I’m standing in front of him, hands in my pockets. He’s just sitting there.
Turns his head real slowly, like he’s noticing me at his own pace. Real deliberate movements. His eyes are a dull, dark brown under his little grey cap – they ain’t got no healthy sparkle, no wisdom of age, no gleam of intelligence, no nothing.
Blank slate. Vegetable.
“Uh…” I say, no longer sure why I walked over in the first place.
“Hello,” he says. He’s got a funny accent. Eastern Europe by way of Mars.
“Yo,” I say. “I heard… this street. This was the place to buy shit. I just got here. I heard, if you’re looking… I heard about this street.”
He’s just staring his dumb, dull stare. He blinks.
“This shit,” I say, jerking a shoulder towards the tray of ‘shrooms. “Are these ‘special’? ‘Especiale’?”
No response. Just the stare.
I get up close to his face.
“Hey man, you speak any fuckin’ Inglés?”
Nada. Fuck this.
I’m about to turn around, and then he comes to life like a wind-up doll.
“Special,” he says, in that untraceable accent. “The spore of the cordyceps fungus will attach itself to an insect, feeding on its juices, working its mycelia in through the exoskeleton, until finally it lodges in the brain. Once there, the fungus alters the fundamental brain chemistry of the host, causing drastic behavioral changes and even overriding its sense of self-preservation.”
“Man… are you alright? You been sampling the merchandise?”
“In the case of the Chinese caterpillar thitarodes, the final stage of infection causes a dark brown mushroom to burst forth from the animal’s forehead.”
I glance around, but there’s nobody else in sight. Just me and the crazy guy.
I don’t like this scene. Still…
“How much, man?”
“The dead creature’s body and the newly born fungus are thus combined into one entity. Living and dead, mushroom and caterpillar. Forever entwined.”
“Hey! I said, how much for one?”
He looks up at me, and there’s nothing in his eyes. Nothing at all… except.
Except that, for a fraction of a second, the mask slips. For a split second, his eyes are pleading, weeping, screaming at me.
Then the moment passes, and his face turns back to blank.
“The first one’s free,” he says. “Take it and eat.”
“No thanks,” I say, and I’m already backing up. I just want to get the fuck out of there as fast as I can.
I’m halfway down the block before I look back. He’s still staring after me, blank brown eyes under a little grey cap.