Rated PG-13. “Telomerase” was previously published in An Alphabet of Embers. “Mycelium” is a PodCastle original.
By Ian Muneshwar
You lost your first word when I began to lose my hair.
You brought a wicker basket to the hospital and opened it in the waiting room, taking out a blue-checkered blanket that you spread out over our laps. Inside the basket there was a book of Greek myths and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into crustless triangles, just how you used to make them when the kids were young.
I told you that this was silly, that cancer was no picnic, but you just grinned like you had set me up for that very joke.
When the needle was under my skin, the nausea starting in the pit of my stomach, you opened the book. You read Hades with a seething hiss that made the child across the room giggle; Zeus was a grand baritone that reminded me of what you were like when we first met, all blustering, billowing confidence.
After the first few tales you got up, saying you had to get something. Your lips tried to form the last word, to tell me what it was, but you couldn’t make the sound. I asked you to spell it out, to write it down, but the word was gone completely, even its roots burned out of your memory.
You came back with tea in one of the hospital’s Styrofoam cups. You pointed at it and tried to summon the word again; your thin lips parting, the tip of your tongue pressed to the roof of your mouth.
Tea, I said. Hot tea.
Shaking your head, you picked up the book and started where we had left off.
By the time I decided to shave my head, you had figured out the pattern. Want was the next to go. Yes and no left you while you were chopping carrots, up and down when you took the grandkids to the playground.
You were losing the simplest words first, losing them in the order you’d learned them. When you told the doctors, I couldn’t help but to see the irony, the absurdity that you, a retired professor of Classics and semiotics, should be without your words. But they only saw a riddle with no answer: it wasn’t Alzheimer’s or dementia, apraxia or aphasia—in all the pages of all their books there was no name for the way your words dimmed and vanished, one by one.
When they told us that you nodded politely and we left; you didn’t need to say anything for me to know that we weren’t coming back.
You were too clever to let language escape us so easily. In those last few weeks of chemo—when the cancer wasn’t going away but we prayed that it would after the next round and the one after that—we made a book of parallel meanings, a dictionary for a language that only you and I could understand. Beautiful became pulchritudinous, want turned to covet. For love we had a whole page: from treasure to venerate, idolize to revere.
When the nurses came through, trying to hide their confusion at your stilted dialect, I laughed harder than I had in a long time. It was in those moments I no longer noticed the hospital’s smell—the saccharine sweet of sanitized death. I no longer heard the ticking of the machine beside me that measured my life in milligrams of drugs whose names I’d forgotten.
In those moments it was just you, trying to speak to me when thee and thou were the only pronouns you had left.
In time, even the pronouns faded. The night you called the ambulance you didn’t have the words to tell them what had happened, where they needed to go. All you had left were the phrases you had learned in graduate school and later; listening to you talk was like reading Derrida. You had to run to get the neighbor, and even then we only made it just in time.
After they had stabilized me, the doctor told us the cancer had metastasized. He took off his cap and mask as he told us about how death finds its way into the bones.
He lingered for a moment as though he expected me to speak, but the only words I had for him gouged at the back of my throat, sharp and cold. So I said nothing. He looked from the foot of the bed to the morphine drip and then to you.
You gave him a quick smile and your left-eyed wink. With a hand on his back you ushered him out, whispering sweetly about post-structuralism.
Then you came back with that little book, pointing to old words and new definitions. There was something you wanted to say, but the meanings had become too muddled, too distant.
Beautiful went from pulchritudinous to hermeneutic to macrophagic. You burned through words for love even more quickly; there were pages of crossed out nouns that wound their way to telomerase.
I didn’t know what telomerase was until I called the nurse. She told us it was the enzyme that made cancer cells immortal, letting them spin out copy after copy of DNA helices that never grew weak, that never began to fade.
At the end of the night I asked you to leave. I said I was tired, but that wasn’t the truth, not completely. There was nothing more we could say to each other.
They put in me in hospice soon after that.
I thought I would be alone there, in that half-lit room with the fan whose blades sounded like wings. But you came to see me every day and, when I became feverish, you even started staying nights. You sat in the corner in silence, miming thoughts and feelings I only half understood.
I asked you to go. I said that they took good care of me, that I didn’t need you to adjust my pillows and bring me books.
You came to the edge of the bed, the collection of myths tucked under your arm, and smiled like I didn’t mean it, like I didn’t know what I was saying. There was a tired pity in that grin.
You finally left when I called the nurse and told her to take you away. You placed the book on the nightstand and let the door swing shut.
A fear came into the room in the space where you had been; it filled me with every breath and settled under my skin, at once leaden and electric. I didn’t want you here, hovering, watching, pitying. But I worried when you left, worried that when the last word flickered and was gone that you’d be gone, too.
