Biographies & Memoirs

8. Mushrooms

NOBODY BUT ME CAN find the belye,” says my sister as she and my mother examine different-size baskets piled by the entrance to our dacha. “I bet you all the best ones will be mine.”

It is our first dacha autumn without my father. The three fishing rods are still in the barn, leaning against the splintery boards, but they are now behind the row of spades and hoes, pressed to the wall by the more essential tools. Because of my father’s illness, we planted nothing at the dacha in June, and to my infinite joy, we have almost nothing to harvest. That’s why we can devote a whole Sunday in September—my second week in the fourth grade—to mushroom hunting.

Belye are at the top of the mushroom Olympus, their dark-brown caps clamped down on solid stems. Rare and difficult to find, they are treasures my mother sautés with sour cream, shreds to infuse pungent fragrance into soup, and hangs on thread over the stove to dry for the winter.

The next most prized are red caps, their stems flecked with black, trailed closely by birch-tree gray caps on long, skinny legs. Under the caps of all the best mushrooms is a hard sponge, and it is that underside that separates the noble mushrooms from the peasants with hollow stems and silly umbrella heads lined with spokes of pale flesh.

These second-rate mushrooms are good only for salting. Drops of acrid milk bead on their stems when my mother cuts them, so they need to be boiled to flush out the bitter taste. Then she layers them, limp but still full of color—gray, pink, and the rarely found orange—in an aluminum bucket between yellow umbrellas of dill flowers, garlic, and black currant leaves. When the bucket is full, she pours a pot of hot water up to the top. The mushrooms will be ready to eat by early fall, an essential appetizer in every gathering, a complement to boiled potatoes and black bread. The bucket, impossible to fit in any refrigerator, will sit on our balcony in the city, frozen from November to the end of March, when we will need a hammer or Marina’s strong fist to break the crust of ice over the top.

A mushroom hunt, as everyone knows, must start early, when tentative brightness bleeds from under the horizon, setting alight the stubble of forest across the field. Like fishing, it is a ritual that must be performed at sunrise.

My sister knows the spots. To find mushrooms, especially noble ones, you must know the spots, not necessarily geographically but intuitively. My mother and I meander around the forest looking under every tree, turning up every brown leaf, while Marina walks straight past us to some dinky-looking ditch, where she digs up a perfect family of belye.

The three of us start when the sun appears above the treetops. We walk past the unpainted house where the Gypsies live, past the Gypsies’ bull, whose tail has been chewed off by rats, past the piles of boards dumped here a long time ago for a project that never happened. As we walk through the damp field, toward the forest still hazy with night fog, birds rustle out of bushes, and grasshoppers, as if on cue from an invisible conductor, begin to trill in the clumps of grass.

As we approach the far end of the field, just before the forest begins, we come to an island of birch trees surrounded by blueberry thickets, a good spot for birch-tree mushrooms. I dip my hand into the middle of a bush, part the hard little leaves, and a slippery cap emerges from under my fingers—and another one, smaller, right next to it—resilient and perfect. I sink my fingers into the moss and dig the mushrooms out at the root, their stems sturdy and white.

“I got two!” I yell to Marina’s back zigzagging between the trees far ahead of me. I run until I catch up with her at the line where the real forest begins and where fir trees and oaks tower overhead, screening out the sunlight. I hold out my hand and Marina lifts and examines the mushrooms. They are flawless, with flecked stems and stout caps, and there is nothing to find fault with except for one thing—they are not belye.

“Wait,” says Marina as she hands them back to me, “wait until I get to my spots.” She slips into the forest and vanishes behind an oak trunk.

What secret sense led me to that blueberry patch under a birch tree? My small victory tickles my nose, hones my senses, makes it possible to smell my own way to the hidden treasures of belye.

I step into the forest. Musty leaves marinate in thick loam; dead branches and old pine needles slowly become part of the forest floor. I follow the crackling of Marina’s steps, swift and resolute. My mother’s rustling on my left is slower and less determined. Although most of my senses are alerted to the ground, my ears are still tuned to the territorial shifts of my mother and sister. Their sound is my only compass under the tree roof.

Beyond a clump of old firs the ground slopes to a ravine with steep sides overgrown by grass. I squat on the rim and jump onto the bottom, crunching pinecones under my feet. My eyes are level with the rim, and I see that the sides of the ravine are reinforced by logs, half-rotten and splintery. A World War II trench. There are many of them in the woods, trenches and bomb craters, their sides smoothed by time. There used to be hundreds of old shells, mines, and grenades buried under layers of forest compost, but those are hard to find nowadays.

I want to show the trench to my mother. Every Victory Day, on May 9, she takes her three medals out of the drawer, carefully lifting them from brown boxes. The medals look like the chocolates in gold foil we all get for New Year’s, but they are bronze, attached to trapezoid badges of striped cloth.

