The Road to Hope

Joey Marchetti

First light of Summer

Austin Ferrullo

 

The dawn of the new morning breaks through the cracks in the straw roofing and illuminates the dirt floor. Mingli opens her eyes and her nostrils flare as she inhales the first scent of moss and dew. She silently rises and tends to the fire that had been burning overnight. Mingli grabs some tinder in bunches of five or six and cracks them over her worn, beaten knees. She stokes the fire with a thick piece of green timber and opens the lid to the kettle dangling from the tripod above the open flame. The steam creepily makes its ways up the ceramic walls of the pot as if it was a curious, yet frightened, newborn and Mingli was its new mother. The tea was a simple mix of water from the stream and an herb that abundantly grew around the hut. Mingli steps out onto the wet mud outside of the front door, making sure to keep silent so that she would not wake her husband, Chen. The air is thick with the scent of damp moss and the clouds that clung to the tall pillars of the mountains are low today and the moisture would collect on your tongue if you were to patiently wait with your tongue outstretched. This is all typical for Mingli, she and her husband had been living here in the valley for quite some time. On mornings like this where the clouds of the mountains sank down to the earth floor bringing moisture with it, Mingli would awaken fairly early in order to harvest the numerous herbs that thrived in this area. However there was something else the clouds brought, the tops of the mountains were heavily invested with a specific mushroom that only seemed to inhabit the peaks of the tallest mountains in the valley. The mushrooms would release their spores upon the first light of summer and the spores would mix into the clouds. When the clouds were dense with moisture they would fall to the ground, sprouting the same breed of mushrooms upon the earth. Unfortunately the mushrooms would only survive on the valley floor for a few days at a time, so Mingli made sure she tracked the clouds behaviors whenever she had the spare time to do so. The mushrooms were like no other and the smells they produced in great bunches seemed to captivate her, gathering them was her sinful obsession. The fog was thick around the hut and Mingle, with a  thick woven basket strapped to her hips set out into the white void.

The thick ominous clouds weigh down on Mingli’s lungs. With each inhale of the thick smoke Mingli can not help but revolt the thick sludge from her airways. Hours pass with no luck in finding any of the prized mushrooms, but Mingli had a few tricks left up her sleeve. She knows that the mushrooms tend to sprout in large numbers deep in the forest just beyond the hill that lies far to the north. On clear days the hill can be seen from her home. Only Mingli knows what treasures hide behind them, secrets Chen is oblivious to. Further into the void Mingli travels, the ground begins to soften as she approaches the forest’s unsettled floor. The silhouettes of the trees can be seen through the now grey, polluted appearing fog. Mingli keeps her head fixed on the floor of the forests where she knows the mushrooms would be hiding, craftily navigating in and out of the narrow pathways between the blurred motionless pillars in the fog. The foliage is untouched by humans in this part of the wilderness and thick vines and undergrowth shroud the entirety of the forest. Mingli struggles to pass through to proceed deeper into the fog to pursue her addiction. Mingli’s face is wet, dirtied, and cut. The tiny nicks across her cheek slowly begin to run red with blood. Mingli raises her muddied hand and smears the blood across her face and wipes the sweat from her forehead. Mingli is tired and is gasping to catch her breathe. The thick fog seems to consume her and she collapses at the base of a great moss covered tree. Her hands run through the thick moss at the base of the colossus and she gazes up to see the tall blurred tower. The thick trunk seemed deeply rooted and entwined with all the other trees in the forest. She imagines it spears through the fog that captures all of the other trees in the forest and peeks out above all the rest. She imagines that this tree, the tree she is collapsed at, exceeds all the others. To Mingli, this is the heart of the forest, and although it is not what she is looking for, it brings her peace. Her eyelids grow too heavy for her to keep open and Mingli falls fast asleep, still captivated at the spectacle she had discovered.

