Better late than never! This is my June assignment for the 12 Short Stories challenge, which I had finished in time but completely forgot to upload to their website. I haven’t gotten any feedback on this one yet, but prompt was “Forbidden Places” at 1800 words exactly. I’m a little under the word count, and I think I could tighten things up a bit and use the extra words to add some detail. So tell me which bits need clarification, or which images you’d like to dwell on a little longer. Thank you for reading and commenting!
“Mycelium” by S.C. Jensen
Word count: 1790
Genre: Literary Fiction
Everything was green. Even the air was thick with it, somehow; the colour smothered all of Alse’s other senses. Between the leaves she caught glimpses of fleshy pink and bloody red. These raw patches oozed a sickly floral scent whose sweetness mixed with—rather than covering—the damp smell of rot that filled the place. None of it withstood the oppressive green surrounding her.
The only thing that wasn’t green was the sky. If Alse craned her neck and stared straight above her head she was equally overwhelmed by a dull and blinding sheet of white that radiated the heat and moisture of the plants back down on her. It made her want to dig in her heels, push through the earth to get away.
Your feet would become roots, she thought. You’d be stuck here. Sweat caught in her eyebrows, and one or two drops clung to her lashes. She blinked them away and shuddered.
“It’s hot,” she said.
“That’s how the plants like it,” Aunt Mae said. “If you’re too warm you can wait outside.”
“Why is it so bright in here?” She didn’t want to go outside. Aunt Mae would think she was weak. She wasn’t weak. “The plants in the garden don’t need it to be this hot.”
“These plants aren’t from here.” Aunt Mae poured a mixture of water and odd-smelling fertilizer onto a leather-leafed plant with waxy orange flowers shaped like upside-down trumpets. “It is bright, though, isn’t it?”
It wasn’t a question. Alse didn’t answer. She pinched a fat orange petal between her fingers and pulled the trumpet down to smell it.
Aunt Mae slapped her hand away with a rubbery gardening glove. “Not that one, dear.”
“Don’t smell it, don’t touch it.”
Alse withdrew her hand. “Everything smells weird in here anyway.”
“I’m sorry, Alse.” Aunt Mae’s voice softened. “It’s just that’s a particularly nasty one.”
Alse looked up at Aunt Mae’s brown, creased face. She didn’t seem angry. “Why do you grow the nasty ones?”
“Even the nasty ones have their uses, dear.”
“It’s still too hot in here.”
Aunt Mae smiled, her old flesh pulling and piling into mountains and valleys of wrinkles. Alse’s mother would never have let her skin get so brown and spotted. “Maybe you’re a mushroom.”
Alse thought about that. She was certainly nothing like the garish blooms sweltering luxuriously in the greenhouse heat. She was nothing to do with green or red or heady perfumed pink. Her mother had been a delicate thing, a primula, perfectly pretty as long as it’s doted upon. Neglected, she faded quickly. Even the perception of neglect had been enough to weaken her until—
Actually, Aunt Mae looked a bit like a mushroom herself. Lines radiated around her eyes and mouth like the deep earthy underside gills of fungi. Her flesh, soft and spongey in places and speckled with age, gave off a smell like the cool, damp soil beneath big stones or rotten logs. She was a dark thing, full of wriggling life.
“I think that does it,” Aunt Mae said. “Thank you for your help this afternoon.”
Alse took the watering can from her Aunt and placed it on the narrow bench along the back wall of the greenhouse, with all the neatly organized gardening tools—cutters, choppers, slicers, pinchers, and other torture devices. Alse hated the look of them. Next to the bench, a square of damp wood seemed to grow out of the dirt floor like the wide, flat crown of a lichen. Alse joked half-heartedly, “Who do you keep down there?”
“I’m hungry,” her Aunt said. She slapped a pair of rubbery gloves into the palm of her hand. The sound echoed off the greenhouse walls and roof like a gunshot. “Let’s get something to eat.”
“Why do you do it?” Alse asked at supper time. A plate of vegetables and herbs steamed toward her. There were none of the bright flowers here. Aunt Mae’s house was earthy and neutral, cool and comfortable. She served a piece of soft pink flesh not unlike the blooms, except it smelled of fish. “Grow all these plants that don’t grow here.”
“Someday,” Aunt Mae said, “we won’t be able to grow any plants without greenhouses. It will be hot and dry everywhere.”
“Do you really believe that? The outside plants will die?”
“Most of them.”
Alse piled dark green vegetables on top of her fish, watched the oil slide off of each in a puddle on her plate. She took a bite. “Even the mushrooms?”
Aunt Mae smiled again. She sipped at a glass of wine that glinted barely yellow, collecting bubbles against the side of the flute. “Mushrooms have a way of surviving.”
“It’s a lost cause, though,” Alse said.
Her aunt watched her carefully from across the table. “Is it?”
“When you put so much energy and effort into catering to a thing that can’t survive without you,” Alse explained. She crushed a piece of salmon between her teeth, savoured a burst of lemon balm. “Doesn’t that just encourage it to be weak?”
“Perhaps. But weak things have their uses.” Aunt Mae’s eyes hardened. “Some of them.”
Alse felt the ghost of a slap across her cheek; old memories still held weight. Even her mother’s anger had been a delicate thing. It stung, not from force, but from what it withheld. Alse put a hand up against her face and tried not to cry. And what had been the use of that, she wanted to ask.
But she said, “Like nasty things.”
“Often the weak and the nasty are one in the same,” Aunt Mae said.
“What about the mushrooms, then?”
Her Aunt smiled again, dark pink gums sprouting off-white toothy mounds. “What about them?”
“Do you just leave them to their own devices while you coddle those bright, smelly flowers from the other side of the world?”
“In a way.”
“But that’s not fair!”
Aunt Mae put her elbows on the table and leaned toward Alse as if measuring her against an invisible scale. The closer she leaned, the more her body swelled. If she leaned too far Aunt Mae might burst into a puff of dirt and dust and spores. But she didn’t burst. Aunt Mae said, “Some things don’t need to be coddled, Alse.”
Aunt Mae tended to the trumpet shaped flowers, tapping their drooping stamens into a long clear vial. Alse wandered between the rows of lush vegetation, hating the white light and unrepentant green of the place. The plants breathed their hot breath against her cheeks, like someone standing too close that might want to grab at you as soon as you turned your back.
None of you should be alive, she thought.
At the tool bench, Alse crouched on the dirt floor. She sank onto her haunches, her bare knees pressed against her ears, and reached out to touch the trapdoor. Alse could breathe down here without the feeling of leaves trying to cover her mouth, slap her cheeks, or grab at her clothing. The wood was cool beneath her fingers, smooth and slightly tacky, like it had absorbed the moisture of the earth rather than the hot greenhouse air.
Alse ran her fingers along the edge of the door, prying gently, hoping for the gentle suck and pop of a seal breaking. Her fingers made a strange, muffled shuffling noise against the wood, like the footsteps of a tentative explorer. Alse hoped the door would open and she would be sucked into the blackness below. But she was stuck above, fingers creeping over the damp wood, prodding and shuffling. With her head pressed between her knees, the shuffling noise seemed to echo in her ears. There was the Alse above stroking the surface of the door, and the one below, trying to open it from the other side.
“Open it,” the other Alse whispered up at her.
She stumbled back on her heels and fell with her bottom in the cold, black dirt. The dream voice was so real, so like her own, that Alse thought she had spoken aloud. She looked up to see Aunt Mae, whose stringy brown legs grew up from the floor and into the soft beige ring of her shorts, watching her.
“Is this where you grow the mushrooms?” Alse asked.
The gills on her Aunt’s brown face wavered slightly. “I just give them a place to live.”
“I never liked your mother,” Aunt Mae said.
Night fell around Alse like mounds of rich, loamy earth. The weathered grey boards of the porch creaked beneath her weight, collecting the first dewy drops of moisture from the cool black air. Tentatively, Alse rooted herself there, delicate mycelium reaching for something to stick to.
“Sometimes I think I should write to her,” Alse said. It was safe to say things like that in the darkness. She felt Aunt Mae blink.
“Do you miss her?”
“I miss Father.” That wasn’t right. Father was at the core of her, the place she sprouted from. Even when they got the letter, the little silver cross to remember him by, he was a part of her. It was her mother she was missing. “She never loved me.”
“She never loved anyone but herself,” Aunt Mae said. “Even her grief was self-indulgent.”
Alse closed her eyes and reached out for her Aunt’s hand. The fingers were cool and damp, like they’d been digging in the dirt. So unlike the useless clamminess of her mother’s hands, flowers wilting upon themselves as if trying desperately to signal the sickliness of the plant. Weak and nasty.
“Still,” Aunt Mae’s voice was spongy, a sound without edges, “she helped make you.”
“Mushrooms grow in unlikely places,” Alse said.
“When they sent her to me I tried to tell them I had no time to fuss over a thing that had no will to live.”
The night came closer, mounds of earth packing in between Alse’s fingers and toes, into her ears. She licked her lips and tasted dirt there, too. The imagined blackness beneath the trapdoor clung to her, tugged her down. She dug her fingernails into the damp porch boards. Rotted slivers pulled up easily and Alse’s roots spread deeper. “They sent her to you?”
“It’s like you said, dear. A lost cause.”
The sound like muffled footsteps echoed in Alse’s ears again. Her fingers shuffled across the porch, scraping and digging. A dull grating noise came from the greenhouse. It swelled invisibly in the darkness, a dry puffy thing that might explode any minute. “Where is she now, Aunt Mae?”
“Don’t worry yourself about it, dear.” Aunt Mae squeezed Alse’s fingers tightly. “Your mother doesn’t need any more coddling.”