Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
The first thing I noticed was her dress.
It wasn’t all that unique, just some long green peasant thing, but it was enough to make me look at the whole painting. Forest, check. Rosy-cheeked woman with a kerchief over her hair, check. All it needed was a little dog and a rainbow, and the cliché would be all there, but somehow it didn’t strike me as cheesy. In fact, it was actually kind of fascinating.
All in all, not bad, for a no-name portrait by a no-name artist hanging on the wall of a living room that was probably super trendy in 1957, right? It definitely wasn’t a Rembrandt, but it wasn’t Elvis on black velvet, either. Considering it belonged to my coworker Allen, who was letting me stay at his family’s lake house for the long weekend, the least I could do was be polite.
“Is she a relative of yours?” I asked, nodding at the painting.
Allen shook his head. “Nope. Grandpa Wallace always called her the mushroom hunter.” “The what? Oh.”
I looked at the basket tucked at her side. It was filled to the brim with mushrooms and fungi of all sizes, some stark white, others buttery yellow, all with forest dirt still clinging to them. I thought I saw a hint of red peaking up from near the bottom of the basket, but I blinked, and it was gone.
“I wanna say he got it at a flea market in Maymeadow or something back when he was living here year-round,” Allen continued, “but after we lost my Aunt Tilly and he moved back to the city, it went into storage with the rest of his stuff. When the house passed to me, I thought I’d make it feel like it did back in the day, you know?”
I hummed my agreement. Allen was a good guy and a great coworker, but he’d always been a talker and I was ready for him to leave.
“Well, if you’ve got everything you need for the weekend…” Allen stretched and rolled his shoulders. “I should head back. I hate driving out here when it’s dark.”
I nodded and walked him to the side door. “Hey, thanks again for letting me stay here. I owe you one.”
“No problem,” he said. “Glad to do it. I’ll be back Monday afternoon to pick you up.”
I saw him look back at the painting, his eyes narrowed like they always do at work, when he’s trying to solve a problem and wants to talk it out. I held my breath, dreading the inevitable monologue, but to my relief he shook it off and got into his car.
One last wave goodbye, an engine starting up, and I was alone. As soon as the car sounds faded away, I realized I hadn’t counted on the silence. If I listened closely, I could hear the faint breeze and some distant birdsong, but that was it… just what I came out here for, right? Peace and quiet.
I looked back at the painting, and my eyes landed on her dress. I couldn’t help but be impressed at its level of detail. Like, yeah, it was folksy, but the swirling orchid patterns on her bodice were more intricate than I’d have expected.
Again, I swore I saw a flash of red, this time out of the corner of my eye, but when I looked back at her basket, all I saw were regular mushrooms.
I put away my groceries and tossed together a big salad to last me through the day. After lunch, I took the cottage keys and decided to go exploring. I unlocked the screen porch downstairs then I ventured up to poke my head into the old servants’ quarters above the kitchen; paint peeled off the rickety iron bedframe like a pale shoulder with a sunburn and the whole room reeked like mothballs and musty paper. I hated to think of someone actually sleeping in there.
The other bedrooms weren’t so bad. The air tasted stale from being confined for so long, but the wooden walls still had their varnished shine. Bookshelves sagged under the weight of well-loved paperbacks, everything from hard-boiled mysteries to children’s adventure stories, with a couple of trashy romance novels hidden at the back. I touched the spine of an old Audubon field guide, smiling a little as I pulled it off the shelf to take with me. I’d seen some binoculars in the den. Who knows, maybe I could sit out on the screen porch and do some lazy girl’s birdwatching this weekend.
The last key belonged to the boathouse. The slips were empty since the boat was still in storage. But on the drive up, Allen had mentioned I was welcome to use his kayak if I wanted. Tomorrow, definitely. Today, though, I just wanted to relax.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening curled up on the living room couch with a book I’d been meaning to read, getting up only to get snacks and go to the bathroom. It had been too long since I’d been able to spend so much of a day with a book; I ate the rest of my salad with the bowl acting as a bookmark, just like I used to when I was growing up. It felt good reclaiming some of my time. I really needed to do this more often.
By the time I went up to bed, I was calmer than I’d been in months.
* * *
The next morning I woke up feeling fully rested. I made coffee and microwaved a breakfast sandwich and since it was a nice day, I decided to eat out on the porch.
I spent the day reading until I got a craving for some baked goods. Not just any baked goods, but my Oma’s Amish muffins, which are easy and delicious and designed to feed an army. Aside from some cobwebs in a container of cornmeal, the rest of the dry ingredients in the kitchen pantry were fine to use, so I made a big batch of muffins and had a few of them for lunch.
