~2,900 words, approx 15 min read time
Yesterday, I found Ben. The tip of his nose had been nibbled off. His shirt was shred to ribbons, revealing ribs like raked sand and the sloped crater of his stomach. He was so thin I could have pressed my finger to his flesh and saw its impression on the other side. Below his belly button, a wide, dry slit had been cut. I lifted the flap with the back of my thumb and found he was hollow inside but for a nest of black ants. They crawled onto my finger, itching, bearing strips of meat on their heads.
The slit reminded me of Mumma’s scar, the one Annie made when she was born because her head was so big she couldn’t come out the right way.
Mumma taught me a lesson when I came back. I was s’posed to be gathering, but I dropped everything tripping over Ben. At supper, Mumma laid out raven stew for me, herself, and Annie. No vegetables or herbs thanks to my supply run. I stirred the tough, pinkish meat around and didn’t eat. Then I asked Mumma if any man-eating beasts lived around here.
“Why are you asking me that?”
I muttered something about Ben. There was a clang to my right. Annie dropped her spoon and slapped me on the shoulder. It all tumbled from my lips: the paleness, the stench, the pits where his eyes should be, like they’d been scooped out.
I think I sensed in advance Mumma wouldn’t be too pleased to hear it. “Don’t go back there,” she said. “I don’t want to hear no more.” And you know well how Mumma can pinch the life out of the air.
I picked at my stew. Mumma and Annie eased back into their seats. But then I pictured him rotting out there, tossed by the elements.
“Can you help me carry him back?”
“To bury him in the garden, next to Dad.”
This is the part where Mumma sent me to my room.
I visited Ben again. I crept around the things I left behind strewn at his fingertips: a dirty coat, a raven wrung of blood, sticks and sticks and sticks. I decided they were not mine anymore.
He was not the same as last time. His stomach formed a mound. I thought rabbits were making a burrow out of him, so I pulled a twig off a tree and jabbed it through the slit in his gut. Out it came, slicked in gray. The ooze drizzled off the end onto the tip of my boots. It bled from the slit, everflowing, soaking the ground as if I’d struck the rock at Horeb. The stink lingered in my nose long after I left, like steam off an oily soup.
When I came home, Mumma ordered me to jump in the bath.
We’re going to have to hole up soon; the cold is blowing in. The cold is good though. It makes gathering easy. Yesterday, Annie and I found this lady come wandering, said she was lost. We offered to take her home and let her sit in front of the fire, even offered to carry her purse for her. She followed us until we found a ditch to kick her in.
It’s funny. They always ask us if we got a phone.
In a week when her eyes go blank, we’ll gather up her clothes. I checked her purse on our way home and found a dozen cherry-flavored hard candies. I stuffed them into my pocket before Annie got a chance to see. Most of what we’ve been eating lately comes out of the old jars we keep in the cellar. Sometimes it’s rabbits or ravens soaked in sour water, but other times it’s these reddish slabs—what we stocked up on in the winter Ben disappeared. Annie hates them all, but she hates the red meat most especially, which is why we trade candy like prisoners trade cigarettes.
Annie urges me not to eat the red meat. I need no persuasion but how it seems to slither down my throat. She begs Mumma, too, but Mumma never budges. “He gave this to us,” she says, “Be grateful.”
Mumma doesn’t say Ben’s name anymore.
Well, this morning they butt heads on that again. They got to yelling, in the way that only Mumma and Annie can, and I used it to slip away and lay down for a while. See, there’s this knob on my head that’s been killing me. I must’ve bumped into something.
Boy, it aches. I think I’ll stay in today.
Annie discovered a mushroom growing out the back of my head, soft as a baby’s ear.
“It’s ‘cause you never take a bath!” she said, wresting it between her knuckles.
I thought Annie would rip out my scalp, just how a stubborn weed tears up the turf around it. The mushroom was rooted beyond the bone, laced into my brain. Her pulling burned holes into my vision.
I shoved her away.
“It’s really in there, huh?”
Annie considered this, taking her chin in her hands, then went to her nightstand and drew out a pair of hair-cutting scissors.
I must’ve left contrails in my wake.
Over the week, I’ll have you know, I whittled myself a stake to use as Ben’s grave marker for when the snow was bound to fall. I swung it like a bat as I walked. When I got to him, it turned out I didn’t need a grave marker anymore. From the slit in Ben’s belly had sprouted three gray stalks like snail’s eyes, watching me as I drove the stake into the ground with just my hands and a damp stone. It was silly: my crooked stake, and the stalks twice its size.
You should understand I wasn’t out there long. It was three hours at most, I swear, the sun hadn’t moved a tick in the sky. When I came home, there was Annie, waiting for me in the kitchen. “Look! Look! Oh!”
I blew open our bedroom doors and threw myself onto the vanity. On the top of my head, pushing aside my hair, another mushroom had appeared. Then another, pushing out from a lump on my cheek. I touched them and felt them just the same as my own cold skin. When I pulled my hand away, the tip of my finger was stained the feeble color of mushrooms. I rubbed it into my sleeve. Mumma, who had appeared in the doorway with Annie, came over to me in three long strides. She pried my arms away and gave it a look that lasted half a second.
