Pesky little eavesdroppers, their red bulbous heads nosing out of the dirt. Pompously round, suspiciously still. Like a snob with a secret.
I want to know the secret. So I’m crushing dried caps into my banana-berry smoothie.
Fly agaric, amanita muscaria, or the fairy toadstool if you don’t know your shrooms. Look for the big red hats with white freckles popping out under pine trees. Even an amateur like me can’t get it wrong.
Now they’re shrivelled and flaky in my fingers. The rotting odour digs down to my stomach, hurling my guts around. I gag and slam on the Nutri Ninja lid. Any second thoughts drown in the whirr of the blender.
“The girl treks, unabashed, over the mountain summit,” I murmur like a literary David Attenborough, “empty cup hanging limp in her hand, having slurped her way into imminent abandon.”
My guilty pleasure when I’m alone is self-narration. What else am I supposed to do, while I’m waiting for the yawning to begin: the tell-tale sign of the mushies taking hold. Nausea inches up from my stomach, which shoots me a suspicious glare: This, again?
I stumble along a walking track that is only just visible in the dead leaves. The Canberra bush is a smudge of thick eucalypts. A sign stands by the path: “Warning Poison Baits”. My bowels squirm. Why are these plants so difficult to digest? Mother Nature gifted us with psychedelics, only to chuck in the drawback of neurotic nausea. It’s no coincidence that the poison in fly agaric is the psychoactive component: you’ve got to work for your fun. Cheap thrills, huh? When Centrelink can’t afford you real drugs…
“She focuses only on the next footstep.” I’m breathing hard. Why did I do this? Don’t look back. My head hangs and my eyes droop down my face like a Dali painting. I yawn.
A yawn! Praise the Lord! My body is processing. Another yawn: I march on in victory and gulp down a retch, knowing it will subside soon. The aftertaste of fungi still clings to my tongue.
“She staggers like a public drunk, leaning on scribbly gums for support.” I chuckle at what I must look like. The landscape is coated in an ugly winter grey and it swamps me with its uniformity. The path shivers and shakes into a blur, then disappears into my huge yawn.
Voices crackle ahead of me and my eyelids fly open. People. “She was wholly unprepared to come across her own species,” I whisper.
Two young mothers appear through the trees sporting puffer jackets and leggings. They look disproportionately gigantic on the path, but that’s probably the pelopsia. One woman has a proud baby bump swelling through her lycra. I wipe at my ruffled hair and clutch the jumper trailing off my limbs, my mouth ajar in panicked paranoia.
“Hi.” The expecting woman nods at me on approach. She narrows her eyes. What are you on? She glances at her friend and purses her lips: Is she alright?
I blush. Pity is infinitely worse than disapproval. My facial muscles push into a smile.
“You doing ok?” the other woman says.
I gape and flap my hands. They’re doubting me; I need a reply. Good. Or, good, how about you? Maybe a I’m fine, thanks. How are you going? Enjoy your walk! The possibilities are insurmountable.
“Goo–” I gurgle and look up to face nobody. I whip around and see their ponytails bobbing down the path.
I take a sharp left and bolt from the path. Enough of that civilisation shit. I canter through dry bush, the bumpy ride matching my internal mayhem. It was only two small caps, I shouldn’t be at hallucination level. Nothing pretty, nope, just my vision hopping before my eyes like a game of jump rope. England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales. The top chunk of my visual field flicks to random images from memory: just now, a flash to a tree trunk I stopped at earlier.
Panting and scrunching my nose, I claw through leafless shrubbery, branches clipping at my dress. Perhaps the running was too much. My organs stir: my brain, my eyeballs, my stomach. Something is shooting from my centre up my throat.
I halt and heave. Berry smoothie spurts from my mouth. I hobble over the earth, eyes shut, a puppet to internal reflexes. I purge up another round of purple water, and another, returning the mushies to the dirt. Each hurl washes me with the relief that it only gets better from here. The tide subsides on my empty tummy.
I open my eyes. Eucalypts encircle me, all muscle and height, warning of their surveillance. “Sorry about the spew,” I cough.
“You’re sorry?” a voice crackles.
I stumble backwards and whip my neck around, but no one is there.
“Down here, halfwit! I didn’t die on my feet only to be puked on by an inebriated human.”
I squint at my vomit between my feet. A white lump lies in the dirt, beneath the puddle of berry water. I nudge it with my boot and dead leaves fall away from the chalky cranium.
“Bones?” I murmur. The skull glares up at me from its eye sockets, grinning from its jaw of neat teeth. Purple sludge drips off the crusty horns. Vertebrae are scattered like stars around it.
“Bones!” the voice screeches. “Is that all you think I am? And who do you think you are, staggering around desecrating graves?”
My eyes boggle. Maybe my self-narration was getting meta, but this didn’t sound like Sir David. The scene shifts a few centimetres and my vision flickers to an image of mushrooms for a millisecond – where did I see that? I push harder to concentrate but my perception is all out of whack.
“At this stage,” I exhale wearily, “the hallucinations are beyond psychedelic. The poison is hijacking the central nervous system.”
The skull lets out a throaty cackle. “Don’t talk poison to me, little girl. You know nothing of poison.”
My knees wobble as I squat at the grave site, glancing around me to check if anyone is watching. “I’d rather think I do,” I hiss as my vision strobes.
“Ha!” it grunts, a purple droplet rolling down its snout. “You don’t know of the piercing pain, the convulsions, the final breath. You don’t know of the agony of having your carcass torn apart by wild dogs. Nor the terror of rats scrabbling and gnawing your bones.” The skull gnashes its brown teeth. “Then to finally rest in peace, only for some tripper to vomit purple grot over your corpse.”
I stare at the decomposing carcass. Hair, blacker and thicker than mine, balloons beneath the bones like a dark cloud. The shadow of the animal that once was: a sheep or goat or deer. The air smells of rot.
It glares at me with its scraped out eyes. “You’re the one I feel sorry for. Don’t you know anything? Look closer, little girl.”
I grab a stick to poke at the matted hair. My face looms over the microcosm as I lean in and unstitch a piece from the dirt. Underneath, a tiny white nub is nosing its way out of the leaf litter. A faint bloom of rouge paints its skin.
“A baby fly agaric,” I say. A fleeting vision comes to me: colonies of baby mushrooms, silky white heads squirming up out of the earth. Their spores sprinkle, their tiny ears open, listening for rain.
I wait for a reply, but the skull is still and silent, smiling wide.