Mary tried to hop up using her left foot, her right knee as high as her chin. She grasped a branch of a bush. Kate, already scrambling over the rounded ledge of wet sandstone above, glanced down. “Don’t pull on that,” she called to her seven-year-old little sister.
“I can’t go any higher,” Mary whimpered, her neck tilted all the way back as she tried to see where Kate had gone.
Kate’s face reappeared. She was on her stomach now, lying flat, looking over the ledge she’d just overtaken. “Yes you can, Mary. Put your hands on those roots there and push at the same time as you jump.”
Mary wiped her forehead with muddy fingers, and followed her sister’s instructions. The mountain flank wasn’t high, but it seemed like Mt. Everest to her. She propelled herself upward. She landed half on top of Kate, who laughed. “It isn’t funny,” Mary muttered. She drew herself into a sitting position, and checked her knee. The jeans material was torn and there was a little blood. She tried not to cry, her face scrunching up with the effort.
“Oh come on,” Kate said as she sprang to her feet. “Mommy wants us to find a very particular kind of mushroom and we have to be back by dark. It only grows on this side of Hinkle Mountain.” She extended her hand.
Mary gripped it, pulled herself unsteadily to stand. “I don’t like mushrooms,” she said. “They’re all nasty and ugly.”
“Some of them are good, and some of them are bad, kinda like people.” She found an overgrown path that wound higher at a more gentle angle, and soon they reached a narrow meadow, at the far edge of which hovered dark, tall hemlocks, oaks, and a host of smaller trees. Kate paused.
Mary stopped too. She panted, her face red and smeared with grime, her light-brown ponytail spotted with pieces of bark and leaves. “I’m not goin’ in there.”
“Come on!” Kate shoved the younger girl behind a shoulder. “We gotta sing the special song when we pick ‘em, too. ‘Destroy my angel, my pure angel,’” she sang softly, her eyes half closed. “‘Some are strong, others weak, seek, seek, seek….’”
Mary felt a flutter in her chest. Her legs rippled. “I don’t like that song,” she said loudly. “Why are they called ‘Destroying Angels’ anyway?”
They threaded their way around huge, gnarly trunks, pushed through brambles and brush.”Because they’re all white and innocent looking but they kill people. The young ones even have veils like they’re going to their first communion.” Even though she was only thirteen, Kate had been hunting mushrooms in the mountains near Richwood for as long as she could remember. “Mommy depends on me to do this right.” She slowed a little, halted. She kicked around at some half-rotten leaves that filled cavities close to bulging, nobby oak roots.
“Why does Mommy want them?” Mary asked as she pressed behind her sister.
“She said they’re for holy work. A holy sacrifice. You need to help me search.They look a lot like button mushrooms, or horse mushrooms. The ones Mommy wants only grow here around the biggest, oldest hardwoods. These ones are special.” She squatted suddenly and began whisking forest floor debris with both hands, palms flat, fingers splayed.
Mary watched Kate as she worked; the way her flannel shirt was tucked into her trim jeans and didn’t come loose, the way her hiking shoes–even after the climb–seemed like new, the way her long, shiny, red hair was still neatly tied back. “I can’t ever be like you. I won’t ever be like you,” she moaned, studying her scuffed and mud-caked Nikes, her stained and ripped jeans. “Mommy is always so angry at me. I fail every test she gives me.” Her face puckered, and tears began to spill from the corners of her eyes. She wiped her nose with a sleeve.
Kate paused, shook her head. “Mary, this is important. You need to help me look, okay?”
In the distance, a bird trilled. Otherwise it was almost completely silent. No breeze rustled the leaves, not even a summer insect buzzed.
“I don’t want to touch them mushrooms,” Mary said. She took a few steps backwards.
Kate stared at her, eyes hard but then her features seemed to melt into a look of deep sadness. Her eyes also filled. They stayed like that for several minutes, then Kate smiled slightly, nodded, turned away. “It’s okay, honey. It’s okay. You just don’t have the inclination for Mommy’s work.” She settled on her haunches, in a kneeling, almost prayerful position, her hands clasped together in front of her. She hesitated, then began to sing. “‘Destroy our angel, our pure angel, some are strong, others weak, seek, seek, seek….’”