BY Heidi Wicks
The floor of the woods scuttles with tiny moving organisms, all scurrying towards or away from something.
With each twig crunched under a hiking boot, Todd strides further ahead.
Each step cracks Matilda’s heart a little bit more. She’s a snail, soon to be without a shell, left to be tramped on, cracked apart, splattered into a pile of goo and smeared all over the place.
“You can come with me, I guess, but I’ll have to blindfold you until we get there.”
Why? Why can’t you just say where the spot is?
People are so protective over their God damn chanterelle spots.
Oh I can’t tell you that, they say, flashing a coy smile. That’s top secret.
Posting their photos on Facebook. A little patch of dark chocolate-coloured soil, covered with emerald moss, sprinkled with psychedelic polka-dots of golden fungi. The toe of their boot peeking in from the bottom corner of the shot, marking their territory. These are mine, the boot says. You don’t have any.
Oh just frig off with your secrets. Jesus. Wouldn’t know now, you were off looking for the Hope Diamond. Or the Holy Grail. Or the ghost of the last Newfoundland Wolf.
Facebook. Isabella Coffee sent her a message two weeks ago.
Matilda! Hey hun. Its’ been a while, hey? How are you?!
The last time Matilda saw Isabella Coffee, she was basically tickling Todd’s bicep with her nipple. Standing next to him on the platform just outside The Ship, twittering at everything he said. Smug because she’s as tall as he is without having to stand on a step. Matilda needs to stand on the next step up to be level with Todd.
A photo posted later that night. Matilda saw it while lying in bed, after she went home because she had class the next morning. Scrolling, the close-up of a bubbly and golden pint. A finger behind the pint, attached to the person sitting across from Isabella. She knew that finger. That finger had passed her a coffee that very morning. That finger was attached to the guy who sat across from her at their kitchen table in their apartment on Lime Street.
She weaves through the trees, pushing branches out of the way and Todd lets go of one he’s holding and it snaps back. Whaps her in the face.
“Jesus, Todd! Watch it!”
She kicks a sludgy patch of leaves out of the way and caterpillars scurry, desperate to find a new and dark place in which to carry out their activities. He doesn’t even hear her. A few feet away from a large tree, he suddenly stops. Army-crawls through some low shrubbery, towards the tree’s trunk. Crouches. Lifts the branches. Ta-da! A patch of honey-gold chanterelles.
“Just look. At. Those.” He’s talking, but moreso to himself.
“It’s a good patch?”
“Yep, it’s a good one alright.” He pulls his switchblade from his back pocket. “The gills, Matilds. Now that’s a sign of a good ‘shroom.” He slices one off. “Make sure you cut them, not pull them, so the dirt stays off it. Then when we get them home, we don’t have to clean them.”
A wolf spider skitters across Todd’s hand and he flicks it away. Matilda’s father is an entomologist and once, when she was in elementary school, he told her the difference in a wolf spider and a nursery spider.
“They look a lot alike, so it’s tough to tell. The wolf ones can trick you into thinking they’re harmless. But if you look closely at their eyes – two of their six eyes are bigger. All of a nursery spider’s eyes are the same size.” Her father widened his eyes and made fangs with his index fingers. Panic and distrust sank their teeth into her gut.
The comments under the photo of the bubbly golden pint:
Oooo, looks romantic!
Holdin’ out on us @I’sa-Joe?! Who owns those fingers?
“Hey.” Matilda pulls out her phone. Todd doesn’t hear her, he’s obsessing, eyes-like-loonies, engrossed in his mushroom patch. “Hey!”
He jumps. Startled. A squirrel, twitching to protect his nuts.
“It’s so gorgeous in here, let’s do a selfie.” She cuddles up next to him and points her phone at them. “Smile!” They ‘cheeeese’ at the phone and she posts it right away.
Caption:‘Shroomin’ in secret.
Who’s smug now? They’re cheek-to-rosy-cheek. Surrounded by greenery-dripping-with-dew. Matilda is winking, Todd is beaming. That smile. So kind, so inviting, like the warm sunlight slicing through the trees above them.
This is my mushroom patch, Isabella Coffee. Not yours.
Todd is wearing his trademark khaki pants with the pockets on the legs and a red plaid shirt. The red plaid shirt he has had for ten years.
