By Evan Zilber
Alfred pulled into the parking space four spots from the front door as he did every other morning of his five-day workweek. The crumbs and empty Sprite bottles on his car seats sprang forward onto the floor upon the jolt of his braking Nissan sedan.
He decided to wait in his car until at least two of his coworkers parked beside him. Alfred would only work the two unpaid minutes between his pulling in and the start of his 9:00 AM shift if impelled by more ambitious colleagues who walked in early.
When the requisite number of coworkers pulled in, three minutes later, Alfred walked to his office building. He departed from his car calculatedly, allowing for a buffer of about seventeen seconds between him and the next entering coworker, to spare both himself and his coworker from the cursory ‘good mornings’ that further agonized the beginnings of his days.
At 10:47 AM, Alfred and his colleagues sat in their cubicles working on… something… when thunder bellowed from beyond the thick windows.
“Huh,” said one of Alfred’s coworkers. The adjacent workers didn’t respond, silently acknowledging this one-word declaration’s adequacy in articulating the unremarkableness of the situation.
Outside and underneath a dark crease in the quaking clouds lay a thick oak tree, its leaves pitter-pattering in the rain. This hunk of nature was one of the few reminders of a world beyond spreadsheets and receding hairlines in the barren business park. It grew among a series of manmade grass embankments and beige-brick buildings, atop a ground devoid of anything besides manicured grass.
Below the oak tree’s leaves was a ring composed of buttons and caps, resplendent in earthy shades. Rain drops that passed the leaves popped gently on the pellets that made up the ring.
The rain continued until the next morning. Now, the clouds blocked only blue, so the sun was free to breathe out its sticky breath.
“Madonn,” Porcini said, “I’m sweatin’ my spores off ova hea!”
“Your great uncle was used in one Risotto,” Morel responded, “you’re not Vito… uh… Vito Toadstool… er… Vito Toadstool-ione.”
“Fuck you, that was improvised.”
The fungi bickered through the mycelium routes that coursed beneath the ring. Mycologists, upon finding that mushrooms communicated by way of electric impulse, agreed that their messages were productive in some capacity. They were wrong.
“Psst… six o’clock,” Portobello whispered.
The fungi looked behind Portobello at a puffball mushroom, Rubenesque and newly germinated.
“Oof, just imagine that basidium,” Morel said.
“Holy shit,” said Porcini, “I’m about to propagate.”
These invisible affairs continued on the office space lawn for the rest of the day, the mushrooms and office workers similarly dormant.
The quintessential red-capped mushroom, salted with powdery white spots under which lay craggy gills, is a proverb assumed too wholesome to be susceptible to the immoralities of the human condition. These fungi countered this belief, relishing in their inertness and becoming spongey degenerates in the absence of fungal adversity.
Adversity, for fungi, arises primarily from a demographic of geriatric humans whose mere presence is enough to make mushrooms tremble from their stems. Mushrooms that lived among these geriatrics grew in character because of their prolonged vicinity to death. This engineered a moral compass in these mushrooms that, for one, forbade them from objectifying fellow saprophytes, however voluptuous. But the fungal network here shielded her children from this danger; save for a plump porcini picked by a senile Nona years before, the network’s children were entirely safe from the monsters that slayed their kind with glee.
The day’s brightness dimmed as the sun dipped into an orange brume. The business park’s workers had left by this time, and the fungi relaxed among their kind.
The mushrooms watched the sun set and prepared for another day of electric indolence. To their bemusement, though, they heard tires roll on the empty parking lot beside them.
“Could that be… a grandma?” Shiitake asked.
The mushrooms knew that it was unlikely for a grandma to suspect this random lot of being a fertile ground for mushrooms yet couldn’t help but be afraid. The fungal network sensed her children’s fear and reassured them through recounting the ring’s family lore.
“There is no need to fret, children,” the network’s voice said to them, “the Nona who picked Porcini’s great uncle long ago came here coincidentally and I’m sure she and her neighboring grannies croaked by now. I pullulated here because this park’s corporate sadness repels retired septuagenarians.”
