Hen of the Woods | Jared Povanda
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
My therapist told me to write you. I’m sorry if this is awkward. I’m sorry for saying sorry.
When you lost your job, it wasn’t all bad. We both hated Manhattan. The reek. The crowds. The noise. God, the noise. Remember your army of earplugs on the nightstand? That first night in Cornwall, you picked the pink pair. Little bits of wax still clung to the pads. You asked me about my phone call with Samuel.
“Is he well?” You stood with your back to me, focusing on something moving outside the window. A pigeon, maybe. I always imagined it was a pigeon. You slipped off your dress shirt, and I watched it float to the floor. I wanted to get on my knees.
“No,” I said. “He said the chemo was rough.”
I sat on the bed and watched your pants drop to your ankles. The toes of my Converse were dirty. The shoelaces frayed as I picked at them. “He asked about you, James.”
You snorted and kicked away your pants. A button hit the dresser. “What did you tell him?”
“That you were doing well.”
You still didn’t turn around. You wouldn’t face me. Or maybe you wouldn’t face him. You probably figured you’d see your father in my eyes.
“I am doing well,” you said.
The pigeon or whatever must have flown away because you looked down at your hands. How hard did you grip the sill? Do you remember?
“He really hurt me,” you said.
You shoved the pink plugs in that night and turned your back to me a second time. I brought the sheets over us, and then I clung to you. I knew you were crying on the inside. I kissed the mole on your throat and held you. You said, once, that I helped you breathe. Is that still true?
When you lost your job, you asked me if I wanted to take a trip. I should have said somewhere warm. California, maybe. But back then, I stood on tiptoe and kissed you. Your lips were soft. I could taste the Indian food you had for lunch. You smiled. You didn’t break in my hands.
“Where?” I asked. Gold flecks orbited your pupil.
I laughed. “England? Why?”
“I want to buy us a castle.”
I think this is why I married you. Your propensity for contradiction. You lost your job, and your heart became so light it nearly escaped your body. You and I could fight about everything and nothing for hours on end, and yet you wanted us to be kings.
We arrived in Cornwall on a Tuesday. The sky was gray and teeming with water, as if the moisture was alive. An animal stalking through the clouds. You held my hand and tightened your grip as the wind swept down the drive of the hotel. I rolled a suitcase behind us. You held a duffel by the straps. I knew the fabric was cutting into your hand, but you didn’t let go. Didn’t shift. I think a part of you used the pain as a distraction from me.
Then, though, my mind worked in different ways, ran different patterns, and I believed the gesture was romantic. You hurt so you could hold me. Your pain was what kept me from blowing away.
“Promise me something,” I said. Hydrangeas, swollen with bees, flanked the door to the lobby. Purple petals ripped away in the wind, scattering like ripened berries at our feet. I could see people moving beyond the tinted windows.
“What?” you asked.
“I don’t want to fight here. I want to enjoy this trip.” I set my hand against the glass, wanting you to stop me, and when you did set your hand on my bicep, when I felt the heat of your touch through the sleeve of my sweater, my heart swerved.
“Fighting is our thing,” you said. “The zest of life.” There was humor in your voice. A lightness that made me want to slip beneath your shirt.
“I don’t want to fight,” I said again. My gaze landed on your lips. The stubble cresting your jaw. “We do that too much in New York. When we work, James, we really work.”
We stepped back from the door when a woman in a three-piece suit exited the hotel.
“I’ll promise if you do.”
“I promise,” I said.
My mother used to say that promises from men were nothing but air, but I never believed her. You need air. You need the wind through the trees. You need storms to come and wet the earth. Life depends on air. Promises between us weren’t air.
When Hannah called to tell us your father died suddenly in his sleep, I didn’t know what you would do. We were driving on the opposite side of the road in a new country, a week into our vacation, because you wanted to harvest mushrooms, and here was your sister calling, and she was gasping over the rental car’s speakers, and I looked over at you, and I didn’t want to cry because I know he was awful to you, but my chest was pried open because I loved you, I loved you so much, and I knew this had to wreck you. Decades of complicated feelings didn’t vanish with death.
But you didn’t pull over. You didn’t even slow down. You drove us to the edge of the woods, and we went walking with our baskets. The interior of the forest was moist and cold like a ghost exhaling over the back of my neck. I couldn’t stop shivering. I wanted to touch you. To hug you. To back you against hard bark and kiss you. To use my body to reduce you to pieces small enough to swallow. I wanted to anchor you. To shore up what leaked.
“Here,” you said. “Here, Will.” You were crouching in the dirt, pointing at a fortress of growths emerging near the roots of a gnarled tree. “Here they are. Hen-of-the-woods.”
