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The Poison of Its Filamentous Lariats, by Erin Cole

i.

The dusty, putrid odor in the midday breeze brought recollections from Ryhan’s youth back with startling haste—specifically, her grandparents shed behind the house where they stored their animal trappings.  The red door lured her inside, dared her eight-year-old curiosity to prove itself to the world.  The walls smelled of rancid blood and pelt.  Inside, it looked like horror at Little House on the Prairie.  Soured hides suspended in rows of fox, mink, and badger hung to dry from dirty chains anchored in the ceiling.  Some of the animals had already been skinned.  Their pelts were tacked to boards or stretched over frames to flatten, the hollow shell of their faces elongated grotesquely.

Ryhan withdrew into herself, folding her arms into her body so as not to touch anything.  A reel of unease uncoiled deep in her belly then, just as it did today.

ii.

Despite the summoned repulsions of her youth, and the obvious signs of trouble with the townspeople wearing medical masks, Ryhan knew she was in the right place.  It was the invisible presence of malevolence, suspended in the air like a dreary light from a firestorm.  It glazed her surroundings with an unpleasant blur.  Surreal and somewhat charged.

The people also had a fearsome burden of trepidation in their eyes and watched her as though she was a bandit of the devil himself.  Woman, yes.  Agitator?  She supposed some would end up thinking such.  Still, it was not her choosing to come to the small town of ZigZag, Oregon, population 3,600, home to the Badgers.  But, recent events involving unspeakable acts (and they did not speak of them) of lunacy, murder, and unexpected disappearances had resulted in the request of her assistance.

But … Ryhan Gray was a botany biologist, not a detective.  Her passion was fungal dispersal and reproduction—molds, mushrooms, and lichen, in which she had discovered over a dozen new species.  She was not the cosmetic-free scientist wearing a wool sweater and corduroys, nor was she fashioned with the latest trends in brand-name designs.  She had over a dozen, multicolored tattoos, most of them embodying the Kingdom Fungi, piercings in her nose and ears, and two shades of purple highlighted in her raven-dyed hair.  She gathered it would make an impression when meeting with officials today.

Regardless of pigeonholing, what ZigZag needed most of all was a fungal expert.  They wouldn’t come any closer than herself.

iii.

Heavy, brass, beveled-glass doors to the Ramshead Hotel challenged Ryhan’s posture upon entering the lobby.  She stepped into tapestry-rich furnishings of ornate Victorian style, not typical of 21st century decor: purple, red, and green velvet draperies, tasseled lamps, stout mahogany pillars, and the lighting from sconces yielded alluring shadows on the faces of its inhabitants, three of which stood near the front desk.  Ryhan suspected one was the mayor, Howie Wilkins, and the other two, county detective, Bernard Manning, and the head physician of Clark County Psychiatric, Dr. Tom Gerald.

She approached the man in the dark blue suit, who she presumed to be the Mayor.  “Mayor Howie Wilkins?”

His stance stiffened.  He was expecting a male, she thought.  A Ryan.

“That it is.”  He was about to say something of a seemingly questionable nature, but then stopped himself.

Ryhan offered her hand.  “Detective, Professor Ryhan Gray.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The mayor responded slowly at first, but once he clasped her hand, he put vigor into his shake as if convincing himself this arrangement would work out.  The other two men, Detective Manning, a broad-shouldered bull of a man, and Dr. Gerald, his towering opposite, greeted her with mirrored apprehension hidden behind forced politeness.

With succinct introductions out of the way, they proceeded to a room where they could speak of the turmoil occurring in ZigZag.

The old-fashioned, diamond-shaped bars of the elevator gate gave view to the insides of the building, the arteries and joints of its floors.  Ryhan imagined herself stripping the town’s nervous apprehension down to similar perspectives, exposing the costly lengths of their silent, infectious secrets.

Yet, that thought also came on the dark feathers of caution: like her grandparent’s shed, what needed to be hung out to dry likely wouldn’t look pretty either.

iv.

An awkward silence filled the time between small talk about the weather and Ryhan’s drive into town, though soon enough, they entered into a spacious room at the end of the hall.  Old-world international motif contrasted with the Victorian theme of the lobby.

