Copyright Lia Matera, 1990.
This short story was first published in Sisters In Crime Volume II, 1990, edited by Marilyn Wallace.
It may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial use.
I was squatting a few feet from a live oak tree, poison oak all around me (an occupational hazard for mycologists). I brushed wet leaves off a small mound and found two young mushrooms. I carefully dug around one of them with my trowel, coaxing it out of the ground.
I held it up and looked at it. It was a perfect woodland agaricus. The cap was firm, snow white with a hint of yellow. The gills under the cap were still white, chocolate-colored spores hadn’t yet tinged them. A ring of tissue, an annulus, circled the stipe like a floppy collar. A few strands of mycelia, the underground plant of which the mushroom is the fruit, hung from the base. I pinched the mycelia off and smelled the gills. The woodland agaricus smells like it tastes, like a cross between a mushroom, an apple, and a stalk of fennel.
I brushed leaves off the other mushroom and dug it out of the ground. It resembled the first mushroom. It had a white cap, white gills, an annulus. But a fleshy volva covered the bottom third of the stipe like a small paper bag. It was all that remained of a fungal “egg” from which stipe and cap had burst; characteristic of Amanitas, not Agaricus. The volva was the reason I’d dug so carefully around the base of the mushroom. I had to be sure I’d dug the whole thing out. If I’d left the volva in the ground, the mushroom would have been virtually indistinguishable from the woodland agaricus.
The mushroom was beautiful, pristine, stately, reputedly delicious (though you wouldn’t live to eat it a second time).
But it was a deadly Amanita, a destroying angel, and I left it on the carpet of duff.
I filled my basket with woodland agaricus and I littered the ground with discarded destroying angels. A flock of birds swooped out of a tree and startled me off my haunches and onto my back, and I decided to call it a morning.
I walked the three or four miles back to the road, rubber boots squelching through mud. I watched mist float over manzanitas, drift along horizontal branches of live oaks, drip through mosses, mute the evergreen of firs and redwoods. The air smelled of loam and wet leaves and pine sap. Woodpeckers tapped, squirrels scrambled, and birds drank from curled bark. There were mushrooms everywhere, tiny brown ones no one had bothered to classify, fuchsia-colored russolas, bits of orange chanterelles peeking out of leaf mounds. Most people don’t see anything but leaves and pine needles when they look at a forest floor, they don’t recognize the subtle patterns. But then, most people are content to see nature from a car window, to do their hiking in a shopping mall, to settle for flavorless mass-produced fungi.
The museum was ready for the annual Fungus Fair. We’d carried the stuffed coyotes and pumas and the trays of butterflies and beetles down to the basement. We’d wheeled the waterfowl displays into the gift shop. There was still an occasional otter or egret peeking out from behind a table, but we’d managed to clear most of the main room.
We’d covered several tables with sand sculpted into gentle hills (two days work), and we’d covered the sand with duff (another whole day). We had a hundred and twenty-seven species of fungus scattered over this ersatz forest floor, all labeled with Latin and common names and descriptions of their properties. Some were edible, some were medicinal, some glowed in the dark, some bled colored latex, some were used for dyes, some were used to make rocket fuel, some were poisonous. All were fascinating. To me, anyway. But then, I write mushroom field guides. I teach mushroom identification classes.
“Looks good.” James Ransome, the museum curator, glowed with satisfaction. James has a square pink face, rimless aviator glasses, and wavy black hair. He’s fortyish with a little potbelly under his inevitable button-down shirt and sweater vest. I like James a lot.
“We should move the knobcone pines,” Don Herlihy grumbled. Again.
Don was doing me a favor, helping out with the fair. He helps every year. He’s a botanist and an ornithologist; like me, not affiliated with a university. He gets by landscaping, specializing in drought-resistant native plants. He’s a friend from a dozen college botany labs, and he throws a little landscaping my way when he’s got the extra work and my museum classes aren’t paying the rent. I wish Don were more than just a friend, but he always goes for the angora-sweater type. I keep hoping.
