Second Annual Tales of Toil + Trouble

Congratulations to the the winner of this writing contest, Gabrielle DeWeese!
Keep scrolling to read the full winning submission.

Autumn’s Choir

AFTER THE MORNING DEW, the earth swelled up dark and loamy, the blades of grass swiping wet crescents onto the bottoms of Mila’s pants. She plodded toward the street, kicking acorns into the curb, heading on her daily course. Unlike the surrounding properties, her parents didn’t believe in lawnmowers. Yet, they attacked their yard’s invasive species with the same vigor she’d observed her friend down the street, Jamie, attending to the block’s lawns. On the bus last week, he’d shown her the fruits of his labor. Paid for by the fine residents of Harbor Street, he’d said, showing off his gleaming red Chuck Taylors. Harbor Street was, in reality, nowhere in proximity to any harbor, nor any body of water besides the veins of muddy creeks threaded through their North Georgia town. 

Now, Mila stood a few houses away, waiting at the bottom of Jamie’s driveway, watching him careen down the hill, jacket on only one arm and flapping behind him like a cape. He jogged while zipping his backpack before slinging it behind him. 

“You’re a mess.” Mila said when he reached her at the mailbox. 

“Not everyone’s eyes open at the crack of dawn.” He huffed. Jamie arranged himself, struggling with his hood caught on his backpack zipper. 

“Watching you stresses me out.” She fiddled with the cold beads of her bracelets—tiger’s eye, rose quartz, and painted clay curving under her fingertips.

“Waking up stresses me out,” Jamie replied. Earbuds dangled around his neck, blaring music against the fabric of his sweater. He popped one bud into his right ear and held the out the wire, dangling the left one for Mila to take. She cautiously took it to her own ear, knowing that their music tastes were far from aligning. The song was one of those where the words sounded like nothing comprehensible, drowned out by heavy backed bass and waves of synth. Jamie saw her expression and took his earbud back. 

“You don’t like it,” he commented. Mila scrunched up her face.

“It’s not that I don’t like it. I’m just not a fan of—I don’t know—I just think—why would a song bother having lyrics if you can’t even understand what they’re saying?” Mila didn’t admit to him that she found it a bit freaky. She didn’t care for music that made her want to space out. 

“I like a good groove,” he waved his arms in a flowing motion, “something to slow my mind y’know?”

“I guess I know what you mean,” Mila said, toying with her bracelets. “Personally, I think we should listen to pop, or some jazz. But that’s just me.” At this, Jamie chuckled and shook his head in disagreement, keeping one earbud in and one out as they started for the bus stop. 

“I can’t do bouncy music this early. My brain won’t process it,” Jamie said.

Mila sighed a laugh, taking in the morning punctuated with distant crow calls and the melodic chirps of Song Sparrows. The stop was just further down the street, at the beginning of the woods. In the shifting wind, the street became a carpet of yellow—fallen gingko leaves clinging to the damp road. Swallowtails batted their wings, disappearing now and again against the golden-brown hues of the fall. The breeze carried the friendly rustle of leaves—all routine and familiar—until Mila tensed. Something unrecognizable was sounding off from the direction of the woods’ edge. Low humming—a patterned, pulsing echo—caused a prickle of hair to rise at her nape. 

“What’s that noise?” She tugged on her friend’s sleeve. Jamie swiveled his head in both directions, meeting her gaze with one of incredulity. He took out his earbud. 


“It’s coming from the woods. Some type of music.”

“I don’t hear anything.” 

Mila stepped toward the trailhead leading into the forest, then stopped to concentrate. The sound grew ever so slightly, meeting her ears with wordless song. It was a plucky, thin tune like the beginnings of a ukelele riff. She peered through the arrays of thick trunks and brush, wondering if someone, or something, was back there. 

“C’mon! Let’s see where it’s coming from.” Mila started down the dirt trail. 

“Okay—but make it quick. The bus is supposed to be here in, like,” Jamie checked his phone, “two minutes.” He followed her onto the path, glancing worriedly behind him. The winding trail surrounded them with the tall canopies, and now Mila was hearing the same music, all around in differing clusters of volume. She turned all around, circling where they were walking, stepping off the beaten track and into the layered blankets of dead leaves and twigs. Jamie scratched his head, shrugging and attempting to put his earbuds back in, but Mila swatted at him. 

“Just wait and listen!” She exclaimed. Jamie concentrated hard, walking ahead of her now, leaning on an ancient cedar and cupping his hands around his ears to amplify the atmosphere. 

