the mushroom hunters
It had been Richard’s idea to go to South Germany, a decision he based on several factors, such as the fact that there were documents in the library in Munich that would be useful for the paper he was working on, and not only that, but his internet friend Werner lived there, and not only that, but Werner was divorced and his son spent most of the year at his mother’s place in Frankfurt, so there happened to be a spare room in which Richard (and I, if I wished) was welcome to stay. I joined him reluctantly. After six years, I’d become acutely aware that the liquid spot in our marriage where we once both pooled into one another had frozen over. It might help, I thought, if I was able to meet one of the characters that peopled his online life, an expansive world into which I had little insight. It had occurred to me more than once that perhaps my husband had more of these worlds, online or offline, some of which I’d be ignorant of forever, and that one day he might disappear into one of them. I told myself that I was at peace with this possibility.
Werner picked us up from the airport in a BMW. He and Richard greeted one another with an awkward but genuine warmth. They’d met only once before as far as I was aware, ten years ago at a conference in Malta. Werner had round, goatish eyes that didn’t blink very often, and spoke English with a little sing-song lilt. He drove us into the city via a series of neat highways that reminded me of a computer game my niece played, in which marbles were sent rocketing along endless tracks in a three-dimensional field. The streets got smaller as we neared the centre, the buildings flatter, more uniform, their lines jarringly sharp in the sun. Werner asked Richard questions, and I mostly listened, distractedly measuring my husband’s accounts against the reality of our lives together.
Werner’s apartment was an unassuming building that was surprisingly luxurious inside, with thick carpets and wooden benchtops and little trinkets everywhere. His son’s room had a big wooden bed with alpine motifs carved into it, and the walls were papered with posters – of films, football players, a cityscape by night. For our sake Werner had taken down one of a woman on a beach in a bikini with sand between her tits. I found it rolled up and tucked between the wall and the wardrobe.
I saw little of Richard and Werner over the next few days, though I gathered they met for lunch each day in the University café. I spent long hours roaming unevenly through the streets, asking myself every now and again how I had ended up squandering my annual leave on this city with its weird flat-faced marzipan buildings, its cuckoo-clock cathedral, its plastered-over grief. I sat through Hollywood films dubbed in German which became abstract and beautiful in their incomprehensibility.
Some evenings Richard and I went out for dinner, and I recited what meaning I’d managed to extract from these films, and they became even stranger in the re-telling, like dreams. He listened to me talk about my movies and then he spoke to me about his research, which had recently pivoted to the subject of a particular Bavarian glassmaking technique. While he spoke I examined his face, lit up strangely by candlelight. In the beginning I had found his passion for his field enchanting. Tell me more about the extremely durable shoelaces made of goatskin, Professor, I had begged him. Tell me about split holds. Recently I had begun to wonder if there was any difference between the way he spoke to me about these subjects and the way he would speak to his colleagues, his lecture hall of students. Did they love him for it the way I had? Did they envy my access to so intimate an audience with him?
‘They call it forest glass’, he was saying. ‘It’s very thick, with lots of air-bubbles, in browns and greens. To make glass you need a former, an alkali flux, a stabilizer and an opacifier.’
The waiter arrived bearing a bowl of what looked like toilet water. In the water floated what looked like three neat, little turds. He placed the bowl down in front of me, and in front of Richard he placed a wet, pink slab of steak, luxuriating in a puddle of its own juices.
‘Yours looks sexier’, I said.
‘What’s interesting about forest glass is that instead of using plant-ash for the alkali flux, they used ash from wood, ferns, and bracken’, said Richard.
I was relieved whenever Werner offered to cook dinner for the three of us at home. One evening like this, the conversation reached a lull. We’d been there four days. Maybe Richard and Werner had finally run out of things to say to one another. I didn’t have anything to say about crafts, nor much to say about the city, so I asked about the film posters on Werner’s son’s wall.
‘He watches these horror things’, Werner said, with a wave of his left hand. ‘Sometimes ghosts, sometimes little dolls, clowns, men with axes.’
