Henry and his grandfather, Almer, had started out before dawn, parked at the end of a dirt service road on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and hiked along an overgrown footpath toward a secret place where morels could be found. It was early April, the world had finally reawakened from winter slumber, steep slopes of snow had given birth to gurgling ravines. Dogwood buds blossomed in dizzying arrays of soft whites and pinks at the end of gray limbs. Everything reached up, out. Henry was so busy looking at the treetops, a stand of stately elm, that he walked into a spider web only noticing when he had to peel away the nearly invisible threads.
Henry’s affinity for towering maples and the smell of old-growth hardwood forests had formed decades before, in his boyhood. Once he learned to read, the North American Field Guide to Trees was his bible. He carried the book with him on all explorations, tucking in leaf specimens between the thin pages and renewing the paper with its chlorophyll filled source. Later, at home, Henry would place the leaf beneath paper and rub charcoal over top to save the shape, imprinting its features into the vast and growing catalog of his knowledge. How long had it been since he’d been out in the woods, not working, but hiking along and discovering the world again? More than four years. Back before Estelle’s accident. The plane crash had become the hinging moment in Henry’s life, before and after. He measured everything in this demarcation. This morel hunt was his first in the after.
As the two wandered deeper into the wood, Almer turned every so often, met Henry’s eye and then surveyed the land. Henry wondered if his grandfather was marking it off on some mental map. They followed no trail but wandered under an endless canopy of new, green leaves. Almer carried two things. First, a wooden basket used to collect the morels and also to serve as a lucky talisman for the hunt. Second, a smooth walking stick made from a birch branch that he pressed down to the earth in a steady rhythm as he walked. Every so often Almer would stop and use the tip of the stick to poke at piles of decayed leaves, brown and crackling – left over from the fall, in order to examine the bare earth. They were looking for the morel mushroom, a dark, sponge-like fungi that grew wild in various parts of the world. In German folklore, it was said that the devil had turned an old woman into the morel. The wrinkled, dark mushroom did resemble a shrunken, ancient woman. Every year of searching for the morel, so highly prized by backwoodsmen and gourmet chefs alike, proved different – varied by temperature, moisture, light and luck. One day a person could find two or three morels, but hours later in the same spot find a bushel. That was the magic of the morel – a clear moment of transformation, of emerging, of before and after, sometimes it is from one second to the next, not eons of evolution and slow spread of change.
When they crested the hill, Almer stopped and motioned over the ridge with his arm. “This used to be an apple orchard when I was a boy,” he said.
Henry studied the rocky, uneven soil. The trees here were markers of a burn, all new and untested. He knew the implication of the old orchard, it was believed to be prime soil for the morel. Yet, it could also be full of pesticides, chemicals of the last century seeped into the ground, poisoning the mushroom crop.
“Why would they want to haul the bushels down the mountain? Seems impractical,” Henry said.
Almer sucked on his false teeth, the air he drew in made a loud whistling noise. “This land was all they had,” he said.
“Have we ever been here before?” Henry asked.
“Yes, but it’s been a long while,” Almer replied. “What do you think? Try going north? Looks like a lot of poplars up there.” He pointed to the stand of trees in the next ridge.
They hiked farther along, Almer leading, across the rocky ridge to another steady climb ahead. Henry still couldn’t remember the old orchard. He noted a small pond, thick with green algae, and tried to place it in his mind. Nothing. He thought he knew the hills as well as his grandfather, how could this be somewhere new? It bothered him that he didn’t remember. He shook his head clear and tried to focus on the ground. The mushrooms could hide anywhere, right underfoot. They clung to the earth and camouflaged themselves among the absent spaces, the slant of a fallen tree, the moss growing slick along a limestone rock. Hunters without mushroom eyes could stand among tens or hundreds of them and never spot a single one. A person could squat down, knees grazing the ground where the elusive morel sit and exclaim, “I can’t find any!” Henry remembered his mother, Alice’s own exasperated cry, even as those secretive fungi laid there at her feet. Some people can learn to develop their vision for the morel, but others can’t see them no matter how many times they are shown an example. They simply can’t find them in the wild.
Henry’s fiancé, Estelle, had been a natural. Henry had taken her that first spring after they’d met. There were suggestions of blindfolding her, to hide the secret family morel location. She had laughed because she thought it was a joke, unaware that preserving the Bauman family morel hunting legacy was a truly serious business.
