When Arif thought about it later, he realised that he probably shouldn’t have opened the package at all.
After all, he hadn’t any idea why the Maulana should be sending him anything, seeing as they hadn’t talked in years and, if truth be told, couldn’t stand each other. Besides, the Maulana was as stingy as a dried skull in the desert, and had never been known to give away anything at all, ever.
Also, nobody knew just where the Maulana was; he seemed to have dropped clean out of existence as far as anyone could tell, and the rumours had gone around that he’d died or gone mad or opened a brothel or joined a terrorist group in Yemen or Abkhazia. But in recent months even the rumours had died down. After all, nobody really cared where the Maulana was, or even if he was. At most they were simply glad he wasn’t breathing down their collective neck.
Yet here, in Arif’s hands, was the small package with his address written in the Maulana’s unmistakable crabbed hand. Someone had pushed it into his mailbox so awkwardly that he’d had a difficult time extricating it. It had been hand-delivered, evidently – there was no post-office marking and no return address. With a distinct sense of foreboding, he weighed the packet in his hand, and finally decided that something so light couldn’t contain anything too lethal.
Though he realised it only much later, in this, as in so much else, he was wrong.
Sitting at his kitchen table, he carefully cut open the packet. Inside was a much-folded sheet of paper, covered with writing and wrapped round something the size of a baby’s fist. When he unwrapped the paper, a small Zip-loc bag fell out. It contained a few scraps of dried material, ragged and flaking.
Frowning, Arif turned to the paper, which turned out to be a letter from the Maulana. The words and lines were cramped and ran together so often that he had a difficult time deciphering it, and at one point there was a large hole in the paper, which had swallowed up much of the writing.
“My dear nephew,” the letter started. Arif snorted. Since when had the Maulana declared him a nephew? At most they were cousins, and second cousins at that.
“My dear nephew,
“I know it’s been a while since you heard from me, and I realise that you must have been surprised at my abrupt disappearance. I can only say that due to circumstances beyond my control, I had to take a sudden leave of absence from society and vanish into the wilderness. Where I went, I’m not at liberty to disclose, because I may need to seek shelter in those places again if my current plans do not meet with the success I anticipate.
“As I said, I’d had to leave in a hurry – in such a hurry, in fact, that I couldn’t even take a change of clothes with me. Fortunately, I had a couple of close friends, whom I’ll call M and S, and from whom I got help in getting out of town. They put me up for a couple of days and arranged my passage out. You don’t need to know the details, but it was not an easy trip.
“After several weeks of travel, much of it alone and on foot, I found myself in a little village on the edge of a rain forest. That village had nothing in the way of modern amenities at all; not only was there no electricity or running water, nobody in it had seen a TV set or heard of such a thing as the internet. That was precisely its attraction, and why it was safe for me go there.
“Although M and S had provided me with a fairly substantial amount of money, much of it had been spent in the course of my travels. Still, I had enough left to be able to live for a while, especially in a village like this one where the cost of living was almost nothing at all if one was able to adapt to the environment. And I was perfectly willing to adapt.
“I had secured for myself lodging with one of the village elders, whom I’ll call Jumdo. That isn’t his real name, or even the name of anyone else in the village, so you won’t be able to locate the place by that. This elder was a charming old man, with a roguish smile full of worn-down, blackened teeth. He and I spent a lot of evenings together, while he swigged bottle after bottle of the local brew and complained that I wasn’t a real man if I didn’t drink. I tried to explain that my religion did not permit me to imbibe alcohol, but I never could decide if he really understood me, because each evening he would renew his offer, and tell me how disappointed he was when I refused.
“Jumdo had travelled a fair bit in his youth, and had even been down to the coast and visited a city or two. He was full of tales about the wonders he’d seen, trains and buses and cars, and how people lived in buildings which touched the sky. Unlike the rest of the villagers, he wasn’t completely ignorant of the outside world, and so he and I could find some common ground for conversation. He was quite obviously curious about my past and what I was doing in the village, but I had a cover story to go with my forged identification papers, and I stuck to it.
“Life in that village was, frankly, excruciatingly boring, and looking back I can’t believe that I stood it for so many months without going crazy. I suppose that if I’d known I’d have to stay there so long I’d have gone off the deep end, but I’d arranged to be contacted as soon as it might be safe for me to return. I lived each day in the expectation of receiving that message, but it never came.