I said I understood the appeal, that perhaps it did one good to be a little spooked every once in a while.
Werner shook his head. ‘Sometimes I have watched these films with him. But they are aimless, these monsters – the ghost, the doll, the man with the axe. I do not think they know what they want. Where I grew up, not far from here, we feared our monsters. But we trusted them too. We trusted that they knew what they were doing, and why.’
‘What kind of monsters?’
‘Well you know the Kramperl, yes? There were many Kramperl, they roamed in packs, and dragged their chains across the ground. And there was Frau Perchta the belly-slitter. She was an old spinning woman and had a big foot.’
‘Oh yes, one strange enormous foot. Some say it was the foot of a goose. During the twelve days of Christmas she would come into our houses at night, and if we had been good she’d leave us a silver penny by our beds, and if we had been bad she would cut our bellies open with a knife and pull out everything inside – stomach, intestines – and then she’d stuff straw and rocks inside.’ Werner chuckled.
‘My god, that’s horrific,’ Richard said, looking genuinely upset.
‘Oh yes, horrific, klar. But she loved us, really, and we loved her. She had another face, too, at least one other, one that was beautiful and good. Like the daytime, like summer. We depended on her, and the forest depended on her too, on her changing faces. Oh!’ he said. ‘And I have another story, a wonderful story, for you, Richard, just for you.’
Werner stood up and began clearing the plates, waving a hand at me when I stood up to help. As he packed everything away he told us the tale of a glassmaker who lived in the forest with his family. The glassmaker’s wife had devoted her life to serving Frau Perchta, who had come to her with comfort when the woman’s third baby was born dead. A year later the wife herself had died of a fever. In a gesture of kindness to the woman’s family, Frau Perchta instructed the husband to plant a birch seed where she was buried. After ten winters, the belly-slitter said, and only then, the glassmaker could harvest the birch and from its ash create glass such as nobody had seen before; as fresh and cool as the green waters of the lake.
In the first two years, the glassmaker tended the tree diligently, and never once thought of harvesting its branches. But in the third year a beautiful woman in the village came of age. The woman had many suitors, and to win her favour the glassmaker knew he had to present her with a special gift; something exceptional that would prove his worth as a craftsman. None of his usual methods would do, he thought, and so he cut down a thick branch of the birch tree. No sooner had he done so then the tree began to bleed, a thick red, human blood.
The man pressed his sleeve to the tree to staunch the bleeding but it was too late. He began to feel faint and realized, then, that it was his own blood pouring out of the tree. His children rushed out to help him. From a distance they saw another, familiar form bent over him. When they arrived Frau Perchta was gone, and their father was propped up against the pale trunk of the birch, his body empty of blood and his head empty of eyes, which had been replaced with two cool, green marbles of glass.
Before we went to bed, Werner told us that a group from his faculty were going mushroom hunting on Saturday. He had some work to do, so he wouldn’t make it, but he invited us to go in his place. This would be the last trip of the season, he told us. When the frost set in only the poisonous ones would be left.
‘What about you?’ I whispered to Richard in the dark. ‘Would you have waited?’
‘For what?’ he said, his voice thick with sleep. ‘What are you talking about?’
But I already knew the answer, and I didn’t bother asking again.
On Saturday morning, we made our way to the Hauptbahnhof for 11am, where we were scheduled to meet the others from Werner’s faculty. His colleague Marcel was a competent guide, Werner assured us, who would make sure we didn’t take home anything that would kill us. A small group had already assembled by the time we arrived, all dressed in waterproof jackets of varying fluorescent colours, looking as perky as a collection of post-its. I gulped down the rest of my coffee, to which I’d added a slurp of whisky, and wore a dumb smile as we greeted the huddle. Everyone said their names and I forgot them instantly. On the train Richard sat next to a woman who he’d met while having lunch with Werner, and I sat next to a man half my age who was writing his PhD on forest ecosystems. I said I’d seen a documentary on mushrooms, once, and asked him if it was true that they have a higher intelligence and would one day eat us all and turn us into humus. He laughed.