“They’re going to fry when the sun shifts.” Don didn’t think we should bring in potted trees at all, but James wanted “atmosphere,” and it was James’s museum.
I didn’t care much about atmosphere, but I cared less about the knobcones. I just wanted peace between my two best friends.
I said, “You know what I found this morning?”
Don continued scowling at the scraggly pines. “They’ll get knocked over—if they don’t fry first.”
“We need them to screen the tide pool tank.” James was calm, knowing he’d get his way, as usual. “Last year, we found it full of Dixie cups and plastic forks.”
“Woodland agaricus,” I continued. “I'm going to sauté it this afternoon as part of the tasting.”
James blinked at me. “You cooked that for me a few years ago. Told me never to harvest it alone.”
“It’s easy to mistake for destroying angels.” I bent over my basket of agaricus, pulling out a young specimen. “But that’s the beauty of it. Very few people have the expertise to harvest it.” I glanced at a table set up with hot plates and frying pans for the mushroom tasting. “People coming today probably won’t ever get to taste it again.”
James took the agaricus from me, turning it over. He knew enough about mushrooms to spot differences and appreciate similarities—if someone else made the initial identification.
Don walked over to the row of spindly pines, pulling them a few inches farther from the window. He always sweated the small stuff. He looked at me like I should back him up. When I didn’t, he scowled. “Even experts make mistakes, Lucy.”
James didn’t bother moving the trees back. Later, I knew, we’d find them where he wanted them.
Don scratched his thick beard, squinting at me like I’d wimped out on him. “Guy who taught me everything I know about rock climbing fell and broke his neck in the Tetons last summer.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” I took the agaricus back from James. “In the history of mycology, no expert—I don’t mean guys who take a class or two and go out with their field guides—no professional has ever died of mushroom poisoning.” I could feel myself flush. People are so damn afraid of mushrooms. It’s irrational, something you don’t see in other cultures, where families routinely go mushroom hunting together. “Look, no one ever worries about their parsley being hemlock or their bay leaves being oleander. People don’t get scared that whoever harvested it—"
“Uh-oh,” James said. “Lucy’s hobbyhorse.”
There was a tapping sound from the front of the museum. Someone knocking on the glass doors. Probably several people. The Fungus Fair always attracts a big crowd: amateur naturalists, people with kids, hippie types into natural dyes and psychedelics, mushroom gourmets, people who just like a colorful display.
By the time I finished the yarn-dyeing demonstration and spent some time identifying mushrooms people had found in their lawns, there were maybe fifty people jammed into the main room.
Time to cook some mushrooms.
I started with shaggy parasols, went on to horns of plenty, chanterelles, the prince, coccoli, ceps. So different from each other, with flavors ranging from brothy to herby to fruity, and so very different from that Velveeta of fungus, the supermarket mushroom.
It got pretty frantic: people trooping by with little Dixie cups and plastic forks, and always a couple of gourmets to tell you a better way to cook whatever you’re cooking (as if you can go wrong sautéing in butter), and then every time James had the tiniest problem, he wanted me to leave everything and come solve it, so I ended up sweating and rushing around replacing maggoty mushrooms from baskets of extras in the basement, and getting more butter, and checking to see if the yarn from the dyeing demonstration was drying okay.
One thing I did make time to do: I bent down and looked through the basket of woodland agaricus. A couple of caps had snapped off their stipes, but that always happens when you transport mushrooms. No volvas on any of the stipes.
By the time I started frying the agaricus, the place was so crowded, you could hardly move. I felt clammy from the buttery steam, tired from days of gathering and planning and getting the museum ready. It sort of hit me all at once, and I remember thinking as I sliced up the agaricus how glad I was I’d gone out to the woods that morning. The woods were a tonic, just to think about.
James’s wife came in and interrupted my meditation. Karen Ransome was a voluptuous, big-eyed woman with fluffy yellow hair and a lot of wiggly, giggly mannerisms. I didn’t know her very well even though I hung out with James a lot. Mostly I heard about her from Mary Clardy, who runs the museum gift shop. Mary told me Karen didn’t like to hike, and wasn’t it too bad because James enjoyed it so much, and you’d think Karen could take the kids to their soccer games once in a while and let James have a free Saturday, and wasn’t it awful that Karen expected James to watch the kids on weekends, considering she left them with baby-sitters all week long even though she didn’t work for a living, and Karen must realize it didn’t help James’s career when she got drunk at Museum Committee parties and flirted with the city attorney.
