As always, we’re starving to death.
From our place inside the leather pouch tied to Aamsaa’s belt, our two remaining stalks ache with hunger, barely able to hold our withered green-spotted spore caps upright. We reach down with what’s left of our network of hyphal tendrils, hoping to lap up any remaining contaminants from the patch of poisoned soil Aamsaa found last week, but there’s nothing left. No scraps of heavy metals or drops of industrial toxins. We’ve consumed it all. And if Aamsaa doesn’t find more food for us soon, we’re as good as dead.
What can we say? Toxic pollution isn’t as easy to come by as it once was.
“What do you think?” we puff a cloud of message spores up to Aamsaa. “Are we going to make it this time? Or are you finally going to let us die in peace?”
The irregular cadence of her arthritic gait grinds to a halt, and she scoffs.
“You’re the all-knowing, century-old fungus. Why don’t you tell me?” she says, and there is a smug yet endearing confidence in her voice. She doesn’t speak her strange, breathy human language. No, she speaks ours, the Rhythms of the World, the language of the soil and the sea and the sky with its low susurrations of air and fine chemical exchanges. Her human vocal cords and oil secretions aren’t designed for the task, but that hasn’t prevented her from mastering the nuances of the Rhythms over the decades.
“We’re not all-knowing,” we say.
“Then quit acting like it.”
“Hilarious. Now about that food?”
“Don’t get your caps in a twist.”
With her knobbly knuckles, Aamsaa unknots the pouch’s drawstring, and we release a puff of sensory spores to take in the damp, writhing sea-top mess that is the floating city of Del.
The night is cool with sea breeze as we stand on a wide, kelp-woven street lined with biomaterial buildings that resemble overgrown bird’s nests. At the end of the street, an ancient steel wind tower looms, its blades and turbine long locked by rust and streaked with slashes of peeling white tar. The cylindrical tower is massive; and its numerous window boxes practically vomit plant life, thick with diverse ferns and dangling ivy. A latticework of vines grows aggressively up the bottom half of the tower, covered in globe-like flowers that crackle with a soft teal light. And then, about halfway up, the vines grow outward in an almost mycorrhizal pattern, spreading chaotically overhead and latching onto the roofs of each bird’s nest building, forming a gently glowing canopy for the hundreds of humans milling in the street below.
“It’s beautiful,” we say.
“Del’s famous for its phyto-engineering,” Aamsaa says. “The people in that tower have innovated some pretty impressive stuff. They’ve set up tidal turbines beneath the city and trained those LumiVines to store and conduct electrical charges. It’s an ingenious distribution system.”
Clouds of moths, each individual as large as one of Aamsaa’s hands, flutter around the LumiVines, their translucent wings catching and refracting the light. We watch them sipping sap, careful to avoid the electricity stored within the flowers. Every now and then, one accidentally nicks a charged stamen, but with a quick buzzing Rhythm of protection, the electricity discharges harmlessly from the moth’s body with a soft teal pop. Hidden by the darkness above, we hear the wing beats of storm gulls surveying the scene, eyeing the moths for a meal.
“You see?” we say to Aamsaa, “We could die here. It would be a pleasure to join with these Rhythms.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re not going to die today. Listen.”
Beneath the creaking of the concrete floats and rusted wind turbines upon which this city was grown, we hear it: a piercing, droning, ragged whistling, like a kettle that has nearly boiled through its water. An inexplicable Break in the Rhythms of the World coming from a nearby alley.
And where there’s a Break in the Rhythms, there’s food for us. Maybe the last few square inches of a forgotten brownfield or a small cache of stubbornly undecomposed plastic. Our hyphae shudder at the prospect of an actual meal.
“Go ahead,” Aamsaa says. “Shower me with praise.”
“You know, your aversion to our death is both unnatural and unsettling.”
“Aw, I love you too. Now let’s get you fed.”
