A FUNGAL FRIEND • by Lee Beavington

I literally jumped the first time the fungus spoke to me.

Claire, I need your help.

The words were sultry, beseeching, a dull echo inside my skull.  I saw the Petri dish on a demonstration table filled with fuzzy yellow growth.  I did what any sensible person would do in my situation:  I ran out of the biology lab and called my psychiatrist.  The secretary said he would be in the Bahamas until next week.

My boyfriend phoned later that day.  I was in my basement suite.  Lounging on my ripped leather couch–which probably harboured its own mould–I flipped through stations hoping to find a nature program on telepathic fungi.

“Can I come over?”

Jasdeep always cut to it.  We weren’t really boyfriend and girlfriend; most of the time, he acted like we were man and wife.

“I don’t think so, Jas.  I’m not feeling well.”

“Ah, come on.  I’ll cheer you up.”

“I’d rather be alone.”

There was a pause.  I knew Jas was considering how hard to push.  “Have fun sitting in the dark.”  Click.  I put the phone down and unplugged the cord.

First thing in the morning I went back to the biology lab.  I needed to know if I was crazy or not.  As soon as I passed the study carrels I heard the voice.

Will you help us?

I couldn’t exactly begin a conversation with a Petri dish in the middle of the lab.  I tried to send a thought:  What do you want from me?  It didn’t work.  The fungus looked disgusting, something you would find growing on a dessicated dog turd.  I asked an instructor about it.

“Actually, that’s not a fungus.  It’s a slime mould.”  I listened attentively, usually bored by such biological details.  “This species has a dual life cycle:  a unicellular amoeba stage, and a multicellular spore-reproducing stage.  Taxonomists have a heck of a time classifying it.”

Hard to classify indeed.  How would you categorize a psionic singled-celled amoeba?

I couldn’t concentrate on my lab work.  Physarum polycephalum, sickening yet seductive, drew me back.  The slime mould’s flat three-inch body lacked symmetry, but the more I studied its shape the more its beauty became apparent.  Tiny orange threads branched like a leaf’s veins, covered with a rich yellow glow.  When I looked closer, I thought I could see it creeping along the nutrient agar one cell at a time.

I knew Jasdeep would be on his way to the lab.  I went for lunch.   Then I skipped English and came back. Sitting at the table with my textbook, I pretended to study.  Every so often I picked up the mould to bask in its warm yellow presence, tempted to take off the Petri dish cover.

Help, before it’s too late!

I dropped the dish and it clattered on the table.  Gathering myself, I asked an instructor what would happen to it at the end of the week.

He shrugged.  “We’ll dispose of it.  If you want, you could dissect it under the microscope.” I refused on ethical grounds.

That night I googled Physarum polycephalum.  I read about what food the mould liked, its preference for the dark, and how its fluid protoplasm was contained within a giant, single cell with numerous balls of DNA.  I didn’t know my Latin, but polycephalum looked like “many minds.”  I envisioned a consciousness in that cell linked by all that genetic material.

I had to kidnap the slime mould.  Really I was going to rescue it.  Adopt it, if you will.

I went to the lab in the busy afternoon, the instructors preoccupied.  But as soon as I slid the Petri dish off the table and into my pocket someone grabbed my arm.

“Claire, what are you doing?”  It was Jas.

“Nothing,” I said, breaking free of his grip.

“Where are you going?” he said but I didn’t stop.  I tore out of the lab and raced into the women’s washroom.  I sat in the stall for at least an hour, coveting my prize.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be safe now.”

The rest of the week I stayed home.  I put the slime mould on the coffee table and kept the lights off.  From outside I gathered wet brown leaves and rotting twigs and carefully arranged them around the Petri dish.  I slept next to it on the couch, waiting for a message.

Soon it will be time.

After the first day it crawled out of the dish.  By the second the mould was the size of a small pizza.  On the third day it grew tiny but erect stalks.  I was examining these peculiar structures when someone banged on the door.

“Claire!  I know you’re in there!”

I didn’t move.  After a minute the pounding stopped.  Then I heard my bedroom window rattle.  Before I knew it Jas was inside.  He turned on the living room light.  I covered my eyes and tried to shield the slime mould with my body.

“Jesus, what stinks in here?”  He coughed hoarsely.  “What are you hiding?”

I couldn’t stop him as he came around the couch.

“What the hell is that fungus doing on the coffee table?”

“It’s not a fungus.  It’s a slime mould.”

He didn’t seem to care.  Jas picked up the table and hauled it towards the door.  I tried to stop him but he pushed me to the ground.  He got outside and I couldn’t follow; the sun burnt my skin and stung my eyes.  I threw myself on the couch and cried.

Do not worry.  We have already reproduced.

Sitting up, I wiped away my tears.  The air was heavy with small, brown, microscopic particles.  I felt my breath take them in, the spores embedded in my lung tissue.

“What do you want me to do?”

He will come back.  You need to prepare.

I went into the kitchen and found the largest knife.

Author, traveller, stargazer, Lee Beavington works as a biology lab instructor at Kwantlen University College. His novella, “Evolution’s End”, was published in volume 22 of Writers of the Future. Amongst other writes and rants, a weekly 100-word bioflash can be found at his website.

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