“So I spent my time in idleness, reciting my daily prayers alone, since I was the only Believer there; talking to old Jumdo, and in general turning into a vegetable. The villagers were a fairly indolent lot, too, it seemed to me, satisfied with what they could get to furnish their daily needs, with little interest in the morrow. I might have given them up as not worth my time, except for one singular thing.
“Each new moon night, a few of the village elders would gather in the chief’s hut in the evening and then go off together into the forest. And once they had gone, the other villagers would shut themselves indoors, douse their oil lamps, and wait in fearful silence through the hours until they returned just before dawn.
“Jumdo was one of the elders who went on these expeditions, and quite naturally I asked him where they went and what they did. At this, the old man, who’d always been free and open with me on everything, suddenly clammed up. ‘It’s the business of the elders,’ he mumbled, looking away. ‘Don’t ask about it – it’s secret, and dangerous for anyone else to know.’
“Not surprisingly, far from quietening me, this raised my curiosity to fever pitch. I believe that if Jumdo had merely said they went off to pray to their god or something similar, I’d have been satisfied. But Jumdo was no liar, and it was obvious that he had something to hide. And from the fact that only the elders took part, while the rest of the village – even the young toughs – hid, I surmised that it was something to do with maintaining control over the people.
“Clearly, it was something to investigate, and I kept my ears open for information. By then I’d begun to understand the dialect fairly well – you’ll remember that I’ve always had a facility with languages – and I thought I’d be able to overhear something that might give me a hint. But though the villagers chattered among themselves as much as sparrows, talking about everything else in their small worlds, they never seemed to mention this particular topic. It wasn’t as if they were skirting around it – it was as though they’d so excised it from their collective mind that it no longer existed at all.
“Now, I’d noticed something else: when Jumdo returned from these nocturnal expeditions, he seemed changed. It was as though his body was moving around and talking, eating and drinking, but his mind was somewhere else. I don’t mean that he was dreamy; it was as if his mind was actually not there, as if it was in some other world, far away, seeing things his body didn’t see. At these times I didn’t feel I was with him. I didn’t feel as though I was with a real human being, only with some kind of biological robot. It would be a couple of days before he’d get back to normal.
“So one new moon, I resolved to follow him. I was quite safe from observation, for as I told you the other villagers spent the lying in the dark for the night to pass. I waited till he’d left, and then went to a spot where I could watch the chief’s hut while myself remaining in the shadows. It was only a few minutes later that the elders all came out in a body, and turned towards the forest. There were seven or eight of them, and they carried things in their hands, bundles and machetes.
“I can’t tell you how long or how far I followed them through the jungle. For one thing, they knew the way, and I didn’t, so I’d had to divide my attention between keeping them in sight and watching where I placed my feet – not an easy job in the darkness; it was a new moon night, remember. Then, also, I couldn’t risk getting too close to them or making any noise. Fortunately, they seemed to be following a path of some sort, so it wasn’t as hard going as it might have been otherwise.
“After a while I noticed a light through the trees. It was a dim bluish glimmer, so dim that had there been even a little moonlight to filter through the leaf canopy overhead I’m sure I’d have missed it. At first I thought it came from starlight gleaming off leaves, but as we got closer I saw that it came from underneath – from the forest floor.
“There was something weirdly beautiful about the light, something which drew me to it, but at the same time I was wary of the elders in front of me. They might have been older men, and physically weaker than me, but they had those machetes in their hands and somehow it seemed to me that it would be a very bad idea to get too close. Also, I became afraid that the increasing light would reveal me to them, so I began to hang back. But I needn’t have worried – they never looked back. Apparently, they were so convinced that nobody would dare follow that they did not think it necessary to look over their shoulders to check.
“Suddenly I realised that I’d lost sight of the men in front. They seemed to have disappeared completely. Yet I could see the spot they’d been only moments before, and beyond that, trees they shouldn’t have reached yet. Therefore, I thought, they must have sat down, and I came closer very cautiously. Because of the light I could see a little of the path and could avoid making any noise.
“They were in a small clearing in the forest, and the clearing was full of the bluish light. I couldn’t at first make out where the light was coming from, because they were all squatting in a circle round the centre. And when I got closer, I saw that they were crouching over a mound, and that the mound was covered with mushrooms. The blue glow was coming from the mushrooms.