Karen came and stood beside me while I cooked. She chattered about a shopping excursion, but I wasn’t really listening to her. Her breath smelled of booze, and she laughed and said, “This isn’t one of those mushrooms you can’t eat if you’ve been drinking, is it?”
There’s a kind of inky cap that turns your nose and fingers red and makes your heart pound wildly for a few hours if you consume it with alcohol.
I scooped some mushroom into a Dixie cup. “No. Here, be my guinea pig. Woodland agaricus.”
James came out of the gift shop, saw Karen eating the agaricus, and turned a little red. He pushed across to us in time to hear Karen repeat, “Woodland ’garicus,” and giggle.
James looked embarrassed. He usually did in public with his wife. He murmured, “Karen, where are the kids?”
She wrinkled up her nose. “Guess I better go relieve the sitter—boy next door, honey, with all the freckles, you know who I mean. Let me just go to the gift stop—gift shop—”
“No!” James looked alarmed. “The neighbor boy can’t be ten yet. Go see what the kids—” He put his arm around her, marching her to the door. I heard him ask where had she been, anyway.
I thought maybe he should have called her a cab, but he was a better judge than I was.
People were lined up to taste the agaricus. I watched their faces as they tasted it. Many had never tasted wild mushrooms. They looked like they’d gone to heaven.
I decided to fry up a second panful when James came back. “Everyone loves it,” I boasted.
James seemed distracted. He helped me wipe off a couple of caps, then worked his way through the crowd toward the gift shop.
A young couple, wrapped in woolly scarves and looking like refugees from Woodstock, stood beside the table, Dixie cups at the ready. The woman, long-haired with a vaguely foolish expression, was flipping through a pamphlet of mine they sell in the gift shop, titled “Edible Mushrooms and Their Nonedible Look-alikes.” The young man, whose smile was irresistible, asked me what I was cooking, and I told him.
The woman pointed to a photograph of the woodland agaricus in my pamphlet. “This one? The one it says not to pick unless an expert says it’s okay?”
“Well, she’s an expert,” the man pointed out. “We usually stick to fly agaric.” He grinned. “No mistaking that.”
The fly agaric is bright red with cottony white “warts” (actually bits of a burst veil). It’s psychotropic. Used for thousands of years in places like Siberia where alcohol made a late appearance.
I tried not to look too disapproving, but I hate people who think of mushrooms as just another way to get high.
Mary Clardy materialized beside me, her porcelain cheeks flushed almost as red as her curls.
“I saw Karen leaving. ‘A happy drunk.’” Mary’s tone was sarcastic. “They always think that about themselves, don’t they?” Her chin was thrust forward.
The scarf-wrapped couple was exclaiming about the woodland agaricus, but Mary had interposed herself between me and the compliments.
“It’s been ridiculous around here lately,” she complained, pulling furry puffs off her sweater. “James having to run out of meetings to pick up those kids. Someone should report Karen for child neglect.”
Don Herlihy joined us, homing in on Mary’s pheromones, damn him. He was supposed to be giving a demonstration on how nurseries coat sapling roots with spores. The mushroom mycelia provide a protective sheath for the roots. Trees grow twice as tall when they grow with mushrooms.
Mary turned to Don with a slightly smug smile, the angora queen and her courtier. “I hear you’re leaving us,” she said, putting some sadness into her voice. “Taking a job down south.”
I turned off the hot plate, not looking at Don. We’d covered thousands of acres together looking for mushrooms, looking for night herons, looking for obscure strands of fescue for his botany masters. It was the closest I’d come to romance. He and James and the classes I taught were my entire social life.
Don shuffled a step closer to me, standing stiffly. His clothes smelled of damp grass. “I guess I’m getting old.” He sounded guilty: hadn’t even told me he was thinking of going. “The knee’s bothering me more and more. And with the wet weather this year… The money...”