‘From what I know we’re pretty safe on the whole from that,’ he said. ‘As humans, I mean. Because our body temperature is too high for most of the species of fungi that … um… eat us. But I don’t really know.’
He asked me what I did and I told him that I was a singer in a jazz band, which wasn’t a total lie, though I’d only had one gig, ever, in a pizza restaurant. I had sung my favourite song, a German song. I got all the words wrong, but no one knew, because no-one there spoke German, not even me. It was such a sad song, so sadly urgent. The owner of the restaurant approached me afterwards, tears in his eyes, and said ‘What the hell was that? I thought you were going to sing La Dolce Vita!’ He didn’t hire me again.
The train rolled on through the dense rain. Gradually we began to see stretches of forest, a sharp curtain of trees undulating like a long shadow behind the clean arrangements of bright green lawns and red roofs. And then, quite suddenly, the forest was much closer: it ran right up to the tracks on both sides, and we could peer into the gloom and discern a shifting barcode of trunks and branches. Eventually we emerged from the shadowy mess and stopped. We filed out of the train and I made a beeline for the station café. On the walls were dark oil paintings in heavy, ornate frames. The paintings were all of the forest. In some it was just creeping in at the edges, bordering a clearing, in others a background to houses, a foreground to mountains. Something familiar was playing over a small radio in the corner, so quietly that I wondered for a moment if I was imagining it. I ordered a coffee and spiked it.
The forest, at first, seemed to bear no resemblance to the great dark mass I had seen from the train. We walked at a leisurely pace up the wide path. On either side the ground was papered with damp leaves, covered in a light coating of snow and frost. Occasionally we passed houses made of dark wood with sharp, triangular roofs. Some of them had what looked like a formula scrawled above the doorway in chalk, letters and numbers with plus signs between them, beneath which a statue of the Virgin Mary stood on a ledge under a bell jar.
We rounded a corner and I gathered that we were heading uphill. Some of the members of the group now began to spider out from the path onto the leafy slopes on either side. They walked slowly and erratically, their heads bent, following small furrows that were invisible from the path where I walked. Then they would drop to the ground and pull up clumps of snow and dark earth, which they rubbed with their thumbs until a mushroom emerged. They would scrape the mushroom with a fingernail, turn it upside down and run a finger along the gills on its underside, and then place it carefully into their baskets, or let it fall to the ground again. Almost nobody spoke. Richard and I stuck to the path.
A woman who neither of us had met approached us.
‘Here – you two – I brought a spare.’
She handed us the basket and introduced herself as Clara, a friend of Marcel’s. She lived locally – he always invited her when he brought groups out from the city. I thanked her and said that our host was from around here too, that he’d been telling us folk tales about a woman with an enormous foot.
Clara laughed. ‘Ah, Frau Perchta. They say that these days she works for the National Park.’
‘Doing what?’ Richard asked.
Clara shrugged. ‘Who knows? What she’s always done, I guess.’ Then she stumbled off, sidelong, head-down into the forest.
Richard and I set to work together. It was surprisingly hard to spot the mushrooms against the uneven coloration and minute topographies of the forest floor. ‘Let’s just bend down so it looks like we’ve found something,’ I said. So we bent down. And just like that, we found one. It was a pale purple colour, shiny and damp, its round hat a little ragged and mangy around the edges but beautiful nonetheless. Richard took it, polished it tenderly with his thumb, and put it in our basket. We walked on and found more. They revealed themselves to us quietly and proudly. They came out of the ground easily, as if they’d been just buried there by someone or something before us, but I knew that they were held in place by tiny invisible cords which snapped when I pulled them up. I imagined the sound of these cords snapping, the reverberations it would send through the whole network. I wondered who might be listening.
After a while we came to a small hut where the others had congregated and were eating sandwiches from their backpacks. Marcel saw us approaching.
‘Let’s have a look at your catch?’
