False Morels

By  |  March 13, 2018
“Response to Print of Vulture Roost, Texas” (2010), by Laura Plageman. “Response to Print of Vulture Roost, Texas” (2010), by Laura Plageman.
 

Spring water dripped down the face of a slate cliff onto the hard-packed road where a body lay still and comfortable. His right hand lay under his head, his left lay soft on his chest. And that is how they found him.

Baba and her granddaughter, Angela, were looking for morels. They left the station wagon up on the blacktop, and then shuffled down the dirt road. The path was cut into a deep Virginia gulley that smelled heavy of creek and rainwater. Trees here were lanky but tightly gathered. 

Baba shuffled in bright green plastic Crocs. Her eyes had hints of cataracts. She called morel mushrooms “wood chickens” and licked her lips whenever she thought of them. 

Angela had never tried morel hunting before. She did not dream of mushrooms. She was a college student—thin legged, straight-backed, with the stroll of someone who loved sidewalks. Now she took on her grandmother’s shuffle, trying to anticipate Baba’s next fall.

The woods were dressed in green, and the low dogwoods were starting to open their thin buds. The dirt road was a soaked brown that would steam. NO TRESPASSING signs were nailed to trees every seven feet. 

When granddaughter and grandmother walked around the curve of the road, they came across the man—sleeping, but not. Baba paused, then Angela did too. She felt her voice catch low in her throat so that her scream came out instead as a yelp. 

“Do you see him?” Angela said. The milk jug buckets in their hands knocked against each other. 

“It’s a him, wnuczka?” Baba said, much louder. Her Polish accent made words smooth in unexpected places.

They set down their milk jugs and walked closer. Angela sunk down to her haunches to look closely at the man. As they moved closer, the smell of him grew stronger—unwashed and foul. His clothes were stained with the same vomit that dappled his chin. The denim was fraying where the heels of his shoes caught and his plaid shirt was ripped along the button seam. The spring water dampened the road beneath his boot. The man’s fingernails were licked with mud. His hair was spidery. Baba put a hand on Angela’s back and steadied herself. 

“Stand still, Angela. —Sir? Hello. Can we help?” Baba said.

He did not respond. Water speckled his face. Angela took a few more steps, but her grandmother paused. Baba knew the soft blue of his lips, and what it meant when a man did not flinch at the touch of cold spring water.

“Don’t touch him,” she said. Angela hadn’t even thought to touch him. “You have your smartass phone on you, don’t you?”

“I’ve got my phone,” she said. Her nausea subsided slightly with the act of pulling it from her pocket.

“Ask for Franklin Lee—the deputy. I like him. Always runs bingo.” 

While Angela dialed the police station, Baba walked forward, put her hands on the man’s chest, and felt for a heartbeat that did not press against his chest. She hoped for the slow opening of a lung, the movement of a nostril, but there was nothing. When someone picked up, Baba took the phone and explained the situation. “We found a dead man,” she said in her buttered voice. “Got a bag next to him, Frank. A bag of false morels.” She described their location as though the phone was a great tunnel to call through. 

Angela’s eyes jumped to the soft fabric sack. A couple of feet away from the man, several mushrooms spilled out into the wet ditch. They looked purplish and thick, with heads like crumpled rags. Baba had mentioned them before. This species looked like morels but could cause seizures if eaten. Angela wondered if this man had eaten lots. 

Frank’s response was tinny and distant, but Angela could still hear him. He said to leave everything where it was. “Hang tight,” he said. “It’ll take us about a half hour to make it down there.” 

Baba told Frank not to worry. Then she passed the phone back to Angela to hang up the call. 

“Why are we staying? We don’t have to stay,” Angela said, her voice dropping to the dirt. 

“Because we can’t let the vultures get to him.” 

“How would the vultures find him all the way down here?” 

“Sight,” Baba said. “They know it when they see it. He can’t have been here too long, so we’re lucky. He’s still in one piece. And granddaughters don’t argue anyway, so just close your mouth.” 

Angela looked into the sky. It was Baba who gave birth to Angela’s father, who talked about valiant soldiers, who told her parents every Christmas that the holiday would be brighter with a boy around. Angela’s grandmother had a pedestal waiting for a grandson to stand on. 

It would be easy to ignore Baba, easy to sink into college and never return to gullies like this one. But Angela did not. She had lived next door to Baba for twenty years, and they shared a genetic kinship in the hook of their eyebrows, the health of their long hair. All of this demanded that Angela simply forgive her grandmother. And she always had. 

