The Mushroom House
Two lanterns swing between the rafters. Forty years ago, a home-proud man hung them there, and forgot they existed, continuing then to live his meagre, cheaply-bought life. Yet still they lit his steps every night as if he were a god, and still they glowed into the night, long after he'd been crushed to dust beneath new gravestones.
They creak now in the wind, in asynchronous arcs—like faulty phonographs, spinning out the ostinato of a deep, distant song.
You slip through those broken, crackling leaves on the rusting porch, and wonder why the fire hasn't died: there is a soft glow under the crack of the door. Hasn't this house been uninhabited for years already? You wonder.
The poison is making you dizzy, but there is time yet.
Like blood spotting pages, the most insignificant of sorrows mar the house's history. At the last turn of the decade, all of its residents left. An orchestra in a foreign country for the musician daughter. A marble-pillared school that lured the son away, with nothing but a gilded sheaf of paper and the word "Accepted".
A war to fight. A skill to learn. A job to take and never return.
The father's name was Alden, not the most remarkable man. He once aspired to become a paladin. But look at the tiny sword hanging crooked on his wall, beside the certificate of his death. Where was he then, when everything was wrenched from his grip? He never became a paladin; he was murdered by a paladin. All because he stood in the battler's way.
The mother, Regina. She once had her name written all over the guild halls, for saving innumerable lives in the battles that raged under the wings of history. But did she ever fight, the way she dreamt in those diary pages? No, she never shed a drop of blood. She saved people with her healing, and when the time came, even that was not enough to save her from her killer's knife.
The daughter was strange Louisa: she never took the sword, nor the staff. But she did take the bow—and that bow, she rested across the strings of the cello. She had dreams that could only be written in melody—but there always were notes far beneath C, and she could never have reached them, however she twisted the pegs, even if the strings came loose. She was found dead in her apartment one day, a symbol carved in her cheek.
And the son, the son's name was Kendall. Kendall, candle, Kendall. He never was the strongest flame—turned to architecture for refuge, sketching houses that kept him safe from storm in his imagination. He once knew love. But he lost her to the war, before their life together could begin. He slipped the wedding ring onto the cold finger of a corpse.
The door yields to your touch. It isn't locked—the last resident despised this cottage with such a passion that he didn't secure it when he left; he rode away, leaving it helplessly open, and within three days the house had been robbed bare.
The floor is polished, but that hasn't stopped the rot from getting through it after years of brutal persistence. You too were handsome once; it doesn't strike you as surprising that time can change things so unprecedentedly.
But there is something sad, too, about relinquishing beauty to decay.
Every house has a heart of its own. It beats for love; it bathes and grows in the warmth of the flame in its belly, that flame that appears in the hearth on autumn nights—a tiny inferno that infuses the veins of the plumbing and burnishes the bricks and mellows the ceramic tiles. It purrs in the sun after the rain slips off its rooftop, as the maid is sunning clothes on improvised clotheslines spanning the garden.
This family—the one that left? It used to love the house. They loved the house, dearly enough to paint it into a likeness of the Henesys' symbol. That was a trend of the time: in a year, the entire hill of houses was painted the same way.
It was a job of many days—father and mother toiled in the torrid sun with brushes, encouraging each other with laughter, singing unto each other their dreams. Spot by painstaking spot, the pattern of the brilliant red mushroom was lain down, the lower walls renewed by a shade of off-white, made to imitate the mushroom's stalk. When it was done, they stood back to admire their abode—a hut that had never really amounted to anything—proud, for once, that they had turned the small house so beautiful.
(See the mushrooms in the field? They spring up after the rain. They rise from the battlefield, the carrion-field. They devour carcasses and bloom. The Henesys government seems to want to send us a message.)
The mushroom is now but empty, and the brilliant red has degenerated to the crumbly grey of rainy sky. It has waited many years, for those rugs to be laid anew, for the lamps to be lit on those cold November mornings, for its heart and arteries to bubble once more with the lurid delight of fire.
But though it waited, no one ever returned.
(Mushrooms? And what would that message be?)
(That the dead will bring life to the living. The fallen bleed into the risen. So the wheel continues to turn.)
You notice the fire, as you pass through the living room. It crackles innocuously—as if someone recently left the room to get himself a mug of hot chocolate, and the fire is waiting for his return.
Your hands are cold, frozen by the ghostly autumnal echoes within this house—so you come to sit before the flame, and warm your hands against its heat.
"I'm going away." Fingers sweep through her hair, and her locks spiral like autumn beneath the treetops.
"Battle is not for me. I'm going to the city to study. To learn to create buildings. Homes. I will make a home for us."
