They seem grotesque at first, full of bumps
that would have been warts on human skin.
Some are just rounded lumps popping out of
the ground, while others are the umbrella type, the kind that in children’s books are the harbors of secret worlds. Even their colors are startling, shades of yellow, orange and red tinged with white. It’s those colorless sections that are most disturbing, especially their contrast with the deeper reds, the realization that a single form of life could mutate that far.
There’s a thud against the kitchen window as Lisa packs the children’s lunches, then another and another. The bird has been there all morning, hitting steadily against the glass. She doesn’t know if it’s ill or disoriented or simply wants something that’s inside, but the steady, predictable sound has her unnerved. She can’t help thinking the bird is somehow connected to the sudden appearance of the mushrooms.
She has sent the children outside so that they won’t have to hear it. Through the window, Lisa catches a glimpse of Dani dancing in the backyard, her ballerina turns becoming tighter and tighter. Lisa can’t help but smile. She asks herself daily what she had done to deserve such a beautiful, beautiful daughter.
But even the graceful spins, the warm feeling of love for her daughter are things she can’t seem to focus on. The bird’s thuds echo in her head as she turns away, her thoughts breaking. Disjointed. Separate. Full of white spaces. That’s the way they’ve been coming lately.
Her son, Julian, thinks the mushrooms are perverse, a possibility that his eight-year-old mind relishes, enough that he has agreed to unplug himself momentarily from his digital world to go outside and look at them. “He isn’t interacting with other children, seems to spend a lot of time alone,” was his teacher’s evaluation at their last conference, one she offered while staring at the empty seat where a father should have been.
Lisa thinks about Julian’s dimpled knees, his soft hands, skin that looks like it has been drained from lack of sun, and wonders why love for her daughter comes so much easier. She cares about her son just as much, she’s certain, but in a more distant way, wonders sometimes which of them has lost the other.
Ever since their appearance, though, the mushrooms have had him clearly excited. One evening when Lisa couldn’t find him in front of the computer, she discovered him in the front yard with a watering can, gently sprinkling their heads. The next day, when she found a packet of rose fertilizer open in the garage, she realized he must have been feeding them, stood there longing for the same kind of comfort for herself, tiny granules of love that could be spread around a woman whose life is held together by a string.
Her husband, Brad, just laughed when she told him about fertilizing the mushrooms. “I’m surprised it didn’t kill them instead.” It was his new voice that came across the phone, the recovery one. Confident, but resigned. There’s only so much you can do. That seems to be the general theme of the meetings he attends. Don’t blame yourself. Remain passive. If you’re lucky, your life will slip by without doing anyone any real harm.
The people around her have all responded to their separation in different ways, her friends offering cheerful comments, nothing too direct, the physicians whose bills she compiles on her home computer giving her more work to see her through. Their common solution seems to be to keep her distracted.
She looks at the time. Lately it seems to move in segments, holding still for a breath or two, then rushing forward, several seconds slipping by in a flash, perhaps the recent effect of what may have been a concussion, or maybe just part of the way her life is going now. She knows she has to gather up the children, get them off to school. They are late already. She brings her dancing daughter in, pink, soft, the child of every mother’s dreams. Julian follows in behind, quiet, sullen. She offers him a duplicate of the hug she has just given Dani, but instead of returning it he stiffens in her arms.
As they walk up the driveway toward the school bus stop, she tries to appear upbeat, but her head feels dull and achy, as though she is the one who has been flying into a window all morning. She wonders when this will end, this feeling that her life exists in the same world as everyone else, but a breath behind. Perhaps that’s why she doesn’t hear Julian’s voice until the bus is already there, the driver looking out impatiently.
“I need a project.”
“What do you mean, a project?”
“Something to take to school with me. To show the class.”
“Like show and tell? You don’t mean they still do that.”
He shrugs his shoulders, apparently unclear about what she means. “I just need something to take.”
“Now.” Couldn’t you have told me earlier? It’s what her mind thinks, but like most of her recent thoughts, never quite makes it out. The driver is coming down the steps, probably wondering why the children aren’t getting on. And then Lisa starts laughing. “Here. Take this.” She hands him her wedding ring, something she’s been meaning to take off anyway. Julian gets on the bus and looks out the window and shrugs his shoulders as though asking, what am I supposed to say? And as he’s being driven off Lisa thinks, I don’t know. It’s what I’ve been trying to figure out myself.