“The elders were snipping the mushrooms off with their machetes, and spreading them out on cloths they unwrapped from their bundles. They were working in complete silence, and with such concentration that I felt as if I could have walked across and looked over their shoulders at what they were doing. But I remembered their silent, intent air, and the machetes in their hands, and I didn’t dare.
“But even from where I was sitting I could see clearly what happened next, when the chief took up a large mushroom and held it up to the air. He...”
Several dozen lines of writing must have been lost in the large hole that had been ripped in the paper at this point. Arif fingered the edges of the rent, wondering if it had been cut out, but the paper was old and cheap and it seemed as if it had simply given way there. He wondered just who had enclosed it in the envelope and delivered it. Not the Maulana, he was sure, else he’d have made sure the letter was intact.
He turned to the bottom of the sheet, where the writing began again.
“...and when I went back the next morning, creeping like a frightened rabbit even in the light of day, I found only a few small scraps of the mushrooms left. I picked up as many as I could and hid them in the bottom of my shoe. That same evening I left the village. You’ll understand that after what I’d seen in that forest, I was far too terrified to stay there any longer. I know I was in no immediate danger, but at that moment nothing would have made me spend another night under Jumdo’s roof. No wonder the villagers chose to huddle fearfully in their huts on that night of the month.
“From what I’ve told you, I’m sure you realise the absolute necessity of cultivating these mushrooms as quickly as possible. I have told nobody else of all the details, and the person who is to get these to you does not read English well enough to understand this letter. I’m sure at least some of the spores are still viable. If you bury them in wet earth with some pieces of rotting wood and leaves, in a month the first mushrooms should start appearing. Look for them to come up around the time of the new moon.
“And at all costs be careful – extremely careful. Remember what I saw in the forest!
I’ll get in touch with you when I can, but it might be a while.
Arif read through the letter again and then tried to make sense of the fragments of sentences round the hole. There were words and phrases and parts of words, which made no sense without a context. Some of them were definitely intriguing: “...I got a whiff of the smell...” was followed, on the opposite side of the page, by “mouth,” and, further down on the same side of the page, by “...lood.” Blood? Then, a little further down, “...silence. If only they had cried out then I...” and again, “that smell”. And, last of all, in lettering that had almost torn through the paper, as though the writer had been agitated: “the things... horrible.” He frowned, wishing he could have read the rest of it. He wanted to know what had scared the Maulana so badly.
Next he examined the contents of the Zip-Loc bag. Though flaked and shrivelled, he could make out that they were pieces of mushroom caps, though of a type he’d never seen before. The tops were a dark purplish, and the gills were small, deeply set, and completely black.
His first impulse was to throw them in the trash, burn the letter, and forget the whole thing. But obviously the Maulana had gone to considerable trouble to send him the stuff, and besides he felt a sudden and overwhelming curiosity to know what had been written on that part of the paper which had been torn away. Besides, he remembered that there was a large flower tub in the back of the garage, full of soil and debris. He’d often thought of growing flowers in it, but somehow had never got round to it.
With a weary sigh, wondering if he were doing the right thing, he took the packet and went down to the garage.
That night, he did not sleep well.
During the next few weeks, Arif was extremely busy at work, so much so that he had little time to himself. He was so busy, in fact, that he almost forgot about the Maulana’s letter and the scraps of mushroom he’d buried in the flower tub. Only once or twice, while passing around the back of the garage, he saw the flower tub in the corner, and once when he thought the soil was getting a little dry he moistened it with a cupful of water. But most of the time he had neither the time nor the energy to think of it at all.
One night he woke up with a vague feeling of uneasiness, as if something wasn’t quite right. For a while he lay staring up into the darkness, trying to decide just what had woken him. It wasn’t the noise of someone who’d broken into the house, he decided after a few minutes of straining his ears. Apart from the faint susurration of the ceiling fan whirling above him, he couldn’t hear a thing. He stared at the ceiling fan a while more before it came to him that, since the light in the room was off, he shouldn’t have been able to see the fan at all.
Yes, there was a definite bluish light glimmering through his window and illuminating the ceiling. Quietly, he got out of bed and, going to the window, pulled back the curtain. Just below the bedroom window was the garage, and the bluish light was pouring out through the ventilators under its sloping roof.
Arif was not a particularly brave man, and if he’d thought longer about it, he probably wouldn’t have left his bed and gone down to the garage. But he wasn’t really thinking very clearly, and it was almost as in a dream that he walked down the stairs and unlocked the inner door to the garage.
