Tarsila do Amaral. Urutu Viper (Urutu). 1928. Oil on canvas. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

Tarsila do Amaral. Urutu Viper (Urutu). 1928. Oil on canvas. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.


Mutation

by Alexandra Fields


Lucy scratches her nails against the front door. The sound summons me from the basement laundry room, my hands damp and raw red from the cold rinse cycle. Rounding the corner of the basement stairwell there she stands. On back legs, completely vertical and still, with the comfort of a two-legged creature. I’m terrified at first—who is this longhaired panting freak of a beast at the front door—but then she lowers her front legs and chases her tail in three frantic circles, and I recognize my gentle Labrador.

I walk on the curb, heel to toe, heel to toe. Lucy rubs her leathery nose against each tree we pass. She squats low on her hind legs to relieve herself, kicking at the grass when she’s finished. 

The damp grass seeps through my canvas shoes and wets my toes. Nesting near my feet are three sky-blue eggs the size of Christmas lights. Robin’s eggs. The mother must be dead, her broken body discovered by a landscaper. I run an index finger gently over the eggs’ surfaces. Lucy tugs at her leash, and I turn my back on the eggs to walk home.

At the end of our driveway I unclip Lucy’s leash, and she runs to the front door. She licks the glass with her sandpaper tongue. It’s then that I see it. In the center of the lawn, catching the light and reflecting. Another egg, I think, but when I squat down and trace my finger over the object, it’s fuzzy and soft—a mushroom, perfectly circular, tucked into the damp grass. Lucy slaps her paw against the glass of the front door. I go to let her inside.

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The doctor calls it Tinnitus. My mother calls it a ringing in her head that won’t stop. In your ears you mean, he says. No, she insists. In my head. Still, she presses her ears flat against her head in an instinctual move to try and make the sound stop.

The day after her doctor’s appointment, I am standing in the line at the post office when my cell phone rings. It’s my mother on the line, her voice sounding like she’s gargling saliva. She’s fallen down the stairs. I pull into her driveway and she’s sitting on the porch in her white wicker rocking chair, staring up toward the sky. An eggplant bruise blooms on her forearm.

I was walking to the bathroom to brush my teeth and I slipped, she says. She’s looking out the window, into her lap, straight ahead.

In the curtained hospital room my mother looks like a paper doll in a blue paper gown. The snow haired doctor comes in. Without introducing himself he begins to poke my mother. He shines a tiny flashlight in each of my mother’s bowl-shaped eyes and watches as her amber pupils expand and shrink, expand and shrink. He asks her to close her eyes and touch her nose. He has her walk across the curtained room, placing each foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe, heel to toe. My mother sticks her arms out at her sides like a circus performer scaling a tightrope. Her path, a sharp diagonal toward the door. I stare at the doctor’s face, searching for a clue. He jots something down in his miniature notebook. He buzzes for the nurse.

A nurse in navy blue scrubs with tattoos lacing his lower arms and fanning out onto his hands pushes my mother in a wheelchair toward the scanning room. A giant red sign warns of danger in bold letters. Strong magnetic field. A horseshoe magnet with lightning bolts coming out of each end.

Through the viewing window I watch the tattooed nurse drape my mother in a thin blanket and place blue plastic pillows on either side of her head. He leaves the room and with the push of a button I watch as my mother is fed into the magnetic cave.

What music would you like to listen to ma’am? the nurse says into a small microphone. When she doesn’t respond he shrugs, puts on the Beach Boys, and turns on the machine. The entire room begins to vibrate, and I can feel the linoleum pulsating through the soles of my sneakers. I close my eyes and try to feel my molecules and atoms realigning while the magnets burrow through my mother’s hair, skin, flesh, skull, and straight into her brain.

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In the lavender of early morning light we walk down the center of the street. Mushrooms polka dot the neatly mowed lawns, their off white and brown tops bulbous and persistent. In the weeks since I spotted the first lone mushroom on my lawn, they’ve multiplied. The lawn of the house on the corner where I found the robin’s eggs has surrendered fully to the creatures. While the other lawns have dirtied white speckling the grass, this lawn glows fluorescent white with barely visible patches of green in the spaces between. 

