Cordyceps militaris

This was originally proposed for Nyx’s issue on monsters. It took on new life via the rigorous editorial process of that publication and became a new piece about cordyceps. But cordyceps militaris was written in a specific and focused state of mind and is reproduced here in its original form, with a couple of tweaks since. To read the final version, do invest in a copy of Nyx, a Noctournal, available online via its website.


Cordyceps militaris is a fungi which primarily infects moths and butterflies (lepidoptera, with limited infections of beetles/coleoptera), confirming these creatures as the Icarus-lovers of the natural world. Cordyceps pervades and transforms the internal structures of their anatomies in order to eventually flower out of their bodies. It has not been fully studied as to whether such cordyceps have infected mammals or even humans, but with the growing usage of cordyceps as a boon in medicine, athletics and pest-control, the possibilities of contamination have profoundly increased. There is no known treatment for infection, and hosts have been witnessed to reach states of profound orgiastic joy in their possession.


Stage 1.
Infection is initiated when cordyceps spores permeate the exoskeleton of the host.

Heart seeks a cheaper rent. Vibration between two beings. Diseased infatuation, unrecognised, unrecognisable. A name pursued like a bad omen. Poring over supermarket fruit: antibacterial peaches, vinegar sweat, currency frozen. Over-applied blusher, she sighs that she always looks so tired these days. Dinner in a plastic tray. Hollowed out, a spidery creep in well-trodden circles. Wanting all the men she meets to become the bad frustrating husband that she had always secretly longed for.

A misplaced smile, a surprised expression placed on paper, windows, passing faces – all available surfaces. Tripe about love and death in West End boozer and jokes about politicians. Drunk again, she texts me the notations to her moods. Doubtful, I pass out in a bar and awake later in the future, in this unknowable town, with expertise in delay.

Stage 2.
From the successful growth of a germ tube within the host’s body cavity, a disc-like appresiorum develops. The fungus grows and divides throughout the body into a hyphal blastospore. This stage of infection is marked by aberrant behaviour in the host.

The infection erupted out of a random encounter. She stole into my life with the confused opportunism of a burglar climbed in through the wrong window, still eager to make something of a disappointing situation. It began with a silly conversation about orange juice and ended with a half-apologetic see you later. Contaminating the nerves, after a few further encounters this itchy frisson became frenzied, addictive. A togetherness of mutual ignorance, a moth in pursuit of a moon. Tourists wearing charmless hats remark on the sanitation of the city river. In a dizzy haze, no words of reply come now except how are you? x.

Porous passive skin opens up to the promise of a new beginning. Not much, a misplaced look, a smile, a joke about politicians, but possessed – hooked. I could never claim much of what I was, but I had a sense of purpose at least. I did this or that, they could say that of me. But her electrified glances, weird behaviour, gentle and illuminated features, disarming laughter, that sense of urgency in her manner which was always misunderstood as rudeness – possessed quickly, hollowed out. Emptying our lives of those hopes and dreams we’d misplaced in mediocre jobs and excessive distractions. Quietly broken on one another. I abandoned my position at the company and began to accumulate great debts carelessly, the possibility of the future either forgotten or abandoned.

Young man calls his lust love and is poetry. Anthologies of over-wrought adjectives. Lovers as ‘mystique bookes’. Ach. Young woman describes sex as conquest and is welcomed into the male canon. Others write of bereavement or threaten violence, reaching climax on cream paper. She groans and attempts to change the subject, but abandons the attempt and just stares at me in silence in that way of hers. To hell with these Raskolnikovs and their songs of Kalashnikovs. Venom-sopped fools these, they talk of love as if were a gift or religion, as if it came from the heart and not from the guts and the more corrupted sections of the nervous system.

The city raises concerns only for nouns and never verbs. The light outside her flat always seems to dance at all hours, in on the joke with the moths and the spindly Valerian. We go back in the night, where maps are traced on bone, where skins dance together as nervous systems momentarily fuse one, identities blurred in the musical intensity of touch. Life-stories later rewritten with a dawn laughter, sharing tea and toast on a crunchy mattress. She was bored and sad. I distorted my life story. Didn’t think to ask hers either. Her friends were cannily suspicious of me.
Stage 3. The cordyceps has now entirely permeated the system of the host. In its final days, the infected creature has been observed to climb to higher ground, with much of the volition and internal organs of the host now irreversibly contaminated.