I helped you cut pieces of the mushroom away from the tree with a dainty silver knife. I remember its small handle, slight as a finger. I didn’t know if we were doing anything right — if we were following correct procedure or destroying the mushroom, but I kept quiet. In the dark gloom, you smelled of sweat and fresh earth, and speaking felt sacrilegious. If you want to get Biblical about it, we were practically Adam and Eve. Mushrooms are a sort of fruit, you know. A fungal apple. We collected all we could, and then we walked to the car. The drive back was worse than the drive out. You sang along to Stevie Nicks on the radio. Outside the window, speed blurred the landscape until distance solidified.
I cried in the bathroom. Did you hear me? In our room, when you were dressing for dinner, I went into the bathroom and wept for your father and for you, the years lost between the two of you, and what couldn’t be mended, and then I prayed. I leaned against the marble sink and prayed for you. For your heart. That, in time, you’d be ready to confide in me. That’s all I ever wanted. Not for you to feel sorry about Samuel, and not for you to forgive him, but to trust me with what you actually felt.
When we went to dinner, the white cloth a winter ocean sending up white plates like glacial drifts piled high with fancy appetizers, I thought you’d admit to something then. I thought you’d fall apart in the soft candlelight, and then I’d feel useful and needed and strong enough to reform your shape. We wouldn’t fight anymore. We’d connect. We’d experience every complicated, contradictory emotion together, and maybe we’d even buy that castle. Hell, I wanted a castle with you. Stone and moss and a library lighted with hearth fires.
But you smiled over your glass of rosé (I still remember how you like your wine chilled with exactly two ice cubes), and you didn’t fall apart. You didn’t cry or shake. You stood, and you said, “I have a surprise for you, Will. Won’t you excuse me?”
I sat in the crowded hotel restaurant, candles flickering on each table — islands in a frigid sea, or maybe stars burning holes in an obsidian sky. The waiter came with more wine, and you returned with one of our baskets of mushrooms. I remember staring at you. I don’t know if I said anything. I watched you pull back the cloth. The scent of earth was as heavy as a wet sponge.
“I thought we could try a few,” you said. You lifted your steak knife, and you speared a clump of the mushroom with a precision that made me flinch. I watched as you brought the fruit to your lips. The knife gleamed.
“Want one, Will? They’re delicious.”
Once upon a time, I would have eaten from your hand.
“What about Samuel?” My voice rasped. Your smile fell for a moment, and someone laughed at another table littered with cocktails the color of absinthe.
“Oh,” you said, something like pity in your eyes, “Is that why you’re so quiet? I feel fine. Will, he was a raging homophobe when I was growing up, and I know he was my father, but I’m not upset. Honestly, it’s a relief.”
“A relief?” My voice, a whisper. I pressed my cold hands between my thighs.
You stabbed another mushroom. “Will. Would you stop looking at me like that? I’m not going to have a breakdown. Can’t we enjoy our dinner without his spirit hovering?”
The hen-of-the-woods, bite after silky bite, coming apart in your mouth. I nodded. Our filets were served with a red wine jus. My steak was rare. Bloody enough to moo.
We walked outside after, the basket in the crook of your arm. We didn’t touch. Even when we had sex a few nights later, I don’t think we ever touched.
We didn’t divorce because of that night or your father, I know, but I never was able to get the image of those mushrooms out of my mind. How you ate the flesh off the tip of your knife. How your father was dying when he asked about you. His veins: blue, spidering, and every time I blink, I see a mushroom’s reaching hyphae forming a mycelial network. Hen-of-the-woods emerging brown and ribbed from the side of his face like scales. His body bulging with methane and dissolving through his hospital sheets to the loam far below.
“I’m really sorry,” I said after dinner. “For what it’s worth.” I looked up at you, cars streaking through puddles reflecting a sleepy halogen haze.
“Thank you, Will. But it really is fine. I’ll let you know if that changes.” You looked ahead at something in the far-off dark. Did it slither?
“Do you promise, James?” I asked.
“Yes,” you said. But your answer was made of air. Wasn’t it?
Wasn’t it, James?
I hope you’ll answer. I hope you’ll tell me if anything has changed. You can, you know. I hope you know you can. You can tell me anything.
Always and forever,
Jared Povanda is a writer, poet, and freelance editor from upstate New York. He has been nominated multiple times for both Best of the Net and Best Microfiction, and his writing can be found in Pidgeonholes, Hobart, Cheap Pop, HAD, Ellipsis Zine, and Wrongdoing Magazine, among numerous others. Find him online @JaredPovanda, at his website, and in the Poets & Writers Directory.