What the Dirt Knows
The memories persist, forty and more years counting. My father, a faithful mushroomer. The season had come, and he grabbed a stack of brown paper grocery sacks to head for the woods. North of town in the trees surrounding the property of some family friends he would hunt. It can’t have been rough terrain as his prosthetic leg wouldn’t have allowed it, but I remember being deep in the cool damp of an enchanted Illinois timber, the perfect clime for morel spores to float from the magic that occurs near the carcasses of dead elm, ash and poplar trees.
Wrapped in the shade of a green canopy we would venture in where the sun splashed through in puddles, the land rising and falling in gentle waves of rich black dirt. Always, in my memory, a clearing and the distant babble of water over stone. My father looming and the dawning realization that we were surrounded by a sea of morels so dense that to walk was to risk trampling them. Progress could only come by plucking their hollow stems gently from the forest floor. Our brown bags heavy with the weight of so many, the bounty a kind of rainbow’s end.
Once home it was the cleaning and dredging through flour. Hot oil in a cast iron skillet, the pop and sizzle of mushroom meat, crisping and browning to palate’s delight.
Then ketchup, forgive the sacrilege, but it’s there, in memory – a memory so powerful that in a childhood full of sadness and sorrow it persists like a radiant warmth.
This time, a new memory. My home a speck of real estate in the grander universe. Simple, a little tired and worn, but mine. A man I love. Different than my father. Different than the ones before. Writing a new history, again. Hoping this time to get it right. The woods not as enchanted: steep ravines, fallen timbers, a debris-clogged creek with soaked muddy banks. An exceptionally wet spring brought on a blanket of vegetation like a sheet over the floor of the woods. He on one rise, me on the other, walking stick in hand, parting plants to peer beneath their leaves in search of the elusive morel. When suddenly, there one was. I squealed in delight. Held it up for him to see, feeling somehow blessed and chosen. Soon, more became visible and I added them to my plastic grocery sack feeling the weight like a gift. I held them aloft, delighted. He smiled, held up his bag, fuller yet than mine. Like stepping into a mystery we hunted and gathered, more energized with each discovery.
Later, the man gone home and a son now here. I’m ready to cook them up. Though twenty-five and an avid outdoorsman, the son has never tasted a morel. Never known the fuss. “Just you wait,” I tell him.
He lifts one, still too hot, from the paper towel. Nibbles. “Hot, hot.” Yes, but good. He smiles. “You need ketchup,” I say. This still sounds like a sacrilege to me, but I know what I know.
He dips, bites. His face transforms. “That’s got to be one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.”
I smile, rewarded. Keep cooking.
When I have a sufficient plateful, it’s my turn. Will the build up and anticipation outweigh the experience? Will I remember? Will I know that’s it? I hesitate, the image of my young father a few paces ahead of me, leading the way.
Then bite. From outside of me sinks in a wonder. What begins on my tongue soaks into my flesh all the way back forty or more years into a recess so deep and locked away that it’s a secret room I’ve forgotten. It’s there again. That loamy fungus that doesn’t taste like anything else except what it is, somehow borne of earth and memory, mystery and sparkling black dirt.
The sinking-in gave way to a rising swell and within me crested a wave of emotion I could not suppress. It crashed up through my chest, riding a tide of memory and lament that broke through my eyes and fell, spent, down my cheeks. I could not fathom from where that came, only that it was here and I was suddenly between two me’s: the child-me, small and frail, who does not yet know that she is not loved and that life will hurt in ways that will destroy but never kill her, and the now-me, bullet-scarred and worn survivor.
My man-son witnessed and knew it was a sacred moment, wrapping his arms around me, shoring me up with his strength.
I do not know why, only what was. Rather than try and make sense of it, I am grateful for the visitation, for the realization that whatever sorrow it delivered was connected to something, however brief, that was happy. Brief, not fleeting. It lay dormant more than forty years and when it came calling again I recognized it like an old agony, a lost lover, the ghost of a presence whose existence I’d long ago surrendered to being a figment of my imagination. But there it was again, as real and as alive as the air, making a believer out of even me.