Back inside the house, she draws the curtain over the kitchen window, fills in the extra gaps by taping up pieces of newspaper, hoping the bird will stop. And it does. For a moment all is quiet, just the sound of her breath, waiting. And then it starts again, the bird’s shadow appearing larger and smaller as it moves back and forth behind the printed words.
Her brother, Craig, used to do the same thing with school projects, wait until the last minute. I’m supposed to bring cookies to school today or I need a costume for the party this afternoon. Their mother would race around the house, flustered, trying to put something together. It must have been that part he enjoyed, or else showing up at school with something makeshift, a broom and a pail and one of his mother’s aprons tied around his waist--there are washermen as well as washerwomen—or a bagful of oranges--tell them fruit is healthier than chocolate. Once they considered sending her. A sister can be a project. It occurred to Lisa later that there must have been something satisfying for him in seeing everyone shake their heads, their assumption there was some mild form of neglect.
Craig was six years older, but unlike Lisa’s friends’ brothers, he played with her, giving horsey rides on his back, allowing her to be the gas station attendant for his bicycle car. He was pushing her on her own bicycle one day, trying to show his best friend how fast she could go when she fell, her bare foot dragging in the gravel, the skidding sound followed by her own voice rising in a scream that just wouldn’t stop.
A moment later arms were around her, comforting, a voice shushing her. When she saw her brother standing with his back toward her, assessing the damage to the bicycle, she realized the arms belonged to the friend.
No one said it was Craig’s fault. There were no real consequences. A trip to the emergency room for stitches, a broken toe. A childhood accident that in memory should have blurred in with others. But afterward, nothing was quite the same between them. He treated her like something fragile, a little sister that had to be looked after.
The friend’s name was Ryan and afterwards he would wink at her whenever he saw her, a habit that continued on into high school and beyond. He was her first love before she even knew what that was, a presence that remained with her, eventually transforming itself from something with a name to a feeling of warmth that she could turn to when she needed comfort, would go to even years later during the long hours waiting when Brad should have been home.
There were many nights like that. It was on one when Brad did come, late but not as late as others, that slightly whiney sound to his voice, his steps heavy but not yet unsteady, that they started to argue. Harsh words rose in the room. Maybe that’s what she stepped away from, the sound of all that anger. A backward step and then a fall. Her head. There was silence that followed that seemed to stop everything, make movement impossible, silence that went on for a long time. Or at least she thinks. What she remembers most clearly are the moments of not remembering.
When she did slowly become more aware, Brad was kneeling beside her, was tender even, the angry words from before erasing themselves. Was it the bicycle she was thinking of, her foot dragging behind in the gravel, Ryan’s arms comforting her in a way she had never felt since? She started shaking her arms, flailing them really, aware even then how ridiculous she must look, the words screaming themselves, louder and louder, no, no, no. And then there was silence again, broken finally by muffled steps in the next room, whispered voices. The children. They must have been listening.
Afterward there was a white space of silence that followed them for days, was even there when they made polite conversation. And then there was a longer silence, more harsh, the one that started the day she realized he was gone.
She always thought of the gaps in her life as bright white, glistening even, as though they weren’t vacant so much as concealing something else. Between the disjointed fragments of her thoughts, the delays where words wouldn’t come, the empty spaces between missed calls and unheard comments, was there a life that was perfect? If her son had been born seconds earlier or later, if she had skipped one contraction or experienced another, would he be a completely different person? Maybe all of these differences had collected somewhere, put themselves together in some bit of white space that was the life she was supposed to be living. It could be like the mushrooms, the light sections their perfect side, the bright reds and oranges the horrible distortion where everything went wrong.
”He just doesn’t know how to relate to you. He thinks you’re not interested in the things he likes.” It’s the recovery voice speaking to her again, words she suspects have been formed together in a discussion group, careful and measured. The telephone now their primary link, she imagines the twelve years of their marriage all stretched out forming this line between them, an existence away from everything else where words carved out of softness can have a heart-cutting edge.
That afternoon after school she finds Julian in the yard with a butter knife, carefully slicing open mushroom after mushroom. “They’re all white inside.” She can’t tell if he is disappointed or just surprised. She puts a hand out meaning to comfort, but he takes a step away, dropping the knife by mistake. She picks it up and slips it in her pocket, though its dull blade is clearly harmless.
She remembers a rainy Saturday morning when she was his age staring at her own fingers, wondering which would cause the least damage if she cut it off. There was no real desire to hurt herself, just interest in seeing what was inside. It was Craig who stopped her. They never talked about it afterwards, not even once. She tells Julian none of this, just looks at the dissected mushrooms lying on the ground, aware that destroying something doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t love it.