I knew he was just squeaking by, that’s how it always is with us. But I guess I thought it didn’t matter to him. I guess I depended on it not mattering. Because if it mattered to him, maybe it should matter to me. If Don Herlihy put on a suit, maybe I’d have to, too, someday soon.
James wandered back over, looking a little surprised to find the three of us—the help—huddled together, not identifying, demonstrating, or selling anything.
I glanced at Don and found him giving Mary a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of look.
Mary had the same look, but it was aimed at James.
I excused myself and dashed down to the basement. It was cool and dark down there, just me and the stuffed coyotes, the boxes of mushrooms, the mountain of leftover duff. I sat at the fungus-strewn conference table and I could almost see my students emptying their baskets, chattering about what they’d found in the woods, about the “one that got away,” that inevitable boletus (“this big”) that was riddled with maggots.
I was thirty-one years old and nobody loved me. I was too broke to afford a decent car, even secondhand. I was forever choosing between housemates or a hovel (just now, it was the hovel). I wore my clothes until the flannel turned to powder. But I had my classes, didn’t I? I’d generated a lot of enthusiasm for fungus over the years, and I’d knocked down a lot of silly phobias. I was out in the woods most days. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?
It should count for something with Don, bad knee or not. I should count for something.
The basement door swung open. “What I wish,” Don said from the doorway, “is that I had a rich wife, like James. In fact”—a gloomy frown—“I wish I were James. I wish I had a silver Audi and a big house. I wish I had a job where people did what I told them.”
“James isn’t happy,” I replied, though I’d never considered the point before.
Don shrugged. “Mary’s crazy about him because she can’t have him.” I knew the feeling. “Even his problems work to his advantage.”
“Where are you going?”
“Big box store nursery. In Encino.”
Encino. Endless, unshaded concrete.
Please, God, may I never end up in Encino.
The lab technician at Community Hospital handed me a box of glass slides. This made the third time in eight years I’d done them this service. The third time in eight years they’d suspected mushroom poisoning and summoned the local expert. But it was different this time. I heard the slides rattle as I took the box in hand.
I pulled out a slide and, with a sterile swab, smeared some brown matter over the center. It was from a petri dish labeled “Feces—Peterson, Robin J.” I dropped a coverslip into place.
I knew I would find some spores. I knew it because I’d watched Robin Peterson eat mushrooms. I’d watched him taste my woodland agaricus and smile a charming smile and try to tell me how much he loved it (with Mary Clardy in the way).
I told them at the hospital, “I didn’t make a mistake—honest! Peterson ate a harmless mushroom. If he’s sick, it’s some kind of one-in-a-million allergy. Those pass really fast.”
But they said he was showing signs of liver damage. They worried about kidney failure. The kind of symptoms produced by amanita toxins. By the destroying angel.
I maneuvered the slide back and forth until I spotted two quivering spores in the miasma. One was brown and oval. The woodland agaricus has brown oval spores. The other was white and round. I sat back. It was an Amanita (not an Agaricus) spore.
All Amanitas have round, white spores, but not all Amanitas are poisonous. There were three, maybe four edible species fruiting in nearby woods and fields. I closed my eyes and envisioned them, trying to influence the spores on the slide. Maybe Peterson had gotten hold of one of the edibles. Maybe this wasn’t a death sentence.
I reached for the tiny stoppered bottle I’d brought with me. It was full of Melzer’s reagent, an oily, yellow-red iodine solution. It stains certain spores—“amyloid” spores—gray. The deadly Amanitas have amyloid spores. The edible Amanitas don’t.
I put a drop of Melzer’s at the edge of the coverslip and watched it seep into the broth, tingeing the whole mess grenadine. I breathed deeply, hoped deeply, and looked into the microscope.
The spore had turned light gray. It was amyloid.
Robin Peterson was lying there with a bunch of tubes coming out of him and a computer monitor blipping beside his bed. His mouth was hanging open and his skin was a dull apricot color with bruises all over it. I was too shaken to ask him if he’d gone collecting on his own, if he’d found himself some Amanitas and made a meal of them.