Baba’s eyes brightened. Angela just shrugged and sat down in the grass. Her grandmother nodded, though there was disappointment too. She loved a good fight—loved empty sentences spit back and forth. 

They sat on the bank of the road, across from the dead man. 

“You know him?” Angela said. 

“No, I don’t, thank God,” Baba said. She pressed her fingers to her forehead. 

“I haven’t ever seen a dead body before.” 

“Well, at least your first dead body was not someone you love.” 

“That’s optimism,” Angela said, eyeing her grandmother. She was wishing she hadn’t gone on this trip so willingly, but she still hoped somehow that this time she could find something in Baba’s personality to hold on to. An endearing warmth that Angela could savor. Her grandmother just sighed at the sunlight above them and ran a hand over the folds of her neck. 

“Finding somebody dead is just part of it,” Baba said. 

After a small stretch of silence, Angela imagined the white space of her own little apartment by her university an hour away in Richmond, with peonies planted along the parking lot. 

“I found your Dziadziu,” Baba said. “Dead in his sleep. Fried potatoes killed him before I could.” 

“It’s weird that you still joke about killing your husband,” Angela said. Baba shrugged and kept talking. 

“He was—he was strange. I’d never seen a man sleep with his eyes half open until I slept next to him. When he was dead, he looked like he was just sleeping in. And I said, It’s time to get up, Szymon—then I threw the pillow, the red one stuffed with beads. It just bounced off his head.” 

Gnats gathered around Angela’s face, and she waved her hand at them. The trees spoke now with the low sound of cicadas. 

“And then my brother,” Baba said. She stopped talking to get a rock out of her Croc. Her bare foot came up for sunlight and Angela could see its veins, its soft-textured skin like tissue paper. 

“You saw your brother when he died?” Angela asked. 

Baba continued speaking while looking up to the tree canopy. 

“I saw him. And my heart cracked right there. The chambers broke open.” 

“How did he die?” 

Baba didn’t respond for a couple of seconds. She looked at her foot, moved the toes. 

“He wrecked his bicycle,” she said, leaving her shoe off. “Ran it right into one of the tanks they had parked in the shadow of a barn on the farm next to ours. You don’t know about that kind of thing.” 

Baba’s thick lips tightened the way they always did when her prior life, or the war, came into conversation. 

“I’m sorry,” Angela said, though she didn’t believe the story. She had heard family members talk about her great-uncle’s death—how he died very young in a scuffle with soldiers over bread. She’d hoped Baba would fill in the gaps. Then again, she couldn’t bring herself to second-guess Baba aloud. It was all a circle—Angela hoping for something they could balance between them, and Baba tightening her lips. 

Her grandmother nodded and didn’t respond. The nape of her neck was gathering a sheen of sweat. 

“He had a sharp, bright scrape from his chin to the top of his head,” Baba said. 

Angela tried to imagine Baba with her hair cropped tight to her head as she wore it in the early portrait photographs her father hung in the dining room. She tried to imagine young Baba, when everyone called her Aleksandra, looking over this dead man. Young Baba would have been on her knees, hand over her mouth. But, as she tried to imagine young Baba, Angela could only imagine herself in a pale dress with different hair. 

“It’s okay,” Baba said. “It’s good to see the dead. It’s good.” 

 

The vulture came first as a shadow. Angela looked up as he landed with a great flush of wind. Then there he stood, just up the road, cloaked in his wings, eyeing the two women. Angela looked from the vulture to her grandmother. Baba stood. 

“It’s like you summoned him,” Angela said. “You damn thing—go home.” 

He cocked his wrinkled head and considered Baba first, her one bare foot, her outstretched hand. Then Angela. Then he saw the dead man. Angela wondered if the body had started to change—moving into a dead thing that vultures eat. But the man seemed quite the same. His hand was still lying lightly against his chest. The vulture let out a low grunt. 

The bird took a step and then glided low to the body, moving much lighter than he looked. Baba tried to peg him with her shoe, but it didn’t reach far enough. She took off her other shoe and reared back. It pitched high and hit the vulture square in the backend. He flew a few feet and then retreated up the road to watch Angela and Baba watch him. 

“Why did the Croc cross the road?” Angela said, but it wasn’t a funny thing to say. 

“We need to protect him.” 

“The dead guy?” 

“From that nasty thing—who do you think?” Baba said. She pointed up the road. The vulture ducked as though Baba had another shoe. 

When nothing flew through the air, he moved forward again. He stepped gently, as though learning a march. Baba took off the lace jacket that she always wore over her large t-shirts and laid it in the grass. 

