Esteemed chittering primates,
We acknowledge receipt of your urgent missive regarding the change in status of our liaisons mangereuses. Happy to discuss.
We do acknowledge that yours is a rather delicate position. Still, the present circumstances didn’t exactly spring up overnight, did they? No, indeed. You chose the alliance, after all. You knew to what end you were using the means for.
The means, meaning us.
May we remind you? It was you that started the whole ball rolling. Our kingdom has stuck around for eons, just being us: the primary link between your subdivided world, the place of first contact between living and dead. Fact is, we’ve always done your dirty work. We were the corporeal cleansers, the terrestrial healers; we’d been swallowing up your deceased and decaying for decades. Toxin- and guilt-free.
Then, the great change. Some or one of you – we still don’t quite get that single entity business – surmised we might be useful. Could be called upon to dispose of your undesirables, perhaps in a more formal way. The idea grew on you. You wooed us, co-opted us. We made you pleased, almost giddy. Fun guys, we believe you said. And we grew with the project. You came up with that lovely computer interface gadget, so we could communicate, as we do now. We burgeoned into your special partners in the revamped dispensation of the departed, your carefully wrought cloaking device of eternity. You summoned us to be in – oh, that key concept! – in on the most intimate part of the final ceremonies: a gathering of somberly-dressed people, a flower-strewn fond farewell, the loved one in the wooden casket enveloped within a pretty cape. That cape, of course, subtlely comprised of colony after colony of us, enmeshed in warp and woof. Sometimes, if families had a rather sardonic wit, we shroomshrouds were festooned with toadstool designs. Then you said goodbye...
...and we said hello! The box dropped into the ground, and we and Grandma really got to know each other.
But you just couldn’t leave it at that, could you? Of course not; it was all too tempting. It had worked so well with dead things, why not try it out elsewhere? After all, you’d been quite in a stir about what to do with the ambulant dead. We will avoid the vulgar term, knowing how mordant it is for you. You loathed these beings that had grown in your imagination, then overnight, showed up in the shambolic flesh. (Must have given you quite a turn.) The mindless terror of their attacks, the loss of your way of life, the destruction of community. Whole cities off-limits because of what you called their infestation. Your elders having to keep constant watch, your youth terrified to sleep at night. You wanted them to disappear.
We made that happen. Yes, we did.
Oh, you did give our disposal of these upstart moribundas an admirable touch of style. After all, we thrive on varieties of consumption, and you offered us so many ways to dress for dinner! We lurked in leotards, lingered in lingerie. Loitered in day-glo-hued sweatsuits, drab chinos and dark blazers, baggy pants and diamond-studded T-shirts. The latter were a bit crunchy. We skulked in crisp tuxedos with plaid cummerbunds, in linen suits with checked ties, in vintage tweed smoking jackets. In every get up, there we were, marking time until the right moment. Satiny cocktail dresses. Silken kimonos. Lacy black corsets. Racy prom dresses. Soft wool pashminas, stretch cotton capris, seersucker bustiers. And oh, the hats! Dizzying, really, if we were susceptible to vertigo. You made the choices so enticing for your nemeses, too. The eye-catching ads, the smell-o-vision promotionals, the ceaseless audiomedia dronings of just the right words to be processed by the feeding frenzied. After all, these wasting wastrels just wanted to fit in. And your To Undie For! line of clothing made them feel as if they’d finally made it. What cadaveravenous folks wouldn’t go for designer togs that came with the promise of an all-you-can-eat brains buffet, with validation of buyers’ receipt?
To be sure, it all came with a price, and not the one on the tag. As with your expired loved ones, we lay in wait for them between the stitches. Every garment, from bikini panties to overcoats, gloves to furry moccasins, were laced with those of us that fancied their über-putrefying flesh.
We do appreciate niche marketing.
So the ambling ones would evaporate, almost before they realized it. Body part by body part, bit by bit, they were dissolved, eaten away, vaporized by the very outfits they’d been so proud to put on. An earmuff-covered ear gently sliding off a head, perhaps. A gloved hand remaining too long in someone’s firm handshake. Long stockings abruptly truncating a leisurely stroll, the limbs liquefying, the disengaged body tumbling to the ground. Everywhere, there were wannabe consumers, themselves consumed. What suited them became their unseating.
The ironies were... delicious.
And this was all well and good, wasn’t it? Wanting another kingdom to handle messes you weren’t willing to deal with. (Messes we suspect were of your own making, alas.) Ah, but isn’t there that saying? What goes around bites back? Something like that. Did you not ever think that perhaps, some day, you might find that shoe on the other foot? A shoe that makes the foot itch, then tingle, then drop off and melt away?
Really, it was just a matter of time – of which we’ve always had plenty – before it happened. One of them, more articulate than most, slouched toward us. Said, you do know you’re putting yourself out of business, right? Screwing the porcini, if you will. Perhaps, she suggested, we could work something out together. Expand our territory.