Limping on her swollen hips, Aamsaa winds her way through the crowded, gently glowing street. The humans around us wear pollen-based perfumes and single-use compostable clothes that smell freshly grown. Underneath the canopy of LumiVines, they relax and laugh and barter with one another, sharing trays of steaming shorebread and marveling at the hand-woven kelp dolls that move and talk on their own, powered by the crackling teal flowers stitched to their backs. Many people are too busy in their revelry to notice Aamsaa.
But not all of them.
A growing number glance sideways at the dead leaves and bark chips tied into Aamsaa’s ragged shawl and her wild tangle of silver hair only held in check by a single strand of long-dead ivy. Many of them mask their nervousness and try to subtly move away from her. But one brazen young man shoves past and mutters something in the crude exhalations of breath that constitute human language. Several of his fellow humans smirk and laugh behind their hands.
This isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed humans openly ridiculing Aamsaa. It’s always sorrowful when someone is rejected by their own kind, but Aamsaa doesn’t respond with sorrow. No, she’s well past that.
She turns and faces the young man, waves her arms menacingly, and shouts something terrible in her cacophonous human language. The man’s eyes widen in terror, and he and a few of his fellows run the other way. Everyone else takes several steps back, no longer hiding their efforts to avoid Aamsaa. They’ve cleared a path which she happily walks through.
“What did he say to you?” we ask.
“He called me a sea hag.”
“And what did you say back?”
“We just allowed him to believe his own idiocy.” She flashes an angry, mischievous smile.
Yes, it’s always sorrowful when someone is rejected by their own kind. We’ve been alive for over a hundred years, and we’ve never encountered another human who could speak the Rhythms in the slightest, let alone to the level of expertise Aamsaa has reached. In many ways, she’s beyond possible. And that separation, that constant reminder that she doesn’t belong with the rest of them, has led her to embrace a certain gruffness towards her species-kin that often bubbles over into rage.
“Rage is hardly ever productive,” we say.
“Please. You wouldn’t know rage if it bit off one of your caps.”
She’s not wrong. We tend to take things as they come. Without a means of locomotion, we don’t really have much of a choice.
“What does it feel like?” we ask.
She thinks for a moment. “It’s like you want to burn the world down, to light everything around you on fire. And even though you’ll get caught in the flames, you know you’re not wrong.”
“Yeah, so definitely not productive.”
Aamsaa lets out a loud exhalation that we’ve come to understand as a deeply and bitterly sarcastic laugh.
“All we’re saying is that you could give them another chance,” we say. “They’re not as bad as they once were.”
“Yes they are. And you should know that better than anyone.”
She’s referring to the humans who created us. And then left us to die.
“Everything dies,” we say. “That fact sustained my fungal ancestors for eons before humans even existed. What do we always tell you?”
“Oh not this nonsense about death being an ancient and sacred Rhythm and blah dee blah dee blah.”
“But it is. Death is a communion with the Rhythms. There’s a power in that.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“How very human of you.”
“Oh, shut up. We’re here.”
We’re standing in front of one of the low buildings of tangled growth. Plumes of smoke scented with seaweed and yeast wisp out of a chimney, and the glowing vine flowers above the door are twisted into the shape of a loaf of shorebread.
“It’s a bakery,” Aamsaa says, and there is a strange but certain longing in her voice.
And then it dawns on us. We have no idea how long it’s been since she’s eaten. She spends all her time listening for Breaks in the Rhythms and scurrying around the world trying to feed us, that so often, she forgets to take care of herself.
“We should go inside,” we say. “Get you some food.”
“That whistling,” she says, ignoring us, “it’s coming from the roof.”
“You need to eat just as much as we do.”
Before we can protest further, she strolls casually down the alley and begins stacking crates. Her joints creak and grind with the effort, but soon enough, she’s built an impromptu staircase. She climbs, and as she hoists herself up the last step and onto the bakery’s flattop roof, her arthritic hip pops in its socket.
“Wow,” we say, “And you’re worried about us getting old.”
“Oh, shut up and—”
A blast of wind knocks Aamsaa back onto the top step of her rickety crate stairs. Her arms wheel wildly, and we think she’s going to fall to the alleyway below, breaking every bone in her body and crushing us in the process. But as the set of stacked crates sways precariously, we send out a fresh puff of sensory spores and learn that falling to our death is the least of our problems.
