Spread the Spores, Emmauelle Knappenberger
CW: gore, body horror, possession
If anyone had bothered to ask, we wouldn’t be able to tell them why we were in the forest or why we were on this rough memory of a trail or why we felt so compelled to follow this first breath of fall. All we knew was that we, a group of strangers who happened to cross paths at a rest stop halfway between two nothings, had exchanged a look and stood from the shoddy picnic tables as one and slipped into the trees.
It was cold for the first day of fall. We pulled our jackets tighter around us and jammed our hands into shallow pockets and miserably tugged up hoods that did nothing to keep out the stab of the wind.
Or maybe we weren’t miserable. We’d stopped being able to tell. When we exchanged glances, we looked a bit miserable, all squinted eyes and raised shoulders and annoyed eyebrows pulled low. But we searched ourselves for misery and could only find the desire to keep going-keep going-keep going. So we went.
We didn’t notice the light under our feet, not at first. Each step sparked, shot out miniature firework displays of blue light that quickly fizzled away, but our eyes were trained straight ahead toward some destination that none of us could see. And the light was fading as quickly as it appeared, and we did not have time-we did not have time-we did not have time to stop. We had a mission.
“We’re killing something,” one of us said.
“We’re bringing something back to life,” another responded.
“We’re doing the right thing,” another added, and that was all we needed to hear. We kept walking.
The forest prodded us in the right direction, leaned its branches to direct our steps and pushed against our backs with a harsh wind that ordered us to keep walking. We’d lose the path, sometimes for minutes or hours or some other kind of time that none of us could imagine but all of us could feel, but then the wind would blow and the trees would creak and we’d find ourselves on the old path as though we’d never left it. Maybe we hadn’t. Maybe there was no path. We walked.
After the first days or seconds or something, we came across the first body. She was laying on the trail as though she had merely paused for a nap. She was curled up on her side, her head resting on a pile of leaves, her eyes closed pleasantly, as though only dreaming. The ground around her was dead, no sparks of light, no hopeful glimmers to expose some hidden magic. That was when we finally realized that there had been magic at all. We felt its absence deep in our chests, something primal but special, dead without anyone noticing that it had ever been alive. We exchanged looks. We said nothing. We were doing the right thing.
The mushroom that burst from her chest was bigger than her torso. It was a deep, unnatural red, a color that felt entirely out of place among the dreary browns of the fall forest. Her veins around the base of the mushroom were the same dark red as the mushroom, and even as we stood, and watched, and listened to our breaths, the color spread. Points of her skin bulged as though something was trapped underneath, desperate to come out. When the smaller mushrooms burst through her skin with a splash of some unidentifiable liquid, some of us bent down and gently collected the spores and put them in their pockets. Those who did would be dead by morning, curled up on the path as though they only laid down to nap. The rest of us continued on.
We passed more bodies, collected more spores, and left a trail of sleeping corpses. Some of us stopped on the trail as though they could not walk a step further and curled up underfoot, so the rest of us had to climb over their cooling bodies. Others wandered off the path and laid down in parts of the forest left untread. We wanted to watch as the magic around the sleeping corpses faded. We could not watch. We could not stop.
Our numbers dwindled, but we continued on, because we wanted to and because we had to and because there was no other option except collecting spores and laying down and dying for someone else to come and collect spores and lay down and die so someone else could collect spores off of them. We had given up speaking days ago, shortly after the first wave of us collected their spores and found their final resting spots on the cool, wet earth. Our boots were flecked with mud and spores and the liquid that oozed from the corpses that we could not acknowledge because then we would have to acknowledge that people were dying. Our boots were not flecked with magic. Some of us wanted to point that out, to say that we had been walking on magic for however long we had been in the forest, and surely some of it should have stuck, but none of us wanted to be the first one to question our path. We only spoke to remind ourselves that we were doing the right thing.
We were crossing a stream when another of us decided to lay down. On any other occasion, the rest of us would continue walking, but for some reason, we stopped. We turned and looked back as the one submerged themself in the shallow water and laid their head on a rock.
“Why?” one of us asked, but gave up part of the way through their question. They did not need to finish; we all understood.
“Spreading the spores,” the one mumbled. Muddy stream water splashed into their mouth, but they curled their fingers around their spores and closed their eyes and relaxed into their grave.
