger. Just the song.

He writes. He charts.

His writing is infinite, but the assimilation stops him midway, though he wonders where the middle of eternity is. Now he belongs to the fungi and he understands the song, because he is singing it now, and he knows he would never have gotten it before his assimilation. He never had the chance to understand this as a human.

That is why Rostislav expresses no surprise when the paramedics scream how sick his attic is. Saddened perhaps, but not surprised.

He knows that in the multifariousness of all that lives, cacophony rules—and while mammals roar, insects click, and vegetation rustles, no one hears the fungi that talk softly and divine the world’s genetic path.

THE END

Harry Markov is a writer, reviewer and columnist with a background in Marketing, SEO and social media. His taste for books leans towards weird and dangerous fiction. The morning cup of coffee and spreadsheets are his primary objects of worship. You can him mouthing off on Twitter at @HaralambiMarkov or at his blog The Alternative Typewriter.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.electricvelocipede.com/fiction/the-fungi-that-talk-softly-by-harry-markov/

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