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The Long Winter
by Mark Smith
Among the damp, plastered leaves we found our first one, a pointed dry leaf patch, raised up by a sprouting mushroom. This mushroom, I remember, is bent slightly double under the leaves. I bend down to pick it and stick my knee into the soft ground. As I focus on the stem, then begin to pinch it off, my eye scans the nearby area for more morels.

Later, as we are circling back to the car, it's getting dark, and I think maybe this makes it possible to see some mushrooms that weren't so visible before. The silhouettes of the mushrooms in the dark stand out clearly against the flattened leaves. They look like miniature Sitka spruce trees as I come upon them in the half light. Months of snow have pressed the leaves down, making a thick carpet that hides all shapes underneath. In the half light, the mushrooms stand out by virtue of their uprightness. Colors don't matter any more, only shapes.

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As a kid in high school I used to work at the A&P grocery store. There was one woman who drove a rusty old whale of a Pontiac. The back seat floor of her car was always covered with decomposing, wet newspapers. All winter long they were there, either frozen stiff or thawing in an oozing pulp. She would shepherd her two young kids onto the wide bench seat through the front door, leaving me to put the groceries on the back seat. I was always careful to put the bags well back on the seat so that they wouldn't fall into that mess. She was pretty in her own way, despite her stringy hair, and you could tell from her long woolen coat that she came from money. But her quiet shame was apparent and I always wondered how she came to such a strait.

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Joan's grocery bag is about two inches deep with mushrooms as we get to the car, and mine maybe five inches deep. I have not really looked at them much, before putting them in the car. Picking a morel does not necessarily involve looking at it. What you are always looking for is more mushrooms, even as you are picking the one you just found. Usually where there is one there is another mushroom nearby, so while you are picking it, you are looking for the next one. I don't really look at them closely until later, at home, when I cut them longitudinally and soak them in salt water prior to cooking or storing. God, but they're pretty! And the earthen smell of them promises something in the way of happiness. There is a chance of good things to come in that smell. Surely anyone can smell it.

I dip my hands into the soaking mushrooms and swirl them around. The salt in the water makes the bugs come out, if there are any. In the bright kitchen light the mushrooms shine in the thickness of the water. Now I look carefully at each one, and can even remember them individually, can more or less tell you where each one came from. In each mushroom is contained a little memory, stored up then to be released now as I stand at the kitchen sink. When I picked them I was too busy looking for more to appreciate the finer points and qualities of each one, but now I remember. There is a kind of mini release of feeling and memory as I deal with these mushrooms. I plunge my arms into the water almost up to my elbows and lift the heavy load from the bottom to the top repeatedly, until my eyes begin to stop focusing on anything other than the oily surface of the water. After ten minutes I drain the water away. The morels are still rubbery and firm.

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Pirates and maniacs. When the long sought treasure is finally unearthed, do they really plunge their hands in up to their wrists and throw the stuff around, or is that just Hollywood? Pirate hands plunge in deeply, drawing up a handful of pearls, doubloons and emeralds, letting them spill with reckless abandon to the sand, laughing all the time, as if to say "there's plenty more where that came from."

Wouldn't you want to get the treasure safely in the bank before you started celebrating? Wouldn't you want to account for each and every gold doubloon before you let it spill carelessly into the beach sand? And what about those athletes on TV. who love to waste champagne? Look at those dumb football players in the locker room after winning the big game. Their sole objective seems to be to shake up the bottle and squirt it at the camera. Why? What does it mean? I wonder about this as I am hypnotized by the slippery morels that I transfer to the colander. I make sure not to waste any. Winter has been long.

Mark Smith is a teacher at Leland Public School. Among other things, he edits and webmasters a journal of student and teacher writing, The Beechnut Review. You can read many other works by Mark in NMJ by clicking here.

Copyright 2001 Manitou Publishing Co. & Mark Smith • All Rights Reserved.

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