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Tar Pearls

In my younger days, I thought it prudent to travel as much as possible, remaining in my home state for as little as a week at a time. I favored the warmer climes below the equator, touring small towns and trails off the beaten path. This was how I came a small fishing village on the southeastern coast of Venezuela on a layover between passenger planes.

This was how I met the old man.

He would lay on a lounge outside his simple hut, his bulbous ribcage like an umbrella partially collapsed, pulsing weakly with breath as he lay in the sun. He kept a rug over his legs at all times. He said he was no more than fifty, but it was a hard-lived fifty. Between my faltering Spanish and his nonexistent English, this is the tale he spun me—

My family have been pearl divers since the dawn of time, señor. We plunder the same fields our grandfathers did, my own grandson was shaping up to be a worthy successor. This was all until (here was a bit of local dialect I couldn’t translate.)

It was Fernando, my brother, who found the first one. A clam as heavenly on the outside as a pearl. We told him it was depth sickness, but he swore to us it was real. We followed him and we saw. They were like pieces of the moon dropped among the coral, gleaming. And we thought ourselves very rich men indeed.

Fernando tried to cut the stem of one with his knife, but even after ten divings, he could not part the foot that gripped the rock. I found that by rocking the shell back and forth I was able to weaken the bond. But the clam came to pieces in my hand, as a clam never does when still alive. Through the mud cloud it stirred up, I saw something black as night.”

The old man fell into a violent coughing fit until I gave up a bottle of liquor I’d purchased that morning.

A pearl as big as my eye. Bigger. I felt a lust come over me and I grabbed for it. But my grip was clumsy, I should have gone up for another breath. I lost it in the coral, señor. I came up to the boat in shame. Luis, my son, volunteered to go. He, with his sturdy lungs, grabbed up the shell and brought it to us. But oh—when he opened the shell, a puddle of tar in the bottom half. No pearl big enough to feed us all for months. I cursed my clumsy luck. This was when my grandson Tomás volunteered. He had learned from our mistakes and held the clam gently as he broke its grip. He came up to the boat with the pearl in one hand, smiling.

When he surfaced, I heard a scream I have not matched before or since.

The boy wept his hand and wrist were on fire as he thrashed. Where once he gripped a pearl large as a plum was a black slick. Working together with his father we managed to knock the boy out, but we could not wash the stain  from his hand in the seawater.

This was the (again, dialect my ears could not pick out.)

It came to us, finally, that we had grasped too much. We prayed to the Virgin to forgive us as we rowed the boy back to shore. His mother wept and rained blows on us when she saw what we’d done He spent the night in his bed with a poultice wrapped around one arm. We stayed up past candlelight, examining our spoils. The shells that had gleamed with many colors beneath the water were dull white like bone in the air, a trick. Luis said it wasn’t a clam at all, but waste left by some unknown creature. Fernando wondered what creature it could be, but I told him it did not matter, we were never going back.

In the morning, Fernando was dead.

Have you seen what the big islanders call dropsy, señor? He was like that, puffed up twice the size he should be. My wife screamed, puncturing him with a kitchen knife to let some fluid out. I couldn’t stop her. Instead of blood, many small bodies poured out.

Please understand, señor, my brother was dead at this point. But he still moved, and the (there was that phrase again) poured out of him, crawling to the sea.

In the hut, the boy’s arm was swollen to the size of his thigh, and he begged for water. We gave him a drink to numb the pain and Luis hacked off the bad limb with a machete. He hit his own thigh by accident.

No one would come near us now, señor. They would not come to help no matter how we screamed. Tomás nearly bled out, but his mother staunched it in time. By nightfall Luis’s wound was angry and swollen as well.

My wife and daughter-in-law sat up saying rosaries. I tended to my son and grandson as best I could, but sleep found me in the end. By morning Tomás was cold and Luis’s thigh was swollen as well.

We were more cautious, puncturing the wound as a doctor would a boil. Perhaps it was early, senor, because we saw not many little bodies but hard grains that resembled the pearls we had so foolishly sought. His wife worked night and day, bringing a bowl to the draining wound and catching what came out. We burned them. They went up like tar and smelled like rotting whale and coal. Luis made it three days until he puffed up. Then we burned him too.”

The old man drained the bottle.

“His wife blamed me, of course. She came after me with a fruit-knife. My own wife stopped her. We shut her in the boy’s room until she calmed again. When we opened the door, we saw her face had begun to swell, the result of a last kiss between husband and wife. Before we could stop her, she ran past us and threw herself into the sea.

My wife tended to me. The few cuts I got from the knife did not swell, and I remained healthy. But the damage had been done. No pearl dealers would buy from me, nor would the fishermen let me come with them. We got by with what little my wife could make on her tapestries, but it wasn’t enough.

And then, one night I took a walk on the shore. I was thinking about what I had lost, señor, because of greed. I trod on something sharp. When I picked it up, it looked dull and white as a piece of bone.”

The old man removed the rug from his knees.

“I kept ahead of the swelling, señor. First one foot, then the other. My wife cut with a knife she held in the fire, so I did not bleed out. I lived, and I continue to live. Others have asked me where the pearls are, they beg me not to let the family hunting grounds die with me. But I will take them to my grave, señor, tainted with those pearls as they are.”

He fell silent then, and I realized he had fallen asleep. I replaced the rug over the stumps of his knees and went on my way. When I came back the next year, I could not find the old man, not would anyone admit that they had known him. All that was left was an ancient cane chair left to dry in the sun.

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Fire Seeds

Ethan woke, lying still in the dark. He knew without seeing that Delia was awake beside him.

“Del?” he said.

“The sky is glowing.”

“I smell smoke.” He realized as he spoke that it was the thing that had brought him up from sleep. He could smell the hot, dry smell of smoke, the dirty kind that came from burning plastics and metal.

Delia got out of bed first. “I’ll get the dogs.”

They packed laptops and notebooks and the drawer with all the papers they couldn’t afford to lose. As they loaded the car they could see Bill Mendoza sitting in his open garage, cracking a beer. Other families had emerged from their houses, most just stared dumbstruck at the sky.

“Bill, there’s a fire,” Delia said.

“Yeah, it’s the Silver Pines fire. The wind’s drifting it this way.” Bill did not seem at all tired from waking at two am.

“No, it’s closer.” Ethan pointed with a crooked finger. “Silver Pines was to the southeast, more east than south.”

Bill grunted.

“We need to evacuate.”

Bill shrugged and sipped. Other houses turned into a flurry of motion, yelling and cramming and making the business of fleeing into a panic. Delia and Ethan calmly, almost robotically, finished packing and turned out of the cul-de-sac. Ethan put his hand up to the window as their house passed by. Delia darted her eyes from the road for a second.

“Saying goodbye?”

“I just don’t know when we’ll be back.”

They drove north, and then turned left on the highway. Delia snapped.

“Crap, I’m on autopilot. I started driving to work.”

“Well, where should we go? Which direction is the fire?”