"But we have a home already, don't we? This place."
"Oh, come on—this dingy hut? Don't let Father's preaching get to you. We deserve better. We deserve a mansion: I will sketch it for us."
(How do the mushrooms grow? They devour corpses and sprout from the shadows of death, holding enough poison to kill a man—those horrible pretty creatures.
A mushroom cannot give life. It can only murder.)
Staring into the flames, you begin to see visions—of things that transpired miles away, centimeters away, decades and a few seconds ago, all as one—stirring and whispering in the swirl and dart of the tongues in the fireplace.
In that fire dance thousands of lifetimes.
Tears are suddenly gathering beneath your eyelids. You're powerless against them: they're everywhere, flooding down your cheeks, splashing dark circles on the dusty floor.
In all their years, the tutors have never seen a more attentive student than he. After lectures, he dashes straight to the library, pulling books off the shelves, consolidating his knowledge on a page of his notebook—makes new sketches, scraps a thousand designs, dreams new castles every day.
His house will stand in the city, once he finds a way to escape this hyphal hold.
I can't forget your beauty, beauty that our mushroom house doesn't deserve.
Her face is behind every diagram he makes, her smile in the curve of the foyer steps, the sun of her hair in the sweeping corridors—and his heart is at home, always at home, inside the old house where he knows she waits.
If the house is a mushroom, she is a flower—a blossom that needs the sun, not just rank rot and dead bodies, nothing like those ugly growths in the fields. A forget-me-not, maybe—blue and free as the sky above.
What would Sierra like there? A balcony with a view of the stars? There is a quiet smile on his lips as he works.
And he works deep into the night for that smile, as it fades slowly from memory. Every time he finishes another project, he pins it to the wall, alongside another sketch of her face. They change day to day—and in a year, he no longer remembers how she looks.
This is silliness, you tell yourself in the friendly glow of the fire, crying over things that happened long ago. The floorboards creak under your weight, and you wipe your tears from your cheeks. But more fall before your fingers have moved away.
It's alright to lose love and forget. Isn't it?
It's alright to abandon those memories if they hurt.
You can't, you can't—your mourning won't bring them back.
You bury your face in your knees. The tears come again.
Alden Azalea, who saw his garden survive a winter and forgot why he ever longed to wield a sword.
Regina Azalea, whose father chose for her a job she never wanted; she took it in her stride, and saved the people she'd once hoped to stand among.
Louisa Azalea, who never completed her undergraduate studies at the Orbis School of Music. Her body was found slumped over her cello, at midnight—embracing it until her end, the droplets of her blood staining its strings.
And Kendall Azalea. Graduated with top honours from his Architecture course. He returned to his hostel that day, and found a note on his desk.
And I will draw us our mansion, Sierra. It will be in the city—clean, pure, beautiful. It will have pillars and spiraling staircases, and a patio beneath the stars—and we won't have to see another mushroom again.
Kendall tears the note to pieces.
With a fist he smashes his pencil against the wall.
He is flung across his desk by the choking weight of his anger, and the garden of his mind wilts, becoming a haven for rot.
The tears make the ink run.
The mansion turns to dust.
There's something about that fire that dances before you; your heart tears and tears again into pieces, as you gaze into it.
There's something about the world that embraces you, almost affirming and parental, despite how your shadow flickers against the wall. Your heart is broken across the planks, its every twisted emotion laid bare, but you do nothing to retrieve it.
This is the place where Sierra died. Here it was that she sighed her last, and a black blade plunged through her, shredding the sky-blue petals.
This mushroom, it grows upon the dead, and kills in turn.
Every house has a heart of its own. It watches the passage of time within its walls as wailing infants become decrepit old men, and the fresh photographs fade slowly to brown. They come and go as they please, crossing doorways, smashing windows, creeping under the floorboards where the lower creatures roam.
But the war, the war is a stain in its history—splashing the walls bright scarlet, planting tombstones in its garden.
You will not pass my gates or hurt my family!
Blood, blood streaks the petunias, the poppies, the forget-me-nots. His flowers, and the traipsing butterflies, all red.
Alden Azalea never stood a chance against his attacker.
The metal snicks; the gardener father collapses, nurturer all his life. He has sunk a stake into the soldier's foot, and his teeth are gnashed.
Not my children. Not my house.
Now in the dark night, the stench of sweat and blood and mud grips her. She can hear her comrades falling into the snowy earth all around, and her fists grow tight—this pain, it is everywhere—she will not let her staff slip from her hand, not now.
A familiar call: "Regina! Regina—save—me—"
With a cry of despair, she throws a thousand curtains of light in the air; they part and scatter and throw the battlefield into a chaos of light, seeking out the wounded and closing broken skin for them. They are blind; in the light they lose their sight.