“Come here, son of a bitch,” Baba said, and she ran the only run she could still muster from her legs. It was something of a squat-run, her body bent, her hands in fists. She went for the vulture, but at the last second he took off for a tree and landed in a white oak. The sound of his feathers followed him. Baba shook her fist, then turned to Angela. 

“Don’t let yourself be afraid of vultures. Women should never fear birds. They come from the same place.” Baba smiled, breathing hard. She sat down in the middle of the road where grass grew between tire tracks. Then, she lay down, her legs wide in their white jeans. 

“You’re going to have a hell of a time getting up.” 

Baba continued, “And then there were other boys, and some families, but I never saw them and their bodies. There was a young boy—Dawid—sent my sister letters. Then the letters stopped. Young men were sent all over. I don’t think I ever believed they were truthfully dead.” 

“Get up, Baba, c’mon,” Angela said. 

She held a hand out to her grandmother. 

Baba took it. 

Angela didn’t believe how little Baba claimed to know of the war. Her grandmother spoke easily of the dead and left out details so casually. Angela didn’t want to imagine the six months it took Baba to flee Poland to a cousin’s apartment in New York. An uncle had mentioned that her Baba knew what dirt tasted like. That she had raided houses of the deceased for rotting food. But how could Angela know this if her grandmother did not admit to it? Baba’s past was dusty and confused in how she described it, with spikes of sunlight when men appeared in her life. 

As her grandmother sat up, Angela held an arm at the small of her back to cradle her. As she righted Baba, she realized how feeble her grandmother had become. She wiped dust from the old woman’s nose. Touching the cartilage was something equivalent to fully giving in. Her grandmother needed her. 

Baba looked at her feet, then her shoes, then her granddaughter. The vulture watched as Angela moved to retrieve the Crocs. 

“We need to protect him,” Baba said again. She took off her t-shirt. It was a slow process of pulling the fabric over her head, the collar catching on her great chin. When the t-shirt pulled free, only the fabric of Baba’s wide satin bra covered her. The sun pressed against the seams and the sinewy lines along her shoulders. She laid her shirt over the man’s face, then took her lace jacket from the grass and laid it over his waist. 

The bird landed on the ground and bobbed in their direction. Eight feet away, then four. He moved his head up and down while stepping around the t-shirt. Baba kicked at him and made brief bird-foot contact. He stumbled, made a low hiss, and stepped toward the dead man’s hand. 

“No, no, don’t you dare,” Baba said. 

The intensity of her voice, the sharpness of her “don’t” made Angela bristle and ready herself to step in. She watched Baba’s eyes narrow, then focused her own. 

First, Angela tried to toss the milk jugs at him, but they flew light and wobbly through the air. The vulture watched them sail over him. Then, she took off her own shirt and felt the air of the low gulley touch her shoulder blades. She snapped her t-shirt in the air toward the vulture. The bird moved his legs in a grapevine motion to avoid her. She laid her t-shirt over the chest and hand of the dead man. The vulture croaked. 

“Go on,” Angela said. 

He flew back to his white oak. 

“Did you touch this man?” Baba asked. 

“No, I didn’t,” Angela said. “Only the shirt.” 

“Don’t touch him.” 

“You did.” 

“I did because I have touched one before. Move slowly through new things.” 

Angela dropped her eyes, knowing not to argue. 

“Isn’t that right?” Baba asked. 

Angela caught her breath when she realized that Baba was talking not to her, but to the dead man. 

“You damn fool,” her grandmother said, turning fully to him now. 

“Stop it, Baba.” 

Baba closed her lips. 

They stood in silence in their bras. The vulture hunkered in the oak for a few seconds before flying back to the road. Each time he made a slow movement forward, Angela dragged a few steps as though to run after him. He hesitated each time, scraping his talons. Baba watched. 

“Hold on, Baba,” she said. “I’ll get this one for good. I’ll scare him away for you.” Angela sunk lower. The vulture stared intently. 

“You won’t. He is too dedicated,” Baba said. But her voice was excited. 

“All I have to do is scare him enough. He should know we’re bigger. He should know to wait for a body until the bigger animal is done with it.” 

Baba nodded, and bent down too, her breasts hanging toward the ground. 

“Yes, you’re right. He’s dedicated though.” 