Unnaming names, unknowing things. Music inside the nerves, every cell singing, vibrating with her, so excited to see her again that I forget my words and make no sense. No matter. Ill once more, drowning it out was no good, weeping neither. Took up light exercise as advised. Nearly coughed it up. Abandoned work and friends. Slept irregularly, took to new heights, the vanity of youth flowering, craving what was mistaken to be beloved. Diseased, this infatuation was a word-by-word quotation of a hara-kiri handbook. Much later, she told me that nothing is more rare in a man than an act of his own – Emerson’s words, the irony completely lost on me. And if you got whatever dark truth you really actually desire, what then?, a reply issuing itself from out of my mouth. We have enough bitter disappointment in our chests to wreak civil war on the country, she boasted, playing games of lovers hide-and-seek with her words again, in that week of cruel paradise together.

Feeling known only when when it is given. Learn from the plants who offer indiscriminately, without hope or despair, a gift without expectation of return. Strange how her and I could only talk first about our sufferings, sketching the directions in which we might complete each others’ lives, if we would only allow ourselves to let go of our egos and be happy with small things.

Friends keep worrying unnecessarily. A thousand and one things to do another day. Again the world is blinded by its own inability to prioritise, and she refuses to speak anything except riddles. After a feverish night I have to rip up roots and disperse. A week by the coast, mobile phone offered to the indifference of an ocean. There’s nothing to do anywhere. Sheepish walking, a well-heeled couple negotiate directions whilst boiled-beetroot men boast their IRA connections to Italian student punks who keep them refreshed. I come back to the city but she won’t be found.

Stage 4.
The host dies. At the time of death or shortly thereafter, the fungus develops into a filamentous stage, transforming the internal organs of the host into a tightly-packed mass of mycelium termed the endosclerotium. A fruiting body, the stroma, erupts out of the host, usually through the forehead.

Infection is without hope, extraction painful – a month in friends’ hair, hiding her evidence. Haunted by death, poverty, madness, loneliness and the rest, we take up a perverse embrace – bring it close, get it done and out of the way, come together and know these most negative spaces, where monsters creep through children’s sleep. Such gentle poisons that won’t be spoken of with words, but of which too many words are spoken. Fuck your eyes and skin. Let me die as I have lived – but I won’t let her. She’s sick now too, her wounded words echoing around the redundant structures of my nerves. Wander in thought, street scenes peopled by screens and the hot wind of conversations with strangers.

In her hands and scent fleetingly peace is felt all around. The modern world momentarily forgotten inside her bed. We get up the next afternoon and it’s snowing, everything messed-up again, stressed-out again. She loses her resolve. These words make her weary. No more knitting heart-strings, she jokes to her mirror-reflection. Boys who only come when they’re feeling bored or lonely. A life without content. I began deleting my names, unknowing again the chimera world had known and employed me as. True devotion to the object nullifies the possibilities of the subject. Skin as religion. Even a teenage narcissus wasn’t capable of bearing that load.

It was the mistaken separation of sex and love that killed Kafka, not these scurrilous tales of tuberculosis. Skies peopled in her expressions. Later again, when the true hopelessness of our situation was made clear, she held me like a cadaver, caressing with the desperate anger of a financial speculator whose gambled his last dollar on some ill-starred number. Streetlights fizz, cars and cyclists collide. It was impossible to separate the workings of the parasite from the familiar consolation of cold alcohol. A retreat from romance to realism in every conversation, every gesture. Life became all of her, and the desire that she had borne in my skin became me. In the violent arguments and scenes she staged, in the sacrifices I took cruel pleasure in self-inflicting, lovers are the ultimate monstrosities, the most aberrant actors.

Stage 5.
From the club-shaped stromata of the desiccated yet intact host, new cordyceps spores are issued airborne. Nearby creatures will be contaminated, the life-cycle of the cordyceps continuing interminably.

I’m on higher ground, firmer terror, ascending to the summit, the time comes to bloom, ready. Petals plumped in wild jasmine colours. Curtains shiver in autumn breeze of early blue. Her name sung for the last time. Covered in bruises now, another legacy of this union, I plunge into water and with a horrible crashing thunder, she’s back again and everywhere, and as we come together neurones curl into filigree geometries and from the mind’s eye issues a vivid stromata, nerves flowering for real this time. Night subsides, moths put to sleep their schemes for meeting moons, finally we sleep easily for a change.

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