FEBRUARY 23, 2020
THE FIRST TIME I found morels with Neill, we bagged so many it was embarrassing. I’d handled morels only once before — the ones he’d given me after our first date, along with a rueful look that meant he was sure he’d never see me again. Morels are repulsive little creatures, irregularly shaped like garden gnomes’ caps, their surfaces marred with holes and ridges, all in a support-hose range of beige. They come up from remnant tree roots, their food source invisible. They change the place they pop up from year to year, so that they’re a challenge to run down in their short season. Perishingly expensive to buy, you mostly have to find them yourself if you want to eat them.
We had gone out to the woods to see the trillium in bloom. This was an endangered wildflower when I was a child. Trillium’s chief characteristic is an inviting, laundered white. The unblemished petals are arranged in a simple geometry of three. Though a humble Midwestern plant, trillium is like an orchid or gardenia, lavishly beautiful, as if asking to be admired. Trillium are the opposite of morels in so many ways. They’re lovely, welcoming, and squarely in the world of the living.
As we walked toward the fence where we would later trespass to see the flowers, the first morel stuck itself up by my foot. Seeing me pause, Neill asked if I knew what it was. Of course I knew it was a morel, I just didn’t know how to pick it. Within minutes I was an old pro. The things grew in families. Where there was one, another two or three stood nearby. We had only two little sacks with us, and when these were full, we had to put the mushrooms in our hats, and then in the fronts of our shirts. We had way too many for us two to eat, but we couldn’t stop. We started choosing among them, leaving the small ones and deeming others a little past their prime. The land had been burned recently, and some of the morels had scorch marks on one side. We left those too. We began discriminating even further, selecting only the ones of just the right size, shape, and freshness. “Look at this beautiful blonde,” Neill exclaimed. The hideous fungi had transformed into palomino ponies, into Taylor Swift.
Trieste, by Daša Drndić
Reading the obituaries when Croatian novelist Daša Drndić died in 2018, I was intrigued by the extravagant praise for a writer I had never heard of. When my friend, the novelist Morris Collins, put Drndić’s Trieste (published as Sonnenschein in 2007) on a list of recommended reading, I ordered it from my branch library.
My first attempt didn’t go well. Trieste opens with a map, and then an old woman sitting alone in a town on that map. The town has names in German, Italian, and in the Friulian dialect. The woman, Haya Tedeschi, at first seems to be the focus of the story, but I soon lost her among threads about the town (or another one) in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Haya’s grandfather, and father, and mother, and their teachers at school, and the Great War, and 1934, and 1938. The different eras and characters might entwine within one sentence.
Florian Tedeschi tells Ada Baar his brief history. He arranges and sets out his brief history, making space for the future, which will become Haya’s past, which will be lost, which now, eighty-three years later, she searches for, arranges, orders, catalogues, this here, that there, something into the rubbish, something on to the desk by the window, to shine like a tiny light.
Amid precise details that bring to life cocoa and cakes, stationery and ladies’ hats, are sprinkled small photographs, a few lines of sheet music, posters — all reproduced visually in the text, sort of like a scrapbook. The effect on me of these opening chapters was a chaotic spewing of information I couldn’t take in. I had nothing to hold on to. After making little headway, I took Trieste back to the library.
Before the Polar Vortex blanketed the Midwest in the winter of 2019, we had plenty of notice that the temperature would go down to lows we’d never seen before, 20 or 25 below zero. The University of Wisconsin closed, sending out a mass email around four o’clock. This had never happened, the university priding itself on getting through any amount of snow and ice, professors skiing across the frozen lake to work, deans and registrars and parking lot attendants all expected to figure it out and show up. This time, all but essential and emergency personnel were told to stay home for the next two days. The temperature was predicted to plunge overnight, and by 7:00 p.m. it was at four below zero.
Neill came by for me and drove us to our favorite spot, the Ohio Tavern. This is a dark, cramped space, where most nights all the tables are taken, all the barstools occupied, with people sitting in the window well by the front door, hoping for a seat. If there’s a band, even a little jazz combo, it’s way too loud. Sometimes we walk in and walk back out again, or we order tacos from the bar and lean against a pillar, waiting for someone to leave. It takes so long for the tacos to arrive that this wait usually pays off. Maybe one of us gets a barstool, and the other will stand. If we snag a table, we often share it — another couple, older or younger than us, or a really drunk sea-captain-looking guy on his own, lots of chit-chat, shaking hands. On the eve of the Polar Vortex, I was incredulous to see all the tables empty, only four people at the bar, and no live band. We sat down on two stools. The bartender ran over to us, brought us menus, and within about six minutes, we had drinks and tacos.
