The Mushroom Hunters
It is the 4th of July 1980, a special day for the family as Grandfather is a veteran of World War II and it is also the day of my grandparent’s 32nd wedding anniversary. The entire extended family with my aunts and cousins is gathered for the local township parade. Carefree children run and play through the yard and on the swings, but I am not with them.
There is a stirring in me that something is not right about my Uncle. He has told me many times that I am his very special friend, but I don’t want to be his friend anymore. I play alone with my grandmother’s gardening tools, digging in the black soil behind the red barn.
Uncle first came to the family homestead on Christmas Eve at one of Grandma’s traditional holiday feasts. My young Aunt, the one who is pretty and my favorite, brought him with her and says they got married while away for the weekend. My Aunt and I are close and I adore her utterly. She seems very happy and that makes me happy too.
He is much like the other men in my family; not overly handsome or overly unattractive. He has slightly shaggy brown hair, a bushy mustache, and a cheerful grin. I am eating at the kitchen table with my sister, our two boy cousins, and Uncle’s three-year-old daughter while the adults eat in the dining room.
After massive quantities of turkey, dressing, lumpy homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, candied yams, and fudge ingested until the point of bursting satisfaction, kids and adults alike waddle uncomfortably to red-up the tables, wrap up the leftovers, and settle down for either a nap or a card game.
I beg to be shown how to play euchre, a four-person card game my family plays in earnest. I knew the answer before it comes: Not yet, you’re too young and wouldn’t get it. I am frustrated and angry and go back to the kitchen table to pout and color with my sister and Uncle’s daughter. He stands behind me with his hands resting lightly on my shoulders before asking if he can color with me.
He scoops me up easily as though I were a child’s abandoned blanket, sitting in the chair and settling me on his lap. I try to color the very best I can, pointing out to him how I stay in the lines as he begins to slowly stroke my back up and down. Gradually, his strokes became longer and his hand slides beneath my jeans, his fingers wiggling against my bare bottom.
“How does that feel,” he whispers in my ear.
“It tickles,” I say back to him, coloring yellow feathers on Big Bird.
“Does it feel good?”
“I’m glad you think it’s fun. I can tell you and I are going to be special friends.”
Sometimes he looks and touches where he shouldn’t. There are family dinners at Grandma’s house after church where he chases me and picks me up before hooking his finger beneath the thin collar of my tee-shirt to steal a peek at my chest. There are birthday spankings that are too hard and too long and bring tears to my eyes as I kick my legs and scream. I don’t know the words yet, my mind pricks at me that something isn’t right. He does not do this with my sister, he never secrets his daughter to an uninhabited corner or carries her off to an abandoned hallway. In my room, I look at myself getting ready for school and I tell myself that I am bad and stupid.
On this summer day, the parade in town is over, and the kids in my family sugar up on the candy treats thrown from the firemen and local Masonic lodge members. It is early yet and not time for lunch. Grandma’s raspberry bushes are ripe with fresh fruit, and she sets my cousins to work picking berries for shortcake later. There is much laughter and red berry-stained hands and teeth. My favorite Aunt slaps at little hands that furtively eat the treasure instead of placing it in buckets for the dessert.
I sit at the picnic table with the adults as they make small talk. Grandfather is preparing the grill for hamburgers and hotdogs and Uncle stands up to stretch.
“We need some mushrooms,” Uncle announces loudly. “Some mushroom burgers would be tasty.” Grandpa grabs his wallet to hand him five dollars for the store.
“Thanks but I want to run to Rose Cemetery to see if I can get find some wild mushrooms. If I can’t find any, I’ll run to the store. Janette can come with me.
“I don’t want to look for mushrooms. I want to pick berries.” Uncle grabs my hand.
“You can pick berries later.”
Uncle borrows the keys to Grandfather’s truck and we drive in near silence to the cemetery. I shift uncomfortably in the seat, smooshing myself against the window to look at the passing road.
We reach Rose Cemetery and Uncle hands me a small bucket and spade. We spend a few minutes looking for mushrooms among the tombstones. I kneel in front of several markers to read the names and dates, muddying my knees, quickly growing bored with the hunt.
“I don’t think we are going to find any mushrooms here. We need to go into the woods.”
Pretending not to hear him, I push my thin, short fingers into the letter cavities of someone’s name that is so worn out I cannot read it. He repeats himself and walks over to me, throwing me over his shoulder, making growling noises, trying to get me to laugh. I talk to myself in my head; don’t pee. Don’t pee.
I bounce up and down on his shoulder as his legs make quick work of the distance between the graveyard and the wooded area behind an old tool shed. He drops me to my feet and begins to look around, nosing and rooting in the dirt. Under a tree, I see the shiny white caps of some mushrooms. Still wet from dew, they glisten in fragments of the sun and I feel excited and relieved.
“Look! I found some mushrooms!” He runs over to investigate, crawling beneath the tree.
“Nope, sorry kiddo, those are poison.” His demeanor changes from playful to serious and I’m suddenly very afraid.
“What do you think your parents do in bed?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” I look down on the ground, crushing an anthill with my Spider Man sneakers.
“Do you want to be very nice to me?” He moves closer and I feel frozen. I think of Bugs Bunny cartoons, how sometimes he runs but his feet don’t take him anywhere.
My tongue doesn’t work. It is dry and gritty, stuck to the roof of my mouth. My throat is a fist, a piece of cardboard wadded into a ball. I look at the poisonous mushrooms to avoid his eyes and the dangerous look in them.
He pushes his thumbs under the elastic of my shorts and I begin to cry. I do not move to stop him, but my tears do it for me. He is unsure now of what to do, so he removes his thumbs and takes a few steps back from me.
“Have you ever seen a boy’s pee-pee?” he asks. I shake my head no.
“Do you want to see my pee-pee?” I say nothing and he asks again.
“I don’t know.” I want my mom.
Uncle unbuckles his belt and unzips his pants, allowing them to fall past his hips before they catch on the slope of his crouched thighs. He reaches into his underwear and pulls out his penis, stroking it, his eyes wide. I am too shocked to cry or look away. He pulls and pulls on his penis and I think he is going to pee.
He begins to grunt and white liquid spills from him. I think that maybe this is how boys pee and that their pee is white. He pulls his pants back up and takes my hand.
“Did you like watching me do that?” I say nothing.
“Hey, did you hear me? What did you think of that?” I can tell he is angry and I don’t know what he wants me to say.
“You don’t want everyone to know you’re a bad girl and that you made me do this.”
I look up at him. I am sure I will never be good again.
By Janette Schafer
Janette Schafer is a playwright, poet, singer and financial services professional living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Cover photo: Morels growing in the wild
Picture taken by Sharksbaja and is published on Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License. – See more at: http://www.mushroom-appreciation.com/morels-gallery-page-two.html#sthash.E4I8k8ED.dpuf