April 06, 2020

 

Cordyceps

 
 
 

I like days like this. It's early autumn. No, spring -- the leaves are new and luscious, the sky is unblemished azure. I head out into the garden in the nuzzling sunlight and down the glittering stone path between the cypresses and linger in their murmuring shadows awhile, watching their frayed edges shimmer and feel the breath hissing in and out of me like the surf. Then I dig my hands into the soil, cool and moist and welcoming. I lift it to my nose and sniff and smear it on my face and feel it falling off in damp clumps. I slip a handful into my mouth and though it is bitter and salty and somewhere a voice tells me I should not be doing such things, I chew slowly and swallow and immediately want more.

It won't do. I dust off my hands and head down to the balustrade at the end of garden. There is a sea of roofs below spreading clay-red and pierced with silver antennae, off to the distant bay. I went there once. Out on the water, with Buddy. He was young and wore shorts and a silly hat. He was handsome enough and confident enough to do these things without irony. To dress like a bum but not look like a bum.

There is a border of daffodils crowded against the rough stone of the balustrade like a strip of jostling sunlight. The soil between them is chocolate brown and I can't resist getting on my hands and knees and digging my fingers in. I'm thinking about rubbing it on my face when I look up and see a man walking down the path. Flat-bellied and olive-skinned, arms bulging beneath his striped shirt. He stops a few feet away and doffs his khaki cap.

'Professor,' he says. 'You look well today.'

'Thank you,' I say.

'How have you been?'

'Well.' I can't remember his name. 'Well.'

'Your health is good?'

'Yes, it is.'

He comes closer and sits down uninvited and reaches for my arm.

'May I?'

I let him take it because it feels like we have done this before. He listens to my breathing with a stethoscope and then peers into my eyes and into my throat with a small flashlight. He finishes all these things with the same smile fixed on his face and while at the beginning it was warm, by the end it is scorching.

'Fit as a fiddle!' he says. 'Don't stay out in the sun too long.'

He gets up and walks away without saying goodbye. But he has a nice tight rump, and I enjoy the view while I can.

Now I am bored by this place, so I wander around a bit. I find two gates and they are both locked. I don't remember why, but that's all right. Buddy must have his reasons for keeping them like this. There's road beyond and I watch the cars zipping past. None of them have tyres and for a bit I don't understand how they move.

Then I remember, and for an instant I think perhaps I will remember some other things too. Like how I got here. Like why there are men watching me, stony-faced and black suited, wherever I go. Like why the words cordyceps keeps flitting against my memory like a fly against a window. But only for an instant. After that it all recedes. Like predators in the undergrowth, silent and resentful at having been noticed.

* * *

I can't stand Mihalopolous. Man's got a grin like a papercut. I can't stand the way he creeps up like he's a snake or some other coldblooded creeper, slipping through the leaf litter for a warm body to mutilate. But then I think, at least the poor bastard's doing his job. Lord knows I wouldn't if I was him.

I just don't like it when she sneaks off. She was soft-footed anyhow and now that she doesn't know who she is -- who she was -- she does it without thinking. Just now -- I was only in the kitchen for ten minutes and she was out the door. Never mind that every now and then a drone, or a brick -- wrapped with a picture of someone loved and dead, or a letter full of bile -- sails over the walls. No, no shits given. She doesn't remember a damn thing.

I see her standing by the gates with her head tilted the way she does when she's scheming. I'm all tense and ready for her to climb over it, she's feral enough to do something that batshit. But then I remember it's not just me watching her. All those guys lurking in the undergrowth, it's their job to get her.

Which means I've got a few moments to myself.

I drop the blinds and grab the vacuum. I love sliding the whirring thing along the speckled carpets and leaving them clean and smooth behind. I love straightening out those funny little dudes with the giant peanut eyes on the mantelpiece. She told me what they were called once -- dogu, or something. She told me where they were from and why they mattered but hell if I can remember. I never understood half of what she said. There was a time when those smarts were hot as all hell.