She is about to suggest they go back to the house when Julian suddenly picks up one of the mushrooms and offers it to her. Its softness surprises her, almost as much as his gesture giving it.
“I need a project again for school, next week.” He doesn’t explain whether this is a new one or a substitute for the wedding ring which she suspects was a dismal failure. At least this time he has told her early, a sign she will take for progress. She thinks of her smiling son standing in front of a roomful of his classmates, their eyes all focused, loving him for his tales of mushroom lore. She prefers it to the other image which also comes to mind, the one where he carefully slices open parts of himself, saying this is where the hurt is and this is where the anger lies and these are the places, the smaller more hidden ones, where maybe happiness exists.
That evening over dinner, with music playing to block out the sound of the bird that is still hitting the window—Lisa’s not certain if it has started anew or been there all day—they work out a plan. She knows the mushrooms are doing fine on their own, their reds and oranges growing more vibrant everyday, their knobby surface becoming more distinct. She has stopped seeing them as being perverse, instead only admires their beauty. Still, she needs to have Julian do something so he feels he is nurturing them. She comes up with a program—the rose fertilizer once a day, around the base only, not actually getting too near the mushrooms, keeping a vigilant watch for insects. In between the muffled thuds that only she hears, she imagines her husband’s laughing voice. It will be a miracle if you don’t kill them.
“We can make posters. Do some research into mushrooms.”
Even Dani seems to understand the significance of what’s going on, tries to encourage him. “You can use the computer, look up mushrooms on the internet.”
After dinner when the children are upstairs, it’s quiet in the house, the music turned down, the bird having finally left or perhaps put itself to sleep for the night. She considers calling Brad, soliciting his advice, but suspects this is a bad idea, or at least knows her friends would think so. You talk to him? How often? Isn’t that terribly awkward? She finds herself calling late at night, after the children have gone to bed, as though she is doing something forbidden. Still, she’d like to hear his voice, pretend for just a moment that everything is okay between them, is startled when it’s Julian’s voice she hears instead, coming up behind her.
“They like to grow on logs. You can buy kits to make them grow. And some can kill you if you eat them. Those are the ones that are part toad. And some of them are magic mushrooms. I looked at the pictures. Those are the ones that look like ours. What kind of magic do you think they can do?”
He stands there excited before her, slightly out of breath. She wonders what he imagines based on this mixture of electronic information, their details slightly crossed. A giant creature that is part toad, part mushroom, complete with cape and wand performing magic acts? Or a disappearing toad leaving only its mushroom warts? She thinks of Alice eating the mushrooms to make herself big and small. Lisa wonders, if she could change her own size, would she be better able to enter his world or create one for him, a place where a father’s breath never has the aftereffects of a night out, a mother’s hands aren’t shaking with worry and humans speak in words that are real?
“Do you think ours are magical? What does a magic mushroom do? Or poisonous. Could you kill people with them?”
For a moment she’s taken aback. Magic mushrooms. Wasn’t that something with the psychedelic era? And killing people? She sees her son as the quiet one in back, the child no one really relates to who goes into a classroom one day with a gun and fires it off, or in his case slips pieces of poisonous mushroom in the cafeteria food. But the halos of orange and red out in the yard glistening every morning with dew are so appealing. They can’t be the poisonous ones, can they? And didn’t people have to travel far and wide to find the others, trace their way through ancient cultures to discover their source? Mushrooms like that, she’s certain, don’t grow in suburban neighborhoods.
She places a hand on each of his shoulders, gives him a little shake. “You can’t eat them. You understand that, don’t you? Some mushrooms are safe and some aren’t. You don’t want to die finding out which is which.” She hears the urgency in her own voice, wishes she could stop it. Still, she keeps imagining her son engaging on a magical mushroom trip, entering Alice’s hole.
He looks startled, a little afraid, then slips away from her hands. “Of course not. I don’t go around eating things from the yard.” He grows quiet again, sullen, and she finds herself thinking of Brad. He rarely asks to talk to the children, though it’s moments like these she wishes he would. Custody, divorce, separation of property—these are all details they’ve pushed to the side, but the children are here now, everyday. She wonders if it’s the emptiness of his new vocabulary, if Brad hears it himself when talking to them.
“Go see what else you can find out. We want to give them the best care we can.”