The poor man began retching. A nurse peeled the sheet off his abdomen and legs, and I could see that he lay in a pool of bloody excrement. It was the most awful sight I’d ever seen. I backed out of Intensive Care. I backed into James.
James was talking to a doctor and the doctor was saying, “Judging by the extent of liver and kidney damage—I believe it’s been sixteen hours since he ingested the fungus?”
“Usually it takes longer,” I said mechanically. “As long as three days for symptoms to show up.”
The doctor shook his head angrily. “And a small amount can be fatal?”
“Two cubic centimeters.” My voice seemed disembodied, like something out of the PA system. “That’s the smallest known fatal dose.”
“One mushroom, in other words.”
“But nothing.” The doctor rubbed his knuckles over Peterson’s chart as if trying to erase it. “Your mushroom’s going to kill this man if we don’t find him a new liver pretty damn soon.”
“I gave him a harmless Agaricus, a relative of the supermarket mushroom. I know my mushrooms. Honestly! I wouldn’t have—I didn’t—make a mistake.”
James put his arm around me, wincing. “Of course not, Lucy. Of course he didn’t get the mushroom from you. As soon as he can be asked, he’ll tell them.”
The doctor looked like it cost him a lot not to slap us. He pushed past us and went back into Intensive Care.
James pulled me onto a padded bench. There was a sheen to his pale skin. “Don’t let this get to you, Lucy. You know this isn’t your fault.” He searched my eyes. “You know that.” But it sounded like a question.
“What about the other people?”
“What other people?”
“Who had mushrooms at the Fair. They’ll get scared when they hear.”
He sighed, looking away. “The Museum Association and the city attorney have insisted we broadcast an appeal, telling everyone who had mushrooms at the Fair to come to the hospital.” He looked at me again. “But it’s just to satisfy the lawyers. Don’t take it as a vote of no confidence. People who know you aren’t going to bother.”
“We’ll never be able to serve mushrooms again, will we?” Whatever happened to Robin Peterson, the Fungus Fair was dead. Such a good little fair too. And no one would want to take my classes anymore.
I felt selfish thinking about that, with Peterson in there passing blood.
A woman drifted out of the elevator toward us. Peterson’s companion of the day before, with her lank, center-parted hair and layers of sixties clothes.
She stopped when she saw me. She bent close, close enough for me to smell incense and damp wool.
It was easier to focus on her scarf than her face, under the circumstances. “Jack-o-lantern mushrooms,” I murmured.
She fingered the scarf. “Uh-huh. We boiled them and put in chrome and iron and alum to get these colors.”
“You know about mushrooms.”
“Did Peterson go collecting? Before the fair? Or after?”
“No.” She startled me by stroking my hair. “But it’s not your fault. It’s Robin’s karma. I’m not sick. You’re not sick. It must be Robin’s karma. He’s a fisher. A tuna fisher.”
“Are you sure he didn’t go collecting?”
“We didn’t go out. We had Soma at home, dried. We ate that.” Her face crinkled, as if the memory disturbed her. “We saw dolphins, ones that drowned in Robin’s nets.”
Soma. The subject of a six-thousand-year-old treatise in the Rg Vedas, the oldest specimen of written language. Soma the ingestible god. Also known as Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric, psychotropic but “poisonous” only in the way alcohol and recreational drugs are poisonous. Its spores weren't amyloid. It wasn’t a fly agaric spore I’d found and stained on that glass slide.
The doctor came out and stood over us. “Peterson’s dead.”
James wrapped his arms around me. The young woman dropped to the floor, curling into an upright fetal position.
“I can feel his soul,” she whispered. Her head snapped back and she stared at me. “He’ll speak to you in Soma.”
James stayed with me that night, brewing me pots of herb tea that I couldn’t drink and talking to me about anything, everything: his kids, his holidays, what we could expect from the wet weather in terms of timing the Wildflower Festival.