Adding to Ryhan’s unease, stuffed fauna embellished the room from many odd angles, as if positioned to look like they did in the wild.  Her eyes flitted to speckle-feathered birds with out-stretched wings.  They gawked intensely at her, like the animals in her grandparent’s shed.

Along one wall, a roll-top desk had a platter of glasses and booze.  It tempted Ryhan, and she poured a knuckle’s worth of an unknown brand of whiskey into a glass.  The men gazed at her with a glint of wariness—she wasn’t like other women, a fact that Ryhan had no intention of hiding.  “How many patients have you seen for allergies, Dr. Gerald?”  She asked, skipping to the meat of their meeting.

“Over 2,000.”  His eyes reeled in, focusing on her.

“That’s more than half the town isn’t it?”

“Correct.”

Ryhan sat down in a tanned, wingback chair across from the mayor and doctor.  “Of those who have been hospitalized with hallucinatory and delusional symptoms, how many of them were also seen for allergies?”

“All of them.”

A moment of silence brought attention to the loud tick of a clock on the far wall of the room.  It heightened Ryhan’s sense of urgency and might as well have chimed loudly, hurry up or you’ll all be infected!

The three men exchanged looks that, unbeknownst to her, bordered between distrust and alarm.  If it were alarm, perhaps they sensed her own—she feared a contaminant in ZigZag like that of Ergot in 16th century Europe, a disaster that killed thousands and was partly to blame for the execution of women accused of practicing witchcraft.

“That is why we believe it is a mold of some sort,” Dr. Gerald said, mirroring Ryhan’s thoughts.  “One that not only affects the sinus cavities, but exceeds further into the brain, notably the temporal region.”

“Have the grains from the bakery been inspected?”

“Yes, they were all negative,” Detective Manning replied.  He stood, straightening his stout frame, and walked over to a crème-colored map on the wall.  “We have pinned a common location between the patients.  Most of those infected live near the Gulley.”  He pointed to the top corner.

“Has anyone gone to investigate?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “We saw mushrooms, but no octopus monster.”  A haughty-looking smirk crossed his mouth as his eyes swam over to Dr. Gerald.

“Octopus monster?”  Ryhan repeated.

“Many of the patients have reported a creature with tentacles attacking them in the Gulley,” Dr. Gerald explained.  “These patients suffer from the most severe cases of hallucinations and delusions.”

Ryhan turned to Detective Manning.  “As a scientist, I must entertain the possibility that what the patients are witnessing might have a certain caliber of truth to it.”

Wilkins adjusted his collar, craning his neck to the side like an inquiring turtle.  “I cannot believe you are even suggesting such a ridiculous thing, Professor Gray.  Scientist or not.”

Ryhan addressed Dr. Gerald.  “In my field of research, I explore all avenues.  I have seen parasitic fungus control the mind of ants, turning them into genuine zombies so that they may reach their optimal living environment, and carnivorous fungus that trap nematodes with filamentous nets.  Truth exposed by science is often quite ridiculous.”

He nodded, giving the mayor a reassuring gesture of his hand.

Wilkins crossed his arms and craned his head again.  “Does this really sound like a mold to you, Professor Gray?”

She found his tone accusatory, perhaps prompting her to yield answers that had distinct solutions, regardless if they comprised even a portion of the truth.  “Possibly,” she decidedly replied.  “Maybe a species of hallucinogenic mushrooms, those containing psilocybin and psilocin.”

The mayor bent a frown to Detective Manning.  “But some people are disappearing.  This is much more than a few poisonous mushrooms.”

“That may be an unrelated explanation,” Ryhan said.

“Are you implying that we have a murderer in ZigZag?”  Detective Manning faced her with an expression not unlike that of the Peregrine falcon above her head.

“I’m only pointing out the possible complexities of this case.

He ambled over to the roll-top desk, having decided on some whiskey after all.  He took a drink and smacked his lips when he finished.  His eyes bore down on Ryhan’s, predatory like.  “Why don’t you just focus on the mold investigation, Professor, and leave the rest to me.”

“I had already planned on that, Detective.”

v.