I make her bed and empty her chamber-pot. Then I go plonk myself down in front of the computer and go through her messages to make sure there is nothing that will make her suspicious. I never feel as old as when I've got to do crap like this. Can't even understand half of what the emails are about. But still. I make a list of people I need to respond to. Dear whoever. Sorry, but Sadie can't respond. It would be better if you don't try contacting us again. She won't ever be able to discuss cordyceps, or China, or anything else, ever again. Sorry.

Soon enough it'll be something else. Soon enough it'll be I'm sorry to tell you that Sadie has passed away. The thought scuttles through my head like a spider. I look up at the wall where there's a portrait of her in uniform. Magnificent. Wide-jawed and pale and eyes narrow and sharp as a hawk's. Her uniform fits her like a cylinder on a piston. I forget who she is now, and I remember the way she was. It aches, you know. It aches to remember who she was. A thing of light and power.

Suddenly she opens the door and appears framed with the sunlight about her like an aura. There are cilia growing out of her hands now and these are silhouetted too, slender and bone-white. There's a whole bunch sprouting from her fingers and a few up along where her veins push up against the skin of her hands in soft ridges and following those same vessels up along her forearm. I try not to stare but you can imagine how well that goes. Good thing she's the least observant person I know, now.

'Hi, Buddy,' she says. 'What're you doing?'

* * *

Buddy knows exactly how many blankets I need. He knows which nights I'll get warm and which nights I'll get cold and I have no idea how he does. No doubt he's a little strange sometimes -- but then again, I am too, I suppose. I recall a while ago that I concluded that the root of much of the world's problems is that people don't know how strange they are. I also seem to recall Buddy screaming at me that that was just my way of placing the blame for what I'd done to my victims. But that doesn't seem right. I can't imagine Buddy screaming.

Before he tucks me in we spend the evening together on the bench in the garden. The longer I stare at the sky the more convinced I am that there was something in it and that it had something to do with me and so eventually I turn to Buddy. When I do he is looking at me and he sighs, as if he already knows what I'm about to ask.

'It was called a cordyceps sporebomb.' He sips his drink. 'You helped build it.'

'I did?'

'Yeah.'

'I don't remember. What did it do?'

'Change the world,' he says. 'Topple an empire.'

I don't always understand what he says. But if he wanted to be understood he would make himself understood. So I do not pry.

Later, after he has put me to bed, he grazes my cheek with his lips. Not quite a kiss but not quite not one. He says 'Sleep tight,' and the very next instant I am in a nightmare. The thing in the sky is bright and burning like a sun. All about me are charred and crumbling corpses shambling about, mummy-stiff and awkward. They come at me and grip me with their still-hot fingers and I choke on the stink of carbon. More of them pile in around me, and climb over me, and crawl under me, until I'm lifted up and crushed slowly in suffocating darkness until I am erased entirely.

When I wake I can't see anything. There is something on my face, cloying and granular. I try to scream but it tumbles into my throat, bitter and thick, and chokes me. I flail and thrash and as I fall to the side I realize I am out in the garden. That I am kneeling by a flowerbed. And that just an instant earlier I had my head buried in the soil.

Figures come sprinting down the path. They stop a few feet away, fidgeting in shadows. Someone pushes their way through them and comes up to me and scoops me up in their arms. It is Buddy.

I sob into his shirt.

'What the fuck were you all doing just standing there?' he says to the figures in the dark.

They shuffle, and say nothing.

'What's happening to me?' I say.

'Nothing, nothing,' he says, stroking my muddy hair. 'Everything's fine.'

* * *

Mihalopolous' office is at the far end of the compound, down an shadowy path running through the cypresses. He doesn't smile when he opens the door. He doesn't even make eye contact. He just sighs like he'd been expecting me but kind of hoping I wouldn't come. His office is silent and starved of light and every thud my boots make on the floor is a creaking calamity in that weird stillness.

'Well?' I say.

He shrugs.

'It could be.'

'It's taken over her nervous system.'

'Still. It's hard to say.'

'You're supposed to know, man.'

'No one's ever got so far.' Then, pointedly: 'She never let them.'

It's so damn hard to like him, but there's no point picking a fight with him either. I breathe deep.

'She has all the symptoms,' I say.

'Sure.'