I knew that outside our cocoon, Fungus Fair attendees rushed themselves to the hospital. botanists who knew nothing about fungus fueled the public’s phobia with misinformation. newspapers published alarmist lies. I’d spent a career trying to change people’s attitudes about one of the world’s most intriguing (and often health-preserving) life-forms. It was all wiped out now, all my work—seven six- session classes a year for eight years, the expeditions I’d led, two editions of my field guide, the edible mushrooms pamphlet. Now people would remember me as the mycologist who’d killed a man at a mushroom fair.
And I hadn’t. How could I have made a mistake? I know mushrooms, really know them.
I felt like jumping off a cliff.
James tried hard to make me feel better, but I could see how upset he was, underneath. I ended up crying all over him.
I fell asleep around dawn, with James yawning and telling me about a cruise to Alaska, a cruise he very much wanted to take if he could just persuade Karen to travel so far from Macy’s and Nordstrom.
I woke up a few hours later to find James asleep in my sprung easy chair. I tiptoed out of the house (maybe “shack” is a better word), put on my boots, and drove out to the woods. It’s the only place I feel at home.
The mushrooms were beautiful, tomato-red with puffy white “warts.” They were in a clearing by themselves, the center of attention, fresh and perfect, without a single bug in their gills, without a trace of decay. Yet I looked at them and felt afraid, afraid of what they might do to me. I reminded myself that people had been eating them for thousands of years. And I’d never heard of any fatalities (except in a British mystery novel).
I was doing it myself—letting phobia overcome what I knew to be true about the mushroom.
I forced myself to kneel in the duff before the great god Soma. At the base of one mushroom, a stunned fly skittered in the wind, attracted and then drugged by the fungus.
I snapped the broad caps off their stipes.
When I got home, James was gone. Just as well.
I sliced the fly agaric and spent an hour trying to copy the method of ingestion described by the ancient Aryans in the Rg Vedas. I swallowed the yogurty mess. It tasted like moldy leaves.
For half an hour nothing happened, except that I was scared: scared of the mushroom and scared of Robin Peterson’s ghost.
And then I was on the floor, supine and sweating. The ceiling swirled. For years I’d studied mushrooms, hunted them, examined them under microscopes, cooked them, served them, eaten them, arranged them, lectured about them, and photographed them. Now I saw myself as part of a continuum. I saw reindeer butt each other in savage contest for the fungus, I saw Aryan priests drink Soma milk, I saw bearded Siberians leap and stagger and laugh, I saw flower children peel the red skin off the cap and roll it into cigarettes.
And then I saw myself:
A cool, misty morning, me with my raincoat on, my basket on the ground beside me. There were two dozen mushrooms in it already, some very young with veils covering their white gills, some with broad caps and gills dusted with brown spores.
I looked up. The wet branches of a live oak spread like gnarled arms against the white of the sky. Birds chattered somewhere in the tree, calling scree scree scree.
I looked back down. There were several mushrooms on the duff. Destroying angels, their caps so similar to the woodland agaricus that only the saclike volva at the base of the stipe proclaimed them to be deadly.
I looked at the mushrooms in my basket. I inhaled the cold air. I listened to the scree of birds overhead, to the rustling of squirrels and the distant thud of falling pinecones. Life was good.
I dug in the duff. There were two young mushrooms there, caps snow white, round and small with partial veils and strong, crisp stipes. I dug carefully, recognizing the danger.
One was a destroying angel and one was a woodland agaricus. Strands of mycelia hung from the base of one, and I pinched them off. The other was covered with a saclike volva. I tossed that mushroom. Tossed it and then noticed a purple stain on its volva, like a bit of oozy ink.
It wasn’t uncommon to find an aberrant mushroom, a mushroom harboring some unusual parasite or staining some uncharacteristic shade. I enjoyed finding the aberrations, they were part of the fun of hunting.
I picked up the destroying angel and sloughed off the stained volva. The ooze had not touched the stipe. Probably something in the ground, nothing to do with the mushroom itself. I tossed it aside again.
From the branches overhead, the scree scree scree of birds grew frantic. I looked up in time to see a small cloud of them swooping down. They seemed to be diving for me. I fell out of my squat and onto my back. As the birds pulled up and flew away, I saw a flash of white under their wings. I’d have to ask Don what kind they were.
