Hunters and Gatherers
Stuart drove two more miles up the mountain and turned off on an unmarked two track that was soon blocked by windfall. “Here we are,” he announced. “At least they haven’t clearcut this section, yet.” They headed down a path which led them into the forest.
“Hey,” Jared pointed at the base of a tree. “Aren’t those slimy things what we’re looking for?”
“Those are mushrooms alright,” Brady confirmed. “But we’re only looking for one kind.”
“How will you know? Don’t they all look the same?”
“You give the mushrooms names to figure out which are food and which are poison.”
“So which ones can croak you?”
“Well the one with names like Angel of Death and Corpse Finder. Maybe you should name your band after a toadstool.”
“What other killers we gonna see out here? Wolves or grizzly bears?”
“Probably not,” Brady admitted. “But a few years ago we did run into an endangered species.”
“What kind of danger?”
“Endangered. The last of its kind. Like they might go extinct.”
“You mean like disco?”
“We found a lizard,” Brady told his story. “I was reaching under a log for a mushroom and pulled out something that was squirming in my fist to get loose. Black rubbery thing with an orange stomach. The Pine Mountain Salamander. Tried to hang on but then the tail broke off and it skedaddled back under the log.”
“You tore off its tail?”
“Well no, it kind of fell off. The damn thing felt like a living penis but with legs and a mouth.”
“Like a penis?” Jared’s eyes got big. “Guess you perverts would know all about that.”
“I’m very familiar with my own penis,” Brady took offense. “If that’s what you’re talking about. Besides, if your penis fell off it wouldn’t come back. The salamander can grow back a tail or a leg.”
“Hey, let’s not get the boy all excited,” Stuart interrupted. “We’ve got work to do.”
At the bottom of a ravine the trail crossed a clearing that was littered with a pile of debris, a few car tires, a collection of aluminum cans, some empty aerosol containers, a mattress and box springs, several broken chairs and a half dozen television sets that had been blasted to smithereens.
“You didn’t tell me about this,” Jared whined. “Should have brought your Glock.”
“There’s a reason he doesn’t have a key to the gun locker,” Stuart nodded to Brady.
“There’s more down the trail. Folks use the woods to get out of paying for garbage pickup,” Brady noted.
“This is what I thought the Pit would look like,” Jared kicked a few of the cans into the air. “A real slaughter house.” After stepping around the trash piles, they continued into the darkest part of the forest.
Soon Brady announced “Here we go, first one of the season.” He put his bucket down, got out his jackknife and carefully cut a mushroom at the base of the stem and held it up for Jared and Stuart to admire. “There it is,” he proclaimed. “The fall trumpet.” The mushroom was golden in color. Its stem was a half inch across at the base and rose up to the cap that looked like the horn of a brass instrument in an orchestra. He handed the specimen to Stuart who examined it and then passed it on to Jared.
“Hey you cut that thing like you were slitting a throat in some dark alley.” Jared drew his index finger across his own neck and stopped at the place where the tattoo crossed his jugular. “Real smooth my man.” Brady placed the mushroom in his bucket, lit up a cigarette and handed one to Stuart.
“How about one for me?” Jared pleaded. “Besides you told Dr. Redmeat you were giving it up.”
“I’m just not smoking around your mother. Besides this is part of our routine. It’s a ritual. We always have a cigarette when we find our first mushroom. Just to celebrate.” After finishing the tobacco, they continued down the trail where they came upon more chanterelles. Soon Brady and Stuart were jumping logs, sifting through the underbrush and kneeling down on the forest floor to harvest the mushrooms. Jared then pulled out his switchblade, and threw the knife, cutting down a mushroom that was more than five feet away, pulverizing the fungus with the force of the blow.
“Be more careful, you want to bring it back in one piece. It’s your dinner.”
“I’m not eating this shit.”
“What your step-father means is it’s our privilege to come out here and gather gastronomic delicacies.”
Jared’s lips silently mocked those last two words and then announced, “If you want me to pick mushrooms I’ll do it how I want. Besides I need the throwing practice.” Jared picked up his knife and threw it at another mushroom, this time slicing it cleanly across the base. “How about that?”
“Don’t pay him too much attention,” Stuart said. “He’s got this crazy idea. A knife throwing act with his girlfriend as the target. It’ll go over big in the circus.”
“Not the circus, we’re gonna do it between sets at Dante’s.”
As they entered a part of the woods that was thick with chanterelles poking through the thick green moss. The men left their plastic buckets on the trail and headed into the woods with small bags. Each time they filled a bag, they returned to the trail and dumped it into the bucket. “Another thing we’ve learned from experience,” Stuart explained to Jared. “You need to fold up your knife when you’re not using it, so you have both hands available if you fall. It gets pretty easy to cut yourself jumping over logs.”
“I’m not gonna cut myself with my own knife. I’m the one that controls the blade.”
“And” Brady added. “We use these whistles to keep track of each other. When you chase mushrooms, you end up watching the ground and not your place in the forest so it’s easy to get lost. At least with the whistles we get lost together.”
As they wandered through the forest, the men took turns blowing on their whistles, raising their heads, catching a glimpse of each other, staying in touch. At one point Brady blew his whistle and waited for a response which didn’t come, indicating that he had gone too far astray as the thick woods swallowed the sound. He quit picking and looked around until he saw a human silhouette. As he got closer he saw a man lifting a tree limb in the air above his head and repeatedly bring it down to the earth, bludgeoning some object on the ground. As Brady got closer he realized that it was Jared and shouted “What’s going on here?” Jared immediately jumped back and turned towards Brady. The boy’s face was covered with sweat and a drop of snot was balanced at the end of his nose ring. He was out of breath. His eyes seemed ready to pop out of his head. Brady raised his forearm into the air as though ready to ward off a blow.
Casey Bush is a Portland poet whose eighth collection Student of Hippocampus was published in 2018 by Last Word Press (Olympia, WA). His essay “Sisters Around the Cauldron: Mary Barnard and Her Sappho” was recently posted on the Berlin based website The Decadent Review. Casey is the poetic voice of Notes & Motes: The Vlatkovich Trio Plus One. He recommends Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center.