All in all, I had a great first day at the lake house. I swam, I took a shower, and that evening, after a quick dinner, I decided to do a jigsaw puzzle. More of the city’s tension dropped away from me; I felt lighter being so unconnected for once, with my laptop back at the office and only a landline for company. My mom couldn’t call my cell three times in a row and then text me asking why I didn’t answer. And Paul from Baltimore or whoever couldn’t bother me on Bumble. To be honest, I felt great, and when I went up to bed, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
* * *
The next thing I knew, I was in the forest.
The underbrush tickled my bare legs where my dress was rucked up, and the strands of hair escaping my kerchief stuck to my sweaty face. Even though it wasn’t raining anymore, moisture still clung to the air, heavy with the sickly-sweet scents of loam and wildflowers that made me want to sneeze.
My chest hurt and I wanted to go home, but going home without a full haul would only mean trouble, and I just couldn’t bare it.
Something banged against my hip. I glanced down, and there, held right in the crook of my elbow, was an empty basket.
* * *
I groaned and rolled over in bed as the last of the dream faded away. It was still dark when I opened my eyes, and it took a second to realize why my bedroom window was in the wrong place. I wasn’t IN my bedroom, I was at the lake house, right, right.
I pulled the covers back up around my shoulders and went back to sleep.
* * *
When I woke up again, the sunlight flooded my room and the clock on the nightstand read 10:17 AM.
I went downstairs and had a muffin with coffee as I walked around the outdoor porch. I came to the door of the den and there I found a trail of muddy footprints that tracked inside. I rolled my eyes. I hadn’t noticed myself leaving them yesterday, but then again, I’d been kind of in my own world embracing cottage life. A damp paper towel cleaned them right up. No harm, no foul. Back to vacation mode.
After I finished eating, I went back to the living room to finish my puzzle. Since the house wasn’t air-conditioned, I left the windows open, letting the wind waft in and out of the room. It was a cool day, but the air was just humid enough to leave a film of moisture across my skin, and by the time I stood up and stretched I was definitely ready for a swim. I had to walk through the den to get to the bathroom where I’d left my bathing suit, but halfway across the room something stopped me in my tracks.
The mushroom hunter’s dress looked different than I remembered. If someone had asked me yesterday, I would’ve sworn it was bright grassy green, but now it looked faded and threadbare. Dirt stained the hem, and her skirt was mottled with black and white spots that seemed to be eating into the fabric. The embroidery I’d been so impressed with was frayed.
But… what struck me the most wasn’t her ratty dress or her bare feet. It was her basket.
I- I guess I didn’t look close enough yesterday, because even after I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, the painting didn’t change. No mushrooms, just the woven bottom of her basket.
I looked away from her and walked just a little faster.
* * *
I felt kind of uneasy for the rest of the day. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could’ve sworn I’d forgotten to do something important even though I had no clue what that might be. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the worse the feeling got, a sore spot I couldn’t stop poking.
I went for another swim at dusk to try and burn off the excess energy. It seemed to work. I felt pleasantly worn out like I always did after a good workout. My mind felt clearer, too. Whatever I was forgetting couldn’t be THAT important, and if there truly was an emergency, my friends and family knew where I was. They could easily just call the landline
Everything was totally fine. I had nothing to worry about, and as I got into bed and turned out the light, I was confident that tomorrow was going to be amazing.
* * *
The forest blinked into view. I rubbed the back of my hand over my eyes, sighing as I stepped over another root just waiting to trip me.
I kept walking. Along the way I found some white mushrooms poking out from the undergrowth and they went right into my basket, but it wasn’t enough. I had to keep going. The trees got taller and taller the deeper I went, and the air around me grew stifled, until suddenly, I came to a clearing. A shaft of sunlight broke through where some trees had fallen down and my heart sped up in excitement. From a wound in the trunk, I could see golden yellow mushroom caps clustered together. My mouth watered at the sight. I couldn’t wait to get them home so I could fry them up in the last of our butter.
The first few came off the tree easily. And yet, as I kept going, it felt as if they were beginning to resist me. Moreover, the ones left on the tree began to change color. A rusty red veined out from the stalks and up into the caps, infecting the pristine yellow. I flinched and swallowed the saliva pooling in my mouth. The mushrooms looked poisonous now, diseased, but I couldn’t stop pulling.
Just digging my fingers into the spongy flesh felt exhausting and made the pain under my sternum worse. I pushed up my sleeves and widened my stance, planting my feet firmly in the ground to get the last few. I let the soil seep between my toes, then, I clasped my hands around them all and pulled.
They ripped free, but something in my chest did, too, and the pain sent me toppling over with a choked scream. I saw the mushrooms fall from my hands, just before everything went black.
* * *
I jolted awake.
