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In a Cave by the Lake

by J.S. Kohout about a year ago in supernatural
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The taste of cheese and terroir.

In a Cave by the Lake
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

The ferric smell of Farmer Ralph’s blood mixed with the funk of ripening cheese. Stout, sturdy, and sporting a crew-cut, this overall-wearing woman in her late sixties kept a stone face. She had a machete in one hand and pressed her other hand against her bleeding hip.

That’s when she shifted on the floor and took in a sharp, pained, breath.

Wide-eyed and shaking, Paul, a bald, bearded, wiry man in his thirties looked up from the notebook in his left hand, “You okay? You okay?”

“I gotta’ shit sitting in the alcove that wants to put on its boots and skedaddle. But I’m breathing,” said Farmer Ralph.

Paul was still unsure if Farmer Ralph was her full legal name or merely a general description of her appearance. He took a belt from the bottle in his right hand. He’d hidden it, here in the cheese cave, for emergencies.

In an attempt to calm himself, he decided to focus on the taste of the liquor. He opened his mouth and let air flow over his palate. He inhaled and whispered to himself, “Char. Sweet notes. Musk? A Heath bar wrapped in a leather belt. Kinky. It’s like joyless candy.”

By Xavier von Erlach on Unsplash

Seven months prior, Farmer Ralph had summoned Paul German to the sleepy town of Everton to make cheese.

Paul’s primary work was as a “Cave Master,” a title that often got a wide-eyed response. “It means I take care of a warehouse.” He’d explain. Then he would say something like, “I also make cheese. I’m a multifaceted cheese demon,” and there, most were impressed. People like cheese. “I’m the last thing keeping vegetarians from going vegan,” he’d add.

Paul was also an alcoholic. He firmly believed that’s what made him the happiest. “In high school, they told me, ‘Follow your bliss!’ Emotions are just chemical reactions, and I’m good at chemistry.”

He was good at chemistry. That was one reason why he excelled at making cheese.

Farmer Ralph, on the other hand, was in recovery and oriented towards the bottom line. Semi-retired, she owned this dairy farm and knew that cheese would make her the most money per teet-pull. Paul was available at rock bottom prices due to his many shortcomings, and she had a plan to keep him in check.

On her spread was a small man-made lake with pastures on one side, and dense forest on the other. Unable to legally build more structures on her land, she built a cozy six-foot by six-foot cabin on a raft made of 30-gallon blue plastic vinegar barrels.

It was tiny but adorable and big enough to hold an almost twin-sized bed salvaged from an RV roll-over. The bed doubled as a bench for a one-foot-deep ledge that ran parallel to it on the left side. On the ledge was a small coffee maker and a hot plate, and over the ledge was a simple screen and shutter window that overlooked lilypads and lawn. There was a storage loft, and under the bed was a box with a hole in the top and a pot inside.

“No pissing or shitting in the lake. That’s what the pot’s for. Lights out at nine.” was the full extent of Farmer Ralph’s tour of his living quarters.

This floating abode got its limited electrical power from an extension cord that snaked down the hillside and over the plank that anchored the cabin to the shore. The other end was plugged into the cheese cave, a humidity and temperature-controlled walk-in refrigerator that was built into the hillside.

“I want to make a brie like that Peekskill-Pyramid guy.” she explained, “You know that cheese that’s shaped like a little tower. Maybe spice it up with onions or herbs? It needs to stand out.”

“So,” he looked at her quizzically, “You want, like, a cheese rhomboid?”

“If that’s what the college crowd is eating. Yes,” she responded flatly.

Paul also wanted to make a cheese that stood out. His goal was to make a splash at next June’s cheesemonger invitational and move beyond floating outhouses.

Luckily he liked being outside. His first sunset was gently beautiful as cows sat in the field and lightning bugs migrated amongst them.

Miles away from anything, the night dwarfed him. Getting up in the middle of the night, it was just pitch black, the roar of crickets, and the twinkle of stars.