“I was wearing this shirt the day we did too much acid, when I lived on Victoria Street.” He told her this as they laid in a hammock in Bannerman Park, their limbs tangled like tree roots. They’d been together only a few months back then. “I was 18 and we inhabited the bodies of vampires from the 18th century and walked around, outside the theatre, talking to girls,” he told her one day, and she drank the pheromones that drenched the fibers on his plaid.
“Ok.” He pulls away from her. “Here, come take a look and cut a few for your bag. There’s another patch just right there,” he points with his pocket knife, “just a few feet away.”
She leans into him and looks where he’s pointing and the shirt smells the same as it always did but there’s a breath of a chemical-floral body lotion mixed in there.
“Remember now, slice above the dirt.”
Slice above the dirt; is that even possible? Once, they’d shoot random ‘I love you’ texts through the communication airwaves. Bake each other partridgeberry muffins or boil bakeapple jam from ingredients they’d picked themselves, from the ground, from real life. Make homemade birthday cards from old Archie comics and words cut from magazines.
Todd came home from working at the Delta, and Matilda came home from working the late shift at Classic Café, and they’d cook French toast at 5am. Peel off their uniforms and climb into bed and sink into the mattress and pillows and each other. Wake up at noon the next day and wind into each other and work up a sweat before stepping into the shower.
Five years. Twenty-three-years-old to 28-years-old. A lot can change in five years.
The first time Matilda suspected anything was after Todd came back from a road trip with a bunch of the guys. They’d been together for about three years.
“Oh yeah, it was a laugh,” he’d had this look in his eye. A distance. A smirk.
A Facebook photo. A show for his friends’ band. There was a girl. By the bar. Making Bambi eyes at Todd.
Caption: What happens with the lads …
Matilda asked Brad Whelan, the bassist, what happened on the road trip. “’Tilda, man. Nothin’ happened.”
Cleaning Lime Street the next day, she couldn’t resist. She shuffled through his backpack and there was a note. Tucked into one of his magazines. See you back in Sin City.
He came home from the Delta and she came home from Classic Café and there was no French toast. Their limbs were a tree split at the base, growing in opposite directions.
Chanterelles have to be closely examined to tell if they’re the real deal. False Chanterelles will ruin the day. Jack-o’-lantern mushrooms? You don’t want to know about those.
“Don’t go poisoning yourself, now,” Matilda’s mother warned her the first time they went picking mushrooms.
“Todd does this all the time, Mom, don’t worry. He’s a seasoned forager.”
A caustic, “Oh I’m sure he is,” her mother muttered under her breath.
Her father, as always, backed her mother up. “That’s one area insects have us beat,” he chortled, “they know instinctively which mushrooms are poisonous. If only we had their insect-inct!” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose while no one else laughed.
Matilda crouches in her own patch, a few feet away from Todd. The spruce tree air is Pine Sol for the sludge in her brain. The ick. The feeling, since she read Isabella’s message, that her world has gone all dirty.
Nice to hear from you, Isabella. Been a while, for sure. Surprised to see your name pop up! What’s new?
What is your game, Isabella?
Mushroom head, slice. Chop. Oops, bit of dirt on that one. Oh well. A bit of extra washing won’t hurt anyone.
“You ready?” He calls out from his patch.
“Ready when you are!” She ziplocks her baggie. Rising to her feet, her head floats through a spider’s web. She swipes the sticky, cottony film from her face and hair. The after-effects of walking through a spider web are ghostly, like the web passes right through the outside skin and rests just underneath, meshing with the muscle tissue, spreading through the body, the residue lingering. Haunting.
She smells that cheap lotion again while following Todd to the car. Bile rises in her throat.
“Sure you’re alright?” Todd lays his right hand on her left, his left on the steering wheel.
“Oh yeah. Fine.” Through the windows, it’s green trees and grass and gravel and rocks and water, just whooshing by. Scattered graffiti prophecies:
Red Loves Jonny
Love is an arsehole (and so are you)
The new Great Big Sea album is not bad, pretty decent!
They’re 40 minutes from Lime Street.
“I’ve got a white pasta sauce recipe with chanterelles,” Matilda doesn’t stop looking out the window, “I could do that when we get home, if you like. It’s like velvet.”
“I’d drape myself in velvet if I could.” Todd stares straight ahead, both hands now on the wheel. There was a time when she would’ve laughed at that.
