I kick my way through the decomposing leaves and they cling to my skirts. Others flit around me on the dying breath of summer, adding to the carpet that already comes up to my ankle. The only sound is the titter of thrushes and the distant drone of cattle. The track lies far behind me. I remind myself that I like being alone. That the forest is my ally. But I shiver anyway and quicken my pace.
I spot a likely tree and climb the bank towards it. Broad, lobed leaves, brown and sparse. Broad trunk, shaggy with lichen. An oak. I stoop to examine the base, digging Granny’s notebook out of my pocket.
A frilly fungus that grows at the foot of hardwood trees. Pale, tongue-like brackets fork out from a central stem, supporting a wrinkled, leathery brown fruitbody. Mousey smell. Young mushrooms form a delicate creamy ruffle and are delicious fried in butter. Specimens darken with age as they gain potency.
Her archaic looped handwriting is unlike my own spidery scrawl. I hold up the image she inked in beside the description, alive with the affection she had for nature, painstakingly studied and preserved on the page for whoever inherited the cottage and the duties she left behind her. For me. I close my eyes and shake my head, scattering the emotions rising up, threatening to cloud my eyes and judgement.
I compare the image with the mushroom sprouting from the tree. This is definitely the one, and nicely matured. A citadel of undulating rooftops fit for fae kings and queens, Granny told me when I was small. I imagine I am a giant come to destroy their home as I slice a handful away from the bark with my pocket knife. I wrap it in a cloth and head back towards the cottage, regretting not the destruction, but the bitter aftertaste of the sweet memory.
I set the mushroom on the kitchen windowsill to dry and the cast iron kettle on top of the stove to boil. While I wait, I perch on the wooden stool next to Granny’s empty rocking chair, just like I always did and never managed to shake the habit of doing. I turn back to the Breast-Feather entry.
Dry for one moon until thin and tough, then grind into a fine powder. Use two teaspoons-full with nettle and black cohosh to brew a tea. Have the woman who longs for a child drink a cup every morning with breakfast and every evening before bed. Have her leave an offering of ripe fruit beside the tree from which the mushroom came with a prayer that the spirits will look favourably upon her.
Granny always used to say that everything we need is already in the world around us. I used to feel the same, a bone-deep contentment, before she died. But the space she left in my world is too big to be filled. Instead I find ways to skirt the void and not fall into it.
The kettle whistles in a steamy crescendo and I rise to remove it. I will tell Cicely when I do my round of the village that her tea will be ready in a month. I picture the joy on the faces of her and her young husband. A joy Granny made possible, still touching the lives of our small community from beyond the grave. The shadow she still casts is a comfort to us all, yet the size of it fills me with dread. That I should be expected to fill that darkness with my own wavering light. My eyes well with tears again, and this time I do nothing to restrain them.
The fractal patterns of the season’s first frost cover the window, earlier than I had expected. The silver shimmer of the lawn beyond is muted by mist. I pull on my boots and warmest cloak and push the door open, stepping into the cold.
The air is sharp in my throat when I inhale and my breath forms wispy clouds. All is still, with the exception of a flash of russet and an obnoxious burst of song as a robin wings past. The sparkling blades of grass crunch underfoot as I head towards the forest.
A sweet chestnut fell five years ago not far up the track that leads into the village and I trudge through banks of ice-laced leaves towards it. Granny always had high hopes for a crop of Winter Mushrooms here. I dutifully visited throughout the year, waiting for the fulfilment of her prophecy.
The wood crumbles into soft, damp fragments under gentle pressure from my fingertips. A whole host of liverworts and fungi adorn the length of the trunk. I keep my gaze fixed on the decomposing wood as I walk the length of it, searching.
And there they are. Winter Mushrooms. Granny’s book comes out and I double check the description and sketch.
The Winter Mushroom is a tan umbrella with edges rolling down and inwards. Its scales are dark. The adnexed gills below are whitish. The young stem is pale, but browns with age. Pick it from the base. The cap fits in your palm, cool and smooth.
