“THERE’S NO THROUGH TRAIL” —HAN-SHAN, TRANSLATED BY GARY SNYDER
/ Trailblazing

Trailblazing

by Andrew Furman

The first thing the man did after his wife of fifty-six years died, or the first big thing, was sell their French bulldogs, the pups, the dams, and the sires (the mating pairs to a rival breeder down in Bangor). Because breeding French bulldogs was something that he and Michelle did together in their retirement, and because, truthfully, it was mostly her thing. The only dog he kept was the runt, Arthur, now four, because in addition to his runtiness Arthur was deaf and suffered from cherry eye, so it wasn’t like he could sell him. Plus, he figured it might keep his son from pestering him to move to Boston if he wasn’t completely alone in their Maine backwater. 

The second big thing the man did after his wife died, which wasn’t as big as the first thing, was take a long walk in the woods. This was not a typical thing for him to do, not since handing over the reins of the Boy Scout troop to Steve Hargrove some thirty years ago. He didn’t so much decide to take a walk, or a hike, or whatever it was he was doing, as he simply found himself out there, same afternoon he finally managed to shoo William and Cate, and his two adult grandchildren, back into their fancy European SUV toward Highway 1. The sun had already dipped below the spruce and fir treeline top of the hill, so it was almost like he was chasing it as he slipped out the mudroom. Arthur in his arms, he made his way past the defunct kennels, then through the scrim of birch woods, then across the fifth-hole fairway of the nine-hole golf course he hadn’t once used (having never played golf), dodging someone’s drive from the tee—Four!—before slipping inside the protective cover of the state forest. It was easier than he thought it would be to blaze his own trail beneath the canopy of conifers. The tall spruce, fewer oaks, maples and such allowed only a sparse undergrowth of mossed rocks, sweet-fern with their scalloped leaves, and thatches of wintergreen and blueberry crusting the earth. Only plants he had to weave between were the taller sheep laurel shrubs and the spruce themselves (though some of them might have been hemlocks), their lower branches stripped of their foliage and sharp, jutting at malevolent angles from the trunks. 

He reached the Randolph trail within moments and decided that he would follow it, setting Arthur down on the lightly mulched path to walk for a bit. The first thing the dog did was empty his bladder over a blueberry shrub, stretching both hind legs to do so rather than lifting a leg, brushing his man-business right up against the blueberry, it seemed. Moving on, he could hear the dog’s strained inhalations and exhalations, which encouraged the man to slow his pace and concentrate upon his own breath. The spruced air felt clean and cool in his lungs and the mulched path felt spongy beneath his shoes, reminding him of all the rain they’d had lately. A freezing rain pelted them throughout his wife’s graveside service, shortening Pastor Bob’s eulogy. This was just as well as the new pastor didn’t know his wife very well and mostly told stories about himself, making strained allusions time to time to Michelle and to the bible, mostly to the bible. A sign nailed to the trunk of one of the few striped maples snapped him from his reverie. He read the words imploring him to stick to the designated trail rather than threaten the integrity of the moss beyond, whereupon he scooped up Arthur (who snorked through his foreshortened snout) and veered off the trail once more. 

The man blazed a trail for several yards that rose at a modest incline. Arthur could only have weighed nine pounds or so, and there was still plenty of light in the sky, and he hadn’t walked so very far. Still, he wasn’t used to cardiovascular exercise anymore, or ever, and felt that he’d walked far enough, so he found a mossed rock positioned conveniently at the base of a maple and, setting Arthur down, decided that he would rest for a while. The moss cushion offered a more comfortable seat than he expected, which was awfully nice until he felt its wet seep through his dungarees. Oh well. He sat there and watched the dog sniff at the wintergreen. Then Arthur scratched at something with his nails, which reminded the man that he ought to trim them when he got home.  

A lot of people had been talking at him since his wife died, and Michelle had talked at him an awful lot too when she was alive, God love her, so it felt nice to sit up here on the mountain, soaked backside and all, and listen to the silence, which wasn’t so quiet, in truth. Some sort of bird—or was it an insect?—buzzed from the dense cluster of cedars over there, and brighter chipping noises sounded from the latticework of maple branches overhead, and every so often he heard the deep, distant boom of heavy machinery from the revived granite quarry just outside town that had everyone so riled up (their granite countertops in their remodeled kitchens notwithstanding), and a scurry of squirrels tore after one another across the scaffolding of three or four separate trees, compelled by impulses amorous or territorial, he imagined, like the rest of us, and then there was Arthur’s overlong nails troubling the leaf litter. These were all nice sounds to hear, except for the intermittent quarry noise. He sat long enough to hear the squirrels move on, and hear the hammer of one of those big woodpeckers, and watch the sky begin to dim, and feel the cooler breath of the woods raise goose pimples across his bare neck. 

“Time to head home,” he (stupidly) told his deaf dog, scooping his palm under Arthur’s soft chest. He blazed what he thought would be a more direct line down the mountain toward the golf course fairway and home. The mild descent leveled off at a stretch he hadn’t anticipated and the once spruce-dominated forest yielded to a copse of mostly tall white oaks. It was brighter under the oak canopy, newly leafed out in pale green, and it smelled different too, sort of citrusy. He paused in his tracks to breathe in the pleasant smell and look up into the canopy (there were some maples and beech here, too), shifted Arthur to his other arm. The man wasn’t the wondering type, but he found himself wondering how the trees sorted out their tree-business, how these oaks came to dominate this patch of earth—something about the elevation or angle of the sun? the composition of the soil? the chance forgetfulness of some acorn-burying squirrel or squirrels some hundred years ago?—and he wondered how he’d lived an entire life not a single mile from this spot without ever having laid eyes upon it. 

He mostly minded the ground as he continued on but paused now to glance up into the canopy and shift Arthur back to his other arm. He noticed the serrated leaves of another beech mixed in with the oaks, then, casting his eyes back down toward the forest floor, he noticed the woman on the downslope to his right side some fifteen yards away kneeling amidst the ground cover. A split-second later, as if noticing his noticing, the woman accosted him— “Excuse me, this is my zone!”—issuing the words in a weary song as if it wasn’t the first time she’d summoned the refrain to shoo someone off her “zone.” He thought he might have recognized the voice but couldn’t place it. He couldn’t make out her face beneath her short gray hair, as she wouldn’t stand or even swivel her head to look at him. She seemed to be kneeling on some sort of blue pad. 

“I suppose it’s a big enough forest for the two of us,” he called back, neutrally. 

“Frank Ackinclose, is that you?” Now he definitely recognized the voice, Susan Potter’s, which he hadn’t heard in a long time (years?) and which his body registered as an intestinal complaint, even before she swiveled her neck to show him her face. 

“Susan,” he said by way of a greeting.   

She rose to her feet and squared her tall shoulders toward him. She seemed to be wearing yellow gloves, but he wasn’t looking at her hands. Her bird-nose and long neck, those shoulders too, was what he noticed. “Stork,” he’d teased her in elementary school, cruel to Susan Dunbar way back then, years before she was Susan Potter and life got even harder.  

“Well that’s something you don’t see every day. You carry that spoiled little dog all the way up the hill?” There was a funny way Susan might have said this, though it seemed closer to an insult. Susan was never one to stand on ceremony, and he supposed it must have looked strange, carrying Arthur out in the woods rather than forcing him to walk.

“I haven’t carried him all the way,” he replied.  

She took a few steps toward him. He reciprocated by taking a few steps toward her, then set Arthur down as it appeared that they’d be having a conversation. It wasn’t gloves yellowing her hands, he noticed now that she was closer, but he wasn’t quite sure what she held in both hands. Some sort of green cloth was tucked into the side of her high-waisted dungarees.

Arthur wouldn’t stray from his side, this strange human lurking about, but sat his butt directly on Frank’s shoe and growled, though it sounded closer to a musical whine. The dog’s vocalizations had always been odd, vaguely whale-like on account of his deafness. Frank could tell that Susan was about to comment on the strange growl, or whine, or whatever it was, but then he saw the muscles about Susan’s eyes sort of give way, and he knew that she wasn’t thinking about the dog, anymore.    

“I was sorry to hear about Michelle.”  

“Oh. Thanks.” Susan hadn’t come to the funeral, which hadn’t surprised him. She mostly kept her distance from her neighbors.   

“That cancer’s a terrible thing.”

“Yes. It is.” 

Hell if he’d stand in the middle of the state forest talking about the one thing he’d come out here not to discuss. “How’s Gil?” he asked. Gil Wisner and Susan had married each other just a few years back, which took everyone by surprise, old as they both were, neither one of them having much luck their first go-around, marriage-wise.

“He’s fine,” she replied, though her face still had that stricken look about it.    

“What’s this business about zones, anyway?” he switched topics again, as if taking a second turn in a maze to throw off a pursuer. This seemed to work. Her bird-face finally returned to its former expression, the one she wore before thinking about Michelle and cancer. 

“Oh, I’ve staked out this area, few others too, for hunting mushrooms. The first chanterelles are up, all the rain we’ve had.” She said this as if it were a phenomenon common to everyone, rain and chanterelles, like the sunrise or the tides. “Can’t you smell them oranging up the air? Thought for sure you were horning in on my zone.” She lifted both her hands for his inspection. The stalks of the yellow specimens were threaded between her fingers, the caps flat against her handbacks, like brass knuckles. Something flashed silver beneath the mushrooms, the blade of a small knife, he realized. Next, she removed what turned out to be fine mesh netting from her waistline, slipping the chanterelles from both hands inside, leaving only the knife in her hand. “Ever since that Fabulous Fungi club started up at the Y it’s all I can do to keep them from following me around and poaching from my best spots.” She waved around the knife with a limp wrist in the general direction of these spots. “Last year, I hardly got a handful of boletes, those fuckers. That’s why I come out so late in the evening when no one’s about to spy on me. Or mostly no one.”

