(Offered as part of the July Cooking the Books interview. Content copyright Karin Tidbeck, no reproduction permitted without permission of the author)
The entrance to the mushroom chambers lay to the southwest, in the middle of the third quadrant. The low building above ground housed a canteen, changing rooms and offices. Ivar showed Vanja into a room lined with shelves. He picked out overalls, rubber boots, gloves and hats for both of them.
When they’d changed into their protective clothing, and Ivar had made sure Vanja’s legs and sleeves were properly tucked into her boots and gloves, he opened a door at the other end of the room. A wide, dimly lit set of stairs zig-zagged downward.
At the bottom, they stopped in front of a heavy door which Ivar pulled open. Sconces spread a mild light across the white walls of the corridor beyond. The sharp smell of detergent stung Vanja’s nostrils. When Ivar pushed open the door at the other end of the corridor, a damp chill rushed over them from the gloom beyond the threshold.
The gradual dimming of the light had made it easier to adapt to the semidarkness. The vaulted tunnel stretched as far as Vanja could see; broad shelves ran along both sides of it. Every surface was covered in a layer of soil. Out of the soil sprung white, round mushrooms.
”It’s not as dark as this everywhere,” Ivar said behind her. ”This is just the section for photosensitive mushrooms.”
Vanja nodded. ”I understand,” she added, when she realized Ivar might not have been able to see the gesture. ”What’s that smell?”
Under the layers of damp, soil and detergent there was a whiff of something sickly that stuck at the back of Vanja’s throat.
Ivar came up next to her and prodded at the shelf closest to them. ”It’s probably the fertilizer you’re smelling. The mushrooms are grown in composted faeces.”
They moved on along the shelves. Eventually the light grew stronger, and they entered a hall where the mushrooms on the shelves were taller and plumper, with broad caps. Disc-shaped growths covered the walls. A couple of technicians on narrow ladders were busy carefully prying the lumps off a wall.
”Polypores?”, Vanja asked.
Ivar nodded. ”Exactly. Those are pale polypores – they’re ground down for porridge and custard. It’s the same kind of porridge we had this morning.”
”Can you use them for other things too?”
”Not really. They’re very tough and stringy, so it’s the only way you can make them edible.”
They came to a fork in the tunnel. New fungi appeared on the shelves: brown agarics with low, wide caps; yellow tangled clavaria that grew in tall clusters; small, black funnel chanterelles, and mushrooms she didn’t recognize: thick-stalked mushrooms with tiny caps, mushrooms sheathed in slimy membranes, mushrooms spread flat across a wall. Ivar named each one and described their uses. Enormous polypores covered one of the tunnels from floor to ceiling, the smallest ones were the size of dinner plates: mycopaper base, Ivar explained.
”There are other sections,” he said, ”for medicinal use. We don’t allow visitors in there, though. Some of the fungi are poisonous.”
”How big is this structure?” Vanja asked.
”About as big as Amatka.”
The next door opened into a large, brightly lit chamber taken up almost completely by the four shiny cylinders in the middle of the room. Ivar pointed.
”This is where we grow the mycoprotein.”
He guided Vanja up a small ladder leaning against the side of the cylinder closest to them, and opened a small hatch. Through a thick window, Vanja could see a brown mass that covered the inside of the cylinder.
”It doesn’t look very tasty right now, does it?”, Ivar said. ”It gets better once it’s processed.”
They left the chamber through a door on the other side of the chamber, and emerged in the part of the tunnel they’d first set out from. Vanja paused to let her eyes readjust to the sudden darkness. The white mushroom clusters slowly reappeared in front of her.
When they came back up to the surface, they went back into the changing room and Ivar took Vanja’s protective clothing and put it down a hatch together with his own. They washed all parts of themselves that hadn’t been protected by an unbroken stretch of fabric: wrists, ankles, heads, hair.
The canteen served a stew of root vegetables and mycoprotein, ladled into large bowls. The farmers ate like they worked, in slow silence. Vanja and Ivar sat down by one of the long tables.
”What is your situation with hygiene products?” In the silence, Vanja lowered her voice to a near-whisper.
”Right. That’s the reason why I really wanted you to visit.” Ivar jerked his head toward the other guests in the canteen. ”Look at their hands and necks.”
More than half of the farmers had sizable red blotches on their necks and around their wrists. In some cases the rash had developed into full-blown eczema, scaly and wet.
”It’s the laundry detergent we use for the overalls”, Ivar said. ”We have to kill off any spores and microorganisms, so they don’t spread outside the farms. But it’s so strong, the detergent. People get rashes.”
”You haven’t complained to the committee?” Vanja reminded herself to spoon some of the stew into her mouth.
”Of course we have. But nothing’s happening.” Ivar scowled.
”I’ll see what I can do about detergents.”
Vanja glanced at Ivar. He’d been calm, almost cheerful, in the mushroom chambers. Back in the canteen, his frown was now back.
”Why did you start working in the chambers, Ivar?”
Ivar shrugged a little. ”I like growing things.” He filled his spoon. ”And the quiet.”
”But it’s dark.”
”I’ve tried to transfer to the planthouses. But the committee won’t let me.”
Vanja’s spoon clattered against the bowl. ”The committee, again.”
”Don’t know if there’s any point trying again. I’m in line already. It’ll happen when it happens, I guess.” Ivar put his spoon down and got to his feet. ”I have to go back downstairs. You know the way out, right?”
Vanja nodded. She stayed for a while after Ivar had left. The mushroom farmers moved like they were still in the chambers, slowly and methodically. A low murmur of scattered conversation billowed along the floor. When Vanja returned to the street, the outside noises grated on her ears.
Excerpt from Amatka by Karin Tidbeck copyright c 2015.