I snap one from the decaying trunk and turn it over. The gills are the pages of an unreadable book. I stroke them and they spring back into place, fluttering as I leaf through them. The content is silvery spores, not words. I produce a string bag from a pocket and fill it. Granny was right, again.
Back at home, the kitchen embraces me with its residual warmth. I tug off my boots and hang my cloak by the door. I open the stove to stir the embers and add some coal. By the time I have washed and sliced three mushrooms the pan set atop the stove is glowing. I fry the sliced mushrooms in oil and save the rest of the harvest for Cicely.
I take down the tatty recipe book from the shelf and browse the handwritten entries as I sit down to my hot breakfast. The mushroom flesh is rich and meaty and firm between my teeth. The pages are speckled with grease in places and browned. I fold the corner of the page when I find it, so I can copy it out later.
Winter Mushroom broth
Boil a large pan of water. Add to it a dozen winter mushrooms (sliced), a large knob of ginger root (chopped), four cloves of garlic (crushed), an onion (diced) and a handful of thyme. Simmer until the mushrooms are tender and serve piping hot.
This broth is excellent for the expectant mother, to bolster both her health and that of the fledgling life she carries.
Granny’s elegant letters blur into illegibility as my eyes fill with tears, unable to read her words. Unable to taste her soup again. Unable to sit down for a simple meal of mushrooms together. Now it falls to me to follow the directions, to teach Cicely how to prepare the soup as Granny once taught me, hoping to do both justice.
When I open my curtains, the last of the snow heaped at either side of the lane has finally melted away. I dress for cold weather but when I step outside I am engulfed in birdsong and warmth and I cannot help but smile.
A few optimistic snowdrops have ventured up through the lawn. I spot a pale pink circle under the apple tree and make a bee-line towards it. A fairy-ring of around twenty pretty mushrooms. I crouch to admire them. The cold air is pungent with salt and ammonia. I fish the book out of the pocket inside my cloak where it spent the entire winter.
The Rose Parasol grows in rings, an early herald of spring. They are beautiful to behold, but they are deadly. Easily detected by the smell of sperm. Each umbonate cap is a delicate pink with silken streaks radiating from the hub. The stem is slender and a little paler than the cap. If you peek below, the gills are dove-grey.
The Old Lore tells that Rose Parasol rings mark the perimeter of portals to other realms. If you have an individual in your care for whom your skill will not suffice, this is where they might bring their petition.
How many times did Granny lead me about the garden, teaching me the names and uses of the living things around us? How many stories of little-folk did she tell me, weaving magic out of the mundane? A magic that has faded. The power I wield is a poor shadow of what I knew Granny was capable of, back when I was small and she was a giant, invincible and eternal.
My nose tingles. I screw my lips tight together and step into the circle. And there I let out a sob, and beg wordlessly for meaning or guidance or comfort from the unanswering powers. I receive none of these, only a modicum of catharsis.
The Rose Parasols, or their descendants, last all through the spring. They are where I bring Cicely when she bleeds at the beginning of the summer. She and I stand side by side at the perimeter, hand in hand. I have done all I can and offered my small, floundering words of condolence. This was the only other comfort I could think offer. The warmth of our entwined fingers and a place to vent at the empty sky.
She teeters on the edge of hope, knowing what the blood signifies yet refusing to believe it. I do not encourage her hope, knowing it is unfounded.
When it emerges, her grief is raw and spans universes. I hold mine quietly; a small, dark well that delves into the earth. It is easily concealed, but my sorrow for Cicely tugs at the cover I set over it. I clasp her hand a little tighter.
Cicely pulls away and moans as she steps over the perimeter, a mourning too great for words. I wait at the sideline, brimming with pity and self-pity. And the doubt. The dread that there is something I could have done or failed to do. And always the space in my life where Granny should have been, ensuring I fulfil my duties properly, reassuring me. My higher power.
I leave the cottage by the kitchen door, squelch across the waterlogged lawn, and climb the stile at the back of the garden. A thrush in the hazel clump fills the warm air with melody. Bumblebees drone amid the tiny white flowers on the bramble as I step down into the paddock.
