Short Story: Salt and Oil

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The maze appeared from nowhere one day, but it didn’t surprise me much.  Morchellas sprouted everywhere, and there was always a pattern to be found if I looked hard enough.  Most of the time they followed the same paths as the pigs, rooted in the dung they dropped as the hogs stopped to crunch up the spongy mushrooms, a cycle as timeless as the summer sun.

Mama called them fairy circles, but Pop just called it bollocks.  I was somewhere in between, on the cusp of sprouting myself, fourteen and disinclined to agree with anyone.  Mama shook her head when I got cross, arguing both sides but not really believing either. She would send me to the cupboard to take an herbal supplement she swore would fix me, the bottle marked with big red letters that said PMS, preferring to blame biology no matter what the calendar said, refusing to believe that there was something wrong with what had been crafted rather than what had been born.

So I spent a lot of time in the yard, looking through the broken fence at Mr. Calper’s pigs as they snuffled and rolled and pissed hard and steaming onto the ground.  He had named them all, but I had named them better, and they snorted happily at me and rubbed up against the wooden slats when I sat with my back against the barrier, reading my homework out loud to keep us company.

Mr. Calper went to the graveyard once a week to visit his wife, and I would sneak through the gate while he was gone, to scratch the pigs behind the ears and pick some wildflowers from the fields to leave in the old vase on his porch for when he returned.  I liked to see the look on his face.  He was a sad old man, but he liked the flowers.  He probably knew it was me who was leaving them, but he never let on.

The maze was in the back corner of his land, near the edge of the woods where the best pheasant’s eye grew.  The pigs never bothered to go that far, so the morchellas grew by the hundreds, in thick, spongy clusters like prune fingers after a swim.  I didn’t like how they tasted, and it was a good thing, too.  The way they grew in spirals didn’t feel quite right.  Mama had said to leave them alone, because sometimes there were poison ones mixed in.  For once, I listened.  And not for the first time, she was wrong.

I left them alone and walked right through, careful not to crush them.  There was a path, of sorts: a double line like a runway that I tiptoed between for the fun of it, curving one way and another in a snaking knot like the dancer I knew I didn’t have the grace to be.  If I had picked them, I wouldn’t have been caught in it.  I wouldn’t have stopped, shivering, wide-eyed and gasping, clutching my head like a flooding stroke, blurring and burrowing into the heart of me.

Insofar as I was having thoughts, they weren’t clear ones.  I’d felt the same, once, when the flu came to school and Pop drove me to the hospital at three in the morning, still wearing his slippers, the edge of the steering wheel brushing my forehead as I lay on his lap.  His hand on my forehead, warm and steady, as if he was trying to keep me from floating away.  Everything had felt like watching TV, and I didn’t like the hospital.  But Mama had let me drink Gatorade she bought from the gift shop, and even smiled when I showed her my tongue stained blue.

The doctor had been a funny man, but he wasn’t here now, and neither was Mama.  I was scared, and there were tears on my face as I dropped to my knees, my hands over my ears, squeezing like a watermelon to make it go away.  The mushrooms smelled like the pigs’ dung as I rolled onto my side, curled up and heedless of the rules I broke by bending and snapping the stems.  I thought I heard them cry, or maybe it was me, and I shut my eyes to wish it away.

Fairy circles, Mama had said, and I believed every word when I felt a hand on the back of my neck, not warm and firm like Pop’s, but rough and scaled and broad, grinding something sandy into my nape, pushing aside my ponytail.  I shrank away but the hand returned, wet and slimy, and rubbed something moist and soothing, slick and fragrant as I whimpered.

“There, now,” a voice said, the first sound in a hundred years as the overpowering earthy scent faded and the tide receded from my brain.  “Time to get up, girl.  Stand on your feet and let’s move along.”

I didn’t know how I obeyed, but I didn’t have much of a choice not to.  The voice was less compelling than the gritty wetness on the back of my neck.  It smelled like breakfast, and I craned my head to try to see, my arm held helplessly in Mr. Calper’s rough hand as he guided me away.

“I’m all gross,” I said, not sure what else I was supposed to do.  The liquid was squirming down my back, sticking my shirt to my shoulder blades, and it felt like someone had sneezed on me.

“Of course you are, girl,” he said, the sound of rocks grinding in a throat that had sucked down cigarette smoke for years and years.  “A gift for the earth.”

“What does that mean?”

“Them creatures’ll feast on anything, and it was about to be you.  Morchellas?  More like monsters.  I hate the damn things.  The pigs like ‘em, though, and I know you like the pigs.  Maybe there’s some good in you worth saving.”

“Thank you,” I said unsteadily, wiping as much of the oil out of my hair as I could.

“Run along,” he replied as we crested the corner and his house hove into view.  “Keep away from there next time, you hear?  I don’t much care for pheasant’s eye in any case.  Stick with daisies and we’ll both be all right.”

He let go of my arm and shoved me towards the gate, a little smile on his face despite his gruffness as he turned up the path.  Daisies grew on my side of the fence, safe and sunny.  “Can I help you feed the pigs?” I asked, suddenly not caring that I was a mess.

“Tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder, brushing the old, empty vase with his gnarled hand as he disappeared.  I waited a moment as the light went on in the parlor behind the glass, saw his shadow as he sat in his chair, and then spun around, sprinting for home, knowing I would never even bother to try to explain.

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