Every day Branna brought back the most mushroom-sacks and everyone thought he was hot shit.
Big, glorious Branna, with his white teeth and his muscles. They cheered for perfect Branna.
“I’m going to beat that garbage eater,” I told Silky one morning.
“Who?” Silky tugged his work boots on.
“Branna. The dung flinger.”
Silky snorted. “Good luck with that, Armie. Ya’re a wee lad. Whatcha gonna do to Branna?”
“Show him, that’s what.”
In the mushroom fields beneath the great tree canopy, I pulled their glistening bodies one at a time. They were fist-sized with gray flesh and brown spots. The others picked nearby: Branna, head lowered, working like a badger; Silky, taking his sweet time; Mina and Yola and all the rest, talking to each other in low tones.
The mushrooms stank like sod and were stuck in deep. I had to dig with my fingers, wiggle them around, and yank with all my strength.
My arms ached after an hour. After two, it was break time. I didn’t stop.
“Ya’re serious ‘bout this, ain’t ya?” Silky said when he got back. “I thought ya liked Branna.”
“I don’t.” I stood up straight. I felt sweat trickle down my back. “You like Branna.”
Silky rolled his eyes. “Everyone likes Branna. He feeds half the damn village. Come from the dirt and break a bit.”
“Not yet.” I stooped and went back at it.
“Fine, but don’t come whining when ya hurt yaself.”
Minutes turned to hours. My fingertips itched then felt like nothing at all. Every other part of me was twisted and aching. I kept going. What the hell did Silky know anyway? My arms felt heavy, my head like air. I pushed on, face to the ground.
For a while, my world contracted to muscles and dirt. My exhaustion came in waves: one moment, euphoric, I worked myself ragged, and in the next I could barely manage to stay upright.
All the while, Branna dug and pulled, dug and pulled.
Daylight waned and the others began to shuffle off. Silky had three sacks. Mina and Yola had four each. I crawled on my hands and knees, digging.
It grew so dark, I couldn’t see. I’d never been out so late. Branna was gone and I was alone with the mushrooms. My left arm didn’t work real good anymore.
At some point, I realized I’d lost my sack. I’d been dropping the ‘shrooms behind me on the dirt, into nothing. I scrambled for them, feeling around, blind, cursing, desperate. I nailed my knee into a great tree, followed by my head, and collapsed face-first into the loam.
For a long time, I didn’t move, it felt kind of good, until a blue light shone through my eyelids.
I was confused at first. Then I craned by neck and looked.
The mushrooms, lit up like flames. Thousands of blue glowing orbs.
It was magnificent. The most incredible thing I’d ever seen. For one second, I forgot about how bad I hurt. The forest was a fireworks display. They seemed to pulse, dim then bright, dim then bright.
Lying there, in the blue glow of the mushrooms, the taste of moss on my tongue, I thought I might stay forever, when a shadow fell across me. I rolled onto my side, groaning, and opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“You don’t look so good.” Branna crouched down. He held a lantern in one hand. “You okay, Armie?”
“I’m fine. Taking a nap.”
“Your mom sent me looking for you.” He seemed worried. “You didn’t come back.”
“How many sacks did I fill?”
He counted, touching each one. “Ten. That’s real good.”
“How many did you fill?”
“Well, now, Armie, come on, I just—“
I closed my eyes. “Thirteen. And that was a regular day for you.”
“Every flower’s different, as my father says.” He loomed there, gargantuan, beautiful. “Come back with me.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “Ten’s good. Better than everyone else.”
I struggled to my feet. It took an effort I didn’t know I had. My knees were dirty, my gloves ragged and torn, my boots caked in thick mud. I felt like hell, every muscle torn and bruised, but I was on my own feet, and that seemed okay.
“Tomorrow,” I said. “I’ll beat you tomorrow.”
“Sure,” he said, then looked me up and down. “Maybe not tomorrow. But one day.” He tossed my sacks over his shoulder like they were nothing. “Let’s get back. It’s late. Mushrooms are pretty though. Never noticed the color before.”
I followed him through the forest.
The mushrooms were pretty, he was right about that.
ps, Another short one this week. Don’t forget to follow me on twitter: @dckalbach