He walks away, all his earlier excitement gone, and she wonders if she’s lost him, if he’s as confused as she is about how one moment can turn into something so completely different.
The next day after school she helps him tend the mushrooms. His enthusiasm has returned and he goes through a whole list of misinformation that he’s apparently acquired from friends. “If you touch their bumps, they’ll give you warts. And the little ones that are close to the ground have snakes in them. Can we lift this one up, see if we can wake up the snakes inside?” She knows it’s not true, but pictures the earth beneath her crawling unstably.
They water the mushrooms carefully, sprinkle mulch lightly around their bases. “This is the gourmet variety,” she tells him, “a special manure just for mushrooms.”
“We have to get them on a log.”
She would do it if she could, just to make him happy. Instead, she puts tiny sticks underneath each one, telling him they’re something the mushrooms can grasp if they choose, but he doesn’t look convinced. “All things grow in their own way. These look perfectly happy where they are.” This he seems to understand, making her wonder if the eight years of his life have been focused on that, the idea of making do.
They seem to have grown over night. She points at one with a perfectly rounded cap. “Look. Can’t you just imagine a whole family of mice having a party underneath?”
He frowns and she realizes she’s talking as though he’s Dani. She hears the words Brad has repeated so many times. He’s a boy. A little man. You never seem to be able to remember that.
“Your father had a mushroom house.”
Julian raises his head toward her, clearly intrigued. She realizes it’s the first time since the night when she sat them down to explain Brad’s disappearance that she’s voluntarily brought up the subject of their father. “It wasn’t his house, exactly. Just one he named the mushroom house.”
No, she was the one who named it that. She remembers now, but goes on with the story, realizing that the important part is that he’s listening. She tells him about the bicycle rides she used to go on with his father early in their marriage, the little Tudor-style building they often passed with the sleepy-looking roof that appeared to be thatched but wasn’t really, a tiny building straight out of a Beatrice Potter story. It sat by itself surrounded by flowers, an out building for a large estate, probably the shed used by the gardener. She always thought it looked like the perfect place to live. They would laugh every time they went by, thinking how their fantasy house was practically someone else’s garage. Then they would pedal on, certain that if not that, at least something was waiting for them in the future.
Julian continues watering the mushrooms quietly and Lisa thinks about the bike rides. She and Brad were happy then, weren’t they? Their life full of promise?
Later that night when she puts him to bed, Julian lists more mushroom facts, that there are thousands of different kinds, that they are a fungus, a word he struggles with, pronouncing it like “fun Gus.” These random pieces of information, she is starting to understand, are his way of trying to console her.
“Do you remember the mushroom house?”
There’s a long pause on the other side, and she knows he doesn’t. “That’s not really why I called. I’m worried that I may be sending your son off to school with something potentially deadly.”
There is silence, then her husband’s voice, cool and calm. “What do you mean, deadly?” Just once she’d like to hear him angry or alarmed or frustrated. She knows they will never be a family again, wonders if there will be a time when they’ll at least have conversations with real meaning. Still, she tells him about the mushrooms, the way they’ve tended them together, Julian’s plans to take them to school, her fears about their hidden dangers.
When she’s done, Brad laughs. “I’m sure it will all work out. The biggest risk is probably to the mushrooms themselves. I imagine they’ll be broken into pieces before noon.”
She’s quiet, holding her breath, somehow waiting for more. And his voice comes to her, low, soft. If he were there in the room instead, she knows his touch would follow, his hands gentle. Unlike her friends, he’s the one who remembers that she’s in recovery, too.
“You are aware, aren’t you, that mushrooms have a positive side. They’re the source of penicillin. Maybe instead of killing his friends or trying to get them all high, he just has an urge to heal.” She understands what he’s really trying to say. Everything will be okay. We all know you’ve been a good mother.
They are both quiet and she knows that when she gets off the line she will cry. Mushrooms and penicillin. He remembers things like that. It’s the details of their life together he seems to have forgotten, that in moments between the harsh silences and strong words there was sometimes love.
The day his project is due, Lisa helps Julian in his selection of the most interesting mushrooms, lines them up carefully in a shoebox, cushions them with tissue paper. Julian seems nervous and a little excited, and even though she has nothing to do with the project, Dani does, too.
