An essay by Maria Leticia Gonzalez Santos, as provided by Katherine Cowley
Art by Liz Argall
In my defense, I was trying to save the planet.
A group of graduate students discovered a fungus in the Amazon that could digest polyurethane. Instead of sitting in a garbage dump for hundreds or thousands of years, tennis shoes, foam, and insulation could decompose rapidly. Naturally, I wasn’t satisfied with a fungus that could digest only one type of plastic. Some have called it hubris, others, my fatal flaw. And perhaps my thirst for tenure overtook my sense. But what mycologist wouldn’t want to modify the fungus so it could digest other plastics as well?
Through a multi-university research partnership, I received samples of the original fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspore. By the time I finished my genetic modifications, my fungus could digest almost any synthetic polymer. Polyester, acrylics, silicone–you name it, my fungus could handle it. Its mottled white coloration reminded me of the moon, and it had an almost hairy texture, so I lovingly gave my new fungus the common name of moonhair.
Imagine the excitement of the scientific community. People wouldn’t have to change their habits or “go green.” Consume your 300 or 400 pounds of plastic a year, send it to the landfill, and moonhair would take care of it for you. My fungus didn’t even require air or sunlight.
Those were the good days, when I was respected for my work. Every scientist deserves respect. Of course, I wasn’t expecting reverence. Frankly, I was abashed when the covers of national magazines compared me to the Virgin Mother. I suppose the parallels were inevitable: my name is Maria Santos–Saint Mary–I saved the world with the birth of my fungus, and no man was involved in the fertilization of my ideas.
Three years later, the United Nations declared the creation of moonhair an act of biological warfare. Rather than be tried for crimes against humanity, I went into hiding.
I don’t know what to write about that time. Everyone who survived remembers it.
Instead of being the hope of humanity, the last chance to rid our world of toxic pollutants, bioremediation became our curse. After the fungus was installed in landfills across the globe, we discovered we couldn’t contain it. Standard fungicides proved ineffective. The situation was aggravated by several months of unprecedented worldwide windstorms: the wind spread the fungal spores across the face of the earth. Moonhair started eating plastics everywhere–in cars, in homes, in hospitals.
I would like to point out that originally it was not a flesh-eating fungus. It’s not my fault people used plastic-based tattoo inks or silicone breast implants. Unfortunately, moonhair evolved rapidly, discovering a liking for natural polymers, such as the proteins in human skin, muscles, and organs. Fortunately, the fungus still preferred synthetic polymers, and tended to eat flesh only when in direct contact with synthetic plastic.
The claim that I destroyed modern civilization is rather extreme. Yes, we lost all the synthetic polymer paintings of Andy Warhol–people were outraged when the fungus ate all 32 of his Campbell’s Soup Cans. And yes, a lot of literature was printed using polymer-based inks. But ultimately, most cities were saved, simply by eliminating all plastics and encircling cities with large quarantine areas to hamper the fungus’s entrance.
I won’t argue the fact that moonhair set medicine and technology back about a hundred years. Yet telegraphs, telephones, trains, cars, and even airplanes all existed in the pre-plastic era; we just had to build new devices and a new infrastructure using non-plastic materials.
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There were riots, international territorial disputes, and extreme food shortages. People hid their plastics, refusing to give them up. Some of this was simple misunderstanding. Most people had no idea that their personal lubricants were silicone based. Other people hid their plastics intentionally–sentimental jewelry, a favorite toy car, music players, televisions, laptops, and collections of polymer banknotes from around the world. Most hidden plastic caches ended up with at least a few fungal spores inside, and then the fungus would feast, and new spores would spread to humans through water, wind, insects, pets, or direct contact. After additional deaths and the creation of the Polymer Police, plastics were eliminated from human habitations and population numbers stabilized.
We’ve started new rituals, new ways of living. Every morning I make sure my cotton shirt is very wrinkled. It’s a popular way to demonstrate that your clothes do not contain polyester fibers and useful if you want to avoid prolonged conversations with the police.
I’ve spent my years in hiding, away from any reminders of my scientific past, out of contact with anyone who would recognize me. I will give no more specifics than that; I do not want to incriminate the innocent people who unknowingly helped Maria Santos.
A few weeks ago, the neighbor girl–I’ll call her Ana–was digging holes in an alley behind the schoolhouse. She found buried plastic toys–skeleton dolls, trompos, jaguars, and the like. Fearing trouble from the police, her parents reburied the toys without telling the authorities. Within a few days, the fungus was devouring Ana’s skin and her muscles. Fortunately, it attacked only one arm, which the town doctor easily amputated. Yet the loss felt more personal to me than all the other losses I have seen. When Ana was a baby, I cared for her, fed her, and rocked her while her mother worked. Ana is the one person in this world who truly loves me. By attacking Ana, moonhair betrayed me.
There have been rumors about other outbreaks, outbreaks involving only natural polymers like cotton and wool. We’ve gotten rid of synthetic polymers, but we can’t eliminate natural ones–plants are made of cellulose, and humans are made of collagens and other proteins. When I saw Ana without her arm, I realized that moonhair must be stopped once and for all, or it will completely destroy our world.
I broke into the containment area and stole one of the fungus-covered toys, a plastic baby doll the size of my thumb. I stored the toy in a double-layered airtight glass container. An organization with a secret lab has agreed to let me run experiments, even though they know my name.
They warned me that if the fungus begins to eat me, they will incinerate me rather than try to save me. I understand the risks.
I have not been in a lab since I went into hiding nine years ago. I have not looked into a microscope. I need to see moonhair again, and see what I can do to it.
Before I go into the lab, I had to write my story. I’m not a psychopath, as some have called me. I’m not even a mad scientist–just a scientist with a thirst for knowledge and discovery. I never meant to do any harm, and I never could have guessed the consequences of my actions. Perhaps future generations will find it in themselves to forgive me.
In a moment, I will go into the lab and run tests on moonhair. Perhaps I can modify it or stop it or change it in some way that will be beneficial to humanity. I know my fungus may eat me alive. But if I die, maybe I will atone for my crimes.
Maria Leticia Gonzalez Santos is a former university researcher, dedicated and devoted to doing whatever it takes to improve the world. Her current location cannot be revealed, in the interest of protecting those who have sheltered her.
Katherine Cowley loves European chocolate, the history of science, and steampunk fashion. She has worked as a documentary film producer, a radio producer, and a college writing professor. Her short stories have appeared in Steel and Bone, Segullah, Defenestration, and 365 Tomorrows. She lives in Michigan with her husband and three daughters. You can read many of her stories on katherinecowley.com.
Liz Argall is a speculative fiction author and creator of the all ages webcomics series, Things Without Arms and Without Legs, a comic about creatures who are kind http://www.thingswithout.com/. She lives in Seattle, but her heart misses the big silly birds of Australia.
“Confessions of a Mycologist” is © 2018 Katherine Cowley
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Liz Argall