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   d e s t r o y i n g    a n g e l

--- S U S A N   L E W I S

        Alexis and J. Paul wander through the woods like the guilty or the insane: head and shoulders bowed, eyes darting from tree base to tree base, scanning the forest floor. So far, they've found nothing but an inedible polypore. Their dog pulls at the leash, bored with their trudging pace. Alexis knows J. Paul is disappointed.
        It's beautiful in here, anyway, she offers.
        Her sensitivity to his mood makes J. Paul feel worse—guilty, also inadequate, because he can't do a better job of controlling his frustration. As if he has no right to feel agitated after she's spent the night with a man she's loved since before they met.
        He catches a flash of white in his peripheral vision: a glow of impossible purity among the soggy tones of leaf and humus. He knows what it is, before he gets to it. Says, how beautiful!
        It is: dewy and plump, exotic as a creature from a tropical sea. Amanita virosa. The Destroying Angel.
        It looks so innocent and ... pure, Alexis says.
        And delicious! They say it is; people who have eaten it have said so—
        Before they died.
        J. Paul laughs, still admiring the mushroom. Strange, isn't it? That it would be so delicious. I wonder why it is. I mean, what purpose it serves.
        You mean, besides temptation?
        J. Paul extracts the mushroom from its pine-needle cradle, examining the delicate fan of its gills, the annulus collaring the narrow stem, the volva cupping its base, all virginal white.
        I wish you wouldn't.
        Wouldn't what?
        Touch it so much. It's not like there's someplace you can wash your hands.

* * *

        Back in the cabin, they claim the dinner table for their meager pickings: a huge and pungent white lactarius, several russulaceae in various shades of pink, a few fragile clusters of tarnished corals.
        I'll take a spore print of the milk cap, Alexis says, for the fun of it.
        Her voice sounds wispy and weak. J. Paul thinks her cheeks seem puffy, crowding her eyes. She looks weary as a stray dog.
        Why don't you take a break? he says, not following her into the bedroom to change—conscious of the secret meanings, private memories that room must hold for her. It's not the fact that she spent the night with her old flame that stings him; it's that she hasn't told him anything about it—hasn't included him, yet, in her experience.
        I'll perk up in a minute, she says. Why don't you heat up that pasta while I get the fire going?
        But J. Paul hears the strain in her voice, her struggle against fatigue to salvage the evening. If only she would stop trying to prove she is never needy, never demanding, never a burden.
        Why don't you sit down and rest, he says, so you don't start feeling worse?
        We can still try that idea we talked about, she persists, for using those daylilies. You know, with the baby squash and some stock.
        I'll just have some cereal, he cuts her off, wandering to the ancient TV balanced on a pile of old magazines, a dusty machine which will not be hurried. He toggles the power button off and on until the spark of light expands gradually to a grainy display of horizontal bars. The blunt action of the dial as he pops the worn white dart from channel to channel reminds him of his childhood. The miles of forest enclosing their tiny clearing snag the TV signals, scrambling them into abstract patterns of light and noise. Only one channel is intelligible: over the image of two primates in a cage, a reasoned voice considers synapses.
        The black night outside reflects the indoors back upon itself. The few sounds there are seem amplified: the TV narrator's canned enthusiasm, the hum of the refrigerator, the dog scratching herself, Alexis's stockinged feet shuffling across the floor. J. Paul reaches to turn off the volume.
        Wait. Alexis stops his hand with hers. I like this kind of stuff.
        The narrator speaks calmly of neurotransmitters, while psychedelic shapes spark and pulsate on the screen, their visual impact undercut by the lack of color. J. Paul dislikes scientific knowledge prepared for the consumption of amateurs. Programs such as these offend him: pretending to explain entire fields of knowledge in sound-bite summaries.
        Not so Alexis, curled up on the sofa with the dog. J. Paul doesn't deprecate her enthusiasm as unintelligent—he knows this kind of information stimulates the associative links she's prone to, though he can't fathom how she gets there from this techno-pablum. Despite her insight or fueling it, her swiftness of temperament leads to a proclivity, if not to skim the surface then, perhaps, to rapidly dip deeply and as rapidly move on. It's not easy for J. Paul to respect her laxer standards—although he knows Alexis has her own lapses of patience with what she considers his plodding thoroughness. Of course, sometimes he's still dazzled by the flashing blade of her perception—while she often trusts his careful judgments as if they are unimpeachable.
        Still, he can't help wondering if she's more compatible with him.
        He looks at her—listening to the announcer, who stands on a rocky hillside, and summarizes what is known—and turns to his field guide. The diagrams comfort him: not that he browses, no, in this as in everything he is methodical, studying the fungi, genus by genus. At the moment he is on the russulaceae. What he loves about mushrooms is the weight of their minutiae—that the difference between a gill that's adnate or adnexed, a spore print that's white or buff, can be a matter of life or death. In mycology there are no shortcuts, no Reader's Digest summaries, no broad strokes. And yet the secrets of mushrooms can be unlocked by anyone with the proper diligence to probe them. They make J. Paul feel liberated from the narrowness of his own life.
        Perhaps it's this desire for liberation that makes him urge Alexis to take other lovers. But her old flame makes it challenging: moody as he is, insecure and competitive. If only Alexis could acknowledge how hard her affair is on J. Paul—without rushing to guilt, or the search for a quick fix.
        Suddenly what J. Paul reads flags a different kind of attention: Lactarius luteolus; Cap velvety, dry; whitish-buff; odor fishy. He recalls Alexis's exclamation of distaste, cutting off the mushroom's large white cap to take its spore print.
        That milk cap in the kitchen, he says. What did it smell like?
        The white lactarius. Didn't you say—
        It's getting worse every minute. The whole house smells like fish.
        What kind of fish?
        I don't know. Shrimp, maybe. Or crab, you know, when the shells get watery from sitting too long. Why? Is it deadly or something?
        No lactarius is deadly, he says, frowning, again, at her sloppiness.
        He holds the mushroom to his nose like an oxygen mask, inhaling its cool, damp essence—the nexus between soil and sea. Like the scent of a woman's sex.
        The cap is weighty, broad, filling the palm of one hand. The other balances the field guide. He reads: 2.5-8 centimeters wide, convex to flat or sunken. Breaks off a small piece. Flesh whitish, staining brown from latex; latex abundant, white, unchanging. Palms the cap to examine the gills. Gills attached, close; white, becoming yellowish to brown where bruised. Spore print white to cream.
        He admires the beauty of the pattern left where the cap was resting: the symmetry of its radial design, the delicate lines of diaphanous white powder against the coarse brown grain of the paper. Calls out, I think we found a Buff Fishy Milky.
        Don't tell me you're willing to eat something that stinky.
        Listen: Despite its odor, this is edible. In the Northeast this species is one of the first lactarius mushrooms to appear.
        Really? Maybe we'll find more mushrooms tomorrow!
        This time he doesn't mind her optimism. He's already slicing the crisp, sticky cap.

