by S.M.C. Wamsteker
from Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal
A high-pitched smack shatters the stillness the retreating night leaves behind, a loud hissing its apparent echo. “Vile insects!” A broken housefly tumbles to the ground.
“Off to more beautiful things,” he whispers and descends the wooden staircase with measured steps. As he arrives in the dusky hallway, he flips up the Bakelite light switch on the faded wallpapered wall. He closes his eyes and deeply inhales the mildewy scent that drifts in subtle wafts from behind the kitchen door. A smile of contentment appears on his still-swollen morning face. He never used to get this puffiness before, not even when he still drank. And he did drink, especially towards the end. Drink to recover from the endless workdays. Drink to get through the time he had to spend with her. Drink to forget the empty waste his life had turned out to be.
He takes a hold of the handle and opens the door a sliver. Through the crack, his eyes scan the space behind it to find the object of his anticipation. For an instant, he fails at detecting it in the lingering early-morning dark. Something has changed. His mind adjusts and focuses on the correct location. The bed of dark brown leaf matter at the far left end of the room is dotted with newborn lilac pinheads that have attained an ultraviolet hue with the bluish morning light coming in through the kitchen windows. A warm ecstasy passes through his body and settles in his groin.
He opens the door wider and enters the kitchen, which looks like a graveyard full of freshly interred caskets. The kitchen table is taken up by a man-sized crate structure full of soil. Virginal white spheres are strewn over the moist black earth like so many little moons across a night sky. Blue plastic wide mesh buckets hold an abundance of perfect white stalks that have pushed their grey disc-like heads through the holes. Moldy wood stumps are positioned haphazardly throughout the room. A few are residing on the sink’s cracked marble workspace. Some, barely recognizable as pieces of tree trunk anymore, erupt with tiny lacquered porcelain umbrellas; others are almost entirely covered with fleshy beige cushions. Still another is decorated with a fringe of bright yellow funnels looking up in silent expectation.
Unable to take his eyes off of the compost pile at the far end, he gathers his robe, which has come loose, revealing his worn off-white underpants and soft hairless potbelly. He approaches the crate with the lilac protrusions in the soil. A small sign attached to the side of the container reads Clitocybe nuda. With tender reverence, he gazes at the tiny bulges, passes his fingertips gently over the mauve caps of the wood blewits, and closes his eyes.
“There you are,” he sighs, “finally.” He stands for a few minutes, relishing the sensation of their velvet skins.
Since her departure, he’s felt a peace he never experienced before. She was always so present. She didn’t understand.
They look so still, but they never really are. Something is always brewing. How often has he been caught off guard by their sudden appearances? Or, perhaps even more so, by their unexpected demise, when their ephemeral beauty is replaced by unsightly goo? The quiet transformations. That’s what fascinates him the most.
Taking a deep, complacent breath, he opens his eyes and looks out at the woods that are beginning to stir, the solitary song of a wood thrush announcing a prolific day breaking.
After downing his breakfast, he walks towards the sunroom, where he takes the latest Mycology Digest from the coffee table and sits in his worn leather recliner. He likes to be here when the day dawns. On the cover of the magazine is a breathtaking picture of a Clathrus ruber, one of the several mushroom species that are less likely to be recognized as such. It resembles red coral, with branch-like protrusions and a pale red color, but the Clathrus doesn’t fan out at the top; its shape is like that of a rounded red cage that emerges from a white egg, the volva, in the ground. This one is captured in early morning, the freshly emerged sunlight refracted by the dewdrops perched on its alien arms, its shape still flawlessly oval.
To him, the odor of this wondrous creation resembles the musky sweet smell of the secaderos in the Spanish mountains, where the hind legs of the acorn-fed Bellota pigs are hung inverted from the ceiling to cure, while the fat drips away and is collected in small white cones stuck into the meatiest part of the leg. The tour of the cure houses in Guijueolo, Salamanca, was the only part of the Spanish holiday she made him go on that he really enjoyed. Vacations are a waste of time and energy. Without holiday travel, he is convinced nobody would ever again be ‘too busy.’ He only agreed to join her on this one because it was their twentieth anniversary.
She had always known about his social phobia, and accepted it. In a way, it had made her feel special.
Even with his entire kitchen and garage occupied by an exceptional collection of cultivable fungi, which he can contemplate from every possible angle, he has an insatiable hunger for more images.
However, he does have his preferences. Miracles like the Clathrus ruber he admires from an aesthetic point of view, but nothing brings him more pleasure than a strapping bolete on the cover. The perfect curves of the usually chestnut-colored cap, tiny yellow or cream pores peeping out from underneath—just a sliver, like the scarce pubic hairs of a teenage boy sticking out of his too-small swimming trunks—if too much is visible, he knows, death and decay are not far off. The strong and fleshy stipe, rising proudly from the moss.
Of the boletes, the Boletus luridiformis or dotted stem bolete, which has bright red pores, is his favorite. The vermillion of the pores, so strikingly unlike the gills of other mushrooms, is like an invitation to him. Towards the end, she caught him, once, while he was servicing himself over the picture of an especially well-shaped specimen. Her reaction was outrageous, of course, but nothing worse than could be expected of her. She uttered words like “aberration” and “unsound” and issued threats of psychotherapy, involuntary confinement. Well, he can’t help thinking, chuckling to himself, look who’s confined now.