They looked out the windows. The sky was glowing, but in such a nebulous fashion they couldn’t tell which direction it came from. The highway grew from four lanes to six. It was almost completely empty. Delia made a u-turn in a place where the median was not a concrete barrier but a grass strip in the middle of gravel.

They did not talk as they drove west, lingering sleep and shock made any conversation a struggle. Delia pressed her lips together.

“Does this seem strange to you?”

“No traffic?”

“No nothing. Where’s the emergency crews?”

“Maybe Bill was right, it was just the Silver Pines fire?”

“Last year when the Doggett Falls fire passed by, they had crews out evacuating us. Did your phone even get an alert?”

Ethan tried his phone. No bars.

The cars that passed them by slowed to a trickle. Now they were lucky if they saw one car in an hour. As the sky grew lighter in the east they could see the details of the places they passed by. Neon fizzled in empty strip malls. Houses crouched unlit, sprinklers running.

In the back, Loki started to whine. Ethan put his hand back and let both dogs lick it.

“Should we stop, let them out for a bit?”

Delia drifted over to the shoulder.

The second they opened the back door, Loki’s hackles raised. Laika, the younger dog, whimpered.

“What is it, boy?”

The dog raced off, baying. Laika followed, adding to and amplifying his cries. Ethan said “shit” and raced after them.

Delia was drinking from her water bottle when he finally came back a half hour later. “Nothing?”

“They just ran and ran, I’ve never seen him do that.”

Delia frowned at the skyline. “Should I drive over that way, see if we can find them again?”

Ethan looked at the direction their pets had gone. “It kills me to say this, but…we should keep going. They’re chipped, they’ll get picked up by animal control and then…” he couldn’t finish the thought. “Future” was a nebulous black cloud that held no form for him.

They kept going west. The smell of ashes and smoke invaded the car.

“Aren’t we going away from the fire?”

“I thought we were.”

And just like that, they were in a burn zone. There was a thick black burn line that ate like acid into the hillside, and then they were driving through ash and ruin.

Even the skeletons of houses had been eaten by fire. Ethan could see puddles of aluminum and lead flowed like water from melted fixtures. Street lamps stuck out of the ground like bean sprouts, corkscrewing this way and that.

“Goddamn,” Ethan whispered.

“This is what I would call ‘apocalyptic.’” Delia navigated the narrow roadway with all the debris left from cars that had exploded. She pulled over.

“Why are we stopping?”

“I want to take the lay of the land.”

They got out. The air was not hot, so the fire was not anywhere close by, but it had the spent smell of ash and was painful to breathe.

Delia touched the asphalt. “Cool. This must have happened days ago.”

“Where are we?”

They looked fruitlessly for a surviving signpost.

“We’ve been driving for hours, this has to be Yucca county.” Delia frowned at her phone. “No reception. You?”

“Same.”

They looked out over the ruins. Gray and black as far as they could see. Ethan picked up a lump of something that had once been several things, now fused into a twisted mass. His palm felt gritty.

“What do we do?”

Delia sighed and rubbed her eyes. “We should drive back the way we came. At least then we’ll run into someone who knows where we should go.”

Ethan wiped his hand on his jeans. He dribbled a little of their precious water on it, but couldn’t get it clean. Delia waited patiently for him to get in, and handed him hand sanitizer.

Ethan blinked as they circled back to the highway. “Wait, wasn’t the burn line back there?”

Before he had seen it as being halfway up the hill. Now they could see black stubble all the way at the crest of the retaining hill, and and a strange mass that had not been there before. They drove closer and the shape resolved into a burnt lump of rubber and polyester and fire-resistant materials in a familiar shade of yellow. A thick plastic faceplate warped and bubbled, black at the edges.

Ethan swallowed. “Are you seeing this?”

“That’s just a discarded firefighter’s coat,” Delia said unconvincingly, “I’m sure.”

Neither spoke as the car found the highway again.

Ethan tried to sleep, pillowing his head against the window with his knit cap. He felt sick when he closed his eyes, so he left them half-lidded. His right hand felt too dry and dirty, despite using an entire bottle of sanitizer.

“Ah, shit.” Delia murmured to herself. They were driving through another burn line, houses and strip malls and cars all burnt to the ground. A Sheraton near the highway off-ramp gaped like a mouthful of broken teeth.

“We just drove through here. There wasn’t a fire.”

Delia rolled the window down, testing the air. “It isn’t hot. There’s no fire.”

“So what…” Ethan scratched at his hand.

They drove past a digital billboard melted like a Dali watch. The ash stretched for another few miles, then let up. They sighed in relief.

Then, a few more miles down the highway, another burn line.

This time Delia stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out.

“Honey?” Ethan tried the door and felt something crumble. He took a good look at his right hand.

The skin on his palm was gone. His hand was nothing but char and melted skin on one side. He flexed his fingers. He felt no pain. He couldn’t feel anything, in fact.

Delia shaded her eyes with her hand, looking in all cardinal directions.

“Delia?” Ethan’s voice shook.

“I don’t understand.” She put her hands on her hips. “Where’s the fire?”

Delia?

She looked. Ethan pressed his hand up against the windshield.

Delia ran to her open door, gasping. “What happened?”

“I don’t know.”

Delia got a determined look in her face. “The veteran’s hospital. Katie works there. It’s fifteen miles from here, we should—”

“Delia, no.” Ethan’s calm was gone. “Please, listen to me. I think—”

Delia started the car. “Don’t talk. There’s a plan, okay? We get you set up, and then—”

“No, Delia, I don’t think you should take me. This isn’t right. What happened to the other cars—”

“—I’ll talk to Katie—”

“—Del, it’s spreading—

“—it’ll be alright, it’ll all be alright, you’ll see.”

Delia sped off through increasingly widening burn zones. Ethan’s hand crumbled from his wrist, leaving a powdery gray snow in the car to fill their lungs.

“It’ll all be okay,” Delia chanted, “it’ll all be okay.”

They drove by a horse shedding ash as it galloped.

“Del,” Ethan croaked. His arm was going.

Delia squinted through the dirty windshield. She pressed the brake pedal, yelping in alarm as it sank to the floor with no resistance.

Ethan!

“Del.” He tried the door with his remaining hand. “Let me out. Please. It’ll get you too.”

“I can’t.” The car was swerving now as Delia hyperventilated. “Something’s wrong. I can’t—I can’t—”

The car hit the barricade and burst like a cloud of gray pollen.

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Roscoe: The End

William J. Roscoe was the result of a congress between landowner William Findlow and a music hall singer. William was given his mother’s surname and his father’s first name, which was the beginning and end of involvement for both parents. His mother retreated once more to the music halls and, except for a yearly infusion of hush-money, his father did the same.

William was fostered by his grandparents until he ran away from home, stealing his grandfather’s meager savings to invest in a linotype company. That turned out to be the first of many bad investments, as William showed equal skill at both gaining and losing money.

