The Mushroom Hunter
Leigh’s father always advised her to have multiple income streams, so if one source went south, she would still have money coming in – a wealthy guy’s version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” It was easy to say when those income streams are bonds, stocks, real estate and a trust fund. Sadly, though, even with the multiple income streams, her father managed to blow through the trust fund, while a stagnant economy, a few unfortunate corporate bankruptcies and a bit of an insider trading scandal took care of the rest. Leigh occasionally visited him in the federal prison in Danbury, where he seemed to be surviving the limitations of federal prison with great joie de vivre – playing bridge, writing his memoirs and holding cooking classes, with a heavy emphasis on the preparation of hors’ d’oeuvres.
Upon Leigh’s mother’s death, all of her money had gone to the chauffeur, which didn’t come as a big surprise to either Leigh or her father, considering that her father’s profligate spending consisted of the extravagances he bestowed on a series of mistresses during most of his forty year marriage. Neither Leigh nor her father had either the fortitude or the funds to pursue a challenge to the will.
Having listened to her dad, Leigh did have multiple income streams, but her income came from actual work, a first for her family, at least for many generations. She wrote freelance articles, occasionally taught a writing class at adult ed, did temp work and took whatever other interesting work came along. She frequently felt that she was on the verge of bankruptcy and homelessness, but it was just at those times that something came along. That something used to be her father, but now she knew she had to make it happen for herself.
Leigh’s latest well-paying gig was foraging for wild mushrooms and it had all started quite accidentally. She had foraged for years, and couldn’t even tolerate store-bought mushrooms any more. One day last year she had dropped off a basket of mushrooms for a waitress friend who loved to cook. The chef at the restaurant expropriated them for his “special of the night,” assuming that they were meant for him, and declared them “absolutely divine!” He demanded she bring him more and said he would pay top dollar. Other chefs, not to be outdone, had hired her as their forager and a seasonal career was born.
She loved foraging and was even occasionally rewarded with the discovery of some psychedelic mushrooms, which she dried and later ingested when she really wanted to escape reality. Those were pleasant experiences without any great risk, better than drinking herself into oblivion or getting hooked on oxycontin. However, her current reality was that she had so many demanding clients that she could hardly find enough damn mushrooms to satisfy them all, especially in the spring, when the season began, and no psychedelic escape was going to take care of that.
As Leigh walked through the woods on this beautiful day, the mossy green ground was refusing to reveal the abundance of wild mushrooms that usually confronted her. She did find a small patch of morels, but not nearly enough for all of her chefs, really not even enough for one of them. Jeez, she thought, if Raoul got some, Jon would be pissed when he heard. And there’s not enough for both of them, much less Michael, Jodie and Caitlin.
The harder she looked for the elusive fungi, the more frantic she became. If she lost her clients, she would be back to temping to provide at least a minimal level of financial stability. Leigh hated temp work, hated being in an office all day and taking orders from some unimaginative functionary. Maybe she could call the chefs and say she was sick? No, she had assured them that she had a backup forager in case she got sick. But she never got sick, and so she never bothered to get a back up.
Leigh leaned against a tree, let her knees give out and slid to the ground. She sighed, and tried to get some clarity about what she should do. She looked up at the tree in front of her, since her mentor had taught her to not only look down, but also up, as many fungi grew out of tree trunks. Nothing. Despair set in, although the optimist in her tried to shake it off. Unproductive thoughts ran through her mind. She should not have gone into this business by herself, she needed someone to help, to commiserate, to have her back. She had always been so proud of her independence, but now she just felt alone.
Still sitting on the ground, Leigh cocked her head to the side and squinted her eyes upon seeing a bunch of tiny violet somethings peeking out from beneath the leaves. Since she was already on the ground, she crawled over to where she could identify what it was that she was seeing. Ooh, she thought, amethyst deceivers. But way too tiny to pick now, she’d have to come back in a couple of days.