“Still nothing,” he answered dejectedly. But Mila continued, now hearing a pocket to the left where the music seemed to be stronger—ringing above the accompanying symphony. But it was interrupted by the weighty groans of an approaching vehicle back at the road. And then, from the between trees, they saw the school bus fly past the now-empty stop, scooting away from their neighborhood like a bright and frantic insect. 

“Oh, shit!” Jamie took off back where they’d come.

“Leave it!” Mila shouted, exasperated. He ignored her and kept running, trying frantically to wave the bus down, but it had already winded down the next corner.  With the noisy bus gone, Mila could again locate the loudest of the sound. She strolled, drawn to it, to a circle of tall hardwoods near a mess of fallen logs, overtaken by moss, lichen, and, to her astonishment, the jaunty melody emanating from a clump of cream-colored mushrooms. She crouched down next to them, smiling to herself as she listened to the music of the mushrooms, singing only to her. Behind where she knelt, Jamie shuffled back, defeated. 

“So we’re ditching now?” He asked, plopping down beside her. 

“This is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me. The mushrooms!” Mila whooped, “They’re making noise!” 

“Who is this I’m talking to? My Mila would never dare commit truancy!” Jamie gasped in teasing disbelief. 

“We’re not middle schoolers anymore. Skipping is fine if done sparingly.”

“You’re just making that up to peer pressure me.”

“Peer pressure! Peer pressure!” Mila taunted, pummeling her fists against his backpack, reveling to the sounds that matched her heartbeat, the most lovely and pure tones she had ever heard. The harmony rung from the epicenter of their squishy dome caps, like tiny, fungal speakers. The two sat enveloped by the swaying wind and the smell of earth, Jamie in silence and Mila in attention to the joyful song. 

After a while, Jamie opened his mouth. “Will you describe it to me? What do you hear?” 

“It’s so familiar but like nothing I’ve listened to before! Like a string instrument. It’s beating softly. It’s thin and light, but powerful even so,” she marveled. 

“Seems like your kinda music,” Jamie spoke. Mila nodded, putting her fingertips to the smooth crown-top of one of the larger mushrooms of the group. The vibrations pushed almost imperceptibly against her skin. 

“Really, why do you have to touch everything? They could be poisonous,” Jamie warned.

“I’m immune to poison ivy and poison oak,” Mila retorted, matter-of-fact.

“Those aren’t mushrooms!” 

“Shut up! I hear something else now,” she huffed. And she did. A new music was coming from nearby as well, in a complementing but altogether different assortment of sounds. It rung from behind the fallen log. The source was a climbing ring of flat, greyish off-white mushrooms, a line like little staircases winding up a rotting stump. These ones produced a smoother tone than the rounded ones, and she let the newness of the melody wash over her. The two scrambled over to the stump, and Mila again listened to another unreadably familiar chorus. 

“What’s this one’s sound?” Jamie asked, quieter. Mila closed her eyes and listened to the slow, powerful tone. Synthy. Wavy. Heavy handed and light all at once.

“These ones are yours!” She grinned.


After a long day of Mila wandering to the whims of each mushroom species’ unique voice, with Jamie following supportively, the two said their goodbyes and headed back to their respective homes. Back inside, Mila opened her bedroom window a crack, to the dismay of the old heating unit which rumbled on with a bellowing sigh. Still, she could hear the mushrooms, but only slightly, like distant bubbling whispers as the moon rose above the tree crowns. She curled in bed with one of her parents’ books of Southern forest fungi. Mila fell asleep with the book on her lap, yet not after identifying the initial decomposers they’d found that day. She learned the first tune came from the cheery Pear-shaped puffballs, and the ones with the music she’d known to be of Jamie’s taste as flat-topped Oyster Mushrooms. 

In her dreams, she pondered the swirling echoes of frequencies that danced in the forest air, their organic voices calling gently to her in a language she could feel, but not comprehend. Her mind curled around these thoughts. What were they singing about, their vibrations tangible to her yet their harmonies intangible? She knew then, that even between the respirating flora and fauna, even the sharing of air was a language in itself. She may not yet understand, but the music made her yearn to answer back. Just to communicate that she had heard them, and let her own voice gently sing reply.


At the crack of dawn, Mila woke to a stillness and silence that left her with a sense of loss. No mushrooms sang out to her from the open window, just the lightest tickling of breeze huffing at her curtains. Her quiet meditation was interrupted by a knocking at the front of her house. She fumbled groggily down the stairs, bracelets jingling on her wrists. She swung open the door to find Jamie, bright-eyed and awake as ever, holding a water canteen and no backpack. Jamie exclaimed to her in words falling over themselves what he’d discovered upon rising for the day, and a warm relief filled her soul as she hugged him tight, then followed him outside. 

“I can hear them!” He’d told her, elated. “The trees are making music!”