I didn’t miss the usual crowd at all. The Badgers were playing Nebraska on TV, and I got absorbed in the game. Neill was talking to a guy next to him about invasive plants, and whether they might be checked by the deep freeze. His interlocutor nodded along, inserting “right” and “uh-huh,” but Neill mumbles so badly that I only figured out afterward that the plant he was referring to was autumn olive. It sounded like “Mars Alive” or “Otta Molly.” I’m sure the guy he was talking to had no clue. It didn’t matter. I sank into a blissful state, imagining a world where almost everyone else was gone. There would be no need to work: the survivors could forage fabulous clothing, furniture, and tools from the 90 percent of the population who had died. The Ohio was down to a minimum, but somewhere there were still enough tall men for at least two teams of college basketball. The Colombian chef had survived the die-off and continued to make her expressive tacos. Blueberry habanero hot sauce stood in a hand-labeled bottle at my elbow. Let it stay like this, I thought. I’m so happy.
I made a second attempt at Daša Drndić’s Trieste. I, a writer and reader steeped in European modernism, would not be put off. Willing to believe the failing was mine, I brought Trieste back from the library. I kept at it through the whirlwind of Haya Tedeschi, no, her father, no, her grandmother’s family, no, her math teacher’s plight, moving here and there, ordered to go or stay, the many battles along a river I knew nothing of, bridges I had never seen on postcards, internment camps that fell outside my extensive knowledge of the prison apparatus of World War II Germany and Poland. After grimly sticking with the first third of the book, I began to ride the tide of Drndić’s voluminous spume.
It stopped mattering that I couldn’t connect the family or geographical lines, and I became enraptured with Drndić’s vision. Small scenes conveyed through Haya’s eyes (or her mother’s or aunt’s or grandfather’s) gleamed out: a man in a yellow shirt, shot while running for cover, and dying two meters from safety; a pile of corpses in the street, stacked “as if they were tree trunks for a building project”; an interrogation, all in italics as if quoted, but perhaps dreamed, of the railway supervisor who coordinated the daily traffic of Jews into Treblinka — he doesn’t remember much about it, he exclaims to his examiner. Meanwhile the Tedeschi family, who are of Jewish origin but never thought of themselves as Jews, “go on living in the illusion of ignorance.” They too fail to connect certain images and words with what might be their lot. The narrator gleefully fills us in on what was playing at the cinema in Trieste under the Nazis, and about the cordial relations between orchestra conductors across the Reich. The central story, inasmuch as there is one, emerges with the introduction of Kurt Franz, the German lover of 20-year-old Haya in 1944. Here at last arises the possibility of a novelistic treatment of Haya’s life. Only vaguely aware that her family is Jewish, she falls in love with a Nazi and has his child. And how does that turn out?
During the time I spent with Trieste, I also read Polish author Hanna Krall’s masterpiece Chasing the King of Hearts (2006). It’s about a Jewish woman who doesn’t look too Jewish and all she does to get her husband out of Nazi hands. I also adored Klotsvog (2008), by Russophone Ukrainian writer Margarita Khemlin, published in English in 2019 by Columbia University Press. The titular character, Maya Klotsvog, barely escaped extermination as a child, and the book takes us through the rest of her abominably selfish life. Both these novels are strikingly written, Krall’s in slivers of chapters, Khemlin’s packed with incident and no reflection, so that the subtext of antisemitism seeps up slowly and monstrously. These are dark novels, extremely moving, the women at their centers emotionally disfigured by the events they lived through.
Drndić frames her character Haya against the Holocaust in a completely different way than Khemlin and Krall do. The emotive grinding of the individual against fate is of only fleeting interest to Drndić. Whatever Haya may have said about her Nazi being a good, kind man, 20 pages later the reader is confronted with a list of the names of “about 9,000 Jews who were deported from Italy, or killed in Italy or in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945.” This list, in dense, small type, takes up over 40 pages. It’s more than an interruption of the story. It is the story. Apparently Drndić expected her readers to pore over the names, and she reportedly did so with them at her author appearances. I skipped over the list, not anticipating any of my family to be there. Thinking on it later, though, I remembered that we didn’t even know the names of members of my children’s father’s family who were killed in the Holocaust in another part of Europe. All I know is that they had color names, like Schwarz and Weiss and Gelb.
The Blue Mushroom
I took Neill with me on a work trip to northern Wisconsin. I spent an evening telling patrons where to find their reserved seats, and the next day, we went into the woods. We walked a popular trail along an old railway cut. The land on either side jostled with wintergreen, blueberry, and a magnificent native fern, Comptonia, whose leaves emit a wonderful smell when crushed. Joggers and families with strollers packed the boardwalk. A hubbub of conversation and dinging bike bells surrounded us. At the far end, we heard loons calling on a secluded lake, which was blocked from view by expensive summer houses.