A storm gull, taller than Aamsaa, looms over us, flapping her wide wings several feet above the rooftop. She glares down, silver beak and black talons poised to strike, thunderhead-gray feathers glinting in the vinelight. The wind rushes over every fiber of every feather, beating in time with the Rhythms of the World, gathering the power of the sky to release another gale and send us toppling to our deaths.
“Move!” we shout to Aamsaa.
Aamsaa leaps just as the gale collides with the crate stairs and sends them crashing into splinters. She rolls onto the flattop roof, one hand cradling our pouch and the other holding her knife out wide, ready to fight. Her bones creak mid-somersault, and she lands in a dizzying kneel. By the time Aamsaa turns around, another whirlwind is already crackling within the gull’s wings.
“Rotten human,” the gull says in Rhythmic.
“I’ll show you rotten,” Aamsaa says.
The gull’s head cocks. “Did it just speak Rhythmic?”
“Please,” we say. “We beg you to stop. She’s with us.”
The gull takes in a deep breath, tasting the chemical signature of our stalks and spore caps.
“You…you’re a Lyselium. Of the Mycorporeal.”
“The Mycorporeal” is the best translation into Rhythmic for the name of the organization of humans who created us. According to Aamsaa, the human name for the organization is something like the “Mycological Solutions Corporal-Ration”. We understand the first two words, but the last one is utter nonsense.
“We are,” we send through our spores.
“Your kind devoured the poisons that humans once pumped into the world. Without you, there would be no world left.”
“That’s also true.”
“And yet here you are, imprisoned by this human who has no understanding of your greatness. Kept in a sack, treated like some pet or scrap of—”
“Stop,” we say in a voice as vast as the sky.
The storm gull stops, then bows her head in respect.
“We’re not imprisoned,” we say. “This human saved us.”
We explain to the gull how we were once a thriving system of tens of thousands of stalks and caps, millions of miles of hyphae wriggling through the soil. For nearly a century we feasted on the toxins humans had created, but after a while, there were simply no pollutants left within our reach. We tell the gull of how the humans who created us didn’t bother themselves with the question of what would happen to us when the contaminants ran out. We tell them how we began to starve.
“We thought we were going to die, and in fact, much of us did. We’re all that’s left.”
Right on cue, Aamsaa reaches into the pouch, scoops her hands into the soil ball beneath our hyphae, and lifts out the entirety of our withered structure. Two drooping stalks and spore caps, one short and one tall, shrunken with hunger.
“We weren’t ready to die,” we say. “Not then. There was so much of the world we hadn’t seen. We cried out through the Rhythms, reaching for someone, anyone to help us. Maybe it was because the ground on which we feasted had been poisoned for so long, but no one came, no microbe, no plant, no animal. Until this human heard us and came running. She’s cared for us ever since.”
The gull stares at Aamsaa with a sense of shock and respect and contrition that her fellow humans never offer her. “I…I didn’t know such a thing was possible,” the gull says.
Aamsaa glances down at us, a look of gratitude plastered on her face.
“It’s alright,” she says to the gull. “How could you have known?”
“And now,” we say, “we’re terribly hungry and our friend’s extraordinary ears tell us there’s something we can snack on nearby.”
The gull looks behind her, where the chimney rises from the bakery below.
“Please, Great Lyselium of the Mycorporeal, can you heal my friend?”
The thunderhead-gray gull leads us behind the chimney to an alcove carved in the clay bricks. There, a slightly smaller, sky-white gull is nestled, eyes pinched shut and wings tucked tightly against his body. The white gull opens his beak, tries to flap his feathers in time with the Rhythms, but he’s wracked by shivers. From somewhere inside of him comes the sound of a whistling kettle.
“He hasn’t been responding,” the storm-gray gull says. “I don’t think he can hear us.”
That’s certainly unsettling. But not as unsettling as when the shivering gull opens his eyes and two beams of glaring white light shine forth, cutting through the night. The white light is exponentially brighter than anything the Lumivines could ever hope to produce.