Nellie the old grey donkey is nowhere to be seen, but she has left plenty of heaps of manure. I wade through the glistening waves of grass, examining each island of dung, until I find the mushrooms I am searching for. A community of off-white figures clustered over the disintegrating pile. Granny’s book is already in my hand, clutched tight as a talisman. I flick through the dog-eared pages to the right entry.
The mushrooms are tiny, fragile things, shiny and sticky with a bell-shaped cap. They begin dark in spring but fade through the seasons. The paler the flesh, the more potent the mushroom. The gills are fine and dark and the spores black as pitch.
These fruitbodies are not for eating. Their mealy texture is not unpleasant, but the after effect often can be. They are not known as Faery Dreamer for nothing.
I shake out my cloth bag and kneel to pick the mushrooms with gloved hands. Dampness seeps from the ground and through my skirts. The mushrooms are small, delicate things, unassuming and innocent. It would take the whole crop to produce a jarful of powder. The last of Granny’s supply has dwindled to less than a quarter of a jar. I harvest them all, knowing fresh fruitbodies will sprout again in a matter of days. That mushrooms regenerate over and over, from a fungus buried under the ground. My bagful represents a tiny portion of the whole and the larger part lives on.
I take the Faery Dreamers back to the cottage and set them to dry. Then I leave the gloves and bag beside the door to wash separate from the rest of my laundry. I take down the heavy book of potions from the shelf and flick through the pages.
Granny’s graceful hand details the method of creating the powder from the mushrooms. The method of administration. The various uses.
Use sparingly as a strong pain-relief. Resetting broken bones and suturing deep wounds. I do not recommend offering the Faery Dreamer to a woman in labour, as I have heard rumours of the baby arriving listless or developing slowly. There are, of course, situations where this is not a concern, and in these I advise you to provide as much relief for the woman as she requests. But when her labour is over and she lies empty armed, do not leave her side as she rides the dream, or allow her to sink, alone, into her grief.
I lift my puffy eyes from the page. As heavily as I rely on and as close as I may hold them, Granny’s words are a poor substitute for her embrace and reassurance.
With a sigh, I set about packing a basket to take into the village. Cicely’s husband has not called for me yet, but I include the last of Granny’s powder just in case. Ready to help her through a labour that offers no hope at its end, when the time comes. To endure meaningless pain and strife, without reward.
I wade through the golden ocean of rye, whispering in the breeze. Whispering a secret that I must break to the farmer, yet dread speaking. Truth can be an agony; concealed truth an unbearable weight. I pick a head from the rye and compare it to the sketch in Granny’s book one last time. Hoping that I am wrong but knowing I am not.
Purple Rooster’s Spur
This fungus does not look like a mushroom. After a long, cold winter, an excessively wet spring may damage the young rye growing in the fields along the valley. Come harvest, you will find a long, hard, black protrusion growing from many of the grains. Warn the owners of the affected fields that his crop is diseased and must be burned. Eating the grains is the cause of Saint Anthony’s Fire, a most terrible affliction.
I sigh and add the stalk to the bundle I have already collected. I brush through that diseased crop awaiting a harvest that will never be consumed. Towards the farmhouse, tiny on the hillside. I have a handful of silver in the purse on my belt to pay for the bunch in my hand. At least some good may come of this disaster, but the coins will be small recompense. My pace is slow with the thickness of the heat and reluctance to carry this burden of ill tidings.
When I get home, with a heavy heart and a lighter purse, I collapse onto the stool in my stone-walled kitchen and ease off my shoes. Granny’s book of potions is laid out on the table, open at the entry I had been reading over breakfast. Purple Rooster’s Spur. The first thing I thought of when I heard about the afflicted crop. The suspicion that I had just confirmed. The instructions on how to decoct a potion from the fungus.
This is a most beneficial substance to dry up the milk of a woman who suffers engorgement whilst weaning, or who never made use of the milk she produced. I add two drops to warm sage tea. The leaves of a savoy cabbage may also bring her some relief from the physical pain, but even time is a poor remedy for the emotional burden she bears.