The light was coming, of course, from the tub at the back. It was a dim glow, but had a peculiarly penetrative quality, so that there seemed to be no shadows except in a pool under the car. Arif stepped into the garage, for some reason latching the door open behind him.
The mushrooms were tall, but spindly, their purple caps deeply convex. The glow came from the entire surface of the cap and stalk, and when he reached out a finger and touched a mushroom, the glow from all of them brightened suddenly, spreading out from his finger in waves, pulsing down to the earth in the tub and back up again. Alarmed, he pulled back his finger and examined it. There didn’t appear to be any damage, so he reached out and touched it again.
He had been poking the mushrooms for a while, and discovered that he could induce different patterns of glowing, when he first noticed the odour. It was a raw, musty smell, quite faint, and he thought it came from the moist earth in the tub. But it rapidly grew stronger, until it filled the air, became so thick that it seemed to clog his nostrils with every breath he drew, and he grew so dizzy with it that his sight began to blur. The last thing he saw, as he slumped to the floor by the tub, was the light glowing brighter and brighter, until it seemed to fill the world.
When he woke, it was with an extraordinary sense of well-being. He opened his eyes lazily, and looked around with great interest.
He was lying on his back on soft ground, which rose and fell in a succession of low hillocks and shallow valleys. Above was a black, starless sky, but it wasn’t completely dark.
The mushrooms were huge, their stalks columns that reached up until they were almost out of sight, and the caps great arching canopies overhead. Arif got up unhurriedly and walked towards them, quite unafraid. His feet sank a little into the soil, so that at every step he kicked clods aside, but he hardly noticed that. He wanted to get to the mushrooms, because there was something he had to do there. He frowned, realising that he’d forgotten just what it was that he was supposed to do, but try as he might he couldn’t remember it. But he did know that it was very important that he get to the mushrooms. Everything would be all right once he got to the mushrooms.
Suddenly, at this thought, he realised that everything was not all right. The shadows were abruptly full of hidden menace, the darkness like a beast of prey waiting to pounce. He began to hurry towards the mushrooms, faster and faster, until he was moving in a stumbling run, but they didn’t seem to be coming any closer. When he looked up, they seemed even further away than they’d been. Looking up towards them as he ran, his foot slipped in the soft soil and he fell on his face.
It was as he was picking himself up that he saw the thing. He did not see it clearly enough to be sure what it was; a movement in the shadow where no movement had been before, as though something was coiling and slithering through the dark, something so huge that he could only see a hint of its shape and movement; something he had no wish to see at any closer quarters. Clambering up, he began running again, desperately now, rushing towards the mushrooms. Legs pumping, unwilling to look behind him for fear of what he’d see, he ran on until he collided with the nearest stalk and fell over again, on his back.
He was staring up into the concave bottom of the nearest of the caps, which spread across the sky above him like a roof. Along its inner margins things flew on bat wings, scraps of darkness, which swooped lower and lower, staring down at him with electric-blue glowing eyes filled with a cold and dreadful hunger. And it suddenly came to him that he’d been lured there to satiate that hunger, and that when they finished with him, there would be nothing left.
It was then that Arif finally gave way to complete panic. He had no clear memory of what followed, but he had vague recall of hurling himself through the darkness, shrieking, while things flapped through the air behind him and something huge and implacable twisted, writhed and coiled, and waited for him with gaping jaws. He was running in utter terror and completely blindly, so it must have been out of sheer luck and good fortune that he stumbled through the door he’d left open and into the house. Slamming the door shut, he threw himself against it, panting, and slowly slipped to the floor until he was sitting with his back to it. It was a very long time before he felt able to get up again.
“So what did you do after that?” I asked Arif. In the sunshine that sloped down on the little cafe, the tale he’d told me seemed so fantastic and improbable that but for the crumpled letter on the table before us I’d never have believed a word, even though I’d known Arif for years and knew he was as honest and unimaginative as the day was long.
Arif shrugged. “It was high noon the next day before I dared go back into the garage. There was a faint earthy smell, and I at once threw open the outside door and the ventilators, to air the place out as much as possible. In daylight the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and the tiny, wilted mushrooms in the tub looked pathetic. I was almost ashamed of myself for imagining such stuff.”
“Almost?” I repeated, catching the inflection in his voice.
“That’s what I said – almost. It was like a particularly vivid dream, and I might not have credited any of it. But there were two things which persuaded me it wasn’t all a dream. There was, for instance, the quite undeniable fact that I’d spent half the night sitting with my back to the garage door, panting with fear.”
“It was a new moon night, of course,” I said.
“Of course,” he agreed. “What else could it have been?”
“So what did you do with the mushrooms?” I asked.
He looked down at his hands, twisting together on the table top. “I dumped all the stuff from the pot, earth, mushrooms and all, into a paper bag, and sealed it. Then I covered that paper bag with inflammable trash, everything I could get hold of, old newspapers, a couple of cardboard cartons, rags and even a wooden crate, and burned the lot. I poured a little petrol on once in a while to keep it going, till there was nothing to burn any longer.”
I raised my eyebrows. “A little extreme, wasn’t it?”
Arif’s lips twisted. “Not if you’d been through what I’d been through,” he said. “I can only say I was lucky I’d left that door open. If not – if I’d remained inside that enclosed garage for much longer, breathing that...” He trailed off into silence.
“The smell was the factor, then?” I asked.
“I believe so. If I’d been out in the open, it might not have affected me so much. In that closed space, it was nearly lethal. I think,” he added, “that if there are several people, the effects are...ah...distributed among them, so nobody suffers too much. I suppose that’s why the elders the Maulana mentioned always came out in groups. Maybe they stuffed their nostrils closed as well. I don’t know.”
“Why do you suppose they didn’t just destroy the mushrooms?” I asked. “Why all the ritual?”
“How can I answer that? Maybe it was some kind of spiritual experience for them, some ritual way of fighting evil. I don’t know, and, frankly, I don’t care. As long as I never have to go through that again.”
I leaned across the table. “You said there were two things which persuaded you it was real,” I said. “what was the other?”
He pointed at the letter. “You’ve read what the Maulana wrote about the smell, and the rest of it? I think that he smelt enough of it to have felt some of the terror. Not enough to drive him nearly out of his wits like me, of course, but enough to make him experience some of what I felt. Or something equivalent, anyway.”
“So,” I said, sipping at my coffee, “the question remains: what was it all about?”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” he agreed. “And I think I’ve formulated an answer of sorts.
“Those mushrooms give off some kind of chemical – perhaps it’s a pheromone of some kind, perhaps something else – with extremely potent psychogenic properties. I think it uses them to capture and then literally kill its prey with fear.”
“But...” I began. “I know you got a heavy dose in the garage, but surely a human in the open air is too big to –“
“Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” he interrupted. “But I believe humans are only accidental prey. It probably looks for something smaller, of the order of a monkey perhaps, small enough to be overcome but with a brain big enough to be attracted by the light and then frightened to death. And when that happens, the mushrooms have so much more organic material to use.”
“No wonder the Maulana thought he might be able to make use of it,” I observed.
“No. He was always a bastard.” He grimaced. “I won’t spend a moment grieving if they wipe him out.”
I studied him unobtrusively as he sipped his cappuccino. Despite the fact that he said it had all happened weeks ago, he still seemed wan, with dark circles under his eyes, as though he hadn’t been eating or sleeping properly. “You aren’t telling me everything, are you?” I asked.
He looked up at me with his haunted eyes. “I’d have thought you’d be able to work it out for yourself,” he said. “There are two things, really.
“The first is that these fungi are survivors. Obviously, they can’t depend on capturing prey at each new moon, so they have to make the most of whatever opportunity they get. Simply put, they release all the spores they can when they put up their fruiting bodies – the mushrooms. It’s probably the spores which carry the pheromones, and they release them when touched. Remember how the light play started when I touched the mushrooms, and how they kept me engrossed until the odour could begin its work. And obviously these spores would be very light, and some of them would have blown away on the wind.” He paused. “They could be anywhere.”
We both sat silent, mulling over that idea. Neither of us felt very happy about it. Certainly I didn’t.
“And the other?” I asked at last.
“I’ve become a consulter of almanacs,” he said irrelevantly. “Like my mother used to be. Do you know what tonight is?”
We looked at each other for a long time.
“I think,” I told him at last, “that I’ll be staying awake tonight. Just for the hell of it, you know.”
He smiled for the first time, a wintry smile devoid of warmth or happiness.
“I know,” he said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012