Neill had another destination in mind and drove us to a forest protected by the Nature Conservancy. Though this acreage is ostensibly public, it was not easy to find, and hadn’t advertised itself in the brochures at the motel. We set off on a cleared path, buttoned into long sleeves to protect against the thick mat of mosquitoes. Neill stopped frequently to take pictures, bending down for close-ups of botanical specimens, while I went on ahead. The only sound was the whine of the insects. Like the land along the railroad cut, this place displayed an amiable mix of native plants that flourish in the cold, sandy soil of northern Wisconsin. Sedges with little sparkling seedheads at their ends, upright fans of maidenhair fern, and cute arrays of tiny dogwood mingled peaceably under the tall trunks of ancient trees. In late summer there were few flowers, but within the dense green flashed the occasional maroon of spikenard berries, the chartreuse of the sedge inflorescences. Birds may have called in the distance, but they didn’t fly across our path. If squirrels chattered, they were far away, unseen. It began to feel like there was nobody and nothing left but me and Neill and the unimpeded plants of the protected forest.
We were almost back to the car when I saw the blue mushrooms. By the edge of the path stood two small and one larger mushroom of a pearly denim color. They were a wholly unnatural hue, looking dyed or tampered with, the dingy gray of the store-bought button mushroom infused with radioactive ink. These pastel creatures contrasted vividly with the greens and browns of the leaves, bark and dirt around them. They looked like they had ripened under an alien star, on a blue world we knew nothing about. I picked up the largest one. It flushed a deeper color and oozed blue milk onto my hand.
“This is the most poisonous looking mushroom I’ve ever seen,” I said to Neill. Though his plant knowledge is formidable, he couldn’t identify it. I was afraid my eyes were deceiving me, but the cap got bluer, the stalk now near purple. Its repulsive leakage seemed to be the blue mushroom’s way of insisting that I leave it alone. It might have been seeping blue toxins into my skin. I dropped it to the ground.
When we got home, we looked it up, and found it was Lactarius indigo. This rare species is benign, and in fact edible. We should go back, we said. But we were already three hours away.
Hen of the Woods
In another patch of woods, right across the major road that zooms past Neill’s house, I had some insight into Daša Drndić. These woods are trash. Stuck between the street and a housing development, what had been open but unused land was now covered in second growth trees, mostly scraggly black locust. The prolific invasives honeysuckle and bittersweet clogged the ground between the trunks. Many trees had fallen over and lay gashed open, decomposing in what seemed like a naked, ugly process. This tract had no paths, though in one spot we found the stone foundation of a building and, in another, a ring of flattened beer cans. As we explored, my feet sank into the thick padding of wood detritus. With the trees desperately close together and the ground layer constipated with bramble, the space felt enclosed. The woods exhaled moistly, its surfaces sticky or crumbling, falling apart. Burrs clawed us, and everywhere rose up the fertile, festive odor of rot.
Out in these icky woods, I recalled the opening scene of Drndić’s Doppelgänger (2018), the briefest of the three Drndić novels New Directions has made available in English. An old man and an old woman, strangers to each other, both incontinent, meet on New Year’s Eve and wank each other off right there on the street. This is as gross as it seems — the fingers, the diapers, the flabby folds of skin, her palm full of his lukewarm, feeble sperm. The rhythm of the hand-job follows an alphabet of Nazi terminology, from Abwehr to Zyklon B. We also get a portion of the old woman’s police dossier, which makes clear that she has survived the Nazis while dozens of her family were killed in concentration camps. The scene ends with the two of them eating chocolate. The eating is described with as much physical detail as the sex, and it’s nearly as disgusting.
Drndić’s subject is life within genocide, life within loss and decrepitude, but not the inspiring life of the flower reaching out of the muck for the sun. Hers is the wondrous, murky life of the mushroom forming itself underground, thriving off decay. The fungi belong to their own taxonomic kingdom, neither animal nor plant, obtaining their food in a different way than either. The trashy woods were a fungal wonderland, rich with the smell of decomposing lignin and cellulose, scabs of lichen and scallops of turkey tail mushrooms on every dying trunk. All around us these creatures took ceaseless pleasure in transforming all the dead junk into more junk. The dark strip of forest seethed with event — not life, not death, but the meshing of one into the other.
We hadn’t gone to that woods to walk around. Neill had found a hen of the woods mushroom in a different local forest the day before. It’s a large edible fungus, and he thought there might be more here. I scrambled over logs and past snagging branches, my hands filthy, my boots squelching. While Neill headed one way, I went the other, casting around for a pale shape amid the browns, blacks, and grays of rotting trees. I found it, a plump football of ruffled shelves radiating out from a thick anchoring core. It did indeed look like a hen sitting on her nest, but it had no head, no beady eyes. I knelt down, studying its jumbled layers. I found the hen of the woods disquieting not only for its strange form but for its dignity. It sat there so abundantly in this wrecked place.