He took our basket, pointed to a large, pale, egg-shaped mushroom, covered in soft scales, and said, ‘That’s a Lawyers’ Wig. In a few hours it will start to auto digest’.
‘Auto digest? You mean… eat itself?’
‘Yeah, if you see a kind of black liquid starting to ooze out of it, then you know what’s happening. But it’s edible.’
‘Eat yourself or be eaten!’ piped up the PhD student.
Marcel continued to delicately sift through my basket. ‘And this is a trumpet of the dead. You can take this home too.’ He closed his eyes and mimed playing it as if it were a real trumpet, but without touching it to his lips. It was an obscene gesture, so ill-matched to the quiet solemnity of the mushroom, which was deep-black and funnel shaped, as if pulled to a point by an inner contraction. He wiped his hand on a cloth and carried on eating his sandwich.
I’d eaten my food on the train, and the smell of bread and cheese was making my stomach growl. I announced that I was going to take a walk, and left the basket at Richard’s feet, where he stood staring into it with an expression that I couldn’t see. The rain fell on my hood and I walked with my arms by my sides, my fingers growing numb inside my gloves. I remembered what the PhD student had said about humans being protected from malevolent fungi by their high body temperature, and wondered if it was possible to get so cold that I became a hospitable environment for them. A strange, pleasant feeling of emptiness had come over me. I wondered if perhaps the fungi had begun eating me already. Perhaps they had started with the inconsequential organs whose absence I wouldn’t even notice. If Frau Perchta slit open my belly, I thought, calmly, she’d find nothing there.
When I found my way back at the hut I noticed that the light had changed and everything looked different: the hut, the trees, Richard. He saw me before I saw him; he called out to me and began walking towards me at a brisk pace.
‘Where have you been?’ he said. ‘They’ve all set off; I said I’d wait for you and catch them up.’
We started walking down the long, straight road that the others had taken. It was growing quickly dark now, the trees losing their colour and becoming black shapes against the sky. We could see the others from a distance. The group had split, comforted by the directness of this line between the trees, and were strung out along it like fluorescent beads. In the damp light the mushroom hunters glowed, walking in groups of twos, or threes, or alone. Occasionally, someone briefly disappeared off to the side, to collect a mushroom or take a piss, then reappeared a bit further back along the road. I asked my husband if he knew that once, for one evening, I had been a singer, and he said no, I’d never mentioned that, and I told him my story about the Italian restaurant. He asked if I would sing for him and to my surprise I remembered it, the whole song. When I’d finished singing he pulled me off to the side of the path, and led me by the hand to a tree. He put a hand under my shirt and I shrieked, then I did the same to him. Behind us something moved, and we froze until silence had fallen again. When we emerged onto the path again, the mushroom hunters were gone. For as far as we could see there was not a soul on the road ahead of us.
For a moment neither of us spoke. We both took a swig of whisky and stood there, side by side, teetering on the edge of night.
‘Let’s keep walking,’ said Richard. ‘They must have taken a side path.’
Gloved hand in gloved hand, we walked on, and night fell, and we carried on walking, and no side path appeared. In the dark there was nothing to look at, but there was a lot to listen to. We passed the whisky bottle back and forth, the distance between us contracting as our mutual fear expanded. This fear was an unfamiliar sensation. There was no chill about it. It burned warm like the whisky.
I’m not sure how many hours had passed when we finally spotted a light in the distance, first as just a spark between the branches, and then as two points on the road ahead, eventually decipherable as headlights, growing larger and larger as the car drew closer. And maybe in other circumstances, if we weren’t so drunk, we would have thought twice about getting into a car with a stranger in the dead of night, even if it did have a National Park logo on the bonnet. But Richard was hugging me and saying, ‘Thank god for Park Rangers, they’ve found us, thank god for that,’ and a silhouetted figure was gesturing towards the warm, dark belly of the car, and inside we embraced and felt safe and happy, even as I noticed that the foot on the accelerator was unusually large, enormous in fact. I closed my eyes and rested my head on Richard’s shoulder, and the car drove us back the way we had been walking, back into the forest.