Still sitting on the ground, Leigh looked around. Sometimes coming down to their level reveals the mushrooms that are so facile in hiding from the upright creatures that seek them out. Suddenly she saw something that she hadn’t seen in decades – a fairy house. When she was a little girl, and her family was roaming around Europe, they had lived for awhile in the west of Ireland. One day while playing imaginary games in the forest, she came across a tiny house built of sticks and leaves and straw. She ran back to her house and asked her mother about it, and was told not to let her imagination run away with her. Not one to pay any attention to her mother’s usual dismissiveness of most of her questions, she asked her father about it. “Well, dear, it sounds like a fairy house,” he said. “People build them to attract fairies to their property.” She asked her father what the fairies looked like, were they small, to fit in the houses? “Some are,” he said, “and others can be adult size or child size.” But, when she went back to find the fairy house, she never could locate it. Over the years, she began to think she had just imagined seeing it. Now, though, she was staring at a similar tiny structure. It was made very carefully with sticks held together by slender thread and mud.
Leigh stood up and started walking deeper into the woods, not knowing what she was looking for, but feeling that she had to look. As she came to a partial clearing she saw a fairy circle consisting of small brown mushrooms lined up in a partially curved line which stretched for yards, if not further. She walked around and saw that the mushrooms created an oval and Leigh admired the symmetry. Every year fairy circles expanded and supposedly this was where the fairies danced and performed many magic rituals. At least that was what she liked to believe in some of her more fanciful moments. Maybe that was what she needed, a little magic.
Leigh looked around, now feeling disoriented. Suddenly she heard the crunch of leaves on the ground. Someone was coming. She glanced around the tree and saw a man walking through the woods. Oh no, with a basket. Another forager. Great, she probably couldn’t find anything because this guy had cleaned out this part of the woods. She ducked back behind the tree, but he had already seen her and walked over to where she was standing. “Hi,” the stranger said, smiling. She immediately noticed his green eyes and could not help but respond with a hello. The man asked her how her foraging was going, and she wondered how he knew she was a forager. “Tough going today. You?” The man showed her his basket, which had many varieties of wild mushrooms in it. She was amazed, given her failure to find anything. The man smiled and offered her some of his take.
All of a sudden Leigh felt very tired. “I’d love to look through what you’ve collected, but I’m pretty tired.” He motioned to a log a few yards away and they walked over and sat down. She became more and more drowsy, and leaned back against a rock. When Leigh opened her eyes, it was dusk, and the forest shadows were in the ascendancy. She yawned and sat up, wondering where she was. Had she been dreaming? Finally realizing she was in the woods, she remembered that she had been foraging, but had not gathered any wild mushrooms for her clients.
Panic set it and she pulled out her cell phone. Leigh felt like this time she really was on the edge, probably had angry phone calls from all of the disgruntled chefs. She was breathing heavily and feeling dizzy. Was this some sort of panic attack or something else? She dialed her voicemail, dreading what she was about to hear. Numerous messages, damn. Her dizziness returned and she sat down on the ground, pressing the playback button on the phone. Oh no, the scariest chef was the first to call. He will ruin her. Then she heard, “Darling, the fungi were spectacular tonight, some of the best ever!” Similar sentiments from the other chefs.
Leigh didn’t know what to think. She called Caitlin, her favorite chef, and told her that she was glad the day’s mushrooms were good, then inquired whether they were delivered in a timely manner.
“Yes, they were. The nicest man brought them in, saying you had a previous engagement and he agreed to make the delivery. I was glad that you finally brought someone in to work with you, it’s good to have a backup.”
Leigh thanked Caitlin and hung up. She knew she wouldn’t be able to find the man, to thank him and to ask how he knew what she needed. But as she stood staring at the fairy ring, she also knew that she was no longer alone and that it doesn’t really matter who your associates are, as long as they get the job done.
Lynne Williams is a writer based in Downeast Maine. Most of her work has been political non-fiction and has been published in such journals as the Monthly Review online. She has also written two stage plays, one of which was given a staged reading. Sensing that the political reality of the world has taken a turn towards what used to only appear in fiction, her own writing has likewise moved towards fiction.
Sandra Giles teaches at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, in the department of Literature and Language and in an innovative bachelor’s degree program in Rural Studies. She holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University. Her work has been published in such journals as The Southeast Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Writer Advice and in anthologies such as On Writing and Shout Them From the Mountaintops II: Georgia Poems and Stories. Her work has received awards from New Millennium Writings and the Southeastern Writers Association. She has also published articles on teaching writing, including co-authoring a chapter in Creative Writing: A Guide to Its Pedagogies, forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press.