“What is that?” the gray gull screeches.
We’ve seen more than our fair share of toxins, but we’ve never seen one capable of doing this. Whatever it is, we need to act fast.
“Aamsaa, put us on his back.”
But Aamsaa hesitates, her fingers creaking under our slight weight.
“Something’s off,” she says. “This Break sounds different. Stronger.”
“All the better to give us the nutrients we need to keep right on living.”
“But what if it’s too strong? What if you can’t handle it?”
“Then we’ll have the privilege of joining with the Rhythms in this beautiful place.”
Aamsaa chews on the inside of her cheek for a long moment. “So, you’ll just leave me here alone then?”
“It’s gonna happen at some point. Either that, or you’ll die first and leave us alone. And you wouldn’t put poor old us through that now, would you?”
She spits a gob of blood-tinged saliva onto the roof. “You really suck sometimes, you know that?”
She says some of her strange human words then sets us on the back of the sky-white gull, soil ball and all. We stretch our hyphal tendrils down until they find his feathers. We grow into him, crawling through his muscles, tunneling towards his hollow bones. Through our spores, we whisper the Rhythms of healing, low and quiet assurances from the soil itself. And then, we become part of the gull.
We feel his terror, the pain tinging every feather. The remorse he feels at having flown near the strange tower with its pointed metal blades streaked in rust and white tar and its glowing vines spoking out over the street. The ferns growing in the tower’s highest window box smelled impossibly sweet, but as soon as he bit into them, he regretted it. The ragged kettle-whistle filled his head, and the blinding white encompassed his vision. He can no longer feel the Rhythms of the World, and he is scared, so scared.
We stretch our hyphae deeper and come across veins of shining white liquid forking through the gull’s muscles: a vile system of rivers and tributaries that spreads with every passing second. We send our hyphae out to meet the glaring poison, and our toxin-devouring acids disintegrate its outermost branches.
But as we follow the light back to its source, the branches only get thicker, only burn brighter. They’re resistant to our acids, and we can’t go any further on our own.
“Aamsaa,” we say, “give us a boost.”
Her voice kicks in, subtle and nuanced in its susurrations. She combines the pervasiveness of grassroots and dewdrops and cloudwisps, melding the Rhythms of soil, sea, and sky to strengthen our growth. With Aamsaa’s help, our tendrils slash and devour the forking beams of light. As we consume them, we realize that she was right. This toxin tastes…strong.
It doesn’t taste like the crude byproduct from some bygone technological era. It tastes like nuance and intentionality, complex molecular chains and bits of rare metals mixed with naturally occurring chemicals. It’s as if someone carefully constructed this compound to do exactly what it’s doing.
As this realization dawns on us, we come up against the full strength of the toxin: a barrier of solid white light, throbbing in the middle of the gull’s muscle mass like an infected, glowing heart. We prod the wall of light with several hyphae, trying to locate a weak point, but there are none to be found. We throw the full weight of our hyphal network against the wall, and it swells out to meet us. Its chemical heat intensifies as it engulfs our hyphae. Burns us away. And in one searing burst, our consciousness is back within our stalks and caps.
Aamsaa scoops us up and pulls us away from the sky-white gull. Frozen in that same sitting position, he no longer moves, mid-shiver but no longer shivering. Immobile like stone. The white light, brighter than before, pours from his eyes. He’s still alive, still bones and blood and feathers, but he’s been completely severed from the Rhythms of the World.
We can’t imagine a fate worse than this.
The thunderhead-gray gull’s wings twitch nervously. Her eyes don’t leave her friend when she says, “What. Happened.”
“It…it was too strong,” we say.
“Are you alright?” Aamsaa asks, nearly out of breath. “Are you shhhhhhhhhreeeeeeeeeeeeee?”
The last few words are replaced by a piercing whistle, and at first we think something is wrong with Aamsaa. But then we feel the burning in the base of our shorter stalk. We see the forking veins of searing white light crawling up. The distant kettle whistle is not so distant now.