His background gave him the drive to legitimize himself, but the urge to come by money quickly would sabotage his efforts again and again. By the time William found himself wandering through Colorado’s silver rush, he had been twice divorced and fathered five children out of wedlock. Perhaps if he had not found the Roscoe lode, he would have died unglamorously in the mountains. But fate led him to a nugget of pure silver and the rest, as they say, is history.

Most accounts point to Roscoe being a fair-minded and generous leader. He treated his force of miners well, his camp was perhaps one of the only ones in the states with company-backed healthcare. He had the respect and recognition he had long craved, and so behaved accordingly.

Many people noted the decline in his health seemed to start with the mine’s downturn. His hair began prematurely graying and he sat when giving speeches. Despite all this, he never gave up on attempting to bring the town’s head above water once more. His closest friend had been Nathaniel Schilling; it was a great blow to him when the hotelier died and his mental health never recovered. He developed a pernicious arachnophobia in the weeks leading up to June, making his maids go over a room multiple times with feather-dusters before he would set foot inside.

“…appearing for the first time this side of the rockies, Miss Vyvyan’s wild west show!”
—discarded draft of an advert

Whether or not Letitia Bannock, posing as Vyvyan McAllister, performed that final day in the mining town remains undetermined. Theories abound that there was no show, that the announcement served as a decoy while William Roscoe issued out his law force to eradicate the townsfolk and hide his failings. Other, more benevolent theories, point to an exodus following the discovery of some life-threatening peril, possibly a noble gas leak from the mines themselves. The absence of any sort of prep work for a journey, any kind of note alluding to a sudden departure, undercuts this theory somewhat. Whatever the case, when Pinkerton agents rode into Roscoe on June 17th, the town was completely empty.

Other, more fanciful accounts supply details like meals left burning on stoves and flatirons resting on cold coals, as if the people had walked away mid-task. Nothing like that appears in the original report. The only salient detail is that the town was empty of animal life as well, and this could easily be explained if the town was forced to make a sudden and swift exodus; taking livestock as well as pack animals would be crucial to a long journey. However the question remains as to where the townsfolk were expecting to travel that they would need such rations; the town lay within spitting distance of several other camps. The Pinkerton group merely made a shallow excursion into town before returning  to Leadville to gather more forces. Nothing, from the mineral content of the well water to the contents of William Roscoe’s safe, could give them any conclusive reason for the town’s disappearance. From June 17th until the day of the November earthquake, multiple expeditions were dispatched to the town. None found anything resembling a clue.

Roscoe had left halfway through a letter he was composing to his second wife, Hazel, with whom he was amicably separated. Hazel herself was found passed away in her rooms at a San Francisco hotel a mere week after Roscoe’s disappearance. A necklace he had gifted her— “real Roscoe silver” he claimed in his letter— lay on her pillow, a greasy burn-mark where the necklace’s pendant would have been. So closes the last, forlorn chapter of Roscoe’s history, ending as insubstantially as it began.

Boomtowns rarely survive past the lode which first gave them life. Roscoe had always been doomed to disappear, to sink into the dust of the Colorado foothills as its population fled for more favorable climes. In perhaps the biggest irony of all, it is the disappearance of Roscoe’s population that allowed it longevity past the lifespan of the tapped-out silver vein. The Mystery of Windy Hills (MGM 1939) serves as an extremely loose adaptation of the town’s disappearance, attributed to “fair folk” brought over with Irish miners. A local ghost town tour group sells chunks of the town’s masonry as souvenirs. One holdout resident of Oro City claimed to see a fata morgana of the town yearly over the local lake, a phenomena he could not reproduce for company. The closing of the last operating mine in Lake County in 1999 seems to have marked the end of the mining era and all its legends. Abner Salt, the last living miner who could say that he’d been in William Roscoe’s employ, died a pauper’s death in 1925. The Schilling mansion, the last intact building of the town, partially collapsed in a mudslide in 2009, the remaining structure was pulled down in 2010 for safety reasons. As the physical connections to Roscoe pass into the aether, all that is left behind is the skeletal wreck of a town that sinks further into the earth with every year. Whatever witness it bore to the people that once lived there, it remains silent on the subject.

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Roscoe: Miss Vyvyan

Letitia Bannock began her career as a “badger” in the music halls of New York City. Tempting a well-to-do gentleman back to her private rooms, she would subtly frisk her eager patron for valuables while luring him into a compromising position. Then her “mother” would burst in, decrying the thief of her daughter’s virtue and demanding a sizable lump of hush money. The mother was often played by Letitia’s current lover, whom she would also swindle of money before leaving. In this way Letitia Bannock spent her teens and twenties, graduating to a new game when she could no longer pass as an ingenue.

Her next scheme was applying herself to a widower’s household as a nanny, insinuating herself into his finances before finally disappearing with a large sum of the household cash, along with valuables that could be quick-fenced. The scheme was longer in execution than her previous grifts, but more rewarding: with the lump sum she acquired she could afford to wait the year or so it took to gain her next gentleman’s trust.

Letitia was by all accounts comely and quick-witted, a welcome addition to any household. She had a waifish quality to her beauty that belied a very cunning temperament and a cold, almost reptilian morality.

Letitia’s first murder came at the age of twenty-six.

The widower Paul Vande Velde had hired her on to look after his daughter, but when he fell ill three months into her tenure Letitia saw opportunity. She nursed him through his sickness, alienating him from friends and servants alike until she was the only one he trusted to administer his life-saving medicine. Once she extracted the promise of marriage, Letitia saw no use in keeping him alive anymore and replaced his dosage with camphor water.

It being her first murder, Letitia was sloppy. Vande Velde’s lawyer found a clear trail between his client’s generosity and the new widow weeping crocodile tears into a fine linen handkerchief. As he gathered evidence, Letitia Vande Velde boarded the next train to Newark.

Dorothea van Doorn departed the train.

Her career path becomes patchy at this point, as Letitia was able to change her face, hair, and costume so drastically it is only by comparing similar behaviors in written descriptions that we can guess as to her identity. In Iowa, she seduced a man who owned three general stores and burgled his grandmother’s baroque pearl necklace. In Sioux City, she made off with the safe contents of a casino after blindfolding and bludgeoning its owner during the act of love. There are shorter, less substantiated tales of a woman posing as a dance hall girl, spending a night with miners and absconding with their take as they lay slumbering. Letitia had aimed too high with her first big conquest, perhaps her gradual downward spiral in choice of lovers was a bid to protect herself from an encore.

This would have been in vain. Vande Velde’s attorney had not given up the manhunt, and found kindred spirits in her still-living targets. Pooling their finances, the men employed the Pinkerton detective agency to spring a trap on Letitia and finally bring her to justice. In her hotel room in Silver City, the detectives missed her by a mere half hour, her cigarette still smoldering on the drawing table.

Letitia had been fairly careful about covering her tracks, but one detective found a scrap of train itinerary she had torn up and thrown in the chain-pull toilet. The train to Roscoe.