“In the stream?” another of us asked. We shifted awkwardly, kicking up leaves and squishing motes of magic. One of us dared to check the bottom of their shoe, but there was no evidence of the light’s murder.
The stream sparkled with more magic than we had seen in our entire trek, but it was already starting to dim around the one who lay with their spores. We breathed in sync, let the life of the stream fill our lungs, but it was fading, fading. We gulped at the magic, tried to pretend that we were not, tried to hide our desperation from whoever might be watching. We could not want the magic alive. It was bad, and we were good. And it was dying. And we would never.
“Spreading the spores,” they said again. The tiny mushroom in their hand did not move of its own accord, or maybe it did, but it was sinking into the skin of their wrist and turning their veins before any of us could respond. We stood and watched, although our hearts still beckoned us forward, as the one stopped breathing and grew still and the mushroom filled their veins. We watched the sparkle of the water die, not just around the one, but down stream as well, everywhere that had passed through the one. The air felt stale and dead. We held our breaths, realized what we were doing, and returned to the shallow breathing that had become the norm in the forest. We longed to stand in the magic and let it fill our lungs and bring back life to our skin. We were not allowed to dream of such things. We avoided each other’s gazes. We were not magic. We were not life.
“We are doing the right thing,” we said, and no one could disagree. We walked.
There were few of us left when we reached the pile of corpses. It towered overhead, the tops of their heads competing with the tops of the trees. Mushrooms shielded most of the bodies from view, the deep reds of their tops demanding any viewers to see only fungus. But we knew what was under them. We knew that we had made it. The stench filled our lungs, and we forced ourselves to breathe deeply, to take it all in. This was what we had been waiting for.
“We are doing the right thing,” we said, because we had to. We stepped through leaves, but no magic died at our feet. We had not seen magic for miles. It could not live so close to this queen.
“You have spread my spores,” something said. Maybe a corpse. Maybe a mushroom. The fingers of the bodies twitched, but we pretended to not notice.
“We have,” we said. One of our voices broke. The rest of us spoke louder to cover it up.
“This is our forest now,” the something said. “Join us.”
We did. Because we had to. Because there was no other way. We collected spores from the pile and tried not to look too closely as the mushrooms moved of their own accord, or maybe not, and buried themselves in our wrists. It hurt. We barely noticed. How could we? How could we notice anything but the great expanse of the something and the lack of magic and feeling that we had done it, we were done, we were finally going to rest like so many of us had throughout our journey? We were tired, more tired than we ever had been. Surely we had earned rest.
Some of us climbed up the pile, found comfortable spots to lay down among the mushrooms and corpses. Others remained near the base, became supports for the towering something. We curled up, allowed the blinding pain of the mushroom in our veins to fill our thoughts. Because we had done it. We had made it. We joined the spores, collected them when we had spent so long only able to watch as others completed their journey. We had waited, and we were to be rewarded.
We waited for sleep, waited for the same death that we saw again and again on our journey, that we saw everywhere around us. It never came. Our breathing stopped, our hearts rested, but our minds continued to think and feel as the mushroom took each vein for its own. Some of us tried to cry out, but our mouths were no longer ours. Others tried to look around for the members of our group, but we could not move our eyes. We were not the owners of our bodies anymore. We were the mushrooms. Our fingertips began to twitch, and we felt ourselves becoming one with the pile, one with the something, and, slowly, one with every corpse in the forest. We felt, as though we were there, the trail that we had left behind, and then, radiating out, every other trail that every other group, so much like ours, had walked. We felt the expanses of land under our control, every inch of land that had killed the magic and replaced it with our spores. And we felt the places that we could not expand, the places where the magic lived and light sparked and the living creatures moved a little faster, jumped a little higher. And we felt the hatred of the network, the desire to move into these spaces and claim them as our own and push out all that tried to encroach on what was ours. As we observed, the pain did not lessen, but we began to live in it. Feel it. We had longed for sleep, but it would not come. It could not come until we had eradicated this plague on the forest. We must act. We must spread our spores.
We had done the right thing.
Emmanuelle Knappenberger is a senior college student from western New York. Her work can be found in the Wondrous Real Magazine and GLITCHWORDS and is forthcoming from The Agapanthus Collective. Follow her on twitter, @emknappenberger, for writing rambling and cat pictures.