* * *

        The next day the dog doesn't want to leave the cabin, so they explore a new part of the woods without her. They find a damp, dewy trail carpeted with wild strawberries, their white blossoms fragile as moth wings. Still, it isn't long before J. Paul wants to get off the path.
        Although she's afraid of getting lost without the dog's infallible sense of direction, Alexis humors J. Paul's superstition: that mushrooms grow in inverse proportion to their accessibility. Of course what she's done can't be easy for him. And she doesn't want him to suffer. But must she? Does he have the right to make her feel guilty for acting on his encouragement?
        Off the trail, these woods are dense. Low branches scratch them as they push through. But their punishing trudge through the undergrowth leads to a clearing, shaded by oaks. The air here is cool, moist and spicy. The rotted foliage of past seasons gives gently beneath their feet. A small stream emerges from the thicket, trickling through the grove.
        Alexis kneels to splash her face with water so shallow it mixes with the mud her hands stir up. Clay-colored rivulets trickle down her forearms like brown blood vessels. She dips her hands into the water, digging down into the rich muddy bottom, working the clay between her fingers. Its rich, gritty body clings to the crevices of her palms, reminding her of the coffee grounds she spilled the day he showed up, flustered as she was by his visit, disconcerted by the persistence of his magnetism. She remembers his eyes on her body when she changed her shirt. The trembling touch of his fingers, suddenly upon her, just as suddenly withdrawn.
        What are you doing? J. Paul asks.
        Alexis can't stand the tension between them. Without knowing what she's going to do, she scoops up a handful of mud—and smears it on her face.
        Oh my God, says J. Paul.
        For a moment Alexis stands there, looking at him with her mud-streaked face. Then she lunges at him—transforming his face into a dark mask, punctuated by a pink, exaggerated mouth.
        His blue eyes glisten with surprise and anger. Then he retaliates—slapping mud onto her clothes, then under them, onto her breasts. Together they roll on the leaves, wrestling, until the wrestling becomes another kind of clutching, the mud altering them, making them alien and exotic, separating them from everything but their two bodies rubbing and sliding first against each other, then with each other, together.

* * *

        Afterwards, a strange thing happens. Where before J. Paul saw only the curling layers of fallen oak leaves, he notices a grove of chalky black cones, flared and delicate as the petals of some nocturnal flower.
        Black trumpets! Alexis laughs, excited. We've found black trumpets!
        This time she's the one who reaches for the field guide. Craterellus fallax, she reads aloud. Funnel shaped and hollow, margin decurved to elevated, wavy. Dry, scaly, gray to dark brown or blackish. Flesh thin, brittle. Odor and taste fragrant, fruity.
        Mm, she says, grinning at him with her muddy face. Yummy. Trompettes de Morte.
        I don't understand it, J. Paul says. I didn't see any before.
        It's like they just sprang up while we were—
        Doing other things!
        She raises a delicate specimen to her nose, holding it out for him to inhale. It has a familiar, cool, spicy scent—the same odor he noticed when they entered the clearing.
        Of course, he thinks, leaning in to kiss her moist, pink mouth. They were here all along.

© crossconnect, inc 1995-2004 |
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |