The Stinkhorn

In Ryan’s world, being quiet is relative. He doesn’t talk much––in fact, when he turned three, he ceased to speak at all, which was when his autism was first detected. But he’s got a thing about mushrooms lately, and when he gets on a roll, it’s hard to shut him up.

Lactarius deliciosus, lactarius quieticolor, lactarius salmonicolor, lactarius sanguifluus,” he recites, studying a picture chart of mushrooms and fungi on the Iberian Peninsula.

“Let’s go collect some,” I say. Ryan climbs onto my lap and pokes my cheeks with his index fingers, then kisses me on the nose. He beams with pleasure, then goes hunting in the closet for our jackets. I get the trowels, a straw basket, and stuff a couple of baloney sandwiches and Oreo cookies in a backpack. He follows me, belting at the top of his voice, “amanita caesarea, amanita muscaria, amanita ponderosa!”

The day is perfect, the earth moist from rain. We drive up to the mountains near Navacerrada, dense with pines. Ryan likes open spaces where he can run freely. No noise, just the occasional raven’s caw, the rustle of wind in the trees.

I’m not an expert mycologist but I know how to distinguish between the poisonous and edible ones, and how to cut them properly. I take out my jackknife, show Ryan how to open and close the blade, let him feel its weight. He touches the point with his fingertip.

“Careful,” I say. I explain how to cut the stem cleanly so the mushroom will regenerate and reproduce spores. His eye-hand coordination isn’t the greatest––but he practices on some agaricus campestris, field mushrooms, and soon gets the hang of it. With an air of confidence, he explores, poking at mounds in the soil. On a mossy patch, he lays on his stomach, the damp earth bedded with needles and pinecones, looking for the most minute protrusions, a slight lift in the soil––a telltale sign. Under one pine an orange cap peeks out from the soft ground. On his knees, he scrapes the soil with his hands and shrieks with delight. It’s a string of milkcap, called níscalos––lactarius deliciosus, highly prized fungi, easily identified by their deep orange color, gills and undulating caps.

By noon, we have a basketful of them as well as a few boletus aereus, bigger than my fist. Later we will slice them up, sauté them with garlic and parsley and add potatoes, making a grand meal.

As we’re heading back to the car, I spot one more miracle of creation.

“Look, Ryan.” One white mushroom stands tall and erect, covered with dewy foreskin. A phallus impudicus, otherwise known as a common stinkhorn, announces itself like its Latin name, perfectly shameless, poking straight up out of the earth.

Phallus impudicus!” he shouts happily, smelling it. I reach to hug him, and he rubs his dirty nose on my flannel shirt, chanting softly, “Paxillus involutus, phallus impudicus, pleorotus eryngii, pleorotus ostreatus.”

By Anne McMillan

Anne McMillan is a writer, opera singer, mountain hiker and nature lover living in Madrid, Spain. Her work has been published in the Adirondack Review (Winner of 2018 Fulton Prize), Eastern Iowa Review, Litro, Sixfold and others.