She left—“Ah, it’s nothing. Let him be!”—while I rummaged through our wardrobe for a hat.
Annie followed her with hard eyes all the way out.
It’s been hard to write recently. The snow came, the kind of snow that doesn’t sink under your weight but breaks. Last winter was the same but with Ben, which made it fuller. Mumma has since burned all of Ben’s wooden dogs. I remember how they seemed to leap on their own on the edges of my vision. And I remember how the fire made them burst. He carved them sitting on the second-to-last stair and nowhere else, letting the shavings collect on a blackened sheet. When they were smooth enough, he let me hold them. “This is a golden doodle,” he said, pointing with his calloused thumb, “Dad’s dog. And this lil guy here is something else, probably.”
Mealtimes were not much different back then. I scarfed down Mumma’s watered-down soup with nothing to choke on. And when I would finish, I became aware of the other bowls and spoons, sloshing and dull clinks, the residue dried on the edge of thin lips, and the burning in my stomach. Annie was vigilant over her soup and made a barrier with her arms, but I wrenched them apart and grabbed bits out of her bowl with my bare fingers.
No one’s realized it yet, but it’s me what half-killed him. He could cleave through the earth if he wanted. When Ben began pouring his bowl into mine, that’s when he collapsed. It was like crushing a can.
I think I’ll stop writing now.
Thanks to the scrote who invented snow, I sit inside and smear my skin off the furniture. All week, Annie’s been sweeping up moist clumps of my hair. I have bald patches which are pink, rubbery, and infested with egg-sized lumps, where mushrooms push against my skin like incoming teeth. Upon crowning, gray ooze leaks from the opening and slides into my clothes. There’s a lump on my eye too, but Mumma says it’s just irritation. It burns and itches no matter how much I rub it. I’m losing sight in that eye. That’s why it’s been so hard to write recently.
Yesterday, I was particularly sick of the indoors and tormented by that magnetizing urge to return to Ben. I stole Annie’s coat, layered it over my own, and crunched through the forest. The night was bright with the snow reflecting the moon. It had never before occurred that snow came in gray.
He laid in a vignette of dead grass, dry and undisturbed. Not a snowflake landed on his skin or in the area around him. I held my distance. The snail-eyed stalks peered down at me, swaying in tight spirals. My stake had fallen over. Ben was dead, but he flourished.
Stalks shot up from his nostrils. His eyes, too, were enveloped, and his mouth was choked with a gray bouquet. Red stubs colonized his bloated hands and feet and raced over his legs like a pox disease. The sweet gray ooze leaked freely from his orifices and had soaked the ground around him to swamp. I struggled to take steps in Ben’s clasping mire. I was close enough to poke his bloated belly with the top of my shoe. It smeared off like cream.
I returned and pressured myself into snipping off one of the mushrooms with Annie’s scissors. Gray ooze flowed freely onto my bedsheets. No blood. Pus, I thought, as I bit dashes into my tongue.
Next morning, three more mushrooms had grown in its place.
The snow is really coming down now. There’s nothing to do but to occupy myself, and I am very occupied. I tried to throw a towel over the vanity, but Annie got real sore at me when I did.
My left eye cannot see. The eyelid wraps around the mushroom stalk when I blink. I tried pulling it out—I screamed through my teeth. But the mushroom could not be removed, unless I would like my eye to hang from it like a ripe tuber. Patches of white fuzz grow on my arms, a thousand needle threads, and when I tug at them, they pull away like moss but sting as if I were ripping out my hair. I remember I once brought a jar full of oranges up from the cellar. You were alive then, teaching Annie numbers at the time, and you took them away from me. You turned them around and showed me the fuzzy patches racing over their skin—you called it mold.
I was glad to throw out those oranges before. Now, my stomach hurts so much I’d eat anything if you put it on a plate. Mumma and Annie too.
Yesterday, Mumma sent me and Annie to the cellar to bring up all the remaining jars. There was no more of that red, salty meat. Did I tell you it was Ben who fetched it all for us? Last winter. Two bloody bags full. But it wasn’t him who lugged them home. It was Mumma, though she said Ben did all the work. And it was tough work. Ben couldn’t come home that night, Mumma said he was too tired to come home right then.
I pulled on the end of the bag and the meat tumbled out, misshapen and mismatched. I had never before seen meat like this, nor so much in one place. Annie and I would’ve dug into it raw, but Mumma swung a pail of water in front of us and told us to get washing. There were two organs like pink ropes—intestines, I realized. I grabbed these first since to me they were most grabbable. I peered inside and found that they were hollow and dirty. Mumma nudged me, “Wash those until they squeak.”
Then Mumma fired up the oven, and soon the whole kitchen smelled like the inside of a wallet. I sat in front of it, feeling the heat of tortured flames on my face.