'What do you mean, 'sure'? What does 'sure' mean?'

'It could be, and it could not. I just don't know.'

I stare at him and he stares back at me. After a few moments he puffs and shakes his head.

'If you're asking me for a professional opinion,' he says, 'then yes, I think there is a good chance that this is final stage. But only that. I don't know for sure. We've never had someone get this far --'

'You said that already,' I say. I head out and then I pause by the door. 'We're all suffering here, doctor.'

He thinks about this for a bit, and shrugs. As if to say, if you say so.

I wander down to the bottom of the garden and lean against the balustrade, sandy-rough and warmed by the sun. I can see all the way across the city and it all looks so clean and new like there'd never been a sin committed beneath those shining roofs. I have to speak to someone and the only person I can speak to is Danny. So I call him.

The first thing he says is, 'How is she?'

'She's fine. I'm fine too.'

'Sorry. Hi Dad. How're you?'

'I'm good.'

'You don't sound it.'

'Danny.'

'Yeah?'

'She did it again last night. '

'Did what?'

'She wandered into the garden in the middle of the night and stuck her head into the soil.'

Silence. Then:

'What did Mihalopolous say?'

'He's being a prick. But I reckon it's final stage. She's got cilia on her neck now.'

More silence. Then:

'I'll come over.'

'You needn't.'

'If I don't, you won't tell her.'

'She doesn't need to know.'

'Dad, she needs to know. You'd want to know who you are before you die, wouldn't you?'

'Not if I was her.'

'She needs to know what she accomplished.'

'Accomplished? I wouldn't call two hundred million deaths a fucking accomplishment, Danny. I'd call it fucking genocide.'

He doesn't say anything for few moments and when he speaks again he does so very quietly.

'Bye, Dad,' he says.

Last time I smashed my phone on the ground they said I'd have to buy my own next time. So instead I stomp through the garden back up to the bungalow and Sadie is outside, sitting with her eyes closed, face to the sun. Still goddamn radiant. The cordyceps keeps her skin smooth and her hair thick. It's like she's not aged a day and I wonder why she doesn't wonder how it is she's stuck with me, wrinkled and knees creaking and smelling like death like everyone else my age.

I sit down next to her. She reaches out and squeezes my knee.

'Where've you been?' she says.

'Nowhere.'

'You went to see Mihalopolous. What did he say?'

'Nothing. You're fine. Everything's fine.'

'Grumpy,' she says. 'Feel the sunlight on your skin. It's like liquid love.'

I hold her hand, but all I feel is the weight of my lies.

* * *

I am outside staring at the heaving sheets of rain clouds parading from horizon to slim horizon when I suddenly remember that I haven't been to the lab in weeks. Months, perhaps. I dress in a panic -- Buddy is nowhere in sight -- and I head to the gates, but they are locked. I try to climb them but a man in a black suit comes out of nowhere and drags me as politely as he can back to the bungalow.

'This is for your own safety, Professor,' he says. 'You're too old to be climbing fences.' His face is square-jawed and anodyne but his eyes are caramel brown, and there is no malice in them.

'Don't be absurd,' I say. 'I'm forty-five.'

'You're fifty-five, ma'am,' says the man.

I wait for him to leave and then I slip back out. He catches sight of me a few moments later and runs after me with a shout but I dash down the pathways and it is a good job I've wandered around this garden so many times that I recall its layout without thinking too hard. He is almost on me by the time I reach the balustrades but I am over and rolling down the hill before he can grab me. I reach the bottom and dust the detritus off my coat but when I look up, to my horror, he has vaulted over too and is coming down after me, jabbering something into the lapel of his suit.

The sky begins to spit droplets of rain like wet little kisses. I turn and bolt down the road, past adobe homes, plump like pastilles, pastel-hued and pleasant. There is a woman stepping out of a car up ahead and she takes one look at me and screams. I snatch her keys and dive in and then off I go, down the hill and onto the roads running like grey rivers through the glass-faced canyons of the city.

This car has one of those new AIs. It tells me I am going too fast, that there is traffic on Longhorn, that there is an alert out for someone of my description. I don't know how to shut it off so in the end I just say, 'Will you shut the hell up, please?'

