Asheville Grit and Dogwood Alliance are proud to present Brad Kelly’s “Morchella Eximia,” the Grand Prize Winner of our inaugural flash writing contest on the theme of Southern forests.
The best morels emerge in the spring after a burn. A cigarette butt or a lightning strike or a campfire left to smolder. And then monstrous flames, an almost biblical trampling of heat through the hackberry and mountain ash until only the strongest are left standing blackened on desolate slopes. Then a winter. A closing down and resetting. And then spring, in the light of those first vernal dawns, up come the morchella eximia—delicious, a raisin-like texture to their fruiting, an otherworldly intelligence to the way they sit there pondering in the black dirt.
My son died the year before this one. Can you forgive me for trying to forget? Just a child. Old enough to have a personality. To look like his father and mine, and like me. To have words he liked. To have foods he didn’t. To have an entire shape he pressed into the pliable skin of our lives.
I am not fine. I have nothing to say about it. I have no answers to questions. I sometimes ask my mother to help me out around the house because I want her to feel as though she’s doing something in support. I hold my husband’s head in my lap and stroke his hair. We do not much look each other in the eye. He works as many hours as he can, as though he might find the boy on some backroad far from here. He’s in Nebraska, I think, Wyoming. On a road where he can look out in the distance and convince himself people do not exist. I am in the woods. I am trying not to think.
This is where I took the boy on weekends. To teach him the difference between Hickory of Sand and Shagbark, the names of all the hawthorns and witch hazels and hollies. How to listen to the birds. These are all gone now in this burn, of course, and I hear the survivors talk back to me in the echoes of my boots. They are forlorn for the kingdom they once ruled over benevolently. And yet, they know that in a hundred years’ time, this pain will be forgotten, hidden in a thin black layer flourished over.
I find shady enclaves of damp dirt, but no morels. Logs reduced to fragile members like the burnt ends of matchsticks, wisps of grass fleeting enough to forget what happened here. A creek running charcoal gray and silent. I seem to be the only sound. I keep looking, hold something frantic and overwhelmed from rising in me, taking the stalwart survivors here for my cue.
Then, very late in the day, in the cusp of nightfall, there like lost teeth under a cindered log, I come across a family of them. Precisely three. Each of them tilting a bit under the weight of their own heads and each come pushing through the ash, pliable and fleshy and statuesque, and each alive for only a few of this forest’s moments.
Brad Kelly is a fiction writer from Detroit. He was a Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas and is currently reading tarot, helping build solar farms, and working on his second novel.