Written by Katherine Quevedo
Uncle Silvester’s face lit up in the dappled forest sunlight. “Black morels are such rare mushrooms, even I haven’t found any on a hike yet. Maybe you’ll bring me some luck.”
Cara started to roll her eyes but caught herself. Her mother’s admonishments must’ve taken hold.
“Come on,” he said, nudging her shoulder as they followed the dirt trail between towering pines. “Mycology should run in your blood. Look at this fine specimen.” He showed her his phone with the background photo of a lumpy, spongy black fungus. “A black morel. Ain’t that a beaut? Of course, it’d be better for us if this area had had a wildfire recently. They like that for some reason. But here in my neck of the woods, we can enjoy other kinds—ooh, like these.”
He stepped off the path to highlight a patch of toadstools.
“Shouldn’t we stay on the path?” Cara ran her toe along the fringe of grass and ferns at the edge of the trail, where the prescribed space for safety ended and the wild truly began.
“Cara, you’ve got to live a little.” He grinned, put a conspiratorial finger to his lips, and plucked one of the toadstools. He held it out to her, but she refused it. He sighed, made a show of stepping back onto the trail, and offered it to her again. It seemed a fair compromise.
Cara lifted the mushroom cap and stared at its underside. Innumerous indentations faced her like long, skinny, stretched mouths, row upon row, dangerous as shark teeth. She flinched, dropped the cap, and wrung her hand through the air. She couldn’t shake the repulsive feeling of close contact with those squishy, ravenous maws.
“Those are just the gills,” he explained. “It’s how they produce their spores. Other types of mushrooms use pores, and some use teeth.”
Ugh, not helping. Now she pictured those crammed rows of gills writhing with tiny fangs. The way they radiated from the stem like a many, many legged spider … Her eyes stretched wide, and she hugged herself. What was a fungus, anyway? Not plant, not animal.
As though hearing her unasked question, he continued, “Fungi are closer relatives to animals than plants. But unlike the simplest animals—even the humble sponge with its larvae—a fungus can’t move on its own.”
A silly rhyme spawned in her mind as they continued walking: Fungus among us. It repeated in whispers, sing-songy, mocking, a warning in too blithe a tone.
“Fungi have their own kingdom,” Uncle Silvester finished with a self-satisfied smile, his gaze sweeping the forest as though he spoke of a realm rather than a scientific classification. Then he gasped and pointed at a clearing. “A fairy ring!”
The nearby mushrooms formed a circle as round as a throat.
“Uncle Silvester,” she called as he pranced toward it, “I know next to nothing about mushrooms, but I’m pretty sure you should never step—”
Too late. He laughed from the center of the ring, arms outspread, and turned a couple times. But when he spun back, his eyes were black morels, his hair scraggly lichens, his lips a wide O spoked with many fanged gills. His moldy breath heaved out as black-green dust. The irregular honeycomb lines of his eyes, porous as brain tissue, bulged from what was left of his face. Cara stumbled backward, straining for breath. He reached for her with a hand of stems, not fingers, each crowned with a cracked and spotted cap.
She shrieked and bolted away from the clearing, away from the monstrosity of her uncle and that treacherous fairy ring. That mildew breath, that face of strange roundnesses thrown together. Fungus among us! Did he mean to harm her?
Or did he want her help?
She slowed and ventured a peek back. New mushrooms had crowded onto his body like huge pustules the size, shape, and brownish hues of circular bread loaves. He writhed and faltered across the grass, apparently trapped within the ring, as though it had swallowed him whole. As though they’d found the actual neck of the woods.
Her heart raced. She toed the edge of the trail. To follow the rules and stay back would doom him. Yet everything reeked of dank earth and pungent blooming things and disrespected creatures and fungus among us. It overwhelmed her. Mycology didn’t run in her blood, it threatened to spill it.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Silvester.” She pressed a finger to her lips, turned away from his desperate fungoid face, and left for the trailhead. It was time to live a little, as he’d always wished.
If you liked this story a second story by this author in the same setting is available to supporting members.