So then. This is it. This is how we die. This is how we finally join with the Rhythms.
We try to say goodbye to the world and to Aamsaa. We try to tell her that we’ve lived a long and good life, one made much better and longer because of her.
But we can’t form the words. The kettle whistle is too loud.
An overwhelming sense of terror fills us. We want to scream to Aamsaa that she needs to stop this, to save us, but none of the words come because this thing has cut us off from the Rhythms so completely. It’s keeping us from death, holding us here as the light fills us, blocking us from the Rhythms for…for how long? Forever? Will this last fore—
With a single downward slash of her knife, Aamsaa severs our short, infected stalk from the rest of us. For an instant, we are two parts of a formerly collective being. One part falling, calcifying into a terrible state of light-bringing undeath and the other huddled closely in the arms of an angry and protective human.
And then, the dying part dies. Crushed to withered dust under Aamsaa’s boot before the toxin can claim that part of us for itself.
The kettle-whistle within us subsides, and we can hear the clicking of Aamsaa’s bones as she heel-grinds what remains of our poisoned stalk into the rooftop.
It’s a strange feeling to watch a part of yourself die. It’s not unfamiliar to us, but it never gets easier. There’s always sorrow, and that’s what hits us first. A sense of loss, of being less than we once were. But this time, that sense is heightened. We’ve always been multiple; multiple stems, multiple stalks. But now, for the first time in our existence, we’re no longer us. What remains of our body wracks with an ache deeper than any hunger.
“We’re…we’re…” we begin to say. But we pause, because the next word is one we’ve never spoken before. “Alone.”
“What happened?” Aamsaa demands.
“It tried to separate us from the Rhythms.”
“What did?” the gull asks, her eyes still locked on the light pouring from her friends’ eyes.
We describe the forking light, how it infected the gull after he ate the ferns from the metal tower streaked in white tar.
Aamsaa looks over her shoulder, back towards the bustling street full of glowing vines and human voices. Her jaw is set.
“They made this.”
We know that Aamsaa’s right. We don’t know how the humans who created this toxin intend to use it, but that doesn’t matter. Regardless of what glowing, plant-based ingenuities they’ve designed before, this creation can’t be allowed to spread. Death has always been a communion, a return to the Rhythms. And the fact that these humans created something that could steal that from us, well, that is unforgivable.
At this thought, something awakens in us. Something we’ve never felt before. A sizzling certainty, a desire to release all our acids at once and burn the world around us.
“Aamsaa, what did you say rage felt like again?”
She’s surprised to see our hyphae crawling up her wrinkled and waxy arm. We aren’t seeking sustenance this time, no longer searching for some age-old toxin to prolong our life. No, we’re well past that.
“What the hell are you doing?”
We ignore her concern.
“We need to destroy that tower,” we say.
“Correct,” the gull squawks. The air around her crackles.
“No,” Aamsaa says to us, “you need to save your energy. The more you grow, the less time we’ll have to find you food. I can find you something else. Just give me a second to listen and—”
“Aamsaa,” we say.
But she’s shut her eyes tight, already listening.
“You won’t hear anything. You know it. The world has moved on. Our time has passed. And that is a beautiful thing.”
She lets out a heavy breath, and when she opens her eyes, they’re rimmed in red.
“You…you can’t. You’re the only home I’ve ever known.”
“Nonsense,” we say. “You’ve always had the Rhythms. And now we’ll be a part of them.”
“But it won’t be you.”
She’s right of course, but we don’t stop. We continue to spread our hyphae up her arm, exerting as much energy as we can. Our hunger pangs deepen.
“When we die, you’ll feel a surge in the Rhythms. Ancient and sacred and powerful, just like we always said. Listen to them. Talk to them. Then urge them to destroy that tower.”
“I… I… I don’t know if I can.”
“Silly human,” we say, “don’t you know this is about so much more than you.”
She glares at us, but her eyes smile. “You really are the worst, you know that?”
The gull cranes her neck over Aamsaa’s shoulder. “Whatever you plan to do, will it help my friend?”