There’s nothing wrecked about it, the hen of the woods said. You want things neat and clean, go look for your trillium. You feel safe with flowers. These woods are full of growth, death, and decay. Or death, decay, and growth. Give me more death, said the strange, centerless fungus. It feeds me.
The Death of Bob
In the Ohio the night before the Polar Vortex, when I imagined that 90 percent of the population had died, I wasn’t mourning the loss of my children or parents or friends. My imagined die-off left me with a seat at the bar and a game to watch. My actual reaction to a cataclysmic population decline would probably be quite different. Yet I wondered, is it possible to accept more death? Why do we always conclude that death is a shame?
Drndić seems to me almost unique as a novelist in her rooting around in the underworld. Of course, much is written about death, and about the Holocaust. I mean that she doesn’t seem to be using this material so that we understand what it means to live, as Krall and Khemlin do. For Drndić, there are no survivors. Even as her novels are obsessed with the backward turn to events from before she was born, she creates texts where past and present, death and non-death, pointedly coexist. In her fiction, our densely violent European history is here with us today. She shows us death squatting in the midst of life — 40 pages of the names of the dead — and life that resembles death, like the squalid up-thrusting of the fungal kingdom. Her Hayas and Isabels and Florians don’t require photosynthesis. They’re not in life, leaving death behind. They’re already dead, and yet still alive, knitting the two in a discomforting third state that makes Drndić’s fiction some of the strangest and most powerful of our era.
Snow fell on Halloween this year, surprising even for Wisconsin. I shoveled my drive and sidewalk, but my next-door neighbor, Bob, left his. He was a recluse I’d only ever spoken to a few times. In the year and a half I’d lived next door to him, I’d smelled his cigarettes and heard his truck, but we’d had only the most minimal conversation. After the snowfall, Bob’s truck didn’t move for at least a week. At last I got up the courage to go over there. He didn’t come to the door on the afternoon I knocked. A few days later, I tried again. He answered the door, cigarette in hand. I said that I’d noticed he hadn’t shoveled and wondered how he was doing. “I haven’t been feeling too good,” he said.
I babbled about what I might do for him, who I might call. All the time I was looking at his arms sticking out of his T-shirt. They were literally skin and bone, no flesh at all. I’d seen this in photographs of those liberated from Auschwitz, but never in my sweet, protected life had I actually encountered an emaciated person. I’ve rarely been near the sick and dying. My dad in his last months had still been somehow handsome. Bob’s eyes looked out from his skeleton face. They fixed on mine for a second, then gazed off over my shoulder. “I don’t need anything,” he said, and shut the door.
Over the next two weeks, I looked to see whether he had lights on. After he didn’t answer the door on Thanksgiving and the day after, I asked the police to check on him. I stood on my stoop as they banged on Bob’s front and side doors. One of the men got himself up over the front window and beamed his flashlight in. They told me they could see him in the living room, rolling around on the floor.
An ambulance and fire truck came. The firemen busted in the side door, and a few minutes later the ambulance attendants brought Bob out on a stretcher. He was naked, just wrapped in a blanket, his dirty feet sticking out. His long white hair streamed out the other end. Between head and feet, the long lines of his frame showed no roundness anywhere, his shanks just as devoid of flesh as his arms. His eyes shifted left and right, looking.
“I hope he isn’t angry that I called you,” I said to the cop.
He looked at me strangely. “I’m sure he’s very, very grateful to you right now,” he said.
That’s what Bob’s brother said, too. He had managed to make it to the hospital before Bob died, about 12 hours after being taken out of the house. It’s like a party line, I thought, an ideology we can’t question. We have to be in favor of life and think it a good thing to have a little more of it. But what was Bob experiencing, that he didn’t even call his brother when he had cancer that left him too sick to eat? Clearly, he wanted to die alone in his house. I was the one who had objected.
I saw the house later, when his brother invited me in. It was a mirror of mine, the same design, with dark carpeting instead of blonde oak. A pan of congealed stew stood on the coffee table, next to a bottle of Pepto Bismol. Bob’s brother, bewildered by grief, thanked me again for what I had done. I felt alone in wondering if I had ruined Bob’s death, rather than saved his life.
Angela Woodward is the author of the collections The Human Mind and Origins and Other Stories, and the novels End of the Fire Cult and Natural Wonders. Natural Wonders won the 2015 Fiction Collective Two Catherine A. Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.