The Mushroom Farmer, Book Three, Chapter 4

After blanking out for years, mf has suddenly remembered the name for a waxy-leafed perennial putting up sturdy stalks topped by balls of mostly purple, sometimes white blossoms. He writes “Statice” in Sharpie on a craft stick and plants it in the ground as a monument to remembering.

Balls of statice flower are the last stop for 7:30 a.m. sunbeams – after chandeliers of borage blossom, a land cloud of lavender, fireworks of radish flower, tattered banana leaves and more than 90 million miles of outer space — before they land on the mf’s sun-blotting arm and make his dark arm hairs twinkle.

In this illuminated state, the mf affirms that no cut flower lives on like statice. “Go ahead, cut me,” dares statice. “You will marvel at my everlastingness.”

The mf does marvel. He marvels a lot. Butterflies nowadays seem to be moving a beat more slowly, the better for him to marvel at their top-of-wing glory. Glimpsing their wing-bottoms is like looking in at stained-glass windows from outside. This spring’s slower-motion butterflies permit the mf to note their upper wings’ brilliantly illuminated orange and black-speckled splendor.

The mf has also noted that his aim is getting much better when he throws a fallen orange across the garden. Nowadays he can plunk the alternate compost heap with an orange from 90 feet away. This, coming after a lifetime of errant tossing, makes the mf feel hopeful in general about making progress, amid the fallen yet still fragrant orange blossoms dotting the weathered, this-way-and-that-way-pointing planks of the porch.

And yet not everything is ecstatic. One thing bringing the mf down in addition to the pandemic is that nobody likes the chicken coop. In fact, they openly mock it. People sit around the porch’s blue gingham tableclothed table and make fun of the coop to the mf’s face.

Ha-ha, they say, as rendered by the mf’s highly sensitive innocuous remark filter. Tsk-tsk, they imply. Your coop-building incompetence is why varmints occasionally eviscerate your hens.

Because this mocking chorus include his guests as well as his wife, the mf strives to keep his upper lip from curling, his throat from emitting a growl. The most recent naysayers include two old friends from Austin who now live somewhere else and were visiting for reasons completely erased by the mf’s bitterness. He tries to reason with himself that you can’t just go crossing friends off your list like that or else no one will come to your funeral. Surely they meant only the regular amount of harm anyone ever means to anyone. Also, they were commiserating: a raccoon recently eviscerated half of their own flock.

Still, fuck ’em, glowers the mf, no more fiercely than he glowers at anyone. He would be the first person to tell you that the coop is ramshackle. He sweats and strains twisting twist-ties to eliminate gaps in the overhead netting. He piles dirt on the chickenwire to make burrowing varmints work harder. All of this is accompanied by grunting and sweating. And yet the perimeter remains permeable.

What I have not yet mentioned is that he is planting sunflowers all around the coop. That will show everyone. All different kinds of sunflower: Lemon Queen, Double Sun King, Mongolian Giant, Titan. Sunflower roots go down as deep as four feet. That might slow down the next burrowing varmint; and, the sunflowers will be pretty, swaying, thick and hairy-stemmed, ingratiatingly ungainly, incongruously delicate of blossom, and hen-food providing.

I mention this here because alas, another varmint did recently eviscerate another hen. Farewell this time to Picky, one of the three new Rhode Island Reds the mf bought to replace Plucky. When the mf saw the gruesome remains of Plucky after a varmint got to her a month ago, he cried and cried. This time, he made soup, on the advice of his housekeeper Marfa, who had shared her Honduran mother’s observation that hawk-killed hens make the best soup.

Marfa also pointed out the flimsiness of the coop, wounding the mf not as mortally as Picky and Plucky, but nonetheless quite hurting his feelings.

“I do my best,” he protested. “I try hard.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “But you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Picky, on guard

The mf thinks that what he is doing is learning. It might have been a fox this time. A fox or a raccoon. He made a lesson about the latest evisceration for his English Language Learners, reading them Sonya’s Chickens, an illustrated story by Phoebe Wahl about a fox who kills a sweet little girl’s pet hen and takes it home to feed his own family. Many students said they appreciated hearing the story from the fox’s point of view. Several also described Picky as a good friend who gave her life so that the other hens could live.

The mf felt better, a trend that had already started when he made a broth of garden-grown carrots and parsnips and butchered what remained of Picky. Speaking of learning, I’m not sure he would do the parsnips in soup again. Parsnips are sweet and slender and the color of moonglow; however, more of a side-dish than a chicken soup ingredient. He added kasha and lentils to to make it into more of a hearty pottage and thus earned the yum.

He had learned how to butcher his hen from a fair-skinned woman in a red blouse on the internet. There was lots of reaching in for guts, which somehow did not diminish the glimmer of her wedding ring. The mf feels better knowing to start by scalding the feathered carcass and then plunging it into ice water before plucking. He also feels brave to have physically connected with coiled intestines, bilious gall bladder, and glimmering livers.

Feathers piled up. A few still intermingle with orange blossoms on the porch. The soup was maybe a little fatty — don’t simmer quite as long next time, another lesson. He skimmed off some of the fat, squinting in order to remember the word for chicken-fat in Yiddish. It was right there, it was right there — it is… schmaltz. Use it in a sentence: His bubbi put out fried schmaltz as an appetizer before the tzimmes.

Imagine eating fried chicken fat as an appetizer before a meal of brisket, prune and sweet potato, and you will be communing with the mf’s shtetl ancestors, which was one of his explicit goals when he first set out to grow mushrooms.

By the way, how is that whole mushroom farming thing going? We don’t hear very much about mushroom cultivation these days. I’ll tell you why. It’s not warm enough yet. Just you wait, though. Once it hits a consistent 70 it is going to be spawn-o-rama around here.

Meanwhile, the mf did spy some brown, curvy-capped mushrooms growing near the water spigot the other day, as part of his noticing things. Must be some of those cooler-weather mushrooms, he inferred. Whatever they were, I’m proud of the mf because he just let them be.

Published by MarkGozonsky

Mark Gozonsky has been writing stories and essays since he was a music snob prodigy in early-1970's San Antonio, Texas. Since then he has written about not only music but also baseball, gardening, teaching, parenting, cycling and the... glory of love. Lit Hub and The Sun have published his work, and so has the Austin Chronicle. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, where he teaches English to some of the nicest kids in the world at an arts-themed public high school downtown.

One thought on “The Mushroom Farmer, Book Three, Chapter 4

  1. Perhaps the subtraction equation the naysayers were unable to see was:
    Coop – Chicken = Schmaltz
    May your sunflower roots grow deep and their seeds sprinkle down on the hungry.

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