Henry had recounted the mushroom hunt memory aloud to Estelle, over and over again in the hospital room as he and her mother waited. The doctors said memories helped to spark the brain, to bring people back to consciousness and emerge from a coma. On the 10th day, Estelle squeezed her mother’s hand. That afternoon her eyelids fluttered open. Gradually, over the next week, she opened her eyes more and more, though she didn’t track faces or movements. Her eyes were open, but her stare was vacant and flat like peering into the eyes of a wild animal. She didn’t speak, didn’t even scream or moan in pain when the painkillers wore off.
“I believe in miracles,” her mother had said.
Maybe the water had stolen her voice, like that old fairytale about the mermaid who wanted to be human. What could he trade, sacrifice to find her again? To have her remember him. All the survivors were sequestered on the same floor. The woman in the room next door had a voice that rose like a wave and crashed the words in Italian that Henry could not translate, but he understood the heart of it.
Would she ever speak again? Come back to waking? None of the doctors could answer the question of what her brain was doing, what cells had died off inside like a chain reaction. No one could predict what the state of her memories, her personality would be. Her mother said, “I’ll do anything,” over and over again. Henry made silent promises, too. Later, he wondered what sort of bargain had been struck. As Estelle’s condition transitioned from critical, to serious, to stable, Henry began to feel hope. She would return. Estelle began to make guttural cries, which then twisted into words. Curse words, declarations of disgust. The vacant stare was replaced with a type of slow recognition of the world, one that contained a primal sort of fury. All normal, the doctors assured them.
Four weeks after the crash, consciousness. Estelle had a sense of herself and her surroundings. She remembered things, people. Save for Henry. Every time he would arrive to her new room, in the step-down, brain injury unit, she would ask, “Do I know you?” How to reply? The words choked inside him.
“This is Henry, your fiancé,” her mother whispered. She reached for Henry’s limp hand. Her touch was warm from the heat of Estelle. It was as close as he could get to her. Estelle’s face greeted him only with the twist of confusion.
He recounted to her the memory of how they first met at an art exhibit. He told her about the weather, pinning his hopes on concrete details that could jog her memory: It had been a rainy night, cold, but not cold enough to snow.
Henry didn’t tell her about how he came to find the art exhibition in the first place, how he’d gotten home to his cramped, hollow apartment and felt an overwhelming sense of stillness that had sent him outdoors, to brave the elements. He walked by the art building on campus, it was lit up with the shadows of many people visible in the windows. Staring at the building he had that strange unmoored sensation like he had been in this exact spot before. Loneliness can happen like that, a fit, a flash of deja vu, a halo that grows larger around a light and in those temporal seconds, a body is removed, beyond the space to some other place. Staying on the street watching the lights of the people was to acknowledge only himself. Inside it would be more wide open, the reciprocation of voices like bird calls, a pause and then another would inevitably answer. He went to the building, to discover what sound an answer would make.
Henry told Estelle about the assembly of umbrellas gathered in the hall, puddles of water, the coat rack that overflowed with jackets. He had placed his soaking coat near the front, he remembered, and his shoes squeaked on the floor. He turned around, just once, but the steam of warmth on the glass made it impossible to see outside. The young man at the door gave him a pamphlet for the art exhibition, “Eruption.”
Voices ricocheted around the cavernous space. He went to the art with the most open space, skirting around the huddle of bodies. The first piece was the most literal, a Warhol-esque rendition of the Mount St. Helen’s eruption. Henry found a variety of subjects in the artwork: a flower, a geyser, a single pill, sex in progress. But the piece that pulled Henry closer, that caused him to stop and look with an intensity that none of the others had was the painting of the woman diving into a pool. There was something about the air in the picture that felt real and beyond what was real. Henry marveled at the sensation of chlorine pricking his nose, the way he could see the light moving in the reflection of the water. Most of the others had depicted the eruption manifest outward, but this one was about the eruption of going inside, diving underwater.
Henry recalled to Estelle, at her bedside, how he stood there, looking at the painting of the diver, in mid-air, and wondering who she was. “I knew as soon as I saw you,” he said to her, “that you were the artist.” He smiled at her and felt his chest tighten as her puzzled, bewildered expression deepened. He wanted to explain how on that long ago winter night, he had recognized an affinity between her hands and the canvas like there was an invisible thread that bound them together.
“We stayed together for the rest of the night, you and I. You told me about all the other exhibits, introduced me to people I’d never remember later,” he said. “I’m terrible with names,” he explained and shrugged. “I can only ever remember the names of plants or insects.”