A pause. Then:

'There's no need to be rude, Professor.'

'How do you know who I am?'

'My facial recognition software --'

'Turn it off.'

'I already know who you are.'

'Forget who I am.'

'You do not have access to those protocols.'

'If you're so smart why don't stop me driving?'

'I do not have that function enabled --'

'Can you disable your speaking function?'

'I will still be here --'

'Disable your speaking function.'

The rest of the drive is blissfully silent.

The roads near the lab seem to have changed so I get out and keep going on foot. The pens outside are bigger and their netting now rises ten stories or more and I can see the bulbs of sporebuds swelling beyond them like giant mushrooms, dappled brown and cream and luminescent blue on their frilly lower reaches. There are other types too, ones that I haven't seen before, tubular like giant penises. Those make me laugh. In fact, I'm doubled over, laughing so hard I can scarcely breathe, when they find me.

I look up and down the road and I see that there are roadblocks on either side. There are crowds there, chanting and throwing things. Some of them are filming me. The police are pushing them back and a giant van is making its way through them like a shark through a shoal of fish. When I look up at the sky I realize that it is dark and that the bright disk in it is not the sun but the moon. I must have been here for hours.

Suddenly I'm cold. Where is the car I came in?

Some people are walking towards me -- four in lab coats, and two policemen with scoped rifles. The ones in lab coats approach me while the police hang back. There are three. One -- a woman, dark-skinned, flat-nosed, pink haired -- steps forwards, arms wrapped around herself.

'Professor,' she says.

'Where is Beauregard?' I say. 'Where is Adamson?'

The woman takes my hands, and her palms, rough and warm, are so familiar, that for a while I can think of nothing else but the fact that I am certain I loved this girl, certain that her life and happiness and future were things I once fretted about at night.

'You have to come with me,' she says.

I remember who she is as they are putting me into the back of the van.

'You're so much older,' I say.

'We all are, Professor.' There are tears in her eyes. 'Please take care of yourself.'

'Are you still at the lab?'

'Yes.'

'Did they ... did you replace me?'

She nods, and smiles.

'Yes.'

The crowd is all about us now, and the police can scarcely hold them back. They are screaming and hurling things and I am beginning to remember why.

'They really hate me,' I say. 'No one's forgotten.'

'It doesn't matter,' she says.

'What do you mean?'

'You saved the world, Professor.' She kisses my hands. 'The ones that hate you only lived to do so because you ensured their survival. Don't forget that. Please don't ever forget that.'

* * *

I remember the day she told me what she'd done. I knew something was up because she asked three days in advance, in that stuck up way she does when she thinks someone might say no, if I'd have time for dinner. Of course I had time for dinner. I only needed to be in the garage four days a week by that point because Rodney took care of everything but even if I hadn't, even if I'd had to be in twenty-four hours a day seven days a goddamn week, I'd make time for her. I couldn't have resisted. I never got why she never got that.

She takes me out to a steakhouse six miles off the highway and there's nothing for miles but a silo off to the left looming in the dark like a giant's shinbone and the distant whine of coyotes. There are two other couples there, but I'm convinced she's going to leave me so I don't pay any attention to them over my churning guts and the blood blazing in my face like liquid fire.

'What is it?' I say, as soon as we sit.

She looks at me and her face is as beautiful and dead as the moon and I'm certain the next words out of her mouth will be 'I'm leaving you.' But they're so much worse.

'Shanghai.' she says.

I know what she means the instant she says it but still I say:

'What about it?'. Reflex, maybe. Or maybe it wouldn't have been real until she said it and there was still hope she wouldn't.

'That was me.'

'What do you mean it was --'

Of course it is. Her work in the lab and her comings and goings and all those axe-jawed fellows who're following her with fat black suitcases. Her secrecy and her silence, even worse than when we first met, so bad that my last thought at night is always, who is this woman who consumes me so completely? And why is she even with me?

I look back and she is watching me and there is no sign of remorse on her face.

'Did you know what you were doing?'

'Yes.'

'Sadie. Sixteen million people.'

'Two hundred and nine, projected.'