“Fucking amazing,” he said to himself as he peed into the lake from the comfort of his front door.

By Gabriele Motter on Unsplash

Eventually, Paul and Farmer Ralph came to an agreement on their final product. It would be circular, have a wine-washed rind, and be studded with various local herbs and mushrooms.

“If you can find a forager,” Paul explained, “we can use stuff from your property. It’ll be a hyper-local delicacy. Blue Hill at Stone Barns kind of stuff.”

“What could I sell it at?” she asked.

“That’s between you and your god,” he replied.

Farmer Ralph considered it, “Gertie can help.”

Gertrude Speck rented out the second floor of Farmer Ralph’s farmhouse as an office. Speck had been an RN at one point, but her reputation was as a naturopath and doula. Although Farmer Ralph didn’t go in for “that stuff,” they had known each other for years.

Paul went up to meet Gertrude in her office. He knocked on the door. She gave a perfunctory, “It’s open.”

Inside was sparse but also twice the size of Paul’s shack. It had a front and back room with a half bath between them. In the front was a desk with a wooden office chair. An examination table, an antique sideboard, and a china cabinet with a glass front were in the back room. Inside the cabinet were several pottery jars, and draped over the cabinet’s doorknobs was a stethoscope.

Gertrude sat at the desk. In her late forties, pale and with jet black hair, she could only be described as dashing. She wore a blue button-down shirt, a tan leather jacket, and a close-cropped haircut. She looked like a cross between Amelia Earheart and Elvira. The only sign of her age was crow’s feet around her dark brown eyes.

“You’re helping Fern with the cheese?” she asked with a serious face.

“I’m trying,” he laughed, “Fern?”

“Don’t call her that,” her face stayed stoic. “I tried to convince her that this wasn’t worth the time and expense, but she got fixated on the idea that it’d be a cash cow.”

“Cash cow, huh?” he chuckled lightly.

Her eyes narrowed, “She’s my landlord and a friend. I’m watching you.”

“Um, so I, uh, you forage?” he said timidly.

“Let me tell you something, Mr. German. You’re restless, sweating, jaundiced, and you keep scratching yourself. Your hands shake, and you smell like booze,” she paused briefly, “You’re an alcoholic.”

“Hold on.” his voice firmed, “I drink too much sometimes, but I’m just here for advice on nettles and dandelions.”

“I told Fern it was dangerous to have an alcoholic here,” she stood up and walked past him.

Halfway down the stairs, she called back, “Come on!”

Gertrude spent the next few hours pointing out the wide variety of wild herbs, plants, and mushrooms that dotted the land around the lake and the swampy forest behind it.

It wasn’t long before they were both muddy up to the top of their shins.

“I come back this way all the time,” she said, “Last week, I saw something curious I want to check in on.”

Deep at the back end of the property, they saw a small hillock through the trees. It was covered with what looked like a mottled blue plastic tarp.

But, as they approached, Paul noticed that it was not a tarp, but a dense patch of mushrooms. They were only a couple of inches tall at the edges, but in the middle, they appeared to be almost a foot tall. This giant mound of colorful fungal fruit was wildly out of place.

“Wow,” she said, “last time, it was a small patch, maybe an inch tall.”

The stems were almost white, but their umbrellaed tops were varying shades of blueish purple, flecked with tiny white thorns around their edges.

“What is this?” he said nervously.

She crouched down. “They look like giant blue roundheads, but the stem color is unusual. Maybe something like a stropharia aeruginosa? Roundheads are poisonous, but stropharia is edible depending on who you talk to.”

“Sounds like a terrible conversation,” said Paul.

“Aunt Helen said they were poison, but Auntie Josephine said they were only a bit... spicy.” Gertrude leaned in to touch one as Paul moved around to the other side.

There he noticed what first looked like a broken log with a jagged edge. But as he rotated around, he could see the scoops and sockets of a half-rotten cow skull.