“I want to remember,” Estelle had said, every time Henry told her the way they had met. He could still hear it now, the longing in her voice. Then she would cry and gasp for air like she was drowning all over again.
Almer’s shortness of breath took on a staccato rhythm as they climbed the next ridge. He stabbed the rocks with the walking stick, to offset the sound of his struggle. When his grandfather had first called and asked him to join the annual mushroom pilgrimage, Henry had immediately worried Almer was ill. Why else would he want him there, when so many years had gone by with him missing and unnoticed? It was never a question he would ask directly. Now, Henry studied Almer as he placed the palm of his free hand on his thigh as it rose with each slow, methodical step. He was eighty-eight-years-old, with a body grown thin and diminished. He still had a rigidity in his step, strength in his lanky arms. True, the leanness had drawn out the acerbic inclinations of his mouth and it was also true that he leaned on his walking stick more while navigating the mountain’s endless supply of ankle breaking stones. Henry reached down and picked up a palm-sized, smooth stone. He rolled it over in his fingers, considered throwing it, but instead tucked it into his pocket. He decided his grandfather looked pretty good for eighty-eight and was probably not in danger of dying. He was already at the top of the hill, waiting for Henry to catch up. It was like old times when Henry was still a young boy.
“This here hill’s a tough one,” Almer remarked when Henry finally reached him. The old man turned his head and spit into a cluster of bushes. The saliva hung on the broadleaf. Smooth Sumac, Henry thought. Rhus glabra.
“Which way do you think, Henry?” Almer asked. Even though Henry was now a botanist, a professional, the voice of authority, he didn’t know which direction to suggest. His career had taken him to the rainforests and alpine regions alike. Yet, morel hunting had always remained squarely in Almer’s domain. Almer scanned the side of the mountain, skin drooped over his dark eyes. It was hard to differentiate the iris from the pupil. He reached into his pants pocket and removed a handkerchief then blew his nose so hard it honked. Henry had never considered mycology as a vocation because it felt impossible to know as much as Almer about mushrooms.
“Lots of poplars there,” Henry said and swept his hand to the side of the steep bank along their right side to the trees blanketing the ridge. The tree, despite its ubiquity, was an impressive specimen in the wild. Delicate leaves worked together to stir a light of its own, like a substitute bright sky. The tree was sensitive, the bark easily scarred. Bears had reached up here and left jagged claw marks running down the length of the trunk.
“Rough going with all those rocks,” Henry said. He had a moment of panic watching Almer scramble over the ankle twisting rocks. What if he fell? What if he hit his head and needed to be carried out? He could see the horrible accident reeling out like a movie before his eyes.
“Mushrooms don’t come up where its easy walking,” Almer replied and then started off to the bank of trees, resuming his lockstep march with the thud of his walking stick landing between strides. No one argued with Almer. Never argue with a man who can witch a well, Henry’s father had said decades ago. His grandfather could use a stick to find the place where the water lived underground. But he knew what the statement really meant – it wasn’t about digging a new well, finding water, it was about respecting your family and what they knew.
Sometimes, Henry thought of people in terms of what type of tree they would be. Almer would be the Aralia Spinosa, common name: Devil’s Walking Stick. It was an abundant tree in this forest, with a flat crown much like his grandfather’s crew cut. The older versions of the tree had prickles, as the years advanced the more it grew. You never found them in clusters because when they got too crowded, they died away. Aralia Spinosa, like Almer, needed wide open spaces. That stout tree with an unbalanced, dark brown trunk resembled Almer’s sun-soaked skin, with nubby scars grown over a series of old wounds. But the tree wasn’t simply decoration. Sure, it was planted as a grotesque ornamental in Victorian gardens, but the root and spicy fruit were used by settlers as a toothache remedy. Almer had a vast catalog of knowledge the world now considered antiquated, but if you dug deeper, you came to realize it was a resource all the same. Henry thought of himself as Platanus occidentalis, common name American Sycamore. A common, weak tree with the mottled, variegated bark of white and gray that sometimes resembled peeling paper. The trees were hollow inside. You could find them alongside the banks of rivers and streams. These were dangerous trees. They attracted lightning.
Almer and Henry reached the stand of poplars. Poplars belonged to the Salicaceae family, along with Willows. Estelle, if a tree, would certainly be part of this family, a Salix fragilis or Crack Willow. Though the twigs were fragile and easily broken off, those same severed twigs could be covered by soil where they would grow roots and emerge into a new plant. The brittleness of this species was deceiving, as how weak can something really be if it posseses the capability to regenerate? Henry quietly admired this space with his grandfather, looking for willows where the forest had changed, the shrubs disappeared and the floor opened. Ancient plants, ferns, thrived in the shade of a harsh northern exposure. Downed trees and decayed leaves littered the slope.