There was no comfort in the hum of the fan or the creak of the mattress. I pulled up the sheets and closed my eyes.
In the uneasy shallows of sleep, I dreamed I was floating in a basket on the blue-checkered sea. I was surrounded by books but their pages were all blank, so I threw them overboard. They grew heavy and sank, the soft, white paper tearing away and floating in the deep.
My skin was hot, so hot I felt like a small, dying sun sinking slowly, waiting for the water to pull me under.
As the basket sank low, half-consumed, I heard you above me. The skin of your back was stretched and split by two massive wings. They were made of wicker; the warp and weft breathing in and out as you cut through the air, pushing yourself up to the cloudless sky. You made circles above me, then swooped down once more and up again, the force of your wingbeats dimpling the open water.
When I woke you had returned. You came and sat next to me, watching me patiently.
I wanted to tell you that when this was all over, I hoped the words would come back just as they’d left you, in a backward-reaching chain that would lower you gently; that you, my wicker-winged Icarus, would say yes and no, want and tea as you safely touched your toes to the ground.
But words had stopped coming easily, even for me.
And there you were, hand in mine, your beautiful, cracked lips forming the word telomerase over and over again.
By Eleanor R. Wood
Moonlight illuminates the branches of every grave marker, most devoid of their leaves now. The rustling beneath Harriet’s feet is evidence that one more summer of feasting on the dead has passed, and now the trees turn inwards, readying for their winter slumber. The great oak still clings to a scattering of leaves, and Harriet must perform her merging before the last leaf falls and the tree becomes silent.
It is the first Samhain since Isaac died, since Harriet lay her brother to rest in this growing woodland. Each tree marks a life lived and a new one thriving. Their network of roots connects them all: living, breathing, unified in death. This night is for remembering, honouring, but Harriet’s chest still aches with loss and a simple ritual for memory is not enough. Perhaps she is foolish to attempt this, but she has to try. She has to feel Isaac’s essence one more time.
It was their grandfather who introduced Harriet and Isaac to the Merging, that ancient ritual to connect with nature in the most literal sense. He showed them when they were children, receiving a stern scolding from their mother for guiding them through something so unsettling at such young ages. It had frightened Harriet, though she knew Isaac had returned to the woods for more. She was an adult before she attempted it again, and even now reserves the Merging solely for the most sacred occasions.
Isaac should be here now, celebrating Samhain with her, remembering their grandfather and all others who have crossed the veil. Instead, Harriet is here alone, remembering Isaac. Mourning him. Unable to let him go.
She misses his stoicism, his laughter, the casual ease she never shared with anyone else. She misses his company on woodland treks and in seasonal rituals. She misses his cooking, his advice on all things growing in soil. She misses her memory of him strong and hale, as all she recalls now is his pale, sickness-ravaged face and weakened limbs. She misses the lightness in her own step, her sense of completeness, her belief that everything is as it should be.
Isaac’s tree is a sapling still, the beech he requested though she would have known anyway. He wore the tattoo of a beech branch upon his left arm, its silver-grey bark and gently pointed leaves the most intricate design Harriet had ever seen. One day she will stand beneath his tree and merge, but for now it is too young, its trunk too narrow to support her, its roots too shallow, its network incomplete.
Tonight, though, she merges to commune with more than the trees. She refuses to allow herself to question the wisdom of what she is about to attempt. Isaac is here; surely she can find him this way. Her favoured oak is nearby, mature and majestic. Its gnarled bark is a comfort against her palm. Its few remaining leaves hush in the breeze, a welcome and a warning.
Enter my embrace now, for I am not much longer awake.
Harriet stands beneath its sweeping branches. From amongst their tangle an owl calls. She can see Isaac’s beech and the dried chrysanthemum posy she left at its foot during her last visit. The mound of his grave has yet to settle, but the sapling has already grown, absorbing her brother as he returns to the ground, savouring his nutrients, converting them into life again. Her throat constricts with renewed grief.
Harriet kicks off one shoe, then the other, bending to peel off her socks despite the chill autumn night. She nestles her toes into the leaf detritus, exploring the damp beneath the dry layer, snuggling close to the rich mulm and even deeper, working her toes and heels into the cold earth, disturbing the small creatures and ignoring the tickle of tiny legs against her bare skin. She reaches her arms behind her, palms flat against the oak’s trunk, and she breathes deep its gift of air as she gazes through its branches at the gibbous moon.
The shift occurs, hallowed and familiar. Her eyes glaze; her breathing shallows. The nails of her hands become bark, anchoring her to the oak. The nails of her feet become roots, tethering her to the ground. She feels a sharp tug in each nail bed, the pain deep and true as her merging begins.