“Jeez, Susan, sounds pretty competitive.” A mild laugh escaped his mouth, which prompted Susan to smile wide enough to show her teeth, realizing how exercised she sounded over a bunch of mushrooms. He watched as she deposited her small knife in a leather scabbard at her dungaree hip opposite the mesh bag. 

“I guess it is competitive,” she said, bobbing those tall shoulders. 

He wouldn’t have expected such easygoing weather between them, but he supposed they went back a ways. Even if the history between them wasn’t so great, all those years still counted for something.

“Ever worry about bears up here?” he asked.  “Or moose?” He marveled that she foraged

alone in these dimming woods. 

“Now when was the last time you heard of a moose or bear attack up here?” 

Frank told her that he couldn’t remember.

“People,” Susan said, or he thought that’s what she said. He wasn’t certain he heard her correctly.

“Excuse me?” 

“I worry about people up here. Sometimes.” 

He nodded his head slowly, gauging in this way the weight of her words.   

“Well, you don’t have much light left. I’ll leave you to it, Susan.”  

“Okay, Frank.” 

He scooped up Arthur like a football and started heading down the hill. He could feel in his palm the gravel rising in the dog’s chest, Arthur still suspicious of the strange woman. He somehow knew, maybe by his neighbor’s stillness, that she was about to say something else before he escaped earshot. 

“See you tomorrow, maybe.”

***

That night, Frank Ackinclose studied the Conifers section of an old nature book he must have bought when he was troop leader, which somehow escaped all of Michelle’s book drive donations over the years, because it aggravated him that he forgot how to tell the difference between spruce and hemlock. He ate the last third of the last casserole (Jacobs cattle beans and sausage, some sort of limp green mixed in too) that the Friends of Historic Emmenthaler ladies had deposited with him over the past several days. He let Will’s call go to voicemail on his mobile phone during the meal and then listened to it between mouthfuls to make sure that they made it back to Boston without incident. He left his dish in the sink, turned on the television in the family room and settled on a channel broadcasting an aerial tour of Oklahoma City, which had more to recommend it than Frank would have imagined. Before the episode was over, he heard Arthur’s whale-like whines from the bedroom, which meant that he wanted to be lifted onto the bed earlier than usual, probably on account of their outdoors excursion. Spoiled little dog, indeed! he recalled Susan’s words as he made his way upstairs, lifted his fingers to feel the mild smile on his lips.  

In bed, he leaned up against the cushioned headboard and propped Arthur onto his lap. The dog scrunched closed both its eyes, anticipating their nightly ritual. With the tip of his thumb, Frank massaged the dog’s eyeball through the closed lid, popping the prolapsed, pink nictitating membrane back into the corner where it belonged. The vet in Jonesboro recommended the “simple” surgery for Arthur’s cherry eye every time Frank brought him in for his shots, but Frank didn’t see the point of putting the dog through surgery, however minor. Arthur savored these nightly eye massages and Frank didn’t mind administering them. He only wished it didn’t remind him so much of Michelle’s tumors. A large one protruded from her abdomen toward the very end of things, the borders of which Frank massaged for her as she lay here in bed, both her lips curled against her teeth. She said that moving the tumor around the way he did offered some relief once the morphine patches wore off. So, yeah, Susan was right. Cancer was a terrible thing. 

“All done,” Frank said now to Arthur, depositing him down on the mattress beside his knees. The dog refused to settle there, as he knew he would, creeping up to and collapsing upon Michelle’s pillow, instead, where he now insisted upon sleeping. Frank laid on his back beneath the quilt and listened to the leaves whispering in the trees outside the window screen, and listened to Arthur’s labored breathing, beside him. The sound of the air squeezing in and out of the dog’s nasal passages made him think of Michelle again, her hard last days, though most of her life was comfortable and even happy, he felt certain. 

Susan’s life was harder, for sure, taking everything into account. He welcomed these thoughts on Susan, courted them to muscle out his thoughts on Michelle. Susan’s life had been hard, if he were to go way back, because her parents took so little interest in her, preferring her weirdly stunning younger sister, Marjorie, who rewarded her parents for all their doting by catching the eye of some fellow twice her age down in Bar Harbor and running off with him to California, or maybe it was Arizona, this before she even graduated from high school. Her flight broke something in both Mr. and Mrs. Dunbar, to the point that neither one of them objected to Susan marrying Gary Potter, though it prompted a disapproving comment from Frank’s mother over the Sunday supper she had prepared. Susan was handsome enough in her own way, she opined over her plate. She could only have agreed to marry that ne’er-do-well Potter boy just to get out of her useless parents’ house. 

