We had begun to suspect there was mold in the house.
“I am beginning to suspect there is mold in the house,” said Peter, sitting on the couch. It was Sunday and we were both on the couch, reading. I was reading Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Peter was reading a book called Is Your House Making You Sick? A Beginner’s Guide to Mold. “It apparently could account for our symptoms.”
Peter and I had both been experiencing symptoms for several weeks. These symptoms included: coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, wheezing, headaches, nosebleeds, and fatigue.
“We should probably tell the landlord,” I said.
“Probably,” said Peter. “But then again, if there is mold, where will we go?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“The thing is, it’s probably in the walls. It’s probably all through the ceiling.”
We sat, thinking. If the mold really was in the walls and ceiling, the house would require gutting. It would take many weeks, possibly months. We thought this over for a while, and then we shrugged and returned to our books.
Sitting at dinner, eating spaghetti, Peter said, “Your nose is bleeding.”
I lifted my hand to catch the blood. It was bright and warm. “This isn’t so bad,” I said. “We can live with this.”
Just then, Peter’s nose started bleeding too. We grabbed a box of Kleenex and sat there, heads titled upward, soaking the blood.
“Did you know that there is a fungus in Oregon that is 2.4 miles wide?” asked Peter. “It is considered the largest living organism on earth.”
“I never thought about that,” I said. “About it being alive.”
We looked at the walls. We thought about the mold living there, one large organism branching out in many directions, its thin fingers winding around the rafters, spiraling across the damp gyprock, curious, exploratory. We felt a sudden tenderness for it, as if it were a child or a pet.
As it was spring, we took a trip to the nursery.
“Every year we try calla lilies, and every year we kill them,” Peter said to the nursery manager.
“We get very little light,” I explained.
The manager led us up and down the aisles and then handed us a leafy plant in a terracotta pot. “This is called the Cast Iron Plant,” he said. “You almost can’t kill it. Really, I dare you to try.” We stared at it. It had broad, pointed leaves, like swords. It was pretty ugly. We went home empty-handed.
“We should have told him about our mold,” I said. “How it’s thriving.”
“Ha,” said Peter.
“I wasn’t joking,” I said.
The mold was growing—we could tell. A link had formed between us and it. We could feel, at all times, its presence, which manifested as a slight pulsation. Mold-consciousness is very different from human-consciousness, we learned. It lacks center. It spreads itself out and exists in many places at once. Like humans, it is very hungry, but unlike humans, it is not aware of its hunger. Its desires do not plague it; it simply stretches out in all directions, searching, feeding. It locates all the delicious molecules—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium—wraps itself around them, thrives.
Although we experienced worsening symptoms (light sensitivity, memory lapses, joint stiffness) we experienced benefits too. Linked to the mold, we began to forget our shame. Whereas previously we had worried constantly about our desires, now we sought them out without concern. We bought what we wanted at the grocery store and came home and feasted: sponge cake and blackberries and prosciutto and heavy cream and candied almonds and vanilla vodka with maraschino cherries. We had sex two or three times a day. We said the things we most wanted to say, whether it was Your breath is bad or I love the feeling of this fleece blanket.
We spoke to the mold, too. We tapped the walls gently and said, “Hey there.” We narrated our lives for its benefit: “This morning I’m having a bagel with cream cheese. A poppy seed bagel, plain cream cheese.”
Or, “Clipping my nails makes me sad. I don’t know why, but it always does.”
Or, “I’m starting to experience night sweats, abdominal pain, vertigo. But please don’t feel bad. I was always going to die, one way or another.”
Or, “There is such a beautiful moon tonight. I just wanted you to know.”
In the shower one morning, after water began to pool at my feet, I crouched down and found a chunk of Peter’s hair clogging the drain. I inserted a hooked finger, drew the tangled clot out. It lay in the center of my palm, a dark wet mass, like the carcass of a small mouse. Hair loss—our newest symptom. Our furniture and carpet and counters were all coated with these sheddings, like house was becoming body and body house, like I was living inside Peter and Peter inside me. I imagined all the skin cells we’d sloughed over the years, imagined them piled in a huge white mound, his and mine, mine and his, dead flakes, old bodies discarded. Is that love, I wondered—living in someone else’s dust?
Damp and swaddled, I walked to the bedroom. Peter sat cross-legged on the bed, a thick phonebook in his lap. “Mold No More,” he read out loud. “Mold Busters. The Mold Pros. The Mold Removal Guys.” He looked up at me. “We have options,” he said. “I mean, this is what you’re supposed to do. There is a procedure available here.”
I stared at him. He looked like a stranger. Every so often, this happened—I would stare at Peter and think Who are you? I’d think How did I get here, in this house with a person I do not know?.
The clump of hair was still in my fist. I held it out to Peter. “I found this,” I said. “It’s you. Do you realize that? This is you, and I’m holding it.” He stared, then nodded, as if I’d made sense.
“Okay,” he said, and closed the phonebook.
So we purchased a sledgehammer. We brought the sledgehammer home and swung it at the walls, which splintered inward like a broken eggshell. We peeled the plaster away, swung the sledgehammer again. The hole widened.
And there it was. Spots of brilliant cobalt, lime green patches soft as suede, threads of wet, glittery black. Red-tipped spires like lit matches, cloud-white wisps, pink blooms like space dust swirling. Time slowed. We could see the whole bright mass of it breathing, pluming spores into the air, a fine dust, purple, gold, green. It glittered. It sparked the oxygen around us, fizzed in our lungs.
We threw our heads back. Lifted our arms. Breathed.
Slowly, we removed all the walls, then started on the ceiling. It took time, as we were forced to stop periodically to cough blood into our palms. But eventually, the house revealed its bones, all sparkling and sponged. We kept the lights off, bought a humidifier, and the mold purred with pleasure. Sometimes it spoke to us, and though we didn’t understand its language, we knew it meant Thank you. It felt good, this act of nurturing. Here was a place where life bloomed around us. Here was a place where the word alone ceased to mean.
“I keep forgetting your name,” we said to each other.
“I keep forgetting my own name,” we replied.
“It’s sort of nice.”
“It’s the best feeling in the world.”
We spent most days curled on our bed, watching the network thicken and split around us. We experienced tingling, numbness, a metallic taste in our mouths. We knew we were dying, but we didn’t really believe it. We felt ourselves on the edge of something, about to tip over into it—but whatever it was, it wasn’t death.
Then the moment we’d been waiting for. The mold left the walls. It crept across the carpet, up the bed skirt. It wrapped its tendrils around our feet, our fingers, sifted our hair with spores. I felt shocked with joy. How I’d wanted this. A mossy tendril reached into my mouth, tongued me with its animal softness. It tasted damp and earthy and alive. I chewed and swallowed. Licked dust from my lips.
Beside me, the man whose name I’d forgotten tensed with fear. He raised a hand webbed bright with green, then stumbled from the bed. Pulled fungal strands from his face, ripped moldy clothes from his body, and stood naked and wheezing. The two of us stared at each other, neither one surprised, ultimately. I felt, briefly, very distant and alone again. “What happened?” asked the man by the bedside. I laughed, and the laugh turned to a cough. “I did love you,” I said, quickly, before such statements became meaningless. Then I closed my eyes and felt my body throb, felt spores root and bloom in my cells, felt my bones pock and crater. My decomposition was proceeding wonderfully.
Alyssa Quinn is a creative writing PhD student at the University of Utah, where she read fiction for Quarterly West. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, Gingerbread House, Punctuate, Ninth Letter, Brevity, Frontier Poetry, Sweet, So to Speak, Sink Hollow, The Claremont Review, and elsewhere.