Perhaps Letitia never checked into one of the two hotels in Roscoe. Perhaps the woman who gave her name as Vyvyan McAllister was indeed Letitia, and she had set her sights on seducing William Roscoe. Her story would have very little significance besides this: the manhunt for her led to the discovery of the town’s disappearance much sooner than it otherwise might have been.

Arthur Smith had been a Pinkerton agent of high standing. He was known for tracking the McCrimmon brothers across half of Utah, donning a fake queue to disguise himself as a railroad worker at one point. Among his colleagues he had a reputation for fastidiousness and a deficit of humor. In the words of his fellow agents: “if anyone could nab that charmer, it was stoneface Arthur.”

Smith had trailed Letitia across five states and twice as many identity changes before the trail went suddenly cold. At the same time a corpse with Letitia’s general measurements was found at the bottom of a culvert ditch, a traveling act called “Miss Vyvyan’s Wild West Show” began touring Colorado. Doubting Letitia would simply end her life, Smith chose to follow the show to the mining town of Roscoe. On the day of June 16th he sent the telegram which served as his last known correspondence:

HAVE REACHED ROSCO STOP NO SIGN OF QUARRY STOP CHECKING INTO HOTEL WILL CONTACT WITH FURTHER DETAILS ON MONDAY STOP

And that might have been the end of the story, save for a very odd bit of trivia supplied by a cub reporter at the New York times. The reporter met a man trying to gain entrance to the offices in  a state of high agitation. He wore a lady’s full-length cloth coat shut tightly about his body, perhaps indicating a lack of dress beneath it. In his hands was a newspaper-wrapped bundle that he gripped tightly to his chest, refusing to show anyone. His only response to questioning was the phrase “I need to get inside and speak to someone.” Finally, the cub reporter gave in and allowed the mysterious gentleman ingress to the newspaper offices.

The gentleman never emerged, nor did he reach the desk of any newsman. Save for the reporter at the door and the receptionist, no one at the Times saw the odd gentleman enter or leave the office.

What ties this odd footnote into the history of Roscoe? The simple fact that the gentleman’s description matched exactly with that of Arthur Smith.

It is entirely possible that the entire encounter is a fabrication by a young reporter looking to move up in the world, but the receptionist at the Times also swore to watching the strange gentleman enter the doors to the inner offices, describing his coat down to a beaded rose over the right breast. A description, it is worth noting, that matches a coat worn by Vyvyan McAllister. How the Pinkerton agent could have moved upwards of 1500 miles in less than a day, especially one conspicuously dressed as that, was a question no one could answer. Smith’s fellow agents doubted the story, especially the description of Smith’s agitation. Smith was a man whom had once taken a bullet wound as stoically as a mosquito bite, they said, for something to unseat him so thoroughly would be nothing less than the devil himself.

Arthur Smith was given up as lost, along with Vyvyan McAllister and the rest of the citizens of Roscoe. Paul Vande Velde’s fortune was tied up in probate for decades before a minor lump sum was awarded to his living relatives in Holland. When he died, Vande Velde’s attorney was found with a small tintype of Letitia Bannock in his breast pocket.

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Roscoe: Molly Bartlett’s Journal

What follows are select excerpts from the diary of Molly Bartlett, age 17. Molly and her cousin Mathilde(Tillie) followed the offer of seamstress work to Roscoe. Over the few weeks spent there, the two found that the position they’d been offered was nonexistant and that their employer was eager to marry them off to miners who would pay top dollar. Such “bride and switch” jobs were not uncommon in the era, but Molly and Tillie had no intention of accepting their situation.
_ _ _

May 29

A crow at midnight, some thunder in a blue sky. Tillie says such things are omens. I trust her and her alone. Mrs. Mulaney is a confidence artist, a schemer and a liar. Her words are sweet as penny candy, and crumble just the same. Thank God we declined board at her house, or goodness knows what would become of our virtue! I must wait for Tillie’s special knock to take the chair from the door, and she mine. Only one of us can leave the room safely at a time, for I fear the worst in this lawless tract.
Mother, I shall be with you soon again.

June 3rd

Mrs. Mulaney does like to double tasks upon our head. Perhaps she feels she can brutalize us into compliance. I think she’ll find the will of the Bartlett women is up to such treatment. Oh how I laugh when Tillie makes mimic of her! She puffs out her bosom and speaks from the chest, until we quite collapse with mirth.
I have been put to hemming buttonholes, a task I hate. Tillie is allowed to work the machine, but rarely does for Mrs. Mulaney likes to hover behind and pepper her with dowry questions. I wouldn’t want a dowry of the dirty metal they dig up here!

June 5th

I have distinguished two types of miners. There are the men who stick for a few months and then cleave, for they find the place as disquieting as I do. Then there are the men who stick and stay. I cannot imagine why Mrs. Mulaney would want to offer brides to them, such men have no want for anything mortal. I see them on the street, the light gone from every one of their eyes. They think only of the mine, talk only of the mine, and when they slumber I am sure they dream of it. What would such a man want with a wife? Anyway, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a ghastly tarpaper shack while he’s off digging in the dirt.

June 6th

The water they give us has a strange sheen on the surface. We drew straws, I was elected to fetch water from the town pump. It was the same sickly rainbow setting on the surface. I saw horses drinking from troughs, men supping from dip-cups, all swallowing the cursed stuff. I dumped my bucket and bargained some milk from a townie.
Mrs. Mulaney is mean with her wages, we haven’t saved up enough to buy a single return ticket, let alone two. But I know that Tillie would not return home without me, and she knows the same of me. We get out together or not at all. I’m sure Mrs. Mulaney sees that, that’s why she works us to the quick and pays starvation wages. She invents flaws in my work to pick at, and when I protest she is quick to point out I can find ready employment as a saloon girl. The very notion!

June 8th

I saw a group of miners in the general store gathered around a pan of metal with the same sheen as the water, staring at it. Just staring. I’ve never seen the like.
Tillie’s taken sick, so Mrs. Mulaney cut our wages by half. She took even more than half, but I am too tasked with nursing Tillie to fight with her. Tillie’s teeth are loose in her mouth, and she cannot hold much food. I have taken to bartering with locals, as I suspect the general store is in cahoots with Mrs. Mulaney.

June 11th

I nursed Tillie back to health, only to fall sick myself. Such fever, and it brought on dreams of madness. Tillie cut the locks from my head to assuage the fever and Mrs. Mulaney had a fit. For the first time she was honest about her intentions: she asked who would have me to wife with hair like that? I told her I would marry myself to the lord and take convent vows before I married in this town. She sent me away, does not want to look at me anymore. That leaves Tillie to earn our keep, thin as it is.
I suspect the hotel is in cahoots as well, sometimes we wake to find our things moved, and Tillie’s pearl locket has gone missing. There is only one other hotel in town, and they say it is the same there, too. I cling to hope, but it dwindles.

June 13th

A pall has fallen over the town. A strange malady I cannot describe, it makes the place feel heavy. Tillie’s steps are stooped, Mrs. Mulaney works her to the bone. Last night the old harridan called Tillie over to look at a mistake. Tillie found the seam she had just sewn cut with a knife. Vile woman! Work is actually costing us money now, depleting our mean savings.
I hear whispers outside the door
Later: I looked through the keyhole, no one I could see. I do not trust the walls in this place. I sleep with this book in my chemise.

