On Saturday afternoon we piled into Ben’s old Civic, the five of us and two dogs, and as we drove out to the edge of the state forest to hunt mushrooms, we all kept a hand on each other, in case someone vanished.
Ben was driving as usual, and instead of me up front sat Hunter, his new girlfriend. They’d been together almost a year, but as a far as I was concerned, Hunter would always be Ben’s new girlfriend. It was me, Mara, and Andre in the backseat, holding each other’s hands like we were all back in kindergarten and on the way to lunch, and Andre’s hand was sweaty, but I didn’t give it up. Mara and I reached over the seat backs to hold on to Ben and Hunter’s shoulders. I clenched a little fold of Hunter’s sweatshirt instead of touching her. Worse things could happen than if Hunter was Forgotten.
Lucy and Goosey tousled in the wayback, joyously mouthing each other’s throats, until the excitement of being reunited got to be too much for them and their growls turned threatening, so I had to pull free from Andre’s hand and Hunter’s sweatshirt and reach back to break them up before they fought. That’s what Mara and Ben were like, too: two halves of a whole one minute, and growling at each other the next. They made me wish I had a brother or a sister, and wonder if I’d had one, but Forgotten them.
I wiped my hand on Lucy, to get off some of the sweat. Andre wiped his hands on his shorts. He took my hand again without hesitation. Andre never stopped to worry about what people might think.
Ben sped past the closed-up elementary school on the way out of town. “Y’all better hope you don’t Forget me,” he said. He jerked the steering wheel a bit across the line to make his point. It seemed pretty unlikely that all the rest of us would find ourselves in a moving car with no driver, having Forgotten anyone was ever sitting in that seat, or that they ever existed at all. I’d never heard of such a thing happening. I’d never heard of anyone who was Forgotten, but I suppose that was the point of it all, that no one even knew they were gone, like a wound that healed without a scar.
Only reason we knew what was coming was that the President had announced it on Wednesday, that God had demanded a Forgetting because his people had shown themselves to be sinners. It was the sixth Forgetting, he said.
All the days since then had been bruised by the certainty of what was coming. I kept wondering what it must be like to be Forgotten. Someone on the internet said that the Forgotten didn’t really die, they just became like ghosts, walking in eternal torment among all the people who loved them once. Nothing is worse than being Forgotten, she said. But someone else said the Forgotten were angels. God is punishing us by taking away our lights, she said, and if we do not kindle a light in the darkness we will all be lost. She said once she had three sons, and all had been Forgotten. She alone remembered them, for reasons she said that only she and God knew. People gave her money to lessen her suffering.
People said that you could save yourself from being Forgotten if you did certain things: if you did a great deed, or gave this person or that person money, or killed someone and sent their soul to God on your behalf. Ben had heard you could save yourself by eating these mushrooms he and Mara had once hunted out at the state forest, because when you ate them, God couldn’t see you for a while, and so you got passed over when it came time for the Forgetting. I had forgotten the name of the mushrooms.
“Who are you again?” Hunter joked, and squeezed Ben’s hand on the gear shift.
Then I thought, maybe I’ve already been Forgotten. Maybe this is what it’s like, watching Hunter squeeze Ben’s hand while my dog plays with his in the wayback of his Civic. We found the dogs four years ago, in the dumpster behind the grocery store, and one of the homeless guys from the camp said the rest of the litter was dead. We swaddled them in our shirts and rode our bikes home bare-chested with the mewling puppies in our baskets, and when we got a little older we called them “the girls” like we were guys in an old sitcom and they were our wives, tagging along on our adventures.
“What are the mushrooms called, Ben?” I asked, and no one answered. This was what I imagined it would be like to be Forgotten, but it reassured me, because it was familiar.
“Chicken of the Sea,” Andre said quietly, like he was afraid Ben might hear.
“Hen of the Woods,” Mara corrected him, watching the electrical poles alongside the road. The wires hanging from the crossbars went up and down, up and down in lazy curves. Andre let go of my hand, and I thought, what if there was someone else in the car when we started out? What if, when I turned to scold the girls in the back for fighting, I Forgot someone else who had been in the car? Because you’d never know. God took a few people one time, many people the next. The only reason we knew about it was that the President told us. God was angry because of things people had said online.
Some people said that Forgetting was evidence of God’s mercy, because those left behind didn’t suffer the knowledge of what they had lost.
We passed a sign that said, END STATE MAINTENANCE. Ben didn’t slow down as we hit the gravel, the Civic slithering and sending out a plume of grey in its wake like a rocket ship. There were no more electrical poles, only a near wall of blurred trees bending over the car as if reaching for us, and we sped on, all five of us. No one was holding hands any more, except Ben and Hunter, and I wasn’t certain when we’d all let each other go.
“Cow of the Mountains,” Ben said.
“Pig of the Plains,” Andre said.
“Horse of the Volcano,” I said, and no one made another joke, and I wondered if it was because mine wasn’t as funny as the others.
“Y’all are children,” Mara sighed, looking out the window.
“Horse of the volcano,” Ben muttered, and laughed, and I loved him for it, not letting my joke hang. I reached back and petted Goosey, and when I turned back there were five of us, and I wondered if I could have Forgotten anyone. It didn’t seem like we could fit anyone else in the Civic.
Ben pulled off in a small clearing, and for a second the dust in our wake enveloped us, hiding the trees and darkening the inside of the car, and I was afraid again. As we got out, it felt like everyone was being extra careful, as if the car was made of glass, and slamming the doors might break it and strand us out here at the edge of the state forest with no way home. No one said anything, until Ben said, “This is where we found them, all right,” meaning him and Mara, finding the Hen of the Woods.