The roots of her feet tendril outward. She becomes the earth and the earth becomes her. The roots branch and rebranch, supported by soil. And there… the delicate filaments of the trees’ network, not in themselves tree nor even plant, but in the soil, with the soil, with the trees, joining them, merging them, and she feels herself merge into that web of complexity, and she is the woodland.
The oak is her support, but the other trees are all there. Some of them sleep already, some are alert to her presence. Some have warnings: a tree-borer here, a festering parasite there, all sending signals to the others to defend themselves against similar attack. Some revel, still, in the richness of the ground and its wealth of fertiliser. She can taste it. The worm-fresh compost, the sweet earthy rot, the life-giving putrefaction. The fungus-digested cardboard of the coffins, the nitrifying, root-probed flesh, the mammalian rendered into soil again.
It is a cornucopia. A bounty of sustenance. What once were human are now arboreal.
The being that is Harriet sends out signals of her own. She seeks only one person, one tree. The shallow roots of the young beech are joined to her through the web of mycelium, and she yearns toward it.
Isaac. She sends his name through the tendrils, a chemical cascade that the trees do not comprehend. They sense her longing as deprivation, for she feels them nudge nutrients and moisture towards her roots in an attempt to answer her cry. Yet it is not nitrates or water she needs, but her strong, vivacious brother alive and at her side instead of decaying in the woodland floor.
A sob jolts her body, renewing the pain in her fingertips and almost breaking her connection. He is here, he must be here, she is in the ground with him, reaching for his essence, his molecules, his new life in the beech.
But she only senses decomposition. Her brother’s transformation to life-giving loam. Rich fuel calling to her roots. The wrongness of it abruptly hits her, and she recoils, retracting her root filaments.
Not like this, no, this isn’t how I meant it, Isaac, why aren’t you here I MISS YOU
Grief pulses into the ground around her and into the oak at her back, draining her into the earth. She feels her yearning for Isaac flow away with it, easing the loss, inviting a blessed forgetting as her memories seep into the soil.
And then something shores her up, gently rebuffing the pain.
The little beech.
Its young roots commune with hers, the network between them alive with biological transmission.
I have enough of him here, it says. Keep the rest with you.
Isaac, climbing a tree, three branches ahead of her. Isaac playing hide-and-seek with her in the woods. Isaac celebrating the sabbats at her side. Isaac placing a meal of his homegrown vegetables before her, a proud grin illuminating his face. Healthy. Alive. As he would wish to be remembered.
His body lives in me, the beech tells her. His spirit lives in you.
She barely feels her roots retract and her hands come free as she collapses at the foot of the oak, consumed by sobs. Her mineral tears soak into the woodland floor. He is there, and he is with her, earth and spirit.
As her weeping subsides, Harriet gazes toward the beech sapling, leaves all but gone now, its smooth branches silver in the moonlight. She uncoils and stumbles toward it, unsteady on her rootless feet. It is barely her height, but will one day soar into the canopy, spreading life outward on surging branches. She reaches her hand to its narrow trunk and feels the life thrumming within.
Something seems to be caught under her sleeve, just visible at her wrist. A leaf, she thinks, and tries to pull it free. But it isn’t caught. It’s etched upon her skin. Harriet pulls her sleeve back and her breath hitches in her chest. There, inked in vivid perfection along the contours of her arm, is the intricate branch of a beech. Its leaves are palest green under the moon, and so alive she half expects them to rustle in the breeze.
The beech will take all of Isaac’s matter but this. A gift from the tree or her brother, she will never know. But as she gazes at the tattoo beneath the Samhain moon, she realises it makes no difference, for they are one and the same. And as his spirit lingers in her heart, so this tangible piece of him will remain with her.
Until one day, when her own time will come and her own tree will join the network of filaments to connect them again, forever.
About the Authors
Eleanor R. Wood writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvellous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee. Her stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Diabolical Plots, Nature: Futures, The Best of British Fantasy 2019 and Best of British Science Fiction 2020, and various anthologies, among other places.
Ian Muneshwar is a Boston-based writer and teacher. His short fiction appears in venues such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and The Dark, and has been selected for a handful of best-of-the-year anthologies. Currently, Ian teaches writing in the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program at Brandeis University. You can find out more about his work at ianmuneshwar.com.
About the Narrators
Sienna Tristen is a Canadian artist and author of speculative fiction and poetry who explores queer platonic partnership, radical compassion, and mythmaking in their work. The first installment of her fantasy duology The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming came out from indie arts collective The Shale Project in 2018, and won gold medals from both the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Readerviews Awards in 2019. They also have a verse novel, The Insomniac’s Assistant, published with Penrose Press. A purveyor of many skills and talents, Sienna can lead a yoga class, speak to you in three and a half languages, sing harmonies to your melodies, and climb forty feet in the air on a pair of silks. They are currently working on their second novel.
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.