Once they’ve been escorted safely to the bus, Lisa goes back inside where the house seems remarkably quiet. She has filled her days effectively the last few weeks with the extra computer work, taking care of the details of three lives. She hears the walls creak, then an unaccountable thump in another room. At first she thinks it’s just the normal house sounds that she notices only when everything is quiet. And then she hears it, more distinct, the dull thud in the kitchen, then again and again, it’s rhythm steady but not quite predictable. She holds her breath, counting the spaces in those long pauses between, hoping the sound will go away.
The same bird or another? Either way, she goes outside to escape the sound. Out in air that is cool and crisp, she realizes she feels fully alive, in step with herself for a change, the feeling of living on the edge of a pause gone. When did that happen? Just now? In the last week? She supposes it’s the concussion healing itself, though she wants to believe it’s something else, the magical power of the mushrooms.
They are everywhere, their skin glistening in the dew, their colors extra rich and deep in an overcast sky. Poisonous. Devil’s food. Full of the breath of snakes. Or maybe a source of healing energy, the launching point for a trip into the essence of truth and beauty. Perhaps they are all of these.
She bends down to be closer. They are appealing, yet repulsive, the bumps along their surface like something alive, but she can’t resist, knows exactly what she is about to do. She breaks off a tiny piece, its texture soft but firm between her fingers, brings it closer to her face. The smell is rich and earthy, part of the earth’s undercurrent, the hidden mysteries and secrets of everything that lies beneath.
She places it on her tongue, stands up again and waits for her body to transform itself, for her consciousness to open wide or her mind to soar through the heavens to places she never thought imaginable, or maybe her arms and legs to begin lengthening and contracting, changing her into different forms of herself. She could die right then, or hours later, or grow feverish and ill, her thoughts full of hallucinations. It’s all out of her control now. And as she stands there wondering what will happen, it occurs to her just how ordinary the mushroom tastes, even bland, its most expressive part a tiny bit of dirt that has rolled onto her tongue from her fingers. She thinks of spitting it out, but doesn’t, has gone this far, feels a commitment. Instead she swallows the mushroom, absorbing with it all of the dangers around her, knowing that in the end it’s the only way she’ll ever feel safe again.
Later that afternoon she waits for the children at the bus stop. She still feels no real effect from the mushroom, just a slightly bitter taste in her mouth that she suspects exists more in her imagination.
She’s anxious to see how Julian’s project went, hopes he’ll get off the bus as excited as he left, offer her a big hug or just stand there with his face flushed, anxious to tell. The bus stops, but when the door opens, neither child appears. As Lisa waits, the same heaviness comes over her as on nights when she would wander from window to window waiting to see the lights from Brad’s car. Then, finally, she sees Dani’s long legs making their way down the steps, a moment later Julian, his hands empty of both books and mushrooms. Lisa tries to catch his eye, but he doesn’t look at her, and she knows when she sees Dani’s expression that something is terribly wrong.
Julian walks by her without saying anything, heads straight for the mushrooms, one of the clusters he nurtured the most. He starts by kicking at them, their broken pieces flying through the air, then works more deliberately with his hands, tearing off their tops, breaking them with his fingers. She has never seen him this angry. For so long she has wanted him to offer some kind of expression, learn how to feel, but she never imagined it would be like this. When he finally stops, he just stands completely still, his breath coming out in gasps, his expression slightly bewildered as though all of this somehow must have come from someone else.
She wants to comfort him, can imagine what happened, how he had been picked on in school or laughed at or had gotten into a fight. It was the wrong project. She can see that now. Even sending the dancing sister would have been a better choice. If Brad had been here to consult with everyday, he would have told her, even laughed at the idea of the mushrooms in his old, familiar way. Or if he were here now, he would know how to comfort him, or whether not to, would perhaps say to her that little boys sometimes need a man’s space.
She walks towards him because she’s a mother and that’s all she knows how to do. She puts her arms out meaning to comfort, then looks down at the broken mushrooms, sees the way their soft insides are exposed, their colors fragmented and lost. Now that they’re gone, she realizes just how exquisite they were.
She thinks about all the parts of her life that have been torn open lately, all the changes and all the loss. And now, standing here, it’s the mushrooms she thinks she’s going to miss. She doesn’t want to cry, is aware of the way both children are watching, then realizes it’s happening anyway, that it’s something she just can’t stop. She wants to make herself move or do something, but finds she can’t, just stands there like Julian did a moment ago. Everything seems to be moving farther away, the children, her home, maybe even herself, her mind reduced to just one thought, a suspicion that she’s finally entered the white space, the gap in time that has been eluding her for all these years, only to find that it, too, is not a perfect life.