Desert Truffle

by Donna L. Greenwood

The madwoman walks across the dying land, holding the hand of the stranger who saved her life. It’s been hours since their words curled up and died in the heat, but the rough scratch of the stranger’s callouses tell her he’s not a mirage.

A lone tree juts up from the cracked earth, its red-rusted spikes reaching out, begging for a drop of rain. The madwoman disentangles her hand from the stranger’s and goes to the tree. She presses her face into its baked trunk. She can still smell life. She opens her mouth and bites into the dried rot. The stranger pulls her away. Gently. Just like he did before.

“Don’t worry, I’ll find you something to eat,” he says, his voice barely more than a hot breath. He takes her hand once more and they walk.

Sometimes, she tries to drink the tears dripping into her mouth, but the salt makes her thirstier. She wants to tell the stranger about the dead child but there’s not enough air in her lungs for talk. She holds the stranger’s hand tightly, afraid that the scorching wind will blow the skin from her bones.

“It’ll be dark soon. Cooler. We might find some food then,” the stranger rasps. They continue walking across the burned soil.

As the heavy black night descends, they sit on a dry tree stump by a stretch of grey sand that might once have been water. The stranger digs beneath the stump.

“Sometimes, I find bugs under these old trees. But there aren’t many insects left. Not anymore. Not since everything started to die.”

She touches the back of his neck. It’s hot and damp. She imagines drinking his sweat.

“What’s this?” he says, pulling something round and white from the ground. He smiles at her. It’s the first time he’s smiled since he saved her life. His front teeth are missing. “How would you like mushrooms for tea? We have a veritable feast of fungi!” He breaks off a piece of the white stuff and hands it to her. She grabs the mould and takes a bite. Then another. It’s good. Really good. It tastes smoky. She gobbles the rest down and holds out her hand whilst her mouth is still full. The stranger gives her another piece and then greedily shoves a mushroom the size of a small plate into his mouth.


After the child died, she didn’t stop screaming for days. She climbed to the roof of a derelict Walmart and imagined her body dropping and smashing like an overripe watermelon. The stranger appeared by her side like a disappointed god and pulled her back from the edge. She took his hand and they walked down from the roof and into the hot, empty land together. After a while, she realised she’d stopped screaming.


There is a buzzing inside the madwoman’s head.

“Are you a ghost?” she says to the waiter as he hands her a glass of wine. It’s a dark and smoky merlot.


The child had a name. Arthur. He’d never known the soft whisper of a breeze or the cool relief of rain. He’d been born into the furnace of After and he’d shown her the beauty of tears.


“I think I’ll have the Moules Mariniere for a starter,” she tells the waiter, who dutifully takes her order and scuttles off. She leans back and takes in the ambience. The dusky sun is setting to the hypnotic swish of the navy waves. There are twinkling fairy lights slung artfully around the patio. The views from her table are spectacular.


Arthur died because she was an empty husk. She’d bruised herself bloody trying to draw out her milk but, in the end, she could do nothing but watch his cries become prayers and his eyes turned black.


The mussels are exquisite. The white sauce is dribbling down her chin. She shovels more and more of the flat round shapes into her mouth.


“I’ll take care of you,” the stranger says, wiping the froth from her lips. She can’t remember falling but she’s on the ground and he’s kneeling beside her. “Have you got something for the baby?” she asks. “Of course,” says the stranger, wiping the blood from his gums. He gives her the last of the mushrooms, then releases her hand and falls, face first, into the black sand. She looks down and sees Arthur lying on her belly. He has the bluest eyes she’s ever seen. They are the deep blue of an ocean she once saw before the world burned. She reaches for her baby and sinks beneath his dark, wet kiss.

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