Thriving amidst a pile of dead leaves, the white-capped mushroom looked like a tasty find. Travis glanced between the living specimen to the photo in the dog-eared pages of Aunt Cathy’s Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest. He was ninety-five percent sure about the discovery, which was to say he had scientific certainty. “Hey Cathy! It looks like a pine mushroom but I think it’s a Smith’s amanita!”
“No way!” Aunt Cathy crouched to lower her dirt-streaked face inches above the earth to peep the underside of the little fungus without uprooting it. “I’ve only ever found one of those and I misidentified it at the time.”
“Huh?” Travis frowned. “You’ve never found a Smith’s amanita...” That mushroom was right up with the death cap as one of the most deadly a human could make the mistake of eating. Misidentifying it once most likely meant that there wouldn’t be a second time. He didn’t have a memory of it yet had the strangest sense that he’d seen the mushroom before.
Naw, unlikely, he thought.
“Of course I did. You were with me. You just don’t remember.” Aunt Cathy ruffled his hair. “We’ll take it home for a spore print.”
Instead of flinching at the childish hair ruffle, he smiled; it had been a long time since she’d done that and the gesture felt oddly comforting. Usually only older relatives that he had to treat as authorities got away with it- and on occasion, Aunty Cathy when she was joking around. His mother’s youngest sibling, Cathy was only seven years older than himself. They’d always been a scrappy duo dismissed together as the afterthought fourth child and the teenage disappointment’s baby. He thought of her as a sister.
Travis traded Cathy’s guidebook for a field knife and specimen container from their shared backpack. They’d found fishy-smelling mushrooms that hopefully were lobster mushrooms. Lobsters sold for a premium. The British Columbia Wildfires website had listed a lightning strike in the area. Lots of species were phoenixes rising from ashes. Shiitake mushrooms liked to bloom after strikes due to a nitrogen influx to the soil. These were a staple among their distributers and could be dried and packaged.
They had gathered thirty pounds of shiitake, most of it already in Cathy’s truck. She was letting him drive it this one time, his bright red Learner’s sign on the rear dusty from the forestry services road. Next year the burned patches in the forest would have black morels. Every pound sold added to the nest egg for them to move to the nearest small city.
Noon brought a robin’s egg sky punctuated by peaks of cedar and, even taller, the rusty point of the old radio tower on top of the abandoned copper mine. They migrated to a copse of birch trees, secondary growth and introduced to the local ecosystem.
“Do you think there are more shiitake here because of the radio tower? Since it’s more likely to draw a lightning strike?” Travis asked Aunt Cathy as they scoured the tree trunks above for summer oysters and turkey tails. You couldn’t eat rocklike turkey tails but they could be boiled with other ingredients to make soup stock or tea.
She didn’t respond.
“Aunt Cathy?” He turned around, the wind brushing the back of his neck. Confused, he couldn’t see her behind any of the birch trees- but he saw from the corners of his eyes a too-dark shadow ducking behind a tree and a shift in the soil as if someone stepped there. He blinked and stepped back; there was no one there still, not even Aunt Cathy. “Aunt Cathy!” he yelled.
He felt the porous soil give a little under the crunch of dry twigs below his boots. Whipped his head forward and did a double take. She was cutting off a clump of rubbery oyster mushrooms from a tree behind him. Even though she stood calmly Travis felt the mild panic he’d felt once when he got separated from his mother at a grocery store.
“Hey! Earth to Cathy!” Travis held his hand on her shoulder and held on. Startled, she looked at him and seemed to remember where she was.
“Good question! I don’t see why not,” she answered as if no interruption had occurred.
Travis glared at her. “Why did you ignore me?”
She looked confused. “I never ignore you.”
“You just did!” he scoffed.
“I’m back now.” Whatever that meant.
“Uh...ok.” He shrugged but was not fully at ease. “We should come back to this spot.”
“We should, but I don’t know if I want to again.” Aunt Cathy responded. She was still placidly sawing off oyster mushrooms from the birch trees.
Travis nudged her in a friendly bodycheck. Partly to be playful and partly to physically make sure she was still with him. “Why not?”
“There are other places to go.”
“But you don’t need to go to other places if this one is already good,” Travis insisted. “Why not come back here?”
“Because there could be something even better in a new place,” was her enigmatic non-answer.
The turkey tails and oysters weren’t plentiful after that. She bushwhacked her way through some salmonberry bushes downhill. Travis followed. Then Cathy declared, “They built the tower because of the tragedy.”