For a while, he reads. Mostly things he already knows. About how fungi can clean up the world. How they absorb heavy metals that have contaminated the soil in certain areas, especially those surrounding abandoned metal smelters. Apparently, some even grow in areas that have become seriously radioactive because of a nuclear disaster and simply “ingest” the radioactivity.
Sure, we pump all these toxic chemicals into the earth, and what do we do? We let nature herself clean the mess up. His heart palpitates with angry agitation, but admiration takes over and puts him at ease again.
He recalls an afternoon when he saw some puffballs growing on a dead fox, slowly decomposing it. Disassembling it into its original elements. Truly the great cleaners of nature.
His peace is enhanced by the knowledge no one can disturb him anymore. There is a phone in the house, but he had the landline disconnected. She had still been around when he did, but he never let her know. When she noticed the line was dead, he told her he’d already called the phone company.
“Yes, uh, I’m on it. Some wiring problem… it must have been caused by that, um, thunderstorm we had last week.” She had accepted his explanation, probably because she had a cell phone. She never felt safe, all alone in the woods.
After reading long enough for the sun to have fully risen, he climbs the stairs to dress himself. Sitting on his bed, he takes off his slippers. He tries not to look at his feet, but he has to. The white is coming up between his toes now. Thin white veins of dead skin find their way to the upper part of his foot. If he spreads his toes, he can feel the skin crack, and tender pink patches reveal themselves underneath the white scales. At first it had been invisible—if he chose not to look at the soles of his feet, but it was spreading to the dorsal surface now.
Without the painful itching, he would have been fascinated. A while ago he had taken a piece of effected skin and placed it in a petri dish to see to what extent it would grow. It didn’t.
When she discovered the white spots on his feet, she had gone off on him.
“I’ve had it! They’re taking over our house, our life, even our bodies.” She assumed her characteristic domination stance, her voice carrying that tone of excited anger. “I mean, they’re everywhere! The walls in the kitchen have black mold, fruit rots in front of our eyes, bread doesn’t last more than a day.”
He had been too hurt and stubborn to tell her that any fungal growth wasn’t caused by the mushrooms, of course, but by humidity.
“You have fungus growing on your feet, for chrissakes!”
During those moments, he always remained completely silent. Her voice grated on his nerves to the point where his jaws would clench. Always trying to get him to say things.
Dismissing the memory, he rises and gets socks from the cupboard. He has started using cotton ones, but they don’t seem to make a difference. Antifungal creams are out of the question, as he fears they might pose a risk to his population, and the same goes for any “natural” remedies. He tried rubbing vinegar on his feet, but it stung the raw spots fiercely, and when nothing had changed after a week, he decided to discontinue the treatment. Besides, he was afraid that acidic traces from the vinegar might harm the fungi. Any substance that could possibly be detrimental to the result of so many years of diligent work was banned from the house.
When he started using the kitchen for cultivation he’d had dark shades installed on the windows. Mushrooms are not fond of direct sunlight—in fact, most of them don’t need any light at all.
One evening upon returning from work he’d learned that the shades had been up all day after she had failed to roll them down in the morning. It had been a sweltering day, and the mushrooms in the beds near the windows had suffered. The following day, about half of all the fruits growing in the kitchen had disappeared—but even worse, the beautifully knotty mycelium inside the jars he had inoculated with spores of Tricholoma matsutake, the edible and very rare red pine mushroom, had dried out irreparably.
She had apologized, but not really. “It was such a sunny day, for once I didn’t feel like obscuring the entire kitchen for the sake of a few vegetables.”
At that time, the kitchen still retained its original function, and only held half the number of fungi it does now.
“And you know what, I opened a window, and the dampness has gone too,” she had added triumphantly. “Those moldy jars with dead plants don’t smell as bad anymore.”
Getting nauseous, he barely managed reminding her that the kitchen needed to be humid and shaded for the fruiting of fungi. In a choked voice he told her, “First of all, um, mushrooms are not vegetables, and the ‘moldy jars with dead plants’ you refer to, hold, uh, the s-s-spores of a very rare edible mushroom.”
“Oh well.” She had shrugged and rolled her eyes. “You never eat them anyway.” Not long after that, she was gone.
Curious to see what happens? You can read the rest of "Pests" in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here.
Although she is Dutch by birth and living in Amsterdam, English is S.M.C.’s language for writing fiction. It’s her creative language. The foundation for this was laid during the four years she resided in Los Angeles, where she moved to pursue an acting career. Instead of making her an actress, however, the city forged her into the shape of a writer.
Before she moved to Los Angeles, she lived in Santa Barbara. It didn’t throw her around the way L.A. did, but it still occupies an important part of her heart. She had the opportunity to go back last June, to attend the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. After bidding farewell to her acting career, she returned to Amsterdam to study English literature and become a journalist. She was a reporter for several Dutch newspapers.