“Here,” Almer said, pointing his gnarled walking stick to the rocky valley. Henry squinted, trying to find the right balance between the fluttering leaves above and the dark earth underfoot as if narrowing his eyes would cast off the shadows lurking outside his direct vision. They began a slow descent, scanning the ground. Henry looked up and spotted a Luna Moth. They sometimes hid among the leaves, Actias Luna, with the hope that their light green and paper white wings would blend in and camouflage their position. The white of the moth’s wings looked like bone, worn down teeth and old stone, like the ghostly color of its namesake, the moon. He had done his graduate research on how they communicated.
He reached up, the Luna Moth opened and closed its wings very slowly, mimicking perhaps the flutter of the leaves in the breeze. The round eyes on the wing disappeared as the Luna stayed closed up. The moon had been a swollen sight in the sky the night before, so bright that Henry couldn’t sleep. At least that is what Henry wanted to blame. The truth was he’d been thinking about Pascal, missing the press of his body against him in the bed at night, even the musty scent of his fur when wet. “Twelve years is a good long life,” the vet had told him, the afternoon Henry had decided to end the dog’s pain from the spreading cancer. But it didn’t feel long enough to Henry. Estelle had found the golden retriever at the Cross Street festival the summer before the plane crash. The dog spoke to her, she’d said at the time, “I need him.” . If you’d have asked, Henry would have still stumbled over saying it was “his” dog, despite their years together. He had never stopped thinking of him as Estelle’s dog. The dog’s death had folded time over on itself, brought Henry back to that long vigil by Estelle’s hospital bed, waiting.
In the immediate aftermath, Pascal had slept constantly in Estelle’s spot on the bed. He refused to play. When Henry took him for walks, he would lay down and whine. Finally, Henry received special permission to bring the dog into the hospital for a visit. He hoped it would jog Estelle’s memory, like a bolt of lightning awakening the part of her brain in which the memory of him lie dormant.
Pascal broke free, pulling hard on the lead, and clambered up on the bed. Estelle laughed and smiled, her whole face alight with the joy of the dog. She stroked his honey-colored fur, buried her head in his side and scratched along under his chin so he stretched his neck out long.
“Is this your dog? He’s beautiful.”
“This is your dog. His name is Pascal,” Henry replied carefully. The smile dissolved. She examined the dog more carefully, threading her fingers in his fur. Pascal shook his body as if throwing off water. He stood and turned in three circles and settled down next to her. Henry recognized the look that drifted over her face, the look of loss, of not knowing.
“Do I know you?” she asked him. In her voice was fear, laced high and tight, like a soft scream. Her eyes darted around, looking for something she knew, someone who wasn’t a stranger.
He pulled out the photograph of them, taken on the afternoon of their engagement days before the crash. The picture was off center, angled by the effort of Henry holding the camera at arm’s length and blurry from the humid air of the artificial rainforest in the botanical gardens. Estelle possessed a toothy smile with dimples, and her long auburn hair fell across his shoulder. Their faces were close together. Estelle stared at the camera, but Henry’s eyes were elsewhere, turned at the corners to never lose sight of her.
“That isn’t me!” Estelle had yelled, over and over, so loudly that the nurses had come running with sedatives and asked him to leave. There would be no more pictures of them together in the after, this was the very last one. Henry still carried it in his wallet.
“Got one here!” Almer called out. Henry turned, to stare at his grandfather, who clutched a dark morel between two fingers he held aloft in the air. He started over, slowly stepping in the brush, careful not to crush any others that might be around. For the better part of an hour, the men silently gathered morels. Henry used a paper sack. Almer filled his basket to the top. It took Henry a while to get into the rhythm of seeing the difference between the dark ground and the mushrooms poking up in plain sight. Once he spotted a few it felt like his gaze expanded and he found the mushrooms easily.
“Remember to pinch them off and leave a little stem,” Almer advised. Henry knew all about his theories of propagation, but he also knew that it didn’t matter. He did it anyway, pinching off the stem to leave a little reminder of the morel having sprung up there. That little nub of a stem would wither down to become part of the muck. They searched the valley until they reached the stream everyone called “Irish Creek.” Water rushed forward, surging from the influx of spring rains and melted mountain snows, creating little white eddies between the rocks.
