Pushcart XLI: Liz Ziemska, “The Mushroom Queen” from Tin House #63

For about an hour now she’s been thinking about the two races of man. One race is very, very slow; they crawl upon the earth like slugs, leaving silvery slime trails wherever they go. The other is very, very fast, about as fast as electrons, and when they pass by they leave a radiant residue, though you can never be sure if you’ve actually seen them, or if there’s a smudge on your glasses picking up the light in a funny way. The two races live side by side, completely unaware of each other, sucking on the same earth.
But on the night of the fool moon, a special moon that occurs once per decade—or every 9.3 years, to be exact—when the moonrise lag is equal to the moonset lag, causing great upheavals of the deep, cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, the slow race can sometimes catch up to the fast race.
All of this is just nonsense, of course. It’s the duration that’s the important part here. Nine-point-three years is a long time to be married.

Most of the philosophy moocs I’ve been taking over the last few years (including the one I just posted about) tackle issues related to “the hard problem of consciousness.” One of the foundational papers looking at the mind-body problem – are they the same? Is the mind physical, metaphysical, functional? – is Thomas Nagel’s “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” His conclusion: we can’t know.

That may be the case, but in this story a woman finds out what it’s like to be a fungus, while at the same time, a fungus finds out what it is to be human. And they relate their experiences quite convincingly.

The Mushroom Queen was tired of living underground. She can assume any form. Her skin is nicer than human skin, firm and white, and it has no pores, only spores, because mushrooms are self-propagating, which can get pretty lonely. So she deposed herself and came to the woman’s house from the east, traveling west along the shore of a wide green river, over the Appalachians, beneath the Great Lakes, flowing right across the vast midwestern plains. She was born over a century ago in the unkempt garden of a red-brick house that was once a home, then a nursery, then a nunnery, and is now again a home. That is where our woman arrives now, sucked across the country and extruded from the ground beneath a trellis of tangled vines that sprout purple flowers in the summer. They have switched places, the discontent of one calling to the desire of the other. Nature abhors a vacuum.

I did my usual googling around on the story, and discovered an interesting tweet by the author linking to a BBC article titled “Plants have a hidden internet.” And another find: slime molds have solved mazes, and traced subway and road systems. Consciousness is typically associated with attention and volition. Communicating needs and deciding pathways seem to require these things. So is this consciousness? Is it intelligence?

I’m pretty skeptical about such things. Consider: molecules called phospholipids come together to form cell membranes, not from any life force or desire, but simply because their polar heads and non-polar tails align as a circular bilayer due to electromagnetic attraction and repulsion. Consider also the “suicide” of infected/cancerous cells: they present indicators of their condition, thus marking themselves for destruction by cytotoxic T cells looking for those indicators. We might think, what noble cells, sacrificing themselves for the good of the organism! But the MHC receptors that perform this act of heroism evolved at some point on cells, and organisms with them had an evolutionary advantage over those without. It’s not always that easy to tell the difference between will and simply obeying the laws of physics.

Then again (I’ve always said every issue has at least five sides), theoretical physicist Max Tegman recently proposed that consciousness is a state of matter, similar to liquid or gas, called perceptronium. What is the origin of electromagnetic forces, gravity, and such? Could matter, at the sub-sub-atomic scale, have something akin to perception and preference?

I love a story that teaches me something, and even more if it lets me take a sidetour… But back to the story. The woman-as-fungus presents clear evidence of all the characteristics of consciousness even as she transforms into the mycelium beneath the surface of the world: information processing, a sense of wholeness, even a sense of embodiment.

In her newly dematerialized state, she is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. But this is just an illusion, a temporary form of vertigo brought on by the sudden vastness of her being. In reality, she covers a little less than three square acres, one edge dangling in the cool green waters of the Hudson, the other pushed up against the crumbling blacktop of Route 9. A red-brick house squats on her chest like a poorly digested meal. There’s a maple tree growing out of her forehead, its flame-colored leaves the color of her panic.

The Mushroom Queen, her double now leading her old life as a human woman, has her own problems. She’d rather be eating the compost heap than the nice Brie her husband puts on the table (the rind is a distant cousin, after all). She finds it difficult to talk. Bathing in water makes her feel dirty, so she rolls around in the dirt to clean up afterwards. And there’s a growing sense of decay in the life she’s taken over, as the walls grow green slime and the dogs don’t get walked any more.

The dogs play a sort of Greek chorus in all this, acting out their own little dramas in different ways. Jill Schepmann of The Rumpus characterizes one of them perfectly as “the snarkiest little brown dog ever.” Even a little brown dog knows the dangers of desire – and yet can’t resist.

The very first paragraph bothered me, I’ll admit, for the most ridiculous of reasons: I happen to hate the “the woman/the man/the boy” construction. There’s nothing wrong with the usage; it’s useful for stories where names won’t be used, and here, with the duality of The Woman and The Mushroom Queen, it’s particularly appropriate, but we all have our little tics. It sent me into hypercritical mode, mentally rewriting “There’s a small brown dog nestled…” to “A small brown dog nestles…”, thanks to another tic around the “there was” construction (trauma from a long-ago writing class … deep breath… but that’s no excuse). Pretty arrogant of me, considering this story was already edited by the author, then again by Tin House, before being selected for not one but two prestigious prize collections (it can also be found in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017). The fool moon made up for it, and from there I was quite happy, not thinking about such nonsense again.

The narration switches modes as needed. In general it’s close 3rd person, flitting between various POV characters as they tell their own sides of the story. But it zooms out briefly to omniscient to bring up the real-world science, and then again at the very end to … well, I’ll leave that for the readers to discover. I consider the end a bit ambiguous, with two general ways it could go, but I choose to believe in the nestling of the small brown dog.

I notice this story was nominated by the original publisherTin House, of course, and by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, whose “Iconography” from the 2014 Pushcart I loved. I can see a similarity, not in the stories, but in the willingness to go beyond the literal, and to write serious stories with just a little twinkle in the eye.

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