As my son was born, a fungus was growing beside my groin. It was red and raw, not entirely unlike my newborn’s skin, which gleamed like copper under the drying webs of placental goo. This was the first connection of many I would establish between the two developing lifeforms that had burst in tandem into my life.
When we got back from the hospital, I lay in bed with my slumbering newborn prone upon my chest while my wife fell into a much-needed sleep. I was confused and exhausted and still not entirely sure how to feel towards the wizened offspring that we had taken it upon ourselves to beget and bring into our home. The frailty of his presence, where before there had been nothing but air, stupefied me. But there was little time to wonder; the level of need a baby has towards its parents is extreme. Some newborns die because they forget how to breathe! His soft snores held me in suspense, as if at gunpoint.
And yet, as a counterpoint to my sharp awareness of this featherweight alien on my chest, I could not take my mind off of the red patch that was slowly munching its way around my groin. What felt disquieting about the fungus, in contrast to the baby’s helplessness, was the fact that it was very much alive — autonomously so, in spite of my will. It had a malicious presence all of its own, like that of an intruder lurking in the midst of our newfound familial intimacy. A voyeur.
Babies, unlike fungi, sleep a lot. Well, I don't know a thing about fungi, but that’s how it felt. Over the next few days, during the 16-or-so hours the baby slept, the fungus continuously gnawed away at my body, sending its tendrils deeper into my skin, indifferent to the many powders and ointments I used to keep it at bay.
Dermatophyte. That is Greek for “skin plant”. I was nothing but soil to this sickening flora, an endless source of nutrition. As I lay in bed, I had this recurring vision of a little plantation being set up on my thigh, with tiny tillers and tiny farmers row cropping my skin late into the night.
I could not tell you what the fungus was called. I never bothered to look it up; my feelings toward it swung between insouciance and scorn. Meanwhile, my wife and I struggled to find the right name for our son. For the seven days before the circumcision and naming ceremony, it pained us to not know how to refer to him. Both nameless extensions of I continued to grow in silence, indifferent to our linguistic anxiety. Eventually, one would wither in anonymity, the other would thrive under an identity.
I was equally fascinated and horrified by how easy it was to establish connections between these two organisms. They were both essentially lives that, to some extent, depended on me to live. And they were both always growing. But the fungus lived off me while the baby did so because of me.
This point was driven home when, some weeks after birth, we discovered he was underweight. He was having trouble breastfeeding and instead of growing plump he began to look skeletal. It fell upon me to bottle-feed him as my wife pumped milk from her struggling breasts. It was frightening. The eyes that looked up at me in dumb gratitude seemed to contain depths too profound to belong in the soft skull I held in my hand. So, I was quite actively trying to kill the fungus while we struggled to keep the baby alive. The push and pull of life and death coming from all directions was vertiginous; I learnt to kill, to squander, to foil, as I learnt to feed, to nurture, to protect.
After his weight had returned to the growth chart’s safe zone, my wife took care of the baby and I took care of her. The fungus minded its own business.
Temporarily alienated from my partner, as most new fathers are, the biological tension between man and fungus started to feel almost like company, and in my sleep-deprived state I imagined our parasitic dynamic evolving into a relationship of sorts. An intimate, carnal one, as could not be otherwise on account of our concatenation. Sex was out of the question for the time being, so the pain-pleasure I felt when scratching the fungus became a universe of lust in and of itself. It was like I had grown a new erogenous zone. Scratching became onanistic.
As my dependence on the fungus as a source of carnal solace grew, summer came and things got worse. Sweating made the itchiness almost unbearable, to the point that I couldn't wear trousers or underwear without succumbing to crippling jolts of pain. To spare myself these episodes, I stayed at home for weeks on end, walking around the flat in a long white skirt my wife usually saves for the High Holidays.
It was debasing, humiliating. Not content with mutilating my body, the fungus was now eating away at my identity — exhibiting me before all who walked past our floor-to-ceiling windows made a grotesque parody of my religion and sexuality. With my wife busy mothering and the baby not having yet mastered the finer points of polite society, I felt lonely. My silent gaoler held nothing sacred and I was helpless before its godlessness.
But even the skirt didn't spare me from some of the growth’s most virulent onslaughts. Like a vagina dentata, it lured me with promises of pleasure by responding to the first tentative scratches with tickles so tender you would think it opened up under my touch. But then, as I got carried away, the delight would just as quickly turn into pain, and my once ticklish skin into barbs. I continued scratching, nay, scrabbling in a desperate attempt to bring back the bliss, but the sting only got worse, and if I stopped it became all the more punishing. It took huge bouts of willpower to resist its siren song. By the time the pain withdrew, I was left a curled-up mess on the floor, feeling ravaged and ashamed, my snow-white skirt speckled with blood. How could I be thus reduced by an enemy so still?
At night, I had to apply what remained of my willpower to soothe another force equally volatile. Since the baby had learnt to breastfeed, I had very little to do beyond calming him down in the middle of the night. The crying of a newborn is an enigma, and most of the time I felt frustrated, confused and insecure. I’d pick him up and remind myself that despite the kicks and cries and near suicidal ejections from my arms, I was his father (skirts notwithstanding) and that had to mean something to him — right? But babies are narcissistic beings with egos the size of planets that leave no room for fifth commandments. Where was the love I was meant to feel?