'What?'

'They're launching another salvo tomorrow.'

'Jesus. Jesus Christ! You knew?'

'From the beginning.' She slices into her steak and the blood leaks out, brown-red and oily. 'It was my idea. It is the only way to win.'

'People will hate you for this.'

'People won't find out.'

'So why're you telling me?'

She looks up at me, frowning faintly, as if what she was about to say was the most obvious thing in the world.

'Because I love you, Buddy. Because I hate keeping things from you.'

Here's the weird thing. I never quite believed her when she'd said it before, but that night I did. And for the first time, I didn't want her to. I didn't want to love her back.

The memory of that evening comes slithering through my head as I'm waiting for Danny, and by the time it's gone I'm well up for a fight. I take one look at his hunched shoulders as he comes across the road towards me and I can tell he's come expecting one. We head down to the cantina down the road, the one with the giant neon cactus with a face that jiggles neon green and jolly at night. When I hold him I hold him for a long time like I did when he was a kid and he needed me. He holds me back, vice-tight and intense, and by the time we part I am sobbing. I bury my face in my hands.

'Dad,' he says, squeezing my shoulder. 'Dad.'

'I'm fine,' I say, sitting down, looking away. 'I'm fine.'

The waiters have noticed, though. There are two of them hovering by the bar, trying not to look like they are staring at an old man sobbing, and a young man watching him.

'She got out yesterday,' I say.

'Out? Out of the compound?'

'She headed down to the lab.'

'Jesus. How?'

'Over the railings and rolled down the hillside.'

'Where was security? She could've hurt herself.'

'She took them by surprise. And she did. She skinned herself pretty badly, broke her wrist, broke her ankle. But she didn't notice.' I sniff. 'Cordyceps took care of it.'

'Did she get to the lab?'

'They sent Polly to get her.'

Daniel sits back, scowling.

'Jesus. How's she now?'

'Back to normal. Wandering around the garden. Sticking her fingers in the soil whenever she can.'

After that the conversation meanders and so does my attention and it isn't until I'm puffing up the pale grey pavement back towards the front gate that I turn to Danny and say what I've wanted to from the beginning.

'Please,' I say. 'Please don't tell her.'

He sighs and runs his hands through his hair, thick and golden-brown like hers.

'She probably already knows, Dad. Why else would she go to the lab?'

'She doesn't remember.'

'How do you know?'

'She hasn't mentioned anything.'

At the gate the guard scans us up and down like he'd never seen either of us before. Then he begins typing something and I reckon it's just to keep us waiting.

'That doesn't mean she doesn't remember.'

'She's still ... happy.'

'Oh.'

'Yeah. I told you. She still wanders around the garden, staring at the flowers.'

The guard lets us in. I glare at him and he glares back and the prick has the advantage of shiny sunglasses. When we're away from him I turn to Danny.

'I can't stop you but I'm asking you not to,' I say. 'Please. Let her go to the grave thinking she was a good person.'

'She was a good person, Dad.'

'That's not what anyone says. They say she got what she deserved. That she deserves worse than being infected by her own weapon.'

'Those people can all go to hell. Ask those people where we'd be without her.'

From anyone else I'd say those were the words of a shithead or a jerk but he's my son, so I just let it go. Maybe because I'm a big fat idiot. Or maybe because that's what it means to be family. To give someone the benefit of the doubt even when they've never asked you for it. But then again, maybe that was the problem with Sadie. That I gave her the benefit of the doubt for so long, and now I'm stuck with the shrinking husk that's all that's left of her because of it.

I walk behind him until up ahead I see Sadie crouched by a flower bed, wrist-deep in the soil. Some of it is smeared on her face and along her neck and there's enough splattered about her mouth like old tea leaves for me to know that she's been eating it. She springs to her feet and tries to wipe her face clean, but only makes it worse.

'Hi, mum,' says Daniel, and wraps her arms around her.

For an instant, she has no idea who he is. But then she remembers, and the smile that follows is like flowers blooming in the desert.

* * *

The truth comes on a beam of sunlight. I have my arms around Daniel and up on the path above Buddy is watching us, red-faced and wet-eyed. An instant later it is as if a curtain has fallen away in my mind and behind it is a vision of a day I have long forgotten about.