“We don’t think so. The toxin is too entrenched. All we can do is make sure what happened to him doesn’t happen to anybody else. We’re sorry.”
The gull is quiet for a long moment.
“Thank you,” she says finally, “Great Lyselium of the Mycorporeal. You’ve lived up to your prodigious reputation.” She bows her head and turns away.
And then, we work up the courage to ask Aamsaa for one final favor.
“Please. When we die, don’t let us be alone.”
“You idiot,” she says. “You were never alone.”
She holds us close to her chest, and we extend our stretched and cracked hyphae up her arm, covering her in a latticework of ourself, growing into her skin, nestling in the top layers of muscle. With a final puff of spores, we whisper the Rhythms of healing, low and quiet assurances from the soil itself. And then, for a few moments anyway, we become part of Aamsaa.
We feel her sorrow as she remembers the abandoned brownfield where she found us. Images of our travels together flash through her mind, going from ruined oil refinery to crumbling chemical plant to rubbled shopping plaza, always finding just enough for us to eat, just enough to get us to the next site. We remember right alongside her. And when those memories turn to rage at the humans who created this white-light toxin, who harmed her friend like this, who are separating her from the only creature she’s ever truly felt at home with, we feel that too. We’re not certain if these are our feelings or hers, but we’re certain that doesn’t matter.
And then, stretched, withered, starved, and content, we die.
There’s always sorrow, sure, but death is nowhere near as dramatic a shift as humans make it out to be. It’s the difference between a worm and the grit of the soil, between a fish and a drop in the sea, between a bird and a cloud in the sky. Between being the speaker and being the language. Different, certainly, but still part of the same thing.
As all that we’ve been drifts down and out and up to join the Rhythms of the World, a voice speaks through Us. A voice that We know. It’s subtle at first, nuanced susurrations of grassroots and dewdrops and cloudwisps. But Aamsaa doesn’t stay quiet for long. Her words shatter with sorrow for her lost friend and swell with rage against the white-tarred tower. They crackle with retribution as Aamsaa speaks Us in a voice as dark as the soil, as deep as the sea, and as light as the sky.
And all that We are responds in kind.
We are the deep plates of the earth pressing, pressing against one another until part of Us breaks. We are the fissure forking its way up to the surface, erupting in a hyper-focused fracture of the seabed. We are the roiling water, churning in a concussive wave that crashes into the white tower and twists its ancient metal. We are the thunderhead floating high above, and We are the lightning that shrieks down to blast the tower top.
We are the fire that rages inside the tower. We are the smoke of burnt experiments and melted data storage rising to the sky. And as the sound of the kettle whistle dies, as the Break in Us is healed, We are the silence that fills the air.
Many of the humans in the city below run for safety. A few point up at the flames and shout. They have nothing to fear. The tower will burn, but the sea will douse the flames soon enough. They can rebuild from there; the tower and vines, the harmless things. But if they try to break Us again, we will make sure Aamsaa the human, or some creature like her, hears their attempts. And We will destroy them all over again.
On a nearby rooftop the thunderhead-gray storm gull screeches a cry of rage and sorrow. Aamsaa looks down at the small fruiting fungal body that is now a part of Us still clinging to her wrist, even in death.
We want to say something to console them both. To tell them to take care of themselves, get something to eat. We want to tell the gull We’re sorry we couldn’t help her friend. We want to tell Aamsaa that she should have a healer look at her hip to see if they can ease her pain. We want to tell her how right she was about rage and how much We already miss her.
We want to tell them to talk to one another and recognize they’re not alone in this. To reassure them that We are fine, that everything dies and because of that, nothing truly dies. That this is merely a temporary parting. That whenever either of them speaks Us, We will be there, on the tips of their tongues and in the oils of their skin. And one day, it may be a while for the gull, but based on the creaking of Aamsaa’s bones it’s coming soon for her, they will become a part of Us too.
But We are the language, not the speaker, so We are unable to tell them anything. They must sit with their sorrow and rage a little while longer. And We must leave.
We are the Rhythms of the World, after all, and We have everywhere to be.