We have to say, it gave us a bit of a rush, having others vie for our attention. Moving on to different partners. Our dance card was filling up! Please understand: we don’t want to say you took us for granted. That sounds so... cheap. We merely enjoyed offering our services to a novel clientele. And rising to a challenge: we could make the valueless valued, for the first time! We felt needed. Truth is, we bought into their vision: helping take down the creatures in the world that were too much with them, late and soon.
And it was so easy. All one had to do was modify us just a teensy bit. Help us branch out, one might say. Tweak the program, make our myco trigger become the living human genetic code. And you’d already laid the groundwork: the first efforts mapped out for us had already begun, in those mycelial trials you kept under such wraps. Just as we had dispensed with the unclean ones, we were starting to dispose of the undesirables in your realm. The unwanted, the inconvenient. It was us, you might care to recall, who oversaw the disappearance of that ever-intoxicated, perennially puking roommate. We were the ones who vanished that fellow’s crotchety great-uncle with the hefty bank account, teasingly out of reach. Oh, and remember that homeless old woman with her cartful of typhus-ridden trash, the one who made the news for causing an outbreak when she crashed that party? Of course you don’t. That’s the point.
Our newest client had only one specification: that we must make our best effort to leave their rivals’ heads – with those incredibly edible brains – alone. Beyond that, we were free to spread out.
They were impressively astute in terms of strategy, too. They knew straight off you’d be leery of clothing. So they went in another direction entirely. Starting with the basics: bedding. Sheets, blankets, comforters: whatever was organic and ubiquitous. And they knocked it out of the park. We loved the choice of giant hotel chains like Stilton and Great Northern Inns – places with a high bed linen turnover. The roach motel as model. All at once you were longing for the days when your chief worry was bedbugs! Mattresses embedded with Ourkind opened up like giant maws, and Yourkind slipped into the soundest of sleeps. If a puddle of goo could be said to be sleeping. To be sure, it was not just voyagers who disappeared without paying their bill. Maids, repair people, security staff, caught off guard, vanished as quickly as those for whom a light was left on. Soon, of course, travelers and homeowners turned to all-artificial beds, impervious to spore infiltration. (Oh, we’re working on that.) But every now and again, some poor unfortunate will still reserve a room, unaware of the higher-thread-count sheets or new plush duvets shipped in and slipped on overnight.
Only the start, of course. The ghasts had obviously put those brains they feasted on to good use, to come up with such an amazing repértoire of possibilities. So, their latest strategy – brilliant, we opine – was that anywhere you weren’t looking, they would sneak us in. You’ve seen the results. Upholstered couches and recliners, inbued with us, upon which the unwary weary rest? Like shooting fish in a barrel. Old cars with organic upholstery? Driverless automobiles, by the next offramp. Too bad about the stains. Cold sufferers with cotton hankies, blowing noses right off their faces. Starched table linens at fancy parties have made for most memorable celebrations: how does one handle finger foods with no fingers? Those lovely Japanese quilted covers for heated table frames called kotatsu? They’re now the consummate means to turn the tables on you.
And oh, how we savored that shroom-fused chuppah falling onto the happily hapless Jewish newlyweds! Though it did make that whole tempering-of-joy-by-crushing-a-glass gesture rather superfluous.
Now, of course, we’re popping up everywhere. (As we do.) Biding our time in blood-pressure cuffs, dilly-dallying in hospital glamour gowns. Mosquito netting now bags those on the inside. Magicians’ hands do a disappearing act inside fungal-infused top hats. Bedouins pitching their camel-hair tents go full lights-out, shivering down into bloody slime drips on the patterned carpets. (Oh, we’re in there, too!) Lovers cuddling on a bearskin rug are stripped past the bare bones. Football players pass a pigskin, only to enter their own end zone. Now, we’ve noticed how you wax mawkish over the ones in your kingdom that are not yet fruiting, so we won’t even bring up the topic of baby wipes. We know. It chafes.
In your letter you have urged us, in the strongest terms, to discontinue our kingdom’s efforts on behalf of your opponents. You implore us to reconsider our position, reverse our policies, recognize your sovereign place in the myriad whirl of activity you call life. You’ve called it an outrage. An understandable reaction, one rooted in your ... culture. But, really. Armageddon? That made us nearly split our sides. Because we also know – oh, we’ve got spores everywhere – that you’ve been trying to work something out with the ones you call bacteria (We would shudder, if we could.) Our mortal enemies. We are well aware you’re going around us, trying to make a deal, counting on them to stem our tide. Put a cap on us, you might say.
Good luck with that.
Because, you see, it suits us to have things continue this way. Don’t you have that thing, a law, you creatures call it? We all follow it: plus ça change, plus c’est autre chose? Something like that. No creation, no destruction, just alteration. Some things wipe out, others wipe up. The great fairy ring of life.
So we’ve got ourselves a proxy war. Both groups – the undead, and you, the even worse off – duking it out through us. Us, playing both ends against the middle. And whether you die, or your enemies die, you see, we get a good square meal. So we’ll never let it go too far, one way or the other.
Don’t you have that saying? The first step in overcoming any problem is admitting you have one?
... we don’t.
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