“Oh yeah? What happened?” Travis asked mostly to be polite. He was kind of curious but mostly wanted to let Aunt Cathy talk about something she was interested in.
“A hundred years ago there was a cave-in in the copper mine. A bunch of miners underground died. That’s why they closed it.” Aunt Cathy pointed out a bright orange glob of witch’s butter growing beside a lichen-covered trunk. “Later they built a radio tower here because there were already foundations that could be used for something else. And it gave them a monument to put a plaque on to commemorate the tragedy.”
“Huh.” Travis nodded slowly with his eyes scanning the ground for mushrooms.
They reached the bottom of the incline and sat with their packed lunches on sun-warmed rocks above a bubbling creek. They’d made mushroom soup with foragings from previous occasions: oyster, Pacific golden chanterelle, king bolete and chicken of the woods. Aunt Cathy used to insist that they sell all their finds but Travis had convinced her to set aside the freshest picks from the inventory. He didn’t want to miss the bounty of their harvest.
Aunt Cathy wasn’t touching her delicious lunch. She took one long look at it then kept looking around at the forest. Travis stirred his soup until it splattered. His annoyance gave way to unease. Why did he care that she was acting so weird?
“Hey, wait here,” Aunt Cathy said. Without explanation she bounced off her rock and skipped over the creek, disappearing into a clearing.
Startled, Travis put down his soup and scrambled after her under the trees. Soon they stood before a partially-collapsed sunken hole in the soil two metres deep, choked with weeds.
He peered into the sinkhole. Daylight failed to reach the bottom but Travis discerned a criss-crossing metal scar laid like stitches below a wound in the earth.
Aunt Cathy rubbed her hands together. “It goes to the old mine. There are probably some neat species inside.” Aunt Cathy had taught him that dark, damp environments with some air circulation were the perfect habitat for some types of mushrooms.
Travis laughed. “Yeah, I’ll grab the shovel.”
“Oh, we could just slide right in,” she said lightly.
Travis stopped chuckling. “Into the hole in the ground?”
“Yeah. Easy.” Before he could question it she sat on the ground and was easing her way feet first.
“Wait!” Holes were not a usual occurrence in soil that was so interlaced with the root systems of cedar trees. Something was very off about it.
“I’ll only go inside a little, I just want to see if there’s anything down there.”
“Here, how about I go?” Travis kicked her feet out of the way. “You would know what to do if something happened.”
“But I can better identify species, so it should be me.”
“How else am I supposed to learn?” Travis countered. “If I’m on my own trip one day?”
Aunt Cathy was silent. “You’re right, Travis. I won’t always be there.”
Travis gritted his teeth. He would go down this stupid sinkhole before she did. Aunt Cathy had never been a downer but today she sounded like an aging grandparent.
“Do we have to see what’s down there?” Travis asked. The anger was ebbing away. “There will be lots up here.” He motioned to the surroundings. “Morels, king boletes. We could even see who can find a puffball first! There’s nothing worth harvesting in there,” he almost pleaded. If she got stuck inside or the soil collapsed on her there would be no help within thirty kilometers. Even that might be inaccessible so deep in radio country.
“Travis,” Aunt Cathy patted him on the shoulder. “I’d rather you stay up here. We shouldn’t both go down there. I really just have to know.” And with that, Aunt Cathy clamored past his feet and disappeared into the yawning gape of the crumbling mouth.
“What! Wait!” Travis followed suit. Rotting wood chips and clumps of cold, rich soil showered his scalp and shoulders as he wriggled and slipped through earth. It was the tightest, most crumbing slide. Dirt rained over his face and ears and hair, and he felt the claustrophobic vulnerability of being blinded and carried along without knowing where he was going.
He lost his balance upon landing through a ceiling and fell on his butt onto the hard, raised dark stitches he’d observed. Wincing, he felt its cold, rusty surface. A yellow light pierced the darkness as Aunt Cathy secured a headlamp around her head from her pocket.
The hole in the ground had sunken into an abandoned tunnel. It could only have been one of many in the old mine, the one Cathy had talked about where a cave-in killed all those miners and closed the facility. In the pitiful headlight Travis saw that the iron scar he’d fallen on was a thin railroad track that stretched into the deep darkness deep. The air smelled...metallic. Far from the fresh, rainy, mossy smell of mushroom habitats. At the edge of the headlamp on the track was the ghostly outline of an old mine cart.
“Maybe we should go,” Travis said, mouth dry.
