One summer fifteen years ago, the mushrooms overtook Olympic Forest. Overnight they came—slinking into backyards and huddling together beneath mossy trees. The snails came after in bursts of twenty or thirty, trampling what vegetation the mushrooms had overlooked. The air grew heavy with slime like the thickened humidity of a sunshower and every step into the forest squished and crackled with the sound of breaking shells. At first, I threw salt out at night, but it only aggravated the mushrooms and they leeched off the salty earthen floor in a fury, doubling—then tripling.
I found the camper’s body on an August afternoon hiking the Gray Wolf trail that ran from my property to my neighbor’s on the north end of the forest—one hundred and fifty miles away. He’d been attacked by a bear, rare thing that it was, but it did happen. His chest was torn open, ribs stuck out of his side awkwardly; the bones streaked with dried blood and strips of flesh. His face was indistinguishable and I’d stood in awe seeing the most grotesque expression the human face could make. His cheek and lips were gone, and from the hollow place they left his white teeth sparkled in a silent snarl; the eye sockets were filled with a mess of red and white sludge; and the nose hung against his cheek by a paper-thin length of cartilage. His limbs were splayed out, though from the looks of it his spine was broken and now his hips were disjointed leaving his legs to sprawl on their sides while the torso remained on its back.
The shock temporarily diminished my remaining senses so by the time they returned with full force, I’d already breathed in the sickening odor. The stink of decomposing flesh mixed with shit and piss swallowed each other and amassed into a flurry of scents each one more foul than the last. The heat had sharpened the pungency to eye watering proportions. I couldn’t stomach it, and my turkey sandwich joined the dead man on the forest floor. The acrid scent of bile welled in the back of my throat and ran slick over my tongue. I clung to the bitterness of it, anything to keep away the rotting stench.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. No—the mushrooms were the giving kind that summer and they hadn’t quite finished terrorizing me yet.
They’d clambered on top of the body. They’d nuzzled into his shirt and down his pants, nesting delicate little tendrils into his flesh and poking out curious brown heads to stare at me with invisible lidless eyes. I felt them watching, and I knew they were smiling.
Look at us, they whispered without whispering. Look what we did, we ate one of you. Look at us.
I don’t know how long I stood staring back at them. Part of me couldn’t turn, couldn’t expose my back, couldn’t stop the goose bumps from prickling. And the longer I stood, the more I swore the fungus was inching towards me. As with the salt, they hungered for something different, something tasty.
Look at us.
It occurred to me then that they’d roamed here a whole lot longer than anything else. They’d eaten dinosaurs and mammoths and, sooner or later, they’d eat me too. So innocuous, meek, small—with a diet that could never satiate the vacuum that it fed.
Look at us, they whispered. Look what we did.
I was food—they watched that realization bleed the color from my face, and then they were smiling again. A thousand wicked, toothy smiles.
Look at us.
Look what we did.
We ate one of you.