I live in a house on the far side of the woods and always take the shortcut home. They tell me to stick to the road. That I am unusual. They say, “The woods are no place for a fifteen-year-old girl. Not as the nights draw in.”
“Are the streets any safer?” Is my stock reply.
This evening, my walk from school takes me along a path that squelches rich with mud and mulch. My footsteps release the warm odour of compost as summer’s green glory rots in the autumn damp. Light breaks through the trees like laser beams and all around, new life emerges. Not the precocious fornications or indelicate surgings of spring. These are a bashful set of beauties.
I am transfixed. My walk becomes a crawl. Rich golds as if from a pharaoh’s tomb, outrageous reds with spots, blacks and greys against orange as bright as the sun, soft browns lit with yellow, fairy tale crenellations, torpedoes, footballs, frisbees, delicate spaghetti, the tiny, the immense, the legion, the solitary. I am consumed with the desire to eat them all.
At home, I pull a school library book from my bag, ‘Foraging for Fungi’. Place it on the kitchen table and flip it open. Within seconds, Mother is there. “What is this?” She says and pulls it from my grip. “Izzie, why can’t you be normal?” She explores the content before pronouncing, “You must never eat mushrooms from the woods, you understand? Never. They will kill you. Mushrooms are what the supermarket is for. Promise me.”
“Promise.” I say as she places chicken nuggets, chips, and peas in front of me, simultaneously sliding my book on top of the fridge freezer. I pull out my phone, snap my tea, and send it to the world.
“You teenagers.” She says and ruffles my hair.
The next morning, at break, I tell Oti what happened. Oti is the opposite of me. She has breasts like cantaloupe melons and knows no fear. Her name for me is ‘Breadstick’. On hearing my mother’s mushroom proclamation, she gives one of her beefy laughs and counter-proclaims, “You Englishers with your supermarket button mushrooms all the same size and white as chalk know nothing of the earth.”
I resolve to eat mushrooms from the woods; to know the earth.
On my way home, trembling with excitement, I pick a single mushroom. It is white with a ruffled brown underside. When I reach the house, mother is out. Taking one of her black handled knives, I slice the mushroom into pieces as thick as my pinky finger and fry it in butter. Eating it is intense, delicious. A mushroom unlike any before.
The next morning, my mother greets me with a stalk retrieved from the bin.
“Have you been eating mushrooms?” She demands.
“You promised me.”
“Don’t do it again. You will poison yourself. We have perfectly good mushrooms in the fridge. Promise.”
“I promise.” I say, thinking I mean it.
Later I tell Oti. She booms a laugh that makes the boys turn their heads, and then she wraps me in a hug. I submit to her warm body. “You are the Mushroom Girl.” She whispers. “Pay no attention to that daft bitch of a mother.” Her whispered breath carries the spiced scent of cinnamon latte.
That night, on my way home, I pick tall thin mushrooms with small brown caps. ‘Foraging for Fungi’ remains on the fridge freezer but according to my phone these are ‘shrooms. Magic. Mother fusses around all evening. It is not until supper that I dice the shrooms onto buttered toast and eat them with a curious hunger. Once fed, I retreat to my room and lie on my back on the bed.
The bookshelf becomes a soft edged kaleidoscope of possibility. A spiral of worlds. I see the woods for the trees, and no amount of parental suffocation can contain me. In the centre of the spiral, is an unlikely tome. One I have never read or owned. Marco Polo? A wisp of consciousness leaves me and...
I see stars. More stars than is possible. I am transported. The air is frigid, but the beast beside me radiates warmth. In that instant I know I am the camel Boy on his first journey along the Silk Road. The snores of Bulbul, my master, punctuate the silence. Bulbul knows the camels, the men, who to trust and why, what to trade and when, how many days to the next caravanserai. To me, he is the oracle. We are from the East travelling West. Silk for Spice. Kabul to Istanbul. Always East to West. This is not a dream, a vision, or mirage. This is.
The next day, Oti meets me by the brick pillar of the old school gate, “You look shit.” She says.
“I took shrooms.” I say.
“Jesus Christ Mushroom Girl! What happened?”
“Toilets.” I say.
Safely locked in the confessional disabled loo, I turn to Oti. My sight still wavers. Oti is not solid. Nothing is solid. The world retains its marshmallow property. I tell her about Bulbul and the Silk Road.
“Fuuuuck! Mushroom Girl!”
That morning on my walk through the woods, the colours were so vivid they spoke to me in whispers. There is a word for this experience of one sense as another. The red ones, with white spots, spoke the loudest.
“Pick us.” They said. And I did. I stuffed my bag with the deadly toadstools of fairy tales.
That night I boil them twice.
Eat some more.
I fall into a dream, as if down the deepest pit, and return with a rubbery bounce to the surface. The world floats about me as if gravity has evaporated. I am distracted by the smell of cinnamon.
From the shadows, a human form becomes real. A dancer, all rhythm, vibration, and undulation, fills my vision. She is naked with buttocks like medicine balls, thighs like pistons, and bare cantaloupe breasts that float as if inflated by helium for a birthday. It is Oti. She smiles and offers me her body. I laugh and dive face first into her welcoming warmth. All the world is soft, and some of it is wet as silk.
The next morning my mother asks, “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” I say, but I am queasy and my mind is not my own.
“Have you been eating mushrooms?” She asks.
“No.” I say. It is a weak lie.
“You have. Don’t eat mushrooms from the woods. They will kill you.”
I ignore the accusation with a shrug and spoon myself some chocolate cereal. Oti’s breasts are on my mind. They are all that is on my mind.
When Oti asks about mushrooms, I say ‘Yes, but nothing much.’ She calls me Mushroom Girl and hugs me. I linger in her arms. In maths, she calls me ‘Camel Boy.’ Which is a mistake. One boy, Haz, overhears and I endure ‘Camel Toe’ for the rest of the lesson, and most of physics. It stops when Oti stabs him in the hand with a compass saying, ‘Shut the fuck up little white prick.’
That evening, on my walk home, I decide on a new tactic. A dangerous one. Pick ‘n’ mix. All the pretty ones. I don’t bother with boiling or toast, instead nibbling them from my blazer pocket as I suffer algebra homework. Then I watch TV with mum. It happens quickly. One moment I am normal, the next a fuzziness takes me and, from nowhere, my belly churns as if someone has a spoon in it. I cramp my body into a ball.
“Are you ok?” Asks Mother. I can’t answer. Now it is as if a badger is trying to tunnel out of my stomach. Cold sweat covers my skin. “Fuuuck!” I am a shaken bottle of cola. A release is inevitable. There is no fighting. The explosion is magnificent. I witness a torrent of vomit plaster the TV screen.
I wake in the hospital with my mother by my side. She simpers for not more than a minute before asking, “What did I tell you about mushrooms?” I don’t dignify her with a reply. She persists. “Izzy, what have you learned?”
With difficulty, I raise my head. It throbs. “I have learned.” I say, thinking of buttery fried woodland mushroom, East travelling West, and Oti’s cinnamon breasts. “That supermarket button mushrooms, all the same size and white as chalk, are not for everyone.”