Frank’s mother seemed to take a special interest in Susan, perhaps on account of the Dunbar’s lack of interest, so when Susan got pregnant and gave birth to the son she’d name Brian, Frank’s mother expressed her hopefulness (at the first birthday party for her own grandson, Will) that Susan might find some solace in raising a child. Brian, however, never could find his place among the other town boys, swam against the tide, maybe the best way to put it, attracting the attention of bullies pretty much from the get-go. Some active fathering might have helped the child, but whatever role Gary played, parent-wise, was unclear to Frank. Susan enrolled Brian in the Boy Scout troop, as pretty much every town boy belonged to the troop at the time. Yet the boys in every patrol group teased the poor kid, incessantly. Frank ordered Will to look out for the younger Potter boy, sure he did, but there was only so much that Will, or Frank, could do. Not too long after Brian quit the troop, Gary up and left Susan and their son, which may have been a blessing. His general contracting outfit owed money to several disgruntled creditors by that time (Frank knew enough to know on account of his own HVAC business putting him in close contact with these parties), so people just assumed he fled town on account of the debts he had no means or intention of paying. Frank always wondered, however, if he had mostly wanted to escape his only son, who didn’t turn out the way he likely hoped or expected. A creature, probably a frog, started to chirp outside the window, bright noises that sounded above Arthur’s snores. He heard the crickets now, too, though they had surely been sawing away all the while. 

Frank sort of lost track of Susan’s boy after he went off to college, but Frank’s mother, during the last year of her life, showed him a photo in the newspaper over one of their family suppers, which Michelle had long taken over hosting. The photo was nothing special, a coastal scene featuring the craggy Maine coastline, but his mother told him that Brian Potter had taken the picture, and that his photos were picked up and published in newspapers across the whole country, maybe even the world. “Well how about that,” Frank had said, pleased for Brian, and for Susan. In the years that followed, he scanned the corners of the photos in the Sunday Boston Herald and sometimes he found Brian’s name there in tiny print. It seemed like Susan’s boy might have found his footing in the world, after all. Next thing he knew, people were saying that Brian was back in town living with his mother at her house down at the end of Marshville Road, conveying this news in a sort of hushed manner that kept Frank from asking further questions. Then Brian was dead. Pneumonia, the obituary in the Bangor Daily News read. “AIDS,” Michelle said over the breakfast table, clucking her tongue in sort of a funny way that he thought best not to question.     

***

Come morning, after massaging Arthur’s third eyelid back into place again on the bed, Frank lumbered down the stairs and fried an egg for the dog, mixing it in with the kibble and setting the bowl up on the counter to cool for a bit. Then he fried three eggs for himself and set Arthur’s kibble down on the linoleum just before taking his own seat at the breakfast table. There was a long stretch there when neither Michelle nor Frank treated themselves to eggs, but everyone seemed to think they were healthy again so why shouldn’t Arthur and he splurge? He cleaned up the dishes, including his dirty one from last night’s casserole, then fiddled with a crossword long enough over his coffee to let the town wake up. He took a shower, then drove to Hannaford to replenish Arthur’s biscuits and his own stock of cereals, peanut butter, and spaghetti. While he was there, he picked up his statin and blood pressure prescriptions from the pharmacy. The store had been hectoring him with automated voicemail reminders these past weeks. The robotic female recording had recently segued to offering actual medical advice concerning the urgency of keeping up with one’s pharmaceutical regimen. Next, he went to First Bank & Trust to make a small deposit with an actual person (because he only trusted the ATM machine for withdrawals), seeking out Barb Miller at her desk rather than the young teller behind the counter. He figured it was time he updated the records on their various accounts, all of which had been joint, and knew that Barb wouldn’t ask for a death certificate. Afterwards, he returned home and took a long nap on the sofa, Arthur snoring beside him from the loveseat. The dog released little gas bombs now and again, probably on account of his breakfast egg, so Frank had only himself to blame.  

***

Once he arose, he found himself scaling their modest hill toward Susan’s chanterelle zone with Arthur. She had said just enough about these mushrooms to make him sort of curious. It felt nice to feel curious about something new. Plus, he was sort of curious about Susan, and her son, Brian, neither of whom he’d thought on much these many years.   

The sunlight slanted through the trees, greening the foliage with a brighter brush than yesterday. The mossed rocks popped against the dusky leaf litter. It had rained overnight, which raised new odors from the earth. Mushroomy odors, he thought, wondering whether this would have occurred to him had he not run into Susan yesterday. He followed roughly the same direct line toward her chanterelle zone that he took yesterday evening on his descent from the oaky spot to the solid town. He figured he was going in the right direction but wondered at one point whether he might be lost, marveled at the momentary fear that seized him. He couldn’t have been more than a mile from home as the crow flies. Then he noticed a felled birch he’d seen yesterday, paused this time to set Arthur down, gather his breath and study the frilly skirt of some sort of fungus, likely poisonous, which seemed to appreciate the dead or dying wood. A chipmunk peeked out from a hollow in the decomposing trunk just long enough to capture Arthur’s attention. The dog lacked the courage or inclination to give chase but danced on his short legs and issued a series of whale-like interjections, Arthur’s version of a bark. The woods were good for him, Frank thought, reminded the creature of his slumbering wildness.     