I stood up, pulling twigs out of my hair and flicking soggy duff off my raincoat.
I bent to pick up my basket. Time to go to the museum.
I reached out to pick up the young woodland agaricus I'd just found.
Robin Peterson’s icy hand closed over mine as I picked up the wrong mushroom.
A pounding on my front door dragged me out of a stuporous sleep. Someone was shouting my name.
I sat up. My furniture was all rearranged, pulled to the middle of the room. Why the hell had I done that?
I crawled on hands and knees to the front door, using the knob to pull myself to my feet.
It was Don Herlihy. He looked ashen, ill. He said, “Did you hear about Karen yet? Karen Ransome?”
“Oh my God.” I’d handed James’s wife a Dixie cup of what I thought was woodland agaricus. Handed it to her with a boastful word and a proud smile.
“She’s dead, Lucy. James was away, I guess, for most of the night. And no one told Karen about going to the hospital to get checked. By the time James got home and found her, she was too far gone.”
“James was over here,” I heard myself say. “It’s my fault Karen didn’t get help in time.”
Don said, “No, Lucy,” but he didn’t come in.
There was a receipt sticking out of his shirt pocket. I could see Community Hospital’s logo. He’d been to the hospital to get tested. I had no right to feel hurt, but I did.
“Come in, Lucy,” James said. “I’ve been worrying about you.”
I heard children crying somewhere in the upstairs of James’s house, and I heard the calm voice of an adult woman. James wore jeans and cashmere. His skin looked like candle wax, he was so pale. His hair stood up in rumpled waves against a backdrop of oak paneling.
I followed him inside. I followed him through the living room, through the formal dining room, through the hall, and back into a kitchen bigger than my whole house. There was a sweater slung across the tile counter. Mary Clardy’s. It was her voice I’d heard, her voice consoling the children.
“I’m most comfortable in this room,” James said, running a listless hand over the tile. “In fact, it probably seems gruesome, but now that everyone’s finally gone, I was going to chop some stuff for stir-fry.”
“If it relaxes you.” How many times had I watched James slice mushrooms and debone chicken? My friend, how kind of him to let me into his kitchen.
“It’s awful, but I’m hungry. I just—” He looked at me with bright eyes. “Have a meal with me, would you, Lucy? Make me feel like I’m not being abnormal?”
I couldn’t imagine forcing food down my throat. “If you want me to. If you’re really not—” Not mad at me.
He turned and began collecting things: A wok, some ginger, calamari in a plastic bag, oyster mushrooms, supermarket agaricus, bok choy, sesame oil.
I watched him set up the wok, heat the oil, toss in the ginger, then the bok choy. What I saw was my own hand reaching out for that one fatal mushroom, the one on the duff.
Such a small mushroom, such a small destroying angel to kill two healthy--
It was like a knife in my gut: A small mushroom. A very small mushroom to have killed two healthy people.
The smallest fatal dose on record was two cubic centimeters, the size of a modest cap.
I watched James slice the oyster mushrooms and the supermarket mushrooms. And I remembered him wiping a cap and handing it to me at the Fungus Fair. I’d been slicing woodland agaricus into the skillet, right before serving Robin Peterson. Right after serving Karen Ransome.
James looked at me, his head cocked. Sighing, he tossed handful of sliced mushrooms into the wok.
He could have it all now. Karen’s wealth. Mary’s love.
From that perspective, it was convenient he’d spent the night supporting and consoling me. Convenient he didn’t tell his wife to watch for signs of mushroom poisoning, that he wasn’t home to notice her symptoms and rush her to the hospital.
I watched James reach into a cupboard and pull out two dishes and two wine glasses. He handed the glasses to me.
We’d done this many times over the last eight years. I’d set the breakfast-nook table a hundred times. A hundred times we’d discussed museum business over stir-fry or bagels or mulligatawny soup, with Karen passed out drunk upstairs.
