by Jo Salas
Published in Alimentum, November 2006
The previous autumn Hugo and Louise had discovered the delights of the Lepista nuda, growing in modest glory at the edge of a forest near their town. Hugo had noted the date and entered it into his electronic planner.
“Next weekend, Louise,” he said a year later. It was Sunday afternoon and they were coming home from their walk in the park. Hugo, an emergency room surgeon, was on call, so they couldn’t go far from his hospital. “That’s when they should be ready. If we go very early Saturday morning we should get there before everyone else.” In southern Germany, where they lived, wild mushroom picking was a seasonal ritual. From early October to mid-November families drove out into the woods and fields, looking with hostility at anyone else whose covered basket might conceal a trove of hideously beautiful treasure instead of a picnic.
“Philip’s coming on Friday, remember?” answered Louise.
“Yes, of course,” said Hugo. He had in fact forgotten. “How delightful it will be to see him again. Does he like mushrooms? Will he come with us, do you think? We will all gather the mushrooms and then I will cook you both a mushroom feast!” he said grandly.
Louise laughed and tightened her arm around his broad waist. “He loves them. When we were little we used to gather them at the horse farm where we went riding.”
Hugo snorted. “Horse mushrooms! I am sure he has never eaten the divine Lepista!”
“Probably not,” agreed Louise.
Louise and Hugo had been married for five years, quietly ecstatic to have found each other in middle age. Louise was a travel writer. They had met at a resort on the newly-accessible coast of Croatia where Hugo had taken a vacation in an unhopeful bid to cheer himself up. It had been like a miracle when the beautiful dark-haired Englishwoman had agreed to have dinner with him, and a further miracle when he learned that she spoke his language well.
Philip, Louise’s brother, was coming to Zurich for a jewelry designers’ expo and would detour across the border to visit them. Philip’s visits were difficult for Hugo. He’d never known a gay man before and he was tense with worry that he would unwittingly say something offensive. He knew, because he was an honest man, that hidden inside his awkwardness was a knot of disdain. He couldn’t help it. Men were made to love women, and do men’s work, not make pretty things out of precious metals and stones, he thought. Hugo’s self-consciousness made him stiff and formal, no matter how Louise assured him that Philip didn’t mind casual references to homosexuality. He and Louise even joked about it, as they joked about almost everything. Hugo thought he might be able to manage the situation better in his own language, although even in German Hugo didn’t know how to tease and sparkle like Philip. But Philip spoke no German. Hugo had to rely on his competent but rather old-fashioned English.
He tried to remind himself how much Louise loved these occasional visits with her younger brother, his beloved Louise, who had brought happiness back into his life. But as soon as he could he’d escape into his study or to the hospital, leaving the two of them to their incomprehensible banter and family anecdotes. “It’s only for a couple of days,” he’d remind himself, “and then we’ll be ourselves again,” meaning the affectionate, companionable way he and Louise were together.
Philip arrived on Friday evening. Hugo had been at the hospital since mid-afternoon dealing with the aftermath of a bad road accident. A young woman in a sports car had tried to overtake the car in front of her on the two-lane road and had hit an oncoming truck. Serious accidents happened almost every weekend on the narrow local roads heavily traveled by fast cars eager to reach the autobahn. Hugo had a secret sympathy with drivers who, like himself, were impatient with people who obeyed the speed limit. He had learned with difficulty to restrain his driving when Louise was with him.
It took hours of surgery to bring the young driver back from the threshold of death. Hugo took off his gloves and wiped his forehead as she was wheeled away to Intensive Care, hoping he wouldn’t be summoned back in an hour or two. “We have to watch her carefully for a while,” he told the girl’s haggard parents in the waiting room. “But she should do well. Don’t worry.” He always had to remind himself that ordinary people were not on familiar terms with mortality the way he and the other medical staff were.
When he arrived home Philip and Louise were drinking wine in the living room. They looked alike, with the same coloring and the same dimple in one cheek when they laughed, though Philip was slender where Louise was curved and statuesque. Philip’s close-cropped dark hair was beginning to recede, Hugo noted, resisting the impulse to stroke his own thick gray tresses.
“So! Philip!” he said after they’d greeted each other, Hugo forestalling Philip’s hug with a hearty handshake. “How was your time in Zurich? Did Louise tell you about our plan tomorrow?”
Philip looked questioningly at Louise. “What plan, Lou?”
“Oh, the mushrooms! I’d forgotten. Would you like to join us for an early morning trip to pick mushrooms, Pip?”