Just after we drop the first salvo on Shanghai -- just after we know it's worked -- I come out of the lab and stand at the threshold with Polly at my elbow. She turns to me and hugs me, but I don't hug her back. I didn't do things like that back then. Then the police arrive.

I am expecting them. Someone had smuggled pictures out a week or so before and powers that be could suppress it but, they told me with a sigh and a shake of their sunglassed heads, only for so long. Only until I had done what needed to be done.

'There'll be no statues for me then,' I said. 'No parades.'

They didn't say anything and I realized at that moment that there would never have been. They would have kept all this to themselves and told the world that it was something natural, and therefore good. Something that had not cost anyone anything to make. But now everyone knew what really happened, and I was going to have to take the fall.

They march me through the office in handcuffs. Those who knew what was about to happen are standing with their hands on the wall and their heads down and those who didn't are sobbing and trembling as they're patted down. There are looks, plenty of looks, and each is like a cup of acid in my face.

They halt me by the front door, long enough for them to cart three bodies out. No reason for it. Perhaps they just want to give the press teeming in a frenzy outside something to shoot. It is that picture that makes the headlines eventually. Dr. Death appraises her victims. I remember seeing it on Buddy's table.

And then I snap back to now.

Oh, Buddy. He is still watching us, grief pulsing through him in fits. Now I see how things must have been for him. To know that to most people at best I was necessary, but repulsive. To try to love me through the rage of all those I had wronged for the sake of a single right impossible to comprehend. I see now that the love drained from him, tear by tear, year by year, and his only reward was to have to stand there and protect me as I rotted away to nothing.

He's never mentioned it once, I realize. Very well. I won't tell him. He doesn't need to know that I remember, and that I am not ashamed. Not of a single thing. Let him think he saved me.

I wait till Daniel is gone and Buddy is asleep and the moon is high in the sky to sneak out into the garden. It is cool and dark and though there are guards up on the walls, now they are looking outwards, not in, now that people know who lives here, now that I have this plastic shackle on my foot. So they will not see me when I get on my hands and knees in the dirt. They will not see me bury my head, up to my neck, in the moist dark. They will not hear me breathe my last dirt-choked breath, and give myself up to the thing inside me, at last.

* * *

The damn thing looks like an alien antenna. Like a cheap prop from one of those century-old sci-fi series. The ones where we had flashy spaceships and everyone spoke English and all the answers to the problems of the universe were just a fight or a chat away. Not at all the way things are really, in our universe, the one full of gut-churning solutions that we argue about forever and ever until in the end we just stop caring.

They've removed her body, from the neck-down at least, by the time they let me see it. The growth they have to deal with in other ways. They tell me I won't want to see it but this is as close as Danny and I will ever get to saying goodbye to her, so we don our crackling hazmat suits and lumber down the pathway to where the thing is growing out of the soil, surrounded by soldiers. Its tip is distended and quivering, searching for hosts to infect, and it turns in our direction when we approach.

'It likes you,' says one of the soldiers.

'Jenkins?' comes a voice over the radio.

'Sir?'

'Shut the hell up.'

Another one of them has a flamethrower. They signal give a thumbs up, and then they torch it. I half expect it to scream, but it doesn't. It just shudders and pops and, after a while, splits open. A gush of glittering sparks tumble to the ground, and the stalk ignites. The flames burn in many colours -- yellow to red, red to purple, purple to shimmering aquamarine.

I turn and hold Danny to me.

'Thank you,' I say. 'Thank you.'






Article © Subodhana Wijeyeratne. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-03-23
Image(s) are public domain.


2 Reader Comments

Anonymous
03/23/2020
10:58:08 AM

Spectacular. Complex,mysterious, chilling, sensuous...a thrilling read.

Samsong
03/23/2020
02:23:02 PM

That's one fungi you don't want to invite to a party. A bit hard to figure out with all the changes in narrators. Quite an apropos piece considering the coronavirus issue currently.

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By Subodhana Wijeyeratne:

In the same series:

Cordyceps

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