I opened the hatchback and the dogs tore out and ran bright in the sudden shock of sunlight as the dust passed, like they were both on fire. Hunter once told us a story about a man who tried to burn out a squirrel’s nest in his chimney, and the squirrel came down the chimney on fire, and ran around the house lighting off curtains and sofas and eventually burning the man’s entire house to floating cinders, and everyone laughed because he got what he deserved, only I wondered out loud if maybe the squirrel didn’t deserve any of that, and they laughed at that also.
“Everybody stay together,” Hunter said.
“Goose!” I called my dog. “Goosey!” and both her and Lucy came running, because they never learned the difference between their names. They would always come running to me and Ben, whenever we called one of them. They thought they were the same dog.
So we walked into the trees in a tight group, almost touching, no one even willing to stray behind a tree and be Forgotten, which got harder and harder. Ben and Mara were arguing about where to find the mushrooms, and Andre was just looking up at the branches overhead, which laced together with narrow fissures of sunlight between them. Andre never seemed to worry about talking too much or not enough. He stumbled into me a couple times when he tripped over roots, still looking up, and he said “whoops,” and I said “sorry.”
Finally Mara knelt at the base of a tree and pointed at what looked like the ruffles on a fancy dress, except they were brown and stuck to the base of an oak. Ben pulled a knife from his pocket and cut the ruffles from the bark. They were all connected at their base, white at the roots and shading into dark at the ragged ends. It didn’t look anything like a mushroom, or like a hen, but he broke it into pieces for everyone and we ate them in a solemn circle. I hesitated because I don’t like mushrooms even on pizza, until Ben teased me that maybe I thought he wasn’t all that good at identifying mushrooms after all. It didn’t taste like much, and I wondered if something so powerful would be so ugly and bland.
I was ready to be back in the car again and holding hands, but they wanted to find more, in case it would help. We found three more clumps, and ate a bit of each of them. Hunter had the best eye for finding them, which I did not particularly appreciate, but as we turned to head back she started complaining that she didn’t feel well, and her stomach hurt. “I have to throw up,” she said, and she started off behind the trees.
People started yelling, because now we were separated, and they were all following her, and I followed them. Hunter was on her knees behind a tree. “Leave me alone,” she said. “I don’t want you seeing,” and her body convulsed and I thought she was going to throw up right there, but she swallowed it back in.
“You guys go on back to the car,” Ben said. “I’ll stay with her.”
“No,” Mara said. “We said we’d stay together.”
“Please make them go away,” Hunter said to Ben.
Then Lucy and Goosey saw Hunter down on her hands and knees in the leaves, and thought that meant she wanted to play, and they jumped and whined and put their paws up on her, and Hunter was screaming “Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”
“Goose!” I yelled. “Knock it off!” and the dogs scattered, right as Hunter’s back arched and she puked all over the leaves. Nobody said anything. She moaned and puked again, puke spattering the base of the tree and her bare hands and the sleeves of her sweatshirt.
We were quiet on the way back to the car. I was wondering if Hunter had puked up the Hen of the Woods and was in danger of God seeing her. I wanted to offer to find some more mushrooms, but she walked fast out ahead of everyone else, like she didn’t care if anyone Forgot her, and we had to walk fast to keep up.
When we got to Mara’s car, Hunter slumped down in the passenger seat, since she was kind of Mara’s friend, and me and Andre got in the back. I called Goose, who came running and threw herself into my lap, wriggling in between me and Andre.
Mara started the car, and something very strange happened. Another dog, so much like Goose that it could have been her sister, bolted from the woods and ran at the car, barking. I panicked a little bit, and slammed the door, and the dog jumped up against the window, still barking and fogging up the glass. It was wild in its determination to get at us. Mara hit the gas, and the Civic slithered in the loose gravel, sending up a shroud of dust, but the dog wouldn’t give up. Even after it vanished into the grey plume behind us, I could hear its frenzied barking, and on the seat next to me Goose was barking, too.
“Stop!” Hunter yelled.
Mara jammed on the breaks and we shimmied to a stop. “Are you going to be sick again?”
Hunter didn’t answer, but opened the door, and the dog emerged from the dust and leapt into her lap and panted in her face. Hunter pulled the door closed and patted clouds from the dog’s fur. It was so much like Goose that they could be the same dog.
“What are you doing?” Mara asked. I could tell Hunter was on her last nerve, after the whole scene in the woods when Hunter was puking and telling the three of us to go on ahead and leave her. I wasn’t sure why Mara brought Hunter along at all, but as I watched her pet the stray dog, I was glad she came.
“Shouldn’t we hold hands?” Andre asked. I liked the way Andre said things just before I thought of them. He reached over Goosey’s back and we grasped fingers, and he reached over the seat back and put his hand on Mara’s shoulder. Mara and Hunter did not touch. I reached over the seat back and put my palm around the curve of Hunter’s shoulder.
With four of us and the dogs in the car, we couldn’t have fit anyone else, but I couldn’t help but wonder about who might have been Forgotten around the country today, erased beyond even the possibility of mourning.
The dog on Hunter’s lap nuzzled my fingers. “What are you going to call her?” I asked.
Hunter thought about it. “Hen of the Woods,” she said. For a second I thought she said Ben of the Woods, and it made me terribly sad, although I wasn’t sure why.
Hen of the Woods lay down in Hunter’s lap. We were lucky, coming home with one more in the car than when we left. I guess the mushrooms worked, or God was merciful.
After a while, Andre’s hand got sweaty, and I let go of it, but I kept my hand on Hunter’s shoulder, and after a while she put her hand on top of mine. Her hand was cool and smelled faintly of puke, but all I wanted was for her to hang on to me, to hold me fast to the world, and I wanted to say so, but it was as if the words themselves had been left behind.