The silent street is littered with dehydrated leaves, and Lucy pulls toward the lawns. One block of yanks on the leash and she’s learned, this four-legged creature who can only follow basic commands yet has internalized the desire to avoid discomfort. Still, I pull her further into the middle of the street so she won’t be tempted. Together we hunt for the darkened glisten of another dog’s urine. It triggers my poor babe to go, helps take the place of the trees not long ago she circled before lifting a leg. When the lawns were safe. Before the mushrooms invaded. When she’s finished, we enter the house through the garage. I snap at Lucy, and she obeys my sit command. Straddled between my legs I pry her mouth open with one hand, gently sweeping my index and middle finger along the smoother of her inner cheeks and the ridged roof of her mouth, jabbing at the vulnerable pink flesh beneath her tongue.

All clear, I say, raising my hands in front of me, free of mushrooms.

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My mother and I sit in two matching velvet chairs in the grey-carpeted office facing the white haired doctor at his desk. My mother grips the curved wooden arms of the chair so tightly it seems she’s afraid if she loosens her grip she might tip right onto the plush carpet. Her long bony fingers fade white under the pressure. Pianist fingers, she used to call them when I’d hold my own stubby fingers up alongside hers.

The doctor leans back in his chair and taps his index finger against his temple.

Three moon-shaped canals make up the inner ear, he says. Each lined with a blanket of tiny hairs and filled with fluid. When the head moves, the fluid moves, like water in a bowl being tipped on its side. When the hairs get wet, they act like sensors, sending nerve impulses to the brain that signal rotation.            

 And I don’t have any hairs? my mother says. My moon canals are prematurely bald? She’s smiling but I see she’s let go of her grip on the chair and has pulled the flesh alongside her thumbnail down, a pinprick of blood pooling at the base of her nail.

It’s not the hairs, the doctor says. He holds the thick plastic paper to the light. My mother’s brain glows back. Snuggled on the right side a white mass the shape of a strawberry stands out against the gray. He points to it.

I picture crescent-shaped ear beaches with low tides. The sand dark and smooth when the water recedes.

It’s their ability to transmit messages, he says. Think of it like this. The tumor has cut the telephone wire.

How did this happen, I say. Where did it come from? What’s the cause? The doctor removes his glasses and rubs the lenses against the sleeve of his sweater.

Anything can cause it, he says. One microscopic cell begins to mutate, and if it has enough energy, a tumor grows.

The doctor calls it a craniotomy. High risk, though the best option she’s got. I call it drilling a hole through the white petrified skull bone of my mother in order to cut out the strawberry shaped mass that will mutate if let be.

On the drive home my mother runs her tongue over her thumb to stop the bleeding. She opens her mouth a few times, I can see in the reflection of the windshield, but she doesn’t speak.

There are mushrooms taking over my lawn, I say. Every day there are more. People have complained, we’re worried they’re toxic. But they just keep spreading.

We had those in the backyard growing up, she says. They’re persistent. Not much you can do but wait it out. She tells me the mushrooms create their own wind in order to spread their spores and multiply.

Can you imagine the power, she says? I drop my mom off at the house I grew up in. She insists I not walk her in. I sit in the driveway to make sure she can navigate her way to the front door.

When I was four, we moved from an ugly peach apartment building to this ranch house. I cried because the new house didn’t have a parking lot, and I had practiced my skating every day in that lot. But then my mom drove me to the house and took me on a tour. She pretended she was the realtor, citing square footage and lot size and electrical bills. I was unimpressed until we got to the kitchen. There was a built in booth, red vinyl like you used to see in diners. I thought we’d made it.

In bed with the windows open I could hear the electricity from the wires that ran right over the house. The tiny blonde hairs on my arms would stand up, alive with vibration, charged. When my mother wanted to downsize a few years ago, she couldn’t sell it. The electrical wires scared the young buyers with children away. All that power, moving through the air, invisible.

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Neon pink flags outline all the lawns on my street. The air smells like burning leaves and ammonia. When I open the door to take Lucy out, a pink flyer is taped to the glass of the front door. I step on to the porch to read it. Bold black letters warn residents of the fungicide spraying that took place while we slept. The mushrooms are, in fact, toxic. As is the spray used to treat them. Stay indoors when possible. Remove lawn furniture and toys.  Wash anything exposed with soap and water. The air smells of wet grass and harsh plastic.

I call my mom in a panic.

They’re poisoning us, I say.

No, she says. They’re going to poison the mushrooms.