“Lovely!” said Philip. “Just wake me up and I’ll be ready. Oh—I brought a little present for you, Hugo.” He rummaged in his soft black leather knapsack and held up a giftwrapped package. Behind him Hugo could see Louise raising her eyebrows in warning. She was, he knew, remembering Philip’s last gift: a suede shirt which Hugo had given to his anesthetist, who wore such things, as soon as Philip had left.
Inside the box was a piece of jewelry, a cluster of pearls and colorful gems on a snake-like silver chain. Hugo stared at it, knowing he should at least pretend to be pleased. How could Philip imagine he’d wear such a thing?
“Oh, sorry!” said Philip, laughing at Hugo’s expression. He took the box gently out of Hugo’s hand and gave it to Louise. “This is for you, Lou. Here, Hugo, try this one.” He produced another little box. In it was a tiny folding knife, exquisitely made, completely functional. Hugo was relieved. “Well, Philip, how kind you are! This is wonderful. Just the thing for cutting mushroom stalks.”
He ducked into his study and came back with his mushroom book, a marker stuck at the page which showed the graceful Lepista in lifelike color. He handed it to Philip, who studied it.
“Wait a minute, how can you be sure they’re not these?” He pointed to the poisonous doppelgänger on the other page.
“We will be very, very careful,” said Hugo.
In the morning Hugo woke with a sense of wellbeing. After a moment’s puzzlement he traced it to the absence of interruption during his sleep. The young woman with the chest injury must have survived the night. Or she’d died. Either way, they hadn’t needed Hugo. He got up quickly. Louise was still asleep under the duvet. Her face was rosy and relaxed. His heart filled with the wonder that still sometimes came to him when he looked at her. “She loves me! I am no more alone!” He shook her gently, then bent down and kissed her cheek until she moaned and stirred. “Get up, my lovely one,” he whispered. “The mushrooms are waiting for us. And I have an idea!” Louise stretched, her eyes still closed. Hugo was impatient to tell her. “Do you want to hear what my very good idea is? Do you?” She nodded in the middle of a yawn. “We will have a competition. I on one side, you and Philip on the other. We will see who gathers the most mushrooms, England or Germany!” He reached out for her hands and pulled her up out of bed. “I will go and make some coffee to bring in the thermos.”
The morning was cool and damp with mist hanging low over dark treetops. Hugo hummed as he drove. Louise and Philip dozed.
“Here we are, damen und herren!” he called as he pulled into the empty parking lot at the head of a little lake. They climbed out of the car.
“Now,” Hugo said, looking at his watch. “It is exactly 6:45. I will go up that way and you will take the other path, that way.” He pointed. “There are plenty of mushrooms in both places. We will meet back here at 7:45. And we shall see who has the most. In case we cannot tell by looking, we will weigh them when we get back to the house.”
Philip mock-saluted and clicked his elegant boot-heels together. Louise took the basket Hugo held out.
“OK, Hugo,” said Philip. “We’ll be here. But watch out, Lou and I are a top-hole fungus team when we put our minds to it.”
“Top-hole?” repeated Hugo, but they were giggling as they walked away and didn’t hear him. Hugo buttoned up his raincoat against the drizzle and strode into the sparse forest, his eyes seeking out any tiny flashes of white or color that might reveal a fungus. He was after the Lepista nuda—he was sure he would find it—but there was no reason to overlook the other treasures he might stumble upon as well.
The woods were silent in the early morning. Hugo smiled to himself. Those mushroom lovers who were too lazy to get up early would regret their slothfulness. He walked up the side of the slope, pausing now and then to investigate a growth, picking some, rejecting others as dangerous imitators. The bottom of his basket was covered even before he emerged from the trees into the open field where the Lepista grew amongst the remains of the summer’s harvest. A feeble sun broke through the low clouds to illuminate an archipelago of pale violet-colored shapes poking up through tangled stalks. The air smelt of rain and fragrant decay. Hugo looked around. He was alone in the field. He bent down to the patch closest to him and began picking.
At ten past seven Hugo covered his basket with the clean linen cloth he’d brought in his pocket and clambered down to the parking lot, getting there at exactly 7:45. Louise and Philip were not in sight. He frowned, but immediately forgave them for being late. They’d be chattering so hard that they probably wouldn’t notice the time. Anyway, Hugo thought, he’d be very surprised if they had had anything like his own success. He sat on the hood of the car and poured a cup of coffee from the thermos.
“Hugo!” called Louise’s voice. “Here we are! Look what we’ve got!” She and Philip were each holding a handle of their basket, staggering with its weight. Hugo had a moment of alarm until he realized they were clowning. Philip grabbed the basket from Louise and held it above his head, laughing. “Don’t worry, Hugo!” To his relief, they seemed genuinely impressed by Hugo’s cache in spite of their frivolity. “Well, Germany wins, no question about it.”