The brilliant sparks descend, to shatter across the grass. She lies alone, sprawled out in her own blood, empty-eyed, an arrow ripping her throat apart.
"Faithless pagan, you will pay for your sin!"
These were once her classmates, but classmates no more, in the veil of the night—the sweet violinist with the fangs, the queenly harpist draconian in the dark.
She screams, a melodic harmonic scream; the strings of her instrument vibrate in resonant dissonant fright—Louisa, Louisa.
"Yes, I deny it! I will never be a slave—a slave to your god—"
The song lives forever in the score. The bloodied cello vibrates with the note of her final scream long after she has died.
Never more! Never again!
He hates this house. Hates it with a vengeance. With a scream he slams his room door shut, luggage packed up at his feet.
The carriage will be here soon, to take him away. Away from this horrible place, where everyone left him to enter the fold of the sky. Away, away, somewhere. As long as it's not here.
No heart can live without a home and no home can live without a heart...
The rafters are falling through the sky, through a hundred years of grief. The lanterns have grown so rusty you can barely see the engravings. The floor is about to cave in, about to be lost to rot, and someday the world will forget there ever was a floor there, and forget everyone who ever crossed it. The garden is a field of the murdered. Where are the forget-me nots?
Kendall cannot bear this hole within him; he tries to murder himself with poison. He wrenches bottle cap off, forces glass mouth to his own lips, tips, slowly, pupils dilating.
That is when he realises that he knows what he has always needed, always denied.
It is something he has always known, these years he has spent in the dark of a heaven without warmth. He left the fire, and it burns still; his heart is missing one thing, and that is the hearth that used to keep him breathing.
Without it, his heart is slowly closing its doors to life, suffocated by this cruel cold creeping through the windows.
The past calls loudly, strident, clarion. He begins to run, run in moonlit starlit days, through puddles that splash his reflection everywhere, a return through worlds and passageways that led him forward and will lead him back, all meaningless, in the light, of this dooming epiphany.
How will he die? It is the least confounding of his questions. Is this joy or is this dread? Can one hate yet love so?
He watches the rusty gates streak past him as they did when he was a child; he watches the garden of the past close in around him. He feels it all, breathing through his skin—the driveway that was his last sight of this house, before he left it forever, the leaves that used to drift to the porch, a carpet across the steps now, the windows, all broken, the shards buried somewhere far underneath.
His eyes are shut; his eyes are open. This derelict garden, these steps, these crumbling walls.
Only then does he drink the poison.
...I am the mushroom.
Standing amongst the corpses...the grotesque thing that will never be as pretty as the flowers.
Why are Father's poppies stained red?
Live because this is all I have left of the world—a stack of memories, a cadaver of my childhood's joy.
Where are you, Sierra? Answer me. Answer!
Even though everything is dead now, tangled with my mycelium.
I hate this stupid house! I hate it! I wish we'd never lived here!
The one that blooms upon the carcasses.
I never...never...want to see it again...
Not a defilement—an elegy—to the people who fell for Henesys, the mushroom town.
That's why it continues to light the lantern, why its windows sing, occasionally, in the wind after the rain. Why the fire still crackles—as if someone recently left the living room, to get himself a mug of hot chocolate, and the fire is waiting for his return—
Your name is Kendall. Kendall, candle, Kendall. The one who lost every person he ever loved to the war.
That flame, it flickers—but it never goes out.
No mansion, no sun, no beating heart. Plain floorboards, dusty windows, warm hearth.
Home. That is all it is. No more than nothing.
(You see those mushrooms, dotting the hillside? They rise after the rain, never remarkably beautiful—but poisonous, yes, poisonous enough to end you irrevocably.
But then isn't that life as it is? The cruelty and symmetry.)
The poison is making you dizzy.
The world spins around you, spins out a tapestry—the tale of your father who guarded his garden, the legend of your mother who died for a war she never fought, the ballad of the sister who knew who she was. It enwraps you, crushing you slowly in its all-encompassing darkness, full of broken windows and open floorboards, the world below showing through.
The fire rises and crackles, crackles higher—joyous, forgiving, mournful.
This is the place where your love died. This is the mushroom you always detested.
I hate this place. I hate it—dead before it was born. Born upon the dead.
I hate it down to the core.
If you listen closely, you can almost hear the decrepit walls shifting in a little closer, the creak of the rusty lanterns through the windows, the fire dimming slowly to embers—the house, singing, softly, its loving farewell.
And I love you. I have always loved you.
A flower of the battlefield, just like me. The last left standing, when all the others are dead and gone.