“Yeah...let’s go,” Aunt Cathy echoed as she moved to the metal cart, to Travis’s consternation. With her headlamp he saw long, jagged things dangling from the ceiling spaced every couple meters. Travis squinted dumbly at the things until his eyes adjusted. They were rusted chains.
“I mean we should leave!” He had to dry heave every word from his tightening chest.
“We haven’t looked for mushrooms yet,” she called from the metal cart. Rather than echoing, the walls sucked and trapped her voice so she sounded farther away. Travis watched with apprehension as his aunt placed her hand on the lip of the cart.
“There are no mushrooms here!” He ran to her. Up close the heavy cart was large enough to fit a handful of grown men. Inside were piles of thick chains entombed below inches of dust.
Aunt Cathy looked him dead in the eyes. “I have to go, Travis.”
Travis wanted to drag her out of the ground back into the safety of the fresh air. “What do you mean?” he forced out in a measured voice.
“Don’t dwell on this place.” She sounded strangely blank. “You don’t belong here. I’ll see you again.” The briskness and finality of her words hardened the goosebumps on his neck.
Travis almost saw it coming. The mad dash for something invisible and insane that he couldn’t understand. She climbed into the cart with the same startling enthusiasm with which she’d jumped into the hole. The cart screeched to life and rolled inches on the even ground.
“Aunt Cathy!” Travis ran and caught the cart before it creaked away and he flung himself inside at her feet. A cloud of dust stung his eyes and scratched his lungs and he coughed deep from the chest. Then he felt a pinching and the rush of wind as the chains below him moved. They shot out from below and wrapped over his body, pinning him to the floor of the cursed cart like metal pythons slithering to strangle him. Immobilized and disoriented from the spore-like dust, all he saw were darting shadows on the ceiling.
“Travis!” Aunt Cathy’s voice carried a surprised fear. The chains tugged while he sputtered and felt the cart roll downhill. “Go back!” She sounded like her normal self. With huge effort she dragged the chains off one arm while the wind howled in the concrete tunnel. Travis wiped his face with his free hand. The cart decelerated to a halt too soon, as if a switch had turned it off.
In the light of Aunt Cathy’s headlamp Travis saw that they were in a deeper chamber where the tunnel widened on all sides. There were hollowed cubicles carved into the curved walls. Travis sat frozen in the cart, too stunned and scared to move. Cathy stepped out of the cart like a carsick person exiting a rollercoaster. She lumbered to the cubicles as if she were exhausted but her life depended on it.
There were three. Each contained an object that shouldn’t have been there.
The first cubicle had Aunt Cathy’s worn, beloved copy of Field Guide to Mushrooms of The Pacific Northwest. He didn’t question how it got there even though they had left it behind aboveground by the creek. The second had Aunt Cathy’s lunch thermos of mushroom soup. It was still steaming. And the final cubicle contained something Travis had only seen once. It was in a misplaced habitat so there was no scientific certainty. But somehow Travis knew with absolute certainty that this was a Smith’s amanita mushroom.
Travis struggled out of the now-limp, dead weight chains and climbed out of the cart in a daze. He stood beside his aunt. He didn’t know what to say.
Aunt Cathy gently rested her hands on his shoulders. “I think you already know what these things are, Travis.”
Travis had a horrible guess that he didn’t want to say out loud or else it would be true.
“I’m afraid it’s true.” She hung her head sadly.
“No,” Travis croaked. He couldn’t articulate a rising wave of something upsetting inside making his stomach sick, his throat drier and jaw locked. It threatened to well from his dirt-smeared face over warming cheeks, in contrast with his clammy, tingling hands.
“But I haven’t fully gone. You haven’t let me go.”
“You’re not gone.” Travis said thickly. He remembered the last trip. They’d found a half-dozen white mushrooms clumped together. They’d taken a rushed spore print of one and the guidebook said it was a white matsutake, or pine mushroom. Used in Japanese high-end cuisine and fetching up to two hundred dollars a pound. They’d set up the backpacker stove over a propane canister. Grilled their finds. Aunt Cathy had added a single grilled mushroom to her soup to taste. Travis hadn’t; he didn’t want the renowned spiciness of the pine to overpower the meaty taste of their regular stock. She’d said hers was delicious.
It had been fine.
“That didn’t happen.”
“We just had our normal soup. Then we foraged some more.” They’d survived lunch, collected pounds of chanterelle and chicken of the woods. And then...and then…
“We followed the guidebook. We tested the mushroom. It was definitely a pine mushroom,” Travis pleaded. His tight jaw felt like it would seal shut and never open again.