I pulled placemats out of a hutch, pulled a bottle of Chardonnay off the wine rack, pulled chopsticks out of the drawer. My back was to James. I was afraid—horrified by the suspicion I suddenly harbored.
He brought two steaming bowls of stir-fry to the table. He set one at my usual place. “No oyster sauce in that one,” he said. “I know you hate the stuff.”
I know how much destroying angel it takes to kill two people. I know that if I did make a mistake, it involved only one mushroom, the one with the stained volva. I know that if I did make a mistake, only one person would be dead now, not two.
I picked up my chopsticks and glanced down at the bowl. Sesame oil sizzled on a bed of mushrooms, calamari, and vegetables.
I unfolded my linen napkin while James uncorked the wine.
I looked around the room. The wainscoting was golden oak, the walls were papered a rich green, the floor was tiled in glossy terra-cotta. The breakfast nook windows faced a koi pond ringed with willows.
I remembered Don Herlihy saying, “I wish I had a rich wife.”
And I was suddenly sure: I did not see the spirit of Robin Peterson in my psychotropic vision. I did not see the truth, I saw my own fear. My worst nightmare.
I would not have picked up the wrong mushroom. Even if I had, I’d have noticed something, something a little odd about the sloughed stipe when I examined the mushrooms later. And I did examine them. Very carefully. I always do.
No, it wasn’t my mistake. Relief momentarily blurred my vision, like film melting in a projector.
Then I focused on James.
James. He had watched Karen eat the woodland agaricus. She’d been drinking again, neglecting the children. So unlike Mary Clardy.
He would serve Karen destroying angels at home, later. He would be rid of her. He would rescue his children from her incompetent care without depriving them of her big house. And it would look like an accident. An honest mistake. Especially if someone else at the fair got sick too.
After Karen left the museum, James handed me a mushroom cap to slice and serve. A destroying angel from the museum display. He wouldn't have known so small a quantity could kill. Two cubic centimeters—only a mushroom expert would know that.
Now James said, “Eat it while it’s hot, Lucy. There’s comfort in food.” He attacked his stir-fry like he needed comfort badly.
But he was doing better than me. He had a big house and two nice kids and somebody to love him. What did I have?
I used to think I had two friends, maybe not much else, but two best friends.
Don Herlihy, and he was leaving.
And James Ransome. How many canoe trips had we taken together? How many exhibits had we set up?
I thought James cared about me. How could he ruin my reputation—my life—just to arrange things so they suited him better?
I poked at the contents of my bowl.
Even if I told people, they wouldn’t believe me. They’d consider it a rank excuse, a cheap shot, an attempt to pass the buck. And I couldn’t prove anything anyway. Even if I wanted to orphan James’s kids, I couldn’t prove anything.
Two best friends. I thought of Don Herlihy shuffling on my doorstep, that hospital receipt in his pocket. After years of studying with him, working with him, he didn’t trust me. He didn’t love me.
And James. I thought he was my friend, staying with me last night. But he’d wrecked my life.
No matter what I did or said now, my career was ruined. No one would believe it wasn’t my fault. If I couldn’t convince Don, how could I convince a bunch of strangers?
I’d never be considered an “expert” again, only someone who, in her hubris, continued denying what everybody else knew: that mushrooms should be feared and shunned, regardless of who serves them.
James was slumped over his meal now, not eating. His eyelids looked painfully puffy and red.
I was surprised I didn’t feel more anger. Maybe I was too sad. Maybe I couldn’t stand to let go of my last friend.
I tasted a few slivers of mushroom. They were perfectly seasoned. James was a good cook. Mary was lucky.
Upstairs somewhere, children’s voices were raised with Mary’s in a hymn. James covered his eyes with his hands.
No, it wouldn’t do me any good to accuse James. Proof required confidence in my expertise. No one would believe me and no one would trust me, ever again. I’d never earn a living as a mycologist, ever again. I would have to put on a suit. Work in some concrete purgatory.
I couldn’t live with it. It was as simple as that: I couldn’t live with it.
Today I had experimented with Soma, something I never thought that I would do. Tonight I would experiment again. I would go home and eat the destroying angel. I would see if it really was delicious.