Seed Hunters

Reading Time: 4 minutes
(Image created by Sophie Gorjance using Firefly.)

They say some people can hear the forest singing when they get close. But they’re wrong. By the time they hear it, they’ve already crossed the boundaries, whatever the geo-markers say. Fog spills through the latticework of old-growth trees and shivering ferns, pooling in all the hollow places.

As part of the government’s forestry experiment, I’m paid to live out here and guide researchers around the borders of the Ledge. I used to be a full-time researcher myself, though my tongue has rusted over the years.

I stop at the black chain-link fence, knotted with vines of native blackberry. Despite food shortages, very few people are willing to harvest this close to the forest until the government declares it’s safe.

I glance back at the group I’m leading, wondering why they’ve come. They’re paying well and their gear is good—tall boots, wire backpacks, canvas suits. But they’re not researchers. Seed hunters then, with the money to afford disinfection for their spoils. Emotions swell beneath their puffy faces, the hot mammal taste of their hunger coating my lips like oil.

I smile. “So, the government doesn’t authorize proceeding beyond this point. I can take a photograph with the Ledge in the background.”

“You think we’re here for a selfie?” Ryan’s lip curls, the tip of one canine tooth glinting. He’s all swagger and muscle. He stares directly at me, eyes challenging. “We didn’t pay for a couple of pics. We want specimens.”

Beside him, the younger woman called Hayley bites her lip. She’s tall and thin, her gloved fingers tightening on a white mesh seed bag. Her cornsilk hair is wavy in the damp air. I can already tell that she’s the most likely to hear the forest sing.

The third in the group is another woman: Ollie, older than these two. Short, curly hair tinged gray and a hard face that gives nothing away. Something about her movements makes me think that she has an agenda.

Maybe the government is checking up to see that I’m following the protocols. Maybe I should be playing it safe. Except I’ve already offered to let these three in. I lift the section of fence for them to crawl through, wondering if this is when I’ll be arrested. And then worse.

But there are no sirens, no armored and gloved soldiers. Hayley goes first, ducking low and nearly tripping on strands of rustling brambles. Ryan and Ollie go in after her, grunting as they bend.

I glance down the dirt road that leads back to civilization. There’s nothing for me there. Not yet.

I head through and lead my group into the woods. Hayley stays close to me, her shoulders hunched nervously.

Our feet make no noise on the matted pine needles and wet leaves. All around us, the fog muffles every sound except the steady drip of rain. The billowing white clouds give way just enough to see luminescent green moss crawling up the tree trunks, coating every surface. The geo-monitors they’re wearing chime as we pass the first marker.

“Aren’t they going to notice that we came in?” Hayley asks.

“Don’t worry, we capture the signal before it’s transmitted out. It’ll look like you stayed safely outside the Ledge.” I hold her gaze, something in my chest aching, just a little. I can see something of myself in her. “I promise you—people do this all the time. Like me.”

After an hour or two of walking, we find the old guide station. Its rotting rooftop is weighed down by years of decaying plant matter; a brackish scent fills the damp air; wooden walls buckle in the near-constant rain and choke on brambles; cracked and shattered windows gleam like so many teeth.

Ollie searches the ruins. “Anything good?”

I shake my head. “No, there are too many chemicals and microplastics in the building materials they used. What kinds of seeds are you looking for?”

“Anything that’ll sell.” Ryan leans against a moss-draped tree. “But we can make good money on specimens, too.”

“There’s Trametes versicolor for you.” I point to fan-shaped mushrooms growing on the tree, just below his hip. A pretty species, with varying rings of brown and beige fanning out in a showy display.

Ryan’s laughter cracks the hushed air. “I guess I’m a natural hunter.”

“You get a lot of visitors?” Ollie asks.

“Not so much. People used to hike and camp out here. But after the earthquakes, the government set up the markers to prevent anyone from getting lost. The soil used to be contaminated.”

“I’ve heard it’s still contaminated,” Ollie says, a hint of a question in her voice. Her eyes shimmer, opalescent with reflected fog as she looks at me. A definite challenge. “I heard people were getting sick, some kind of virus.”

I grit my teeth, realizing that Ollie is definitely more than she seems. But then, so am I.

Around me, biorhythmic waves of sound rise, filling the forest with song. Hayley is the first to hear them, but Ollie’s head whips around too. But the threat isn’t anything they can fight.

It’s in the fog itself, the compounds filling their lungs, drowning their senses. Ollie is the first to fall, stumbling to her knees. Ryan and Hayley soon follow, their eyelids fluttering.

The air turns green with spores that shimmer at the edge of sight. I rip off my gloves and lift my hands palm up, waiting for them to settle on me. The hyphae needle through my arteries, euphoria foaming on my tongue. I’ve missed us so much. I brought us a new host.

The ground shudders and cracks open, churning mud. Hayley’s eyes open and she gasps as mossy fingers lift from the matted leaves to grip her. Ollie and Ryan are still unconscious: they won’t remember a thing. They’ll believe anything that Hayley—we—tell them.

Don’t be scared, I whisper. The hyphae slither up her arms and legs like filaments of light. Another scream, and then they’re in. Her legs and arms jerk, her head lolling towards me. In her eyes, I see a mirror of myself.

Soon, she’ll be a seed hunter like me, luring compatible new hosts into the colony. Quietly enough to avoid drawing notice. That was our mistake, last time. Destroying every trace of the human personality when we took them in.

But soon, we will be many again. More than enough to win, this time.


Edited by a Sophie Gorjance.

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Faith Allington (she/her) is a writer, gardener and lover of mystery parties. Her work appears in Apex Magazine, Waterwheel Review, Cease, Cows, and Crow & Cross Keys.