The officials, with their anxious-etched gazes, saw Ryhan to the elevator doors.  They agreed to meet back in the hotel lobby in the morning, before her investigation of the Gulley.

Ryhan went back to her hotel room, unpacked a few things, and then slung the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign over her door handle.  Given the town’s nature of the Gulley, she wanted to inspect the area on her own first, without opinionated interruptions.  In a brief moment of honest reflection, she supposed a part of her also wanted to know whether there was an octopus monster in ZigZag, Oregon.

vi.

Nighttime shadows in ZigZag stirred with a wicked, lively presence.  Her mind conjured a few images that left the feel of cold, long-nailed fingers grazing her skin.  Frogs and katydids croaked, their chorus crisp from the humid air—the perfect breeding grounds for fungal species.

According to the topographical map, the Gulley was only a mile and a half from the Ramshead Hotel, a pleasant walking distance.  She took to a street paralleling the main road, which eventually intersected with the creek bed.

Cresting a small hill, she stood at the lip of a narrow, deep canyon.  The slap of water on rock and log trickled down below.  Dense fog clung between trees crusted with lichen and hair-like strands of moss.  A carpet of slick, brown leaves covered the sodden ground.  Ryhan started down a minor path.  To protect herself from potential airborne sporophytes, she strapped on a medical mask.

Profuse vegetation dominated the forest floor.  Under the circle of her LED headlight, she saw mushrooms, mold, and reeds sprouting and flourishing everywhere, as if cared for by the fae.  She ducked beneath giant, moss covered branches of ash and dogwood.  The limbs stretched out like oversized arms.  She reasoned it would have been easy to assimilate a tentacle creature into cognition if one were undergoing a hallucinatory state.

With each step, Ryhan became more convinced that the likely toxin in ZigZag was indeed a poisonous fungus.

vii.

Darkness submersed the bottom of the Gulley, decelerating Ryhan’s step around the twisted trunks of trees and fallen logs that crisscrossed like skull bones.  She followed the sound of the creek as if it were actually communicating with her, requesting her presence at its frothy edges—eager to gurgle its secrets to her.

She pulled the recorder from her backpack and began detailing all that she observed:

The humidity is 87%, temperature 42°.  There is a variety of mushrooms present, most are common and harmless.

She dipped further into the Gulley and noticed soft, illuminated patches of light.  She stooped to investigate one of them.

The forest floor is aglow with a subtle, phosphorus yellow, perhaps containing the chemical luciferin, that found in fireflies.  There is a high possibility that this is a mushroom of unknown taxonomy, maybe a species related to Indian Pipe.  Yet, this class has long sporophytes, translucent filaments with a shimmer-like surface.  The capsules of the filaments have gland-tipped hairs at the end, like beaded drops of crystal.  They are stunning in design.

Ryhan stopped speaking.  The filaments moved.

I can’t believe I am saying this, but the filaments. …

She failed to finish her sentence, as if that observation had crashed into total irrelevance.  The filament moved not like plant, but animal.

viii.

The elastic-like strand of filament twisted and curled into the air faster than any plant species Ryhan had ever seen or studied.  Angelic lariats, looping, dancing almost.  Beautiful.  Hypnotizing.  It pulled her into a thick stream of muted consciousness and arrested her mobility.  She tried to steer her mind back to recording her observations, but she was unable to set will in motion.  She could only watch within a half-frozen self.

In a thrill to collect a sample of it, she gained composure and set the recorder down.  She left it playing in order to record her findings.  From her backpack, she retrieved gloves, swab sticks, portable beakers, a pair of cutting shears, and a Petri dish.  She picked up the shears and reached for a filament.

It’s slimy and wiggles between my fingers.  I’m going to slice one of them off. 

Ryhan held the filament between the blades of the shears.  When she squeezed the handle, applying pressure against the rubbery fibers of the filament, it drew back and slipped out of her hand.

Unbelievable!  Whatever this thing is, it is incredibly swift.  Not only capable of sensing danger, BUT acting on it. 

Almost as if it knows I am here, she thought without saying.  With a speed no slower than a lightning flash, one of the filaments snapped out and looped around her wrist.  Cold wetness contacted her skin.  It burned.  She pulled back violently, but the filament responded with an equal heave opposite her.  Fear harpooned her in the gut.