The dank air scratches at the dormant nostrils, rhythmically inhaling and exhaling. Her skin shivers violently as her muscles contract to cope with the heavy wind. Her head falls side to side and her lips move ever so slightly as she mumbles in her sleep. Something about a great storm plaguing the valley, destroying everything, and something about a great decomposing flower sprouting from a heap upon the earth. Mingli hesitantly opens her eyes and takes a moment to bring her surroundings into focus. Her head is throbbing and her eyes strain as she  tries to make out the many shapes at her feet. There is a familiar smell in the air, one that makes her heart beat faster and her brow begin to sweat. Blindly feeling the earth Mingli makes out the thick tops of the sprouted plant. Her fingers trace the stipples cap down to the underside where the smooth gills are arranged surrounding the thick stock piercing out of the cold dirt. Mingli panics and reaches out around her, everywhere her hands blindly touch the same creature is found. Tears of joy begin to stroll down her face as her fingers caress each of the plants at her feet. Her breathe becomes shortened and eventually becomes a sickly wheez. Her lungs begin to constrict and her eyesight begins to worsen. Mingli collapses, desperately uprooting the mushrooms as she chokes on the thick spore ridden air. The thick fog slips into Mingli’s throat and down into her lungs. She violently tries to rid the toxic smoke from her lungs, but with each helpless gag the spores only further root themselves into her lungs. She vomits out a thick black slime, ridden with the tiny sprouting hairs of fungus. Her attempts to cry for help only causes her body to purge more heaps of the black tar like sludge from her body. The spores begin to break through her skin, yet her cries of agony can not be seen or heard. All that is left is a lifeless shell which Mingli’s fully conscience mind is trapped. The pigment of her skin runs white and her eyes spoil grey. A surge of tears runs down her face as she shakes in the cold wind. The quick gasps for air suddenly cease and the forest goes silent. Hours pass with no disturbance, still the lifeless body remains collapsed in the ocean of toxins and foliage. Then a sharp crack, like that of a breaking twig, cuts the air and seems to echo through the pillars of wood. Another sounds off and more come in rapid succession. Her right arm jerks and twists, again a crack sounds off. Her leg rises and again a sudden crack. Her torso begins to reanimate as her rib cage takes in a deep breathe and expands beyond capacity. It’s dead, pale face opens it’s mouth ajar and exhales a thick black smoke. With an evil sudden motion the neck snaps in and out of place, as the wicked host becomes accustomed to it’s vessel. The fingers, in unison, crack and conform to their natural positions. With a deep haunting breathe, it takes in more air falling to it’s knees in delight. The beast franticly inhales the air accumulating around the mushrooms upon the ground, ensuring it takes in as much of the polluted air as it’s new body could take in. In a slow creeping manner it stands up, violently twitching involuntarily as it attempts to reach out and grasp the thick woven basket. Finally grasping the basket with both hands, like a child learning to use them for the first time, the beast stands erect and proceeds to leave the forest. It’s back arched, it’s neck wrenched to one side.

Chen is hard at work tending to the hut. The season rains have weakened the straw roof of the hut. Chen’s hands are grey with a thick clay that he lathers onto the straw and applies patches to the softened areas of the roof where the sun can be seen peeking through when inside. The sweat drips from his forehead and his thick wool shirt sticks to his chest. As he cups his hands to scoop up a thick heap of clay a single ray of white light illuminates his hand. Chen stops and glances over his shoulder. Through the thick fog the long and powerful rays of the  first light of summer breaks through, and shines down in the valley. Chen takes a moment to embrace the fresh summer light and inhales the clean crisp air. As he opens his eyes he sees a figure staggering from the forest path. From the hut the figure seems to be walking as if half a sleep, struggling to hold the large woven basket slung over their shoulder. Chen strains his eyes to make out the figures face and his concerned grin soon becomes a jubilant smile as he makes out Mingli’s face. Chen jumps down and walks over to meet Mingli.

“Another season, another hunt for those wretched mushrooms huh Mingli?” Chen chuckles to his own joke, stopping only when he realizes Mingli is not laughing with him.

“You alright Mingli?” Chen grabs his wife by the arms and quickly examines her. Chen embraces his wife and he can feel her heart’s subtle beat. He feels her unusually deep and powerful breathe. Hands shaking and eyes open wide, the sweat starts to pour from his forehead as if he had been working tenfold on that roof. Slowly he breaks away from Mingli. Her head is slumped down facing the ground. Chen steps back, cocks down and gazes up at his wife’s face.

“Mingli?” Her eyes are a cold clay grey and her mouth was ajar. The pungent smell of damp moss clouds her breathe.