The ingredients simmer on the stove. White wine. Heavy cream. Pepper. Butter. Garlic. Parmesan.
Bubbles, pop-pop-in-the-pan, the fluid simmers to a slow boil.
She cleans the mushrooms she picked. Digs her fingers in, scratching away the dirt. Raking the earth through her hands, churning the soil with her fingers, she can smell the woods again, and reconnects with the real world. Much better to have fingertips scraping dirt from under her fingernails in the real world than swiping away photos from a manifested world on a mobile device screen. Photos that may or may not mean something. Photos representing the way someone wants their life to be.
“Don’t forget mine now,” Todd stops next to her on the counter and rests his hand on her butt. Dumps his own bag next to hers. “You won’t have to wash mine,” pat-pat on her butt. Ha ha. Real hilarious, Todd.
Pop-pop-pop the tiny bubbles burst closer together with every half-degree of increased heat. The buttery cream and garlic swirls with the woodsy fresh air from where they came and Matilda turns the heat down, and the bubbles get bigger and pop slower, until the pot is once again calm.
She splashes frosty white wine in a glass. Sips it and it trickles down through her hot core, cooling her veins, purifying the fascia webbing her muscles.
She rinses her mushrooms and tosses all of them together, hers and Todd’s, into a pile. Scoops a healthy portion up, drops them into his sauce and stirs. Ladles it over the linguini and the sauce is thick and creamy, like the old Velveeta commercials that came on during Saturday morning cartoons.
“How’re we doing out here?” Todd trots out from the bedroom.
“What were you doing?”
“Huh? Oh – just checking Facebook.”
A bit of sauce dripped underneath the pot and stuck to the burner and it stinks.
Todd pulls his chair in, his legs under the table, tucks into his food very quickly.
“Sorry, just going to wash my face. I walked through a spider web earlier and it’s still a bit sticky.” She needs to walk, even if it’s just to the bedroom and back.
His phone is on the bed and there’s a message on the screen.
Hey – you heading out later? xx
Her blood, pop-pop like the sauce on the stove and she speedwalks to the bathroom and splashes water on her face, on her arms. She swipe-swipe-swipes away the cobwebs and the goo. Her arms and face are red from the friction of the face cloth and her hands and from the anger and hurt in her core.
Todd plucks up a piece of French bread, smearing butter on it. Sops up the leftover sauce.
“We could make a kind of tapenade with the rest of those ‘shrooms,” he says between chomps. Cheery as anything. Lying to her face.
“Yeah. That’d be nice.”
“How come you’re not eating?”
“My stomach’s actually a bit off. I’m waiting for the wine to settle it.” She tosses the rest of what’s in her glass down her throat and the liquid has gone to room temperature and it’s not cooling her insides like it did before so she goes to the fridge to replenish.
“Oh shit,” Todd thrusts his chair backwards, suddenly. “’Scuse me for a sec.”
Remembered he left his phone in there, did he?
“Matilda,” her father told her once, “there’s this one kind of mushroom, they look a whole lot like chanterelles, but let it be known – they’re not chanterelles. They’re called Jack-o’-Lanterns and they make a person quite sick.”
The floor of the Lime Street apartment scuttles with one big organism, scurrying away.
The bathroom door slams.
Matilda looks at Todd’s plate. Looks at her own plate. Her mind blinks to the woods, his patch of mushrooms, her patch of mushrooms.
She takes another sip of wine, a smug sip of wine, and this time it’s doing the trick-and-the-treat and her internal temperature is regulated.
His backpack rests on the floor, by the front door, and there’s a little box on the top with a note on it. Laying her wine glass on the table, realizing the bathroom will be occupied for a while, she creeps over. Picks it up.
It’s a ring, carved from wood, brushed and polished and shellacked.
From the tree roots under the ground, to our feet on this earth, to the blue sky and fluffy cotton ball clouds, you are in me and with me forever. You are real life, you are natural. Marry me in the woods someday?
Organisms scurry in her abdomen, up through her chest, tickling the back of her throat, up the back of her neck, tiny spider bites all over her skull and there’s a whoosh of embarrassment and relief and confusion and oh shit – she was in the mall with Todd’s mom last weekend and she bought this cheap-ass lotion from Victoria’s Secret for herself and suddenly the one who’s scampering away is Matilda Wakeham.
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