Ryhan grappled to free her arm, but the filament had firmly wound itself around her wrist.  Her tattoos faded to dark salmon as the top layers of her epidermis started to blister.  Rhythmic, hot pain tracked up her arm.  She tugged down the length of the filament, searching for its base: a large, pearly bulbous sack rooted deep underneath the crook of a tree.

The wheels of the recorder continued to turn.

The filament has my hand … I can’t seem to loosen it.

Charged by the exaggerations of fear, Ryhan jerked back, now in a serious fight to escape the filament.  A crackle of light passed through her field of vision.  Bright colors palpitated around her, outlining the trees of forest with an iridescent light.  She knew it wasn’t an actual trick of light, but a trick of mind.  The toxic excretions of the filaments were penetrating into her bloodstream.  Her brain tingled, and her tongue felt thick and dry.  Hallucinations would ensue next.

She looked down at her feet.  What she thought had been a log before, was not firm like a log.  It was soft and had ‘give.’  No, it was not a log.  Horror burgeoned in her chest.  It was a person, a dead person, with a large stroma protruding from his or her head—the youth of predatory fungi.

ix.

Her mouth opened to scream, when above her, another filament of enormous dimensions wriggled.  A thought exploded through her mind: it was that of a giant octopus, which had risen from the earth and was now behind her.

She whirled around, entirely unprepared to behold the absurdity before her.  A monstrous thing of absurd proportions, shape, and versatility: a fungus that was nothing, like anything, anyone had ever seen.

The forest floor has come to life.

Ryhan’s vocal cords contracted, spitting a shrill cry into the folds of night.  The giant tentacle coiled around her other arm and jerked her up into the air sideways.  A dark shift in consciousness occurred then: she was back in her grandparents shed, accosted by sinister images that were too frightening to deconstruct into prefabricated childhood concepts.  But no longer was her view from that of a child below.  She was the stuffed and skinned, the unlucky—hung, stretched, and soon to be hollowed of life hanging above.

Ryhan heard herself screaming, as though ripped in half by broken, sharp thoughts.  One part of her hollered, the other part had been silenced by terror.

The giant fungi pulled her closer to its mounting bulbous, undoubtedly filled with thousands of toxic spores.  She squirmed against the tentacle.  The shears were still in her hand.  She drove the blades into its rubbery flesh and sliced downward with all her might.  Blood spilled over her hand.  The filament broke into a spasm.  She had found its weakness and stabbed at it repeatedly, with such vigor, that under any other situation, she would have thought herself crazed.

It finally split in two.  Ryhan fell into darkness.  Her last thought was monster.

x.

Ryhan woke in a hospital bed close to noontime.  Her mind was not itself … random images, frightening memories, and an undeniable fear squatted behind her every thought.  Dr. Gerald was taking her blood pressure.  She reached for him.  “Dr. Gerald, I’m so glad to see you.”

He looked down at her, his eyes full of wariness.  She paused, questioning the reason for his indifferent demeanor.  Then it hit her—“Dr. Gerald, was anyone else hurt?”

His brow creased as if under the pressure of a difficult question.  “No one but yourself, Professor Gray.”

A sigh escaped her.  “We have to close off the area.  I believe there is a new species of predatory fungi … one that has mutated considerably.  It is unbelievably advanced and has exceeded well beyond standard environmental adaptation.”

An image of the fungi’s tentacle unfurled in her mind.  “In the most conceivable definition, Dr. Gerald, it is a monster.”  He remained quiet, seemingly unsettled.  “Were you able to retrieve my sample and recorder?”

Dr. Gerald sat down in a chair by the bed, keeping his eyes anywhere but on her.  “We found your backpack, and a few things inside, but I’m afraid there was nothing else.”

“What do you mean?  I cut off a piece of the tentacle.  Was it not found?”

“There were a few cut mushrooms in the area, but I am actually referring to … this monster you speak of.”  His gaze landed on her with reptilian steadiness.  Cold.  “We didn’t find anything down in the Gulley, but you, covered in your own blood.”