The fungal network eased her children’s fright with a collected maturity, like any good mother would. But even the network was nervous because her rationale didn’t explain who would be at this business park now and why.
So, the network comforted her children, and herself, with massaging electric pulses.
“Hnnnng,” Portobello grunted after a few seconds of the rhythmic drumming.
“Yes, mommy!” Morel said a few seconds later.
The mushrooms stiffened and shuddered in this joint orgasmic sensation. While maybe a little incestuous, the network’s galvanism calmed her children until they forgot about the parking car. As the massaging continued, even the network forgot about the car, as well as everything else, at which point she knew only of her children’s groans and cries of, ‘pluck me!’
That is, until the network and her children heard footsteps in the damp grass.
“Oh fuck,” Portobello said, but this time not euphorically.
The network shushed her child and listened closely.
It heard footsteps squelch wobbly, nearer and nearer. Then a sound traveled through the dense, evening air.
“Gospadi!” cried the sound, “this grass is vet, kakoi kashmar!”
The tone of this voice, its once dainty quality weighed down by decades of breathing, pruning, and not giving a shit, is common among all grandmas. The mushrooms recognized this old lady-aloofness from their memory of the Nona so many years before and began wobbling nervously in their newborn flaccidity.
The babushka’s eyes beamed as she walked forward. “Ahh,” she said, looking just in front of the tree that roofed the mushrooms, “vkusni puffball!”
She walked to the bulging puffball mushroom, bent down, and rubbed it softly. Envy grew in the mushrooms as the babushka stroked.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Porcini said.
“This lucky old fart!” said Shiitake.
The babushka stopped rubbing and her eyes peeked forward subtly. She quickly plucked the puffball from the ground, and the mushrooms knew they blundered in their discontent. While fungal communication is imperceptible to most all humans, foraging seniors can interrupt the electric waves between fungi. The babushka then set her sights to the ring below the tree.
“Aha! More griby!”
“Oh, my horny children,” the network wailed.
She walked toward the tree, the pliant grass yielding under her upon each step, and she analyzed the aggregation of mushrooms at her boots. Brown buttons, indulgent and cakey, sat beside orange caps whose wrinkles created microscopic avenues and streets. The mushrooms shared a dewy glisten and a muted palette that signified their edibility to the babushka.
“Goddamnit,” Portobello said, “if I knew I would be plucked, I’d at least want to be eaten fresh with some tomato and balsamic, not as a mere ration at the end of a breadline. Pssht, Russians.”
At this reflection, the babushka reached down and ripped Portobello from the earth. His fungal brothers heard his last squeals of suspiration as the babushka gently rotated his lifeless body, examining.
“Krasivaya!” she said.
“This is one sadistic bitch,” Porcini said, and he was picked a moment later.
The fungal network knew of the relationship between her children and hungry old ladies. If she spored in an area more populated with grandmothers, perhaps losing her progeny would sting less in its increased frequency. But, to her detriment, she weighed her children’s lives over the prospect of desensitization.
The ring evaporated, child by child, as the babushka plucked the mushrooms and put them in the coffin she called a harvest basket. The fresh bodies therein were enclosed by a red and white-quilted picnic blanket. Their electric whimpers sparked weakly for the final time.
The network looked up at the babushka in anguish; the babushka looked down in smug contentment.
Clop, schlorp, blep, the footsteps squelched as the babushka looked for more stalked morsels in the lot.
“My… my children,” the fungal network said, “they’re gone.”
It looked at the horizon. The babushka eclipsed the setting sun.
As the network looked at the figure disappear, she fell into a shallow sleep. At 9:57 the next morning, a sound of rolling tires jolted the network awake.
“There’s no more!” the network yelled instinctually, “you killed them all!”
The network regained herself and realized the sound she heard was not the babushka but a worker pulling into a parking spot.
She exhaled solemnly, acutely aware of her circumstance and hopelessly unaware of what she would do in her newfound solitude. The network’s mycelium roots were hot, trembling cables that wept flashes of light; even they wanted revenge.