June 14th

There is some kind of event planned in town, some famous singing or dancing girl. We have promised ourselves escape in two days time, while they are occupied with their show. I don’t care if I have to ride a mule side-saddle across the mountains, I’m leaving this place. I hold no love in my heart for this town, none at all.

June 15th

A great shrieking sound arose from the mine today. The townsfolk hardly flinched, but Tillie and I had to stopper our ears with cotton. I must go out one last time for food.
Later: it is worse than we could ever have imagined.
Later: I hate this vile place, and all the people in it. It isn’t just the seamstress and the hotel, every single being in this place is part of it. The town is a web, drawing us like flies into the center. Someone found our food cache and destroyed it. Tillie placated me, said she would hunt coneys with a knife if it came to that, but I fear for our safety.

June 16th

We are leaving to-day, thank God, thank God, we are leaving to-day. Tillie says we shall be boarding the 3:10 from Leadville as soon as she can collect the funds from Mrs. Mulaney. I am eager. A queer pall has fallen over the town, I feel as if I can no longer draw a deep breath no matter how I loosen my laces. I dreamed of a spider that held the stars in its web last night. All my sleeps are uneasy and I feel eyes upon me even in the privacy of the room.
Later:  the air is still and full, like a bated breath. Some stand out in the streets, simply looking at nothing. I fear we may find it difficult to slip away, but Tillie has been priming for a fight since Tuesday.
I am ready. I can already feel the wind on my face, the open freedom of the flat plains. We shall creep to the depot in Leadville and depart like sneak-thieves. Freedom is ours once more.

_ _ _

That was the last diary entry. Molly and Tillie Bartlett vanished along with the rest of the townsfolk on June 16th.

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Roscoe: Ghost Town

A mining town

…Tillie says we shall be boarding the 3:10 from Leadville as soon as she can collect the funds from Mrs. Mulaney. I am eager. A queer pall has fallen over the town, I feel as if I can no longer draw a deep breath no matter how I loosen my laces. I dreamed of a spider that held the stars in its web last night. All my sleeps are uneasy….

—Molly Bartlett, journal entry dated June 16th, 1882

The boomtown of Roscoe was not unlike other towns that sprang up during the Colorado silver rush, right up until the point where the entire town’s population vanished in a single day. The town began when William Roscoe was forced to shoot his mule some distance from Leadville after the animal turned its leg on a small bolder. When he examined the boulder in question, Roscoe discovered a nugget of silver that eventually led him to a rich seam of the precious metal. Roscoe (colloquially known as Big Bill) grew up the illegitimate son of a wealthy east coast landowner. Friends described him as a man continually striving for respectability and power. Both came in the form of the boomtown he named after himself, not long after asserting his office as mayor.

Board and feed: 4 horses, 2 pack mules, 1(unreadable)
Note: customer has left a promissory note for the total fee. Collect on Tuesday.

—Livery bill, dated June 16th, 1882

It its peak, Roscoe boasted a population of 4,000-7,000. It had two hotels, three casinos, a post office, a livery stable, a general store, a clothing boutique, and a telegraph station. Most of the inhabitants lived in simple tar-paper shacks, though a few built more permanent housing. Roscoe lived in the mayor’s mansion, a green building that sat at the end of mainstreet. The five-story house was leveled, along with many other of the town’s now-empty buildings, in the earthquake of November 7th, 1882. Still standing is the mansion of Nathaniel and Flora Schilling, built just outside of the town according to Flora’s wishes to remain separate from the common folk that guested her husband’s hotel. Though the dry mountain air has preserved much of the wood, the entire town has been classified as a hazard and closed to public visitors.

HAVE REACHED ROSCO STOP NO SIGN OF QUARRY STOP CHECKING INTO HOTEL WILL CONTACT WITH FURTHER DETAILS ON MONDAY STOP

—Telegraph by A. Smith, Pinkerton agent, sent June 16th, 1882

The date of the town’s disappearance holds significance in the mythological history of the United States. Nearby Finntown reported the town’s wells clouding over with an odd yellow dust that thickened the water like aspic. Further away in Dubuque, Iowa, frogs were found frozen inside giant hailstones that pelted the city. In New York a man wearing a lady’s coat, bearing a newspaper-wrapped bundle, disappeared into the New York Times office and never reemerged. Countless other small, less-verifiable tales lay scattered on this same date.

Most theories on the town’s demise center around the paranormal. UFO enthusiasts often point to circular burn marks found on the placers as proof of abduction. Other theories range from ghostly vengeance, black magic, and wormholes. The fact that all written records of the town simply stop at June 16th, most barely hinting at anything sinister at all, lends itself to many different interpretations. The theory put forth by Leadville law enforcement was that some drastic change in the mine had lead to a sudden mass exodus of the town. The question of why no inhabitant made the trek to any of the nearby camps over well-worn trails remains unanswered, along with the ultimate fates of the townsfolk. Prevailing wisdom of the time said that the miners had drowned themselves in a tailings pond. This was proven false when all bodies of water in the surrounding areas were dragged, producing no skeletal remains.

[…]Hazel. As this letter reaches you, I yearn for the simplicity of my time in Silver City. I had thought becoming a municipal figure would carry with it great pride and status. Yet my head is heavy as ever, my thoughts turn black with melancholy. There are things I wish to reverse, yet cannot, and as I have polluted myself and others I can never find forgiveness in His eyes. I only wish that you

—Unfinished letter from the desk of William Roscoe, June 16th, 1882

At the time of its disappearance, the town’s population had shrunk to a modest 2,000 or so. The vein of silver that had once seemed limitless was petering out. Miners were drifting to other camps or attempting to find new veins to tap. The town might have dwindled down to nothing like the other boomtowns of the area, lingering on only to become another tourist attraction. In a strange stroke of happenstance, the town’s demise allowed it to live on past the mine’s depletion in a memorable fashion. The motley collection of written accounts, innuendos, hearsay, and folk myth constitute the town’s legacy, and it is a warped legacy indeed.

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The Dangerous Adventures of Mutt & Mike

I can paint you an exact picture of where I was when The Mutt & Mike Thanksgiving Special aired, even though it’s identical to countless other Saturdays from my childhood. I was sitting at the dining table at an angle so that I could still see our old two-dial Magnavox, shoveling sugary cereal into my mouth. My mother worked the night shift back then, so she was still snoring away on the pull-out couch. I could describe the rip in the wallpaper from when I tried to put up a tent in the living room. I could tell you how many pillows we had (five) and how the birdcage at the window held not a bird but a yellowed peperomia, that the front curtain was not a real curtain but an old sheet from my bed bearing characters from an old scifi show.

But of the cartoon I can tell you so little, so very little.