“It does not matter,” he said magnanimously. “They are all for all of us.”
In the afternoon Hugo sat down at the table with the mushrooms sorted into piles of the different species they had all gathered, the fairy-like Laccaria amethystina, the phallic Coprinus comatus, a few Agaricus silvicola, and other delicacies. With his sensitive surgeon’s hands he wiped each one clean of dirt. He opened the big mushroom book, the definitive guide, studying the listing for each fungus. Louise leaned over his shoulder. The necklace Philip had brought her glowed around her neck. “Why, Hugo? We already know what they are, don’t we?”
“Yes, Louise, but I want to be quite, quite sure. So we can eat them with full enjoyment and no worry.” He didn’t mind. It was fascinating to read about each one, with its idiosyncratic shapes and colors and habits of growth. And about the treacherous look-alikes that often grew near them, tempting the unwary to illness or death like spiteful fairies of the forest. Every year there were mushroom-eaters who died, and they weren’t necessarily ignorant idiots, either. Hugo felt a stirring deep in his belly at the undeniable danger of this feast, but he reminded himself, severely, that he was eliminating any risk whatsoever.
It was almost an hour and a half later when Hugo got up from the table and stretched. “Well! I am ready,” he called up the stairs. Louise had taken Philip to look at the photos from her recent trip to Sicily where, alone, she’d explored one remote village after another in her intrepid way. Her Italian was almost as fluent as her German. Hugo had occasionally traveled with her, marveling at how she could make conversation with strangers no matter how alien or bizarre they seemed.
Hugo listened to them exclaiming and laughing. He wasn’t sure they’d heard him. He suppressed a flicker of annoyance. Louise by herself would have come instantly. “Louise?” he called a little louder. “Shall we drink some wine?” He opened a bottle of the wine he’d chosen for the occasion, a lively Muscadet with a tiny bubble to it, and poured three glasses. The others came down the stairs still talking about Sicily.
“Well, Hugo?” said Philip, putting an arm around his shoulder. “What do you think? Safe to eat?”
“Certainly,” said Hugo with dignity, pulling away. He picked up his glass. “I drink to your good health.” He clinked their glasses, looking into one pair of blue-gray eyes after the other, then took the bowls of mushrooms into the kitchen. He tied Louise’s striped apron around his middle and looked over her collection of enameled iron frying pans, choosing the biggest and heaviest of them. Hugo hummed softly as he heated olive oil and carefully chopped the first batch. He’d decided that they would begin with the Laccaria. A perfect first step for the journey into the many-flavored kingdom of the wild mushroom. He filled his wine glass again and stole a tiny taste of the Laccaria. Wine and mushrooms. Surely the gods must have banqueted like this.
“Our first dish will be ready in one minute,” he called. “Please sit down.” The perfume of the mushrooms was already filling the living room. Louise and Philip sat at the candle-lit table. Outside the sky was fading to darkness.
Hugo stood holding the pan like an offering with both oven-mitted hands.
“Aren’t you going to sit down?” asked Louise.
“No, my dear lady, tonight I am the cook.” He ladled the delicate-stalked fungi onto their plates. “I will eat as I cook.”
“And drink too,” said Philip, holding out his glass for a re-fill.
“And drink,” agreed Hugo.
“Oh heavenly!” said Louise, her mouth full of Laccaria amethystina. “Gorgeous, Hugo!”
He smiled modestly. “And this is only the beginning, remember!” Back in the kitchen the tall Coprinus comatus were ready for their turn in the big pan. Hugo sang the toreador’s song from Carmen as the mushrooms jumped and sizzled. He paused to open a new bottle of wine.
“Hugo?” Philip raised his voice so Hugo could hear. “We are absolutely sure, absolutely sure, aren’t we, that none of these are poisonous?”
“Poisonous?” Hugo answered from the kitchen. “I do not think so, Philip. But can one be absolutely sure, as you say, of anything in this life? Is not life itself about uncertainty?”
“Yes, but you know what I mean. Just tell me we’re not going to die tonight.”
Hugo came to the doorway. He held up his wooden spoon. “My dear boy, who am I to tell when you are or are not going to die? Life is a mystery. Death is a mystery. Death is perhaps very near to us at this moment, but it is not for us humans to know.”
“Oh, come on, Hugo,” said Louise impatiently. She turned to Philip. “Don’t listen to him, Pip. He’s awfully careful about things like this. He’s a scientist after all. And even if he made a mistake—well, the hospital’s right there.” She gestured to the lights visible half a block away. Hugo had a sudden vision of the three of them being carried into the hospital on stretchers, their skin gray, vomit seeping from their mouths, the emergency room staff aghast—“It’s Herr Doktor Kaufman!” He whistled merrily. It was almost time for the climax of the feast. He stirred the mushrooms gently, taking them off the heat at the precise moment when they were done.