To ease her empty hope for vengeance, the network decided to send pleasureful shocks through her now purposeless circuit roots. These shocks short-circuited, so the network sat pathetically in silence.
And then, after thirty seconds, she felt a spark of electricity course back through a root that extended twelve yards from the base of the network.
“Oo,” said the entity from which the spark came, “that tickled!”
“Who… are you?” the network asked, astonished.
“I don’t really know.”
When the network birthed a grandchild, she usually foreknew of its existence; the mushrooms responsible for the next generation’s brood always told the network of their fecundations. Obviously, though, one of the network’s children didn’t follow this convention (or wasn’t very protected in their emissions).
The awed network was quiet in contemplation. Her new grandchild would soothe her loneliness, sure, but she knew her offspring had further potential, too.
A little while later, the network had an idea.
“Well, we can’t leave you unnamed, can we honey?” the network said warmly as she looked at her grandchild, a small white burgeon peeking through blades of grass. She propositioned: “How does Grandma Killer sound to you?”
“Uh… could it be a little less… homicide-y?”
“Picky! Alright, we’ll settle on Death Cap then.”
Death Cap wasn’t very happy with his second denomination either, but he decided against protesting.
“Now, my schmoopsy little murderer, I will raise you to meet your namesake.”
Over the course of the next few days, the small white burgeon grew tall so as to attract the half-blind babushka of whose wickedness he was told. During this time, the network extended her roots incrementally until one of her tapering digits found a polluted puddle of run-off, secreted by the office buildings. This poison would surely satisfy the network’s new idea.
Once in proximity to this waste, the network inched her root up, up, up until it touched the viscous green goop. The root recoiled in hurt, but the network pushed it forward until it injected itself fully. The root marinated in the broth, through the pain, and bits of dead mycelium flaked off into the liquid.
A feeling of acidity routed slowly back to the network’s base.
“Ow!” yelped Death Cap, “that stings!”
“Hmm,” said the network, “so it does.” She enjoyed this stinging sensation, deriving from it an image of a feeble, dying babushka.
The network and her grandchild acclimated to the pain brought to them by the waste.
Death Cap coughed and his stalk slumped. He began to say, “grandma,” until he realized his error. He started again. “Network, when can we kill the evil babushka?”
The network fought against a stabbing ache when it responded. “We must be patient, child. She will come back.”
After another week of torment, when the puddle’s toxicity was evidently terminal, the network and Death Cap heard tires roll beside them.
The network and her grandchild propped Death Cap up excitedly: the network pushed a root into Death Cap while he elongated himself with barely perceptible flails. As they did this, they watched the grandma trod to her unknowing demise.
The babushka walked to the thick tree assuredly. The network and her grandchild shook in anticipation with every step, the prospect of revenge inching closer and closer.
Eventually, the babushka was just feet from the cocked-up Death Cap. She bent down to the mushroom’s level, her eyes aglow.
The two stared at each other.
“Privet, yummy mushroom,” the babushka said. The network noticed a slight pang of incredulity in her voice and felt anxious, but the babushka reached down and tenderly plucked Death Cap out of the ground, abating the network’s fear. Death Cap let out a single spark in the babushka’s hands, finally put out of his misery
The still-crouching babushka brought Death Cap to her face, examining him like she did Portobello. The network, barely operative, was pleased at this conclusion, even if it came at the cost of her and her grandchild’s lives. Then the babushka spoke once more.
“Poshli na hui, stewpid mushrrrooms,” she said bitingly. “Babushka alvays vins.” She got up, threw the deceased Death Cap on the ground, and squelched back to the parking lot.
Schlorp, blep, clop, heard the network as she went in and out of consciousness.
About the author: Evan Zilber is a Russian-American who’s fascinated with the absurd and the funny. His stories are either deep psychological allegories or strange dives into the world of… mushrooms, in this case. He isn’t quite sure into which category his writing fits just yet. As a prospective English- and Russian-teacher, Evan’s constant unsuredness may turn out to be a problem. https://www.instagram.com/th3vster/
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