“As I live and breathe,” Susan said as soon as he found her under the oaks. She uttered the words facetiously, refusing to startle upon his appearance, and refusing, once again, to interrupt her “hunting” right away to rise from her knees, or even look full upon him. 

“Good day so far?” He set Arthur down, who sniffed and scratched about, as he did yesterday, which reminded Frank that he’d forgotten to trim the dog’s nails.   

“I’d say. Just found some black trumpets.” Still on her knees, she turned toward Frank, reached into her mesh bag and lifted what looked to him like dog crap for his inspection, then she dropped the dusky prize back into the bag. Black trumpets, she explained, were closely related to golden chanterelles, but rarer. They boasted a deep and smoky taste, perfect on spaghetti with a cream sauce. She was about to say something else about the mushrooms, but then Arthur, still rooting around, caught her attention.  

“Ayuh, you don’t think your dog would eat any mushrooms he finds, would he?”

It was unclear to Frank whether she was principally concerned over the dog poisoning himself or depleting her harvest of edible chanterelles and black trumpets.   

“Arthur?” he said, mostly to let Susan know the dog’s name. “Nah. Maybe he’ll sniff out some truffles for you.” Pigs did this in Europe, he’d picked up from somewhere. Come to think of it, he wondered how their owners kept the pigs from eating the truffles they found.

“Wouldn’t that be something?” Susan said. “But we don’t have truffles in Maine. Not edible ones, anyway.” She went on to explain that it was too cold here for truffles, the soil too acidic. She invited him to help her on her forage. The two of them could cover more ground, she said. As they scanned and sifted through the forest floor, she told him other things about the few chanterelles he managed to gather. Mushrooms were the fruiting bodies of mycelium, which produced the fruit to release spores and propagate themselves. That’s why Susan carried her harvest in a mesh bag, to release some spores across the forest floor while she walked home. Most of the action lay beneath the surface, in what she called the “mycelial network.” Particular mushrooms formed symbiotic relationships with particular trees, their fungus-roots mixing in with the tree-roots to help each other absorb nutrients. Chanterelles and black trumpets got on with the oaks, which was how Susan knew to look for them here. “Trees might even talk to one other through the mycelial network,” Susan said, slipping the mushrooms into her bag, “send out warnings about pests and whatnot.” She did a funny thing, sometimes, after harvesting a mushroom, sliced up some of the stem and sprinkled it around, sowing the spores, maybe, as if they were seeds. 

“Did Gil teach you all this?” he asked, rising to his feet. His lower back smarted some, bending over to pluck mushrooms. He ought to use a pad for his knees, like Susan.  

“Heck no. Gil’s too busy with his hydrangeas. He doesn’t know diddly-squat about fungi.” 

Gil owned the nursery all these years, which was the only reason Frank assumed he might have taught Susan about mushrooms. But he detected from the salty way she said hydrangeas a certain tension between Gil’s interests, plant-wise, and Susan’s. After her lecture, he wasn’t even certain that mushrooms were plants, strictly speaking.  

They worked in silence for a while, not very long, really. But long enough to hear all sorts of birds looping in and out of earshot. And long enough for Arthur to finally warm up to Susan. He watched as his dog ventured closer and closer to where she was kneeling, favoring his left front leg a bit. Frank wondered whether he might have been communicating with Susan through his labored gait, something humble. It could have been Susan’s talk about the subtle way trees and mushrooms communicated with one another beneath the earth’s skin that made him think these thoughts. As Arthur drew within arm’s reach, Susan straightened her back and sat on her heels, then lifted her hand to scratch the top of Arthur’s head between his bat ears, while Arthur sat and panted. So maybe Susan had warmed up some to Arthur, too.

“He’s deaf, by the way,” Frank explained.

“Oh?” Susan said. “Poor little puppet.” She continued to offer him canine comfort.   

“I’m real sorry about Brian,” he heard himself say next.     

“Ayuh? What?” Susan asked, squinting up at him, though still petting Arthur. One of those big woodpeckers laughed from somewhere in the canopy. “You’re thinking on my Brian? Now?” 

He told her yes. He supposed so.  

“Well it was a scourge, that disease. Not so bad, anymore, seems.”

“That’s not what I meant. Not exactly. I ought to have been better to him when he was alive, what I was thinking.”