“May I present—the great Lepista nuda!” proclaimed Hugo as he set the yellow pan down on the table. “Or what I truly, with all my heart, believe to be the great Lepista! But perhaps the great Entoloma instead, in which case this will be our last meal together!” Instead of filling their plates as before, he fed a forkful of the gleaming Lepista to Louise and Philip, watching with satisfaction as their eyes widened. Philip moaned. “Oh my god, Hugo!” he said. “This is beyond divine.” He took more. “I don’t even care if it kills me! I think you’re right—what’s life for anyway?”
Louise sighed. “Hugo, it’s wonderful,” she said. “You’re doing a brilliant job. Why don’t you sit down with us?”
“No, no, it is my pleasure to serve you tonight, my love,” said Hugo. He offered more wine, but their glasses were still full. He filled his own glass. “I am the champion of the wine-drinking tonight!” he announced. “I am the picker of the mushrooms, the cooker of the mushrooms, and the champion of the wine!”
“You certainly are, Hugo, my boy,” said Philip. “I’m surprised you’re still standing.”
Outside it was fully dark. Stars lit up the sky beyond the black silhouette of the hospital. An ambulance siren wailed as it climbed the cobbled streets.
“And it is our good luck that I, your humble cook, am not on call tonight!” cried Hugo, stirring more mushrooms as the siren grew louder. “Whoever has broken his head or contracted appendicitis tonight, it is not I who will come to their aid. Tonight I am Mushroom Man! If this were a movie we would not know yet whether I am a goodie or a baddie!”
He brought another panful of mushrooms to the table. Louise put her hand over her plate. “No, Hugo, honestly, I think I’ve had enough.”
He looked at her carefully. “You’re just full, liebling? You are feeling all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine, I’ve just had enough, thank you.”
“Fill me up,” said Philip, holding up his plate. “I can’t say no. I think I’ve found out what heroin must be like. You don’t care what happens, you just have to have it.”
Hugo filled his plate and stood by the table eating from the pan. “And we must ask, do we live for fear or do we live for beauty? What is safety compared with pleasure?” He took another mouthful, stuffing the stems in with his fingers. “Would these mushrooms taste so exquisite if their sisters were not murderers?”
Philip lifted his glass. “Yes indeed! Here’s to the two-faced fungus! Here’s to dying in good company!” He clinked Hugo’s glass again.
Louise slapped the table. “Oh stop it, please, both of you. These mushrooms aren’t dangerous and anyway if they were it’s hardly a joke.”
Philip ignored her. “Hugo, I’ll have one more helping but I insist you sit and join me, you master cook and mushroom-picker, you.”
“With pleasure, dear brother.” He sat down, sighing as the chair took his weight. He realized he’d been on his feet for hours. He let Philip serve him. In unison they ate the garlicky slivers of fungus so intensely flavored that each new mouthful astounded them like the first. “Mm-m-m!” moaned Philip and Hugo together.
“Listen to the two of you!” said Louise.
Hugo pushed his chair back from the table and patted his round stomach. “I am full! Full of the food of the gods! I will sleep like the dead tonight!” He looked at Louise, who was not smiling. “I’m sorry, meine liebe.”
They cleared the table off together. “Let us leave everything until tomorrow,” instructed Hugo. Louise looked at the mess of plates, pots, wine bottles, and mushroom stems but didn’t argue. He knew what she was thinking. He usually insisted on an immaculate cleaning of the kitchen no matter how tired they were. “It is for my morning self,” he would remind her. “Otherwise I feel depressed.”
Philip yawned. The hall light flashed on the small faceted topaz he wore in one ear. He kissed Louise. “A night to remember. Vielen Dank, Hugo.” He made a little bow. “Truly magnificent.”
Hugo was flooded with warmth. He embraced Philip, feeling the unfamiliar wiry body against his own for a moment.
“Let’s agree that if any of us feels ill during the night we’ll wake each other up,” called Philip as Louise and Hugo climbed the stairs. “OK!” said Hugo over his shoulder.
Hugo groaned as he got into bed. “What a feast, Louise. My stomach is bursting.”
“Hugo.” Louise turned to him. “You don’t really think…”
“No, no, I don’t, I was just being silly. I’m certain we’re fine.”
Louise nestled into his side. He held her closely, listening to her breath ease as she slipped quickly into sleep. Every night since they’d been together he’d treasured this moment of their bodies meeting again in the darkness, skin to skin. He lay awake for a long time, not sleepy at all. Life fizzed in his veins like the Muscadet.