It will be remembered as the week of fungus. My long-neglected sourdough culture has surged mysteriously back to life, bubbling over the sides of its jar. Mushroom-based dishes have been appearing on menus everywhere suddenly and without warning. A friend sent me an article about a black mold that grows in whiskey distilleries, living off of ethanol fumes. The coincidences are undeniably striking, with all the ominous portent of the opening chapters of a Stephen King novel.
Worst of all is the mold in the lab. My research this summer is on collembolans: tiny white soil insects half a millimetre long. I’ve taken custody of several hundred of their eggs, each no larger than a mote of dust, and painstakingly transferred them on a single-bristled paintbrush to separate vials. The fate of my research project hinges upon these eggs hatching successfully – but there are entities who would have otherwise.
In particular, a fungus has infiltrated the vials; not a black fungus, like the one from the distilleries, but a white, woolly fungus, whose innocent appearance masks its sinister intent. It started out as a thin, gosssamer-like film here and there on the dark charcoal substrate, at first attaching to the collembolan eggs only patchily and in thin threads.
Today, though, the fungus has grown bolder, coating the eggs with a thick, furry patina, so that under the microscope they look like tiny legless sheep. Inside, maybe the fungus is worming its insidious tendrils into the innards of the egg, feeding on the helpless embryo within. It’s a vicious and grotesque reminder of the cruel indifference of nature. I feel sick to my stomach.
In some vials the fungus has grown up from the egg in long, stiff threads, terminating in starry efflorescences: the appearance is of stretched-out glass dandelions. Although barely visible to the naked eye, under the microscope they appear delicate and strangely pretty, but evil nonetheless, like a tarantula or a Tim Burton heroine. Invisible even at 50x magnification are the thousands of spores that must be floating from these stalks into the air. The very air that, like a fool, I am even now breathing.
A wave of nausea accompanies vivid images of spores settling on the moist lining of my nasal cavity, taking root and spreading up through my sinuses. That must be what that tickling sensation just now is. The plight of the collembolan eggs now seems stupid and trivial, and I am filled with a nameless dread. Weeks or maybe even days from now the police will discover my body, in bed, choked to death overnight by a coarse, fibrous thicket of mold. Or worse: it won’t kill me, but merely work its way into my brain, subtly reprogramming my behaviour to suit its own ends.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m lightheaded from blowing my nose but feel otherwise normal. Normal, that is, except for a strange and growing hunger for insect eggs…