“What?  What are you talking about?  It wasn’t my blood.  I cut one of the tentacles off the fungus with my shears.  It bled all over me.”

The whites Dr. Gerald’s eyes bloomed.

Mayor Wilkins walked into the room.  “How is she?”  He asked.

“Physically, …” Dr. Gerald said, slowly breaking eye contact with her, “she is doing better.”

“Mayor, I’m fine,” Ryhan said, relieved to have someone else in the room to support her claim.  “But I need to talk to you about the fungus in the Gulley.  It’s very dangerous, and if we don’t do something immediately, more people are going to die.”

Wilkins and Dr. Gerald shared a concerned glance with one another.

“What is going on?”  Ryhan asked.  “What are you not telling me?”

Mayor Wilkins walked to the other side of her bed.  “We were going to ask you the same thing, Professor Gray.  You cut your wrist pretty bad.”

She looked down at her left arm.  Thick layers of gauze had been taped around it.  She bent her wrist and felt a burning pain spread over her forearm.  “I must have done that when I was trying to cut the tentacle that held me in the air.”

“Held you in the air?”  Wilkins replied.  He turned to Dr. Gerald with an expression that reflected a belief that she was worse than he had originally thought.

“You don’t believe me?  I’m telling you the truth!  It’s all on my tape recorder.  I know it sounds crazy, but it happened.”  A cruel current of tears swelled up into a ball in the back of Ryhan’s throat.  She swallowed hard.  “I cut a large sample of it.  You can have it analyzed, and you’ll see that I’m telling you the truth!”  She sat up, wanting to get out of the hospital.  “Where are my clothes?”

“Professor Gray, sit down.  You are in no condition to leave.”

“You can’t keep me here.”

Mayor Wilkins spoke.  “Detective Manning listened to your tape recorder.  He said there were some introductory reports about mushrooms and details about the surrounding environment, but the rest is all static.”

She looked at both men, stunned that she was now just another delirious patient to them.  “No, that can’t be right.  You are mistaken!  There’s a sample.  You have to go back!”  Two male nurses marched into the room and over to her bed.  They held her down by the shoulders.  “No!  Stop it!  Let me go!  More people are going to die!  Mayor, you must believe me!”

Dr. Gerald stuck a needle into her arm.  Warmth melted into Ryhan like liquid heat.

It had tentacles. 

xi.

Detective Manning walked into Ryhan’s room carrying a backpack.  He skirted her bed as though she had something lethally contagious and had been warned not to get too close.  Ryhan was heavily drugged and unable to speak or move.  Her limbs rested like boulders on the sand.  She was no more than eyes in a shell, a flattened pelt stretched to dry.

“Here is your backpack,” Detective Manning said, setting it on a table at the foot of her bed.  She could only look at him.  “I thought you might want to listen to the recordings yourself.”

He unzipped the front pouch, took out the recorder, and pressed play.

Ryhan’s voice came on, describing the diverse elements down in the Gulley.  Static came through the speakers, fuzz over her words.  Her heart hiccupped with defeat.  Detective Manning set the recorder down, passing her a look that said, See, I was telling the truth.

“I’ll take your samples to the lab, but I can’t say they will prove anything.  They looked just like ordinary dried mushrooms.”

He opened the main zipper of her backpack and stuck his hand inside.  His face contorted, and he quickly withdrew his hand.

“What the hell is that?”  He stepped back abruptly, studying the goop on his fingers.  “Goddammit, it burns.”  He tried wiping it off on his pants.

Ryhan’s backpack shifted.  He looked back at it, having caught a slight movement.  “What the. …”

Three large filaments attached to a bulbous sack slid from the opening.  They were of the same variety that had looped around her wrist in the Gulley.  The filaments curled and twisted in the air above Detective Manning.  Angelic, hypnotic lariats that danced like the legs of an octopus.  Detective Manning stood, duped just as she had been.

The filaments snapped out and lassoed around his neck.  He grabbed at it with both of his hands.  Blood filled his cheeks and ballooned in his eyes.  He tried to yell, but couldn’t get air to and from his lungs.

Someone started screaming.  Ryhan saw that the wheels of her recorder were still turning.  Her screams had become his own.