“You and the rest of the town.” The way she said this told Frank that it still smarted like a fresh hurt, the way the town treated her boy. She rose from her knees and looked about, figuring where they ought to forage next, it seemed. “You were better than most, anyway, if I recall.”

He was about to say something to this but took a deep breath instead and let the moment pass. It was a cowardly breath, he knew, a cowardly moment.

***

That night, he called his son back to let him know that everything was okay up in Maine. Next, he asked Will whether he remembered Brian Potter. The sound of the name inspired an audible burst of air through his son’s lips, which Frank didn’t know how to interpret. Then Will was speaking. “Sure, I remember Brian. Sucks what happened to him.” It was Frank’s turn to speak, but he couldn’t summon any words so Will finally asked him whether he was sure everything was okay, and why was he thinking about Brian Potter now of all times? Frank might have told his son about seeing Mrs. Potter up on the hill hunting mushrooms these past couple days—there was no reason not to tell him—but demurred. “No reason,” he said. 

After setting down the smartphone, he sliced chanterelles and fewer black trumpets (which, curiously, didn’t have gills) and fried them in a cast iron pot with garlic and butter and parsley, lathering in some white wine to reduce at the end. Susan wouldn’t let him head back down the hill earlier without taking some of the mushrooms, even though he claimed that he didn’t really like mushrooms. This was true, though he also admitted to her that he couldn’t remember whether he’d ever eaten chanterelles or black trumpets. He hadn’t cooked with garlic, either, for as long as he could remember. Michelle had developed a garlic allergy shortly after Will was born, which made her stomach bloat and cramp. 

“Mmm,” he said aloud over the table, surprising himself with the sound of his voice. He’d taken to leaving the TV on in the family room just so it wasn’t so quiet in the house, though the TV wasn’t on now. He heard Arthur’s nails scratching across the linoleum as the dog made his way toward his kibble, which reminded Frank that he still needed to take care of those nails. Soon as he finished eating the mushrooms, he rose from his chair to retrieve the orange-handled trimmers from the sideboard. By the time he looked for the dog on the linoleum, where he lay like an oil-spill after eating his kibble, Arthur had already made himself scarce. How did the dog always know the moment Frank thought about trimming his nails?

He managed to find the poor thing cowering on the carpet between the ottoman and loveseat in the den, where Frank knew to look. He scooped Arthur up and set him on his lap on the chair. The dog’s nails were all black, like his body, so Frank couldn’t see the quick. He’d never sliced through it, but this didn’t keep Arthur from whining his whale-whine, yanking back at the front paw Frank grasped with his hand. “Now, buck up, Arthur,” he said, “this will only take a minute.” Clip. 

While he trimmed the dog’s nails, he thought back at Brian’s few months with the troop, the single campout the child attended. He must have been eleven or so. It was out at Baxter State Park. From the moment they got there, Brian did little to ingratiate himself to his peers, refusing to pull his weight to gather kindling for their campfire. That’s what most irked Frank about Susan’s boy, he recalled now, his refusal to try harder, or at all, to impress his scout-mates, his stubborn half-assedness when it came to scouting. Clip. 

The highlight of this campout each year was fishing at Lake Matagamon, grilling the butterflied brook trout over an open flame afterward. The big lake brimmed with the trout and Frank had figured out by this time how best to fish for them. No fancy fly-rods or artificial lures. He outfitted the boys with simple spinning gear baited with live worms. Not just any worms but the thick nightcrawlers he had the boys retrieve from the horse manure pile at Steve Hargrove’s stable on Winding Road. To his credit, Brian had been pretty game about collecting the fragrant, purple worms the day before they piled into the vans for the drive, game enough to get Frank’s hopes up that Brian might turn things around on the campout. He remained hopeful even after Will, as SPL, had to admonish Brian for not collecting enough kindling. Clip.

Next morning, however, Brian shrank from baiting his hook on the lakeshore, complained that it constituted animal cruelty or some such nonsense, stabbing a live worm like that, which made Frank wonder what the hell Brian thought they were going to do with the worms after they collected them, and wonder, too, how the kid would react once they started catching fish on those barbed hooks. It never really got that far, however, as the other scouts started mocking Brian straight away, calling him names and whatnot, which made Brian do something that truly surprised Frank and might have impressed him, even though it didn’t impress him at the time. Without saying a word, Susan’s boy grabbed up both red Folger’s tins filled with manure and worms, waded out to his knees, and dumped them into the water. Only boy who anticipated what Brian was up to and gave chase was Lars Schmitt, who didn’t get there in time to stop Brian from freeing the worms so settled on punching him square in the nose, instead. Brian didn’t fight back but threw both hands up to his face, as if to hold the blood inside. Lars stood there sort of frozen as Frank rushed to the scene, surprised maybe by the effectiveness of his blow, trying to figure out whether or not to throw another punch, or maybe wrestle Brian into the water with a headlock. Single-arm headlocks were popular with the boys then. A couple of the scouts egged Lars on by cheering from the shoreline. Frank, in any case, made it out there in time to shield Brian before Lars could decide on his next move. The poor kid’s bright yellow Class-B T-shirt was rooster-tailed with blood. Clip. 