Mike was a pink blob, Mutt was yellow. The background was cyan, maybe. They lived in a house, or perhaps a formless void that was the home of so many other cheap cartoons. It’s a blur. The cartoon left a vaguely pleasant film on my mind, like the fuzz the cereal left on my teeth. I’m not sure what compelled me to get down from my chair, push in the tape that was mainly used for recording Night Court episodes, and hit the record button halfway through the special. The end result was that a whole 28 minutes and forty seconds of Mutt & Mike was preserved that day due to my childish interference.

And it should not exist.

The lost media wiki has no entries on it. I’ve dipped my toe in forums that call its existence a hoax, a delusion, an attempt to spread viral advertising for some upcoming movie. Promotional stills have been dissected by internet experts who call a matter of pixel blurring hard proof.

I’m not the only one who’s seen the show. Believe me, I would be only too happy to chalk it down to a misremembered event, if not for the others. A user calling himself xXterrytoonsXx claimed to have fifteen of the first season’s episodes and made plans to upload them to youtube. He ran into increasingly high hurdles as his video capture equipment broke down, as he accidentally damaged some tapes in the process. The vlogs he released in-between upload attempts showed his deteriorating state. He slurred words, mumbled, moved increasingly like a broken marionette as his coordination went. His last contact with the outside world was a badly-misspelled plea for a competent video editor and then…silence. Not one of the thousands of internet sherlocks were able to dig up a family or even an acquaintance. He had never even answered one of my messages begging him to respond.

I check my email first thing: 94 new messages since I checked before falling asleep four hours ago. Angry missives from trolls who want to see the tape. Skeptics quizzing me on exact details. People who claim to have seen Mutt & Mike too and want to reach out to me. Those are the hardest to deal with. I want to share this with someone else, I want to commiserate with other people, but I’ve been through it all before. These people are the wooden horse left by a retreating army. Once they’ve breached my defense they’ll start asking if I remember this or that, and can I describe this scene exactly, trying to loot the cursed treasure of my memory.The concept of people who want to contract a virus on purpose is entirely new to me. I say this because Mutt & Mike is exactly that, a virus.

My mother gave me the tapes when she moved down to Florida with her husband. Most of our TV things had been damaged in a flood, only this little box had remained snugly upstairs because it held the auxiliary remotes. I received a whole lot of tapes with nothing but Night Court, Murphy Brown, and THE tape bearing my childish scribble. I couldn’t make out the words I had written down so long ago, deciding to plop it in my VCR/DVD combo. Maybe if I hadn’t been so eager to hold on to the past, none of this would be this way. I could have gotten the solo DVD player, or just dumped the tapes on a thrift store. I popped the black plastic lozenge into the mouth of my VCR instead. Halfway through Harry Stone’s legal antics, the picture changed. Familiar and garish colors filled my screen and I was transported back to our old apartment for a brief moment.

I woke up four hours later to a blue screen and a screaming headache. I had urinated on myself.

Before he fired me for failure to show, my boss had often told me I always seemed like I was searching for something. When I was on the phone to clients, my eyes didn’t go off into the middle distance but glanced around me seeking something or someone. I didn’t seem like I’d be happy, he said, until I found the thing I was looking for.

Was Mutt & Mike that? God, I hope not.

Why don’t I dispose of the tape, you might ask? I’ve thought hard about it, believe me. VHS tapes are practically engineered for self-destruction anyway, wearing out with each successive viewing. I’ve thought about eviscerating the tape’s guts and pouring acetone over them. I’ve considered fire, hammers, even the garbage disposal. But…

And this is where I get stuck. I don’t know why I stop there every time, but I do. I look at this plastic rectangle and realize I am the only person in the world who has this. My hands stop and my body fails and my mind goes blank. It would be very easy to attribute this all to the tape but it’s me. I know it’s me. I want to look away. I can’t.

I haven’t gone outside in a while. I get my groceries online, have them delivered. I have triple locks on my door and a doorbell camera. Multiple threats on my life, you see. Some people are so eager to see the abominable they feel entitled to it. As if I’ve stolen something of theirs. I didn’t even know. I stumbled into a TV forum, innocently asking if anyone had heard of this cartoon. My head was still buzzing (perhaps I had hit it in the seizure) and all I wanted was to make sense of my situation. I didn’t know. I’d take it back if I could.

One of the more threatening emails I’ve gotten pledges “you can’t keep this secret forever.” And they’re right of course. I know I am not enough to hold it back. I am Pandora, and each night as I lay in bed I feel my fingertips burning with curiosity. Perhaps, the worm whispers, perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. What if I’m wrong, just this time? What if this has all been a dream and I’m simply choosing to stay here?

Back then, on that Saturday, I had no notion that things would ever be anything but the way they were. That we would lose the apartment and that television. That I would wind up sleeping on that pull-out couch with two step brothers that came too quickly and too close together. That my mother would lose job after job, that I would relinquish the last of my childhood in a misguided effort to ease her suffering. Perhaps the cartoon knew all this, knew I would push myself to revisit that time, knew I had never abandoned that moment despite the years.

Perhaps I really am insane.

The tape sits on the last table left in my apartment. As my savings go, I must sell off the other furniture, but the table must remain. And the television. And the VCR. And the electricity to run them both. And who knows, some day when everything has been sold that can be sold, when I can no longer keep the bills at bay, I will take that black rectangle and put it into its slot and hit play. I will watch the bright shapes bounce across the screen, I will hit all the same beats one last time and just…let it be the end.

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Fungisland Part 3

Entry 10

It has been some weeks since I’ve written. I thought I laid my supply of ink-mold in a safe place, yet it vanished perhaps creeping away under its own steam while laughing at me. I was forced to harvest several specimens of Bêche-de-mer to make this entry, hence the change in color.

Where to begin:

I began my raft-making process. While the jungle had tolerated my attempts to fell stipes for firewood, when I moved on to clear-cutting it struck back. A powerful mist of some unpleasant liquid stung and blinded me for hours. I was finally able to navigate my way to a freshet and wash my face with the aid of some nearby sponge-caps, only to find my rescuers to be my spore-riddled neighbors, gathering the caps and placing them within arm’s reach. The message is clear, I shall be a well-treated guest so long as I do not try to escape I reconcentrated my efforts in material-gathering, felling only one tree a day and using the ends for firewood, stashing the rest in a sheltered cove. I found a mold that produced a thick, oily salve that I used for waterproofing. Finally, I was forced to use some of my own scientific equipment for an anchor, for there was nothing so sturdy on the island. It took a passage of time too humiliating to tell to construct that raft. Perhaps one of the sailors might have been able to do so more quickly, but more than likely he would have fallen under the influence of the fungus before he could make use of it.

I remember the day I cast off, using a stipe to pole myself out to the reef. Once, I looked back to shore. The fungal people stood abreast and watched me silently from the beach. I kept my eyes to the horizon after that.

