Strawberries and Cream, by Rowena Newman (Lucent Dreaming Issue 13)

The bathroom floor tiles are bulgy and uneven. Within a week, they divide like tectonic plates. Floating away in the tub, I picture the continents and how the world used to be one single mass of land.

How easy it would have been to visit Duriania if it had existed back then. When I tell my husband where my parents are from, he thinks it sounds made up. I say it’s named after durian fruit, and I buy some from the Asian supermarket, hoping he’ll enjoy the off-kilter sweetness. I break the custardy flesh into pieces and leave it on the counter where it sits for days, frozen in tropical magic, until it starts to change.

Not long after the cracks appear, a many-headed mushroom erupts through the tiles. Altogether, it has the dimensions of a large animal, and it reminds me of the dog my parents once had, except that this dog-sized mushroom’s white flesh is pimpled with beads of blood-like juice. A mycelial network is wending its way under the floors. “We need to do something about this,” I tell my husband.
Within days, the whole ground floor is engulfed. “You’re right, we should do something about this,” says my husband when a lake of rice pudding and jam creeps up the stairs. We look up the name in the dictionary: Hydnellum peckii, or the Bleeding Tooth fungus. My husband christens it Strawberries and Cream instead. He draws pictures of it blossoming into a garden of red and white roses. He is a genius, an artist. Where others see rot, he sees beauty.

Since my husband is a genius, and geniuses need time, he cannot work, so I foot the bills for now, making a hundred plus greetings cards per day. I stamp the insides, sometimes finding the fragments beautiful, but it’s usually the simple stuff that sells. My husband reads them and repeats them to me. “Tessa, by your side I feel so right,” he says. “When we met, I knew it was a duet. Take off your coat.” He puts his hand up my top.

When I married him, I left everything behind except this coat; it was my mum’s. It’s so heavy it makes my bones ache. Before my husband, I lived with my dad. Living with him was like being in a skiff bobbing violently in the middle of an unknown sea. He was fired from his job for making too many mistakes. I never asked what the mistakes were. It’s funny, with parents, you can go a lifetime knowing the language of their footsteps; how they smell like beer and talcum powder and sriracha; how happiness makes them sadder than anything else, but when it comes to the story they tell about their life, you get the abridged version. Once, I found him in my room holding onto one of my handmade cards, peering into it like a faulty Gameboy, tears glistening in creeks down his face. The mystery of his life fluttered like so many loose pages around my cards and their sturdy banality. I hated him then and resolved to make a success of my life and move on.

I am beginning to suspect my husband is on drugs. He has that musty vacuum cleaner smell. Still, I do think he looks quite like Thomas Chatterton now, opal-skinned and wilting. There’s no money at the moment, and he starts talking about the possible recompenses of having a natural phenomenon spring from below the property. He uploads a photo of the fungus online. Soon we have micro-famous people coming to our house to take pictures. Some recoil, unable to move past thoughts of bleeding teeth. Others, enamoured with the aesthetic, place products from their online sponsors amongst the cream, tea-like fungus. When my husband sees this, he becomes obsessed with photographing random items from the house amongst the amalgam: bath bombs, bullet blenders, cans of marshmallow fluff. I don’t know the reason for this – he isn’t micro-famous enough to be paid for it – but the attention it garners is addictive. I can see the approval makes him feel safe. Some of the visitors spread the Strawberries and Cream on their faces like it’s a pot of Olay Regenerist, hoping the meaty lustre will rub off on them. When I try to pose in some of the photos, he tells me to take my coat off again. I don’t want to, The house is big and draughty. Later, scrolling his page, I notice that he’s used the eraser to wipe me out of the photos, as if I were some kind of photobomber and not one half of a duet. I worry that I’m stifling his genius. I wonder what that word means.

The fungus sprouts like candy canes in a deranged saccharine dream. We drape fairy lights around it and it’s a big hit at Christmas. My husband calls it “the grotto.” “Welcome to the grotto,” he says to my dad, faking no-nonsense bliss, shaking his hand with stiff rudders when he comes over for Boxing Day lunch. My dad acts very nonchalant about the Strawberries and Cream, like he’s seen it all back in Duriania, back when he and mum met in the city slums, like he’s not the sort of person to get upset anymore. He asks me why I’m wearing mum’s old coat. “I’ll get you a brand new North Polar” he offers, “It’s worth it in this cold, Tessabee,” and I feel the old revulsion come crashing back. In the morning I find him curled up next to Strawberries and Cream. He says he’d heard the mushroom dreaming, saying it wanted to go outside and get away. I don’t know whether he’s secretly talking about himself, or mum, or me, or the dog. I recall how he used to watch the dog running in her sleep. I don’t know what decade it is in his head. I don’t know how time moves in his skiff. “You’re a strong, brave girl and I’m proud of you,” he says and holds me, for thirty years, then lets me go. I want to tell him that I’m not strong; I’ve loved him all my life. I tell my husband I’m worried about my dad, question whether the loneliness is still gnawing away at his clarity. His flying saucer eyes dilate to black holes looking at me. “He’s a good man, Tessa,” he says, still using the no-nonsense voice, “Have some respect for that.” His face is glossy with the Strawberries and Cream he’s buffed all over it. “I’ve been shadowbanned,” he adds, “I need to fuck you.”

The mushroom is feeling its way into the garden and away from the house, which is getting barer by the day. My husband has spent and sold nearly everything we have, else buried it in the Strawberries and Cream. One day, I come home, and he is submerged. At first, I think he’s been hurt. His back is turned, and it looks like chunks of it have been torn and splayed out. Then I realise he’s been stood there for so long that the fungus has grown over and around his body. “I am developing,” he says, turning around like a robo-suited villain, “beyond decay. I am going into space, to be frozen, like all geniuses, Tessa,” he gurgles at me, “Strawberries and Cream has taught me not to be afraid of death, Tessa.” His lips are stained with orange Dorito dust. I miss my mum.

Even though my husband has lost his grip on reality, I kind of know what he means. Strawberries and Cream, growing up and away to create new life in the forest, has altered my emotional maze with its wide-open grasp on the world. One night, while my husband is sleeping off a heavy morning of drugs and Doritos, I put away the greeting cards scattering my bed and step outside, following the mushroom’s polyphonic path. In this moment, my whole life seems an extended pause, almost mystical. I exude belonging. The soundlessness surrounding me sparkles. I take off my coat. I sing until I begin to change. I don’t know where the song leads.

Rowena Newman has been published at Litro Magazine and holds an MA in Literature from Sussex University.

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Lucent Dreaming is an independent creative writing magazine and book publisher for beautiful, imaginative and surreal fiction, poetry and artwork from emerging authors and artists worldwide. Subscribe to Lucent Dreaming now, support us on Patreon and follow us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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