“Come on, then,” Almer called out from the other side of the creek before turning back to climb the hill and resume the hunt.
Henry considered his footing, charted a path across in his mind, and slowly made his way to the very middle. Some of the rocks were slick with water and moss, and the creek sounded so much louder, like a full-fledged river, when you were balancing in the middle of it. Henry stepped to the left to get a purchase on a large flat round stone, but he felt it give, turn beneath him. There, for a moment, in-between safety and falling, he could feel the pull of the water on him, how his body stiffened to brace for it. The future of it flashed out in his mind, the way the creek would feel icy and harsh against his skin, would he strike his head on one of these rocks? He’d been worried for Almer, but maybe he’d had it wrong all along. He, Henry, was the one in danger in these woods that now felt so foreign. He’d forgotten how quickly you can lose your grip on safety, how fast the water can take you with it. The moment stretched out for too long, he wobbled on that rock, trying to find firm ground again, finally deciding to leap to the next rock, a yard away to the right. He kicked off the wobbly stone and landed hard, his gums and teeth ached from his clenched jaw, the fear that pulsed through him. Here he crouched down and dragged his hands through the water, flinching with the sharp cold on his fingers.
Henry finished the crossing and found a large rock on the bank to sit down. It was rough and uneven beneath him, but cold and reassuring for its strength. From this angle, this side of the bank, “Irish Creek” looked like he remembered. It felt good to recognize the landscape, the curve of the creek as the water rushed along. The line popped into his head, “That I may drink a cure for the wounds or a frightened soul.” If this were the River Lethe would he go into the water, would he have let himself fall to erase his memory?
His grandfather was on the next hill, working back and forth with his stick. Henry was overcome with longing. Here was Almer’s knowledge made tangible, in finding the morels. But where would this skill end up, would it die out with Henry? Four years ago, things may have been different if Estelle’s plane hadn’t crashed. Maybe Henry would be married, in these woods with a young son of his own, toddling around teaching him about pinching off the stem, advising him about the trees you look for to find the morels, how the buds of the mountain laurel were a barometer for the season. Full bloom indicated the time to hunt. Or the leaves of the Elm, Almer said it had to be “as big as a squirrel’s ear.” These were the things worth the pain of memory.
Sometimes Henry closed his eyes and imagined he saw the silver airplane belly overhead before it slipped into the mass of snow and the low gray clouds out of sight. Out it went until it hit the bridge and plunged into the water. Henry hadn’t seen it when it happened. He wasn’t even outside but tucked away in his dim, windowless office at the university. Still, he could almost see the crash in his mind, hear as the twin engines fizzled out, one after the other before the plane fell.
What if wasn’t something he allowed himself to think often. He’d been plagued by the question those first few months. He imagined that the small fender bender on the way to the airport could’ve been worse. What if she had never made it to the airport at all, to that flight? What if he could have saved her? He would have gladly sacrificed his car, his own health to save her. Then, the question shifted to the after. What if Estelle had remembered him? Would she have stayed? Would he have cared for her through her long rehabilitation? Learning to walk? Write her own name? In the end, her mother Mona had taken her back to Georgia. She had let Henry say goodbye one last time. In some ways, her forgetting him had been a gift. He didn’t have to be there to witness what survival looked like.
In all his earnest sorrow, he had forgotten the feeling of wanting more outside himself, almost forgotten he was another step on the family ladder. Yet here the full power of an early spring sun warmed his head, softened his shoulders, and there came a tiny flicker of something he hadn’t felt for a very long time – a sense of being rooted down. It was all there in front of him: the morel, his grandfather, the trees, the soil of his ancestors, the hidden corner like a prism of possibilities. He wanted to press his ear to the earth. The land itself had his history, secrets embedded in the muddy layers, the echo of footsteps, hooves, drum beats, the slice of a saw and crack of a tree as it falls. The earth swallows those sounds but stores the energy for later – the scream of another season come and gone. Henry knew the romantic notion of the earth’s memory was false. The land had only the memory you imposed upon it. He opened his paper sack, took in a deep, dark breath. On this day, the morels were found.
Jennifer Marie Donahue‘s writing appears or is forthcoming at Catapult, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Yalobusha Review, JMWW,The Rumpus, and elsewhere. A native of Virginia, she currently resides in Massachusetts where she has received scholarship support from Grub Street and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Find her online at www.jmdonahue.com.