Guttation – Rick Claypool
December 12, 2021
The girl is afraid the old man isn’t going to make it. She’s sure his symptoms are getting worse. The tower is much closer now. But still possibly too far.
After a time of wincing into the gray blaze of the setting sun, the girl and the old man make camp. The sky dims.
It’s true that for most of their journey the old man was able to walk on his own. Even led for a few miles. But then he would hesitate too long when they encountered a stream or briar thicket. Several times he fell over. Then she’d have to help him up, position herself under his arm, and pull him along. Sometimes she was practically dragging him.
It seems the farther they go, the more frequently this happens. She’s sure he’ll never get to the tower without her.
The girl drops her pack. She sits in a patch of moss and watches him simply standing there, skin glistening in the twilight with what might be sweat.
He’s far gone enough now she expects he’ll stand there like that all night.
Firelight flickers in the near distance behind them. The one who is pursuing them has made camp too.
She’s too tired to make a fire. Part of her wants to go to their pursuer, to share the warmth. Instead she lies back and tries to ignore the sensation of things emerging from the moss and creeping across her skin.
They’re so close to the tower now. When the wind is right, she can smell it.
In the morning the old man is hard to look at. His body puffed up overnight, his arms and legs tight against his sleeves and pants like sausages in their casings. And his face. Where before the skin was slack with age it now strains against the growth within. His mouth gapes, his tongue is swollen. His nose looks like a grotesquely overripe, flesh-colored fruit about to fall. His eyes are deeply sunken in the inflated skin around their sockets.
The girl takes his hand to pull him forward. Almost immediately she pulls her hand back. “You’re bleeding,” she says.
“No,” he says between labored, rotten-smelling breaths that smell like the wind coming from the west. “I don’t believe I’m bleeding.”
She looks at the crimson smear on her hand. Then she looks at his hand. Beads of red liquid dot his skin. She looks at his swollen face again and realizes they’re there too, bright red blobs on his nose, chin, cheeks, and forehead.
She reaches up to his cheek and cautiously touches one. The instant her fingertip contacts the red liquid, the surface tension breaks and it dribbles down his face. She pulls her hand away. The liquid isn’t warm like blood should be. It’s cool, more like a drewdrop. A small hole in his cheek is left behind where the bead of red liquid was. It looks moist inside but not raw or bloody. She presses her fingertip against the rim and pulls it back quickly, unsettled by its sponginess.
“It’s called guttation,” a muffled voice says.
The girl whirls around. The one who is pursuing them is there. His appearance is completely obscured by the protective cone he wears over his face. He steps forward out of the tall grass, extends a gloved hand from his black cloak. “Please,” he says. “Let me help you.”
She draws a pistol from her coat and shoots him in the chest. He staggers backwards into the tall grass. A flock of grackles flees into the air.
She knows what it’s called. She knows what happens next.
The guttation droplets will dribble out, leaving behind hollows in the old man’s spongy flesh.
His stiffness will keep worsening until his arms and legs can no longer move.
And finally the fungal fruitings will erupt.
This is the reason they must hurry to the tower.
The boulders along the path up the mountain glisten with flecks of quartz. Lichen spreads in brittle folds and flamboyant frutings across the craggy surfaces. The girl thinks the lichen patches look like small civilizations.
The old man’s face is so swollen he can’t see. The girl has tied a piece of rope around his waist and is keeping the other end wrapped around her wrist.
When they reach the top of the mountain, the girl wipes what feels like sweat from her brow. She looks at the back of her hand and sees that it is smeared with red guttation.
She reaches up and feels her forehead. Its surface area is larger than it should be and if she traces her fingertip across her forehead, she can feel the hollows forming. She runs her hand through her hair. There’s something not quite right about the way her head underneath is shaped. When brings her hand back there are clumps of guttation-damp hair tangled between her fingers.
Her chest tightens. It takes all her strength to suppress the panic rising inside. She tells herself to breathe. The air is thick with the smell of the tower.
She tells herself she is here and it’s not too late for her.
She tells herself they are here and it’s not too late for them.
There are others like them who are here for the tower too. The closer they get, the denser the crowd. Some of the others as far gone as the old man and worse. Some stand statue-like away from the jostling cloud.
They didn’t make it, the girl thinks. It’s so sad they got this far yet didn’t make it.
She tugs on the rope around the old man’s waist, pulling him toward the tower.
They line up behind the others. The people in the crowd don’t speak except in hushed tones. She looks up at the way the tower rises into the sky and gasps in awe. She can see there are people in it. She allows herself to savor the joy of knowing they soon will be among them.
The smell is so strong she can taste it.
They wait all day. The sun is already setting again when finally it’s time for them to ascend. She gives the old man’s rope a yank and sees how swollen her own arm has become, how crimson beads of guttation dot her skin.
He staggers toward her. The liquid has mostly dribbled off of him, leaving behind openings in his skin that are circular and some that are larger and irregularly shaped. From the openings in the old man’s face and neck, tongue-like protrusions are starting to grow. He reaches for her and she sees where his fingers used to be are now masses of webby white filaments.
“Come on,” she says and she’s aware of her voice sounding somehow wrong to herself. Somehow muffled. Somehow damp.
The tower is white and spirals upward. They climb along the ridge spiraling around it. The girl runs her hand along its surface. It’s soft and white, like the inside of an orange rind. The closer they get to the top, the more the people in the tower are exposed. Midway up, all that’s visible of the bodies inside are the mature, spore-covered fungal fruitings sticking out from the surface like blackened tongues. In the fading sunlight she can see wisps of spores wafting like smoke into the valley below.
At the top, the deformed faces of those who came before are exposed. Swollen and doughy, fresh protrusions extend from the orifaces the guttation droplets opened. The girl feels the wind in her hair. She tells herself this is the closest thing to flying she’ll ever feel. She can’t help letting out a joyful laugh. Once her laughter starts, she finds it difficult to stop.
They made it. She can’t believe it. They really made it.
She can’t smell anything anymore.
She looks away from the faces and down across the valley. From here she can see for miles and miles, all the way to the hazy skyline of the distant city where she lived before she was compelled toward the tower.
She remembers how they tried to stop her. How the people wearing cones over their faces insisted the more people leave for the tower, the worse the plague will get. How they erected barriers and how those barriers fell under the force of those like her. How those who tried to stop them fell when her fellow tower pilgrims opened fire. How the divine bliss of their unstoppable momentum fueled her forward no matter how much she might be rotting on the inside.
The girl positions the old man between the swollen faces of two others. The fungal fruitings protrude from his guttation holes. The white webbing that was once his hands attaches almost immediately to the side of the tower and becomes indistinguishable from the substance of its surface. She links an arm with his.
She exhales. She relaxes.
They are here. There more of them there are, the more of them there will be. How many is just a matter of how far the wind can carries the spores.
The wind can carry them quite far.
The sensation of flying comes again. She holds onto the sensation for as long as she can. She finds to her surprise she can sustain the sensation deep into the night, even after her eyes are fully swollen shut.