I wonder what it was like to live in a trench like this because I suspect that those who fought in these woods during the nine-hundred-day siege of Leningrad were not always attacking under red banners or dying heroically from German bullets, as my third-grade teacher Vera Pavlovna wanted us to believe. Nine hundred days is an awfully long time to live in a trench, especially if it’s winter and there are no mushrooms or berries or even old leaves because everything is under a meter of snow.

I think of my mother’s brothers Sima and Yuva, whom I cannot regard as uncles because they’d died long before I was born. No one actually saw Yuva die, so he is still listed as missing in action. Several times my mother has written to the archives of a town, now in Poland, where he’d been stationed when the war started, but there is no trace of anyone from that division guarding the border at the onset of the blitzkrieg. “They might as well have never existed,” my mother says bitterly. “They didn’t even have guns.”

I don’t understand why the soldiers on the border, right before the Great Patriotic War, didn’t have guns. They have guns now, at a time of developed socialism, as our textbooks call it, which seems far less dangerous than June 1941.

“Not a pistol, not a rifle, not even a shotgun,” confirms my mother. “So what could he do against a division of tanks? Mowed down in the first few minutes. He didn’t even have time to get scared.”

My mother’s brother Sima is not among those missing. He died in plain view of the whole family, a few months after he had been wounded on his first day at the front, a piece of shrapnel lodged in his lung. “That sliver of metal resulted in a metastatic abscess in the brain,” my mother says, deliberately using medical terminology to hide her anger at the doctors who had failed to take the piece out, wishing perhaps that Sima had been brought into the front hospital where she worked and where she would certainly have been more fastidious in removing every shard.

Before going to war and dying, Sima had studied painting at the Leningrad Academy of Art. His canvases hang on the walls of our apartment: a portrait of my young mother, a soldier throwing a grenade at a tank. He must have been thinking of fighting the war even before he was drafted into the army, painting a soldier in front of a rearing hunk of steel, a soldier just like his brother Yuva, only armed with real weapons. Looking at the portrait of my young mother, at her crinkled eyes and her mouth open in a half-smile, I make a discovery: there was a period, even during the war, when my mother was cheerful and ironic, before she turned into a law-abiding citizen so much in need of order.

When did this transformation take place, I wonder, from the woman in Sima’s portrait into my unsmiling mother? Was it during the war when Marina was born, or when Marina’s father died of TB? Did Marina know a different mother, someone who would let me go fishing with my father instead of making me paint the house, someone who wouldn’t frown at a drama school or learning English? It doesn’t seem fair, the fact that I didn’t have a chance to know this other mother—another advantage my sister has, in addition to her acting gift and her ability to find the best mushroom spots.

Now the remnants of war are buried in the ground. Ten years ago, when my grandfather was turning up dirt for the first strawberry bed in our dacha plot, his shovel struck metal—a foot-long artillery shell, unexploded, hibernating since 1944. A sapper brigade loaded the rusted jacket onto an armored truck and hauled it away. I hear the story each time a new guest is given a tour of the dacha grounds, my mother’s voice ringing with pride that it was our plot that was blessed with such a close danger.

For years, stories have been floating around the countryside about boys who found shells in the woods, threw them into campfires, and had fingers blown off their reckless hands. Supposedly there was a boy in a nearby village whose face was burned by bullets he’d tossed into a fire, and another whose foot was severed by a land mine.

I’ve never seen boys with missing fingers or feet, or anyone with a burned face. But on my mushroom-gathering trips I see enough craters and trenches, like the one I’m standing in now, to know that the war was really fought here, that it cut wounds in the flesh of the earth deep enough to require a quarter-century to heal.

On the rim of the trench I see a tall mushroom, a bright red umbrella with white dots, a splash of color among pale blades of grass and sparse strawberry bushes. It is called muhomor, death to flies. My mother chops it up in a saucer with a little water and sugar—and the next day there are piles of dead flies around the saucer on the windowsill and on the floor. It’s always perfect, untouched by animals; it can afford to be conspicuous and bright. And right next to it, under the shade of the polka-dot umbrella, is a small brown-top only two centimeters out of the ground, and a bigger one next to that, and another—like a row of nested matryoshka dolls lined up on the downward curve of the slope. Eight altogether—a perfect family of belye.

Dizzy with success, I jump up and down on the bottom of the trench, pinecones crunching under my feet. To find eight belye on one mushroom-hunting trip is almost impossible. For the first time, I have managed to beat Marina.

Carefully, one by one, I wiggle them out of the ground. The biggest one is about ten centimeters tall, with a velvety head the color of chocolate. I stoop to line my basket with fern leaves from the bottom of the trench, as I’ve seen Marina do so many times; a prize like this must be padded against the bristling twigs.

I climb out of the trench, head spinning, knees scratched from the splintery wood of the slope. For a minute I stand on the rim, trying to get my bearings. The most important thing is to think back, to remember. I approached the trench from a clump of balding fir trees, but as I look around I see that there are firs all around it. And the sun has moved; it is oozing through the treetops from the left now. I stand still and listen hard, listen for rustling of leaves and crackling of dead branches, for signs of my mother and sister.