I was barely able to moor myself at the seabird’s rocks without crashing, but rather than safety they simply present another host of problems. The birds have long been hostile to any sign of fungi; they dive-bomb my deck if I drop my guard for a second. By gathering their eggs I might have enough for a month’s journey, but I have no means to bring fresh water with me and no compass to navigate by. I am simply choosing the method of my death at this point, and neither seems preferable.

The cinder cone glows at night. I fear an eruption.

Entry 11

This is not a happy update. I was able to rough it for a week offshore, then a storm blew up. Perhaps it is lucky I’ve survived. Perhaps it isn’t luck at all but the will of some malign presence. I give nothing over to chance now.

I washed up on the far shore of the island, after being beaten black and blue by the rocks. Thankfully I had already learned of a mold with curative properties and was able to tend my wounds. I made landfall in a small, barren cove with no way around to the jungle. I decided to attempt the cinder cone and made probably my most alarming yet in retrospect least surprising discovery upon setting foot on the surface.

The rock was soft.

The thing I have taken for a volcanic formation is another fungus, larger than anything else on the island! What’s more, I think it perhaps may be a genius loci, the one that compels the other fungi and fauna to do its bidding.

I was able to mount the monolith, even with my injuries, and upon summiting I found another shock: the “village” of the poor souls I call my neighbors. The indentation that would be the caldera in a volcano was instead a cottony nest of mycelia. As I watched, gatherers returned from the jungle and stood stationary as the mycelium grew up to cover their bodies. There they rested, or perhaps exchanged chemical information. I have resigned myself to never knowing. Among the gathered people I could spot several members of the crew I had been on speaking terms with. McKinnon. Bradley. Phillips, who had made a big to-do about giving me the lower berth owing to my seasickness. All once boorish examples of manhood. All mindless shells. What I feel is no victory. I feel a great gaping rift in my soul. Irrationally, the thought comes to me that my wish for solitude did this. I know logically that it can’t be true, yet…

I have found a ravine that bears small fruiting fungi and a trickle of fresh water. I have holed up here for the time being. I don’t know that I can trust anything set before me anymore, but it is either this or starvation.

I will not send the journal yet. I feel a great plan set in forward motion, but I have not seen all the cogs.

Entry 12

The fungal cone glows at night like a signal-fire. It wants more ships. It sends its blasted scouts to all corners of the compass, hoping to lure in more ships.

I see the crew of the Molly Haggard and hide from them. They are not men, they are corpse-puppets. I must remember the loss of their humanity for I ache to talk to something, anything sometimes.

My chest burns, every breath is a labor. It is almost time.

Entree numburrr 13

hurts to writ. focuss. i am finnees elmyr rutlend. i am mycolojist.

i am on top of mushroom. i can see ships in the distence. the fungus wanted it all along. the iceburg wasn’t tryng to escape. it was trying to bring us hear. every breath i took full of spores.

thout i was safe. food and water. woke up and myc mic fungus threads stuck me to the ground. peeple found me. fillips not fillips. pickd me up. brot me here.

focus.

it’s all the same. it’s all the fungus. i can feel my body dying as it replaces me. thinking geting hard. they brot me up to the top of the mountain. everyone here. spores make look like fire-signal smoke. they wave their hands. the ships turn. i don’t wave my hands but it’s hard. urge burns. i write this jurnal and then i throw it out to see. mayby find it in time.

it funny. all i ever think is i hate being with other, want alone with mushroom. and now with mushroom less alone than ever.

ships com goodby

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Fungisland Part 2

Entry 5

I have reached the far end of the island. It is far less welcoming than my home encampment, though this may just be due to the melancholy that dogs my steps. I have not yet laid eyes on my neighbors, though I suppose it is inevitable. For now I have been seeking out new varieties of fungi that aren’t present on my half. One slime mold I have named Felicitus atramenti, for its tannin-rich blood provided me with the ink in which I pen these words (my inkwell ran dry despite my thrifty efforts.) That there are animals present on this side of the island should be no surprise, for I have often heard the call of seabirds with no visible source. That they should be in some way burdened with infection should come as even lesser shock. One mighty specimen I have dubbed the webbed albatross, for mycelia coats it so. The bird’s eyes are blind and white, how they navigate I can only guess. I see them kiting higher and higher on air drafts like a hawk, gaining altitude enough that they can fly out to sea. They never make it to the horizon. I was unable to see the means of their extinction until I fashioned a clear jelly-like slime mold and a dry hollow stipe into a spyglass.

Far off shore there is a scattering of shoal, and on that shoal other seabirds nest. Once a webbed albatross crosses their threshold, the birds attack the intruder and send it into the sea. While I am overjoyed to find a potential source of food (the nutritious value of those eggs might well make the perilous journey worthwhile) I am alarmed at the scope of the island’s infection. I had heard of fungi affecting behavior, certainly, but only in already mindless insects. If the spores are strong enough to infect the braid of an avian, how does that bode for greater animals?

I must show more caution in what I eat and drink from now on.

Entry 6

I have found my neighbors. My worries of the fungal spores were too slight, it seems. For they have already found humanity.

I must wonder after the people on this island. What were they, Polynesian, Oceanian, some southern form of Esquimaux? Were they here before the fungi dominated? Alas, they put forth no answer.

The people infected by the fungi are covered with webs of mycelium. Like the birds, their eyes are sightless. They operate by touch, and by some internal compass they navigate the terrain. This place and all that live in it are like the clockwork wonders I saw in Munich as a boy, each piece appearing to operate independently while driven by the same infernal internal engine. I have made a grave miscalculation. I am leaving the far side of the island.

Entry 7

After stopping to gather enough atramenti to fill my inkwell several times over, I am home. In such a short time most of the markers of my presence had been absorbed into the jungle. My trunk remains untouched (thank god) and I yearned for a drop or two of manmade chemicals. I have doubts even a shipful of carbolic acid could clear this jungle, though.

I cannot banish the implications of the far side of the island from my mind. Everything in my home camp that brought me joy is recast in a sinister light. Perhaps it was only appealing to me in the first place because the fungus willed it so. No, Phineas. Down that path lies madness and despair.

Now that I am quit of it, I feel more comfortable describing the far end and its inhabitants. Whereas the “trees” near my base are like that of a small copse, the growth on the far end is outsize, with a canopy that blocks out the sunlight. All molds grow to a greater size in those environs; I found a slime mold that normally grew to six centimeters that I could barely span with both arms wide open. Also present in that jungle are membranes throttling the gaps between fungal trees which serve a purpose unclear to me. They dilate only to let the poor fungi-people pass.

My neighbors…I cannot imagine their passage a painless one, yet they look out at the world with placid faces. I cannot ascribe their facial features to any one ethnic group, and their skin is so powdered with spore-dust that skin tone is impossible to place. Perhaps they are not a native tribe but other castaways like myself, trapped here by the fungus I will not give myself over to idle speculation. I must weather these conditions and then when I have reached my apex, I will bind this journal in oilskins and set it adrift. Even if I do not live on, my knowledge will.

Entry 8

I found a slime mold that tastes like chocolate pudding the other day. While in my early days it might have brought me cheer, I am only sickened now. It was like a port Molly painting herself up in an approximation of your own mother’s face to entice you.