At first I had taken my genital plight to be some sort of cosmic counterbalance to the good fortune of having a child. But as I limped up and down the darkened bedroom, the baby’s all-engulfing selfishness was making it easier to believe that the fungus was in fact its twin. On these insomnious nights, when the difference between fungus and baby would blur in my mind, I would think of myself not as a father in the vertical sense, but in a horizontal one, a father who is also sibling to all he begets.
At some point, I started to feel as old as a mountain. The fungus and I had become hopelessly entwined in a gruesome covenant of flesh. With our innards thus commingled, I did not know where I ended and it began. I was a culture, a biome teeming with shoots and thorns and rocks. I felt organic, limitless, spilling into my surroundings, into other beings around me. My waste flushed down drains and shook off into the wind, breathed in or consumed by passing creatures like spores. I felt nutritious and fertile. Any spill of my body, given the right conditions, could morph into another being that would become a biome in its own right. I did not feel so much thrown into this life as spawned, a panoply of berries, roots and lichen. I was a fern. I was rot.
Time went by and, as my son grew up and started to learn to walk, I still found myself comparing his development to the fungus's mindless inertia, its basic hunger for life. When he took his first steps, I asked myself where he was going. It was then I understood we are born without fear. His every action was brimming with blind confidence. But can we call it confidence if he has no fear? It is the inertia of life.
Around that time, I discovered the Polish black metal band Mgła, and found in their third studio album, Exercises in Futility (2015), a base on which to mould my thoughts. The album opens with the following verses:
The great truth is there isn’t one
and it only gets worse since that conclusion.
The irony of being an extension to nothing
and the force of inertia is now a vital factor.
In my mind, the “force of inertia” they refer sounded like an apt description of both the pulse that powered the spread of my fungus and of the invisible compass that guided my son’s actions. The palace of life is built on a hollow foundation, a zero-sum game of energy conservation: inertia. Said inertia is indeed a “vital factor”. It is a cornerstone of propagation.
Watching my son attempting to master locomotion as I continued to be reduced to a crippled wretch, I found comfort in Mgła’s brooding riffs and soaring cymbals. They nestled me in the maw of their nihilism and a worldview started to take form.
We are born into an epistemological void, so it follows that we are born without fears because fears are but consequences of truths, be they learnt or perceived. According to the Talmud, a foetus learns the entire Torah during its gestation (TB Niddah, 30b). But as soon as it is born, an angel touches it on the lip and the child forgets everything, leaving nothing but a small dent between lip and nose as a reminder of the incident.
There is truth in the image of a child born empty of knowledge. And yet these absolute terms are overly simplistic, for the moment our son was pulled from his mother’s womb and laid on her chest, his lips searched for the nipple. This tiny action obeyed a pulse more basic than acquired knowledge, and with his connecting mouth to mammary, it was as if a link had been added to a chain — continuity was ensured and the palace of life built one more tiny bulwark over the gaping yawn of death.
That was inertia at play. A mindless action that secured the place of one more living organism on this earth. The similarities between the baby and the fungus weren't coincidental. We are the same, whispered the fungus, which now spoke to me in the hoarse growls of Mgła’s lead singer. Can’t you see? You, me, the baby, we are all but blights on an otherwise sterile world, ever spreading forward through time, heaving our necrotic breath from one moment to the next and to what end? It doesn’t matter. Life is an abortive enterprise. Through inertia empires rise and fall, and everything in between is but a chain reaction driven by blind conjecture.
But the fungus was wrong.
The force of inertia was only a small part of what dictated my son’s first steps. As he perfected the art of the walk, I realised I had overlooked a crucial difference between my two offsprings: unlike the fungus, children redeem their disruption of our lives through agency.
That's where my son was going when he started to walk. He was going his own way. With every little step, he was treading the unique paths that would lead to the development of his identity, thus claiming his share in the triumph of will over inertia. Before I knew it, he wasn’t just finding his feet, but tottering determinedly towards the cat, the biscuit tin, the busy road. It was beautiful. And, as a father, it was liberating. I then knew he would one day be okay without me.
Perhaps my fear of losing myself in the fungus was symptomatic of something deeper. Perhaps I was afraid of how fatherhood would change me, how far my life could be bent out of shape before being rendered unrecognisable. The truth is, when you become a father, you always lose a part of who you are. To put it another way, you transcend yourself.
Musing on these matters after more than a year of fighting the fungus, somewhat resigned that it was here for the long haul, a mutual acceptance not unlike fraternity bloomed between us. With the recovery of my self-worth, I made peace with the fact that the fungus and I were not that different. We were two serendipitous aggregates of organic matter, more or less efficiently suited to harnessing energy, who, for better or worse, had been circumstantially conjoined during our brief lapses of living existence. Beyond that, all we shared were those inert pulses that keep life going and without which we wouldn’t have been here to pester one another to begin with. And without which I wouldn’t have become a father.
The fungus is now dead. Has been for some time. My son is three, likes geography and calls the garage door “Bob Dylan”. His personality is shining through and I am starting to feel like I know him. By naming the things around him, he has started to grow into his name: Adam, the first man. After the clumsy and frustrating onset of his life, where my wrestling with feelings of panic, confusion and displacement were compounded by my struggle against the fungus, I now feel at peace.