The legs of the table curved in, bearing the weight of the meal. Mumma placed one white ball, like an oversized olive, on each of our plates and told us to eat. My teeth sunk easily into this strange fruit. I stuck my fork into the pink rope I had washed, which had been sliced into small, bite-sized rings, and cut apart the spongey, stretchy meat Annie had cleaned. All was salty and slightly bitter, but I was voracious before all else. My meal was gone as soon as it had arrived.
The slowest eater was Annie, who kept examining her food. She took the white ball from her plate and held it close to my eyes, comparing them, I think. Her face warped like she might have smelled something. After I withdrew to our room, I heard her hurling all the rest of the night.
Ben did not get to enjoy the product of his work. He did not come home the next day, nor the next.
I guess we know what happened to him out there.
Last night I woke up to the voices of Mumma and Annie rising through the floorboards.
Annie was shrieking. Mumma was not so hysterical, but she bellowed in a way she rarely did toward Annie. I wanted to savor this moment, but I could not distinguish a word, and soon the screaming became like a thousand buzzing flies. I touched the new budding in my ears.
Air breathed through our cracking window. All the gooseflesh mushrooms on my skin prickled. I rubbed my face into my pillow and recoiled at the gray sludge squeezed out of it. Then came a smack and a thud.
Not long after, Annie came into the room and threw herself into her bed. I pretended to still be sleeping. When my own breathing slowed, I could hear hers, thin and reedy. She was not there for a minute before her yelp broke the air. Annie threw off the covers and felt through her nightstand for a match. She struck it twice, thrice. The little flame erupted, and she held it over the back of her hand. She turned to face me. There, between her white-fuzzed knuckles, a mushroom had grown.
I wanted to apologize to her, for whatever reason, perhaps because it was I who brought the disease home. I figured Annie would have said something. But she did not. She blew the match and crawled into bed.
Mumma pushed and pushed, but the door won’t budge unless we wanna tear it off its hinges. The windows are gray with snow pressed against them, and I am sitting by the fire, writing this to you now because my own bed is molding and oily. Annie is reading over my shoulder. She’s been by my side all day, to pester me, I think.
There is nothing left in the cellar, but Mumma won’t admit it. She’s got a pot boiling with nothing in it. Right now, she’s fastened to her stool, sharpening a big ol’ knife at the countertop. Two days ago, I ripped off the leather cover of my journal and chewed it until it was soft enough to swallow (Annie’s been hiding her boots ever since).
I feel like a sleeping dog, laying on the rug in front of the hearth like this. It’s harder to think. The mushrooms grow wild in place of hair. Gray buds bloom in my ear, and the back of my throat prickles me. My back is acneic with ripe, egg-sized bumps. I think of Ben right now and his own wild crop, poking out of the snow, swaying and waving and curling in wind that isn’t there. In my dreams, I cannot help but bite into his sweet face. The custard texture is consistent from skin to bone and all the same pervasive gray. It is like cutting into cake. When I prod under my eyes, the skin dimples and does not reform. And when I run my fingers along my arm, it smears. The carpet is pulpy where I have lain. There is gray crusted under my fingernails, and gray is stained on my skin.
Dad, I don’t know when I’ll get to write to you next. Mumma’s been looking at me, not in the eyes, but inches above, where pale mushrooms sprouted. She’s been looking at me this whole time. I know that feeling in her face. I grew up with it, always gnawing at my heels. I feel it now as my stomach grinds itself. There is hunger in her eyes.
Marla Bingcang is a rising high school junior living in the Chicagoland Area. “Mushroom Head” is her first published story, and it certainly won’t be her last! When she isn’t writing, she likes to sacrifice her spine to art and computer games. She also teaches creative writing to younger children at Youth Passion Project.
Author of “Mushroom Head”
What inspired you to write this story?
My one true love is horror artwork, and I found a piece depicting an old woman with mushrooms growing out of her scalp. I let my imagination run wild after that, lots of staring-at-the-ceiling, and came out of it with the rough semblance of a story. Some authors have greater purpose—I just enjoy daydreaming, and when I’m done I draw or write it out.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
Anything. Anything at all, dear god. If my readers can take with them a lesson, a feeling, an image, I’ll know I have written something half-decent. Mostly, I hope they were entertained.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
I wrote its first draft in January and finished it in May. I reworked the thing like taffy (on school nights when I was half-dead), so I forget how many times I’ve revisited it. I’m always afraid to re-read it because there’s always something I’d like to change. Too late now, I guess. The story was rejected by one other lit mag before finding its way into Apparition. I must have used my whole life’s supply of luck.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Recently I went through a Greek mythology phase, which was kicked off by my favorite book The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s based on the Iliad (although it also pulls much from the Achilleid too, I’ve noticed) following the life of a lesser-known character, Patroclus, and his relationship with Achilles. That’s significant because although they have been depicted as lovers in antiquity by those like Plato and Aeschylus, more modern storytellers have the annoying habit of ignoring homosexuality entirely. What I adore about this book is how it explores Achilles’s dilemma and the fuel behind his famous rage. Also, it made me cry.