It is cool in the cottage. The windows are small and the walls thick. I set about collecting the ingredients and apparatus Granny lists in the book, ready to create that potion for Cicely. And though I would never wish the destruction of a livelihood on anyone, I will not let the farmer’s tragedy prevent me easing that of another. I carefully peel open the kernels of rye, exposing the black fungus growing inside.
The wheat fields beyond the paddock behind my cottage are loud with workers bringing in the harvest. The hillside is half stubble, where the scythes have been, and half rippling waves of gold. I pack myself a picnic lunch along with Granny’s handbook, sling the basket over my shoulder and set off into the forest.
I follow the trail away from the village. The still air hums with tiny flies. I march through the clouds of them, sweat running down my spine. Birds sing, hidden in the shade. The hollow drumming of a woodpecker echoes through the trees. As I move further from humanity, my pace slows. I breathe deeper. Leaf mould and pine. A haze of yellow pollen drifts on a lazy breeze. I blow my nose on my handkerchief and wander on.
At mid morning, I pass the standing stones. I stop for a swig of water in the lee of the tallest one, back pressed against the cold smoothness. Then I set out again, deeper into the forest.
I reach the narrow gorge around midday and cross by the rickety bridge. The ropes and wooden planks groan in complaint, but hold as I pass over the black emptiness below. The gentle trickle of water echoes from the rocky sides. The river is low but still running. Summer is near its end.
The path disappears into a bank of bracken. I struggle through, into the secret place Granny used to bring me. A hollow guarded by oak trees. A place that never feels warm, even on a day like today. I climb over the exposed roots and slide down the leaf strewn slope into the crater.
I sit on the old tree stump at the bottom and eat my lunch, leaving my crumbs for whichever beings dwell here. Fungi create steps around the stump at intervals just right for a tiny creature to ascend to my lap. I imagine them hopping up and down while I eat.
I don’t need to check Granny’s book, but I take it out anyway. I wonder if I will ever be able to identify a mushroom for myself without having her confirm my assessment for me. Were she still here she would laugh at me. But she isn’t.
Lacquered Bracket Fungus
They form oyster-shaped ledges around hardwood tree stumps, as large as your spread hand. The varnished surface is maroon, with concentric rings of purple, black, and red to show its seasons of growth and dormant anticipation. The stem is tough and snaps sharply when picked. When inverted, you can see the minute pores set in the brown skin. When sliced, the flesh inside is off-white with a rich, earthy fragrance.
After lunch I leaf absently through the book. The well worn pages are still no substitute for Granny’s company, but the absence has dulled over the past year. And then, when the sun slides behind one of the oaks, stealing what little warmth filtered down to me here, I collected a basketful of the Lacquered Bracket Fungus and scrambled back up the bank, beginning the long trek back into the world of other humans.
I reach the cottage not long before supper and cobble together a meal of salad and bread from the pantry. The basket lies on the table beside me. I retrieve the book from it and read as I eat.
The Lacquered Bracket Fungus is too tough to eat and tastes of soil and leaf mould and autumn. While the fungus is still fresh, dice it and submerge in good quality grain alcohol. Leave to steep for at least two moons, then drain through a cheese-cloth into a bottle. This tincture is a most efficient cure for low spirits if administered steadily over a period of several weeks. Any person in your care who seems to have lost their vitality and desire to connect with the living would benefit from a course of Lacquered Bracket Fungus tincture. But medication alone will not be enough. Ensure they are provided all the care and comfort and counsel they will accept. Ensure they do not become isolated. Watch their eyes for dark shadows and the skin of their wrists. Involve their family and neighbours. And listen silently when they open their lips.
I will prepare the tincture after supper. I hope I will not need it, that Cicely will rise naturally from her spiral of despair. But it is best to be prepared whilst continuing to hope. I push aside my empty plate and set to work.
I pull my hood over my head in an attempt to keep the drizzle off my face. At least the wind is coming from behind me. Brown leaves ride the gusts. I pull my cloak tighter around myself against the cold.