I listen so hard that my own breathing gets in the way. Leaves rustle high above my head, but everything below seems to exist in silence: blueberries, mushrooms, moss spreading over crumbling stumps. No sounds, no human movements intrude into the calm of the forest.

“A-ooo!” I yell at the top of my lungs, turning in different directions—a cry of being lost in the woods. The only response is a murmur of leaves high above my head. It is still morning, I say to myself, it’s sunny outside the forest, and my mother and sister are probably already looking for me. Besides, in my basket I have a perfect row of belye.

Suddenly it strikes me: the last field we crossed to come into the forest, where I found my first two mushrooms, must not be far. It didn’t take me long to walk from there to the trench. If I turn back, I will find the field and retrace my way home.

I start walking away from the trench, toward a patch of light glinting through a tall opening between trees. The light is deceptively close, but every time I come near, it floats away, further and further, until I realize that what seems like an open space must be a play of light and shade, an optical illusion resulting from sunlight sifting into shadow.

I walk for a long time, for what seems like an hour, before I understand that I am not approaching the edge of the forest. The biggest opening of light before me turns out to be a small grass meadow dotted with blue flowers and surrounded by trees.

I plop into the grass, a purple flower before my eyes, like a tiny bell. The last of the wild strawberries are glowing along an ant path that leads to a hill of sand and pine needles. I know a trick: if I spit onto an anthill, the ants will stand on their hind legs and squirt their liquid onto my palm, a sharp yet irresistible smell. Then I sniff my palm, again and again, until no odor remains, until I’ve completely drained it out of my skin.

It’s cozy in the grass, so I close my eyes and the image of the purple flower bell floats on my eyelids. And then I am at home, in our tiny dacha kitchen, where a smell of sizzling mushrooms tingles my nose. My mother has piled the most noble of them from our baskets, cleaned and cut up, into the biggest frying pan we have. Now the cubes of white stems and spongy yellow caps absorb the melting butter, and it begins to smell like dinner and home. In a few minutes my mother, a kitchen rag wrapped around her hand, will lift the pan off the burner, lower it onto a wooden cutting board, and scoop the fragrant stew onto my waiting plate. All the gray and red caps we found today, and the biggest of my belye mushrooms, all melt into a steaming mouthful balanced on my fork.

But then something happens. The mushrooms piled in the basket on the kitchen floor begin to move, their heads rising, turning from brown and red to gray, growing tails, all turning into mice. As they dart in different directions, I see that they are bigger than mice, or are they growing bigger as I look? They are now as big as those rats that chewed off the tail of the Gypsies’ bull last winter. The tailless bull watches me out of the corner of his bloodshot eye as I carefully walk past the unpainted Gypsy house. Anita, a Gypsy girl whose father owns the bull—a girl with yellow curds of pus in the corners of her eyes—tells me that rats are so hungry in winter that they will eat anything, even if it is alive. Those must be Gypsy rats; it’s too scary to think that they could be the same rats that scurry at night under our own floorboards.

Then Anita gets angry with me. Her father, she says, will steal me and stuff me in a sack. I laugh in her face, but she knows I’m terrified. Anita’s father grins and unfurls a Gypsy sack, its inside black as the winter night. His hands are hairy, with gnarled fingers and black nails, and I know that, like all Gypsies, he has a knife in the back pocket of his pants. I try to run, but my feet won’t move. I see Anita smirking as her father extends his arm to grab me around the back of my neck, just as he grabs blind kittens before he drowns them in a ditch.

I scream—the loudest scream that has ever escaped from my throat—and my eyes pop open. Something is tickling my neck: a couple of ants have climbed over me on the way to their hill.

“Le-na!” A faraway call is getting louder and now it is unmistakably the voice of my mother. “Aa-ooo!” comes Marina’s voice, slightly to the left of me. I yell back, turning in the direction of the voices. Then I hear the crackling of dead branches and the rustling of leaves. I grab my basket and run toward the sounds, scratched by the bushes, whipped by the firs, stumbling on pitted soil. I run straight into my mother’s stomach and bury my face into the pillows of her breasts. We stand like that for a few minutes, without moving, without saying a word, enfolded in the smell of mushrooms and damp leaves.

Out of the forest twilight my sister comes into view. Her forehead is puckered and her eyes glare. “We’ve been searching for you for an hour!” she shouts, but as she approaches I glance inside her basket. She knows where I’m looking and stops shouting. There are only a couple of birch-tree mushrooms, scattered on the bottom, and a few commoners, too big and old even for salting.

She tries to ignore what I have in my basket, her eyes barely skirting its contents, but I make her look. I parade my family of perfect belye—the eight trench warriors—in front of her face, and she squeezes out a smile because there is no one in the entire world, not even my older sister, who could ignore their splendor.

We walk back, meandering on a narrow footpath through fields, my mother clasping my hand in her hot palm. We walk close together, as if connected by an invisible thread, ants trailing each other home.

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