Frank pulled his own Class-B over his head to stanch the flow, just dribbling now from Brian’s nose, told Brian to move his darn hands out of the way, lean his head back. He expected the kid to be crying once he got a good look at his face, but he didn’t seem to be crying. His quivering eyes and creased brow advertised, instead, an expression Frank couldn’t quite read, simultaneously intense and detached. He was aware of his son pulling Lars away, while Tim Miller, the other father chaperoning the trip, shouted at the boys on shore to pipe down. 

“Back to the campsite!” Frank yelled. “Take the boys back to camp, Tim.”  

They ate canned beans and frankfurters for supper. He had Brian sleep in their adult tent and they drove home the next morning, a day early. Clip. 

Frank dropped the boy off personally at the Potters, Brian scurrying past his mother’s legs soon as she opened the door. An icepack had kept Brian’s eyes from raccooning, thankfully, and Frank had cleaned the bloodstains off the boy’s Class-B with dish-soap back at the lake. He explained to Susan at the threshold best he could—Gary didn’t seem to be home—what had happened at the campout. He’d had a good long talk with him, Frank assured her, talked to the other boy, too, and would also talk to the other boy’s parents. (Frank wouldn’t name the other boy and was glad that Susan didn’t ask). Susan nodded her head sort of slow, sucked at her teeth as she stared somewhere past Frank’s shoulder. She seemed to be piecing the story together for herself best she could from the few details Frank shared. She didn’t ask him exactly what he’d said to Brian and to the other boy, or what he was planning on saying to the other boy’s parents. She thanked Frank for driving Brian home, taking care, it seemed to him, to specify the narrow parameters of her appreciation. She shut the door, softly. Clip.

Arthur issued a piercing howl now that Frank had never heard before. His eyes blurred by his memories—specifically, by what he remembered having said to Brian by the lakeshore just after Lars had punched him—Frank had sliced clear through the quick. Arthur scurried out of his arms onto the carpet, licking at the wound that leaked blood. Frank rose and carried the squirming dog upstairs to the bathroom where he kept his styptic pencil. “Sorry, boy. Oh, Arthur, please calm down. I’m sorry. It was an accident.” Despite all of Arthur’s howling and fidgeting, Frank managed to make enough contact with the pencil to the wound to stanch the flow.

Here’s what Frank had said to Susan’s son by the lakeshore once the boy’s nose had stopped bleeding, after the rest of the boys were out of earshot: “For Christ’s sake, Brian, you gotta cut out this fairy crap! They’re just a bunch of worms.” Brian still wore that strange, silent look of detached intensity on his face. Frank would have preferred it had the boy simply been blubbering. That’s what any normal boy would do after getting licked. The mad cry of a loon rose from somewhere on the water. Brian seemed to be staring out at the water toward wherever the loon was, maybe at the broccoli mountain on the far side. That’s where he was in his head, it seemed, way over on the other side of the lake. Frank waited for the loon to pipe down and for Brian to say something. The loon quieted, but the boy didn’t seem to have anything to say, at least not to him. “You don’t want to get bullied, Brian,” he pressed, “you cut out the fairy crap right now, hear?! Hear?!” The loon shrieked again.

Frank didn’t say any of this to be cruel, he thought now. A stern talking to might set the boy aright. That’s all a situation like this demanded, a firm fatherly hand. He wasn’t the only one to think such things at the time. Still, he was mostly relieved and hardly protested at all when Susan called him the day before the next troop meeting to tell him that Brian wouldn’t be returning to scouts. 

***

It was much easier walking through the woods next afternoon without carrying the dog. Frank had left Arthur at home with a peanut butter-filled rawhide stick on account of his injured toenail. Soon as he reached the chanterelle zone, and Susan, she told him that they’d be scouting a new zone today, one of her King bolete zones. Gazing about the leaf litter, she asked him where Arthur was, so he explained to her what happened last night to his toenail. She studied his face for a moment, then asked him if he was okay, meaning him, not Arthur, he somehow knew, and he told her that he was. 

