A single fungus can destroy an entire way of life

Cat and Wolf

Hunting horns echoed through Blackbriar Wood as Jaenna hauled the moonstruck werewolf up to the porch of her cottage. Fannie, the old barncat, hissed and spat from her cushion by the door.

"Let me in the house, Fannie," Jaenna said. The werewolf wasn't getting any lighter. If she didn't get him hidden soon, the hunters on their trail would surely shoot him.

Werewolves were people too, Grandma always said, just cursed to lack the sense God gave little green apples when the lunastorms hit. The tidewater wind blew the moon's influence into every corner and crevice, and left its creatures with no way to hide.

The cat didn't care; she simply twitched her tumor-ridden tail.

Jaenna plopped the werewolf, soft and doughy and limp, onto the rickety porch and tried to shoo Fannie away. Fannie swiped her hand with razor-sharp claws.

"Ow!" Blood welled up from the stinging wound, thick as honey.

Fannie hissed again, ears flat.

"Fannie, we had a deal," Jaenna said, hand wrapped around her wrist. "I protect you, you protect me. He won't hurt you. Let us in."

Fannie's whiskers twitched. She took a doubtful, inquisitive step toward the werewolf.

The werewolf lunged past Jaenna and devoured the cat in one big gulp.

"What the fuck!" Jaenna shrieked as she leapt into the house after him.

Intelligence flickered back into his eyes as the air shed the golden glow of moon-magic.

"Give me back my cat!" Jaenna demanded.

The werewolf belched sheepishly. Fannie, covered in the indelicate perfume of werewolf bile, bolted back out the door. The heart-shaped lump on the back of her tail dragged behind her in the grass.

"Sorry," the werewolf slobbered miserably. "I can try to track it—"

Fannie's outraged yowl snapped their gaze through the foggy glass windows. Six men armed with shotguns stalked out of the woods.

Fannie perched in the upper branches of an old chestnut. One hunter trained his shotgun on her, silent and still; the rest didn't bother to aim their weapons.

"Leave old Fannie alone." It was surprisingly easy to make her voice sound firm. "Guns ain't welcome on this property."

"Looking for a werewolf," said the tallest with a credible attempt at a charming smile.

"I ain't one," Jaenna said flatly. "Git."

Fannie flung herself from the tree branch, clawed outstretched. Silver pellets exploded towards her, the hunter's trigger instincts duelist-quick. The old cat smacked them out of the air with her tail. She used it like a mace, a blunt weapon to complement the teeth and claws she put to fierce effect.

Half a minute later, the guns were scrap, the hunters safely banished to the werewolf's stomach, and Fannie's bulbous tail once again drooped against the ground.

"The hunters are dealt with." Fannie licked a drop of blood from her left paw with a refined and dainty sniff. "Now get that creature off my land."


ANALYSIS

Cat and Wolf is an urban fantasy story with a premise along the lines of Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series. It takes place in an “alternative future” version of the Appalachian region, after a cleansing fire passes over the world and brings out latent mythological & folkloric characteristics in existing populations. It’s flash fiction, so I wasn’t able to get into a ton of the underlying details for the Neith universe, but although most of the research for it was outlined in the Cat Tales issue of this newsletter, I’m particularly proud of the detail about the chestnut tree Fannie climbs.

I first learned about the trials and tribulations of the American chestnut from Dr. Sara Taber, a crop scientist who tweets a lot of “did you know” stuff about American agriculture. She’s very skeptical of the pop culture narrative of the American farming and writes a lot of useful stuff about why the “ugly fruit” trend is ridiculous and why farming infrastructure matters.

One of her threads talked about (budgeting for) the American chestnut, which suffered a major blight about a hundred years ago that wiped almost all of them out. Evidently they’re a really great tree (and we know how I feel about including trees in fiction) that produce excellent timber for housing and furniture. Plus, apparently one chestnut tree could produce over ten bushels of nuts during harvest season – a year’s supply for a family of four. They ripen around the winter holidays. Chestnut forests are a great place to fatten up livestock like pigs and cattle, which do just fine in forest environments by the way. They’re also an important source of food for game animals like squirrels, turkey, and deer.

One year, at a Thanksgiving dinner in West Virginia, my brother got up from the dinner table and shot a twelve-point buck from the upstairs window. He donated the carcass to some local families and mounted the head above his fireplace. Although deer are basically considered suburban rats where I live, they’re an important source of food in rural areas, and one deer can feed up to 200 people.

The one time I had a chestnut, I didn’t like it, but I’m curious if that was because of the packaging. Fresh, home-grown tomatoes taste way different from store-bought, and pre-packaged sun dried tomatoes bear little resemblance in flavor or texture to either. Apparently, the American chestnut is “smaller and sweeter” than other varieties. I’m from Maryland, and I can definitely taste the difference between a blue crab caught in the Chesapeake Bay the same day I eat it, and the ones imported from the Gulf or Asia. For that matter, the difference between the Gulf shrimp I got when I visited Louisiana a few years back and the shrimp I get from my local grocery store have some pretty stark taste and texture differences.

The thing I find most fascinating is the economic impact the chestnut blight had on Appalachian families. Since chestnut lumber is straight, easy to work and rot-resistant, it was used for everything from fence posts to building construction to instruments. Chestnuts themselves were an important cash crop, not just because of the holiday season, but also for feeding livestock. Aside from that, chestnut tannins were used for the tanning industry; the southern Appalachians produced half the U.S. supply.

The loss of the American chestnuts literally destroyed the self-sufficient Appalachian mountaineer way of life.

Yet, the loss of these trees never seems to get mentioned in political conversations about the economic problems facing the Appalachian region. I hear a lot about anger at environmentalists for wanting an end to coal-mining, and how vital coal-mining is to the identity of people in Appalachia. If we’d had better environmental awareness back in the early 1900s – if we’d managed to keep the invasive Cryphonectria parasitica fungus out of the continental US – would so much of the Appalachian economy have wound up dependent on coal?

Scientists are working on bringing the American chestnut back, with careful cross-breeding and hard-wrought spreadsheets. I hope they succeed – and in one small, subtle way Cat and Wolf is my story of hope.

Further Reading

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