That night I dream the mushrooms grow so big they swallow my tiny brick bungalow and me and Lucy along with it. The food runs out and Lucy and I are still trapped inside the mushroom engulfed house. A panicking woman and her dog inside a room inside a house inside a mushroom. I open the door and scoop handfuls of mushroom flesh frantically onto the floor, but it regenerates at such a fast speed the indentations from my handfuls can barely be seen. We wait, sure the lawn’s nutrients will dry up and the mushroom will wither. But the mushroom’s growth seems infinite, the small house compressed as the fungus continues to expand. Lucy sits and howls from the depths of her stomach until finally I slide the kitchen windows open and we each take greedy bites out of the spongy walls. We know they are toxic but we are hungry. I have read dying of starvation is the most painful way to die. We sit and wait, trying to discern if the pain spreading through our bodies is from poison or fear.

When I wake, my jaw is sore from clenching. I go to the living room window and try to discern if the mushrooms have grown in the six hours I dreamed.

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If this old ticker stops a ticking, my mother says, I want to be burned.

You’re not going to die, I say. The hospital machinery buzzes in my molars. Across from the bed underneath the mounted television, a brightly colored bulletin board announces the nurses on duty. OUR NURSING STAFF IS OUT OF THIS WORLD. Cut out meticulously from construction paper, beaming nurses circle a perfectly round paper earth.

In the third grade, Mrs. Timson taped a rectangle the same dimensions as a Conestoga wagon to the blue carpeting of our classroom. She broke us kids up into families, and each family got a folder with brightly colored paper cutouts of items we might want to bring on our journey out west—food, clothes, tools, a first aid kid, furniture, toys for the children, extra wagon wheels—all sized to scale. We had to decide as a group what to pack and what to leave behind. After arguing we begged Mrs. Timson to let us bring more. When I got off the bus my cheeks were ruddy with tears.

What happened, my girl? my mother said.

We had to leave so many things behind.

I turn away from the bulletin board and look back toward the bed.

You’re not going to die, I say again.

The nurse knocks three times on the wooden door and walks to the foot of the bed. She’s holding a rose-pink plastic bowl with a white paper gown and an electric razor inside. She helps my mother sit up and swing her legs over the side of the bed.

Not the most stylish, the nurse says, flipping on the razor with her thumb. But it will grow back fast. She tilts my mother’s head to the left and shaves a rectangle clean behind her ear. My mother’s scalp shocks me with its white, and tiny gray hairs stick to her chin and cheeks where her tears have wet her skin.

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We walk down the center of the street, and Lucy pauses to sniff the black tar that softens in the sunlight. At the end of the block, four girls in matching corduroys and down vests sprawl on the grass of the front lawn, their heads touching one another’s, their feet splayed out. As Lucy and I approach, the front door swings open and a copper haired woman in sweatpants and flip flops screams for them to get off the lawn.

They giggle and move to the driveway where two start swinging a jump rope in large arching circles. A third runs in and jumps with her hands on her hips. Lucy pulls toward the sound of the giggling girls, but I keep her at a distance. The girl jumps when the rope is just about to pass under her feet, yes, but she jumps a second time too, when the rope is safely overhead. A smaller jump, a hop really, the toes of her sneakers barely clearing the blacktop, helping her keep rhythm.

The fourth girl stands two feet to the side of the rope, ducking each time it cuts the cool air beside her. The jumping girl moves methodically toward the front of the rope, making room for the other to enter. She moves closer toward the twirling rope each time it hits its highest point, but each time she’s about to jump in she backs out. She resigns herself to sitting on the asphalt and counting her friend’s jumps.

The sound of Lucy’s spit as she chews pulls my attention away from the girls. She’s got her head down between her front paws and she’s biting at the air. I drop to my knees, the street cold through the denim of my jeans, and pry her jaw open with my fingers. I feel nothing inside her cheeks or under my tongue. Closing my eyes, I thrust my index finger down her throat, tickling the wall that leads down her esophagus. The girls have stopped jumping rope and are watching. Lucy walks in small, slow circles, coughing and rubbing the side of her head against the asphalt, until she vomits up white foam.

When we return home, I fill Lucy’s bowl with fresh water and then go to the garage. I put on my green welly boots and yellow rubber gloves, and I grab the large white bucket I fill with soapy water when I’m cleaning the car. I stomp out onto the lawn and begin grabbing at the mushrooms, digging my fingers into the soft soil and yanking them free from the stem. The bucket fills with mud and white mushrooms and poison coated grass. My back stings from bending forward but I continue to tear at the lawn.

