By Lindsey Crittenden
We leave after breakfast, our shadows long over the gravel. Sit in front, Eva insists. Single woman out with couple, I’m used to it. Good thing, too, the way John zooms around bends, braking quick and sudden. I keep my eyes straight ahead, the window cracked for air. Through their small Colorado town – post office, bar, gas pumps – and he turns left. Piñons, sage. We climb, dip into a bowl of green. Grazing lands. On the right, a wolf sanctuary. “Can’t stop,” John says. “Sun’s clearing the ridge. We got to stake our spot.”
At 9,000 feet the valley opens up, a river cutting through and creeks feeding the river from mountains on all sides. The Wets to the north, loaf-like prominences to the east. South, tall hills hide the two-lane highway between Walsenburg and Alamosa. To the west, the Sangre de Cristos, named for the reddish glow of setting sun against flanks of snow.
The pines get taller, the soil loamier, the air thinner. We pass vacant, widened shoulders, their dirt grooved from tire tracks.
“Not yet,” John says.
Another five hundred feet in elevation, we pass parked cars – pickups, a family van, a station wagon.
“They got here first,” John says. “Motherfuckers.”
We’re here for boletus. Late summer, after heavy rains, a day or two of sunshine: their caps push up through the forest floor reddish and rounded atop thick white stalks.
“Porcini,” I say. “Cèpes. Right?”
John snorts. “That’s foodie talk. We’re foragers.”
The ugly mushrooms aren’t necessarily the dangerous ones. One of the most hideous – Bear Claw, it’s called, its cap topped with a black crust like a drying scab – tastes quite good. “You’ve eaten it, then,” I say.
“Oh, no,” Eva laughs. “I’ve just heard.”
“The ones with the green sheen will kill you in minutes.” John jerks the car to the right. No other cars in sight. “This looks good.”
We get out, plastic shopping bags in our fists, and climb through air taut with pine. Sunlight dapples the thick-needled forest floor. John bends his head, scans the duff.
“Find one to show her,” Eva says. Before meeting John, two days ago when they picked me up at the airport, I expected a quiet, thin man who’d nod and tilt his head while listening, pause before speaking, the way Eva does. Hid my surprise when I shook his blunt hand, nicked with scars from woodworking, and heard his booming voice. My childhood friend has found a man I never would’ve imagined for her, and I can’t stop watching both of them.
I point. “That one?”
“Don’t assume,” John says. “You’re new at this.”
“Be careful,” said the man I’ve been living with for two months, this morning over a cell connection so weak I had to go out to John and Eva’s back yard and stand near the apple tree raided nightly by bears in order to hear him. I promised I’d touch nothing deadly.
“How can you be sure?” he asked, and it’s true – I can’t.
“We’ll be fine,” I told him. “Eva and John know what they’re doing.”
We wander, we hunt, we poke with the edge of a stick. From time to time, John makes a wet clock of his tongue against palate, and Eva a two-tone whistle. That way, we stay in earshot. We break for lunch, eating sandwiches as we lean against the car.
“I love this foraging stuff,” John says, picking onion skin from between his teeth. “It’s the thief in me.”
“Well, love away,” Eva says, passing around oatmeal cookies. “You’ll have plenty to clean tonight.”
“Not doing it alone,” he says, taking half a cookie in one bite. “You’ll be with me, woman.”
“We just found each other,” my man at sea level said this morning. “I can’t lose you now.” He’s never called me his woman – but isn’t it part of who I am, who I long to be? Didn’t I thrill to the sight, last night, of John at the kitchen door, banging pots at the bear who shook branches of the apple tree, dropped to all fours, ambled away?
By the time we leave, we’ve filled four shopping bags. Forty pounds, easily. I claim the back seat, drowsy from the sun and effort and lack of oxygen. Plenty of things scared me as a girl and wolves weren’t one of them. The Big Bad guy huffing and puffing on the straw house seemed silly; the pack circling the little house on the prairie to howl at the moon, awesome. I longed to see one for real: just one, a loner like me. We’d understand each other in a glance, go our own ways, no harm done.
I sit up straighter as we pass the wolf sanctuary. One, I think. Let me see just one. “Look!” I point to a gray smudge next to a brown building.
“Sagebrush,” John says, and takes the car around a bend.
Another thirty miles, and we’re back in their kitchen. Within 20 minutes, butter sizzles in a pan as John, aproned, sautés and serves. “Voilà,” he tells me, “your first foraged mushroom.” Eva sits, tosses a salad. We toast with wine. Mushrooms delicious, I text home later. All fine. Miss you.
Eva and John stay up all night scraping and slicing while I sleep alone in the guest room’s white-sheeted bed, dreaming of wolves. They mate for life, I’ve heard.
It’s not like I don’t have my worries, too.
* * *
Lindsey Crittenden is the author of The View From Below: Stories and The Water Will Hold You, a memoir. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, Cimarron Review, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. In November 2019, her story “The Ruins” was performed onstage by Word for Word Theater Company as a winner in the “Exactly!” They Said celebration of California short stories. Lindsey lives in San Francisco and is a member of the Writers Grotto.