He followed Susan as she trailblazed up the hill. She walked faster than he would have imagined, seemed to know in advance where the rocks and shrubs were that she had to negotiate. Along the way, she told him more about the boletes and about wild mushrooms, generally. The boletes usually didn’t come up till August, she said, but you never could tell. All the rain they’d been having, global warming throwing a wrench in the works too, it was smart to check time to time. The forest got darker as the conifers took over from the oaks and now Frank heard chickadees wheezing from the trees. Most of these giant trees were hemlocks, he could tell now that he’d studied the book at home. Susan must have noticed the hemlocks, because now she was telling him, as he huffed for breath behind her, that the boletes got on well with this old stand of hemlock and spruce, where she was leading him. She talked more about the symbiotic relationship between mushrooms and trees, how interesting it all was beneath the earth’s surface, the impressive recent discoveries of some German forester, which complicated Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. “Nature’s not all red in tooth and claw,” Susan said, which must have been some sort of literary reference. She always did pay more attention in school than he did. Frank got the gist of it, anyway. The trees and fungi got along with one another a lot better than people had assumed, a lot better than people seemed to get along with one another above the ground. She was talking now about some other mushroom called chicken of the woods, how scrumptious the steak-sized marinated caps tasted on the grill. The name turkey tail might have come up too, but he was still thinking of that interlaced network of roots beneath the earth’s crust. 

He wasn’t sure exactly where they were once Susan told him that they’d reached her bolete zone, somewhere near the top of the hill, he figured, even though he couldn’t see the crest through the dark canopy. She suggested that they fan out a bit and walk a swath of the woods together to see what they could turn up. “I don’t see any,” she said after twenty yards or so, referring to the boletes, he knew. He didn’t see any boletes either, though he did come across an icicle-looking thing peeking out from a scar in one of the few beeches. He almost didn’t bother telling Susan about it, as it hardly looked like a mushroom and clearly wasn’t a bolete. But she slapped him on the back soon as he pointed it out and told him it was something called lion’s mane.   

“You’re handy to have around,” she said next, kinder to him than he had any right to expect. That’s the sort of life that he’d been lucky to lead all these years, it occurred to him now as Susan set to freeing the pale fungus from the trunk with her knife. Maybe because he was a man, a man with a solid name in this town going clear back to the Acadians on his mother’s side, a man with a solid name, who the town relied upon all those years to get their bum furnaces up and running at a moment’s notice middle of winter. For all that, which wasn’t so much, really, his neighbors had treated him with greater kindness than he deserved. Others weren’t so lucky.  

Then he saw them, pieces of them, anyway, through the understory shrubs and rocks. Three people. They stood or crouched some thirty yards ahead in one of the troughs, the forest floor approximating a troubled ocean here. They carried woven baskets, looked like, their elbows under big looping handles. They may have been from that Fabulous Fungi class at the Y, those silly baskets distributed with the registration fee. He didn’t think that Susan had seen them yet from behind the tree. He glanced at her, still scraping at the remnants of the lion’s mane inside the fissured bark, maybe spreading those spores around, her hand trembling some as she worked the blade.  

He wondered how he ought to greet the challenge of these other people, because it seemed like challenge, suddenly, whether he should alert Susan to their presence so she could shoo them off, or whether he should tear after them himself, curse a blue streak like some madman to oust the party. Before he could decide, Susan moved on wordlessly toward a big hemlock on the downslope, its trunk forked about six feet off the ground, scanning the earth’s floor all the while. Then she dropped her blue pad and lowered herself to her knees to take a closer look at something under the forked evergreen. Such terrific concentration! He wondered what Susan was looking for across the forest floor, besides mushrooms.

“You here to help me look, ayuh,” Susan called to him, “or you just gonna stand over there staring at me, Frank Ackinclose.” She looked back at him for the split second it took to say his name, during which time she might have glimpsed the interlopers up the rise, but she still didn’t seem to notice them. Her eyesight might not have been so good, anymore. 

“I’m here,” he said. “I’m here.” He closed the distance between them, but she seemed to be finished looking at whatever it was she was inspecting down there. He reached down to offer her his hand, which she took. He tried helping her to her feet but the weight of her took him by surprise. Their hiking shoes made little skidding noises against the earth as they both helped each other find their balance.   

“Let’s check out that soggy spot down there,” he suggested as if he knew what he was talking about, leading her away from the other mushroom hunters, who would only upset her. It was weak of him, maybe, but he didn’t want to watch Susan confront them. He didn’t want to confront them, himself. He didn’t care to utter one more harsh word to anyone.

Andrew Furman

About Andrew Furman

Andrew Furman is a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University and teaches in its MFA program in Creative Writing. Recent stories and essays have appeared in such publications as Prairie Schooner, Santa Monica Review, Terrain.org, Solstice, and Willow Springs. His books include the novels Jewfish (Little Curlew Press, 2020) and Goldens are Here (Green Writers Press, 2018), and the memoir, Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair with Florida (University Press of Florida, 2014), which was named a finalist for the ASLE Environmental Book Award. You can find him at andrewfurmanwriter.com, furman.andrew (Instagram), and andrew.furman.50 (Facebook).

Cold Mountain Review is published once a year in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Support from Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs and College of Arts and Sciences enables CMR’s learning and publications program. The views and opinions expressed in CMR do not necessarily reflect those of university trustees, administration, faculty, students, or staff.