“Yeaaaghhh,” he said with disgust.

Gertrude looked to his gaze, “One of the cows wandered out, collapsed, and died. These fellas made a home. Dairy Cows are so dainty.” She pulled out a gunmetal gray tactical knife and a plastic baggie.

There was a faint squeak as she used the knife to cut into the flesh of one of the smaller mushrooms. The stalk immediately bruised to a blueish color and bled a milky gray substance that turned yellow as it traveled down the knife and onto her fingers.

“Why do I smell gin?” Paul questioned.

“I think you’re smelling something related to juniper,” she replied as she put the bright blue and leaky yellow mushroom in the zip-top bag from her pocket. She then wiped both the knife and her hands with an “F.R.” monogrammed handkerchief.

“You think these mushrooms are a juniper hybrid?” asked Paul.

“No.” she responded, “You and I are more closely genetically related to fungi than any plant.”

“Nature is weird,” he replied.

That night, as he gently rocked to sleep on the lake, he kept thinking about these blue and white thorned mushrooms.

“I should buy some gin,” he thought.

By Conscious Design on Unsplash

As the season progressed, Paul struggled to remain focused.

There were excursions to the Costco an hour away or the drive-In in Warwick. But he mostly entertained himself with the bottle when not making cheese.

Early on, he messed up one batch so badly that it grew a lumpy and distorted “toad skin” that slipped off its runny interior and reeked of ammonia.

“I need to better balance the geotrichum candidum and penicillin candidum. I have to tame the more unruly geotrichum spores,” he explained to Farmer Ralph.

“Talk spores and fungus with Gertie,” she replied, “Don’t waste my bonnyclabber.”

Knowing he had limited strikes, Paul got back on track. In part, it was due to a non-alcoholic distraction named Becky.

He met Becky at a local bar called The Robin Hood. He gave her his “cheese demon/vegan” lines over a game of shuffleboard.

“Aren’t you interesting!” she responded.

Paul looked her straight in the eye, as he pushed his shuffleboard puck down the table, “I don’t have time to be interesting...” he knocked her puck off, and his puck hung on the edge, “I’m too busy being the god of fermented dairy and oral sex.”

He aggressively humped the table, sending his puck over the edge.

Becky was a CPA having trouble with her ex-boyfriend. She needed to blow off steam with some strange. Paul fit that bill. She enjoyed herself on his floating boudoir mostly because he was telling the truth about his "sexpertise."

He had mastered it so that his romantic encounters didn’t always end with “whiskey dick.”

The next morning Paul pulled on a ratty t-shirt with a picture of a stapler and the words, “Is this a brie?” written underneath. As he started to brew coffee, he flipped open a small wooden box of assorted cheeses he kept on the counter by his cheese tools. “Can I offer you coffee and camembert?” he asked a sleepy-eyed Becky.

“Coffee, yes, but I’ll stay away from cheese,” she patted her stomach and frowned, “Lactose.”

“Well, actually, most aged cheeses have little to no lactose in them.” he paused, “Or at least so little lactose that it's virtually undetectable.”

“Not this morning.” she demurred, “I never do more than one risky thing at a time, and sleeping on a pond with a stranger puts me over the limit.” She pointed to one of his tools that looked like an oversized corkscrew with a long and thin scoop in place of the twirly bit, “What’s that?”

“That is a cheese trier. That one’s a bit big for what we do here, but I keep it with me in case I get a chance to try something special.” He winked, then proceeded to take out a pinkish wheel from the cheese box, “Let me show you how the trier works. Plus, you can taste a little of what I do here.”

Paul pierced the side of the cheese with the trier. He twisted it, and then pulled out a soft and fudgy core sample the color of dandelions, and studded with bits of green and grey. “Taste it.” He held it out.

They both took a pinch of goo off the stainless steel.

“Wow!” she exclaimed, “It’s like butter and lemon and pepper had a baby? And, it’s like, meaty?”