The track leading into the village grows progressively harder to travel as lanes branch out towards farms. By the time I reach the village, it’s almost impassable. The churned mud at the edge looks promising. Yes – there against the steep side of the lane are growing the mushrooms I came hunting for. Dark and ragged in the mud. I open Granny’s book under the cover of my cloak.
The young fruitbody is white and egg-shaped and softly frilled. They grow in troops of four to eight, gaining height and losing girth through the season. These young specimens are an excellent addition to stews. But when the Grandfather Ink-Cap has reached the full length of your hand and the cap has opened into a scaly canopy with a tatty grey beard, they are ready to make ink.
I pick a dozen, which is more than enough for a bottle, and tuck them in beside the tincture in the bottom of my basket. I quicken my pace now that I’m not looking for the ink-caps. Hopefully I can reach Cicely’s house before the rain gets any heavier.
Once I’ve made all of my visits and done all of my chores, I head home. The rain has set in, driving into my face. The wind tugs the hood off my head and drags the cloak out behind me so that it is no protection at all against the elements. When I burst through the kitchen door at last, I peel off every item of clothing, stoke the stove and drape them over it. Then I wrap myself in layer upon layer of blankets and sit on my stool at the table, poring through Granny’s potion book.
Set the Grandfather Ink-Caps in a bowl at home and allow the black gills to deliquesce, filling the air around with dark spores. After a couple of weeks the Ink-Caps will have dissolved, leaving only a stem and a leathery skin from the cap. Strain the liquid into a bottle and stopper.
The ink keeps well, but does accumulate an unsavoury odour of rot after a week. This can be mitigated by adding a few drops of plant oil. I like the scent of rosemary myself, but others work just as well. The ink is smooth and uniformly black, bar the twinkle of spores left in the wake of your pen stroke.
I was taught as a child that the ink of the Grandfather Ink-Cap had the ability to transcend realms. That words written here on earth could be read by beings Elsewhere. If anyone comes to you with a request for help that you know is beyond the power of us mortals to give, have them peel the bark of a silver birch, and upon it write their request using a raven-feather quill and Grandfather Ink-Cap ink. Then send the petition away upon whichever is their native element.
The ink-caps lie in the basin on my kitchen windowsill for ten days, slowly converting to a thin black liquid. Then I bottle the ink, add lavender oil with a flush of boldness, and set out towards the village as I do every day, to check on Cicely.
The day is cold but dry. We walk together to the ridge at the top of the valley, wind nipping at our faces. On the way I collect a raven feather and birch bark. Nature provides for us once more. At the top of the ridge, I cut a crude nib into the feather. Cicely and I write our wishes onto our scraps of bark and then roll them tightly, hiding the words. Then I watch Cicely shred hers into strands and release them into the sky on the windy hilltop. I dig a hole into the sodden ground with my fingers and bury mine. The words we wrote travel away, on the wind and into the soil. Should anyone receive our requests, we can only hope that they have the power and compassion to answer them.
My nails are black with mud and I feel foolish. But then Cicely grins at me and we are foolish together. That is all the reward I could ever have hoped for. A wish too great to inscribe on birch bark. A magic that comes from within, not above, manifesting at the fringes of our shared humanity. The evidence of something deep and hidden. I smile back at her and we return to the village together.
I walk her back to her cottage, where her husband is fixing a trellis sagging off the side of their porch. We exchange pleasantries and I promise to call in on Cecily again tomorrow. Then I take the muddy track home.
On my way I stray into the woods. The air is rich with the fragrance of decomposition. Of the old preparing for the new. I wear the solitude like a garment that I can shrug off. No one item is designed for all seasons. The trick is finding the one that suits your present need.
The ground is damp and tangled with grasping understory, but I brush through boldly. I make my way towards a clump of Breast Feather fungus adorning a hazel trunk up ahead. I will make sure I have enough to make Cicely more tea, should she call round for it one day. And I will sit her down on the stool while I take the rocking chair, and I will teach her about mushrooms as she drinks.