Whether I was always the subject of visits and only noticed now or that the fungus has been made aware of me I see the fungi-people on my side of the island with increasing frequency. They are completely silent, communicating in some nonverbal manner that leaves me out in the cold. No different than normal society, then. Their errands are as murky as their vision. Sometimes I see them move a fruiting mold a few feet, only to move it back a short time later. It is my pet theory that their actions are a cover, and they act only to observe me. I will begin caching the journal in a seaside cave, since the saltwater gives them pause.

Entry 9

It cannot be. Yet it is.

I have found the Bosun’s red cap. The crew are among the fungi-people.

I will begin constructing a raft. I must get off this island.

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Fungisland Part 1

Entry 1

The Molly Haggard has crashed, all hands down to the deep save for me. I, Phineas Elmer Rutland, am alive. More importantly, I am free. FREE. No more petty decrees to gather bird feathers and droppings, no more deckhands roughing up my scientific equipment, no more jabs about my sea-sickness, I AM FREE. I have destroyed the preceding journal pages as a symbol of my emancipation, so let me mark down a summary of how and when this came to be, lest I forget:

It was three days prior; the ship was on glass-calm waters when suddenly we hove to port (or starboard, I can never remember.) The ship was caught in a tumult as if a maelstrom was upon us, yet the sky and surrounding sea remained clear. I admit I remember little of this; the boat pitched and yawed so, I spent most of my time emptying the contents of my stomach overboard. I remember one confused soul screamed the dreaded “iceberg” but knew we were too close to the equator for such a thing to be.

I looked up and feared the man right: there was a large, white specter to the fore of the ship, nearly as tall as the mizzenmast. The crew flew into motion to turn us, all too late, when the looming white thing burst like a pig’s bladder. All that was left was a cloud of white dust and confusion among the men. This turned into chaos as those close to the dust cloud began choking and clawing at their faces. All the while we still churned in place, caught by some unseen menace.

I’ll remember the crack of the ship breaking as long as I live. Men fell into the sea without life-vest or buoy. I ran to grab the chest of my instruments. Thank god I waterproofed it by impregnating the wood with bitumen; the chest made a handy floating device when I fell through the burst hull. All night I could hear the other men calling each other, trying to keep within range. Folly, if you ask me. By lumping together, they probably damned themselves. I could have tried to share my floatation device and probably would have wound up back in the sea. But by excluding myself, I was saved. I was so comfortable I even dozed off, only to awake when the reef of this island jarred my chest.

I’ll admit to some trepidation when I made landfall. I had not grabbed any tack or fresh water, I had no idea the condition of my instruments, and I had a mild case of windburn. But all this melted away when I spotted a small brown protrusion at the end of the beach. I took it for some kind of root runner and tried to follow it back to the source, accidentally striking it with my foot in passing. The “root” sent up a brown cloud, and instantly I knew I was home.

I was not the captain’s first choice to man the ship’s science offices. He wanted to replicate the blasted Beagle’s tour of the tropics, wanted some jack-of-all trades with a chest of coarse hair who no doubt guzzled rum as he took specimens. Specializing in fungi was folly, he said. Well, here I am, whole and hale and surrounded by my area of expertise. Who is the fool, I ask?

Entry 2

It has been some weeks since I washed ashore. My early melancholy was tempered by the discovery of my first fungi, now I miss humanity less than I miss trough water in January. I have named that first specimen Phinea elmeri after myself, more of a sentimental gesture than anything. I have discovered dozens of fungi since then, and every day brings new specimens.

I have made steps to map out the island, though some areas remain impassable for the time being. The island is no coral atoll, as I thought when I first arrived, but a volcanic isle dominated by a cinder cone at the extreme end of the island. It has a source of fresh water, which I have yet to locate due to the nature of the jungle.

Ah, the jungle. If I could wax poetic for a moment, such a marvel has until now existed only in my dreams. What I took for tropical hardwood became the stipe of yet another fungal variety. Yes, my new home had mushrooms larger than anything recorded elsewhere. I must admit to hugging one in my fervor. The stipe gave off a slightly malty smell I found delightful. The “vines” that I’ve seen hanging from the canopy are simply above-ground mycelia, strong enough to be made into rope (a property I’ve used to my advantage in attempting more difficult areas)

I will not be so brash as to say all aspects of fungal life are so joyful. The fish that swim in the freshets are covered with a mold that makes them appear furred. While the mold makes them sluggish and easier to catch, it gives them a most unpleasant taste. I take my risks fishing off the reef, though I find more success prying bivalves from the rocks as the sea life prefers to give the island a healthy berth. I assume the fungi itself is stopped by the barrier of the seawater, hence why you don’t see giant mushrooms anywhere else.

Entry 3

Had some interesting run-ins with the local fungi in the preceding weeks. The first was a batch of what I took for ripe fruit on the sole plant on the island: a bush situated ⅓ the height of a seaside cliff. I thought the height and the surrounding stone gave it separation enough that it would be safe from fungal interference, forgetting of course that spores rise. I plucked the fruit while hanging from a woven mycelia cradle and performed the tests for vetting edibility. I found them not only edible, but quite alluring. After consuming three or so, I found my balance off and my temper uneven. What happened is something I have only been able to surmise after the fact: the ripe fruit were in fact infected by fungi that fermented the juices within the fruit. A benign enough lesson, with a steep cost the next morning (such a headache I have never had.) A regrettable loss, for although I enjoy the flesh of a roasted tree-stipe, I do miss the taste of fresh fruit(to say nothing of the dangers of scurvy.)

I observed a faction of the local fauna who makes use of the fungi as well as I do: a small violet octopus who reached out of the water to grasp a patch of mushrooms that hung over the water. They gave off not spore dust but an inky liquid that hit the water and quickly dissipated. Within moments the nearby shellfish yawned open, leaving a feast for the conniving cephalopod. How it avoids the effects of the liquid itself is a mystery, but one I have all the time in the world to solve.

It was near the seashore that I also found the solution to another mystery. There was a circular formation of globular fungi that abutted the shore. They did not burst but simply swelled larger and larger until the wind unseated them from the ground. I had the good luck to be there on an occasion when one flew out to sea: the bulb hit the seawater and swelled many times its size while remaining buoyant. Here, finally, was the “iceberg” that the crew so desperately fought to avoid. I suppose this is the manner which the fungus attempts to spread, yet it is stymied by the saltwater that hems it in at all quarters. No other island is close enough, I suppose. Then my thoughts turned to the wreck of the Molly Haggard, and whether its flotsam was impregnated with the spores.

….I do not know that I care for the notion.

Entry 4

I have found footprints. Blast! I only wanted for a single year alone in this place before humanity invaded. Why can’t a man be left to his own devices?!

They start at one of the freshets and lead inland. The jungle is impenetrable that way, not even fire will thin their fungal ranks.

I have made up my mind. I will form a canoe from a tree-stipe and go around seaways.

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