Paul smiled, “I call it ‘Stroganov,’ because it kind of tastes like Beef Stroganoff. Farmer Ralph wants to call it, ‘Sunday Dinner.’”

By Storiès on Unsplash

Weeks went by.

Then, one night in early October, Paul couldn’t reach Becky, so he went out drinking by himself. He got back to the farm after midnight.

Usually, the property would be pitch black at that point. But all the lights in the farmhouse were on, spilling bright columns across the lawn.

As he got closer to the path that led down to the lake, he paused.

There were tiny islands of iridescent blue in the grass that lead from the house and towards the cheese cave.

He recognized the mushrooms from the woods. Though here they were all barely an inch high. He went in for a closer look.

The first patch he approached almost appeared to be in the shape of a human hand. It turned out that was because they were, in fact, growing out of a jaggedly severed human hand.

"Oh, fudge!" Paul yelled, scared beyond profanity.

He backed up but then forced himself to follow the blue path down the hill.

The moonlight, bouncing off the lake, suddenly silhouetted a figure outside the cave.

"Hello?" he called out.

"Hey, Paul!" came Becky's voice. "Can you help me with something?" With that, she stepped into the edge of the light from the house.

Her forehead over her left eye was bashed in. It was bruised blueish, and tiny indigo mushrooms were sprouting from a wound. The fungi forced the cut open, splitting her skin open like a baked potato.

"Suuuurrrre." He said with remarkable calm.

"Can you open the cave? I left something in there."

Paul carefully approached her. Her calm demeanor was disarming. He scanned her up and down.

That’s when he noticed that her left hand was missing and in its place was a small bloom of grotesque blue mushrooms.

"HELP DUMMY!" he heard Farmer Ralph's muffled but scratchy tenor from behind the door.

At that moment, Paul was drunk, full of adrenalin, and dead set on being a hero.

He approached Becky without hesitation. In a single motion, he pulled the cheese trier out of his back pocket and thrust it into her left eye.

Becky's face responded with a popping sound followed by a combination of grinding and squeaking.

He let go of the trier, now embedded in her face.

She stood there otherwise unphased as blue mushrooms erupted from the fresh wound, continuing to pry her face apart. She didn't say a word. Instead, she just looked blankly ahead with her remaining eye as the mushrooms twisted out of her face. Temporarily stunned, she paused before attempting to remove the trier.

At that moment, he used the full, flat, force of his boot to kick her in the stomach. He sent her tumbling backward, down the hill, towards the lake.

In this moment of forced sobriety, he turned to the cave and fumbled for the key. He opened the door and closed it hard behind him.

Farmer Ralph was on the floor, bleeding from the hip,

"WHAT IS HAPPENING!?" he screamed.

"Here,” she grunted and tossed him a small brown paper notebook, “This was Gertie’s.”

The cover had the words, “If I should do something strange,” written in black.

Reading as fast as he could, Paul tried to wrap his head around Gertrude’s words, "...not unlike ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the spores from these blue mushrooms can take control of an animal’s central nervous system. But unlike 'zombie ant fungus,' it’s not restricted to ants."

He was also a subject of her writing.

“In an odd twist, Paul German’s alcoholism has inoculated him,” she wrote. ”I’ve tested his urine thanks to Fern’s collection pot, and his liver already has a fungal infection that appears to be warding off the parasite. I have his urine, but it may be too late for me.”

Gertrude estimated that the fungus took about three weeks to overtake a body depending on size, and she was less than a week away from her own fate. Her last entry was a plea to Fern along with a dire warning.

Farmer Ralph could see that he understood what was happening as he looked at the shelves around them.

“It’s in the cheese,” she said.

Paul took another drink.

A purposeful and gentle knock came on the door.

“Fern. Paul? It’s Gertie.”

By HONG FENG on Unsplash


About the author

J.S. Kohout

Obsessively thinking about the intersections of food, entertainment, commerce, human nature, and the end of the world.

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