Smetter’s Crusted Toadstool (Malus sienkiewiczii) fruits once every seven years. On each occasion, it heralds a new apocalypse for the Dimble family.
Nearly half a century ago, Letitia Dimble’s great-grandparents Bertram and Millie were lost when their greenhouse spontaneously combusted on a cool spring morning. Also killed were eleven fellow members of the Little Brompton Fungi Appreciation Society, along with a reporter and a photographer covering the botanical phenomenon for the local newspaper. Grandfather Charles escaped his parents’ fate by missing his train home from Oxford, where he was studying for his PhD in chemistry.
Seven years later to the day, Letitia’s great-uncle George, well-regarded about town for his green thumb and genial nature, was arrested for the murder of the six reserve soldiers bivouacked in his dairy paddock, to whom he served a beef stroganoff casserole laced with the deadly toadstool. The only explanation he offered at his trial was a complaint, repeated frequently, that the soldiers were “louder than the telly”, despite being camped more than a mile from his cottage.
Fourteen years into his life sentence, George picked a fight in the exercise yard of Her Majesty’s Prison Wakefield with one Ronald “Thumbs” Larkin and his associates, whom he loudly described as “a right lot of soft turnips”. He was stabbed in the kidneys with a sharpened screwdriver and bled to death seated on an old bench. When he failed to rise and run for cover from a heavy spring downpour, the prison guards discovered bright blue stalks capped with spotted yellow ovoids, sprouting from the bench’s rotten timber up between George’s bloody fingers. Under the grisly circumstances, the strange outcropping was considered an odd but unremarkable occurrence.
It took Letitia to put it all together, and then only by accident.
When she was still in high school, Grandfather Charles’ sudden death from a mystery ailment forced his last remaining descendant, Letitia, to see out her education in the care of a loving foster family. The bereaved teenager managed her acute sense of abandonment by studying journalism and developing web applications. Months after she moved on campus to celebrate her twentieth birthday, her Grandfather’s executor sent a stack of personal journals.
Partly to satisfy her curiosity about her ancestry, but mostly to satisfy the requirements of her academic coursework, Letitia decided to document the Dimble family history.
She was already painfully aware, of course, of many of the more tragic elements. Her mother Cindy died giving birth to her, the result of complications from an unexplained lung infection. Her father Michael followed when Letitia was in her early years at school, the victim of a single vehicle crash. To her surprise, a toxicology report folded neatly into the back of one of Grandfather Charles’ notebooks made no mention of alcohol, but it did cite “elevated concentrations of an unknown fungal agent”, which it hypothesized as a possible contributing factor in the driver’s erratic behaviour and eventual loss of control.
A great deal of Charles’ notes was given over to lamenting his late wife Beth, who suffered a fatal stroke while napping peacefully in her garden. As Charles was attending a conference in Inverness at the time, she went sadly undiscovered for more than a week. When a neighbour finally checked in on her, her remains were in a shrivelled state, surrounded by thick grass, weeds and a well-fed crop of mushrooms. Letitia’s Grandfather had rarely mentioned her. This all happened more than ten years before Letitia was born.
Dutifully mapping names and dates into a family tree, Letitia quickly noticed the rhythmic pace of the deaths. As she expanded her research to the internet’s inexhaustible supply of news clippings, coronial reports and – her curiosity overcoming any squeamishness for family she no longer reliably recalled – post-mortem photographs, she found the toadstools.
“Oh,” was all she could say, before hitting the books anew.
After weeks of analysis, cross-correlation and verification, Letitia could no longer refute the coincidence of her family’s history of untimely deaths and the reproductive cycle of Smetter’s Crusted Toadstool. She became an expert in what the botanical community agreed was an unusual, unpleasantly toxic but on the whole unremarkable species of fungus. Try as she might, she could find nothing especially interesting about the toadstool, other than its apparent involvement in the systematic extermination of her lineage.
With only a couple of months to go before her twenty-first birthday, and highly conscious of her status as the last remaining Dimble anywhere, Letitia decided to grab the bull by the horns. She built a terrarium, ordered in a stock of spores, and cultivated a crop of Malus sienkiewiczii in her laundry room.
She wasn’t reckless. She wore a respirator and hazmat suit and followed an efficient decontamination routine. She put her affairs in order. She recorded her observations and filmed the crop’s development. She kept a video diary, which gained a steadily increasing following.
She began a countdown to her birthday, which coincided with the flowering date of the toadstool. A few clumsy followers and several trolls wished her a happy birthday, provoking reprisals from her loyalists.
The internet held its breath.
Letitia, who was by no means superstitious but nevertheless found herself enthralled at the prospect of somehow being murdered by fungus, began a livestream on the morning of her birthday.
She recounted her research and told anecdotes about the lives of her predecessors. She swapped jokes and well wishes with thousands of followers. She politely declined several job offers and two marriage proposals. Donations to her charity fund reached six figures.
She streamed all day, and well into the night. The terrarium live feed showed nondescript blobs of grey throw out blue stalks and mottled yellow caps until long after midnight. It cut off suddenly at 1 am.
Letitia Dimble never reappeared.
After a week, her website redirected to a news article about a Little Brompton foster program which had just received a generous contribution from a mysterious donor called Smith.
I cannot begin to tell you where this came from. I’m very tired. I think the first line might have come to me when I was dreaming. Though in this case, “dreaming” is short for “zoning out in a fatigue stupor while walking back to the car after work”.
Never ask a writer where they get their ideas. They might actually tell you.