The morels always reminded Nuala of brains, as if the fungi wore them on the outside like thinking caps, which was what her mother said she needed. She wasn’t allowed to pick them, even if she did find one on an apple tree or a cedar rotting in the forest. She was to call an adult. She was not allowed to pick any mushrooms, and most certainly not the gilled kind, being far too young, her mother said, to tell the difference between a destroying angel and a meadow mushroom, between a deadly webcap and a penny bun. Yet this mushroom had neither a brain nor gills but tiny pores under a cap as smooth as baby skin.
She’d squatted to tie her shoelaces, and it had been right there in her shadow. She could’ve crushed it. Still could, she thought, shifting from one heel to the other. The mushroom was cream-colored, almost peach or gold, like Patrick who was too new to be sun-sprayed with freckles like her. What was it?
It stank of old milk.
Nuala’s mother had said Nuala was born with a nose for fungus. Her mother had also said she would take Nuala hunting for white truffles and their zingy musk when she felt better. How long would that be?
She nudged the mushroom with the toe of her sneaker. Her brother was probably napping. That or crying. Her mother hadn’t been on a walk through the woods with her in weeks, so Nuala had finally snuck out on her own. Alone, she was allowed only as far as the tree with the ragged lightning strike down its middle like a cartoon warning. But together she and her mother had followed the path much further, and she knew her way back, so when Nuala reached the lightning-burnt Oregon ash with its roots knotting the muck, she’d kept going. She’d crawled over the nurse log spattered with jelly ear fungus and stroked it as if the tree itself might listen to her. Something had to. It was only fair. Then she’d walked delicately through the shallow swamp not wanting to trespass into any burrows, though the mud had sucked at her sneakers and the muddy soles would give away just how far she’d gone—if her mother even noticed.
The mushroom stalk bruised yellow where her shoe had bumped it. Why did her mother want Patrick in the first place? She was always shouting or too tired, never hungry, though he was forever feeding. Her mother forgot everything, even brushing her teeth. Maybe she could forget Patrick. There were stories about children left in the wood. Babies. She’d considered reminding her mother of this, but Nuala was too old to talk about fairy tales.
She knelt on the earth, burying her knees in the dead wet from which tiny, hidden lives grew. And ate. A mushroom, she knew, had long hyphae, roots, that married themselves to a tree. A mushroom’s cap was her mother’s round belly, and the spores were Patrick sheltered within. But left out here, he would never survive. Unless a wolf took him in. Nuala squeezed her fists. If only she had a wolf for a mother.
The light was thinning and the journey back would take at least an hour. But she got in trouble for lots of things, extra little things these days, so what difference did it make how late she came home? It was better to be here out of reach of her mother’s strange grief. And this mushroom with the pale, golden baby skin? She swept leaves away from its base, careful not to brush against it. Some mushrooms were so powerful that they were poisonous even to touch. What if it got on her sleeve and she cuddled Patrick? What then? What then.
What if she took it home? Mushrooms were like secrets: dangerous and delicious. She had none of her own, but what if she did? Her mother had said to call an adult. But she meant closer to the house. What if her mushroom was gone tomorrow, eaten or pitter-pattered on by deer hooves? Her mother would never come all the way here to collect it, not without Patrick, and once she knew where it had been found, Nuala would be in worse trouble. No. She would carry it home in a leaf to be safe.
From a twig, she tore free a clean, red arrowhead, sandwiched the stalk, and tugged. The mushroom had the same firm squish as her brother’s thigh, and it popped off, abandoning a yellowed nub like the one on his stomach. She cradled the leaf-wrapped mushroom in her palm and stood to go, as sunlight bowed through the trees and struck the fine gold that dusted her hand. Spores.
Her skin prickled and fizzed, the toxins biting in. A velvet breath dragged through her. What should she do? What? Her feet. Run. Go. Nuala kicked into the sun. Would she make it all the way home? Or would she too stink of milk while small, soft things bloomed, craving a wolf, a deer, her mother?