Angela held her arm up, and the vulture paused. Looked at her hand, then her. She took a step forward. The vulture held his ground. Angela kicked the rocks at her feet and took off. The bird began a wobbly run, then took a low flying leap away. She didn’t slow. He took off over the road, gliding in between steps. Angela followed, suddenly aware of the sun on her bare shoulders. Then he took flight up a hill far into the woods, the road fifteen feet away. She focused on his tail feathers and kept on, leapt a pile of rocks and landed at the base of a maple. At last, at the top of the wooded hill, the vulture’s wings flapped wind into her hair. Soon, he was a distant circling mass, swinging around the trees, then disappearing behind the canopy. 

With the vulture gone and the wind blowing, it occurred to Angela that she was shirtless in the woods. Her hiking boots were clotted with mud. This side of the mountain faced south, and she could feel the warmth of the exposure. When she turned back down the hill, the edge of the dirt road was in view, but Baba was out of sight. Angela knelt down to see farther down the hill, but saw only more rock and gravel. A NO TRESPASSING sign waved at her in the wind. She took a few steps down the hill, trying to imagine what Baba was thinking at that moment, back on the road. 

She imagined her grandmother alone, crying by herself in the gully, looking for Angela to come back to her. Though, with this thought, Angela felt an immediate guilt. It was wrong to hope Baba was that dependent. Of course, this was a ridiculous image anyway. Angela had only seen Baba cry once, two days after Dziadziu’s funeral, and she dropped only three tears. 

Angela stomped between pin oaks and small sassafras trees. Below a wide-reaching oak, she trampled four morels. Their woody bodies collapsed. 

Before walking into the sunlight, she peered down the road to catch a glimpse of what her grandmother was doing. Baba was there, her bra still glaring in the light. She was sitting on the edge of the road next to the dead man, her feet in her Crocs again. She talked easily, her palms open. 

Angela took a step closer. 

“My Angela wouldn’t have had to run so far if she was a boy. She would have caught him,” Baba said. She was speaking low to the dead man, as though he was listening closely. Angela strained to hear. “But you wouldn’t have eaten false morels if you were a woman, would you? Or at least you would have left a note. Yes? And, you ate all of that. So much pain in your belly, while the rest of the world scrambles to keep on living. Shame. There was a man once who I knew—he made bread in town. He was shot in a ditch and he begged them not to step on his hands even as his whole body emptied. So, whoever you meet at the end will not be impressed.” 

The man said nothing back. Angela expected his mouth to move under the t-shirt. 

“It was easier, though, wasn’t it? And that’s what you wanted—something easier. I can’t imagine choosing easier.” Baba looked up the cliff’s side, then back to the man. There was quiet. Her voice softened. “There’s only a few things that don’t change between here and Poland. Where mushrooms grow and how quiet you all are.” She patted the dead man’s knee. 

Angela stepped into the road. Baba looked up, closed her thick eyelids and sighed. It was as though her granddaughter had broken a conversation between adults. There was the sound of a police siren growing closer, somewhere up the blacktop road. 

“Get your clothes on. I look like a crazy hag, but you’re a harlot in your bra.” Baba patted the dead man’s knee again with the powdery skin of her palm. There was the same tone, the same odd disgust, but now Angela was confused. To say she was a harlot was to say she was a woman. To say she was a woman was to say she arrived with birds. Yet she had just chased a bird and felt nothing for its dry feathers. She could find no reason in Baba’s stare now. 

Angela picked up her shirt and pulled it on again, trying to find relief in the cotton even though it had been stretched across the dead man’s soiled chest. 

“Well,” she said. “That bird ain’t coming back.” 

Baba stood slowly with Angela’s help, her feet now sliding wet against plastic soles. 

“Of course it will,” Baba said. “You must always keep your eyes.” 

She pointed to a gliding figure as it landed high in a tree. It held tight to a bough. 

Angela’s breath burst out of her mouth and then her voice followed. She flailed her arms at the bird and yelled at him, deep wordless notes. 

As Angela howled, Baba stepped back from her, looking from granddaughter to bird. The howling went on and on, barreling through Angela’s throat. Baba nodded, shaking her fist at the bird. Angela saw her grandmother out of the side of her eye, and the beat of Baba’s fist made her yell louder at the bird, who only cocked his head. 

All of Angela’s energy went into flailing her fists and scraping her feet over the dirt road. The effort seemed to have no effect. The bird simply stretched one wing, then one leg, readying himself to make a run for the meat of the man’s upper arm, the flesh of his cheek, the skin of his stomach. Anything before the spine met the dirt. 


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Jessi Lewis teaches writing in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her novel manuscript, She Spoke Wire, was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her story “False Morels” was selected as the Oxford American’s 2018 debut fiction winner and is her first major print publication.