“We did, Travis. They weren’t all, though.”
There had been no cell phone reception. He’d screamed into the radio. An hour later a pair of grim loggers arrived, the RCMP not far behind them…
Travis began to sob like a small boy. He rubbed his eyes. When he opened them Aunt Cathy wasn’t standing there. His wet eyes didn’t adjust to the darkness. He sniffed. Again the walls didn’t echo. The sound evaporated into silence as if the place were determined to remove any sensory evidence that he was there, just like it had removed any sign of Aunt Cathy.
No- there was a new light source. He faced the wall. The thermos of soup and the Smith’s amanita were glowing a beautiful, warm light like dappled sunrise on spring berries. Neither the pine mushroom nor the amanita were naturally bioluminescent.
He felt suddenly very tired and heavy and sat down. The darkness was a blindfold no matter how widely he opened his eyes. He lay on the earthen ground and closed them.
Maybe if he lay there long enough the heaviness would drain from his body into the planet and he’d be so light he’d float through the forest floor and above the trees and into the sky. There would be no forest there. No mushrooms to forage. He clenched his fingers into a fistful of earth and slowly sat up.
Travis eyed the glowing thermos and mushroom framed so perfectly in the tempting light. His aunt’s beloved book was dimly shadowed in the periphery of the glow. Aunt Cathy would want him to keep her book safe. He gently lifted the Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest and hugged it to his chest.
It was still too dark to see anything else. He hesitated, then pinched the edges of the thermos and the stem of the Smith’s amanita and lifted them off the wall cubicles so they dangled with minimal touch. With a glowing lantern in each hand we walked slowly back into the tunnel they’d slid down.
Travis didn’t fear the dark place anymore with the deadly lights by his side and the book pinched under his arm. He didn’t belong there. And he had to return his aunt’s book home. She would have wanted that.
He sensed someone. Then a voice said, “I know it was hard to get there but you did.”
He almost dropped the items. He turned his head to his side and Aunt Cathy was back walking beside him with a little smile on her face.
“Aunt Cathy!” Travis couldn’t help it. He threw his arms around her in a very solid, warm hug. “I know you’re not really there but you’re still here, if that makes sense.”
She returned the hug. “It doesn’t have to make sense. And I’m proud of you,” she said. Travis hung onto her every word. “You’re going to see the world outside where we grew up. I’m sorry I won’t be there for the rest of it. I should have been more careful.”
“It’s not your fault,” Travis conceded. “I’ll always remember everything you taught me. Thanks, Aunt Cathy.”
“We’ll meet again, Travis.” He nodded. Aunt Cathy walked him to the sinkhole they’d crawled through. “You won’t need those,” she pointed to the glowing thermos and the Smith’s amanita mushroom. He handed them to her and was about to hand her her book but he gently pushed it back and shook her head.
“It’s yours,” she said.“ I’ll ask you all about your finds and what you’ve learned. By then, you’ll probably be teaching me!”
They laughed. She tossed the glowing objects above her head and with a flicker like a flame popping out, they vanished. “Till we meet again, little guy,” she ruffled his hair, held his shoulders and looked into his eyes like a coach before the big game. “I want you to tell me everything when it’s over,” she said seriously. “Tell me how it all went. You’ll do fine out there.”
All Travis could do to promise he would was nod.
“Bye for now, Aunt Cathy,” Travis said gruffly. And with that, she started to look a bit transparent, then her feet disappeared, then her legs, then her torso, until her waving hand and big smile were the last parts of her to softly fade away.
Travis scrambled up the hole like and crawled out of the earth into a warm afternoon, observing cedar boughs above rustling in the wind and the stream beyond bubbling over smooth rocks. Aunt Cathy’s abandoned lunch was gone. He was alone.
He took in the enchantment of the forest around him. He remembered now; he’d set out on the trip alone today, taken his aunt’s truck before anyone could weasel it away. Brushing a streak of wet dirt from below his eye, he brought himself and the Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest back to the stream to pack up his lunch. He picked up the single backpack for just one person, and made his way back to the truck.
Abby Pelaez writes about food, Filipino diaspora, and queer and platonic love from her home in Vancouver, Canada. She is published in the emerge22 anthology by Simon Fraser University, and she has been honoured to read her work at the 2022 Vancouver Writer’s Fest. She once ran a full marathon to keep up a joke new year's resolution, and has been running away from her problems ever since. Look for her forthcoming fiction in Room Magazine and Hungry Zine.