It strikes me how a person can be told a thing, and listen to that thing, and believe they have internalized it, all without actually learning that thing. There is a major difference, I think, between knowing something as a fact, and having learned it; between recognizing that something is true and having it become real.
“The fungi are life, and they are death.” I have heard this time and time again, throughout my life. It was the very first lesson my parents sought to impress upon me, from even before the time that I began to learn language, because it is perhaps the most important thing to know in the world.
Before my grandfather’s time, I am told, people actually had to forage for edible fungus. He changed that. He learned how to cultivate the right kinds of fungus and grow it in crops, so that we have a consistent source of food. Because of him, we don’t have to forage, and we need to hunt only minimally, because with the excess from our crops, we keep a small herd of crabs.
He also figured out how to coax one type of falsefire fungus to grow in homes, giving a source of soft light that doesn’t sear the eyes like true flames. He has brought beauty to our settlement, for from the windows and doorways of each dome, azure light brims forth.
Our own home is bright enough that I must close my membrane so that my eyes don’t hurt. The falsefire grows all across the roof and even down the walls toward the floor. Our home alone contains azure and amber falsefire, because grandfather passed away before he could finish his work.
The fungi are life. We consume them. We feed them to our livestock. They give us light, not only in our homes, but in darkness of the world at large. A blanket of rich blue light glows eternally high above. In places it creeps down the pillars. Fungal copses glow in a mix of blues and greens and, rarely, yellows and oranges.
The fungi are also death. My grandfather knew this, for he saw it all his life, but with one mistake he learned how true it was. He had journeyed to one of the copses alone, I am told, because his knowledge of the fungi made him brave and unafraid. With him he took a mask, to protect from spores. He went to collect specimens to continue his experiments.
He did not listen to our witch, who told him to take care, who told him that the witch-spores would be released soon. He heard her, but he did not listen. He thought his mask would protect him. It did not. Whether he removed it, or it slipped from his face, or it got caught on something and pulled away, we will never know. He inhaled the witch-spores, and he was not meant to become a witch.
Our witch has told me that she believes I could become a witch. We will need a new witch, someday. It is better if I breath in the spores while I am young. Younger bodies are stronger and more adaptable. I am nearing the age where, even if I am meant to be a witch, it may be too late.
I do not like to look at the witch, and I do not like to listen to her. My parents have warned me that the fungus grows within her body and her brain. They do not need to tell me that. It spreads across and beneath her skin like veins, a brilliant red contrasted with the pale white of her skin. Along her arms and chest, it looks as though her blood flows on the outside. The hyphae beneath her skin give it a rough, stiff, uncomfortable texture. She has no hair on her head; arcs of grow spread out from her skull instead, with rough, red-glowing edges and gilled tracts on one side from which, during the sporing, she will pour forth a cloud of spores.
She warns us when the sporing is to come. She is the only way to know, and thus she is necessary to our lives. My parents warn that, because the fungus grows within her mind, it will take her over someday, and she will fail to warn us. When that happens, she must be killed, and another witch created to take her place.
I fear that day every time there is a sporing. They are unpredictable. If they were easily predicted, we would not need a witch. She tells us of their advent, and, if it is a witch-fungus sporing, she leaves for a time, so that she does not accidentally infect anyone.
I have heard others describe the sporings as beautiful. When they are heavy, white puffballs drift across the village, covering it in a layer than can become several fingers thick. Those are the least dangerous sporings, but they still create hard work. We must cover the crops and the livestock so that they are not contaminated. We must cover our faces, so we do not breathe them in, and we must sweep the entire village clean so that our homes remained clean and free of unwanted growth.
When I was younger, a child still younger than me went out of his home during a sporing without a mask. His parents found him playing in a sporedrift, tossing the light, fluffy stuff up into the air and laughing, his face bright with the kind of cheer only a small child can ever find.
His parents’ faces grew dark. I remember his fate so well not because of his laughter or his death, but because of the way his mother screamed when she realized he was not inside, and the way his father screamed at his grandmother, who had dozed off while she was supposed to be watching the young boy. It echoed through the village, audible in my home even though the windows were sealed for the sporing.
The took him to the witch, and only screamed louder for it. She told them he had inhaled the spores, and that the fungus would settle in his lungs. The yelled at her, cursed her by her name, yet there was little she could do. Their anger was misplaced.
She told them, “His only chance is the witch-fungus,” and they hated her for that.
They accused her, said, “You only want to spread your taint to everyone in the village,” though they had to know this was not true.
I fear the witch, but I pity her, too. She has sacrificed herself to the witch-fungus for the good of the village, and all she has received in return is hatred and distrust.
“We must give him the spores of the witch-fungus,” she said. “He might survive, then. You can watch him die, or you can try to save him. The choice is yours.”
Of course, I do not know if this is exactly what she said, but that is how the story came through the village. Whatever the parents said in return, and however they might have cursed her, she took him out of the village to the witch-fungus copse. He was not with her when she returned.
The witch-fungus protects the witch from the spores of other fungi. She can walk through the thickest cloud of spores or lay down in a spore-drift with no ill effects. She hoped that exposing the boy to the witch-fungus would kill off the one that had already begun to spread its hyphae into his lungs. It did not. One, or both, killed him instead.
The witch would have known he was not compatible. Boys almost never are, and the witch-fungus lets her know who is — or probably is — anyway. The fungus will gladly grow on or inside anyone, but only those meant to be witches are strengthened by it.
The fungi are life, and they are death. The witch-fungus lets us live our lives, and warns us of the sporings, but it also kills us so, so easily. I will need to inhale the witch-spores someday. I don’t want to, and I don’t want to admit that I must, but I will need to do it. The witch will take me to the copse, or provide me with her own spores. Either way there are two possible results: I die, or I become a witch.