I wasn’t in the forest, I was in bed, in the lake house’s master bedroom, just where I was supposed to be. I felt like a child again, having to reassure myself that it was just a dream, but my chest was so tight around the leftover anxiety that I took every scrap of comfort I could get.
“Just a nightmare,” I whispered. “I’m safe.”
A few deep breaths later, I felt okay enough to get up and head towards the kitchen. Coffee was calling my name and I was more than ready for breakfast; I’d made sure to grab
some good farmer’s market cheese and a fresh loaf of bread when Allen and I had stopped for groceries, but when I went to open the bag and looked down at my hands, I froze
My hands… my hands were dirty. Not like, ‘oh, some hand sanitizer would be nice,’ but full-on, dirt caked under my nails, gardening without gloves on-type dirty. But I hadn’t been anywhere NEAR a garden, or a shovel, or anything! Abandoning breakfast, I ran back into the bedroom and yanked the blankets off my bed, looking for the dirt I must’ve slept in, but it was clean. I ripped off the sheets the mattress pad, the pillowcases, I took the whole bed apart, but there was nothing! Everything was as neat and tidy as it had been when I went to sleep.
A cold, sick feeling passed over me, but I tried to ignore it. Freaking out wouldn’t help anything and there had to be a logical explanation. Everything was fine; all I had to do was go wash my hands, then I could finish making breakfast. No problem.
I hurried through the den on my way to the bathroom. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the mushroom hunter, wearing her immaculate green dress, her basket filled to the brim.
* * *
My day didn’t get any better from there. I was so thrown off by a stupid dream that my brain had decided to gaslight me about what an old painting did or didn’t look like. Maybe it was just more proof that I really needed this vacation, I don’t know. I didn’t trust my stomach with food yet, but without breakfast, the coffee just left me nauseous with some terrible heartburn. A Netflix binge was out of the question without Wi-Fi or cell service and the romance novel I’d taken from upstairs didn’t seem as fun anymore.
I stayed on the living room couch and tried to power through it anyway. The room heated up as the sun rose higher in the sky; the breeze was too muggy to be cool and before I knew it, I started to doze off.
I didn’t want to sleep though, not so soon after a nightmare, but between the heat and the lassitude I could barely keep my eyes open. I floated in and out, and the more I drifted between sleep and wakefulness, the more the room started to blur. The edges shimmered and nothing felt real anymore, like I was watching TV through a dirty window. Surely, it’d be fine to rest my eyes for a minute. Just one minute, then I’d get up and go kayaking or something.
When I opened my eyes, I realized I wasn’t lying on the couch anymore. In fact, I wasn’t in the living room at all. Instead, I was in the lake house kitchen. I recognized my voice humming a strange song, and all I could do was watch as my hands moved across the countertop, reached into the basket, and pulled out a mushroom.
I tried to stop. I tried so hard to stop, but my body was acting of its own volition. I was trapped, nothing but a passenger. I wanted to run away. I wanted to scream so loudly that I’d wake myself up and run to call Allen on the landline so I could beg him to come pick me up and take me home, away from the woods and away from all these goddamned mushrooms. I never wanted to see another one in my life.
The hands – I had to remind myself they were still my hands – picked up a knife. As soon I started to cut into the mushroom, the pain in my chest exploded! Forget acid reflux, this was an active volcano.
I heard my voice humming louder to distract from the pain. My chest felt like it was caving in as my hands chopped mushroom after mushroom, separating cap from stalk, slicing, dicing, destroying myself in the process, but I couldn’t stop. I had to keep going. I couldn’t let my family go hungry again.
When the last mushroom was cut, I watched my hands gather them into a pile. Even though I’d made the pieces purposely smaller to stretch what I had, it was no use. It wasn’t enough.
I had to go gather more.
The thought should’ve been terrifying. Every alarm bell of common sense should have been blaring at me, but instead, the realization of what I had to do put me at ease. I didn’t have to fight, or cry, or hurt any more. All I had to do…was go back to the woods. That was it. I had to… go back… and then, everything would be all right.
I smoothed my hands over my dress, brushing the last of the mushroom debris from the green fabric, then I tucked my basket neatly under my arm and headed for the living room.
The forest beckoned me from the empty frame. Just looking at the painting gave me a sense of peace; plants and fungi made so much more sense than people, always so immaculate in their order, the cycle of life, every death heralding the birth of decay, and every beginning coming to its perfect, predictable end.
I climbed into the painting. The trees creaked, ‘welcome home.’
* * *
Two days later, Allen came back to the lake house. When he walked into the living room and saw the woman in the portrait, the blood drained from his face. He reached out a shaking hand and touched her face, only to pull back like she’d shocked him, and then, without wasting another second, he ran for the phone in the kitchen and called a number he knew by heart.
“Yeah, hi, Maymeadow Flea & Vintage? I think we have a problem…