A man in a baseball cap driving a minivan pulls up alongside the curb.

Lady, he yells, but I don’t pay attention. Lady, he yells again. You’re only making it worse. Pulling the tops off doesn’t solve any problems. Their roots are below the surface. They’re just going to grow back.

In second grade I convinced my mother to let me get bangs. When I hated them I went crying to my mother with a scissors.

You can’t just cut them off honey, she said. They have to grow out.

The next morning when I wake up Lucy is not on the floor in front of my bed, and I don’t hear the familiar sound of paws against wood when I descend the stairs. I walk toward the kitchen, warm saliva beading in my cheeks and forcing me to swallow constantly.

Vomit beneath the kitchen table, a pool of clear liquid with a dandelion yellow center. 

Lucy is on her side behind the couch. I try to coax her out first with her leash, then with a rawhide, but Lucy can hardly lift her head. I wedge myself between couch and wall and slide my hands under Lucy’s bottom. On three I push and Lucy whimpers. Once she’s out, I lift her into my arms like a giant toddler, her head resting on my shoulder, her hind legs wrapped around my waist. My arms burn beneath her weight.

  Tarsila do Amaral. Setting Sun (Sol poente), 1929. Oil on canvas. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

Tarsila do Amaral. Setting Sun (Sol poente), 1929. Oil on canvas. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

The smell of the vet clings to my clothes. The house is quiet without Lucy. I type MUSHROOMS + DEATH into the gray search bar. A video, viewed over a million times, pops up. I click the link and a large image appears. A person covered head to toe in a black bodysuit with white webbing snaking up the fabric. A woman in California is breeding a type of mutant mushroom called an infinity mushroom that will feed off the toxins in a human body. Her plan is to sew the spores of these special mushrooms into burial shrouds. The mushrooms will grow large off the deceased human’s toxins, leaving a toxin free body to decompose into the earth. I wonder if the infinity mushrooms could have cleansed Lucy’s body of whatever strain she ate.

Fig beetles the size of eggs with oval-shaped translucent bodies have been brought in from the west coast in wooden crates to try and accomplish what the fungicides failed. Ten crates worth, to be specific. Energized off the mushrooms they breed fanatically, spreading out across the neighborhood, coating our lawns. When a botanist from the University was called in for a consultation, he diagnosed the mushrooms as mutations resistant to poison. The beetles are known to feed on the mushrooms with an alarming rapidity, a miniature army with a gigantic appetite for danger. When I walk in the early evenings, the street smashed beetles that look like crushed grapes stain the asphalt. At night, I sit in bed with my windows open and listen to the beetles moving across the dried grass, growing fat on poison.

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A white bandage wraps my mother’s head, smaller than the one she wore in the days immediately after the surgery. It covers the seven inch incision through which the surgeon removed a chunk of my mother’s brain. The room she’s been moved is bright and airy, a large window looking out over the tops of the oak trees that line the hospital driveway. I sit down in the chair beside the bed and place my hand on the rough sheet beside hers, afraid to wake her. She looks more comfortable than she did yesterday and the days before. Her eyelids spasm with dream and her left foot twitches every couple of minutes. I allow mine to close. I think of mushroom suits for the dead, of the team of scientists teaching infinity mushrooms to feed off human hair and fingernails right now in Northern California. Of the way Lucy’s tongue stiffened almost instantly after the pentobarbital hit her veins. Then the nurse from the bulletin board is gently running her index finger along the tops of my knuckles and telling me to go home. Sugar pie, she calls me. Go home, Sugar Pie.

 

Published February 18th, 2018


Alexandra Fields is a writer living and working in Brooklyn. She received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2017. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Cognoscenti, and Funny Times.



Tarsila do Amaral (Brazilian, 1886–1973) is a foundational figure for the history of modernism in Latin America. Born in São Paulo, Tarsila studied piano, sculpture, and drawing before leaving for Paris in 1920 to attend the Académie Julian. Throughout subsequent sojourns in Paris, she studied with André Lhote, Albert Gleizes, and Fernand Léger, fulfilling what she called her “military service in Cubism,” ultimately arriving at her signature painterly style of synthetic lines and sensuous volumes depicting landscapes and vernacular scenes in a rich color palette. “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through June 3, 2018.